During the many, many years I spent as a full-time teacher, before I cut the rope and sailed away into the uncharted waters and stormy seas of supply work, there was one issue that troubled me on a daily basis.
Actually, there were many issues that troubled me on a daily basis, but we’ll stick with the one for now. It’s an issue that’s at the heart of what it means to be a teacher, and one which I’m sure everyone who’s worked with young people will have grappled with many times.
Before I go any further, let me say that it was an issue I never resolved in my permanent job and I’m no closer to resolving it now, as a supply teacher. It’s also a problem that teachers are often reluctant to talk about openly (although, to be fair, I’ve heard a few feisty conversations in the staffroom on the issue). It’s the elephant in the classroom.
Here it is: every single day of my teaching career I’ve come across children I did not like.
An uncomfortable issue
There, I’ve said it. To be honest, I’d often come across several I disliked in a single day, if not the one lesson. It’s not a comfortable issue to discuss, but there it is. You’re just not going to like them all.
Although maybe “dislike” isn’t quite the right word. Let’s just say I’ve regularly had to teach children who irritated me. Irritated the living piss out of me.
There’s the one who can’t stop shouting out stupid, irrelevant comments while I’m trying to talk to the class. There’s the one who always asks what they have to do, literally seconds after I’ve patiently explained three times to the entire class exactly what to do. The one who isn’t happy unless they’re poking or flicking another child in the room. The one who doesn’t remove their coat when arriving in class and then, after being politely reminded of the rules with regard to coats, spends the next 10 minutes removing it, while standing up, wriggling about, and whining and grunting like an wounded dog. The one who flicks off the light switch as they’re leaving the room, EVEN THOUGH I’M STILL CLEARLY SITTING AT MY BLOODY DESK. I could go on.
These days, as a supply teacher, it’s the child who, on seeing me approach the classroom, asks hopefully, “Sir, are you our supply today?” with a low-key menace that I just know means he’s already planning a hundred different ways to take advantage of the situation.
The problem I have is that the good-natured, liberal, socially aware teacher part of me knows perfectly well that these behaviours are not really the fault of the children displaying them. They are likely born from difficult home circumstances, chaotic or absent parenting, and quite possibly underlying mental-health issues that require support and compassion and understanding. These children are probably confused and struggling, and their acting out is really just a cry for help and for the attention they crave.
The problem is that, even though I know all this to be true, the other part of me really doesn’t want to have to put up with their shit.
As a professional, I try hard not to let my irritation show. I certainly try not to let it affect how I teach. The “climate” of the classroom, how a student feels when they’re in school and whether it feels like a safe, supportive and enjoyable space to occupy, is hugely important when it comes to their chances to do well and make progress. A child who finds the classroom an uncomfortable place to be, perhaps because they suspect the teacher doesn’t like them, is going to struggle.
It can take immense patience and some good acting skills to work with a student who, for whatever reason, is an annoying pain in the arse to be around. Some teachers do this amazingly well. Some – and we’ve all been there on occasion – let the mask down and show their true feelings.
I try, honestly I do, but sometimes it’s hard not to let out the tiniest hint that a kid’s getting on your nerves. I know we have to be the grown-ups in the room, not giving way to petty frustrations and point-scoring but, boy, do some students make this hard to do.
At least now, as a supply teacher, I rarely have to put up with them for more than a day.
The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job