My worst lesson? Oh, that's an easy one.
Twenty-seven teenage boys in a GCSE maths resit class on an airless summer’s day in a room where the windows didn’t open, the whiteboard was so filthy it barely registered my thick black pen strokes and an adult learning inspector was seated in the far corner, clipboard in hand, scowl on face.
The group, bless 'em, were generally no trouble; they were the tough lads from vehicle maintenance, brickwork, carpentry and engineering. A bit rowdy and not that keen on maths, but we’d stumbled along well together for the three weeks I’d been teaching them. I’d taken the group over when the previous teacher quit his job mid-lesson, never to return.
I should tell you that they were my first ever teaching class and that three weeks was the sum total of my teaching experience. But, brimming with the hubris of youth, I wasn’t daunted by the boys or particularly bothered by being observed.
I was partway through a slightly drab section on equations, which I’d tried to simplify using the purchase of fish and chips as an example. It went as follows:
"You buy seven portions of chips and four pieces of battered cod. The total cost is £14.50. Each piece of fish was £1.10. How much were the chips?"
During this, one of the lads had an attack of…well, let’s call it wind. Within seconds, the others were teasing him, joking around and complimenting him on the impressive quantity of wind he had produced. He blamed it on the fish and chips he’d eaten the previous night. I was quietly impressed that he had at least remained vaguely on topic.
The group took his explanation as a cue for them all to develop "wind" from fish and chips. I was less impressed. The classroom was suddenly filled with the most off-putting sounds and noxious aromas. And then…total, utter anarchy.
The inspector looked at me in much the same way I look at my cat when it throws up a partly digested mouse on the living room carpet. He put down his clipboard, rearranged his spectacles and left the room.
I wasn’t sure if it was the lack of maths, the zoo-like atmosphere or the smell that drove him out, but out he went. In the midst of the chaos, I didn’t have time to consider what he had taken most offence at – my priority was to get the group back under control. Within a few minutes, calm was restored. The students were all concentrating on angles in triangles, with no gas emissions as accompaniment. Typically, the inspector didn’t stay to see that.
When the class eventually finished, the inspector returned to give his feedback.
It was grim. I was graded 6 out of 7 (it was the old inspection system – ask your gran) and I think the only reason I didn’t get the dire 7 was that I didn’t emit wind too. I figured that, with only three weeks’ experience, things could be worse, if only slightly. But a lesson had been learned – by me, if not the students.
It's payback time
The next week, the lads all trooped in for the lesson. I announced that we were learning volumes and were going to look at pictures to explain the concepts we were studying. Pre-computers, this was a huge novelty. I had borrowed an overhead projector (again, ask your gran) and a set of full-colour transparencies from the biology department, on internal organs.
As the class of tough young men grew quieter and greener, I showed them images of the inside of the human body, focusing on the bowels. Using my new-found knowledge of its capacity, we worked out how much gas could be stored in a human body and how many portions of fish and chips could be stored in the stomach. They were rather quiet that lesson, and in following lessons there were no further wind incidents. They applied themselves well to the tasks in hand and I’m pleased to say that all but one gained Bs and Cs in their exam that year.
So what did I learn? One lesson, no matter how horrendous, does not define you as a teacher. That snapshot is an idle capture, like a held breath; exhale and it’s gone. What matters is how you pick yourself up, address the problem and help the learners achieve the qualification they need to progress, no matter how they might test your patience.