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*The school’s name has been changed for the sake of anonymity.
They stare. Stare at the new guy in the cheap suit. Thirty-two Glaswegian teenagers with gelled hair and fake tans, stinking of Lynx, chewing gum and fiddling with phones. They stare at you, in your new shoes, taking notes in wobbly handwriting. You stand in the corner. Avoid eye contact. An imaginary force pins you against the wall, next to the door. You cannot cross that boundary. That is their territory, not yours. They smirk. Sneer. Talk about you in barely disguised whispers. “Who the f…?” “Looks like a…”
You scribble in your notepad. You are here to observe. You write down thoughts on the layout of the room, the seating plan, the lighting, the wall displays, the way the pupils enter, the distribution of resources, the temperature, the lack of plant life, the stains on the floor, the graffiti on the desks, the smell, the noise from the corridor, the ratio of girls to boys, the lack of school uniform, the worrying amount of teenage thigh on display. Still, they stare. The teacher ambles to the front of the room, shouts at them to shut up. They carry on talking. The teacher shouts again. “This is Mr Gillespie!” he yells, pointing at you. “He’s a student teacher, and he’s going to be spending some time with the class. Say hello.”
Student teachers spend eighteen weeks on placement in schools. They take up to 70% of a full timetable. They plan lessons, create resources, mark assignments, set homework, attend parents’ nights, mete out discipline. They spend these days lecturing, questioning, shouting, smiling, laughing, farting, stamping, clapping, singing, stuttering, sweating, writing, ticking, crossing, counting and cursing. They don’t get paid. They borrow classes from established teachers to learn their trade. Sometimes the established teachers sit at the back of the room taking notes, interfering with lessons or reading the newspaper. Sometimes the established teachers squirrel themselves away in the staffroom or go round the corner to Starbucks. No two lessons are ever the same for the student teacher.
When the bell rings on my first day I feel physically sick. I have not been in a classroom since I left school nine years ago. My placement is at Greyskull High in one of the toughest areas of Glasgow, surrounded by schemes plagued by unemployment, drug abuse and casual violence. I am supposed to observe for the first week, but the thought of being exposed to these streetwise kids, these spitting, swearing, posing kids, has kept me awake at nights. What will they make of me, with my fauxhawk hairstyle and leather manbag? Can I engage them, hold their attention? I am not a PE teacher, who can run them ragged on the football pitch, or a technical teacher who will let them play with soldering irons and chisels. In my class they will not learn to cook meals or blend paints. Nothing hands-on. I am an English teacher, armed with powerpoints on Shakespeare, spelling mnemonics and a bank of creative writing prompts. What will they make of it? Can I harness these little people, these lunatic children, with the power of a perceptive metaphor? Have they heard of a simile before? Do they care?
The first surprise is that the bell to mark the start of the day doesn’t sound like a bell at all. There’s no elongated, bristling ring heralding the children to class. Rather, the bell beeps like a lorry in reverse. The school building’s relatively modern, with an intercom system through which the headteacher can address the whole school from the comfort of her office. There’s a smartboard in every room, an expensive and potent piece of kit which no teacher actually knows how to use.
In the first lesson I observe, the classroom teacher sits with me at his desk while the pupils supposedly work on essays. “The problem with these kids,” he says, “is that they’ve got no attention span. A total inability to concentrate. They spend all night playing computer games or sitting on Facebook, then spend all day drinking energy drinks and eating sweets. Their brains are messed up. They can’t focus on anything for any amount of time.”
The teachers are well aware of the environment that the pupils at Greyskull High come from. You’re supposed to call it an “interesting” catchment area, or a “particular socioeconomical background”, and really what you’re saying is that the place is an utter hole. A ridiculous number of the kids are on free school meals allowance, but don’t use it for fear of being stigmatised. Some of the kids live in care, others probably should but don’t. Some of them are carers themselves. You see the state of the clothes they wear to school, the hygiene and cleanliness of them, and you realise that if nothing else, when they come to school they should be safe, given attention, listened to. That’s your priority, forget Dulce et Decorum Est and bloody Pythagoras. If a kid’s not done homework you ask yourself if homework’s a big part of this kid’s home life, and if there’s someone to help him with it, and if there’s even a pencil at home. There’s no point shouting. You’re there to help the kids out and that doesn’t always mean battering them to death with grammar and punctuation lessons.
In the last lesson of my first day at the school, I sit in with some senior pupils who have basically just stayed on because they can’t get into college or find a job. They seem to have reached a truce with the teacher—don’t bother us with too much work and we won’t give you a hard time. I’m being all keen and enthusiastic, still scrawling down notes on everything I see. There are two boys sitting well apart from the others at the front. I ask the teacher why they’re separated from the rest of the class.
“Paul,” he tells me, “is sitting on his own because he has extremely violent tendencies. There’ve been a few incidents and it’s best that he’s on his on. But he’s a nice guy.”
I look at Paul. He has spiky hair. His shirt is untucked. He looks like a typical sixteen-year-old—a bit spotty, a bit lanky, not quite comfortable yet with the skin he’s growing into. But there’s something weird about his eyes. They dart, glaze over. His cheeks go red because he knows we’re talking about him.
