Gemma Warren

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Apparently, 30 seconds is all it takes to form a lasting impression of someone. After that, not even 30 years of do-gooding can shift us from our earliest instincts. This terrifies me. Not because I'm overly concerned with the emotional bankruptcy of modern relationships, but because I'm about to be subjected to a whole week of first impressions when I meet my classes.

Usually when you meet someone, you at least have the luxury of being able to form an impression back. But in school, the relationship is curiously one-sided. It's my job to like them. It's my kids' job not to like me. Their judgment determines whether I work in a state of bliss or a state of emergency.

Correction: it's not my job to like them. It's my job to teach them English and give them what they need to tackle adult life. Liking them is a bonus, a sugar cube to the injection of education.

I know I should coolly and professionally deliver my services then go home, but I can't. I want them to like me because it will make all our lives easier, and maybe because - let's be honest - it might mean I'm a nice person.

There's something ruthless about the immediacy of children's first impressions. It's not about reason and maturity, it's about instinct. These kids display more sensitivity and skills of inference in the first meeting than years of practical criticism can teach them. Analyse the character of Ms Warren, giving evidence to support your opinions. The mind boggles.

So first impressions are the most basic survival test. You've heard of the classroom-as-ecosystem. This is the classroom-as-jungle. And newly-qualified teachers aren't high on the food chain.

I'm not good at all this posturing, this don't-smile-till-Christmas stuff. My latest classroom management book has chapters reassuringly titled One: The Opponents Gather, Two: Ammunition is Loaded, Three: Let Battle Commence. I was too frightened to read on.

And it's such a short time to determine the tone of lessons for the next year. A breakdown of the first, vital half-minute shows the impossibility of the task.

* 30: make an entrance, forceful, but welcoming; * 29-23 - introduce yourself, perhaps tantalisingly giving your initial, enough to maintain good order through fascination in finding out your first name; * 22-12 - go through class names, a vital yet difficult test. Get them wrong: instant hilarity, get the names right - cunning - this teacher has done her homework, we'd better do ours too; * 11-10 - stride through room showing off carefully chosen outfit, proving that you may not be a supermodel but you know your Adidas from your George at Asda; * 9-4 - time running out. Imply that a difficult test is imminent, give dire indications of consequences if homework is late, maybe intimate possession of a black belt in judo; * 3-2 - briefly display vast subject knowledge. Try to whip up a bit of creative excitement. Also helpful to communicate a strong bond with head of department and relevant year head; * 1-0 - finally, display your warm, caring side. Intimate that you will be happy to discuss any concerns that arise, shed a tear if necessary, hint at close relationships with other classes - the majority is always right - yet subtly let it be known that this class is your favourite.

Easy, isn't it? You need more sides than a Rubik's cube. In my school, teachers are identified by the first three letters of their surnames. This makes me feel better. Ladies and gentleman, your 30 seconds start now. Welcome to the WAR zone.

Gemma Warren teaches at The Latymer School, Edmonton, north London

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