The Blackboard Jungle

days spent beating back the seeds of doubt

Friday, January 28, 2005

A post on survival at Remote Access has set off the free-thinking ruminant inside:
"I really wonder how a lot of people survive. When I read the blogs of teachers like Ms. Frizzle, hipteacher and others I wonder how they get up and march into the classroom every morning. [...] So how do you face 100+ kids every day who you don't know? Who you will never know? How do you deal with thugs in your building, with the dangers of going to work everyday?"
I teach at a school with over 1700 students. The average number of students a teacher at my school deals with in a week is approximately 250. Should the timetable be a bad one that year, this could double to cover classes split between two teachers.
(This year's particularly bad; several classes are faced with five teachers per fortnight for just one subject.)

I live one mile away from where I teach, and see students all the time. It's a pleasure to see them - especially to see past students. It was only years ago when I lived further away that I would have any problems; as I would speed off to my swanky pad in the city, leaving the rough tumbledown estates where the students live, a feeling that I was holidaying in their lives would materialise, as they reminded me through thuggish behaviour and sour faced snarls of the more brutal aspects of their upbringing.

Living round here, it feels as if we're all in the same boat. Those students I see at the weekend, who I chat with in the local park, are always, without fail, better behaved in class for it. They know I gossip with their parents in the supermarket, and are more reluctant to put a foot wrong.

I like teaching such a wide, multitudinous range of children.

  • Nobody in my job gets bored.

  • Nobody in my job stares out of the window wondering when the clock will hit five. It's rare to find someone's words or responses predictable, to assume before meeting it what the day will hold.

  • If I have a bad class, another, more energetic, more enquiring set of minds will be along within fifty minutes.

  • I don't spend my day surfing blogs and pretending I've been getting on with making money for some faceless corporation who do nothing fruitful in the world.

  • I enjoy facing unanswerable questions on an hourly basis, or figuring out just the words, the attitude, the psychological mix of interaction that will make your toughest student crack, give up the ghost and risk his self-respect by trying something new.

  • I'm not couched in a meeting room with a surfeit of tea, flipcharts and biscuits to distract me from auditory torpor.

  • It's rare enough for a teacher in the inner city schools to even sit down.

Not knowing students in such a large school can be problematic, but I have taught there for nearly ten years, so if I don't know a child, I often know a brother, an uncle, a cousin, and one day I'll know their parents, too. Meeting such huge numbers of people on whose lives you've had a positive benefit has its own rewards.

Kids aren't born thugs, and it's a very small minority who stay thugs. They often seem to be happy with the choice to act like a thug as a defence, and are waiting for us, the adults, to open an opportunity for them to find other ways to behave.

It's our job to make those other modes of being safe for them, in a world that sometimes patently is not safe.

I don't know the answers.

Yet I'm mostly optimistic.

These are children, after all, not lifers in a high security institution. We have to be able to see the positive potential in a child, if we're ever to winkle it out.