First encounters;Features amp; Arts

12th November 1999 at 00:00
Peter Shinglewood rewards himself for a tough month.

There's a red carpet hanging up on the wall of a Spanish cafe in Bristol. For the past four weeks I've been gazing at it as I walk by, thinking: "Not long." Tomorrow I'm finally buying it. It's my "carrot" reward for getting through the first month's teaching in an inner-city school.

It's what you could call a challenging post. As an NQT in my late 20s, I'm easy meat for the Year 9s, a walkover for the vicious 11s. The school has an impressive disciplinary system, with clear "steps" that lead to exclusion. Already five kids have been expelled and I've had a Year 10 boy come in with a black eye. It was a gang incident, and no one wants to talk about it. I knew I had to establish the right atmosphere from the start.

I have six regular classes, averaging 27 pupils each. Setting out the rules for each class ("This is my classroom, these are my rules, etc") was demanding - for two weeks I played Nasty Cop, taking no chat, insisting on "hands up". The full weight of the opposition was made clear when I asked a tiny Year 8 girl why I was making her stay behind at the end of a class.

"Because I was shouting out."

"Right. Now what would happen if I just let everyone in the class shout out?" "You'd lose control."

Shaken, I let her go.

My first attempts at talking to the "problem" Year 9 boys after a lesson led to rueful grins, bowed heads, shuffling feet and an exact repetition of the behaviour next day. Detentions and expulsions from the class duly followed. One lad threw down his books and stormed out regularly. I was beginning to wonder if he'd come to the right school.

One big plus is the support I've received from the rest of the English department. Once I realised the Year 9s were still running the class after two weeks, my head of department took them out of my lesson, and phoned their parents. Next day was amazing - three gleaming pupils looked up from their desks, books open, pens poised, watching me like I was about to give out free Play-Stations. That afternoon, the head of department asked me how things were going.

"Amazing. I've had a really good day."

"Frame it," he said.

If I were to pinpoint one of the major paradoxes of starting out in a challenging school, it's that my favourite pupils tend to be the worst behaved. For practical reasons, I like the hard-working, quiet and obedient kids who enjoy reading the books and getting good marks, but for sheer vitality I can't help admiring some of the cocky kids whose sole aim is to dismantle a lesson. Perhaps it comes from an adult's inner desire to rebel, to break out from a role that requires a strict code of conformity. Not that I like all the "bad" kids - some of them are sullen and lazy, and will grow up to be sullen and lazy adults - but the characters in every class tend to be the more restless and cheeky students.

In my last Year 10 lesson, I had paper "snap" bangers thrown at me by two lads who love writing stories about the SAS. At the end of one week, I set up a last-minute word game, and the 9s stormed the board, dancing round, trying to wheedle merit marks out of me for being receptive for half an hour on Tuesday.

I've isolated the tough kids at the centre of each class where they can cause minimum chaos, and I can keep an eye on them. But this didn't stop a Year 8 girl from tapping a watch battery maniacally on the underside of her desk.

"Give," I said. Scowling and pouting behind a pair of steel-rimmed glasses, she pressed it into my hand.

Assuming she'd get it back later, she left the room at the end without asking me. Assuming she'd forget about it, I chucked it in the bin. Two days later, she asked for "my battery back".

I thought for a moment about how blissfully quiet she'd been for the last two lessons, then told her. Cue a week of her stalking up to me outside the staffroom, snarling: "I hate you." What could I do? It's strange having someone feel so strongly about you that they want to remind you about it every day.

Funnily enough, she's been a lamb in class, only once trying to blackmail me about the battery by demanding I give her a doughnut I'd left on my desk, which she'd been eyeing up all lesson. No way. She left with a claw full of paper clips.

Peter Shinglewood teaches at Speedwell School, Bristol.

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