Always on my mind

Once in a while, a student comes along who won't - can't - conform to the norm. And these are the children who linger in our minds, writes Tessa Matthews, because their stories reveal how our one-size-fits-all systems are betraying those who need us most. Illustrations by Tim Marrs

Tessa Matthews

Every class is a mish-mash of budding personalities and characters. Amid the cacophony of voices, each one striving to be heard over the others, we as teachers do our best to listen to and respond to them all. We come into contact with thousands of children throughout our careers, yet there are those we will always remember because of the challenges they present to us.

Behind the rudeness, disobedience or frustrating refusal to learn, there is often a story. And these stories can act as spotlights, illuminating the problems that lurk in our education systems. The day-to-day pressures of teaching mean we sometimes push them to the backs of our minds, but we shouldn't ignore the tales that shape our students. After all, the issues we encounter mould our view of our profession and can provide answers to our most troubling questions.

Here are the tales of some of the children I remember...

Why doesn't Emmy do her homework?

I am having a bad day. Then the bell rings and I am greeted by Emmy: the sweetest, gentlest member of my tutor group of 12- and 13-year-olds. "You all right, Miss?" she asks, beaming. Her blazer is sodden and her blouse is buttoned up incorrectly. Her glasses are wonky and she appears to be wearing the same filthy odd socks as yesterday. Standing there in trousers too short and wiping her nose on her sleeve, she is a beacon of light and hope on an otherwise grey day.

"I'm great, thanks, Emmy! Lovely to see you this morning."

And I really mean it. It is nice to see her. She is one of those children that no one capable of human emotion could ever dislike: profoundly kind and selfless, despite the fact that she is one of the most vulnerable children I have ever met.

There are all sorts of problems at home. She lives with her disabled mother, unemployed uncle, a remarkable yet frail grandmother and 12 boisterous brothers and sisters. At weekends she stays with her father, who lives 30 miles away.

I make my way round the class to glance at their homework diaries. I check they've filled in their homework for all subjects, asking whether or not they have completed it and if they are on track to meet the deadline. I get the usual mixture of moans, groans and excuses.

"We didn't get none in maths this week."

"I done it but my printer ain't working."

"Miss never asks for it so I don't bother doin' it."

"I don't do homework. Homework's for gays."

I arrive at Emmy's desk. Her response is a bashful shrug and a shake of her head.

She doesn't need to explain. As I say, Emmy has a tough home life. She shares a room with three younger siblings. She has older brothers and sisters who stay up late playing video games and chatting on the phone. There is no table to sit at or patient parent to help her with difficult tasks. It isn't because her parents don't care, it's because Emmy's homework understandably isn't at the top of their priority list.

If she isn't getting support at home, she needs us to make her do her homework if she is to have any chance of catching up with her peers. It may be only one solution to a wealth of issues, but it would be a good start.

Why does Luke always get sent out of class?

Thursday: period three. The bell goes and raucous herds of excitable 14- and 15-year-olds appear.

"OK, thank you, class," I say, as 29 faces look up and await the next instruction. "Today, we are going to... "

Before I can finish my sentence, the classroom door ricochets off the wall. It has just had all the force of an angry football boot slammed into it, signalling his arrival. He stands like a delinquent cowboy showing up at a saloon after months on the run from the sheriff, with sleeves rolled up and a face like thunder: the infamous Luke Lawbury.

"Morning, Luke. Take a seat please, quickly."

"Ah mate! That was ravin' man! I got locked in the toilet 'cos I was 'avin' a shit, innit!"

The class roars with laughter. I calm them down and order Luke to his seat immediately.

I make a beeline for his desk. He sits on his own, right at the front of the room, as he does in most classes.

"Luke, you will have a detention at lunchtime because... "

"Can't do lunch. Already got a detention with Miss Knight. Anyway, I gotta get lunch, innit. It's my human right."

"I will email Miss Knight and sort it. Now you need to get on with the work on the board. Thank you."

A few minutes pass. Then: "I don't get it! Ah, this lesson is rave, man. I can't do it - I can't be arsed with it. Screw this."

