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Watching Les Misérables was a truly miserable lesson

Who’s more wretched, the French peasants of Les Mis or the latest class that our secret supply teacher covered?

Tes' secret supply teacher explains how a lesson to be spent watching Les Misérables descended into revolution

Who’s more wretched, the French peasants of Les Mis or the latest class that our secret supply teacher covered?

It was the last week before the Christmas break and I’d just landed what looked like a nice easy day of supply: a school with a good reputation, not too far from home, and with a beautifully decorated Christmas tree that suggested they were running a tight ship.

As I waited in reception, I was reassured to learn from another supply teacher that the kids here were "absolute angels".  When I got my timetable for the day things only seemed to get better – I was covering three lessons of Year 12 private study and two taking Year 9 for music. I baulked at the Year 9 lessons initially, until I read the lesson plan and found that the entire double lesson consisted of watching Les Miserables. I offered up a yuletide prayer to the cover gods, accepting that this must be cosmic recompense for all the appalling shit I’d had to put up with elsewhere throughout the term.

The Year 12 lessons went fine. The students came in, they took out their laptops and they got on with their work. The only problem was that I got a bit bored. After a while I took to bugging the sixth-formers to see if any of them needed help, but they were mostly revising maths and physics so that didn’t last very long. Still, aside from the time moving a little slowly, it was a relaxing morning.

And so to Year 9. I’d never seen Les Mis, so I was rather looking forward to the lesson, as, it seemed, were the class. With only a couple of days to go until the end of term, no one was particularly interested in doing any work, and we were all soon settled on our uncomfortable plastic chairs, blinds drawn, Haribos shared out, ready for a musical tour de force. But it’s amazing how little it takes to turn a good lesson bad, and as surely as things fell apart for Hugh Jackman once Russell Crowe discovered his true identity as the convict Valjean, I was also about to find myself on a swift journey from pas de probleme to dans la merde.

Getting out of a sticky situation

It all started when one of the girls found that she had chewing gum in her hair, chewing gum which, one presumes, was not there when she arrived in the lesson.

Although the gum itself wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that this quickly became a distraction for the students who weren’t quite so interested in musical theatre or post-revolutionary French history.

A couple of very loud girls wanted it to be known that getting chewing gum in one’s hair was about the worst possible thing that could happen to a person and that, furthermore, the perpetrator needed to be identified and dealt with using the full force of the school sanctions procedures.

Trying to nip the rebellion in the bud, I suggested that the girl with the gummy hair could pop to the toilet with a friend and try and get the gum out. The girl with the chewing gum in her hair, who honestly didn’t seem than bothered, shrugged and said it was fine. However, she had now become the centre of an event far more engaging than the lives of a bunch of 19th-century French peasants.

A cluster of students had gathered around chewing gum girl, offering a variety of solutions involving scissors, ice or peanut butter(!), but mostly just making a bloody noise. After some gentle cajoling, I managed to get their number down to just two “helpers”  and encouraged the rest back into their seats.

For all of about 30 seconds. Then everything kicked off again as the perpetrator was identified. Now the mob demanded blood. The poor kid who found himself accused sat in terrified silence as insults and threats were directed at him.  

A separate faction of students, who were still trying to watch the movie, began angrily hushing the baying mob, but this only caused the mob to turn on the hushers, accusing them of failing to recognise the magnitude of the crisis facing the class in light of the attack – “Sarita’s hair today, all of our hair tomorrow,” they seemed to be saying.

It was at this point, with the rival parties swarming about the room hurling abuse and arguing over the true cause of their wretchedness, that I thought I might be able to broker a détente by drawing parallels to their situation and that of the ragged band of French peasants still singing away merrily on the screen at the front of the room, but nobody was in much of a mood to listen.

I called for a member of SLT and tried to keep the casualties of war to a minimum. Ah well, plus ça change, plus c’est le même chose.

The writer has recently taken up supply teaching after 20 years in a full-time teaching job

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