The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Thursday, January 20, 2005

One of the many really great things about my school, is that twice a year, we receive a day off timetable simply to mentor some of the kids we teach.
Given the turnover of around 150 kids per day running through lessons (not literally; at least, mostly not literally), on several occasions it can form the only opportunity to speak on a one-to-one basis with a quiet student.

Staff always moan about the disruption to the timetable, the imposition upon their marking and assessment time, the pointlessness of qualitative, rather than quantitative targets, myself included. But a day spent simply speaking to students is so rich, so interesting, that it's only an hour or two before I recover from my coffee-fug, and remember that this is actually what the job is about.

I ask my mentees to meet in groups, and try to form a buddy system between children of similar ability bands. We look at their assessments, consider the reliability of sources, compare across the group, analyse whether teachers' predictions were correct, which results are important, and which not so, contrasted against the expectations of the outside world into which they will be pushed in four short months' time.

We finish up with a suggestion box: what can the school do - or stop doing - to help them achieve the grades they need?

Rin and Nat are comparing notes on their progress.
I want Rin to calm down and modulate her efforts at school, allow herself to breathe; whereas Nat, a nice kid, a bright kid, is allowing himself to coast through his final year without getting wet.

Ms L: How much pressure do you feel like the school is putting you under? How are you handling it?
Rin: Waaaay too much. My mum goes mental at me every single day. If I buckle, she's always on at me, saying she's going to send me back to Jamaica till I make up my mind. I get pressure from everywhere, all the time. It's too much.
Nat leans back in his chair, crosses his ankles: No way. To be honest, I don't feel under pressure at all.

I ask if they'd revised for the exams last term. Rin had, Nat, not at all. That is, he'd revised for Religious Education, and his grade had gone down, so he'd decided any revision was a bad move.

Ms L: Okay, let's deal with the future. What colleges have you applied to, Nat?
Nat: Erm. The local one. That is, I picked up a form.
Ms L: You haven't been interviewed yet?
Nat: No. I thought I'd give in the form next week sometime. My mum was meant to find out when.
Ms L: Well, what grades do you need, to get onto your courses?
Nat: Erm.
Ms L: Rin, what about you? Where have you applied?
Rin reels off the names of seven well-known academic colleges, and adds in the local one as back-up: The Brits is my favourite, though, but they want two A's and five B's, whereas I'm one grade below that; also I don't specialise in the classical dance they prefer, so I'm not too hopeful.
Ms L: When did you put your forms in?
Rin: About a fortnight ago.
Ms L: Nat. How do you feel when you hear something like that? All those colleges that Rin's already applied for.
Nat grins sheepishly, stretches in discomfort. He shakes his head: Not too good.

Ms L: Let me ask you a personal question, if I may?
Nat: Okay.
Ms L: Rin needs to calm down. She's putting herself under way too much pressure. There's still four months to go,and she needs to sustain herself, not burn out. Do you see that? How she's responding differently?
Nat: Yeah. I don't feel that at all.
Ms L: My question to you, Nat, is when will you feel the pressure? Will you start to feel the pressure tooday, tomorrow, the day before the exam, or the day after everyone else has got into college? A little pressure is no bad thing. When will it scare you into to starting to do some work?
Nat: Yeah. I guess.
Ms L: When I talk to you about school, Nat, I get a particular impression. Things are happening to you, and it's as if you're a passenger in your own life. If your grades are down, it's because the teachers don't like you. You're a likeable kid. Nobody dislikes you to that extent. When your college applications aren't in, it's because your mum didn't warn you. Is that fair?
Nat: They don't like me! Miss Book won't let me go in the art office, and she lets Elizabeth every day!
Ms L: Nat, forgive me for saying it: you're a passenger. I'm trying to explain how what you say feels to hear. I want to know when you're going to be in the driving seat. When will you make decisions for yourself?
Nat: True.
Ms L: Nat, you are going to learn this lesson, one day. You are going to feel the pressure, because that's the way the world works. What you need to work out is, how many times will your life have to teach you this lesson, before you respond with a decision?

It may not trigger a response. But to hear that in front of a peer has at least some power, for a sixteen year old.

Our alternative route is systemised, paper-driven - is faceless five minute parent teacher interviews, is angry letters home from subject staff, is twice termly detention, and a report that consists of a list of numbers, spiralling steadily downwards.

Mentoring may not ever work for Nat. Yet I feel some pride that, here, twice a year, we give ourselves the space and time to try.