Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

The last word

It's been said that every day standing in front of a group of students is a new experience - especially when you're teaching a subject you never trained to, or meant to, teach.

(All the names in this article are fictitious - and I'm not saying any of this really did happen to me...)

As a member of the senior leadership team, no doubt you find yourself teaching subjects for which originally you were not trained and which perhaps when you started you never envisaged: careers and PSHE obviously, but perhaps low sets of maths or religious studies or even PE. 

For the last five years I have found myself - being an English teacher with some maths and drama - washed up on the shores of health and social care. No, not the communication unit, where I might know what to do, but what is known as research perspectives.

H&SC is a largely female affair round here. I turned up the first day in year 13 (it's a one-year unit in the second half of the course) to find a well-established group of about 15 females and sometimes one male.
They tend to be a robust bunch - half of them intending to be nurses - with a good sense of what they do and don't want to do in lessons and an excellent ability to time their coursework to stay within the bounds of acceptability whilst not risking wasting time in getting ahead.

It is certainly an education in another view of life. Walking in from assembly, you can too easily be dragged into a passionate conversation about whether Jordan was right to get an 'enhancement', accompanied by an invitation to take a look at the pictures in the autobiography in order to reach a judgement.

Joining in the discussion (as you think to deepen the learning, for it has some general connection to the subject - a sensible debate on how far should we intervene medically for the sake of beauty), you can be cut short by a sardonic, "OK Sir, you've looked at that enough now."

So hard do you have to concentrate in a subject where you do not feel at home, and often are working at the edge of your understanding of the textbook, it is easy to forget what is on the mind of these students who, made bold perhaps by the nature of the applied A level or female solidarity, are never slow to put forward their point of view. 

Looking with interest at a diagram that Hayley had made of the room where her observation of preschool pupils had taken place, I suggested she show where the pupils were located and where she was watching from. She inserted a number of green blobs and a pink blob.
"Is this larger pink blob you?" I asked innocently.
"You calling me fat?" was the indignant reply.
"No...of course not. I..."
"Did you hear that? He's calling me fat."

A chorus of disapproval: "You shouldn't do that, Sir." "She could go anorexic." "It's wrong to give someone a negative body image."
"Look, I just...." Sometimes you have to give up gracefully.

At other times theoretical discussion can be brought into sharp relief by practical experience. Having dutifully noted the recommended safe levels of drinking to inform her survey of youth group members' views on alcohol, Natalie fell to reminiscing about a recent weekend.

"I remember being in Bar-Med at about half eleven and the next thing I knew I was outside the Mile Post. I was walking along, I don't know how I got there. Then a car came past and offered me a lift. Luckily I knew him. It was about half two. I still don't know how I got there." 

Shall we have another look at that advice, Natalie? It says 14 units a week. Things can get delicate. Explaining that reflexology has no basis in scientific fact but generally relies on the placebo effect caused a marked frostiness in one area of the classroom.

How was I to know a much loved stepmother was a practitioner and proselytiser and was very successful, and people do like her and need her and you shouldn't be prejudiced... 

Sometimes the pressures in this type of learning
can be intense but the group help each other.

"Sir, I really need a B in this unit."
"Yes, well with hard work you've got a chance."
"No I mean I really need it." "She really needs it, Sir." "Don't you care about her, at all?" "Don't you want her to get into college?" "Mrs Smith gave her a B." "She'd get a B if you taught her properly." "If you told her what to do."

Teamwork is so important. You can learn a lot from this kind of experience. I don't want to be selfish and hog it all. Who'd like a go next year? I can let you have my notes.

By Rupert Tillyard, an assistant head in West Yorkshire.

The Last Word always welcomes contributions from members. If you would like to share your humorous observations of school life, please email Sara Gadzik at leader@ascl.org.uk We do offer a modest honorarium.

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