In a moment of idiocy I thought I would try and write one short story a month on the theme of teaching. Last month a Christmas ghost story, this month is inspired by the push by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) to “get rid off” bad teachers, but that begs the question what is a bad teacher?
She had prepared well for this lesson. She had spent probably as much time planning it as she would teaching it, this was her new start, her attempt to interest and engage Year 9, to keep them so busy that they would not have time to misbehave. She would be using ILT, the screen, she had the poem already set up for the smart board, she had a link document for the audio visual reading she had chosen, this time not by Richard Burton, but a reading by Jack Davenport whose credentials in Pirates of the Caribbean she thought would engage the class, after all if a swash buckling actor could read poetry maybe they could. She had print outs ready and timings rehearsed, she had a seating plan for names and some back up plans for discipline. It was a great poem, Sonnet 130 by Shakespeare, it contained humour, opposites, rhyme and metre all things that made a poem a poem at least as far as Year 9 was concerned. She had a created a system for marking up the text, she had coloured pens and she even had a descriptive scenario to set the scene. This time Janice Willows could not go wrong.
The Year 9 line up outside room 12 was ragged, to say the least, girls leaned contemptuously against the wall, surveying all that passed them with permanently enhanced sneer. They had a particular extension to that sneer when Janice walked by, this include looking her up and down, examining her flat no-ache shoes, warm tights, long flowing skirt, woolly jumper and greying longer hair, combined with the ultimate sin of virtually no make up and they looked at each other, they needed no words to convey they paralinguistic contempt for and she needed no telling that they thought this of her. Each and every teenage girl in Year 9 of course, was utterly convinced that their figure, their looks, sneaked in high heels, their hitched up skirts and their plastered on make up was the height of style and they would never, no never end up like Janice Willows! It never occurred to them to wonder how much they devalued themselves when they devalued their teacher, contempt was their currency.
The boys fought, they shoved each other with bags, called out the worst insults they could think of using every expletive they dare to dominate the corridor. Occasionally they would shove against the girls causing a reaction of complaints and should a teacher be unwise enough to intervene at this stage they would be greeted with a flurry of accusations and counter accusations.
Janice went to the door and tried the silent treatment. She stood before the closed door arms folded, waiting. The trick with this technique she had discovered was to pretend it had worked. The merest hint of settlement in the room or in the queue and that was her cue to announce they had behaved and let them in. She opened the door and they scrambled in, barging past her climbing over desks and knocking chairs flying, the traditional pairings took place, the traditional loners isolated themselves and the back row filled with boys leaning back on their chairs talking loudly. The girls never worried about being at the back of the room to talk, they talked anywhere, they could carry on a conversation about Justin Bieber right in front of the teacher’s desk and if Janice was impudent enough to suggest otherwise, they ignored her as if she wasn’t there, but not today – today would be different. Janice shivered how many times had she said that? After every terrible lesson, after every peer review, after every staff review, after every inspection, official or otherwise, “they” had lied to her in college, they had lied. They had told her that personality didn’t matter, they had said that if she just ticked these boxes she could be a good teacher, she didn’t need to be a performer, she didn’t need to be a stand up comic, she didn’t need to have a loud voice, or presence in the classroom, but she did, she needed all those things and she didn’t have one of them. All she had was a PhD in English poetry, a published book of poems and a love for subject – but that was not enough.
“Explain the lesson objectives” said the lesson plan. She logged on to her computer and pulled up a PowerPoint. She opened smart board and waited for it to open up, it was slow. Could she have got into the classroom earlier to do all this – no Maths had it and they always ran right to the last second. She waited while the computer lumbered into action. They were getting restless, one boy had already slipped off his chair, the front row girls now had their backs to her and were talking to the girls behind, someone threw a pencil. She decided to call the register. She used her strongest voice, trying to drop an octave to gain authority, rather than offer her rather little girl voice. ‘You sound funny miss’ someone called out. There was a giggle, she covered ‘Just a bit of sore throat – is Alex Williams here?’ no answer. She turned to the screen, the smart board had loaded. The power point animated before she had time to explain it, she should have taken the automatic transition off, but she dare not try now, even so she managed to stop it – she offered a quick introduction to the sonnet and then asked if anyone knew what a Shakespearean sonnet was. She had explained this three times already, but they glared at her ‘How would we know miss?’
‘Because I told you last lesson’
‘Don’t remember that miss, perhaps you thought you did.’ There was a snigger, Janice was aware of the rumour that persisted that she had early onset Alzheimer’s and therefore could be persuaded that she had forgotten everything. She used the pointer successfully and forced the slide on – it was going well, there was the explanation of a Shakespearean sonnet. ‘Why don’t you all write this down in your notes and then you’ll be able to remember.’ Some of them responded to that, there was nothing many of them liked better than copying down from the board. ‘Last year’s teacher was a good teacher’ she had been told earlier that year, ‘he put everything we needed to know on the board and we just copied it down, why don’t you do that?’
