“You are responsible for the engagement of students in your class.”
“If you plan well, all students will be engaged.”
“If a child is distracted in your lesson it’s because you were not teaching in an engaging way.”
“If you do your job properly, all children in your class will be well behaved.”
“When students come to school, you can make them forget problems at home if they enjoy your well-prepared lesson.”
Throughout my teaching career I’ve heard those statements. And I’ve queried every one, though often only to myself. Sadly, experience has taught me that speaking out can sometimes be problematic.
A few years ago I taught a child called Leon. He was bright, articulate, popular and supportive of his friends. He was also poorly behaved, rude, argumentative and disengaged.
School was somewhere he had to attend, when he would far rather be elsewhere. If Leon did any work it was hurried and the bare minimum that he could get away with. Frequently, he just didn’t bother.
I would go into the school for a few days roughly every two weeks, so over the course of a year I got to know a number of the students quite well. I also learned to dread some lessons more than others. Often they were the ones Leon would be in.
A typical lesson would begin with Leon arriving late. He would make a big fuss over getting his books and pens out of his bag, then try to find a chair to put the bag on, rearrange his blazer a dozen times (standing up on each occasion), before finally sitting down and demanding I repeat everything I had said at the start of the lesson as he had missed it.
Once informed as to what he should do, he would declare that it was ‘lame’ or ‘boring’ or, his personal favourite, that ‘it don’t make no sense’. The explanations would begin again. Having made a start on the task, Leon would then demand to know where his teacher was, saying “You don’t know nuffin. You’re just a supply.” At first, I pointed out that I was covering my subject, so yes, I did know what I was talking about, but after a few weeks of verbal abuse as a response, I realised that it was better to just ignore the question.
Settling down again, Leon would work for a few minutes, before deciding to look through his bag and pencil case for a missile. If he couldn’t find a suitable one, he would take what he wanted from another pupil, despite their objections. Having found something to throw, he would then pick on random pupils in the class, before displaying a rather good aim. Ironically, this didn’t translate to PE, where he was known as a lousy shot. Perhaps if the PE department had replaced the rounders bat and ball with a ruler and rubber, he might have fared better.
The rest of the lesson would then pass in a circus of arguments, refusals to leave, refusals to work, and refusals to stay. At the end of it, as Leon walked out of the room he would thank me and disappear down the hall whistling, whilst I slumped on a chair feeling exhausted.
And then one day it was different.
Leon was on time, he was quiet, he did a little work, but mostly he sat staring out of the window in silence. He didn’t throw things, didn’t argue, didn’t make a show of getting his books out. It was eerie, and I knew something had to be wrong.
That lunchtime I asked the deputy head. I explained how different Leon had been in the lesson, and how he was clearly worried about something. It was then that I was told his background.
Leon and his mother lived alone. No-one knew if Leon had any contact with his father, if he had ever met him, or if he even knew who he was. But he did have male influences in his life. Or rather, the interactions his mother had with the men she brought into his home, sat like a weight on his shoulders.
Leon’s mother was a prostitute. When Leon went home after school, he was expected to make tea for his mother’s clients, and to accept the situation in a mature manner. Only Leon was 15. He couldn’t accept the situation, he hated the job his mother did. He knew that it put food on the table and paid for his uniform and mobile phone. He also knew that it made people look down on him, pity him, and hate his mother. Both the children he went to school with and their parents could be vitriolic in their hatred of Leon’s mother, I think that’s why he valued his true friends so highly.
Leon’s poor behaviour was as a result of his mother’s occupation. He didn’t want to be in school, he wanted to be at home to look after her, he wanted to get a job so she didn’t have to work. He also wanted to leave, and move far away so people wouldn’t avoid him in the street. That day he was uncharacteristically quiet in class, he had told a friend his mother was unwell. Rumours spread in whispered conversations in the staff room, but who knows what the truth really was?
I continued to try to get Leon to work in class – after all, that is my job, and Leon continued to resist. In the end we reached a sort of truce – Leon would do most of the set work, as long as I overlooked his breaking of some of the minor rules. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked in an imperfect way.
Looking at the statements at the top of this post I wonder if those who said them have any idea of the reality of the lives of some of the children in our schools. No matter how engaging, entertaining, or exciting a lesson is, for many children it will never be enough to distract them from the worries of home.
And is that really the fault of the teacher?