Wednesday, 31 October 2012

We need to talk about Johnny...

Sometimes you get a feeling that a class is going to go pear shaped for reasons beyond your control, that no matter what you do things are just not going to go right. Monday was such a day. Four classes into the day and all was going brilliant, every class had engaged, learned and had fun. Next up was my third years and I had a very good lesson planned for them full of variety, challenge, fun and hopefully at the end we would have enjoyed ourselves and learned something new. That was the script but sometimes that's just not how things roll. As the students walked in I could sense a kind of negative energy off some of them, something was not quite right but I was excited about the lesson. I thought that once we got going the energy and momentum of the lesson would help them engage, they would start enjoying themselves and we would all have fun. We never got to energy and momentum!

All was not the same with the third years since we had returned from mid term. We had made great progress in terms of learning, social skills and behaviour in our first term and things has been going well. All students had completed their 'fun time happy quiz' and the results were very good. We had also been co operating better, helping each other, insults were non existent and generally the atmosphere had been very pleasant. the holidays had broken our routine and three or four of the boys had gone back into old bad habits. Interruptions were common during the first week back, students were speaking out of turn, wandering around and not really engaging in any of the lessons. I had thought about this and I was fairly sure that we could shortly get them back on track. One young man though had decided this was not going to happen. This lad does not have a great background and really has not been dealt the best hand. He is generally nice, is clever enough, works very well when he wants and had been making good progress. This was not a good week for him though, on Thursday he decided half way through the class he decided he was not going to listen to any reasonable requests and despite the best efforts of both the Head of Support for Learning and myself we had to ask him to leave. At the bell I wanted to talk to him to see what was going on but he wanted to walk away and off he went. Friday went no better and within twenty minutes he had caused so much disruption I had no option but to call for Senior Management and ask them to take him to 'Time Out' as he point blank refused to either go outside and relax or go to another maths classroom. Time Out is a facility in the school where students who misbehave badly or cause serious disruption can be supervised for a period of seven classes (the equivalent of one school day). Its voluntarily supervised by teachers (myself included) and works as an excellent deterrent for the vast majority of students. I thought about his behaviour and how we could help improve it, rethought about it and planned strategies over the weekend, Monday was a new day..

Monday was the date of the full moon in October and low and behold on Sunday night there it was staring down in all its majestic beauty. Beautiful as it looks, the sight of a full moon always brings a tiny sense of apprehension. Having worked for over a decade in the service industry I would testify before a court of law that the full moon generally brings the craziness out in certain people. I have had to kindly ask a significantly larger number of people to vacate pubs on nights with full moons than the rest of nights I worked combined. Students are people as well and after only three years working in education I am starting to see evidence that the full moon theory also applies in schools. The class started well with two boys arguing over money. One claimed the other owned him the princely sum of £2 and he needed to settle accounts now. I was later to find out this was the result of a deal on one of the boy's Aunties flu tablets. The powers that be are looking into the whole thing and to date flu tablets with a street value of £3.50 have been seized. This was the queue for the young lad I mentioned from last week (we shall call him Johnny) to start talking and not to stop for the next twenty minutes. I am standing at the front of the class trying to engage the class in starter questions and I have two boys in financial meltdown, Johnny giving a running commentary and since that's not enough I can see two more boys ready to give their five cents. I remind them all that we can't all be talking at once and that we are doing starter questions. Another boy (lets call him Martin) decided that his civil rights were being infringed by being asked to do any work and that this was the time to vocalise this. Martin decided that he wanted to play games and he would like to play them now. I remind them again that we have agreed class rules and that we are being very unfair to our friends. Another boy is bubbling over with excitement in the corner. I asked him on the way in how he was and you could see in his eyes he was a little excited but he assured me all was good. He is the nicest young lad but has the attention span of a Dory from 'Finding Nemo'. I can feel control slipping here, five boys now talking and not listening to anything I am saying. James is getting excited because all the rest are acting up so I offer him the opportunity to go get a drink of water and calm down. He takes this and now I am down to four though eight more students are sitting in my class totally neglected, waiting to learn or do something and basically without a teacher as I try to stay in control.

