Rule One for teachers taking their first class - don't tell the students

3rd October 2008 at 01:00

Funny how "firsts" always stick in the mind: first love, first kiss, first. well, you get the picture. But can you remember the first class you ever taught? I can, as if it were yesterday, which sadly it wasn't.

When student teachers grip my arm - as one did the other day - and declare "Help! It's my first class," I have one piece of advice to offer: whatever else you do, don't let them know that!

Just think, I tell them, how you would feel if you were sat in the dentist's chair waiting for your fillings to be sorted and then, just as the drill rises towards its shrill crescendo, the dentist whispers in your ear: "Oh, by the way, do you realise that you are my very first patient?"

As with so much advice though, it is easier to give than to take. The problem is that when you stand before your first class, you don't feel like a teacher. Yes, you can put up a front, but deep down inside there is still that little voice saying "Fraud".

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote about a waiter he had seen going about his duties in a Paris cafe. The man was carrying out all the functions of his job in the most exaggerated manner, overdoing all the conventional waiterly traits. He was too eager to please, too ostentatious in the way be brought food to the table. Rather than being a waiter, Sartre observed, he was "playing at being a waiter".

Before I was a teacher I played at being a reporter on a local newspaper. My first job was with the Middlesex Chronicle, a paper whose readership lived in a county that didn't exist any more. I arrived for my first day - no training of any sort, bring your own pen - and was sat down in front of the telephone. Ring this man, I was told, and interview him about the 15ft radio mast he had built in his back garden.

With an unsteady hand I dialled the number. He will know, I desperately tried to stop telling myself, that I have never interviewed anyone before in my life.

"Good morning," I said, "I'm Stephen Middlesex from the Jones Chronicle."

From there, you might think, things could only get better. They didn't.

"I understand you've built a 15ft radio mast in your back garden," I said.


"And you, er, use this to listen in to radio stations all over the world?"


It quickly became obvious that he was even more terrified than I was. After he had given the identical answer to every question I asked, I put the phone down. My notes consisted of the word "yes" written 17 times. And I had a space 500 words long to fill.

But that was as nothing compared to my first class experience as a teacher. For this, there was no hiding away at the other end of a telephone. No, I had to stand up in front of my students, to run things, to be in charge. And not just for 10 minutes either, as for a teacher training session. My first class was scheduled for a full two hours.

It was an evening class, so you can tell it was a long time ago, back before Labour had begun closing them down in the name of social progress. Having left the role of cub reporter behind, I was, of course, older and wiser by then. At least, I was older.

I arrived uncharacteristically early to find one of my new students already sitting there. I couldn't help noticing that she was a good 20 years older than me. She could have been my mother; and I had to teach her.

"Hello," I said, "I'm the teacher."

"Yes," she replied, glancing around at all the empty desks, "and it looks like I'm the student!" She wasn't, of course, the only one. And by the time we had reached double figures, I thought I had better make a start.

At this stage I should point out that I was beginning my first class with a certain amount of baggage.

First, it was being held in the secondary school where I had spent seven years as a pupil. Nothing, it seemed, had changed since I had sat there on the other side of the teacher's desk. Even the old scratched desks were the same.

I had left the school 10 years earlier but, as schooldays have a habit of doing, the memories lingered on.

There was something else too - someone else - that had followed me into the classroom from the past: Janice Knight. When I was 17 and Janice was 16, she had briefly been my girlfriend. Now she was there, sitting and smiling, in the front row.

Thankfully, it was her who had ditched me, rather than the other way around. The last thing you want in your first class - or any class - is to have one of your students telling all the rest what a heartless bastard you are.

Once the lesson was properly under way, things picked up a little. I was clearly a better actor than I thought I was. No one seemed to notice my shaking hands and quavering voice. Or perhaps Janice did and put it down to the nearness of her.

As it was an A-level class with only three terms to cover the syllabus, we had to get off to a brisk start. After a bit of initial blabbing, I put them into groups and told them to discuss the two poems we were working on.

When they did what I asked and actually began to talk to one another, I almost whooped with joy. For some reason, I had convinced myself they would just say no.

And Janice was no trouble. She was clearly enjoying the irony of the situation. "Goodbye, teacher," she said coyly as she walked out at the end of the session.

All in all, I decided, the evening had been a success. But what really clinched it for me was that I had managed the whole class without telling them that I was teacher Jones, their new Stephen.

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