First encounters

10th March 2000 at 00:00
Peter Shinglewood is ona steep learning curve.

There are many interpretations of the meaning of NQT. My favourite is "Not Quite There", and indeed, the first year at a new school is riddled with mistakes and unsolved mysteries.

For me it starts with the eggs. At the end of every day, Miss X tells her Year 7 tutor group to put their chairs up and file out of the classroom we share. The door is locked, the windows are shut, everyone goes home. One night I left the windows open and forgot to lock up.

Next morning, I found the tutor group in silence, looking edgy. Miss X warned me: "Don't come in!" The cupboards and the floor on one side of the room were slick with egg yolk. The Year 7s claimed the eggs came in through the window, flew across the room and landed a foot off the floor, 15ft from the window.

I pointed out two chairs at the desk between the eggs and the window. "Were they there when you came in?" The pupils, sensing a flaw in their testimony, nodded guiltily. "Great throw, don't you think? The window's a foot open, the egg had to fly over the chairs, and drop at a 90 degree angle to hit the cupboard."

One of the tricks of working in a challenging environment is watching how the more experienced staff deal with similar challenges. The first year is useful for taking on board the different approaches - from the relaxed, friendly approach to the humorous, laced with menace. Both have their merits. I have to pick and choose.

There are sanctuaries for good discipline. One of these is lessons before breaktimes: observe, please, one class, chatting as you try to explain the lesson they're about to embark upon. They chat, you put a little tck on the board, indicating an extra minute. They chat, another minute. They chat, a minute, and so on. After three ticks, members of your class will be yelling at each other for quiet; a paradox, I know, but after the next two ticks you will be looking out across a pure, unrippled lake.

Another tip is to make use of early lessons as resistance is weak when they're still rubbing the sleep from their eyes. This morning I had a class who'd totally thrown me off course the previous afternoon, letting an essay drift way past the deadline. As they stumble in, I say, on impulse: "Exam conditions, instructions on the board." The result, after five minutes? A pure, unrippled lake.

But these are exceptions in a catalogue of errors. Earlier this term a ball banged on my window after hours. Below, a hawk-eyed history teacher was already disciplining a group of Year 8 boys. I opened the window, looked down in time to see her leaving. Angry, I called down: "Who did that?" All five lads pointed at each other and then one saunters up below the window. "What you going to do about it?" Stupidly, I called back: "I don't like balls being thrown at my windows!" "Yeah? You want a fight?" I tried to look stern and uncompromising, wondering what it would be like to be beaten up by a group of 12-year-olds. They raced into the building. I followed my instincts as a professional, locked the door, turned out the lights and sat down with some paperwork. No one came, and after an hour I edged off home.

Since then I've been scanning the terrain for confrontational 12-year-olds, outgoing Year 10s, and incoming eggs.

Peter Shinglewood teaches at Speedwell school, Bristol

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