He is a kid who I’ve barely noticed before.
I’ve been teaching the class for just a few weeks and, as is always the case, certain heads are starting to raise themselves above the parapet: the defaulters, the jokers, the forgetful and the attention-seeking.
But this lad has been quietly going about his own business. He always gets the work done; he rarely forgets to bring equipment in. He does enough to get by; he never quite impresses.
A quiet revelation
On this particularly Monday morning, my glass is decidedly half-empty: I’ve failed to clear the previous evening’s marking, I’ve forgotten I’d run out of milk the day before and it’s been pissing it down for three days continuously. For a reason I can’t be bothered to fathom, this lad has turned up ahead of the others.
Impatiently, I usher him in out of the rain and, without speaking, he shuffles through the door. I curse him for dumping his dripping bag onto his desk, and he wipes the surface water with his coat sleeve, creating a small but significant waterfall over the sides.
What follows might be unremarkable, but it stays with me: I am getting the chairs down from the desks when, still silent, he starts to help. I watch him for a moment before continuing. When we’ve finished, I return to my desk and sort through random worksheets. He speaks:
“Sir: can I give anything out for you?”
I look at him. He’s one of the quiet yet soulful types: big, warm, brown eyes, eager to please. My surprise is an embarrassment of blurts: I thank him as I hand over the sheets; I thank him again as he carefully place each sheet on each desk; finally, I thank him for the umpteenth time as he and his comrades leave the room on the next bell.
But it has lifted my whole week like nothing else might have done. And to this moment, I can’t work out why such a tiny gesture moves me as much as it does.
Perhaps he has caught me at a low ebb; perhaps it is the fact that such acts of kindness seem few and far between if you’re not looking for them; perhaps it is simply the quiet courage of this boy’s approach.
And so I see this individual, and those like him, in a strange new light.
An abrupt end to a lesson
Later that day, I flick through my planner to the class lists at the rear. This time, my eyes skip over the glowing, the notorious, the infamous. Instead, they rest on the small pockets of quiet that cement the personalities together. The quiet ones.
To my shame, I realise that there are names in there that I barely recognise: pupils who I have taught for the best part of a month, yet never spoken to. Time to get out the highlighter pen...
Teaching boys, after all, can be brutal. I remember struggling into work, quite a few years ago, with the onset of what turned out to be a chest infection. Faced with a Year 7 class that made a cave full of agitated bats sound like ambient noise, I was at the end of my tether.
Two minutes from the end of the lesson, the room started spinning: I was either going to puke in spectacular fashion across my desk (and probably an unsuspecting front row), or I was going to pass out. Staggering towards the door, I told them to get on with some reading until the bell went.
The next thing I knew, I was on the floor, coming to and straddled between two columns of school lockers. Back inside the classroom, my Year 7s were oblivious as I, a mere few feet away, found myself looking up into the familiar blank expression of a Year 10 student who had come to fetch his books.
All I knew was that, in order to get to his current location, he must have stepped over my prostrate and inert frame to get to his particular locker. Astonishing. At the time, I saw it as some kind of metaphor for the esteem that teachers across the land were held in.
It's the little things that make the difference
So in the face of such contrast, I’ve come to realise the little things in a school – or any workplace come to that – are the ones that make the difference. Hold open the door of your room and greet individuals as they walk through, and you’ve made a connection with each and every one before the lesson even begins.
Make a note of those you have spoken with and those you haven’t over the space of a term, and you soon notice who monopolises your attention and who is deprived of it – not just in your lesson, but in everyone else’s. Every day, each week, over the course of a year.
Despite my efforts, I also find myself put to shame by the kindness of colleagues. There are those who always try to pull staff together for social dos, often meeting waves of excuses and tired indifference. There are those who, through supreme acting skills or genuine empathy, seem to have a genuine interested in the holiday snaps you show from your phone.
I have a colleague who, however busy, will never visit the photocopier without asking there is anyone else who needs another copying job done. Often, the poor woman returns, staggering through the door with reams of ‘Macbeth’ worksheets tucked under each arm whilst pushing a supermarket trolley full of additional requests with her spare foot.
Until she’d joined us, it hadn’t occurred to me that, in my own self-absorbed little admin bubble, other people might want their photocopying done as well. But it’s embarrassed us all and caught on – we all ask each other now.
And then there’s another anonymous colleague who pops little chocolate Easter eggs or edible tree decorations into everyone’s pigeonhole at the end of a term. These are tiny little things that remind you that a school is so much more than a pile of bricks and a few projectors.
Often, as a teacher, you lose yourself in a forest of anxieties and meaningless short term goals; stabbing at your to-do list with the sole aim of reaching Friday. Barging through the dense bracken of the working week, it’s so easy to lose sight of the shuffling soft creatures that go about their own business but whose presence makes life worth the living.
Thank heavens for the tiny acts of kindness.