First encounters

8th October 1999 at 01:00
Gemma Warren might try to be a bit more assertive. Maybe.

There seems to be one word that I'm having a bit of a problem with recently. It's not really a word, it's a concept - a lifestyle. It's not a difficult word, it's not one of the words that I spend my life correcting and thinking of ingenious rhymes to somehow pound it into the brains of my kids. But somehow, since I've started teaching, it seems to have been wiped from my memory.

No. How easy to write. How difficult to say. I do want to do all these things I agree to, but I'm beginning to realise that there just aren't enough hours in the day. At some point you have to be able to draw the line and realise that there's a limit. Unfortunately, my limit is like a smoke alarm that isn't working. I'm choking to death here, but it's not making the right noise. It only takes that one little word. Am I incapable of saying it?

No. It's like my long, blonde hair and size 10 figure. I'm sure it's in there somewhere, it's just having a little trouble getting out. I wonder why. I spent three years of university proudly managing to do as little as possible. I only ever said yes if someone asked if we wanted to get a takeaway.

Perhaps this is cosmic punishment. Maybe it's because I spend so much time trying to be positive with kids. My negative impulse has become my own personal dodo - extinct. If I want to become a better teacher, it just isn't evolutionarily viable. A bit like a social life, really. Maybe I should just give up.

No. Strangely enough, my form, War 10, doesn't seem to have any problems with the N-word. They've finally decided to take PSE seriously, and after three weeks of work on assertiveness, I'm beginning to reap the consequences.

"Could you put the chairs up for me, please?" "No." "Excuse me?" "Sorry, Miss. We respect the intention behind your question, and we'd like to thank you for feeling that you're able to ask us a personal favour, but we'd have to say no."

"Could I respectfully and humbly ask why?" "Well, you're always telling us that we shouldn't be frightened of saying no if we're being asked to do something that we don't want to do."

"So you won't do it?" "We're just asserting our fundamental human right to withhold our consent, Miss, just like you taught us. Can you do it for us?" "Yes." Marvellous. I am the ultimate hypocrite. Should I be teaching something that I am unable to do myself?

No. It should be such a simple process. I decide to take WAR 10's example to heart and try it out.

"Can you come to a meeting after school tomorrow, Gemma?" I take a deep breath. "No". "Great, that's 4.30, in room 23." "Er, excuse me, but I think I said no." Laughter. "You know, you've got such a great sense of humour, Gemma. I'll see you tomorrow then."

I quickly open my How To Be Assertive PSE handbook, but by the time I've turned to the right page, they've gone. I need some more practice.

"Can you write an article for the school magazine, Gemma?" (No) "All right." "Can you come and watch me play netball tonight, Miss?" (No) "What time do I have to be there?" "Can you help me look for my bus pass, Miss?" (No) "Where did you last see it?" "Can you take assembly next week, Gemma? (No) "What's the topic?" Do you think I should seek professional help? Don't answer that.

Gemma Warren teaches English atThe Latymer School, Edmonton,north London

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