What do I do, they are a couple of rules I have to adhere too otherwise all is lost. Rule number 1, I cannot shout, nobody responds to shouting, I really dislike anyone shouting at me and it would do little good in this situation. All it would do is indicate that I am surrendering control. Rule 2, I have to follow our agreed classroom rules. Rule 3, no bargaining (if you all behave we will have cake or games etc) or bribery  this also indicates you are losing ground and all my experience indicates this will only be exploited. Rule 4 and by far the most important be firm but 100% fair. As soon as James leaves the room Martin demands to be allowed out for a drink of water. It's not fair etc etc, I generally don't allow students out as most don't need either the bathroom but just want to go for a walk and see whats going on and right now Martin is going nowhere. Some students in my last school actually started to synchronise their walks so they could have a chat with their friends in the middle of class. We are now fifteen minutes in and have basically done no work. Names start going on to the board as the boys are warned and reminded of our agreed standard of conduct. Almost in unison they all start again, Martin thinks this is unfair and starts to tell me why, Johnny has started walking around the room opening and closing windows and pulling at other students, the two 'dealers' are arguing over money and James gets back in anything but a calm state. The lone girl in our class tells the boys to 'shut up', words which are banned in our classroom and Martin demands justice and her name on the board. Inside I can see I am losing this and I just want roar and order them all to sit down and shut up but that is the very last thing I can or should do. I address each of them in turn quickly but in a slow calm but forceful voice and ask all to sit down and be quiet. Finally order is restored and all boys receive a second warning and are moved seats which in this case constitutes a major reshuffle of everyone in the classroom so none of those causing grief are in touching or talking distance. Twenty five minutes in and I have to make a decision. For the greater good two of these boys have to go or this entire lesson will be a complete and total disaster. In the interests of fairness I cannot target anyone though if Martin and Johnny were gone we could salvage something. As it turns out by now Johnny starts properly acting up and has to go. Here I make a bad mistake. For some unknown reason he decides today he does not mind being put in another maths classroom instead of going to time out. What happens next is he disrupts the entire department for the next twenty minutes going up and down the corridor and in and out of his assigned class. The excitement is too much for James and he has to go to time out. With fifteen minutes left we finally have proper order in the classroom though I am feeling like crap inside. We process all that has gone on. Ten students have sat quietly whilst all this has gone on and inside I feel like I have failed them. The two money men feel lousy too but it's too late for redemption for them today. The lesson is dead so we practice our numeracy by playing some games they like. Johnny comes back and demands his bag and runs as soon as the bell goes.

After this lesson as I stand there wanting to crawl under a rock in walk one of my first year classes all happy and cheerful. Their lesson is ruined as well. Why you ask? What did they do? Nothing is the answer but I can no longer deliver the lesson I planned for them as I feel lousy and have no energy. The lesson I planned required me to be full of energy and happy but I can pretend that all is good and smile but I cannot not pretend that much. We have a good lesson but it's nothing special. Lunchtime comes and I retire outside for some fresh air and run the third year lesson over in my head trying to see if I could have done anything to make it less of a disaster. I don't think I could have done anything to change the way it went and I think I did the best I could. Some days things just don't go your way and its extremely rare that so many students all misbehave in such a way at the same time. All you can do is your best and as I have said before with this class it's a marathon not a sprint, we will get there...

I do not write this looking for sympathy and don't worry I am fine, all teachers have classes like this that turn a great day sour but this is what we do. It also helps me to reflect on the great, the good the the not so good of the job I really love. I deal with young individuals who are human too, they like me have good days and bad and all I and all teachers can do is support them, educate and look after them as best we can. We are all in it together :-)