Bestworst lesson

10th November 2006 at 00:00

My best-ever lesson? I always hope it is still to come. But memorable I can do.

Inspection time and it wasn't going well. My school was so far beyond the experience of the team, they must have thought they'd been transported to another galaxy. The English inspector was particularly uncomfortable. He was expensive, fragrant, untouched by chalk. Or spit.

His professional experience hadn't prepared him for Claire, and a thrill of delight rippled through me when I saw him sit next to her.

Claire was grubby, loud and apparently unsophisticated. She was also one of the cleverest students I have ever taught. She was the daughter of a couple who sold newspapers from a stand on the high street and who had no idea how lively and quick-witted their daughter was. In all her time in school we never found anything she couldn't do.

She had the gifts to make a difference, to transform lives. She should - and could - have been a contender. But not long after leaving school she sank forever into the anonymity of working-class motherhood.

She now lives, according to her brother, with two children and her many tattoos and piercings in a small flat that she shares with a new girlfriend.

But that afternoon she was the best. Why? Because she unwittingly punctured the artificiality and pomposity of the inspectors.

I was teaching Coleridge's poem Christabel. Ticking all the inspection boxes. We got to the point where Geraldine has been found in the forest, stylishly distressed in her obviously flimsy nightie, having been abducted by five knights in shiny armour for reasons not fully explained.

And Claire, sitting next to the inspector, jabbed him viciously with her elbow, like a boozy tart in a bar. She leaned over to him and whispered audibly in her tainted breath: "Lucky bitch"


Antony is a postman now. Always ready with a smile and a cheery wave.

But he was responsible for the worst lesson I have ever taught.

I was young, it had been a difficult first term in my new school, and by December I was running on empty.

One class loomed over me. It seems strange now to think that 12-year-olds could cause such pain, but this group was full of behavioural problems.

They were a problem for everyone, but I had no strategies.

Every lesson was a battle. All I could do was to keep giving them worksheets as I needed to keep their heads down to stop them hitting each other.

I'd worked into the early hours preparing Christmas puzzles and games for them. Interesting. Fun. Or so I thought. I went into school early to print them on the spirit duplicator. It took ages and it was messy. But the lesson was sorted.

When I gave the sheets out, Antony took one look before throwing his on the floor. "Crap," he said. I swung my hand instinctively, catching him on the eyebrow with my ring. The lesson dissolved into anarchy.

Antony ran out of school to fetch his mother. The class, outraged, screamed at me. Two boys marched off to see the head, others went into the corridor and refused to come back in, girls ripped up my carefully prepared work and threw it at me. The school spiralled into chaos and there was nothing I could do to tame them. I felt incompetent, ashamed, worthless.

The deputy headteacher appeared and took me to the staffroom. As I got there, Antony's mother walked into the school, all slippers and curlers.

"You just hit my Antony? Well, hit the bugger harder next time. He's getting on my nerves"

Geoff Brookes is deputy head of Cefn Hengoed school, Swansea

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