First encounters;Talkback

20th March 1998 at 00:00
So we're half way through the lesson, and apart from the incident with the ink cartridge, everything's going OK. It's poetry - "remember, that's Wilfred Owen the war poet, Year 10, not Mark Owen from Take That" - and I'm listening to group work. A hand goes up - Carmella has a question. Interest! Brilliant, I love it when that happens. I can now Engage in Creative Dialogue with my Students (Point 25 in Effective Teaching Manual). I'm on red teaching alert. I zoom over.

"Miss, where did you get your shoes?"

I should have known it was too good to be true. Yes I'm stumped. I love talking about shoes. I might even be tempted to admit it's more interesting than talking about poetry. I really like this class. I'm not even putting Point 13 in the Effective Teaching Manual into practice. I really do like Year 10 and I like Carmella. Do I discuss the shoes, or the poetry? Am I the person or the pedagogue? Are the two mutually exclusive?

I don't feel quite comfortable with this distinction between Gemma and Ms Warren, and don't know whether they're really one and the same person. It took me some time to get used to being "Miss". At first, I wouldn't recognise myself when I was wanted. Later, when someone called "Miss!", I wondered if they were referring to me or the efficacy of my teaching techniques.

I'm really not that much older than some of the girls I teach - I'm definitely not taller - and we share many concerns. That's one of the nicest things about being a beginning teacher; I can still remember what school is like from the "other side". Mr Jacobs in geography thinks Ginger Spice is turmeric. Seriously.

But teaching still involves this confusing clash of pronouns. I've gone from being "us" to "them" in just a few years, and sometimes, however hard I try, I feel more like them than us.

On my first day I spent ages hanging around outside the staffroom before I remembered I was staff. But I beat Year 11 in the race for Oasis tickets. And Year 9 are sufficiently interested in my life to swap their co-operation in class for gory details about my social life. (I would worry about this if it wasn't so laughable that anyone on teaching practice could actually have a life.) The term "student-teacher" itself encapsulates all the contradictions involved in this precarious fence-balancing act.

So I'm still trying to work out how to respond. If I tell Carmella to get on with her work, am I breaking Point 42, and denying my Relationship With Her As A Person? Or if I answer, am I breaking Point 15 and Failing To Assert My Authority? The fence looks an attractive place to be. How can the manual desert me in my hour of need? One of the biggest temptations when you're starting out is to try to make friends with your students - it's a quick and easy way to get them on your side.

But I think of Mark Owen. I may be shorter, but those extra years make all the difference - at least I've moved on in one respect. Here's a new point: Forget The Manual. All of a sudden my answer is clear.

Gemma Warren is a PGCE student at London University's Institute of Education. She graduated in English from Leeds last summer

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