Ten years ago I stood in front of my first class, G114, the room, Year 9 Maths, the subject. I was a newbie, without even an internship to fall back on and oh yeah ideals. Year 9s are the hardest year – bring it on. I would make those kids eat out of my hand. I’d be one of the inspirational ones.
“Good Morning all, come in, put your bags at the front of the classroom.” I said brightly. It was a lovely day. Kids were milling outside the classroom. It was the best sort of day you could have.
It sounded great in my head, it really did. If the bags were not by their desks, or on their desks then there would be less distraction. I just wish someone had told me that the “bags at the front instruction” was doomed to disaster.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“That’s shit.” The kids responded before marching to whatever seat they wanted and slumping down into it, banging bags on desks or the floor as they went.
“Bags at the front,” I repeated and got back more of the same. And so it went on for a large part of the lesson before I thought that I would try again next lesson.
You see the thing that no one told me, I guess to them it was just part of the furniture, was the unwritten rule in the school. The school, in a low income area, had a plethora of petty crime occur. Students did not leave their bags unattended, either because they were thieves or because they had been thieved from. It was also about trust and not one of those kids was going to trust a brand new teacher to the school. Who the hell was I, to demand something when I could not guarantee that none of the other kids in the class would touch their bag, their belongings?
I was the imposter, I came half way through the year, a replacement for a teacher that, in their mind, they had pushed out of the job because they had been too awful. I was entering the class that they had ruled for most of the year. An unknown, and there was no way that they were going to comply with any instruction I gave them.
I was persistent and enlisted the help of the Head of Department for the next lesson. He did strongly recommend that they place their bags where I had instructed. They did, reluctantly, and they put up slightly less argument the next time. My Head of Department subtlety and quite correctly suggested that I had won that battle and I should save that instructions for exams only. I phased the rule out, by conveniently forgetting to mention it on the forth lesson. By the sixth lesson, bags were not at the front of the classroom.
If only someone had the foresight to let me know why students wouldn’t leave their bags, luckily I did not suggest they leave them in the bag racks outside of the classroom. I did not cotton on to their reason for another year when one day, I asked a student why students removed everything valuable from their bag to go into the Resource Centre.
“Because someone will swipe my stuff, they’re a bunch of stealing pricks here Miss.”
That was my first solo teaching experience.
My second experience of teaching went slightly worse. Having cottoned on that I really did not want a repeat of Lesson One with the Year 9’s I fronted up to the Year 8’s willing to ditch the “bags at the front of the classroom” rule for that class. I have never felt so invisible. As a beginning teacher, not four weeks from my last practicum, my mentor teacher’s feedback was clear in my mind. “You need to develop your teacher presence.”
What the hell did that mean? I did not have any trouble teaching in my last prac. How could I not have teacher presence? I mean teenagers are basically human and are quite capable of amazing feats and kindness. Yep, they are, sometimes.
That class did not improve, in fact they got worse. I was ignored, taught absolutely nothing and discovered the only thing they would reliably do was copy notes off the white board. That little trick saved my sanity – even if there was no learning going on. Things hit a head sometime in my forth week of teaching the class. One of the students did something worse than normal. I suspect the last straw was the exceptionally large penis she drew on the white board whilst I was putting out another fire. I instructed her to leave the classroom, knowing that she would not and that my Head of Department was away so the next option was a deputy principal. She did not go and I had to ring for a Deputy. She would not leave for the Deputy either and the students spent the rest of the lesson chanting “Leave Rachel alone.” Oh my goodness. I stood there in class having given up trying to stop them and decided I would just ignore it. I turned my backs on the students, we were a good 15 minutes into the chanting and still had 30 minutes left of the class. I just started writing on the white board.
“Leave Rachel alone,” they went on to my back.
Did you know that students can chant “Leave Rachel alone,” and copy notes of the board? They ended up with two massive boards worth of notes as well as some tired jaws. The chanting ended on the bell. The next day, yikes, I was not looking forward to the class but I was sure ready to take control, I marched into class.
“What are you doing here Miss,”
“Yeah, we thought we’d gotten rid of you.”
“I have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. There is nothing you could do to make me walk out of this job.” Oh Crap, which one of my lecturers had said to never challenge a high school class, you’d never win.
Next lesson, I asked for silence and I got it, briefly. Shit. Turns out you can challenge a class, turns out that in their eyes, I had just stood up to them and thus demonstrated respect. Go figure. I used that little gem several times over the next several years at that school, and that was my introduction to teaching, although the lessons my Year 8 and 9’s taught me that year did not end there.