Lesson 73. The Maverick Teacher

Lesson 73 on Relationships – sad and happy

Miss Maverick worked on the far side of the activity area shared with Mr TopJuniors.  Although there were folding room dividers that could be closed between the area and the classrooms, these were almost always kept partially open.  In fact none of the classrooms in Owen’s school were regarded as private. Doors and partitions were left open. The generous spaces between areas meant that classes rarely disturbed one another.

Miss Maverick preferred not to have other adults in her class.  She had her own ways of working and another person disturbed the delicate balance she had established within her difficult group.  The class contained some very troubled children. Any change easily triggered a meltdown, but Miss Maverick recognised the warning signals and implemented a range of strategies for defusing trouble at an early stage. Other adults got in the way.

The only time I was called across from Mr TopJuniors was when she needed somebody to temporarily supervise the group, while she dealt with a sudden blow up.  Danny had simply had enough.  He had got through the morning, but by afternoon he was beside himself with tiredness and distress.  There had been a major incident at home the previous night.

When I was in teacher training I used to remind my students that children are sent to school in circumstances which would have adults signed off sick or given compassionate leave. Pupils experienced bereavement and parental desertion. They witnessed domestic violence, drug overdoses, drunken fights and quarrels, but the next day they would be back in school.  Often the adults needed the children out of the way, while they tried to cope themselves. 

Danny fell into that category. On this particular afternoon he stormed around the classroom, refusing to sit down.  Fighting back tears he yelled defiance at Miss Maverick.  What he really wanted was her whole attention for himself. He wanted to be hugged and comforted.  Yet he couldn’t lose face so he had to be bad.

Miss Maverick manoeuvred him into the activity area, and waved me into the classroom. Then she set about talking him down. It was hard. She had to get him to see that he couldn’t do this here.  In school there were other people who needed attention too. However he felt, the class couldn’t function if people went into meltdown.

In the end he calmed down sufficiently to sit at a table scowling. The class were remarkably tolerant of outbursts provided they knew Miss Maverick had everything under control. They settled down to work.

Miss Maverick was firm and unflappable, even in such fraught and heart-rending situations.  The class had to be a place where every pupil’s right to learn was respected.  Nobody could claim a monopoly on attention.

However Miss Maverick sought to balance out her pupils’ dark, difficult times with stacks of happiness. Her class had a whole repertoire of favourite songs, which they sang with gusto.  They wrote silly poems.  They decorated the walls.  One morning they disturbed us next door by singing Happy Birthday to Miss Maverick’s mother on her mobile phone.

When the weather permitted they grabbed every opportunity to play games outside.  They were given the chance to enjoy things. They read exciting stories and made up their own.  They told jokes.

My clearest memory of Miss Maverick was of her sitting on a bench at the edge of the school field one playtime.  She had one child on her lap, two others leaning on her on either side and another behind her, arms draped round her neck.  They were all laughing.

She caught me looking and called out.

“Now Mrs Wise, isn’t this the best job in the world? Where else could you get so many hugs?”

I smiled back.

Those were innocent times.

Lesson 72. The Trouble with Box Ticking

Lesson 72 on Meeting individual needs

I worked with Mr TopJuniors from time to time whenever he needed an extra pair of hands.  His greatest strength was managing the wide range of abilities amongst the challenging individuals in his class. This he did with patience and good humour.  He was straight talking and consistent when it came to sticking to classroom rules.  He never put people down. 

Arthur was one of the challenges he had to deal with.  Arthur desperately wanted to be good, but he found school work hard.  He had moved back and forth between schools as the family fortunes ebbed and flowed.  He had difficulty focusing on tasks, and there were so many gaps in his basic knowledge that he was constantly interrupting and begging for assistance.  This was a source of irritation to his fellow pupils.  It led to arguments and unsettled the group.

Poor Arthur was so eager to be liked and wanted so much to be helpful,  but his unremitting efforts served rather to annoy and hinder the work of those around him, till they tried even the good nature of his teacher.

So Mr TopJuniors devised a strategy for saving Arthur from himself and at the same time protecting everybody else from his well-meaning attentions.

There was a shared activity area connecting his class and the two neighbouring groups. It was easy to move between all three classes through the common area.  The teachers cooperated and often worked on joint projects and activities. Together they came up with a sharing Arthur scheme. 

Arthur’s day was scheduled between the different groups for particular activities.  It was not unusual for pupils to move between groups for different purposes.  Also any pupil who was having a bad day in their own class could be informally moved into another class for time out.  All it needed was a quick word between teachers across the activity area.  In Arthur’s case, however, this was a structured long term plan.

It had two aims.  The first was to give Arthur a chance to master areas of work he had missed, the second was to stop him driving everybody else mad.

But the plan left his teachers with a problem.  It was hard to match these objectives to Ofsted criteria.

There wasn’t an Arthur box. 

Lesson 62 The Perils of Classroom Observation

Lesson 62 on Being an unintentional agent of change.

Owen’s class was “challenging” to say the least, and their poor teacher tried everything to get through each day without major incident. She prepared mountains of work and activities.  She praised good behaviour, she applied the recommended sanctions for bad. When that failed, she raged and threatened.  Treats and bribes were withdrawn.  The worst offenders were banished to distant corners.

