Sorry Sir, I need to plug in my hair straighteners

23rd April 2010 at 01:00

The carefully prepared lesson was ruined in an instant by the appearance of hair straighteners. While you learn in teacher training that you should always expect the unexpected, I never expected that I should have to deal with something like this.

We have been concerned about Luke for a while. He finally came out this spring, much to the shock of his parents. Now he is playing a role. Tanorexic, bleached hair, forever grooming and pouting. The other kids in school have reacted pretty well, too. They regard him with a certain wary fascination.

But the role he is playing is all-consuming, and the hair straighteners are part of it. Suddenly, in a lesson and without warning, he produced them, plugged them in and started to groom himself.

This was a deliberate and provocative gesture. They reinforced his image, attracted attention to himself, distracted attention away from a lesson he regarded as boring and was an act of revenge on a teacher he doesn't like. For him, it was the perfect moment.

The teacher exploded in rage and the lesson fell apart. Whatever the syllabus required, this calculated insult was the greater entertainment. Children know how to press the buttons. It gives them a sense of control. When we respond to them we are accepting that.

They know teachers; they know what to do, because we are predictable. And so, of course, the straighteners were carefully selected and planned ... for a lesson taught by a teacher with untidy hair. An insult understood by the class and sensed by the teacher. Once the straighteners were out and there was a reaction, then it was a triumph.

And, as teachers, we can't stop ourselves. We have all done it - willingly embracing the chaos, regardless of the humiliation we heap on ourselves.

You know that your actions and words make you look stupid, but it doesn't matter. There is a small part of you standing on one side, watching and smiling at this foolish anger that explodes untidily as you surrender to the moment. Your breathing pattern disappears. You start sentences without knowing how they will end. You form sounds rather than words.

What effect does it have? Very little. Because those who deliberately provoke you in this way are hard enough to handle it. They know you can do nothing but rant. You look really stupid and it is hard to get the lesson back on track. They win every time and you are destined to become a star feature on Facebook later that evening. As a learning experience it is simple, effective and subversive. They learn the consequences of setting you off like this - and it is pure entertainment.

Some people spend their days worrying about weapons of mass destruction. But you find yourself at the very edge of reason because of a broken pencil. At the time, nothing seems more ordered or sensible. Irrational rage is the only rational response.

Of course, if it is not happening to you, then you can always see a better way of dealing with a problem. Leave it there. Deal with it quietly. But when you think you are living close to the edge, then it is easy to topple over. The most trivial thing can do it. It doesn't matter what it is.

We are entertainment because our rage is powerless. Why accept the ordered progression of the three-part lesson? They have probably had two of those already today and they don't need another one. This is much better - a front-row seat for the red-faced, spluttering rage of a teacher who is trying to make a point but whose words are coming out as nonsense sounds which dribble their way down his chin.

As the teacher, you can vaguely sense through the mist, the class turning against you, grinning because they know you are impotent. What are you going to do? Send for someone else who we respect more than you? And how will that make you feel?

I don't believe that Luke will repeat the hair straighteners trick. But I am certain he will do something similar very soon. And part of me is eager to see what it is. Like the kids, I too am fascinated.

Our control and influence in the classroom can sometimes be a very fragile thing and we are always aware of it. There is a calculated malice, too, in the reactions of some children. When they know it is important to you, they will be at their worst.

I remember my first inspection, having to teach French, a subject about which I know little. A boy smiled at the inspector, already alarmed by my lack of knowledge, produced a Walkman and plugged it in. "What are you doing that for?" I asked in horror. I must now admit that this was the wrong question. "Because your lesson is crap."

Who needs inspectors?

Geoff Brookes, Deputy head, Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

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