First encounters

6th November 1998 at 00:00
I can't get used to being called Sir. Walking down a rowdy corridor on my first day back, I am stopped by a pupil demanding: "Tell him, Sir!", and gesturing towards the perpetrator of some incident - an incident he thinks I should act on. An incident that has passed me by. I am slightly taken aback. There I stand, a fish out of water, struggling to find the limbs it doesn't have, and this stranger carelessly appoints me judge and jury.

It is a big jump from the anonymity of trainee life to the role of teacher, with its associated authority and responsibility. The pupils make the leap far more quickly, identifying me as an adult and therefore a teacher, or even an inspector.

School is a microcosm of society, with teachers, in theory, at the top. These dizzy heights are strange to me. I have spent my first three-week stint in school acclimatising. Through a combination of observations and experiences I am starting to find those elusive limbs. It seems I cannot be the kind of teacher I want to be straight away. I am too nice. I have to growl, be nasty, play the ogre. I haven't got the hang of this yet.

Theory is one thing, practice another. When I was reading theory on classroom management as a student, the buzzwords seemed extreme - like phrases from a manual for NATO generals. Now, after a few weeks' practice, I understand. Theory is what you realise you should have done after the lesson is over. Never mind, notch it up as another learning experience.

Observations are a window on a range of teaching styles. They can be comforting, showing that experienced teachers face the same problems I do. Their responses show me where I have gone wrong. Mind you, this doesn't help. I can copy and still fail to get the right reaction. Some unseen force is at work here, which I have, as yet, failed to master.

Individual pupil observation means a day spent in hot pursuit of a single child - I'll call him M D - who is meant to remain unaware he is the focus of my attention. The aim of the chase is to reveal how character, attitude and motivation can change during the school day. It seemed an odd idea - should I pack some disguises? Cut peepholes in my paper?

Such efforts would have proved futile - my cover is spectacularly blown in the second lesson, when my target answers a question, prompting an animated French teacher to reveal that I am following him. Fantastique! I smile weakly and shrink into the corner.

The next two periods are double food technology. I had hoped for a free feed but I and the class instead face 100 minutes of theory. M D yawns early into the second period, just after me.

In the afternoon I watch a teacher circulating around the class, giving each pupil individual attention. I also see a can of hairspray follow a similar route. Many pupils finish the lesson with radically altered hairstyles. I only wish my own transformation from green-around-the-gills student to sure-footed class leader could be as simple.

Alex Hinds is a secondary PGCE student at the University of the West of England, Bristol

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