New recruits: the honeymoon is over

9th October 2009 at 01:00

It seemed a little harsh to suggest to our eager and energetic new teachers that their first couple of weeks of success, in fact, represented a kind of nice but short-lived honeymoon period. But I did it anyway. Better to know about the cliff edge than to go, blithely and innocently, headlong over it.

About three or four weeks into the new academic year there is often a kind of downward turn after a very promising start. There is a subtle shift, the beginnings of disquiet - from very good behaviour to not so good, from keen listening to half-listening, from no problems to several problems. Part of it, of course, is the nature of the teenage beast, that cocktail of up and down, chirpy and morose, caring and callous.

But there is something a little more complex going on that our new staff have to get to grips with. During the summer, some of the teenagers on our estate live a kind of feral existence. They roam wild and, in some instances, lawless. No rules about being in at night, no restrictions on who they hang around with, no prohibitions on drinking and smoking. They are generally nice kids, but live with few boundaries.

Then there is another, much larger group of children who spend their summer doing next to nothing. However, this is a hundred times more serious - it's a chronic waste of talent and young life. If the weather is poor, like it was this summer, most of their time will be spent indoors, watching television and tapping out messages on MSN - nothing particularly wrong with either activity as long as they don't occupy every waking hour of every single day.

The luckier ones will have been absorbed all summer long in hobbies - fishing, skateboarding, swapping computer games, playing football every day in the park - and yes, I'm afraid these are generally boys' hobbies. Many of the girls on the estate cite "shopping" as their main interest, which is pretty sad as they hardly ever have any money to spend.

It is only a small minority whose parents are able to afford to take them on holiday, about 8 per cent according to a recent survey of our students.

So it is hardly surprising that their first few weeks back at school are all about being very happy to be part of a vast social mix again. Structure and rules, order and routine - their sense of security is almost visible. Add to this the simple pleasures of new exercise books, folders, logbooks, smart uniform and shoes. It's like a fresh start as the negative things of the summer are temporarily pushed to one side. The school settles and the mood is calm and purposeful.

But the teenage years are tricky at the best of times, and those students who experience a very different life outside of school are often the most challenging. After the "newness" fades then what they are faced with is a whole raft of expectations - of their behaviour, attainment and progress.

This is when they remember that the school cannot entirely fix their lives, although we never stop trying. I don't like it anymore than the next teacher when they begin to kick up rough but I try to understand it. And it is often the new, inexperienced staff who get the brunt of it, and who have to learn the magic mix of toughness and kindness, to appear strict but human, and to earn their spurs of respect and credibility.

There are few quick fixes in teaching, especially in the thick of social deprivation. The initial shine and enthusiasm with which our new teachers began the term may have dimmed. But I meet with them frequently and I see that they are already dusting themselves off, in the knowledge that they are in for the long haul. The honeymoon period has indeed passed and the rest of their teaching lives beckon. Time alone will tell if it's a marriage made in heaven.

Lindy Barclay, Deputy headteacher, Redbridge Community School, Southampton.

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