When you were good...and when you were bad

21st March 2008 at 00:00
Were you the class nuisance or the little angel? Nick Morrison discovers how your schooldays influence your teaching

Few would doubt that a teacher's own schooldays affect their approach to teaching. Perhaps you worshipped a teacher who inspired you to enter the profession. Or maybe you felt misunderstood and have dedicated yourself to putting the record straight.

But what about the pupils at the extremes? The tearaways who talked through lessons, made their teachers' lives a misery with their disruptive behaviour, or did not bother going to school? Or the goody-two-shoes, who handed their homework in before it was due and never got into trouble? What sort of teachers did they turn out to be?

Rebecca was a school refuser. Now 46 and a secondary English teacher in south east London, her attendance fizzled out until she barely went at all.

She passed the 11-plus but didn't get into the school of her choice, so her mother refused to let her go.

When she was given a place at grammar school, three months later, she found it too stressful and switched to a comprehensive. At this school, by contrast, she got high marks without much effort and was bored. Staying at home was an easy habit to fall back on.

At first she made out she was ill. Gradually she went less and less and by 15 was rarely in school. She left with one O-level and a typing qualification. But in her early thirties, after getting married and having children, she decided to go back, this time as a teacher.

"It was a compulsion, something I really wanted to do," Rebecca says. "I wanted to get it right for kids, and having seen two extremes I knew there must be a way of being approachable without being too relaxed."

She has been teaching for 14 years and finds few things as dispiriting as seeing pupils squander their abilities, just as she had done.

"When I see bright kids throwing it away I think they'll be kicking themselves in a few years. I tell them they'll regret it, but you don't always listen to your teachers." She has used her own experience in the past as a warning, but doesn't any longer. "I don't think someone saying they did this a million years ago makes a difference," Rebecca adds.

Maggie, 31, admits she became a complete tearaway at secondary school in Glasgow. She started drinking at 14, skipped school, was banned from trips when she was caught smoking and jumped fully clothed into the school swimming pool so that she could be sent home.

There were particular run-ins with her French teacher, who finally refused to teach her. Believing she was being victimised, she refused to apologise and was forced to leave school during her Highers. After a few years drifting, she sat her exams through an open learning course, went to university and is now an infant teacher in Glasgow.

She believes it was her own schooldays that propelled her into special needs teaching. "It has made me more tolerant and understanding of the reasons behind difficult behaviour," she says. "It's important to treat the child with respect and think about their circumstances."

Having been forced to leave school 15 years ago, Maggie is now a member of her school's senior management team and is a published author in her field. She specialises in behaviour management. "I didn't want to let what happened to me happen to anyone else. I don't just react to behaviour and I don't want a child to be labelled a bad child."

There was little danger of Vanessa being given that label when she was at school. Now 38 and a primary teacher in the North West of England, she confesses to being the archetypal goody-two-shoes.

Her parents instilled a respect for authority and for her the teacher's word was gospel. Her homework was always in on time and she was always in the top set. Even when she struggled, she didn't want to make a fuss by admitting she didn't understand. "I loved school," she says.

She was in trouble so rarely each occasion stands out. She vividly recalls the injustice of being punished for something she didn't do, 27 years on. These experiences have stayed with her into her teaching career.

"I had to sit through a class detention when I knew I hadn't done anything and I felt it was so unfair. I never punish the whole class; I try to get to the bottom of it," she says.

Her respect for authority hasn't diminished and being cheeky is one of the worst sins in her book. But she does harbour a soft spot for more challenging pupils. "I like a bit of spark and I quite enjoy teaching those children."

She makes a point of going over to the children who don't say much, in case they don't want to draw attention to themselves, just as she didn't. She's not afraid to admit, though, that her own schooldays mean she finds it hard to empathise with some children.

"I've done my time in challenging schools and it is more difficult for me to deal with those children. I think it's because I didn't think that way and can't put myself in their shoes," she says.

But using your own schooldays to inform your teaching style doesn't always have a happy ending. Jane, 29, went into teaching to try to provide what she had missed when she was a pupil. It didn't go according to plan.

She says she was an annoying little brat at school, always seeking attention and driving her teachers to distraction. She thought this would be perfect training to be the sort of teacher she wished she'd had.

"I saw myself as the one who'd be able to reach out to other little brats, who could really make a difference. My lessons were going to be the most amazing ever," she says.

But the reality of teaching RE in a west London secondary school proved her wrong. "I was unable to relate to them and I resented the level of entertainment they needed. The children were just being themselves but I was angry with them all the time and I couldn't accept the way they were."

She tried to instil discipline, making her class stand behind their chairs, but it didn't work. "I came across as this control freak and they hated me for it."

It was only when she was nearing the end of her teaching career - she finally quit last July - that she started to recognise herself in some of her more unruly charges. But it wasn't entirely a negative experience. "I had to have a go and see if I could do it, and it has taught me a lot about myself," she says

*Some of the names in this article have been changed

A different view

Jon Berry thinks he can always tell the teachers who were model pupils: they are the ones who come back from their first teaching practice having helped with the school play, run a football team or gone on a Duke of Edinburgh trek.

"If they were high achievers and form prefects or school captains, they always, always bring that into their own teaching," says Jon, senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire's School of Education.

He says about six or seven out of 10 candidates at interview cite an inspirational teacher as their reason for wanting to enter the profession.

But there are others whose schooldays weren't so happy, he adds. "It is almost as though they want to put the record straight. Very often they come with a view that they want to reach the children who aren't being reached at the moment."

James Williams, lecturer in education at the University of Sussex, believes teachers who were tearaways at school do have some advantages over their better-behaved counterparts.

"Where they do have an edge is in seeing the signs of a kid going down the wrong path. They perhaps have a bit more perception," he says.

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