Meet Alice*. She has big blue eyes and streaky blond hair that she flicks from left to right as she gathers the support and congratulations of her peers.
She’s making a mooing sound at the moment. This is not some kind of speech impediment; it is her way of calling me a cow. Apparently, this is a far cleverer and more highly-evolved method than using the actual word – hence the huge grin on her face.
Alice also has other skills besides bovine impersonations. She is erudite and articulate in her analysis of her progress in maths.
“Alice how are you getting on with that maths?” I say.
“Don’t talk to me,” she replies.
“Have you started yet?”
“Don’t talk to me.”
“Shall I help you with the first one?”
“Don’t talk to me – why are you talking to me?”
I’m talking to her because I am a maths TA, assigned to “support” Alice, who is underachieving by two grades in maths. Although in the eight months that I have been working with her I have never seen her pick up a pencil or open a book, so it remains unclear who calculated the two grades and how.
The 'vanishing TA' trick
The maths teacher drifts towards us, watches for a few moments and drifts away again. There is nothing that she has not already said.
Should Alice’s powers of oration fail to fend me off, she has other weapons in her armoury. There is the “vanishing TA trick” whereby she is apparently gifted with the ability to prevent herself from seeing or hearing someone who is right in front of her. Then there is the repeating scream of uncontrollable hilarity, combined with total loss of the ability to sit upright – on this occasion inspired by her having managed to extract an entire glue stick from its plastic sleeve and mash it into a neighbour’s hair.
The teacher, who – like all our teachers — had paid for the class stationery out of her own money, emails the inclusion team to come and take Alice out of the lesson. Cue Alice’s shocked indignation. “What did I do?” she wails, “I didn’t do nothing.”
Getting her out of the lesson and into the exclusion room takes until lunchtime, with arguments every step of the way. So yet again, neither Alice, her colluders, the teacher, the rest of the class, nor I achieve any actual maths work.
She will be reported to her head of year, who will tell us to praise the positives and issue her with a fidget spinner. Her mother will be called, who will bewail the numbers of supply teachers Alice has had and how unsettling it all is.
Oddly, the mothers of Alices never seem to make the connection between their child’s behaviour and staff leaving. Alice has made mincemeat of several fresh, green, energetic, kind-hearted, optimistic NQTs already this year.
One Alice in the school would be a source of frustration and would have the staff room sighing in sympathy. But in my school, around a quarter of the children are either an Alice or one of her supporters. Their parents collude, their heads of year smile and pat them on the head and members of the senior leadership team stomp around issuing contradictory instructions and blaming the teachers.
So how exactly am I meant to support the maths department? Oh: the head has asked me to report any teacher “failing” to control Alice’s behaviour, directly to her, in detail before the next perfomance management reviews. Will this help, do you think?
*Not her real name. The writer is a maths teaching assistant in a secondary school.