Under your skin
No matter what emotional barriers you put up to allow you to do your job, some pupils will always break through, writes Tom Bennett
Carli was a pupil I nearly taught 10 years ago, when I was training. I say nearly because while I was waving my futile jazz hands in an impersonation of a teacher, children in my room were passing skunk, sitting in each other’s laps and rolling their eyes at me so dramatically that they were nearly detached from their optic tethers.
This was not a good school and I was not a good teacher. But Carli sat near the front, ignoring the capering of her peers. One day, after watching me try to control the class with the mouse fart of my wrath, she put up her hand.
“Can you give us something to do, please?” she said. She was my Rubicon. After her, nothing was the same.
Carli did not have it easy. She came from a home so broken you had to find new words to describe it. Her father was in prison for armed robbery. Her mother was an alcoholic on the game, who would turf Carli out of the house as soon as she woke up from her drugs, and would not let her in all day and evening because that was where she worked. Carli had a beautiful scar as thick as a finger from her jawline to her lower eyelid, which her father had given her the day they dragged him away.
But Carli did not succumb to generational determinism. She fled every morning and breakfasted with a kinder family nearby; she was first at the school gates; she joined every homework club there was. And, come sunset, she would study and revise with the same family, before returning home when she could establish that her mother was safely defused by narcotics. In a school where most pupils aspired to nothing, Carli smashed her subjects. I once congratulated her on her ambition and tenacity, and asked her about her motivation.
“I want to get out,” was her reply, and I have never forgotten it, or her.
I started to plan lessons with a silent addendum, “What would Carli get out of this lesson?”, using her notional presence as a goad to ensure I never forgot that, even in the most warlike of educational theatres, there were children who needed me to throw them a rope.
I heard that she eventually left home and went to university, so I guess she got out. The memory of her is one of the greatest gifts and consolations I have had, in a profession where, like prospecting for gold, the effort invested is enormous but the returns are all too often crumbs.
Keeping your distance
The irony of teaching is that if you want to make a career of it, you have to dislocate yourself from caring too much about the pupils. If this sounds adamantine, consider the alternatives. A veteran nurse I know mentors trainee angels. In their first few weeks in the role they often shatter with the sadness of their job: laughing with patients one minute, wiping, plugging and bagging them the next.
When this happens, she takes them aside, gives them a tissue and a spot of sympathy, then says: “OK, that’s enough. Get the hell back out there and tell the family.” Because it’s a job, not a soap opera, and if you want to work closely with the fabric of people’s lives you have to be prepared for the guts as well as the glory. No surgeon would last a week if they were crushed by a patient turning from warm to cold on their table. To think otherwise is a romantic fiction that helps no one.
So, too, in teaching. If you leave every pore of empathy open to the emotional tsunamis of your pupils, you are asking for trouble. This is one of the first lessons all new teachers have to learn, especially the ones who truly want to make a difference and have come to the job brimming with good intentions. Such hearts are ruined, dashed against the careless cliffs of the children’s indifference.
A good teacher’s skin must become hide, not gossamer. You need to care about pupils, but only in such a way that propels you to do your best for their best interests, not so that you rise and fall with their successes and failures, their appreciation and denigration. Because, if you do, there will be nothing left of you to scrape up from the rubber room.
Defying the odds
But there will always be pupils who pierce even this impermeability. For me, it was always children like Carli: children who defied the reductive algorithms of the scatter graph; children who wanted more from life than they were being offered and were prepared to do something about it, if they only had a little help. You can see them everywhere, not just in poor schools but especially in poor schools, where the disparity between possible and actual can seem like Death Valley.
Pupils like Malachi. I taught him many years ago when he started secondary school. Malachi had also had a bad start. He grew up in an extended family where prison was a graduation and a confirmation, disputes were settled with fists and school was an inconvenience until work could be found.
He was a thorn in every lesson he invaded - some of them his own. But he seemed to respond to me (and don’t think I assume some responsibility for this miracle; the alchemy of a teaching relationship often seems as much to do with stellar alignment as it does with method and intention). He had been an altar boy as a child and I teach RE. Some vestigial affection and affinity had perhaps survived his late infancy. Who knows?
When I asked him to make a project about the person who inspired him, I did not expect him to do anything - bringing a pen into school was the 12th labour of Hercules for Malachi. Of course, the gods love hubris, so Malachi came in with his piece (a month late, naturally), an eight-page love letter to his mother: photographs, biography, interview, the whole gold package. If he had been my own boy I could not have felt more proud.
Later on in school our timetables clashed and I lost him. Years later I heard he had been arrested for rioting in the summer of 2011, so I guess we had all lost him by that point. I can still see the altar boy and the family photos glued on to cardboard, and I wonder when you stop giving a damn about people.
