A new form opens Gemma Warren's eyes

17th November 2000 at 00:00
Alert, bright, inquisitive, enthusiastic. I'm not describing myself, in case you were wondering. I'm describing my new Year 7 form. Having finished my term of duty with WAR 11 last May, I've been rewarded with a shiny new bunch of Year 7s. And what a revelation it is.

You don't spend much time being a form tutor. I see my form twice a day to take the register, and I frogmarch them into our weekly assembly. I take them for a lesson of PSE, and I spend a form period with them once in a while.

Anyone would think that your pastoral life isn't that important when you take into account the tiny proportion it takes of your teaching week. But for me it's make or break. It's the human part of teaching. My form are my first contact in the morning, and usually my last contact, when we're putting up the chairs at the end of the day. They wave at me when I pass them in the corridor, and I speak to their parents on the phone, sometimes more than I speak to my mum.

Pastoral duties are mercifully free of the GCSE syllabus, or the A-level specifications, or the initiatives at key stage 3. You get to talk to your form about your holidays, your weekend, your favourite DVD. With my form, I feel like a person, rather than a walking, talking textbook. You still have to chase them up for homework - but it's usually someone else's.

My first form, the then WAR 10, was a baptism of fire. Actually, now I remember it, it was more like a fully fledged scorching. People say we tend to remember the good things. I can only recall the less bad.

Any parent will tell you that it's difficult to break through the mist of hormones that surrounds 15-year-olds, so for the benefit of my primary colleagues I want you to imagine 30 of them, all seething in one room, having just woken up from key stage 3 and realising that they hate authority - even if they don't know how to spell it.

They hate their parents, too. But they can't be too horrible because parents generally mean pocket money, so they hate the next best thing - the teacher they do not depend on for exam results, their form tutor.

I tried my hardest to like my form for the two years we existed in an uneasy truce, but there were times when trying was very trying indeed. They worshipped their old form tutor tothe point of canonisation. When I asked why, one of them said: "Because she wasn't you." When she left they clubbed together and bought her a watch. When they left me, they clubbed together and bought me a coffee mug. It could have been worse, I suppose.

My experiences at the hands of WAR 11 made me nervous approaching my new form. As a teacher, I automatically blame myself for any hint of "could do better", so I was preoccupied with the realisation that they'd go home after their first day at school and say they loved everything apart from Ms Warren.

But Year 7 have exceeded my expectations. They are bright, funny and warm, and they seem more than happy to welcome me into their form group, and even happier to shut up while I take the register.

As a new teacher I appreciate how difficult it is to survive in a strange environment, and I reckon Year 7 must be the easiest adapting species on the planet. They've dived into the busy corridors between lessons, bravely carrying piles of books that seem bigger than they are, and rather than sinking, they're swimming with Olympic ease.

It's not often that I say I learn things from my pupils. I've always thought that was one of the more nauseating cliches about teaching. When a pupil teaches me how to change a tyre on my car, I'll eat my words. But I could have done with a Year 7 when I was struggling as an NQT. Not to teach, but just to use as a small example of bravery when everything else seems so big.

It must be hard going from being the kingpin to being the bowling ball. But I'm also grateful to my Year 11s for giving me an army-style assault course on how to be a form tutor. I can now confidently say I can deal with anything that is (literally) thrown at me. Year 11 did me the huge favour of telling me to piss off when I tried to be a nauseating, touchy-feely teacher, and I owe them a lot because Year 7 would have been too polite. At the hands of Year 11, I learned everything about what a form tutor should be, because they were clear that I was everything it wasn't. I'm an older and wiser form tutor now - I've done my time. Year 7 is definitely a privilege you have to grow in to.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer school, Edmonton, north London.Email: gemmaw@callnetuk.com

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