There are those (they know who they are Mr Gove) who think that teachers lack aspiration for their pupils with the inference that they don’t really care about them or their progress or their future: that we are enemies of promise and do no more than go through the motions. Well, that got me thinking. Mainly I thought that such people have never set foot in a school and have no idea how they operate because what I see every day gives the lie to this view.
Let us consider the example of T who arrived at our school not so much trailing clouds of glory more hounds of havoc! She arrived with us some time into Year 10 via a school which had run out of steam with her and a managed move that didn’t work for her – more an issue with the school than T as far as I can work out. At the time I was acting Head of Community – vertical pastoral system – and she pitched up in my community.
She arrived with nothing – no controlled assessments in any subject and little in the way of any data or academic record. It soon became clear why this might be for T has a remarkable way of dodging anything that seems like… well school work! She is a lively, bright, intuitive individual, a mass of contradictions and loved by all who have come into contact with her. She exasperates, infuriates and charms by turns and utterly beguiles most people who encounter her. She brings out the best in me and also, I’m chagrined to say, at times, the worst.
She is a rebel without a cause yet is always immaculate – her uniform is pristine and always correctly worn – unusual for a rebel! She often wears white frilly ankle socks and almost always her black patent Kickers. This footwear is not on the school approved list, nor is wearing your coat in the building but T does not concern herself with such matters…and manages to get away with it. She is constantly arriving at my office at the start of a lesson to give numerous reasons why she isn’t going to the lesson – right up to the moment when I tell her that I’ll walk her there. She tells me on a regular basis that she hates me – when I’m busy thwarting her -and yet arrived at my office one day with a handmade Christmas card – resplendent with glitter – that she had made for me. And thus you have a glimpse of her inherent contradictions.
My initial encounters with her were pastoral and usually when she pitched up at the medical room, which she did at some point every day – sometimes more than once. She has an extensive range of complaints starting with headaches which assailed her every day. They were so severe they caused her to frown and squint in a not-quite-convincing way. I dealt with a headache situation practically every day and agreed with her mum that we wouldn’t be sending her home for this condition. I told her frankly that if she had such terrible headaches she should see her doctor to be examined for a possible brain tumour! She just looked at me in a pitying sort of way.
When she’d exhausted headaches she moved on to throwing up although none of us has ever seen any physical evidence of this. Then she got more adventurous and moved on to thrush, shin splints, appendicitis and, most recently, a burst appendix.
Throughout this, I spent most of my time coaxing her back to lessons and trying to sort out ways for her to make up some of the lost ground. It was akin to trying to hold back the tide. At the start of T’s Year 11 a Non-teaching Head of Community started in post – Mr R – who had huge experience of working with young people, particularly difficult customers. With my help and support, he spent inordinate numbers of hours dealing with T and her daily dramas which were worsening now as the pressure was really hotting up. T had nothing to show for her years of being in school that would go on a certificate. In some ways, it’s a shame that these bits of paper have become so important because she has many skills that make her special and interesting and employable. She is feisty, savvy and very, very shrewd. She’s also very caring and supportive of pupils who are weak and struggling. And she can correctly weigh a human up in about 10 seconds.
T’s default position is any and all of: “I can’t do that. I don’t understand that. You what?” Usually accompanied by putting her head on the desk in a dramatic fashion. At our first meeting she declared vehemently, “I can’t read, you know.” She maintained this stance when she found herself re-grouped in to my English group in Year 11: “Don’t ask me to read out loud. I can’t do it.” Interesting because when she sat in on my Year 10 group to act as a TA – a strategy to get her involved, raise her self-esteem and realise she can do anything she puts her mind to – I asked her if she wouldn’t mind just reading Bassanio in Act 1 scene 3 of Merchant of Venice so the Year 10s wold understand it. She did it without demur. We gave her some lessons with a Year 8 group and she quickly spotted a major issue while working with a pupil with visual problems, which she was quick to share with the teacher and the class. “Miss, she can’t read this,” declared T. “Miss, you’re gonna have to do this bigger for her.” And finally, “Miss, you’ll have to move her, she can’t see from here.” Of course the teacher had all this in hand but T cared enough to want more action.
And through all this, we have been desperately trying to ensure she gets some qualifications. She rocked up in my English group – for those who missed a grade C in the summer and had the best chance of getting it in November. Dear reader, let us gloss over the two-weeks-into-term changes as I don’t have enough time to go into the ins and outs of them or the pros and cons of early entry. Suffice it to say that it was imperative T took the exam while the speaking and listening still counted for something – because she is good at speaking and listening. Mr R and I worked like dogs to keep her in lessons, boost her self-esteem, re-assure her and cajole her into attempting the work. What we quickly realised was that everything about her was a smoke screen for terror. She was terrified that she would fail and she could not cope with this prospect or the loss of face she felt it would entail.
Luckily, Mr R, his wife and one of our teaching assistants were entering the exam as my external students. We arranged for T to come to class after school with the adults to do her speaking and listening. This meant she was not having to perform with and for her peer group and she responded well. She felt more secure and less on show and the adults were kind and supportive bringing out the best in her. We also organised for her to sit the exam with the adults rather than the rest of our entrants to ensure she was calm.
Just as well as a week before the exam T had a major meltdown. She was utterly distraught, sobbing and inconsolable like a vulnerable, small child. Mr R and I spent a long time with her soothing and reassuring and persuading her that she could do it and any grade would represent a triumph. She sat the exam and came straight to find me to tell me – with a wide grin on her face – that she had done it all, had answered every question, had written all the time. Now, we have our fingers crossed waiting for the results next week. I’ve pinned my hopes on a decent grade which we can then use to remind her that she can do it and persuade her to focus in on her other subjects for the summer.
There is much, much more I could tell you about T but this gives you an essence of this mercurial, exasperating, winsome character.
So, how do we wrap that up in a bit of data we can use to make judgements on her, me and the school? How do we quantify progress here? We have all – teaching and non-teaching staff – worked our fingers to the bone to get the best out of this girl. T’s an extreme example, but we work like this day in and day out with many of our pupils – the chaotic, the distressed, the abused, the suicidal. We have them all and we do our very best with them and for them because we care. And that’s hard to measure or quantify but it doesn’t mean it’s not happening