Teaching in Schools
Firstly let me explain what I mean by an inner city school. Two films may come to mind when you ponder the thought of a teacher in an inner city school, Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Bad Teacher starring Cameron Diaz. But I am not talking about the type of school that deserves to have a film made after it. There are schools that do have to deal with weapons, drugs and violence, but I want to share my experience of working in a failing inner city school, that would never reach the newspaper headlines, or have a movie made after it.
I have worked in several schools over the years and all have left me with many memories, both good and bad. But this particular school that I wish to talk about was the closest I was going to get, to a Dangerous Minds or Bad Teacher scenario.
The school was located in the outskirts of London in the center of a housing estate. I was a student teacher so I was not getting a salary at the time, and this was a short block practice, which was to last six weeks. Two teachers had started and left within the first week and I was the third replacement!
I drove into the school gates and parked my car in the teacher’s car park area, which was an extension of the pupil’s playground. This was the first car I had owned and I had only bought it the week prior. As I got out of my car, a small group of year 11 boys started hanging around the borders of the playground. They waited for me to pass them as I made my way into the school entrance. I was nervous and a little afraid of these tall boys whom all had shaven hair and wore bomber jackets over their uniform. Most pupils came from working class families.
The Headmaster, a lovely man who made me feel at ease, greeted me. My suspicions about the type of school I had arrived at were confirmed when the Headmaster told me not to get offended if I was subjected to any racist comments!
I made my way to the Mathematics department and met the other members of the Math’s team. I was the third teacher to start that week and the look on their faces indicated that I would not last either.
My mentor was very nice and welcoming. He showed me around and took me to his class where the teaching was to take place. During that day, pupils came and went and all of them were surprisingly lovely. I was confused. Why did two teachers, one after the other, leave so quickly? By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I made my way back to my car holding my breath in anticipation, that one of those pupils might have done something to it. To my relief, all was ok.
The following day, the same year 11 boys were waiting for me as I parked my car in the same spot as I had done the previous day. They started to walk around my car as I got out of the drivers seat. I locked up, walked through them and entered the school. I was nervous once again, not only about my car but the day ahead.
For the entire first week, I was just an observer in the classroom, helping out like an assistant in the class. The pupils were well mannered, polite, and in some cases overtly friendly. I still had no idea why two teachers had left so quickly. At the end of the school day on Friday afternoon, I was informed that I would be taking classes of my own. I was handed over a timetable to plan over the weekend. I did panic and felt it was too soon to take the teacher's place, but was told that I had to do it eventually!
On Monday morning, as per usual, the year 11 boys were waiting for me with their intimidatingly silent greet. I took my first class; a top set year 9 group! The pupils were lovely, really engaged and willing to learn. This gave me a buzz for the rest of my lessons. Of course I did have a few challenging pupils in some of the classes, but generally speaking, things went well for me.
I employed all the tips and tricks at my disposal to get the pupils motivated and willing to learn. I managed to get a bottom set year 10 class, to actually engage in the learning, using techniques and examples that interested them such as football. Classroom management was high on my agenda as half the battle was to get the pupils to behave. I did have some challenging moments but on the whole, things were looking good. However, things did turn ugly!
A meeting had been arranged for me to visit a science class for the last lesson of the day. This was to enable me to draw lessons from a different subject teacher. The teacher was the Head of Science. He was very charming and welcoming and clearly had control over his class.
At the end of the lesson when all the pupils had left, he asked me, “So how did you find my class?"
I replied, "I really enjoyed it, it was really good."
He further probed me and asked, "What did you like about it?"
I responded, "I liked how the pupils were really engaged."
The following morning, I cheerfully entered the math’s staffroom and started preparing myself for the day ahead. All of a sudden, the Head of Maths came over to me and said coldly, "Follow me."
I walked into his classroom where a nursery size chair was awaiting me. I sat down on this very low chair as the Head of Maths pulled over his office swivel chair, which must have had its settings on the highest level possible.
All of a sudden, I heard a loud bang! The Head of Maths slammed his hand on the desk as he shouted down at me, "How dare you tell the Science Teacher you thought his lesson was GOOD? He's very upset. Who do you think you are? You've only been a teacher for a few days and you already think you are qualified to judge established teachers! ..."
The shouting at the top of his voice lasted a long time. I sat there with my jaw to the ground, silenced, and shocked as to what this was all about. The Head finally ended his onslaught with a warning that the External Examiner had already been called. A meeting was arranged to take place the following day after school.
The next day, a very charming External Examiner had a meeting with me. A short discussion about what had happened, followed by a verbal warning. Then we all went on our way.
I drove out of the school gates feeling quite upset about the whole ordeal, and headed home. Only a short distance from the school, I waited at the traffic lights looking at my surroundings. To my shock, I focused in, on an Indian restaurant. I recognized three men happily drinking alcohol around a table, as they waited for their meal to arrive. It was the Head of Maths, Head of Science and the External Examiner. They were all obviously good friends with each other. I realized that I had been set up!
The following day, I decided not to say anything. I decided to keep myself to myself, work hard, lie low and just get through the next few weeks. It was excruciatingly painful to get through each day, as I knew I could not trust anyone around me.
I managed to build a fantastic relationship with the pupils. One boy even called me Mum! They recognised my enthusiasm to teach them. They felt the genuine concern I had for them, and the lengths I was willing to go to for them to do well.
On one occasion, in my bottom set, year 10 class, I went to talk to a boy whom I had sent out of the class for disruptive behaviour. I returned to the class and resumed teaching. I realised I had left my calculator in the neighbouring store room, so went to get it. My handbag was on the floor with its contents scattered all around. My purse, pencil case and calculator were all stolen!
I had to think on my toes. I calmly walked back into the classroom, informed the class that I had discovered that my possessions were missing, and that I would like them back. I told them that I would walk out of the classroom, wait one minute and then walk back into the classroom. In that time, every single item had to be returned to my bag. If every single item were not returned, I would send for the Headmaster, I would call the police; I would have every pupil searched before they left the classroom. If any item that belonged to me was found, that person's parents would be called and they would be expelled. If every item were returned, I would forget this whole incident had happened and we would resume the lesson. One minute later, all my possessions were back in my bag, and the lesson commenced. Of course, I was secretly overwhelmed by the whole incident.
Over time, the pupils in that class grew to like me and I them. In fact almost all the pupils in that school were a pleasure to teach. The two heads of Maths and Science grew to admire my dedication to the school. The Year 11 boys would still greet me in the mornings but they never actually ever did anything to my car! Interestingly, the Head of Science, whom I had completely ignored since the whole setup incident, attempted to make small talk with me.
My six weeks was up. On my last day at the school, my department, all four of them, gave me a small leaving party consisting of a bottle of coke and some crisps. They handed me a glass bottle garden as a gift. I was touched.
I learned a lot about people, stereotypes, adult bullying and intimidation. The two previous students had left due to the bullying from the teachers. I asked myself why I was able to endure, what they couldn't. The only explanation I could think of, was that as a victim of bullying during my own school years, I had learned to live with it even into adulthood!
The Head of Math's parting words to me were, "You are the best student teacher we have ever had!"