I haven’t written for several days, haven’t wanted to – haven’t had the energy, the spirit, the free-flying imagination. My mood has been subdued, exhausted, borderline tearful as I struggle to adapt to a life back in the classroom after so many years out of it.
I had forgotten how insular schools can be. I had forgotten the extent to which schools paste a politically reassuring smile over chaos. I had forgotten the overt lying, the casual disregard of supply teachers, the competitiveness – and, above all, the desire to appear superior to anyone else when it comes to handling difficult children. I know. I was in the system. I held some of these views, espoused some of these specious causes, myself. I am, in some ways, being hoist on my own arrogant petard.
But, after just six days, I have a message to schools up and down the country. It is a strong message. It is unambiguous. In some ways, it is angry and borderline bitter. It has been honed by real experience, and genuine concern. It consists of several sub-sections. Here it is:
Do not attempt to pull the wool over experienced former teachers’ eyes. This is particularly true of the behaviour of the kids. We have been there. We have seen it all before. We know the signs – and they are clear – of a school which is struggling with discipline, and no amount of soft-soaping, of attempting to offload the blame onto us, is going to cut any ice with those of us who have been in the profession for decades.
Look at your own Staff Room. I can tell already that you do not have to enter a single classroom, or meet a single kid, to be able to suss out the essential vibe of the school. Three of the five schools I have visited so far had virtually empty staffrooms and teachers who were so harried – either with stress or self-importance – that they did not have the time to reassure, or the skills to meet me eye to eye and admit that things were hard. If no teachers, or few teachers, feel they can go into the sanctuary of a staff area at breaks and lunchtimes, it is sending out a very clear signal of something amiss, something not right.
Be aware that your decision to adopt a strict uniform policy – especially one with blazers and ties – does not work unless it is backed-up by an equally strict, and consistent, discipline policy. And, by this, I do not mean individual young teachers who happen to have some influence over difficult kids; I mean a regime of kind strictness which embraces all and is led by clearly-visible senior managers. I mean the kind of discipline which becomes everyone’s responsibility because, if not adopted by all, it then becomes everyone’s problem. It is not a question of whether you can control your own class of scallywags because most teachers do manage that given time. It is more a question of whether you would be able to exert that same level of control on someone else’s bunch of loonies last thing on a Friday afternoon.
Do not view supply staff as incompetent, inferior losers, or assume that they are only doing the job because they have been drummed out of the profession for failing the personality/charisma in the classroom test. Many supply teachers were excellent classroom teachers. Many were teaching well before those who look down on them were even born.
Do not assume that lack of support, or passive-aggressive ploys, will make ‘normal’ teachers look any better when the supply replacement fails or struggles. These techniques simply underline a basic incompetence in those perpetrating them. The best teachers are able to ask themselves, ‘How would I feel if I were in this situation?’ and act accordingly – with firm compassion. The attitude, common amongst a certain sub-strata of teachers, of, ‘I can control this difficult group, so I don’t see the problem!’ is unhelpful, misleading and insensitive.
Do not assume that old hands can be taken in, flattered or soothed by whizzy technology and expensive new educational ‘toys’. If the school’s discipline is weak, it doesn’t matter how good the Power Points, overhead doodads and inter-active whiteboards are! You cannot use Ofsted-approved hardware to paste over the cracks in a troubled institution!
On three occasions, I walked into the Staff Room – and it was abuzz: Full of real teachers being honest about the trials, tribulations and joys of the job; full of noise and colour and genuine concern about the children they taught; full of people willing to help, to listen, to admit that they, too, struggled with some of the little darlings; full, in a word, of a community which met regularly, communicated clearly and watched out for other members.
I do not, personally, care what word Ofsted has used to describe a school. We can all be impressive for a short space of time if given time to put on the glad rags and prepare thoroughly. Similarly, I am not impressed by uniform or the descriptions the schools write about themselves on their web-sites. I am only impressed by on-the-ground reality. I am only impressed by honesty. I am only impressed by a Staff Room which is actually about the staff – and a discipline policy which goes deeper, and further, than something simply designed to impress, and hoodwink, outsiders.
We supply teachers are neither blind nor stupid. We can often see the cracks in an institution more easily than those who habitually work in it. We also talk to one another and form impressions of certain schools which would, perhaps, shock those who work in them on a daily basis.
It is, I know, possible to pull whole skeins of wool over Ofsted Inspectors. Schools do it all the time. It is not, however, nearly so easy to do when it comes to real teachers on the ground.
There are some great schools around – and they are a pleasure to work in. The best ones give me genuine hope that I have made the right decision – and, at the end of a school day, leave me inspired, happy and smiling, even if not every individual child was a joy to teach!