Last week I finally returned to work. After nearly six months off, I at last felt emotionally and physically able. I was also feeling a bit isolated from the world of teaching, and anxious to be ‘back among it’
I still believe I was right to return. My legs haven’t given me too much trouble, and I’ve tried to avoid the worst of the morning traffic by setting off for work at a dark, obscenely early time. So far the plan’s working – I arrive at school early enough to drink coffee and do a bit of leisurely planning.
In addition to all this, we have a new staff team. There is only me, my job share partner one TA and the centre manager left from our team last year. The rest have been moved on to other centres, and a couple have found new jobs.
The new team are supportive, friendly and welcoming, they have all done their very best to help me to ease back in. They are also all acutely aware that the kids view me as a ‘newbie’ and I’m grateful that they go out of their way to set them straight!
Sadly, they are also angry and exasperated. For the first day or so I could tell they were wary of sharing their concerns with me. It’s understandable: they didn’t know me very well, and clearly weren’t sure what position I would take.
The source of their concern became apparent to me on Tuesday – my first full day of teaching. In the second lesson of the day, I reprimanded a girl for sucking her thumb and being generally rude and dismissive towards me. In response to this, she pushed her desk out of the way and stamped out of class, shouting, “fuck this shit” and banging the door behind her.
For this, I wanted every second of that lesson back, plus a full apology and possibly a meeting with her mother. I did not want her returned to the lesson (or any of my lessons) until the matter was fully resolved. She was returned to class soon after. Nothing else happened.
Later that same morning, I had another English lesson. From the beginning of the lesson, it was clear that two particular boys were uncooperative (to say the least). In fact, they wouldn’t even sit down. When they did finally sit, they persisted in talking over me, laughing, swearing and generally being obnoxious in the extreme. I used our ‘on call’ system and a deputy came and removed one of the boys. After a short while she returned with him, pronouncing him, ‘ready to work’. In fact, he was anything but. Between them, the boys managed to destroy the entire lesson.
I kept the boys in at lunchtime and managed to get a minimal amount of completed work from both of them. However, I wanted the matter to be followed up. I wanted there to be a further sanction (whatever form it might take) in order to be crystal clear that such conduct is entirely unacceptable. Nothing further happened.
Yesterday, I taught a girl who, despite being very able, chose to write a completely inappropriate poem. I wanted her to stay in with me after school until she had completed the task to a standard that was acceptable. She refused, and was allowed to go home. I was advised to fill in an incident report. So far, nothing further has happened.
This morning, I asked to meet with our centre manager, I told the manager in question that I was concerned about the discipline systems. By way of a lead in, I asked her what would happen now I had written an incident report on that particular girl. I was assured that it would be followed up. I mentioned my current vulnerability – I talked about the months of rehab that I’ve had on my legs, I said that could all be undone with a single kick, or a desk being flung. I was advised that if children are misbehaving I should continue to remove them by using the on call system. I asked about pupils being returned to class, despite not being ready to work, I was advised to use the system and get them out again. I asked about further sanctions, and, alarmingly, was told that for two of the pupils in question there is no mileage in informing the parents. I asked about detentions and was told that we wouldn’t get permission. When I ventured that we don’t need permission for detentions the baffling response was, “I’m fully aware of that, thank you”. Right.
The concluding blow for me was being told that “this is the nature of the kids we work with” and “I don’t want you to take any more time off, but if you have to…”
This week has proven to me the importance of strong leadership. In our setting, we are all highly skilled at behaviour management, but we need to be able to punish kids who are persistently disruptive or behave dangerously. Without a hierarchy of sanctions in place, we are utterly impotent. This is why the team is angry. Now they are aware of my stance, they tell me, “we aren’t allowed to discipline the kids”
As one of my colleagues said yesterday afternoon, these kids need discipline and boundaries above all else. He’s right. It is their behaviour that has got them removed from mainstream school. Our purpose, our single raison d’être, is to break the cycle of inappropriate conduct and return these kids to mainstream education. Appeasement, reasoning and rewards will only get you so far with the toughest nuts. They need strong guidance, and firm boundaries – tough love. As for me, I don’t need any more time off work, what I need is simply what we all need: to know that when we fall, when things don’t go well, someone will be there to help us sort it out. Without this guarantee, life is hard for us all.
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