Teaching is tough
The day I quit teaching forever…
“My plan was to sit it out for the next 40 minutes and hand my notice in at the end of the day…”
I gave up being a teacher during period 3 in a North London Secondary School teaching year 9 English on a rainy February morning in 2004.
I’d been surviving in the classroom for about three months…
I was in my early 40’s, trying to bring order out of the chaos of a class that had the measure of me the moment I walked in.
As I entered the room, I didn’t look at them. I hadn’t learned any of their names, and although I’d looked at the lesson slides, I wasn’t 100% clear what the lesson was really about. Yet, even so, I expected them to listen to me. Why? Because, I
was the teacher.
…why was this class so intent on acting as though I was an invisible irrelevance, a minor ripple in the oceanic crossing of their day…
I’d been in professional life as a business owner, writer and salesman before coming into teaching. I was used to being listened to.
er…what was I talking about?
I had my own children; they listened to me. So, why was this class so intent on acting as though I was an invisible irrelevance, a minor ripple in the oceanic crossing of their day…short of jumping out of the window – or throwing me out, they behaved as they wished. What was their problem?! My blood pumping and my temperature rising under my new shirt and tie, I employed the strategies I had been taught during my teacher training.
I began with the warning system.
“Er…you…yes…you…that’s your first behaviour warning!”.
The ‘you’ in question replied “What have I done? Why are you picking on me? Everyone’s talking, not just me! Why don’t you give everyone a warning”
“Well, you are the person I can see…”
I write her name on the board. “What’s your name?”
Laughter…this is not her name.
Now I have their undivided attention. But it’s not the quality of attention I was hoping for.
Another girl speaks up, “Why are you writing my name on the board? What have I done?”
All this time, everyone else in the room is chatting, some have begun to walk around the room. A wave of panic floods my body. “Sit down!!”, I shout. O dear. Now I have their undivided attention. But it’s not the quality of attention I was hoping for.
The student who was moving around the room; “What are you shouting at me for?!” Laughter!
I employ another tactic…
“Come and sit at the front please…” I indicate an empty desk near the front.
“Because…I’m the teacher and I’ve asked you to…”
The first girl chirps in “It’s not fair to ask her to move, you got her name wrong and now you want to write it on the board and then you want her to move seats.”
I escalate, “Leave the room, please!” This is aimed at the girl who’s interrupted. She looks baffled.
“I asked you to leave the room…”. There is a short but pregnant pause.
Now what? A further wave of panic. Other pupils have disengaged. More are walking around the room. One girl has her head on the desk feigning sleep. I feel fragmented…bits of me are running to different parts of the room to put out fires and running back to me. But I am out of water. I latch on to a boy who is looking out of the back window at the green fields beyond the school fence.
I address him…
“Sit down please…”.
He languidly turns as though responding to a feint murmur he’s heard in the distance. He looks at me briefly before turning back around. He doesn’t sit down.
I feel cornered, humiliated, panicked and…hit the red button, hard! A noise comes out of me as though from the centre of the earth…it is more than a shout, it is a roar…
“I ASKED YOU TO SIT DOWN! SO SIT DOWN!”
Everything goes into slow motion…The class falls silent…I look around the room. The girl raises her head from the desk and looks at me with a dreamy curiosity.
My pent-up anxiety has been released and a wave of relief washes through me.
Seconds pass that feel like minutes before…
…Gales of laughter. My anger is clearly the funniest thing these students have seen all day. Their dreary February school day has just become eventful. Any threads of respect that ran between me and the pupils dissolved and all at once they were free of me. I am now only a figure of fun. I am frozen at the front.
I glance at the clock…the lesson ends at 10.50, it 10.10. There’s 40 minutes to go. As one, the class turn to me to see what my next trick might be. As the laughter gives way to a crackle of collusion an exercise book is thrown across the room. I watch it’s pages open like the wings of a fledgling learning to fly…I have the sensation of watching myself from the top corner of the room. I’ve gone to a safe space. The book is picked up and thrown back. All eyes on me, what will I do now? I…
…sit down. It’s over.
My plan was to sit it out for the next 40 minutes and hand my notice in by the end of the day.
My plan was to sit it out for the next 40 minutes and hand my notice in by the end of the day. I don’t know why I didn’t just walk out there and then. I think it’s because there is one thing worse than failing and that is being seen to fail by your peers…I knew these pupils would forget all of this by the end of their break. “New Teacher loses it in year 9 English class”, is not headline news in a secondary school. Whereas being seen to meltdown by fellow teachers holds within it not just your perception of their judgements but, your worst judgements of yourself.
Truth is, this was another lesson in a long sequence of my lessons where this kind of behaviour had become the norm.
So, with 40 minutes to go, at the end of 3 months of consistently poor behaviour from students, sleepless nights, manic planning and consistently poor behaviour management from me, I was done.
It felt like I was in the playground being bullied in a corner with no one to tell or to help – because we “should know better”; we “should be able to cope”. Well, as a grown man in his 40’s, I hold my hands up – I couldn’t and I judge that with 35000 teachers quitting the profession every year, there are many more teachers like me.
