Mark Grist: The teacher-turned-poet on classroom hecklers, Viking rap battles and his love of rude board games


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The Independent Culture

I was a good teacher because I failed so many times I remember one lesson when I was introduced as the trainee teacher to a Year Eight class. When I asked them to sit down, they were like, "You're not a proper teacher, we don't have to listen to you!" People were throwing things; I had a proper revolt. But unruly classes are like dealing with hormone-ridden hecklers at a gig; the more front-line experience you have, the better you get. And the next time someone came at me with a comment, I had a rebuttal.

Watching films or TV shows about teaching is weird I particularly can't watch Waterloo Road [the BBC drama set in a comprehensive school], because everyone in it is such a caricature. Teaching is a profession where you caricature yourself, so you have stock responses to given types of behaviour. So I found it just too weird to see my day job dramatised like that.

When you tell kids to follow their dreams, you start thinking you should too That's why I quit my job teaching English in Peterborough and started a poetry open-mic night. I found that I enjoyed reading poems that made people laugh; I got made the poet laureate of Peterborough and formed [spoken-word duo] Dead Poets with the hip-hop artists MC Mixy [with whom Grist has performed at festivals around the UK].

Rap battles are an undervalued art form They've been around for millennia: even the Vikings were doing it [flyting – the exchange of insults between two parties, conducted in verse – is found throughout Norse literature]. And it was my rap battle with MC Blizzard two years ago that changed things for me, becoming the most-watched rap battle online. [Grist beat the student in a rap contest that went viral, generating millions of views on YouTube.] After that I got pitches for TV and radio work.

I write poems for people who don't like poetry Many people see poetry as some great, lofty British tradition they can't connect with. But poetry is everywhere; they're words that just have to work a bit harder. Lively comedic work is my kind of thing, such as Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes. An opening line I like to use in my own shows is: "Come to Peterborough, a city of unusual beauty/ Houses so cheap we don't pay stamp duty."

There's a poem I've been writing for two-and-a-half years now I'm on to line six, and one day I'll finish it. It's about an old woman who lives across the road, who stares at me through her front curtains; she'll probably be dead by the time I finish it .

I'm a board-game addict I have nearly 100 board games, scattered everywhere; any shelf, there's a small game perched on it. I'm particularly interested in seeing how the mechanics of a game work; I was single for a long time. My current favourite is Cards Against Humanity, a horribly offensive word-based game I play with my girlfriend.

I get frustrated by how teenagers are seen in society They're far less dogmatic and more likely to change their minds about something than adults. When I used to tell people I was a teacher, they'd either feel sorry for me or say, "Oh, that must be awful." But honestly, working with teenagers was the coolest part of it.

Mark Grist, 32, a former secondary-school teacher, is now a poet, rap-battler and educational consultant. His tour, 'Rogue Teacher', runs from 17 April to 30 May ( The education documentary 'Mr Drew's School for Boys', in which Grist features as a teacher, airs on Channel 4 this spring