‘Because you don’t learn for yourself that way’
‘We don’t learn from you either’ they said and turned their backs. So she did her research on how to engage them, variety of tasks, change of pace and group work and this was a hazardous process. She wandered between the desks – some were copying neatly, the boys leaned forward and when she came close, they clumsily hid their phones. One said ‘I know what a Shakespearean sonnet is miss,’
‘What is it then?’
‘It’s a sonnet written by Shakespeare,’ shrieks of laughter.
‘It’s a bit more technical than that and it’s written on the board,’
‘That’s not right though miss,’ said one of the girls.
‘Oh – so what is right?
‘It’s 14 line poem divided into 8 and 6 and the last 6 lines present a completion of the argument proposed by the first 8 lines.’
‘That’s not a Shakespearean sonnet’
‘Yeah it’s not written by Shakespeare’ George felt his joke was brilliant he bore repeating. There was laughter again, some of the better behaved girls had finished copying and were beginning to talk, one boy was texting and Lynne was still insisting that Janice was wrong. She was reading it from her phone. ‘What you’re talking about is a Petrarchan sonnet, that’s a different format, Shakespeare wrote three verses of 4 lines and a 2 line couplet – that’s a Shakespearean sonnet. Was she asking too much? It was just one fact about Shakespeare and his sonnets? Was she pitching it too high? She saw Lynne switch off her phone under the desk. ‘So you were reading that from your phone then.’
‘No I just know it that’s all’ The phone had disappeared, one or two other people who had clearly been using their phones looked up when they heard the word, in case it was they who were being addressed. Phones were a two-edged sword, some teachers used them in class, got them to look things up, find word games, involve their learning with the web, others seemed able to ensure they were never used, spotting instantly when a student was online and threatening dire consequences if the phone was not put away. The school, expected all phones to be off, but few were confiscated for fear that they would be lost or damaged whilst in the care of the teacher, if you took one it had to go to the office and if you left the class….. Moreover parents complained if there child was out of communication for a second, phones, to a parent, were a sacred item, they were the price the parent paid to have protection. They invested the phone with supernatural powers, not just the power of communication, but the ability to protect the user from kidnap, assault and being run over.
A fight developed in the corner, George was making a challenge ‘Give it back you fucker’ screamed Brandon. The bag was launched into the air and sent flying into the back of Ellen’s head ‘Fuck you’ she screamed. The class erupted into sarcastic howls of derision. Janice acted quickly, she picked up the bag and took it to the front desk and placed it there. ‘You can pick it up on your way out’ she told George, ‘ as for that language any more of that and someone will be in detention.’
‘I can’t do detention’ Lynne announced ‘My Dad says it’s not allowed, it’s false imprisonment’
‘I think you’ll find he’s agreed to it in the Parents Charter’
‘Not my Dad, he wasn’t here’
‘Well let’s hope there will be no more swearing… Now here is the poem both on the board and on paper I’m going to hand it out, let you read it and then we are going to hear it read, by someone you’ll recognise.’
‘Wait and see’
‘It’ll be someone she fancies,’ again – raucous laughter.
‘That’s enough,’ but this time she was not loud enough. They scrabbled for the printed poems and began to draw on them, a penis appeared on George’s as if by magic. She took it away and replaced it, she wanted to get back to the screen to run the audio, but they had spotted the coloured pencils ‘Can I have blue miss’ ‘Can I have green’ ‘Oy miss she took the last red’, like toddlers in a play group they argued over colours as if the prizes were invested with wealth. The plastic bag of pens was grabbed from her hand and passed round, there were squeals of protest as the colours ran out. ‘Right!’ she said, but no one listened “Right’ she said again but still no one listened. She wanted to stand before them with her arms folded and wait for silence but she plumped for getting the audio visual going in the hope that the dulcet tones of Jack Davenport and his recognisable form would settle them to listen, she pulled up the link document and clicked it. There was a lengthy pause, filled with mounting noise from the class. They scribbled on the poem, continued to argue over coloured pencils and Lynne grabbed Brandon’s bag of the desk which was passed back to him. The computer was slow, so she followed the bag. ‘I’ll have that back please, I said he could pick it up when he left’
‘I need my pen miss’ Brandon had united with George against a common enemy.
‘You have a pen there’ she pointed to the pen on his desk.
‘It doesn’t work miss’
‘Then take a pen out, and give me the bag.’ Very slowly Brandon began to hunt for a pretend pen. ‘Miss you need to update flash’ someone volunteered
‘It won’t play if you haven’t upgraded.’ Her perfectly set up link, was there, the web page revealed and a blank screen greeted her with ‘Update to the new version of Flash’ written on the screen. ‘You just need to click that link’
‘I can’t’ she said ‘It won’t work’
‘Yes it will’ George was up put of his seat
‘George no’ He barged past her and clicked the link it began to work and then the phrase came up ‘You are not the administrator’ you need to contact the demonstrator’ ‘Aw fuck miss’
‘Now we can’t learn anything’
‘He swore miss, you said detention!’
‘George, you do not use that language in my class! I will see you at break time for 5 minutes’
‘But miss I wasn’t swearing at you!’
