Do smile before Christmas

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Don't worry, there is life after the 'class from hell'. Peter Unitt offers some lessons from his painful but rewarding experience. Well, I had done it. I had passed my PGCE and landed my first science teaching job, in leafy Surrey. My school was similar to any other medium sized comprehensive in the area, except that it taught some science lessons in single sex classes.

The first term was a "baptism of fire". Suddenly I had a form to look after, 200 names to remember, staff to get to know, routines to comprehend and many discipline battles with unruly teenagers to survive. The lessons learned in these face to face challenges developed my personal skills more than any book, lecture or staffroom anecdote.

This is probably true of any newly qualified teacher, but the state of the science accommodation was an additional shock - no gas, water or electricity, in fact no laboratory at all. But I just had to get on with the job.

I had not realised the range of tasks this entailed. It was not just a case of standing up in front of 28 pupils and teaching, I had to be a teacher outside my classroom as well, constantly aware of what the pupils are doing. Even a wander over to the staffroom found me embroiled in some minor behaviour problem on the way.

The year 7 and 8 classes allowed me to concentrate on my teaching skills, but my year 9s and to a greater extent my year 10s thought they could "have me for dinner" and I was plunged into a discipline battle. I found myself reacting to breaches of discipline with explosions of anger and getting myself into a confrontation. This is not good. Having a 13-year-old boy, in front of the whole class, shouting "You can't make me do that" or "I hate you, Sir!" got to me and sapped my confidence.

I found it very frustrating because it was just one control command after another, so no flow to the lessons could be maintained. I did learn a great deal about classroom management, using sanctions and discipline, but it also taught me to disassociate myself from the teacher that the pupils see. I am Peter Unitt who has friends, interests, a whole life outside the classroom. But these children saw me as just "a teacher".

I discovered that shouting is not always useful and perhaps just looking at the pupil with an air of dissatisfaction and remaining calm can diffuse a situation quicker. Another method I picked up was giving the pupils a choice to decide their behaviour. I will say: "The choice is on your shoulders, either you sit quietly and listen or I will move you." Then if they still carry on talking I say: "Look, I gave you the choice and you have decided that you want to move." This is fair and usually does not lead to any further problems or resentment.

Throwing a million and one detentions at a child is fruitless, because I have to be there and the said pupil generally has two million detentions anyway!

The second group of year 10 pupils I received were top set girls and they required a completely different style of teaching as I was required to administer very few control or discipline statements, so the lessons flowed very well.

After 10 weeks the year 9 class had settled down. I had learned how to be "hard". They now believed my threats. There are still one or two pupils whose disruptive behaviour I am still struggling to curtail - I have tried many differing approaches, ignoring them, isolating them, individual tuition, but they have all met with limited success. And no training ever taught me how to cope with the boy who came in to my laboratory, put his hands in the air and shouted "I am every teachers' worst nightmare!" The year 7 and 8 science classes have been extremely enjoyable and I feel I have nurtured some very good relationships with a large majority of the pupils. This not only aids the smooth running of the lesson but also underpins any discipline as the pupils know where the "line" is. In these classes I have been confident and creative enough to use the department's information technology as a teaching aid to great effect.

I also teach personal and social education a few times a week - this was a voluntary act on my part, as I see this area of the curriculum as one that will continue to grow over the years. I take pleasure from my teaching of PSE lessons as it is a challenging contrast to my science lessons. There is a framework of items to be taught and then the rest is up to you. For example I have two lessons to cover "personal hygiene". I can use videos, posters, drama, debating, anything really; in some lessons we discuss things and look at both sides of an argument. The lessons give me an opportunity to see some of the pupils out of the somewhat "yes" or "no" environment of science.

Taking work home is a fact of life for a teacher, I'm afraid. The school day may well end at 3.20pm, but my teacher's day goes on into the night and sometimes the early hours. The slow loss of a social life is one of the downsides of being a newly qualified teacher.

I would spend hours on trying to make parts of the science curriculum interesting and stimulating to a demotivated class. That was a real challenge and one of the benefits of being a teacher - you are to a certain extent your own boss.

When one girl was leaving to go to another school, she said: "Good bye Sir, and thank you for making science so interesting". I had a lump in my throat - at least I was getting through to one pupil. That story is perhaps one of the many reasons why I enjoy teaching, having a positive effect on another person and being recognised for it.

There are so many opportunities for newly qualified teachers to make an impression in their first school, that they shouldn't be missed. Whether it is helping with Year 9 football or starting a club at lunch times - it is all there, but it is up to you to go and do it, if you can find the energy.

If I could say anything to a teacher in their first year it would be ignore the old teacher adage "Don't smile until Christmas" - as it is a load of rubbish. The job is hard, is tiring, yet I have found it immensely enjoyable and satisfying. A lot of teachers complain about being teachers and the job itself. Personally I love it, and having worked "in the real world" I would say teaching has got a lot going for it.

Peter Unitt is a science teacher at a Surrey comprehensive

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