Bestworst lesson

14th September 2007 at 01:00

How do you get 15 previously disaffected Year 9 boys interested when your subject is sewing? Well, my friend had just returned from Gambia having spent two weeks working in a small remote village learning various textile techniques. I borrowed all of her fabulous photographs and used her visit as the basis for a lesson.

This particular class was a mixed ability group and usually quite volatile. They arrived in their usual hyperactive manner but were soon calmed by the sound of the African music in the air. "What we doin', Miss?" they screamed. "What's this, Miss, arrrgh, this is sick!" (meaning great).

I introduced the lesson and showed them photographs of Gambian villagers working together as a team, producing beautiful hand-dyed fabrics, smiling and laughing with an obvious spirit of joy on their faces. "Why are they smiling if they are so poor?" remarked one pupil.

I pointed out that although they had no material goods, these African boys were working together within a community and they found love and happiness in each other's company and a sense of achievement from the work.

My pupils were enthralled. We then went on to a practical where the boys created fantastic tie-dyed fabrics. I looked around the room and it was a hive of activity. They had set up their own systems of production and were achieving great things. The hardest part of the lesson was bringing it to an end and also washing the dyes off the floor.


I was an NQT and this was a school crawling out of special measures. I'd battled for months to get 28 GCSE girls to design and produce garments but finally, there it was, a rail of fashion products that Stella McCartney would be proud of. One garment stood out a scarlet satin corset complete with black silk sash that tied at the side.

Then came disaster. I was teaching a double lesson of Year 7 pupils, 25 children twittering like demented munchkins with the noise level rising and rising. Strict instructions were given: "Do not touch the sewing machines! Stop stabbing each other with scissors and stop sticking pins into your fingers!"

Throughout the lesson one particular boy did his very best to avoid working and so I said: "You have 10 minutes to cut your fabric squares or you will have to stay behind at break time". I turned my back, he scanned the room looking for brightly coloured fabric for his patchwork cushion and, yes you've guessed it, he innocently grabbed hold of the beautiful satin corset and began to cut it to pieces. At this exact moment, in walked the pupil who had made it and well, to put it politely, all hell broke loose.

Result: one annoyed teenager bellowing at one terrified 11-year-old. I stepped in with a look of "I am completely in control here" (not) and had to use all my powers of gentle persuasion and pacification to calm the situation. Guess who spent their Saturday morning making a cors **

Jayne Smith teaches in north London

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today