“The other boy, Humza,” says the teacher, pointing at the other isolated pupil, “stays up all night playing Call of Duty. So when he comes in here he just sleeps.”
“Nope. He’s been spoken to by the headteacher, by social services, everyone. He’s a total addict. So he just comes in and has a nap.”
Humza’s sitting there, still wearing his jacket and schoolbag. His head’s hanging forward. There’s nothing on his desk. Paul looks at Humza and spits on the floor.
In general the kids are brilliant; alert, cheeky, naive, cocky and daft. One girl tells me her grand plan is to save up five pounds a month until she’s twenty-three and then move to America, because she hates the rain. She’s got it into her head that life over the pond is all Californian beaches and Floridian sunshine. I tell her some areas in the States get as much rain as Glasgow. She thinks I’m lying.
Another girl grabs me as I walk past her desk. There’s a look of slight worry on her face. “Sir,” she says. “Sir, what’s philosophy? Is that, like, the dinosaurs and stuff?”
I think back to the units I did at university on Kant, Plato, Hobbs. I think about telling her about utilitarianism and the state of nature. She looks at me, expectant, keen.
“I don’t really think I’ve got time to go into it,” I say, and run back to my spot in the back corner of the room.
Within a few weeks I’ve got four classes on my timetable. One hundred and twenty kids a day sitting in front of me, jotters open, looking at me. Go on then. Teach. Let’s see what you’ve got. I get over the nerves. I learn that my voice can go louder than I’d ever known. I develop a scary wide-eyed glare that I use when kids fail to follow instructions, or chat, or text, or fight, or sing, or pass notes; the glare is supposed to say I simply cannot believe you think you can get away with that in my classroom. They tell me to stop looking at them weird.
In November, the school sells poppies to the pupils for Remembrance Day. The poppies have the plastic green stalks that are useless unless you have a button hole. Some genius decides to also give the kids little pins so they can attach the poppies to their jumpers. The next day, a spate of stabbings breaks out among the junior pupils. Armed, they attack one another’s limbs and torsos with the pins. Tiny little bruises peek out from behind cuffs and collars. The nurse’s station is swamped with crying 12-year-olds. The headteacher delivers dire warnings over the intercom. Few pupils actually wear a poppy.
Before long, I am doing it. Teaching. I teach; they learn. The pupils come into the room and sit down and muck about and work and sometimes do as they’re told. Nobody leaps to their feet and screams about the imposter at the teacher’s desk. We do novels, poetry, imaginative writing, personal writing. Some of the work the kids produce is stunning. Some of it is unexpected. Some is crap. I take a pile of jotters home and read the words these little people have made and I write encouragements and criticisms. I evaluate their progress, compare them to national guidelines, advise and record. The kids get their jotters back and ask each other what they got. They ignore my feedback and try to find out who got the highest grade in the class.
I try to be different. A bit funky. I keep a harmonica in my pocket and use it to get the kids’ attention. I get them to write poetry about places in the local area and then display their poetry there—verses about haddock in the fishmongers, about coach trips in the bus stop. We do a unit on the persuasive language techniques used in spam emails. The kids write scripts and film themselves. We recite Shakespeare in the playground. Twitter templates are used to develop characterisation. I do not want to be a boring, typical teacher. It sounds daft but I want to surprise them, help them, inspire them. I want them to miss me when I’m gone and talk about me when they’re older. If you don’t want that then why the hell do it?
Some teachers have been at it a long time and are jaded. They slag the kids off in the staffroom, real personal abuse about how the kids look and act and work. One teacher decides to teach the same poem to four of her classes at the same time, so she doesn’t have to worry about preparing resources or planning lessons. It’s not right and I feel uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m new and making mistakes myself and you need these experienced teachers for advice and comradeship. I find behaviour management with some classes a real struggle. I’m not naturally assertive and bawling at kids feels alien to me.
Weird things happen. A nearby bank is the scene of an armed robbery and the police say all the kids have to stay in over lunch because they haven’t caught the guy. A helicopter patrols the area above the school. The kids are demented. Wild. No chance they’re working when there’s an armed robbery in the neighbourhood. Another time a deer gets loose in the school’s playing fields, and guys from the RSPCA are trying to catch it, chasing it round the running track and the kids watching it all out the windows during Biology. Then they come to me and I’ve got some stuff prepared on Carol Ann Duffy but it’s hopeless; they’re bonkers and obsessed and spend the lesson ignoring me and wondering what’s happened to the deer. Kids need routine. Change shakes them. If there’s a fire alarm during a lesson the whole day’s pretty much a write-off. They go loopy if it rains hard. Snowing? Forget it.
We’ve all been there ourselves but pretty soon, we forget what it’s really like to be ruled by a school bell and only allowed to walk on one side of the corridor, surrounded by sweaty, stupid, silly teenagers. You should go in and stand in the corner and watch the kids, the way they act, shout out, and remember which one you were—the loud one, the funny one, the quiet one. You were there once though you might not remember. Go in and watch; watch the kids and then watch the numpty at the front—orchestrating, guiding, freaking out, just praying for the bell to ring.
Alan Gillespie is 27 years old. He works as a teacher at a remote school in the West Highlands. His short stories are widely published.