I woke with intense upper-back pain today – and it turned into a panic attack, as such things have done so often in the past. Rarely since I moved here, however, so I do feel terribly disappointed and, I will confess, a touch annoyed with myself for this illogical response to any kind of threat.
But there’s an awful lot going on emotionally behind the scenes of my apparently open and candid blogging. My personal pieces on here are but the tip of the metaphorical iceberg = and I am hurt in ways, and places, I cannot always even access consciously myself. At such times, the pain comes out somatically. But, for those inclined to pour scorn on such matters, the word ‘somatic’ means ‘mind and body’ and the pain is genuine.
Much I cannot divulge. But I will share what I am convinced has triggered this latest pain/fear response: A sense of being utterly vulnerable, threatened and open to actual violence.
Let me share a little irony with my readers first: The problems I see in my new role as supply teacher are not viewed the same way by those who see me in action. To put it another way, I am better than I often think I am; more of my classroom management skills have survived than I give myself credit for.
I am terrified of two things: Losing control and being attacked, the latter either physically or psychologically. Last week, both of those aspects were broached – and, I am privately sure, the terror-hunching which followed (and of which I was unaware at the time) has given rise to my current back pain.
Tuesday, I had a notoriously difficult year eleven class – all boys – who had no work to do and were disruptive, rude and out of my control. My attempts at sorting things out resulted in one of the lads threatening me with violence. This, at a very deep level, triggered memories of an actual attack, seven years ago, by a seriously out of control year nine boy – and I was so afraid I actually felt light-headed and tempted to run away.
Friday, my arrival in a year nine class was greeted with cat-calls, jeers, personal (and unpleasant) comments and refusal to listen to a word I said. Nightmare scenario. Any teacher’s worst nightmare – or at least one of them. Losing control of a class is frightening. Very. I suspect I stiffened with fear, hunched in on myself for protection.
Last lesson, I had the ring -leader (or one of them) in another class – and had to send her out in the end for persistent poor behaviour and rudeness.
Maybe not all teachers respond to threat the way I do. Maybe some don’t even notice these scary undercurrents and shifting urges for violence and retribution amongst some of the kids. Maybe some teachers are genuinely so involved in the minutiae of their subject that the individuals who comprise the class are little more than receptive blurs.
Unfortunately, I have always been sensitive to underlying atmospheres, both in and out of the classroom. The children’s moods are, to me, like weather fronts and can be clearly discerned without a word needing to be spoken. And, as a supply teacher, I start with a disadvantage: We, as a breed, are seen as fair game and do not command any kind of respect en masse.
There is a school of thought which is self-protective, probably eminently sensible and with which I wish I could genuinely agree: That it does not matter whether the kids do the work as long as none of them actually kill/maim anyone else in the vicinity. Unfortunately, I have carried the discipline I used as a full-time English teacher (or tried to) into this very different role – and herein, I suspect, lies my mistake. The children do not know me and have no reason to respect me or obey my rules. I have no idea who they are (although we get lists of names, few schools include mugshots/seating plans as well) – and, as any teacher will know, trying to tell off a naughty child when you have no idea who he or she is does not end well.
The agency with which I signed on is excellent. But I think I am, at present, simply too fragile to do this job effectively. It is ripping too many scabs from wounds inflicted when I was a permanent teacher.
Have children become more difficult to handle – or is it simply that I have become, at fifty-nine, old, set in my ways and inflexible? The latter is probably true. But I also think standards of discipline have declined in our schools, partly in response to an increasing sense of having rights (but no responsibilities) amongst both the kids and, more worryingly, their parents. There is an increasing tendency to upbraid the teacher for being ‘aggressive’ or ‘confrontational’ rather than looking at the, at times appalling, behaviour of the class.
At one school I taught at, the person who was supposed to be setting the work refused to help me for the last two lessons because I had made a perfectly valid, if critical, comment about the quality of work set earlier.
What I am about to say will not surprise many of you, I suspect. Put it this way, I rarely experience teachers’ best and brightest classes when I come in as a supply teacher! As a breed, teachers take time off rarely and reluctantly and, when they do cave in, it is often the thought of teaching 11Z last thing on a Friday that influences them. Most of the groups I have taught last lesson at the various schools I’ve visited have been either bottom set or known to be tricky or both. In all honesty, most classes I have covered have been the kind of combination of miscreants who cause their regular teachers stress and illness in the first place.
It doesn’t matter how good I was as both teacher and disciplinarian in the past. In the present, in lessons which are one-offs and in which I have no knowledge of the kids, my past makes no difference at all. My classroom management strategies are irrelevant and, I suspect, seen as old-fashioned by many of the teachers I come across. The profession has moved on since I left – and some of the new ways of doing things do not, in my view, work.
But it is no longer any of my business. If teachers want to seat their pupils in sixes round three tables put together, that is up to them. I am, I suspect, seen as a reactionary old bag because my preference is to have the little dears in twos, and avoiding friendships duos, in serried ranks facing me! My habit, with really difficult small classes, of putting the buggers one to a desk would, I feel sure, be seen as Victorian and bordering on child abuse.
I feel really disheartened at present and very stressed by the whole thing. Today’s back pain is, I feel, a warning sign. It is my body communicating pretty strongly. It is a physical acknowledgement that I am not, sad to relate, in step with the current education system or the philosophy behind most schools’ treatment of poor behaviour.
I do not give up easily – and I am not going to rush into a decision with regard to supply teaching either. There have been some lovely days, and some of the schools have been a real joy to work in. Many of the children are delightful, though held back by their naughtier, more dominant, classmates. But I may have to admit defeat in the end. It may be that I – rebellious, lively and inspiring as I was – have become a dinosaur, a creature which has become extinct and is having trouble admitting to that.
I cannot resume a life of pain and constant panic. I have had quite enough of that over the past few years. My aching back and the unstoppable, albeit brief, monsoon of tears, do not constitute a good sign. I have ignored warnings of this nature in the past – and the result has never been positive.
The dinosaurs, dying, gave way to other creatures better adapted to the landscape as it evolved. So in teaching: Younger minds are, I am sure, more elastic and, thus, better able to cope with the slings and arrows of education’s more outrageous fortune.
An Alienora may not be what the modern educational world needs/wants – and that world may not be good for me.
Yes, I feel exposed.