Before I tell you what happened next, it’s worth recounting some of the other tactics I had employed in other classes up to this point. Another year 9 English class – one I had taken over from an experienced and much-loved teacher who had gone on Maternity leave. I’d had a series of shouting experiences whereby, similar to the above example, I had ‘lost my rag’, roared and hit the roof – much to their amusement (why did I keep doing it?). With that class, the final straw came when during a particular lesson where I had used up all of my behaviour bullets (yes, this is a matter of life and death), I put it to the class that they should divide into two; those who wanted to learn should sit in the right of the room and those who didn’t want to learn should sit on the left and chat quietly. Why I ever thought this was a good idea, I don’t know, but I suppose by this stage, “thinking” had very little to do with it. I was surviving.
one pupil said he did want to learn but on the other hand, he didn’t so moved his chair to the middle of the room.
Dutifully, some students said “I want to learn and made their way to one side of the class. Others who initially thought this was great joke, made their way over to the other side. Then one pupil said he did want to learn but on the other hand, he didn’t so moved his chair to the middle of the room. Others followed. Then the not wanting to learn group decided that since people were moving furniture, they would move the desks to create a barrier between them and the “want to learn – ers”. Then, one boy decided the barrier wasn’t high enough so decided to pile the chairs and desks on top of one another because he didn’t want to be distracted from his learning by those who didn’t want to learn…In the midst of this, a girl came to the front, took the whiteboard pen out of my top pocket and began to draw flowers on the lesson objective, a friend joined her…
In all of this, I stood at the front, “No…stop that…be careful…look I told you…etc”
Again, I can wonder why I didn’t just leave, but actually, I now realise that, like so many teachers in that position, I had already left. My body was still in the room but part of me had found a safe space, somewhere far away and a disconnected talking robotic figure stood at the front of the room moving a menu of half-baked responses to off task behaviour.
So…flashforward to period 3 in February in 2004. I had sat down at the front of the class after the exercise book hadn’t managed to fly out of the window. It was now 10.12. 38 minutes to go. Nothing mattered anymore. Chaos was about to ensue and I just waited for the maelstrom.
The girl who had given me a false name said “Don’t worry sir, teaching’s not for everyone”
What was a vortex of anxiety became a hurricane, became a whirlwind, became an eddy, became a wisp. Within seconds, a new world emerged before my eyes.
The girl who had given me a false name said “Don’t worry sir, teaching’s not for everyone” and leaned down to her school bag. She took out what turned out to be her art homework and started to draw. The other girl, the real Jodi, came to join her with her sketch book and they began to chat about last night’s episode of a soap they both watched, catching one another up on the plot. Another girl joined them. They seemed happy together. Around the room, what was a chaotic hubbub became a lively forum for the exchange of information. Students moved to sit with their friends and started talking about themselves, school, their lives while others listened, commented, asked clarifying questions.
Without me twitching and bellowing and skittering around at the front making false accusations and pouring out my angst, this classroom was a nice place to be
The dreamy girl came to my side and sweetly asked if I wanted her to go and get someone to help. I said I didn’t. She sat down, opened her bag, took out a book and began reading.
Slowly, I came down from the ceiling and back into my own body.
Without me twitching and bellowing and skittering around at the front making false accusations and pouring out my angst, this classroom was a nice place to be. What materialised before my very eyes was a lively creative environment where students could learn from and about one another. They challenged ideas, they listened to new information intently, swapped statistics, planned and mapped out what they would do later and talked about how they would overcome problems. Some were more serious than others, some were the jokers, some the dreamers. For the first time in my teaching career I was in a learning environment that was made infinitely better by my decision not
to be the teacher.
The big and obvious question that broke over me in like a Tsunami was this: “If these students create this learning environment with me, what is it that I bring into the room that spoils the party?”
I have told this story many times to colleagues and in training sessions. Some say, “Well, they got what they wanted, so no wonder they behaved well.” Well…yes…exactly. The point is, what they wanted was to collaborate with one another, listen and learn. They didn’t want chaos. Students are naturally curious, they want to learn.
And if students want to learn, doesn’t that change how we approach teaching?
The other lesson I took from that day was that these students had no objection to me as a person. When I sat down, they were sympathetic. They’d seen teachers come and go. It was nothing new nor was it personal.
What I brought with me into the room was an overwhelming sense of dread. It walked in with a storm of resentment. Veiled in distrust, looking for a fight, praying that the end of the lesson comes quickly.
Personally, I know when someone is pleased to see me. They open up, they look at me, they smile, their body language is energised, they can’t wait to hear my news or share theirs. They seek a level of proximity that promotes collaboration. They want to connect and share. Equally, I can tell if someone isn’t so pleased to see me. They don’t look at me, they may try to smile but their smile is like a grimace, their body language is languid, shoulders are dropped, they stay as far away from me as they can and they sneak a look at their watch or the clock and give me the feeling that they would rather be somewhere else.
I know which person I was that day. And if, like those pupils, I had to endure six hours of teaching a day of subjects that have been prescribed for my benefit in a place I didn’t choose to come to called school, I might be fussy about who I allowed to teach me.
I would like to say that from them on I never had any more problems…well, that would just be silly. Of course I did. Teaching is tough, it was ever thus. But the three things I learned that day changed my experience of teaching and my outlook.
- The desire to learn seems sewn into our bones. Students want to learn.
- A key task for me as a teacher is to prepare forlesson and then get out of the way of pupils’ endless desire to learn.
- If I wantto be in the room and do what I can to demonstrate that, everything will get better.
My teaching career had begun.