The following takes place between 12.01pm and 1.09pm
No names have been used and while I don’t identify the school this lesson happened at, there are several schools in London where the experiences I had were similar.
12.01 – I arrive to period four, Year 8 Geography, after a short commute. I’m lucky today because arriving before the students is an uncommon but handy advantage. The teacher’s desk is a nightmare to navigate and no obvious cover work is visible so I’m back to the door to greet the early birds. It may be a relief lesson, but it is still all about relationships. Most walk past without acknowledging my greeting and the ones that do have a smile on their face which isn’t warm; it’s the smile of a hungry hyena that has just spotted dinner.
12.03 – I’m still looking for the coverwork and now I have a sensible student with me who is either helpful or using the opportunity to scout the teacher’s desk in detail. The room is filling up fast and the noise level is reaching migraine-inducing levels. I have learnt not to try and compete with this initial roar – without any established authority, shouting won’t get me far at all. Instead I wait for things to settle to address the behaviour.
12.05 – A teacher aide walks in and our eyes meet. We worked together earlier in another class. In that instance their eyes were welcoming – this time their eyes spell out fear.
12.06 – On the teacher’s desk I finally find a planner. In the box for the current period are two words “Bangladesh Floods”. Earlier I moved aside a worksheet that I remember reading Bangladesh on it – bingo.
12.07 – I haven’t been able to look for the cover all this time because of the need to resolve behaviour issues that have been happening around me. Throwing paper towards the bin, using white board pens to draw graffiti on the board, and moving the furniture around to facilitate gossip is just a small sign of things to come. Now my focus is on turning the room back into something resembling a classroom. There’s a big group in the back corner where music has started to play and a desk has just fallen over. “Make your way to your desks thanks” I state calmly but there’s a hint of futility that I’m not sure I’m successfully hiding. “Where you from sir?” and “Are you Australian?” are the familiar questions that fly back from students who have just heard my voice.
12.09 – It turns out many of these students aren’t even in this class. They leave in a way that ensures every knows they are leaving. I’m still convinced that there are more people in the room than desks, but at least now most people are behind one.
12.10 – I stand in front of the class and ask with a loud voice, but without shouting, for silence. No one beyond a one meter radius takes any notice, and it’s likely they haven’t heard me. I repeat my expectations, another couple of times and slowly the ripple of awareness moves through the class. I start the countdown from five, pausing between each number to reiterate the expectations using consistent instructions. Now the response is pure defiance. They just don’t care.
12.11 – “Shout at them sir” comes the advice from the front row. I have only shouted at a class twice. Once in my first year of teaching where a group of boys were imitating a classmate who had Global Development Delay and I actually lost it. The second time was in my first week of teaching in London when emotions, exhaustion and frustration reached tipping point. I’m not proud of either moment. I refuse to intimidate students into compliance.
12.12 – The teacher aide is targeting individuals, getting them to notice me at the front by turning around or quieten down. I’m focusing on individuals too, using non-verbal gestures to reinforce expectations and trying another countdown. At this point something needs to happen, but I don’t feel like I have enough respect to be able to take any significant action. To be fair some students in the room want to do the right thing, but they are largely yelling “shut up” at the defiant people and just making the situation worse. I feel helpless.
12.13 – Having heard the noise down the corridor, the Head of Department now enters and the change in the air is palpable like the room has frozen over. The senior teacher manages to achieve virtually perfect behaviour while not acknowledging anything that has passed before it. When another teacher enters a riot that I’m supervising I always feel a sense of shame. Are they judging me for not having a functional class in front of me? What is it that I’m doing wrong?
12.14 – The subject leader has the students immediately get back into their seating plan and at a glance has deciphered the relief instructions. He picks a student to come forward to explain “cause and effect” a necessary concept for the worksheet. He pretends to whack the student and then defines the concept with some excellent hands up input. The selected student at the front jumps on board and falls to the ground more dramatically than the death of Nick Bottom’s Pryamus. The teacher says “I sure know how to pick them”. I just managed to stifle the laugh.
12.17 – When he leaves the next part of the lesson is the most calm, work focused, section of the lesson. It almost lasts 30 seconds. A student then busts out a song that I don’t recognise and they are off again. I pace the room refocusing the students on the task in front of them. Many complain they don’t know what to do and I find myself repeating the instructions over and over again one on one with students increasingly briefly as it almost becomes a game to them.
12.21 – The class is still madness. I ask a student sitting at the front who I haven’t seen say anything to go to the office and ask for ‘on call’. He’s confused. I repeat the sentence but he is still unsure. I suspect he’s just nervous about getting out of his seat which would enhance the chances of being hit by any of the objects that are now being thrown across the class. The student sitting next to him instead braves the journey and heads out the door.
12.24 – On call arrives. The class is frozen again. I have a quiet word next to the newly arrived teacher and describe the classroom as a “zoo”. I ask her to stay for a few minutes and take anyone who acts up away. She doesn’t say anything directly to me which doubles my shame, but instead begins to scold the class about their behaviour and signs off by telling the class that she is just across the hall before marching out. Previously I’ve had on call turn up and drag me out of the class to tell me how I should be controlling the kids. So maybe I should just be grateful.
