First encounters

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Rachel Owen finally makes it to assembly on time

Six inappropriate piercings, four unusual hairstyles and an admirable selection of trainers: I survey my new class. I had imagined them sitting expectantly at their desks, quietly contemplating their new teacher. Had I learned nothing from my teaching practice? They sprawl around the room, enthusiastically pursuing their social lives.

"Right!" I say, in a manner meant to convey my readiness to take the register. But it's well known that teachers utter meaningless phrases to themselves, and I get no response. I learn later that a loud voice and light bribery will work.

Evidently it takes considerable skill to register a class and deliver them to assembly on time. I have five minutes to accomplish this. Getting from the classroom to the hall is time-consuming. If they set off ahead of me, they tend to jostle into assembly like a herd of cattle at feeding time.

We're late to assembly every day for a week as I struggle with my pastoral duties. The register is an obstacle course of namesto mispronounce and codes to decipher. I'm astounded by the amount of paperwork required for the simple task of counting pupils. I'm also amazed at how difficult it seems for parents to send me a note authorising their child's absence. Sometimes I wait weeks for a sentence or two, scribbled on a bus ticket. What really worry me, though, are notes addressed "Dear Sir".

It would be nice to say that my class help me negotiate all this newness. But they don't. I suspect they are too busy being cool. I have probably learned more than they have this year. I have realised that although the word "Right!" can be said in various tones to convey a range of meanings, my class understands none of them. I have started to be more explicit. The register bears the scars of two terms, but at least it balances. I am now able to account for 32 pupils, fill in absence records, process holiday forms, collect money and deliver them to assembly on time.

Rachel Owen teaches science and ICT and technology at Lindisfarne middle school, Alnwick, Northumberland

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