It is said that most men live lives of quiet desperation. The same could be said of most schools too; by far the majority of your day, like an atom, is space. Not free time, but routine; a metronome of the anodyne and the commonplace, punctuated by the tattoo of the lesson bell. This Educating Yorkshire is school with the boring bits left out, which is to say a strobed series of snapshots conveying the impression of drama. There's nothing to blame in this: no one wants to watch me analyse data and fill in predicted grades with an HB pencil (probably: if anyone does, get in touch with a credit card number).
It's important to appreciate this when watching a year of footage distilled into highlights: the gangs fight; the lovers are parted; a case of mistaken identity, and a wedding. Almost. This is school boiled down into a dynamic stew. It gives the impression that working in a school is like Dallas; in reality it's often like Waiting for Godot.
This week we focused on two boys walking a behaviour tightrope. Every teacher from a mainstream school will recognise the archetypes: Robbie-Joe, described by the VoiceOver as 'lively', which sounds like vintage teacher code. Mr Mitchell, our rugged Head Teacher admits something that is rarely mentioned in schools: '[difficult kids] take up 80% of our time.' And it's true. Like a ghastly mirror of the worlds wealth mapped against its ownership, it's a tiny minority of school that occupy the majority of our energy. But of course it is: it takes hundreds of civil kids to create the village of a school; it takes only a handful of kids to turn that into a battlefield. One thief makes all bar their windows, as Hobbes might say.
Robbie-Joe's no smooth criminal; his sins are low level, and at worst seem confined to yakking his head off at every opportunity. There are worse men in Alcatraz. But low level disruption is the Kryptonite of a lesson. It's death by a thousand cuts, and unless it's dealt with, it can ruin your career more soundly than a dozen chair chuckers. We met the angelic Ms Uren, his form tutor, someone so indefatigable that George Galloway would trip over his leotard to salute her. She appeared to be in loco parentis for Robbie-Joe, massaging his misdemeanours with tough love. It's easy to write off his misbehaviour as minor, but the trajectory of a life can be ruined by a matter of a few degrees of error. Cumulatively, a life spent in corridors and detentions will dissolve whatever chances he has of reaching any potential he achieves. And doesn't Ms Uren know it. I often think teachers like her better than mere mortals, like the Catholic incorruptibles. I imagine small birds land on her fingers as she sings to the class.
Just as a side note: I recommend watching this series with the subtitles on, as I do, to catch dialogue. Whenever Robbie-Joe started hooting like a goose, the caption read 'HONKS'. Later on we were treated to 'Giggedy goo, giggedy goo.'
Then we saw another likely lad: Tom, described as a pain on the arse by Mitchell-and who were we to disagree?- as we watched him clown his way around the school. Being big, loud, and- it has to be said- obnoxious. 'I'm happy, bouncy...it just makes me hyper,' he confessed to camera, neither bouncy nor hyper. It's easy to attribute mucking around as some kind of deterministic condition, unavoidable, inescapable, like a twitch. 'These kids just can't behave,' some say. And for some, that may be true. But there is, in my experience, an enormous category of kids who 'can't behave' but mysteriously 'can behave' when they're in a lesson they like, or they want something. Isn't that odd? You'd almost think many of them just couldn't be arsed behaving, and it was more a comment on their character than their helplessness. Fancy that. I'm not saying which category I suspected Tom fell into, but he seemed pretty good in English, the subject he liked.
Actually, from what we saw, he wasn't. Mrs Sinclair, his English teacher, was treated to Tom loudly opining' 'I'm going to be bum raped by an elephant,' which made me check twice to confirm I had heard right, and also, 'I'm the devil and I love metal.' Lovely. Mrs Sinclair wearily commented to her class, 'I've neglected a lot of you because I've had to sort Tom out.' Which is the heart of the problem. Boys like Tom are meat and bread to teachers like me; they're our job; they're our mission, God forgive us if we ever do anything less than out best to hold on to them, guide them through trouble, and out the other side.
But the other kids have no less right to me; they deserve attention just as much, and yet bad behaviour in school forces us to treat them like children of a lesser God. It's no wonder that many kids think, 'Hang on, if I want attention, I should act up, like the naughty kids.' It's why we learn the names of the wriggles and the shouters long before we know who the quiet, hard working kids are. It's a tragedy, and it is it's own injustice. That's why schools need or make behaviour such a priority, as an issue of social justice, not just utility.
But still, you'd have to be made of stone to not be touched by kids like Tom; perfectly intelligent, perfectly capable, blowing their precious education on egoism and attention seeking, when they could be squeezing every drop out of it and building their own futures with their bare hands. But he's a kid, even though he had the height and build of a man, and he was making a child's mistakes. And our job is to catch them and help them try again, because few people will do the same once they leave the gates. This is why people like Mitchell, and his spiritual predecessor Goddard, are in precisely the right jobs: they know that they might be all that stands between the child and a dark future. As long as schools can act as bulwarks against that possibility, however futile the mission, without sacrificing the needs of the many to do so, then we have done our best, and we can go home and sleep easy.
- Ryan, prancing Gangnam Style across the hall. He's not quite this year's Film Club, but he's got potential.
- Teacher 1: 'Are you winking at me?' Teacher 2: '....ah...in a colleague type way, not in an 'alright darling?' way.' He should have gone full throttle and said, 'Yes. And what now?' while arching an eyebrow. Maybe in the director's cut.
- The boy in detention who told his bemused teacher 'If you rub your skin 99 times it comes off.' Wee boys are obsessed with this kind of thing.
- Robbie- Joe: 'My dad tried that,' when his teacher joked that she should Sellotape his mouth shut. 'Did it end well?' She said. 'No,' he replied. 'It were bad.'
- Mitchell discussing with his deputy, Tom's latest crime. 'Eating a Dairy Milk and telling his teacher to f*** off.' Ah, that old chestnut. The old chocolate/ f*** off combo.