13 Oct Front-line stories. My darkest school days.
Over the years, working in a range of contexts, I’ve encountered some extraordinary scenarios that have challenged me immensely. Being a teacher isn’t always about teaching; sometimes it’s about being the person responsible for holding someone’s life together; or stopping them from harming themselves or others. Sometimes you are just caught up in the dysfunctional chaotic worlds that your students inhabit; sometimes you can help; sometimes there’s nothing you can do.
In my career as a Teacher, Tutor, Head of Year and Deputy Head and Head, I’ve found myself dealing with situations that I’ve had no training for, with no special skills to offer and only my instincts to draw on. I’ve made lots of mistakes, crossed lots of lines and felt out of my depth many times. Usually the support of colleagues has been on hand, essential for keeping me sane and allowing me to put things in perspective.
Here are some examples, mainly from working in London and Jakarta from 1991- 2008. Names have been changed.
He was a sweet boy in my year group when I was Head of Year 7. Thin, shy and inarticulate but endearing. But he had a terrible temper. Every shove in the corridor, every perceived insult, he flew off the handle. He was a scrapper, reacting as if he had to fight for every inch of space; the low self-esteem of a deeply neglected child. He had so many fights..but somehow his classmates always sprang to his defense and tried to keep him out of trouble. He could barely read which made lessons extremely challenging. One day his mum moved to a new flat 10 miles away, but it was temporary so he kept coming to school and lived with an aunt more locally. She became ill so he started to travel to his mum’s. One day, he had no bus pass and no cash and walked home – but Mum wasn’t in. She’d been arrested for drug possession and forgot to mention to the Police that she had a son. Albert, still in Year 7, walked back the 10 miles across London to his auntie’s house, not knowing what had happened. His mum went to prison. Albert was a wreck. The most broken child I’ve ever known and he basically car-crashed through school thereafter. It makes me tearful just thinking about him.
His mother had died in child-birth. He was brought up by his Grandparents who couldn’t read, were very traditional and strict. Aged 11, Leon had passed through primary school still unable to read or write beyond a very basic level. He was a tough kid; very charming and witty, a bit of a joker, but tough to teach – because everything was a struggle and he spent more energy trying to avoid his poor reading being revealed than he did trying to improve it. I remember that one day his Grandmother become ill. He was in Year 8 then; he sat in our tutor room and cried his heart out. The tough-guy caved. He was so scared of what might happen to him. He was saved by an uncle; years later I saw him and he was doing ok. He had a job; he was happy enough. He survived. But he never learned to read by himself.
We had a tip-off that Year 10 Arman was dealing cannabis and that he had brought it to school. He had form; he’d been involved in some ugly bullying and lots of fights. He was a menacing boy with few redeeming qualities. I have no hesitation saying that. It was PE so I took the opportunity to look in his bag in the changing rooms. There it was – a very big bag of cannabis. I took it out and was about to look for him when he appeared. I put the bag in my pocket and started the conversation. But then he approached me, held my arm firmly , shoved his hand into my pocket, retrieved the bag and did a runner. I’d been frisked by a 14-year old boy.
Three hours later he returned; he was panicking and wanted to show me the bag of ‘grass’ was just grass.. And by now it was… he’d filled it with real grass. Pathetic really. It was the last straw. He was permanently excluded. When we told him, his last words were: ‘I know where you live’. It shouldn’t have got to me but it did. I found him genuinely frightening.. and I’d just had kids. More tears…I wasn’t cut out of that kind of thing. Who is? I should have just called the Police to start with.. but then we made things up as we went along and this kind of thing doesn’t happen too often in life.
This boy was another train-wreck kid. We’d had his Dad in a couple of times to talk about physical abuse; Mo cried for fear of what Dad would do every time he got in trouble at school. Dad didn’t know how to discipline his son without smacking. He told us that, as boy in another country, they were hit with a hammer on their finger tips if they were out of line. It was all he knew; he found the UK too liberal. Social Services came in and Dad got the message. But Mo didn’t know how to respect boundaries and school sanctions were tame compared to what he’d been given at home over the years. He was a serial lesson-wrecker. I’d stuck my neck out to protect him many times but really we gave him too many chances. Finally, in Year 10, we decided a permanent exclusion was the only option. It was sad.
