Friday 4th September 2014
9:00am – I feel like I’m about to be sick from nerves. My classroom is set up: I have a seating plan, name badges, a frog bean bag and get-to-know-each-other-games. All I’m waiting for is my year 11 class of EAL (English as an Additional Language) pupils who I will be teaching drama to for the first time. The school has never timetabled drama lessons for the EAL students before so none of the staff could really give me an idea of what to expect…
9:06 – the first one strolls in – a stocky lad with a swagger and an untrusting expression. He looks me up and down as if to say ‘who the hell are you?’ and silently and sullenly takes a seat at the back. I swallow nervously, plant a fake smile on my face and try to look like I know what I’m doing.
9:08 – eleven more students stroll in. They are all chatting to each other in Slovak and barely glance at me. I’m relieved that they at least sit down without me having to ask, so I grab my chance…
“Good morning year 11s, I’m Miss Wiles and I’ll be teaching you drama this year.”
No response. I sense trouble looming.
At this point I don’t have much idea of how much English they know. They are all Roma/Traveller students originally from the Czech Republic or Slovakia, and rated as stage A for their English, which on paper means they know the bare minimum. However, I want to find out what stage A means in practice and so have been advised to play some get-to-know-each-other-games. Out comes the frog bean bag…
9:12 – I’m not getting a very enthusiastic response to the get-to-know-each-other-games.
9:14 – the frog bean bag has just been lobbed at a student’s face and hit them in the eye.
9:15 – the guy who got frogged in the eye is now punching the thrower. I tell Mr Punchy – with as much authority as I can muster – to stop. He doesn’t.
9:19 – a random student is lying on the floor with his eyes closed. When I ask him to get up he lazily opens one eye, replies in Slovak and promptly shuts it again.
9:25 – one of the boys threatens to jump out the window (we’re on a first floor). The plus side to this is that now I know he can speak some English.
9:31 – a second student threatens to jump out the window (great – he speaks a bit of English too!)
9:34 – enough is enough. With as much fake confidence as I have in me I raise my voice and tell them all to sit down. Amazingly they actually do and I realise I have no idea what to do next.
9:36 – I write the class rules on the board. I explain that rule one is ‘No throwing’.
9:37 – I ask a boy to hand out the pencil cases so that the class can copy the rules. One by one he lobs a pencil case at every other student’s head. I politely ask him to stop. He doesn’t.
9:38 – The rest of the students shout at me in Slovak whilst they scramble around picking up pencil cases.
10:01 – after twenty minutes of me writing random things on the board and getting them to copy them down (for some reason they seem to like copying) they surge out of my classroom. I sit at my desk, burst into tears and think ‘what am I doing?’
Life up the mountain in rural Uganda could not feel further away…
18th October 2014
Amazingly as I write this I have somehow made it through seven long weeks of teaching. Just. There have been wonderful and hysterical moments. And there have been moments of despair at 1am staring at piles of marking thinking ‘I’m not sure I can get through another day of this’.
School X – my new workplace – is an urban school in South Wales. The student body is 30% EAL (many of them Roma/Traveller children from Slovakia and Czech Republic, but also pupils of other nationalities) with the remaining 70% Welsh, 19% have a Special Educational Need and 30% of the students are on free school meals.
As a new and inexperienced teacher, there are days when the behaviour of some of the students is overwhelming. Some of them see very little point in school or in getting an education – and you have to fight them every step to allow you to teach them. However, the more I have gotten to know the students and found out about what some of their home lives are like I’ve realised I don’t blame them. If I had their background I doubt I’d care about school either.
When I’m not completely exhausted by weekends spent marking I am frequently struck by the injustice of the UK’s strong link between educational attainment and family income. The UK is one of the worst places in the world for this correlation. So whilst there are days when I feel more exhausted than ever before and it’s taking all my willpower not to hand my notice in, I am becoming increasingly driven by the injustice of how we in the UK are failing these children from lower income families.
However, five more days and the first half term will be over. Time to celebrate getting through it with friends, wine and a ceremonial burning of a frog bean bag…