Honestly! Negotiating a flight of stairs had never been more fraught with difficulty. My legs, usually so dependable, felt like they’d been invaded by fibrillating alien forces controlled by an insidious, covert mother ship deep inside my overactive cerebrum. I wobbled and stuttered, weak and nauseous and racked with butterflies, until – at last! – I reached the first floor.
It was my first day in a new job. More to the point, it was the beginning of a new career, a career that would bring, I hoped, rather naively as it later transpired, renewed happiness and personal fulfilment, instead of, as has regrettably been the case, excessive levels of frustration, stress and anxiety caused, in large part, by swinging my bald cranium against a particularly obdurate wall peppered with spikes on a daily basis.
It was January 2002 and I had little to no understanding of what I was rather shakily walking into. I was unaware, for example, of the desperate poverty both consuming and tormenting the local community I was about to serve; unaware that many of my new charges had been the unfortunate victims of endemic family breakdown; and unaware that just as numerous were those suffering from debilitating special needs that hampered and restricted their ability to learn. I was about to discover, moreover, that this explosive combination of factors was matched by the school’s misguided unwillingness to adequately deal with the damaging consequences. At 23 and just out of university, I was young, wet behind the – rather large – ears and completely unprepared for the demands of teaching in Blair’s Britain. Why? I hear you say.
Well, apart from my youthful, devil-may-care attitude which forbade the careful consideration of cons, during my rather perfunctory interview before Christmas - if, indeed, you could call it an interview - I was misleadingly assured by my new Head teacher that I wouldn’t be teaching, at least initially; instead I’d be observing and learning, taking notes and maybe, during my first few weeks anyway, teaching for the first 20 minutes of a lesson, guided by the nurturing eye of a more experienced member of staff; indeed, she went on to add that I’d be starting a new on-the-job qualification at the nearest possible opportunity. Needless to say, I was excited at the prospect of not only earning a salary, but training and working towards Qualified Teacher Status at a pace that seemed, at first glance, and after speaking to my new boss, who seemed both cordial and sincere, suitably slow.
How wrong I was. On my arrival on that cold January morning, I was given a full, ferociously demanding timetable that any experienced teacher would have found inordinately challenging. For the very first time since leaving school as a pupil at 18, I was about to enter a classroom - not to observe and take notes, but to teach a cohort of baying adolescents. Holy shit! I thought. My first day was about to be nothing short of a baptism of fire.
I teetered along the corridor, took a deep breath and reluctantly entered the classroom, nervously clutching my new timetable. There in front of me, a motley assemblage of twenty-five Year 8 pupils continued to engage in idle chatter, greeting my entrance with what can only be described as resigned indifference. Almost in unison, they looked up, eyeballed me with sorrow rather than disdain, looked down and seamlessly proceeded to talk throughout. It could’ve been worse, I supposed, at least they weren’t throwing paper aeroplanes at one another…yet! ‘Good morning,’ I said in a loud voice, unsuccessfully trying to hide its quivering tone, a tone so full of involuntary inflections that it screamed ‘novice!’, ‘charlatan!’, and ‘newbie!’ I was in deep shit! And I knew it!
‘Good morning,’ I repeated, this time injecting my voice with a gravelly air of menace, or so I thought. Again, and much to my irritation, they simply ignored me. ‘You!’ I angrily shouted, randomly pointing at one of the more mischievous-looking pupils sitting at the back of the room. ‘Get out!’ He stood up and, much to my dissatisfaction, along with the rest of the class, giggled as he left the room and proudly joined the myriad other miscreants in the corridor.
I didn’t want to shout, but being an inexperienced novice, and without any instructions – I hadn’t been given any policy or guidance on how to deal with bad behaviour (an important document given as a matter of course to new members of staff and supply teachers in most schools) -, I didn’t know what else to do. I proceeded to take the register and, much to my credit (I do hope that that doesn’t sound too conceited and self-congratulatory), intuitively insisted on silence throughout. Without silence, I thought, how can anybody possibly learn? The problem was that, as a rather depressing and unintended consequence, I couldn’t begin my first lesson, courtesy of the fact that I couldn’t get to the end of the register without stopping to scold some obnoxious little shit face.
‘Get out!’ I shouted as I reached Stacey Arnold. ‘Be quiet!’ I balled as I got to the kids with surnames beginning with ‘c’. ‘Shut up!’ I injudiciously yet desperately bellowed before finally, exhaustedly, getting to Jake Timby, the last name on the register. With four children outside, excluded from the classroom, I could, I hoped, begin the starter activity. Then the bell rang to mark the end of period 1.