However, having received the exclusion message, waiting for Dad, Mo was meant to be waiting in the Head’s office. But he climbed out of the window… and came to find me in my office. He was angry and agitated. With a hand in his jacket pocket he started to swing at me, asking me if I wanted to be stabbed. He said he had a knife and cornered me behind my desk..swinging repeatedly. That was the worst moment I’ve ever had in a school. I actually thought he was going to stab me even though I had no idea whether he had a knife or not. I grabbed my SLT walkie-talkie and called for help. He turned and ran as the heavy footsteps of the cavalry of colleagues approached. I never set eyes on him after that. That Friday, I found a new job in the TES. I’d had enough…or so I thought!
One day, we were lining our new Year 7s up outside in the playground – something we did every morning and afternoon to get them into order during a cramped building phase where corridor space was limited. David was in Year 6..and was watching his Year 7 sister Sophie lining up before school. He wandered over as I was addressing the Year 7s.. and I asked him quietly if he didn’t mind waiting to the side for a minute instead of chatting to his sister. David ran back to Dad.. reporting that I’d told him off. To Dad, this was an affront to his manhood; to his very being. As the kids were moving into the school and up the stairs, Dad stormed in, bellowing up the stair well. Oi! Arsehole! You! Arsehole! You talking to my boy?!! Come here Arsehole!… He stormed up the stairs and came right up to me to stare me in the face. He wanted to hit me.
It caused a huge stir.. the Head was out that day; I was in charge.. and there was this man abusing me in front of 100s of students. When I explained to Dad that he needed to calm down, he was incredulous and wouldn’t accept that there was no-one superior he could talk to. Eventually he went away. For the last time. The Head banned him from the site permanently after that.. even though David joined the school the next year. Sadly, David proved to be a nightmare.. an immature boy who never ever did homework; a tragic under-achieving disaster. We tried..we really did.
Possibly the worst discipline issue I’ve ever dealt with involved Farhad and Robert. Robert had been to Israel on holiday; he had an ‘I heart Israel’ pencil case as a souvenir. He was a bit of a spoilt kid; a bit precocious but was likeable nonetheless. However, Farhad didn’t see it that way. He was Palestinian and didn’t like Robert. One day, Robert left his bag in the chemistry lab over lunchtime, ready for the lesson after lunch. When the lesson started; there was a terrible smell. Opening his bag, to his disgust, there was faeces all over it. Someone had crapped in his bag. Our investigation revealed this to be Farhad.
I remember the endless denials before he finally caved in when I changed tack from ‘what did you do?’ to ‘why did you do it?’ Farhad just said, coldly, ‘because I don’t like him’. He was determined that this was not a case of anti-Israeli sentiment but a personal thing and eventually owned up fully. He planned it days in advance, waited for his moment, took the bag to the toilet and then returned it with the added content. Robert was bewildered. ‘Why would anyone do that to me?’ Farhad was expelled..I’ve never seen parents so disgusted with their own child. I almost felt sorry for him.. almost.
Tony was involved with gangs. He was a real wind-up merchant in lessons.. always calling out, always causing trouble and never able to sit quietly. Loud, cheeky and cocky. But one day he wasn’t. He’d had a call. Trouble was brewing. People were waiting for him after school – he’d offended someone in the neighbourhood. Tony went to see my Deputy colleague and we all went to the gate after school to see him off safely across the park. But it was more real than we’d believed and we were totally out of our depth. There was a large gathering of boys from other schools looking for Tony, clearly aiming to hurt him. The Deputy tried to call the Police but Tony didn’t want them involved.. he wrestled the phone from her, hurting her badly.. even though she was trying to protect him. The visiting agitators marauded across the park; our students followed to see what would happen.. it was getting out of hand. I called the Police but before they arrived, cars screamed down the road and a new bunch of men poured out to join the fray .Tony had called his personal cavalry of uncles. I did my best to reason with them.. to stop them having a punch-up or draw weapons in front of all our students who normally strolled home innocently and safely without all this commotion.
It was mayhem..I remember shouting a lot to get my students to leave the scene. Finally the Police arrived. Everyone dispersed…but we were all pretty shaken up. Every time I go to that Park I remember that incident. What were we doing getting into that situation, getting caught up in the madness?
There are plenty of other similar stories..the moments of tragedy, madness and mayhem that punctuate school life. There have been times in my career where I think I’ve put myself in danger when I shouldn’t have done.. and times when I’ve been expected to be a Detective or a Policeman when school misdemeanors have actually been real crimes. It’s not what I signed up for but it’s part of what teachers continue to face. Teaching is the ultimate noble profession but I don’t think we should have to be quite that noble.
The hardest thing to deal with by far is the death of a child. I wrote about one particular case in this Guardian post on bereavement. (Click for full article) I won’t add more…
The final line applies to all these scenarios. How important it is to belong to a warm and loving school community.