On Still Getting Things Wrong

I’ve come to the end of a year’s stay in a Secondary Modern and wanted to linger a while on how wrong I still get things even after two-and-a-half decades of parading knowledge (or its lack) in classrooms multiple. I was introduced to year 11 at the beginning of this academic year through a series of ‘masterclasses’ on Macbeth. I’m uncomfortable with this nomenclature as, while it is probably (technically) true, it comes with the sense of an ego out of control, but I recall, still, my first impressions of young people I got to know quite well during the year.

Many of the same students stuck out at the beginning as have left indelible memories at the end: S – bright enough, bumptious, difficult to manage; D – quiet, serious, studious; P – a cheeky tiger with an ability to understand the complexities of poetry rather better than the simple fact that achievement involves hard work and sometimes a bit of hush; B – polite, quietly determined and the kind of daughter anyone would have been proud to have brought up. Chiefly though, the student who first stood out was on account of a haircut by which I judged him - wrongly. It was and is a fierce haircut, the kind a fierce person might have: acutely shaved at the sides, longer on top, a peaky cockney blinder with a deep voice and without Killian Murphy’s eyelashes, but with a hidden suggestion of the feminine touch. He seemed bright on the first lesson, and he engaged well until it was time to pick up the pen: there was some apparent aversion to this. In the first lessons teacher and class are jockeying, testing the situation out, forming (often incorrect) opinions about each other. In the first lesson with B, I thought, “I like this kid, but he’s going to be quite a tough nut to crack learning-wise.”

At Christmas, I took over B’s class from another teacher who had left. They’d had supply teachers in year 10 and, though their teacher in the Christmas term had striven bravely for them, they were still in massive deficit and were dysfunctional behaviourally. The first lesson showed that these issues looked insurmountable in the little time we would have together, and behavior was uncertain. But at some early point within that lesson I recall a voice talking in urgent whisper to his classmates. It was emphatic. “He’s good teacher!” said the voice, willing his classmates to behave properly and give me a chance to teach and them a chance to learn. It was a male voice.

Luckily, I’ve had really supportive management this year. It took six lessons of behaving patiently and professionally; calmly having those lessons disrupted by the same old faces, of whom B was definitely not one, until a decision was made. Three disruptive faces were informed one morning that they were no longer in the class and that they should go to their new classes. B’s reaction was salutary. I believe it started with a gently exhaled profanity, but it finished, in some surprise, as if he’d never before seen such a thing, with “A teacher that does what he says he’s going to do (!).”

And then the mocks. B is not a very high attaining student. He’s never been much held to account. His handwriting doesn’t communicate what you’d want it to, and his spelling can be creative. His analysis in Paper 1 Language was good enough; his narrative was something else. In writing the description of the face of an old man, B located the soul of things. His empathy and his appreciation for the battles and travails his subject had fought and undergone, his subtlety and sensitivity, his profound gentility were all evident in a sublime piece of phrasing half way through the piece. It was a grade 6 (on a good day with a prevailing wind).

And slowly we begin to see that the haircut is a symbol not of what we thought but of its opposite. Yes, it says, “leave me alone”, but it doesn’t say so because B is angry or aggressive or any of the things my faulty judgment misapprehended; it says so because B is gentle and shy and poetic, and these qualities don’t quite belong in some of the places in which he finds himself and with some of the behavioural codes of his clan.

And at the end of our time together, in one of the last lessons, B wonders aloud that what I’ve been teaching him is the direct opposite of what he was taught last year (by a long-term supply). As is the case in such incidents, I ask him to make his own decision. “Just decide which teacher you most trust, B, and do what they say.” He replies quietly, under his breath, with no show, “You … by miles.”

And so I depart the school at which I’ve been B’s teacher for too short a time chastened by my own inability to recognize quality immediately I see it and determined that next time I am the adult in a room with someone with a haircut that seems to say, “Go away”, I will do the opposite and quickly search for the sweetness beneath it.

Added Mon, 12 Aug 2019 14:04

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