Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Smoke and mirrors

Cigarettes

If you're going to royally reprimand a pupil in front of colleagues, make sure you've got your facts straight, says Bea Bates.

"It wasn't me, miss!" I cannot recall how many times in my 27 years of teaching I heard that phrase but it was never more poignant than one particular moment early on in my career as a pastoral head.

At the time, I was sharing an office with three fellow heads of year who were all keen to savour any moment of comical farce, especially at my expense.

The unwilling victim in this case was a student named Brandon who was in the fourth year - as it was called in those olden days - and had been caught smoking.

I was in fine form, seizing the moment to show my colleagues a thing or two about how to handle recalcitrant students. The boy was asked to stand in front of me, "hands out of pockets" and to "look at me when I'm talking to you, please." The script was well-rehearsed and had stood us in good stead on many an occasion.

It was only a few moments before my flow of words had moved from talk to lecture through to tirade. Brandon was faced with a full-blown exposition centred on the fact that smoking was not only very bad for his health but how very disappointing this was for a school which was continually striving to raise expectations, especially with our more senior students etc. And on it went.

Brandon valiantly tried to interrupt but there was no stopping me. This was an Oscar-winning moment and my audience was waiting for the final scene, enthralled by the live presentation of such superb pastoral skills; after all, the student had been silenced into submission by such a master practitioner.

"Please do not interrupt me young man; I will speak first and then I shall allow you to have your say. I suggest you use the time to reflect and then to offer me an explanation of your poor behaviour and attitude," I continued.

Brandon fuelled the situation by trying to interrupt on a second occasion. This was far too good an opportunity to miss; if my first attempt to hold court with my soliloquy had failed, the boy needed to be taught a further lesson. By now, my colleagues were genuinely enraptured as they realised they had premier seats to a never-to-be-repeated performance.

To hammer my point home, I continued on my mission, taking great satisfaction that my young victim had acquiesced and was standing as requested now, hands by his side, looking me in the eyes and ready to accept his fate.

Having exhausted myself with the performance, I was ready to take my bow. I looked the young man in the eye and asked him what he had to say for himself. "It wasn't me miss, it was my twin brother, Elliott." I caught sight of my colleagues and, from the look on their faces, it was obvious that they had been aware of the mistaken identity right from the start of the proceedings.

I have long had the good fortune of having a sense of humour and it did not let me down in this glorious moment of humiliation and embarrassment.

Trying to think quickly on my feet, I added insult to injury by asking Brandon whether I could offer him some recompense by allowing him to have a cigarette on me - not literally of course, but by letting him off the hook should this ever occur a second time, God forbid!

He saved the situation by very politely thanking me for the offer and letting me know that he did not smoke. His identical twin, however, did. Still hoping to remain in command I sent him off in search of his brother so that I could repeat the performance, this time with the right supporting cast.

I cannot help but wonder what would happen if that situation were to happen today. I am sure that, at best, I would have a three-page letter of complaint from the parents and, at worst, may well be facing some kind of lawsuit.

However, in those glorious early career days, the worst I had to endure was some (well-deserved) ridicule from my peers and a highly-amused set of parents who also apparently enjoyed the re-enactment of the story by the twins that evening. They were gracious enough to contact me at the school to congratulate me on my pastoral skills!

Bea Bates is a recently retired deputy head in Buckinghamshire.


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