Luke gets up, saunters across to Paul, who has been smirking at him behind me during our delightful exchange. "Mate, you goin' Sean's tonight? Did you get my BBM?"

"Right. Luke, out you go please," I say. After a few minutes of stalling and rudeness, he stomps out, smashing the door again.

Luke is one of those children who always ends up being sent out. For the entire year that I taught him, I don't think I ever had a week when I didn't have to remove him at some point.

Luke is not a bad child. What's bad here is his behaviour, but no one has ever taught him how to behave. There are no sanctions in place at the school so misbehaviour is the rule, not the exception. That's the one rule Luke never fails to break.

Why does Jay distract others in lessons?

He leans against the wall and looks over my shoulder, then to his left, then to the floor - any direction but mine. His shirt is untucked, his sleeves rolled up. He exhales gruffly.

"Your behaviour was extremely inappropriate today, Jay. Could you tell me why I think it was unacceptable?"

A grin starts to form across his face as he turns towards me. "It weren't my fault, I needed to fart! Come on, Miss. When a man's gotta go... " Jay is one of those children who fancies himself as a bit of a class clown.

During detention that day, I decide to address his issues head on. "Right. This is what we are going to do. You are going to come here every lunchtime for the rest of the week. We will sit and go through all the work you have missed because of your behaviour."

The next few lunchtimes are a revelation. For a start, Jay actually turns up, which pleases and surprises me. We start by reading a chapter from Of Mice and Men. He stutters through the words and needs help decoding what's on the page before him. Words with more than one syllable or that aren't in his day-to-day vernacular are beyond him.

Everything becomes clear: Jay can barely read.

I steel myself to not let this become an excuse for his poor behaviour. To sit by and allow him to carry on acting in that way in lessons would be to condemn him to a life of knowing very little.

Jay needs to behave, not just to prevent others from being distracted but because he's so far behind the rest of his peers that every second of school counts.

Why does Kaylee struggle to complete classwork?

Kaylee was diagnosed with autism when she was very young. She can communicate well enough for a child of her age and is relatively able academically, but she lacks understanding of the nuances of social interactions, which means that other students call her "weird" or "mong" or other names that tend to go unsanctioned. None of it seems to bother her, though; she just seems to get on with it. I admire her for that.

Kaylee has been in my middle-set class since she joined the school at the age of 11. Now, a year later, I am becoming increasingly concerned about her progress in lessons. She is one of those children who never manages to finish things. All the teachers say the same thing: Kaylee is too slow, too literal, and maybe she would do better at a special school where she would be able to keep up.

Owing to some strange administrative quirk (or unsurprising episode of managerial incompetence), I do not have a teaching assistant in Kaylee's lessons. She's the kind of child whose condition is such that she really needs someone to talk her through every step of a task. Because she is so literal-minded, she needs tasks to be unambiguous, but as a relatively inexperienced teacher in a school teeming with disasters and deadlines, I am not always capable of delivering this.

In every lesson, I find myself in a quandary. Either I spend the entire lesson with her, making sure she completes every task while the rest of the class descends into anarchy, or I trust her to get on with it, only going over when I get a spare few seconds. It's awful and I feel guilty about it every day, but I do the best I can to help her catch up. She regularly stays in at lunch to finish her work. But even this is not enough time for her.

During my second year of teaching, I was still a little scared of ignoring senior leadership team (SLT) tick boxes when I was being observed. The fear used to make me do things that I knew were ridiculous. I would set group investigations and spend ages watching the class fail to work things out; a member of the SLT would come in and compliment me on how "engaged" the students were.

But the worst part of such lessons, and one of the main reasons I stopped the investigations, was because Kaylee seemed to get even less done than usual. Working in a group when you have no concept of social norms or nuance is difficult. Combine that with open, ill-defined tasks and Kaylee would become flustered and on edge. I did my best to help her, but the whole environment seemed to unnerve her.

Kaylee summed this up perfectly during one of the SLT's visits to my lesson. Superiors like to interrupt individual students to ask them what they are learning, and on one occasion Kaylee was chosen to impart her thoughts. The outcome was pedagogical gold.