12.28 – It’s settled for a while again but now of the 32 students in the class at least half of them ask to go to the toilet. It is a game. Many of the students attempt ostentatious performances to try and convince me of how desperate they are. The student who demonstrated the effect in cause and effect is on the floor again. I target him for extraction but the response to “stand up, take your things and stand outside” is to debate the fairness of this when other students are doing x, y and z (and he’s right). The packing up his things is now the show that everyone needs to see and he starts ranting to his captive audience about how I have “come at him” and this is completely unfair. He chooses colourful language and slang I don’t recognise. The on call teacher is back in the hallway and suddenly leaving the room goes a lot faster. One down.
12.32 – Now a student has got my attention for feeling sick. I really don’t know how to address this effectively. My useful response is ask them to do a couple of simple things and then tell me again if they still feel sick in 10 minutes – most students don’t ask a second time. This situation feels different and the student is making a good case. I scribble them a quick note and send them off to medical.
12.35 – A group of students notice that my stubble is a little bit ginger the students discuss this among themselves unmoved by how much I can hear. The group’s dialogue is interrupted by a boy who directs a related question at me: “Are your pubes ginga too sir?” Eyes everywhere immediately widen. It’s a comment that in this context I have no instant response to. Everyone nearby is watching how I react; the student who said it is looking forward to my response, knowing that they’ve been successful in testing me and having no regard for any consequence that might follow. After a long pause I’m stumped. I feel completely useless. If I attempt to sanction now I’m not going to get it right so all I can do is defer. I know I haven’t dealt with this properly and the shame intensifies.
12.37 – Meanwhile, the toilet traveller has returned which I become aware of because of a commotion around their seat. The student has sat down in their chair and is now stuck thanks to a gluestick. The aftermath brings the on call teacher and the head of faculty back into the room. They are standing at the door and calming pointing out students who then leave the class including, to my relief, the student who was interested in my pubes. The student stuck on the chair is next to be withdrawn; they attempt to bring their chair but are promptly told to leave it and suddenly it doesn’t seem to be stuck at all. The performance is over. Six down.
12.41 – The settling is more sustained this time with the primary instigators gone, but others quickly self-promote. A student who is out of their seat gets told by me sternly to sit back down. They tell me: “Sir, I’m dealing with a problem”. I reply bluntly “So am I”, which is received with cheers from the class. Maybe this earns me a little respect, but it also costs me a noisier classroom.
12.45 – Three quarters through the lesson I have my third learning conversation where I am actually beside a student and help to develop their understanding of cause and effect through some simple deduction questioning. To do that I have to deliberately ignore behaviour that I should be addressing. The teacher aide is on the same page and circulating as well. I’m addressing students who want to refill their water bottles, desperately need hay-fever medication or claim to be experiencing claustrophobia. And I still haven’t even attempted the roll.
12.55 – I’m surviving. The light is at the end of the tunnel. Time is moving slowly because I’m constantly checking the clock, but the end of the lesson is near. I’ve managed as many learning conversations in the last 10 minutes than I had in the first 45 minutes. Is this the sign of a successful supply lesson? What measures success? That the lesson ends and nothing has caught fire?
12.57 – Instruction are given to pack up, even though most students are already well on their way. I follow this up by asking students to stand behind your desks and wait for dismissal. Most start wandering again and some go for the door. I am now a physical barrier to them leaving the class. There are two students that have no issue with invading my personal space despite earlier being told to move away from theirs.
12.59 – “You will not be dismissed until you are waiting silently behind your desks”. Many students forget where their desks were and end up being as close to the door as possible. It’s a long process and yet another battle but eventually they go back. The bell goes for lunch so I point to students that have largely been cooperative and indicate that they may leave. Many others attempt to follow and again I find myself acting as a physical barrier in front of the doorway. The incentive is leaving, the consequence is not. It’s so clear. But for the remaining students the game is too tempting.
1.03 – I could give up and just let the remaining 10 students go, but I stubbornly believe in following through. I am thinking that in an hour of defeat, it’s important to finish this lesson with a victory. Outside the classroom a group has formed like it is the arrival gate at Heathrow. Their presence in the window just encourages the defiance of those who are left. They plead and whine. I repeat the expectations. They argue and debate. I repeat the expectations.
1.06 – The last students are dismissed. On the way out the door is slammed and a huge bang follows, maybe some kicking in the nearby lockers. I don’t look to find out. I feel exhausted, drained and shamed. The teacher aide has already left, but their warm smile as he left is encouraging. Earlier in the lesson he told me quietly that things were normally like this. I suspect he is lying, but maybe it’s not too far from the truth.
1.09 – Walking to the staffroom – not feeling entirely safe – it’s not the personal toll that I’m processing; I’m thinking about education and the system I’ve found myself in. I know I made several poor decisions in this lesson, but I didn’t get it so wrong that what happened was inevitable. I could have done many things differently, but so could the teacher that left the cover work, and so could the teachers that came into the room during the lesson, and so could the people responsible for making the arrangements for the supply teachers who come into the school fresh each day, and so could the senior leadership team who lead in the culture of the school. Are these students really getting a fair chance?