As the days went by, however, I noticed that the class were strangely untroubled by any of this. In fact very little upset them. They only complained in earnest if they actually got hurt. True they made quite a bit of noise and fuss, if someone lunged in their direction, but it was just a ritual response. Only Aaron, the class outcast, got genuinely miserable and cried. 

It began to dawn on me that they related to each other by poking and jostling and arguing and shouting out. They had settled into a comfortably familiar pattern of behaviour. At certain points in the day things would escalate into a teacher meltdown.  Owen would be banished to the activity area.  Jimmy would be ordered to sit in his usual spot in the corridor. Arran would be moved next to Mrs Wise. A modicum of work would be done, till the next distraction simmered to the boil.

They were in a routine.  It just happened to be the wrong routine, as far as teaching and learning was concerned. It was pupil, rather than teacher, directed.

Threatened with Ofsted and the fear of a fail grade, Mrs Classteacher reacted with ever more desperate strictness.  She stopped liking her pupils. It’s very hard to like a class who threaten your employability. 

The class knew the score and they clearly felt this relieved them of the obligation to pay any heed to her.  There were some individuals who toadied up to her. They must have learnt this to be a useful strategy in dealing with authority figures.  The majority, however, seemed to regard her as just another adult cross they had to bear. 

One day Mrs Classteacher asked me what I thought of her chances regarding the inspection.  I answered as honestly as I could within the bounds of politeness, that they were borderline.  There were certain things commonly happening in class that would lead to a straightforward fail.

She was shocked.  I think she must have been expecting a more positive response.  You can get so used to bad habits that you stop questioning them and the class were little experts in behaviour management.  They had conditioned her into going along with their preferred pattern.

She never spoke to me again. After all, I couldn’t cope with the class myself, so what gave me the right to be so harsh a judge? But observers (and Ofsted inspectors in particular) don’t have to be able to do the job themselves.  That’s one of the reasons practitioners disparage them.  They just have to be able to tick off the required boxes.

Although Mrs Classteacher didn’t speak to me after that, she stopped doing the things I had mentioned.  I often wonder if the crafty old head allocated me to Owen’s class in the hopes of just such an outcome.

My services were suddenly and urgently required in another class.

Lesson 34 The Choir Trip

Lesson 34 on Virtue Rewarded

I must have had “Mug” tattooed on my forehead.  Every time someone wanted another body to make up the numbers on a school trip, they came to me.  This time it was Mandy and her cronies who started lobbying me early in the spring term.

“Miss, Mr McGregor needs another teacher for the Choir Trip.”(Mr Mac was the Head of Music, not that there was anybody else in the department.  It was a small school.  He had been there a long time.)

“Where are you going?” I enquired, trying to think of somewhere even remotely musical they could possibly visit.

“It doesn’t matter, Miss!  He just needs another teacher so he can book up the coach.”

“OK, I’ll talk to him about it,” I stalled for time.

“You don’t need to, Miss. We can tell him.  He said if we could find another teacher we could have a Choir Trip. And you’re never doing anything, so you’ll be able to go!”.  (One of the common perceptions of small group teaching, amongst pupils and staff alike, was that it was not proper school work, and thus could be deemed “doing nothing”.)

Alarm bells should have rung for me at this point, but I promised to give it favourable consideration.  The next thing I knew Mr Mac was thanking me for my support.

“It’s always a nice day out!” he beamed. “I’ll take care of all the arrangements!”  He was a short, bustling, fatherly man, who inspired confidence and trust. I allowed myself to be smiled into acceptance.

Trips took place in the summer term, when the weather might hopefully be sunny.  Strangely in the months leading up to our trip, I came across no evidence of the school choir in action.  However, as I was based at the opposite end of the building to the music room, this didn’t worry me as much as it should.

“Mandy, who else is going?” I asked as the day drew nearer. She ran through a few names not in my groups, but who I knew by reputation.

“I didn’t know they were good at singing,” I commented suspiciously.

“Oh they’re not, Miss!” replied Mandy, making a speedy escape.

Sondra was one of the names mentioned and it so happened she had to be removed from class that afternoon for bad behaviour.  When pupils were sent out of class, they had to be sat with me, or the deputy head or the school nurse.  Our rooms were conveniently next to one another just off the main corridor.

This gave me a chance to enquire further into the school choir.

“I didn’t realise you liked singing, Sondra!”  I commented in my best interested teacher voice.  Sondra looked at me scornfully.

“I don’t!” she snapped

“But you’re in the school choir?”

“There isn’t a school choir!”

“Then who goes on the Choir Trip!” I protested

“Miss, anyone can go on the Choir Trip if they collect enough merits in music.”

“How do you get your merits?”

“You just have to be good.”

“You mean good as in good and quiet? Good and well-behaved? Good and not getting into fights or talking back to the teacher?”

“That’s it, Miss!”

And so it was, when I went out to the coach on the morning of the Choir Trip, that every face in the group was one that had been excluded or banned from any other excursion. The other staff, watching with quiet satisfaction from the common room, looked forward to a day of unaccustomed peace and harmony.  No wonder nobody had warned me!

The Choir Trip was the last resort of all who could neither excel in their work nor keep out of trouble. Mr Mac smiled on unperturbed.

“They’ll be as good as gold. Just you wait and see!”

We went to Kew Gardens. Mr Mac and I sat outside the tearoom in the sun. The pupils circled around, venturing further afield as they became bolder, but always returning to make sure we were still there.  Every so often they would sit with us and chat.

On the way home they sang.  The school choir, you might say!