Young at heart
It's a Wednesday morning, the end of lesson two. Debbie Adams is standing at the front of her classroom looking down sternly at a boy. Precisely what, she wants to know, does he think he has just been doing?
Although most of his Year 8 class have worked well today, Rashid has had trouble staying in his chair. Now he launches into a rambling explanation about a pen, but she cuts him short: "Do I have to talk to your year head about you?" He looks chastened. "No, Miss."
Discipline isn't generally a problem in the lessons of Miss Adams, a newly qualified English teacher at Seven Kings, a 1,300-pupil comprehensive in the London borough of Redbridge. In fact, it's one of her strong points.
She's one of six NQTs at the school this year, but there could be more in the future: Seven Kings is hoping to become a training school, which would mean strengthening its links with teacher training institutions and maybe taking some graduate trainees.
As she nears the end of her first year, Debbie Adams is full of enthusiasm for the school and for teaching. "I've had 100 per cent support from my department and from my mentors," she says. "Another English teacher observes my teaching along with the assistant head in charge of NQTs, and they've given me fabulous feedback."
She can see herself staying here for years, she says. Her rare moments of doubt have come after a bad day with one of her classes, and they have been rapidly dispelled. She had just such a day last week, though, with Year 9.
There were high-jinks and trippings-up. Fortunately, she didn't have to deal with the problem alone. Her head of department backed her up, and two pupils were put on report as a result. Right now, the same class are lining up outside the door for their next lesson. Not surprisingly, she's feeling a little apprehensive as she dismisses Rashid.
It's a big group, 27 pupils, which doesn't help. "There are some really strong, able kids in the class, but they are also very lively," she says.
"What I tend to have to do is to start off really strict, give them achievable tasks, mark out chunks of time for them. It helps them to remain on task. I also try to incorporate group work, pair work and whole-class work in every single lesson, to stimulate them."
But today is different: the class has been preparing persuasive speeches, designed to raise funds for charity. And today is the day they will deliver them. There's a huge potential for misbehaviour. She sets out her stall:
"Before we start, I expect you to listen to each other. You are mature Year 9 students. Have respect."
But she needn't have worried. First up is Sanjay, and he makes a flying start: "Do you think it's fair that people with cancer are forced to live shorter lives? Listen to the story of little Annie." Everyone listens quietly, and as he sits down there's spontaneous applause.
But it's Mohit, the naughtiest boy in the class, who steals the show. He strolls up to the front of the class, his tie just a millimetre loose of optimum smartness; his hair so slightly dishevelled that to mention it would be churlish. He faces the class and throws his arms wide. "Laydeez and Gen-tlemen!" he cries. "I stand before you as a minister! As a preacher!" The class is almost - but not quite - on its feet.
"I was once a child on the streets! I had no place to live, nothing to eat... Two children die every day in Uganda. Tell me - is it right? It isn't, and it should be stamped out!" As he finishes he stamps his foot loudly to accentuate his point. He sits down to cheers and wolf-whistles. His teacher is beaming with pride. "They were so good, weren't they?" she says.
Over lunch, she reflects on life at Seven Kings. Generally the school doesn't have many discipline problems, and she feels well supported by the English department. "When I came here I liked the feel of the school. The staff are enthusiastic, and everyone seems young at heart." She says it's not like some schools she's heard about where NQTs have their ears bent by cynics who hate teaching and don't seem to like children that much.
The school's headteacher, Sir Alan Steer, is equally enthusiastic about Debbie. He's just had one of his regular termly meetings with her and the tone has been entirely positive. "Debbie is a cracker," he says. "She's a good teacher in every respect." And he hopes in the future that the school can train others with similar attitudes. "If we can get people in and train them up, that has to be a positive thing."
Pupils' names have been changed. Fran Abrams's book on Seven Kings will be published by Atlantic Books in September 2006