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Winner takes on pupil-aliens

Jo Green has been writing about communicating with aliens for years. So the Middlesbrough supply teacher says it was not a huge leap to write about the problems encountered teaching surly Year 10 pupils.

Mrs Green, who has taught maths for 25 years, is the winner of the second TES competition to find new writing talent drawn from the nation's staffrooms. Her winning entry discusses the misunderstandings common in the secondary classroom: she talks about unconfident pupils convinced they are being followed around by a "low self of steam".

"I'm quite sensitive to language and its misuse," said Mrs Green. "If people get hold of the wrong end of the stick, it can cause a lot of problems.

"You have to adjust mentally when you are working with kids. You don't know what they have heard, what has gone in and how. They're so quick to get hold of the wrong idea, you have either got to have fun with it or despair."

When she does despair, writing provides a useful form of catharsis. Often, she says, if something angers or upsets her, she will write down an impassioned response, and then throw it away.

"It's a kind of therapy," she said. "It puts my thoughts in order."

Writing for her is also relaxation. "It is a form of entertainment. When you read as much as I do, you sometimes run out of books. So I tell myself a story instead."

Since giving up full-time work two years ago, Mrs Green has started writing what she describes as old-fashioned science fiction: "I do aliens. It's all warlocks in fantasy fiction nowadays, I'm afraid.

"Mine is about meeting people from alien cultures. How do you communicate with an alien? It's about communication again. Teaching is performance and communication. And sometimes, with some children, it can be like you are communicating with aliens."

She has sent her work off to publishers, but it has always been returned intact and, she suspects, unread. So she is grateful that the TES competition gave her a chance to have her work read by someone.

The 50-something-year-old ("Classes have tormented me over the years with, 'How old are you, miss?' If I say, I'll be stopped gleefully in the streets") now hopes she will have the opportunity to continue publishing her writing.

"There are a lot of teachers who feel they aren't getting that much sympathy," she said. "If I can get a hearing from time to time, I'd like to write about how difficult teaching is, why so many people leave the profession. Because I don't think a lot of people know."


Ghost in the Machine by Jo Green

"You can't write 'rubbish' on Liam's work." "Why not, if it is rubbish?"

Liam, a large boy, was slouched over two chairs, smirking. His work was appalling - even simple copying was inaccurate and incomplete. He had attempted no questions and most of the content in Liam's exercise book consisted of drawings of marijuana leaves.

Simon, the smallest boy in the class, was severe. "It's child abuse, Miss."

There was a mutter of support from three-quarters of the class. The remaining 25 per cent applied themselves more closely to their work.

"How is it child abuse to tell him the truth about his work?" Simon looked horrified. "You'll give him a..." he looked around and lowered his voice "... low self-esteem."

At least that is what I thought he said. Later, looking through some book reviews, I came across a description of a plot in which the heroine's life was being ruined by a "low self of steam". This followed her around for most of the book until she managed to get rid of it. Light dawned. Simon's defence of Liam was to prevent Liam being cursed by an evil slinking presence. I could sympathise with Simon's urgency: Liam was enough of a trial to his classmates without the reinforcement of such a grim companion.

The psychobabble about self-esteem had been way above the children's heads, but they had picked up the emotional content and mixed it in with some of the horror images from cartoons to produce this menacing doppelganger.

Adolescents often interpret only the emotional baggage of what they hear.

Last year, a boy threatened to send his solicitor. It became clear that he thought your solicitor was a sort of rent-a-thug with a legal right to beat people up on your behalf.

This generation are subject to such a barrage of words, accents, and dialects from television, radio and the lyrics of their music, that they have trained themselves to not listen in sheer self-defence. The tags they do pick up and repeat from Little Britain and from rap are used in disconcertingly inappropriate contexts. They are often startled when the meanings are explained to them. These miscomprehensions lie in wait for anyone dealing with teenagers. The obscenities they spout without understanding, the lies they tell because they haven't understood the question. And all, of course, with a swagger and apparently perfect self-confidence. "Do you love Liam, Miss?" How to answer this? Any suggestion that we should all try to love him brings a gleeful accusation:

"That's paedophiling, Miss."

Nor can we inflict a low self of steam on Liam by explaining how every member of staff would celebrate if he transferred - especially to the smart new academy. No chance of that, unfortunately. A senior teacher suggested a transfer to the academy to his mother when she complained about our "unfair attitude" to him. Liam later explained to us why she refused: "Me mam says I wouldn't last a week there."

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