This week in Educating Yorkshire, Channel 4's fly-in-the-classroom edusoap, was all about the love. We dropped in on year 9, traditionally the cauldron where young adults are brewed from the soup of their childhood, simmered in the juices of puberty and as teachers, we just hope the pot doesn't boil over before it's done. It's also a pivotal year, as Mr Mitchell explained to a rapt assembly. Actually we say this every year. And in truth they all are, so at worst it's a Noble Lie. 'Who's happy to be back?' he asked, as tumbleweed rolled
Love was in the air and knocking seriously on classroom doors, in the form of Thornhill's savant Cupid, Ryan. He plodded from class to class, delivering roses and dreams to uncomfortable boys, and girls with permanently surprised looks on their faces due to their forehead calligraphy (what IS it with the girls of Thornhill and their eyebrows? They shave them off and paint them back, aiming for the surprised, elegant arch of Coco Chanel; but they miss it by a yard and land in Coco the Clown's back net). One boy, Antonio, looked like he'd only ever seen a rose on the Internet, and it would bite him. And on went Ryan, spreading joy into everyone's life but apparently, his own. 'Just another smile,' he sadly said to himself as he brought the gift of laughter and love to yet another lonely heart, like Droopy crossed with Cane.
But it's true, year 9 is the time when the fuse that's been burning for a decade finally reaches the dynamite, and 100 children go Hulk simultaneously. Heads of Year 9, I salute you. The narrator's Eye of Mordor turned this week to Mr Moses, the incumbent in that post at Thornhill Community School. There's nominative determinism for you that even Bunyan would have hesitated over. The Moses of Exodus was a shy man, so unsure that he required his brother Aaron to speak for him (they don't mention this in the cartoon adaptations). Charged with ushering his people to freedom, he knows that he won't reach the Promised Land himself.
The same might apply to Mr Moses, the eternal sentinel between childhood and adolescence, between carefree and careful. Mr Moses and his kin are like Ganesh, the God of Beginnings, and Janus, the God of the Doorway, one eye looking back, one eye looking forward. He's also God of d##kheads, by the reckoning of Grant, a 14 year-old boy who's done more time than Doctor Who.
Of course, Mr Moses night not recognise this comparison, as he wades from thankless punch-up to melodramatic make-up. But he does so with humour and stoicism, two qualities any pastoral leader must have in gallon tanks if they aren't to shatter under the stress.
Grant is similar to many students wobbling on the edge of delinquency; he's aware enough of the effects of peer pressure and parental absence, but young enough to do nothing about them. There is an ocean of difference between seeing a problem and fixing it, just ask any smoker. There's knowledge and there's character- or habit, take your pick.
Mr Moses toils like Hercules to stop Grant from falling apart, bends rules, turns more blind eyes than all the mice in nurseryland, all in the name of keeping him at school, in classes and learning. The problem is that many students are smart enough to know how far they can push the system before it breaks, and do so, repeatedly. I admired Mr Moses' heart, and patience, and godlike devotion to his cohort at the same time as I was hopping up and down shouting 'get tough!' at the TV. The problem with second, then third, then fourth chances is that it becomes a snooze alarm, and kids know they can get away with what they want as long as they make sorry noises and offer an excuse.
How different the relationship between Moses and Grant became as soon as the former's tolerance ran out; within minutes of being denied yet another accommodation, Grant had bailed from detention, ignored his former mentor, then called him a d##khead. In interview he said that he was upset because he thought Mr Moses was 'More chilled out than the others' which is to say gave him what he wanted. The minute he didn't, he was a d##khead to Grant.
And there lies the truth at the heart of the pastoral role: it's much easier to get kids to think you're safe- fist bump- if you don't ask them to do anything they don't want to do, but much harder to be their hero and confidante if you try to actually amend them in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
The problem with the Hard Man approach is that it's too brittle to allow nuance or encourage empathy. Mr Moses got a seat on my first XI by the way he helped a girl through bereavement, in a master class of delicacy. The problem of the Nice Guy approach is that while you're busy handing out doughnuts and hankies, the kids are picking your pocket. Getting the balance right, and knowing when to be one and when the other, is a trick that takes years to pull off.
But it's easy to be Solomon from the armchair, and as I repeat every week, this is telly, not a God's eye view. I'd have Mr Moses in my Fantasy Staff Room team any day of the week, and twice on INSETs. He's this week's Hero of Education for me, because he does a job that most people, even most teachers wouldn't want. Like an emergency service, he walks towards the fire, the fight, the pile-up, when everyone else walks away. Some schools have the head of year move up with the group, so they usher them through all the stages of school, which is a satisfying journey to midwife. But to be perma-head of year 9? Christ, you're a better man than I am, Gunga Moses.
A lot was made of his personal life in this episode. I know the editors were undoubtedly touching themselves at the prospect of crafting a heart-breaking tale of The Man Alone Who Gave His Love To The School, but no one's life is so simple. I also know a fair few students would make hay with any tittle of personal information about a teacher, especially a pastoral head. It all depends on how he wears it. Some teachers share like Oprah with their charges; others balk at 'Good Morning'. Some moments with Mr Moses were purest Partridge, like the conversation about Seal ('He's certainly one bloke I can listen to.') or the shots of him driving into school, singing along to Disco (how many people have a camera in their cars?).
One thing I'll say about Grant; he's not shy. Ducking out of the isolation room, he finds the Deputy Head to make a perfectly reasonable request: 'Is there any way you could let me out so I could have a fag?' he said, straight-faced. The deputy should have pulled out a pipe, lit it, and said, 'No. f*** off,' and life would have been perfect.
By the end of the episode we see that Grant appears to have settled down; for many kids, year 9 is as close to Punk as they get, thankfully. Actually we might have seen his rehabilitation foreshadowed in the conversation he had with another pupil as they both sat in pastoral rehab, and Grant warned his compadre off being excluded on the grounds that you needed qualifications to get ahead. His sidekick was unconvinced. 'My dad skived for four years and got a job in t'steel works and and that's two grand a week. That's f##king sick pay.' And I'm reminded that the delusions of children could power a furnace. I wish him the sincerest luck walking into a £200 grand job with a GCSE in pissing about in corridors. Highly sought qualification, that.
As one of the kids said, 'Sometimes you misbehave because you don't like the lesson and you want to get chucked out.....or to get a rise out of teachers.' Here is wisdom: most misbehaviour is just down to boredom, or looking for a bit of sport, or spite, or opportunism. I've read many grand theories about how a child's behaviour is a desperate cry for help- and sometimes it is- but more often it's a desperate cry for a stern word, a call home and a bit of time in detention. The more we explain away poor behaviour as a symptom of psychological pathology, the less we treat pupils as emergent adults. They aren't just the outcomes of social forces; they're people, and if we want to help them into autonomy, and dignity, and maturity, at some point we need to see them as vehicles, not just of effects, but causes. And that means taking responsibility for their own choices
When a pupil like Grant calls his kind teacher a dick, that's a choice. It may seem reasonable at the time to the pupil, but our job is to be a bulwark against that kind of lazy self justification, and draw a line, and say, 'Wrong move.' We can do it with love-in fact we have to-but do it we must. As Mrs Crowther said to Grant later on, in a wonderful piece of speaking truth to glower, 'We're not dicks.' I'm warming so quickly to Mrs Marsden and Crowther, Thornhill's Cagney and Lacey, I fear I'll combust. Straight talking and Northern Soul are the specials in their kitchen.
I'm having that printed on a T-Shirt. Not 'How's my teaching?' but 'We're not dicks.'