“He’ll be in. He’s always in,” they say. And then, seeing me approach: “You’re never ill, Sir. Why don’t you take a day off?”
Those words have stuck with me from my first year of teaching. They came from a Year 9 student, Ceri, and they weren’t intended as a compliment, even a backhanded one. But I like to think of them as a mark of minimal, and grudging, respect.
Ceri and I didn’t get on: we’d got off on the wrong foot when, on the first day and faced with a list of bewildering Welsh names, I panicked. Unsure to which student the moniker “Ceri” was attached (and therefore unsure whether Ceri would turn out to be male or female), I essayed “Sherie” as a pronunciation.
Oh dear. Ceri was male, and quite clear in his own head that “Kerry” sounded male and “Sherie” – what an insult – female.
The pupil's lament
I never managed to win him back, which was a shame because Ceri really wanted to learn maths. You could see it on those occasions when I managed to teach something effectively – occasions which were sadly few, because Ceri really didn’t want to help me teach maths and he and his classmates thwarted nearly all my attempts in that line for the entire year.
I let Ceri down, and he knew I was letting him down. But at least he could rely on one thing from me: “He’ll be in. He’s always in.” It was a lament, rather than a cry of endorsement, but it was an admission that I was doing something right. I was reliably in.
I don’t suppose Ceri realised that he’d hit on a great truth of teaching that day. But he had: to teach effectively, you need to get the students working with you, and to do that you have to be reliable, consistent.
They need to be able to predict your expectations. They need to be able to translate your demands – to know, for example, whether “Right” means “Eyes front, silence, pens in hand ready to take dictation” or if it’s just some clearing of the throat as you absentmindedly hunt for protractors on the front desk.
Wanting to please
Most students want to please most teachers most of the time, and if they are unable to do that (because they can’t predict what behaviour will please you) then they become frustrated. And then you can, as I did with Ceri’s class, drop out of the “most teachers” bracket.
This is why the second year of teaching is always easier than the first. As a new teacher, you are an unknown quantity: inherently unpredictable. As an NQT you have the double whammy of not having settled into your own style, of not yet being predictable to yourself, never mind to the students.
This is also why behaviour management requires both classroom skills from the individual teacher, and a whole-school approach. If the school sends a predictable and consistent message of expectations and consequences, and manages a system that is enforceable by every NQT, then even new teachers are, to some extent, predictable. Established teachers play a crucial role here: if they follow the same system as the NQT next door, they are lending some of their respectable predictability to their struggling colleague – the less you need a whole-school behaviour-management system, the more important it is that you follow it.
Strange and obsessive...but always in
Ceri’s observation is also why it’s important to give the impression of marking work regularly (it is the regularity that is necessary to forming the relationship, not the length of comment, colour of pen or, even, to an extent, the frequency). It is why excellent activities observed elsewhere can translate catastrophically to your own classes (who are not used to the expectations that underpin them). It is why one-off, overprepared lessons for Ofsted can fall flat, and why some teachers can routinely get away with jokes that others would be crucified for (the key is in the word “routinely”).
Ceri and I parted ways at the end of the year (to the relief of both parties). I hope that some of what I taught him stuck, because I learned from him and it would be nice to think this went both ways. I have become a better teacher over the years and, while I wouldn’t want to be utterly predictable, I have become more reliable.
And I still hope to be the kind of teacher about which Ceri’s kind of student might mutter darkly: “That Handscombe may be strange. He may be obsessed with mathematics. He may, on occasion, be incomprehensible. But at least, as a very minimum, when all’s said and done, he’s always in.”
James Handscombe is headteacher of Harris Westminster Sixth Form in London. He tweets at @JamesHandscombe