A day in the life of ... Ellie Ward

25th October 2013 at 01:00
An English teacher at an Australian high school often feels as though she's in a surreal soap opera, full of bizarre Bieber-isms, urban legends and the draconian policing of correct punctuation

I teach in a high school in a small coastal town in Western Australia. I arrived here from England six years ago and even after all that time I can't shake the feeling that I'm on the set of Home and Away, especially when the girls walk past in their summer dresses. The result of too many of my own teenage years sat in front of Aussie soaps, no doubt.

I'm the English English teacher - knowledgeable and passionate, fair but firm. Having given myself this role, I greet students and colleagues brightly but speedily. We all know how little time there is in the school day as we skip from one urgent scene to the next. We even have a siren in our school rather than a bell. Maybe the idea is that we head to class as if an air raid were about to happen. That's certainly how the students would leave the classroom if they could.

As I arrive at work, I see the head of the physical education department duck around the corner when he spots me but I manage to catch him (it's a bit unfair: I'm in heels and he's in trainers). I'm trying to implement some whole-school strategies as part of my literacy brief and I want him to start using glossaries. I've had surprising success with design and technology, but phys-edders are much harder nuts to crack.

First, I have the 14- and 15-year-old Year 9s, with whom I have been getting a bit heavy in grammar classes lately. The boys at the front really get it. When I ask one of the girls how she knows it's a complex sentence, they can barely contain themselves. "Because it's got a subordinate clause, duh!" they turn around and yell at her.

With my Year 8s, a year younger, we are looking at urban myths. I'm telling them some scary ones in a hushed, dramatic voice. They're riveted, and I'm transported back to my childhood, sharing horror stories on a camping trip. We're comparing the oral tradition with the spread of stories on social media. They're writing their myths as tweets. I'm way too long-winded for that medium, I tell them. They mention Slenderman. I know about him, I say. "Credit, Miss," one boy nods approvingly.

My Year 10 students have been having some punctuation issues, and I tell them they are using brackets incorrectly: it's not the prime minister (Tony Abbott), it's the prime minister, Tony Abbott. But they are not convinced I'm right. "You need to go down the road to our old primary school, Miss, because that's what we were taught." Several of them are adamant that I should take this up with their former teachers.

I relate this story at recess in the humanities office. "That's how I use brackets," a society and environment teacher tells me. I wonder if primary teachers across the state are teaching brackets in this way but I don't pursue it. I've had bees in my bonnet about punctuation before and it only makes people avoid me in the staffroom.

Another Year 9 class and we're studying migration stories. A colleague and I are teaching this course together; it's his idea for them to squeeze into a space equivalent to one that asylum seekers travelling by boat would occupy. Many of them can't cross their legs and are awkwardly hunched up in the cramped space. We pass round a bucket and tell them what it's for; they are not impressed and reckon they could last half an hour at most. We make them sit there while we read and discuss a refugee's description of his own boat journey.

At the end of the day, I don my high visibility vest and do bus duty. A girl with a crazed look in her eye is wielding a stick threateningly at a group of Year 9 and 10 boys; they laugh and call out mockingly. She ignores my presence completely and hurls the stick at them, then walks away in tears. They've been at her all day so I let her go; the boys know they went too far.

I stand and chat with a mixed group of students and one girl tells me my boots are saggy. I go to pull them up. "No, miss!" she says, "I said they were swaggy!" I have absolutely no idea what that means, I tell her; is it good or bad? She looks at me with a pained and pitying look. My credit for knowing about Slenderman is erased. I look it up later: Justin Bieber uses it, apparently, so I might have known.

As I leave, I no longer have the sense of being on a film set, unless it is as part of one long improvisation. We play our roles but there is no script. I plan my lessons but I can't predict the students' responses. The school day ends but the work certainly doesn't. Like any good soap, however, a life in teaching has a good dose of drama and no end of surprises.

Your day

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