There are others like that. Often, it is their wounds that bind you to them. The child who scrapes up the courage after weeks to tell you that he is being bullied; the fragile mute who discloses abuse; the girl who explains that she does not want to marry the man of her parents’ dreams. And you know that nothing you can do will unstitch the past, or even the present, so you try to make their future an ounce brighter.
There is a line in James Cameron’s box-office smash Avatar where the grizzled colonel tells the new marines, “It is my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed.” The stakes are not quite so high in our job, but they are close. We are a fraction, a shard in our pupils’ journeys, but cumulatively an important one. We can touch the lives of so many children as they pass through our classes that we can forget we touch them at all.
I once had to speak to a young girl after class who could not stop crying. When she was composed enough to talk, she indicated a harmless “Well done” I had given her for her homework (I did not win any prizes for that piece of formative assessment). A puzzled interrogation revealed that she had never been praised for anything before, at home or in school.
In a Year 1 class I was observing, I kept a tiny cannonball in at break for punching kids in the cricket box. When I told him I thought he could be a very good boy if he tried, he replied: “Momma says I’m a bad seed an’ wicked.” Momma was a social worker. This was my first introduction to the scope of damage that children can accumulate in just a few years, and that conversation moved me like few have since.
The invisible children
It is not all drama: sometimes children can bring down your walls not with a trumpet, but with a whisper. If you teach any invisible children, you will know who I mean: children who never get in trouble, never excel, rarely stand out and only speak when tortured. If we pause for a second as we dash between wrestling with the unruly and raising the bars at either pole of the ability atlas, we can hear the silent sigh of a million pupils who do not clamour for our attention.
I am all for a quiet life, and we only have so much time, but I think we are all guilty of neglecting a silent majority. I once overheard a pupil saying, “They don’t even know I’m in the class”, and I prayed they were not referring to me. I promised I would try to never make a pupil feel like that.
Sometimes you remember pupils because they teach you something. Jayne failed every test she sat; she was in the bottom set for every subject and proved everyone right every time they asked her to show how dumb she was.
In my GCSE class she scraped by with a C. When she asked if I would teach her at A level I did the stupid thing and said yes, more from sentimentality than design. She crashed at AS with an unambiguous U. She asked to be allowed to continue, and because I was naive and unwise, I said yes. Jayne finished the year with an A, and my amazement. I even asked for a re-mark, so convinced was I that the admin had stumbled. It was sound.
I asked her how she did it and she said: “I was tired of losing. I went home and read and read the books until I knew it all.” If it goes in the net, it is a goal. Jayne reminded me that human beings are bundles of furious, endless reinvention, not the product of calculus and cause, and that we exceed and defy attempts to codify our ambition.
The ones who get you are the ones who surprise you by showing that you are needed. Who honour you by allowing you to help them. And who remind you that no one should be alone.
Tom Bennett is TES’s behaviour expert and the author of The Behaviour Guru and Not Quite a Teacher. Read more from Tom on his blog, behaviourguru.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter at @tombennett71. His latest book, Teacher, is out now, published by Continuum.
CASE STUDY: STEPHANIE
In the year 2000, in a Manchester primary where uniform was rarely worn, I taught a scared-looking, skinny little girl from a very large family.
There was a Jones in almost every single class in the school. One brother had stolen his teacher’s mobile, as he had been commanded to by another brother. But his conscience got the better of him and, having stolen it back from his brother, he returned it without a battery and with a different cover.
Stephanie was in my Reception class. I gave her clothing every now and again and slowly she came out of her shell and began to work really hard. She went on to Year 1 with a zest for learning and I was so proud of her.
I was only on a temporary contract and so left to work elsewhere. On a course five years later, I bumped into a teacher from Stephanie’s school and asked excitedly all about her. I was told that she was so small she was used by her brothers to climb through open windows and help them break into houses.
I think about her a lot and hope she looks for a better life for herself.
CASE STUDY: JACK
I met Jack when he was in Year 7. He was unable to feed himself or go to the toilet on his own; he would not look at you and he would answer any question with “I don’t know” - if he answered at all.
I fell in love with this autistic child and looked after him until he finished Year 11, with the help of some wonderful learning assistants. When his mother was involved in a serious road accident, he was distraught, and I spent all of my free time and lunch times with him.
After a while he started to actually answer my questions. I looked after him for five years as his individual special needs teacher, and I was with him during his Year 11 exams, sitting with him in between sessions and having an incredible time. By the end of Year 11 he was able to hold a conversation, asking me: “Miss, what are you going to do during your holidays?”
I cried when I had to say goodbye to Jack, my wonderful, amazing, autistic pupil. I will remember him forever: he made my job as a special educational needs teacher unbelievably worthwhile.