"Kaylee, can you tell me what you are learning today?"

Kaylee folded her arms. "We aren't learning anything," she said. "Nobody knows what the right answer is. They're just guessing."

"But isn't it fun to be able to work together? Isn't that the point of learning?" replied Mr SLT, beaming with good intentions.

"No. The point of learning is to learn the right answer. We don't know the right answer so we aren't learning anything."

Kaylee doesn't complete classwork because she needs explanations to be watertight, leaving not even the tiniest space for ambiguity. In fact, this applies to a lot of children, of many different ability levels.

And perhaps even more importantly, Kaylee needs a calm environment and time with the teacher so she can be sure that she understands new concepts. She does not need to be sat in the middle of a zoo-like classroom feeling stuck. Nor does any child, for that matter.

Why does Darren think he will never leave his estate?

Darren commands attention. Tall and sturdy, his uniform is elegantly dishevelled and his hair perfectly coiffed: not a single strand is out of place. He has an enormous diamante earring that glistens in the afternoon light.

The girls swoon over the various nuances of his facial features, passing notes that discuss whether he really is better looking than Harry Styles. The boys imitate him, copying his swagger as closely as they can.

Not only is he confident and popular, he is also pretty smart. He could probably get an A in English if he put his mind to it. His attendance is poor, though, meaning that he has slipped behind with his work. He often arrives late and forgets things, frequently coming in with notes from the year office excusing him for missing homework or equipment. He regularly looks exhausted but he hides it behind a flawless smile.

I explain today's task: to write about what you would like to do after leaving school.

Darren raises his hand: "Miss, can I write it as a letter?"

"Sure, go ahead, Darren. Sounds good," I reply, encouraged by his enthusiasm.

The other students notice that Darren is taking the task seriously. Several of them follow suit.

After 20 minutes, the bell rings. I take in all the work and sit down to mark it. Eventually, I come to Darren's letter...

Dear Miss,

Thanks for letting me write this as a letter. You said today and you have said before that I can do anything I want to do, and that I will go far if I try and all that. But I think you are wrong. No offence or anything, but you are.

You are wrong because you don't know who I am or where I come from. I live in Marston with my mum and my little sister, Gabby. My dad died in a motorbike accident when I was 10 and Gabby was only 1. My mum is very ill and I help to look after her. I keep hoping she will get better but I don't reckon she will any time soon. She isn't ill in like a real medical way - she hasn't broken a leg or got cancer or nothing! She's just... I dunno... a bit sad, I guess. She stays in bed all day and won't get up, even to help Gabby get ready for school. But Gabby is only 7 and can't look after herself yet. I wake her up in the morning, make her some breakfast, make sure she's had a wash and get her ready for school. I drop her off and I pick her up from school, and I make her tea. We watch TV together and do our homework on the carpet in the lounge. This whole time, mum is in bed. I don't know what she's hiding from. I hope it isn't me and Gabby.

So, it doesn't matter if you think I'm bright or hard-working or whatever. In two years I can't just quit and go off to university and live the high life, can I? I have Gabby and mum to think about.

Not many of the teachers know all of this about me except for the year office. But I just want to be left alone to get on with it, and I don't want people to feel sorry for me.

And even if my mum wasn't ill and even if I didn't have a little sister, it wouldn't make a difference. People from Marston don't go to uni - you know that.

So it's nice of you to try and encourage me, but it's never gonna happen.

Yours sincerely,

Darren Blake

Darren, like Luke, has the power to control the classrooms he enters. He needs a no-excuses culture that will not accept failure. Darren, like Emmy, has a tough home life. He needs to be forced to catch up on work missed and must never be allowed to fall behind. Darren, like Jay, hides a secret. He needs support to help him with the struggles he has to live with. Darren, like Kaylee, craves routine and structure in his life. He needs clarity and efficiency in lessons so that the time he spends in school is not wasted.

Darren, like all the children we teach, needs a bit more from his education. He needs us to serve his actual needs - only then can we work to change his own perception of his future.

Tessa Matthews is a pseudonym.

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