My best worst lesson

Tom Bennett

Best I was new to teaching, still dashing waves against the rocks of my pupils' unconcern but at least now they are in their seats. Heads are vaguely facing the board, although pens have yet to engage with paper. It's a slow-burning miracle to have come so far. The nicer pupils are having a go at the work I've set and from the Mir Space Station you could be fooled into thinking a lesson was taking place. Best of all, there is no obvious indication of overt drug taking, which I gather is one of Ofsted's criteria for satisfactory Behaviour for Learning.

At the end of the lesson I spoke to Carly, a Year 10 girl who had been working hard for me. A pretty girl, she had a split lip that spoke volumes about her life after school, and a scarred cheek she had grown up with. She collected the books for me without being asked.

"Thanks for trying with those idiots," she said. "Sorry it's so hard here." Then she asked for notes from the lesson so she wouldn't fall behind. I asked her how she managed to stay so positive in such a difficult environment. "Because I need to get away from this," she said carefully.

And that was it. The day I realised why we turn up for work in the morning and why we put up with it all. Because we are a small but vital link in the chain of their lives. Because Carly wants out.

Worst It was my first lesson - isn't everyone's worst lesson their first lesson? Mine plays so often in my mind's theatre I can hardly remember if it happened or not. Teaching Kosher food laws to a new class in a failing school where religious studies is compulsory brings new meaning to the concept of optimism. In my naive Grange Hill fantasies I imagined the worst scenario would be paper airplanes and high spirits; the reality was 3-D, surround sound horrorvision.

My supervising teacher was called out the room for a minute that blossomed into the whole lesson. Meanwhile, I'm talking up the joys of the Semitic diet to pupils who spent their spare time carving wax firearms to get past the metal detectors. It was an unhappy marriage of enthusiasm (mine) and revolted indifference.

Shortly after I was left alone I noticed that the only ones still looking at me were the ones who were trying to spot where I kept my wallet. I asked a few questions to pretend to myself that a lesson was taking place, but I was just the last person to realise that the state of nature had reasserted itself like a jungle before me. Two boys showed their engagement with my lesson by taking turns to jump on and off their desks.

One nice pupil (who clearly had ambitions to be a police informant) pointed out a funny smell coming from the back of the class; sure enough, the hearty smell of a Camberwell Carrot was perfuming the back rows. Girls got up and sat in boys' laps. I asked a pupil to go for a senior teacher, but he smelled a rat and doused my powder. No flares, no rescue. One girl put her hand up in a perfect imitation of a student. "Sir, why are you so rubbish?" she asked kindly.

Tom Bennett is head of religious studies at Raine's Foundation School in east London.

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