school daze

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The Independent Online
The room's been trashed. Some 145 items used in the lesson have been screwed up, torn or trodden under foot - if they haven't been pocketed. The 146th item is my hole punch, used to put work into their personal portfolios. I had only taken my eye off it for a second. There is an inquest.

"What a mess! Those brushes on the floor; the paper in the sink; clear them up. Behind the radiator, look, whose is that? See if you can find the hole punch."

Some pupils make a token effort to gather together their own work. Others jostle impatiently by their tables, bawdy and ill-tempered.

"You can't make us - the bell's gone - clear it up yourself - you know where you can stick your hole punch ..."

The door swings open. Thirty-two more pupils kick, elbow and cry their way into the room.

"I'm not having this. Out! I'm still dealing with ...

A senior teacher appears at the door. "Punctuality, Mr B," he shouts above the din. "Punctuality." I can't send out a class sent in by a senior teacher.

I shout to the outgoing class, knowing the threat will be two days too late. "I'll see you about this next lesson. We can't have the room left like this."

The new pupils find their tables and squabble. Wayne picks up a lump of mud and aims it at Julie, thinking my attention is on the couple exchanging punches. I can't tell him to pick it up. I no longer have powers to force him. Neither can I make him apologise for messing up Julie's coat. He will simply swear like he does at every other teacher. It's the lesson that matters, I rationalise to myself, knowing that constraints prevent me from taking effective action. The law requires me to deliver the national curriculum, not become involved in petty violence.

Julie, like the rest, keeps on her soiled coat. They fill the damp air with the smell of blocked drains. It's too cold without them, too cold even to use some clay for a lesson on ceramics.

They eventually listen for a few minutes while I introduce the lesson, but no key words or concepts in their record books have been learnt, so I have to start the topic again.

The question and answer session is continually interrupted by senior teachers.

"Hand out these before they go. The parents need them tonight."

"Your computer register sheet wasn't done right. Look, that pencil line next to Tracey Patterson missed its box. Do it again."

"I can't give Dean that detention. He's been away. We'll give him another chance. It was only bad language, wasn't it?"

The pupils soon realise that administration has a higher priority than their education.

When the lesson's practical component begins, they become fully grown protests. There's been no time to check the materials used by the previous class, or to clear up its mess, so this group starts with a shortage of pencils, paints and pastels in surroundings more conducive to refuse collection than art education.

"I can't do this ... you've lost my work ... I left it there ... I didn't want to do art anyway ... you've torn my picture ... whose blood's this? ... I'm not working here ...

No self-esteem; no self-motivation; no self-confidence in their potential. The average pupil of 11 entering the school has a reading age of seven. They don't have the vocabulary or grammar to give expression to their feelings and frustrations, which are thus articulated in more violent ways. It's a notional, not a national curriculum. It's written down, but I cannot deliver it. Why should they be influenced by teachers who haven't even the means available to preserve their own humanity, let alone any professional authority? Why do they need to know about the aesthetics and culture of previous civilisations anyway? Arthur Daley and Del Boy manage to survive on their wits. So will they.

The writer is a secondary school teacher in the Midlands.

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