What keeps me awake at night - The loudest shouts muffle silent pain

30th November 2012 at 00:00

"Personal problems" are keeping me awake at night. Not my own. I haven't time for problems of my own, personal or otherwise. I am far too busy marking, setting targets and planning outstanding lessons. No, what I think about in the early hours are my pupils' personal problems.

When did they discover that "personal problems" was the perfect answer to any question, from why they regularly miss the last lesson of the day to why they have failed to hand in homework yet again?

When did they realise that going down the "personal problems" route when their peers are present effectively ends the conversation because I am, of course, unable to pursue their answer further in front of the class?

The only response possible is, "I'll talk to you about it after the lesson." This never works: either they slope off before I realise they've gone or, once alone with me, they simply squirm and say they don't want to talk.

Even when pupils do explain the "personal problem", my experience has not always been encouraging. One boy who missed two weeks of afternoon lessons did so because he was visiting his dying grandfather in hospital. Who could argue with that? Well, his parents did when I finally spoke to them, all grandparents having died years ago.

One girl, when pressed about her "personal problems", tearfully explained that she could never make a 9am lesson because her father had moved out with her younger brother. She had to walk round to her father's new house every morning and take her little brother to school at the other end of town. When her parents appeared together at parents' evening, they were very surprised to hear that they had been living apart for some weeks.

In my experience, those who have genuine personal problems often do all they can to hide their distress. Those pupils are often very quiet, anxious not to draw attention to themselves in any way. They do all they can to avoid unnecessary conversations with teachers. If you express your concern that they seem a little quiet, they assure you that everything is fine, and it can be very difficult to get beyond that.

Stories in the press about paedophile rings, the grooming of girls or the suicide of distraught teenagers often report that teachers appear to have been unaware of the distress of these children. That is, of course, a tragedy, but it is unsurprising.

Distracted by the non-existent personal problems of louder pupils and the hustle and bustle of the school day, it is inevitable that on occasion a teacher may not spot the quiet pupil who really needs their help. It is not the known personal problems of my pupils that keep me awake. It is anxiety over the unknown.

The writer is an English teacher from Essex. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email david.marley@tes.co.uk.

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