‘I said no more bad language and I meant it.’ The issue of discipline was raising its head, George made his way back to his desk sulking, he pulled a girl’s folder onto the floor, spreading papers everywhere. ‘Pick that up George!’ but he ignored her and flopped back on his chair glowering. ‘We can learn,’ she said, barely heard above the uproar ‘We can learn, always’ She typed the search terms in again, there had been another site, maybe she could use that , the links came up she clicked one – disaster “Banned words found” the class erupted ‘Whoa miss you went on a banned site, what is it miss child porn.’ shrieks of laughter ‘You said not to swear miss!’ The class banged on the desks as it congratulated itself on the quality of its cutting wit. She gave up on the internet, it was a poetry site, Phillip Larkin featured, plenty of banned words there. She pulled up the smart board copy and turned to the class, but the boys were making paper darts out of the paper, George, after all had announced that they could learn no more and was in no mood to cooperate. She tried the silent approach, she stood before the class, arms folded, silent, waiting, waiting, waiting, but they saw this as surrender and they did not care if they learnt nothing that day, they would complain to their parents soon enough and she would be told it was her fault, the fact they didn’t listen, that they swore, that they despised her, that was all down to her, it was all down to her not being able to amuse, engage or educate a class of Year 9s who did not want to be educated. The door opened, the tall young Head of Year 9 was at the door, his presence in a classroom was unmistakable, ‘everything all right here Mrs Willows?’ he asked.
‘I’ve had a problem with the computer Mr Simmonds, I ‘m just waiting for them to settle down.’
‘She went on a banned site sir’
”Quiet Brandon, if I want you to speak I will ask you.’ He followed this up with a Mr Simmonds glare. Mr Simmonds was capable of turning red from the neck up, in a pure imitation of dangerous, barely controlled rage. He could instil fear with a simple curl of his lip, he could make his neck turn purple but it was all a trick as soon as the miscreant student had gone, he would grin from ear to ear and remark on how easy it was to fool them. Easy for him maybe: he had height; a deep voice; a real presence; the hint that he could follow through any threat, that he could outpace any of them physically. He had humour and charm and the girls could be slain by one look from him. He stood at the desk next to Janice, he leaned back in a relaxed fashion his hands resting on the desk. He waited, he waited for no less than ten seconds and the class were quiet. ‘You can read a poem without a computer’ he said. ‘Get on with your work’. He glanced at Janice and raised an eyebrow, she remembered something he once said ‘Don’t fold your arms, it’s defensive, they sense it.’ She dropped her arms to her sides, he smiled. ‘That’s better’ he said and she was unsure whether it was her or the class he was talking to.’
Peace, perfect peace, they began to read. She gave them a moment and then moved the PowerPoint slide on. ‘Just write a little bit about what you think it’s about.’ Perhaps it would have worked had a phone not rung, it was George’s ‘Tell him to turn it off miss,’ ‘He shouldn’t answer it!’ ‘ Miss that’s not fair’ Janice went and stood in front of him. She put out her hand for the phone. ‘It’s for you anyway,’ he said and handed it to her. She raised it to her ear, she could hear nothing at first and then heavy breathing, the breathing grew heavier. She was confused, ‘Hello’ she ventured.
‘Hello darlin” came a breathy lascivious reply. She knew it was a trick, she shut the phone down, outside the door to the classroom there was a scuffle, she ran to it to open the door just in time to see three older boys running off. The class roared with laughter, tears pricked at the back of her eyes. She had this lesson, this great lesson prepared. She had this love of poetry, she could write, she could explain, she wasn’t even that stupid with the IT but there was always something, something that she hadn’t anticipated. She didn’t have a loud voice or height, or a great presence, she could not sing, her sense of humour was not witty or quick. She had not desire to be bitchy or sarcastic, she just wanted to do her job, one she could do if she were afforded the luxury of one hour of silence. Tears were streaming down her cheeks, she was barely aware of what was around her. She knew she should not cry, but she also knew she had had enough, as had the school. ‘Mrs Willows? Mrs Willows?’ a voice said. It was Mr Simmonds she looked at him helplessly ‘I’ll take over now’ he said gently ‘you go and get a cup of coffee.’ She looked towards the door, now, instead of three truanting boys she could see the Headmaster, she was to have coffee with him. This would be her last staff review. She was to be “got rid off” one of the much vaunted useless teachers. She couldn’t do it, she knew that, but she didn’t know why. It was all prepared, every box ticked, all the timings set, a work sheet that they could all have been getting on with was in front of them even now, there would have been a great bit of pair work where the students would read the opposing lines – other teachers just sat and talked and the pupils listened, but not her, the never did that for her. The tears started again while Mr Simmonds took the class ‘Phones away, hands on desks – you have 5 seconds to comply or this teacher will destroy you!’ Janice picked up her lesson plan and her data stick and walked slowly past the front row of desks, as she did so, one pupil, Connor, turned his notebook to her so that she could see. She was expecting “Fuck Off” or a penis or a cartoon of her in tears. Instead she saw the sheet she had given out, the poem, each question on the sheet had been answered. The poem had been highlighted, some terminology had been applied and finally there was a smiley face. ‘It’s a good poem miss I like it.’
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2012
Click on the image for a link to The Angelmaker ebook by Judith Gunn.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2012