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Another brick in the wall

By Bruce Pinnock

A recent survey revealed that 40% of new teachers resign after their first year.1

Unteachable pupils was one of the major reasons given for the exodus.

(When I related this to a colleague who had taught in the United Kingdom, he was amazed for a different reason. “Only 40%?” he quipped. “And why did it take them a full year to get out?”)

As we all know, the first year of teaching is no bed of roses. But then again, no one promised us a rose garden. And once the pie-in-the-sky preconceptions about the nobility of teaching and wide-eyed eager pupils and other starry-eyed ideals are shattered, the great transformation (from mere teacher to noble schoolmaster) can begin.

When the new recruit Mr ‘X’ arrived at our school, he was, for all the world to see, a shrinking violet. His first words were an apology – seemingly for the effrontery of simply being there. I would have felt better about his prospects if Mother Nature had endowed him with more of a chin. His almost non-existent lower jaw receded into his Adam’s apple, causing it to bob nervously. And it was matched by a voice that, at best, mumbled. The term ‘misfit’ sprang to mind – what my mother would have called “an odd-bod”. But he was one of the endangered species – a science teacher. We needed him, however much we quailed at the prospect of having to prop up his discipline – or lack of it.

There is no way of providing much more than superficial support for a newly qualified teacher, even when you know he has to face the most difficult class in the school. If the teacher is to make it, he must make it on his own in his classroom. The best anyone else can do is be ready to man the fire hoses when chaos erupts.

We watched apprehensively, speculating idly about the need for riot gear when the dreaded Grade 9F entered his lab. We were ready to stick a head in and say tactful things like, “Are you quite happy to have those boys mixing explosive chemicals?” or “Are they allowed to throw beakers and pipettes at the boy swinging on the fan?” But, instead, like the biblical multitude, we were amazed by a seeming miracle.

We watched apprehensively, speculating idly Even before we looked in there was that sound… you know it – that absorbed buzz of pupils working. There was orderly practical work happening. Animated pupils were heads-down in small groups doing experiments. The teacher moved easily and comfortably among them. Boys – the ones who, courtesy of other teachers, virtually camped in disgrace outside the headmaster’s office – were asking for advice – politely. When he spoke to the entire class, he did no more than ask for quiet once, and there was silence. His mumble had become the voice of gentle authority. And they listened.

We retired, somewhat chastened. And incredibly the miracle was sustained. Mr ‘X’ got the best out of 9F for the rest of the year. How did this strange man, so socially awkward with adults, get it right?

The best I can offer is that the world of adults confused Mr ‘X’. He was at home in the world of youngsters. But it was more than that. It seemed that he instinctively engaged with the ‘soul’ of a troubled class community. The stark honesty of the young teens’ world, brutal though it sometimes could be, held no threat for him. He related to it. And so they responded to him. He was no threat to them.

However, the world of adults with its hidden agendas, and layers of politeness and seeming kindnesses – sometimes sincere, sometimes not, sometimes accepting, but mostly rejecting – confused him. In the same way, the troubled boys in the class struggled to come to terms with their encounters with the adult world. The only difference was that instead of becoming defensively apologetic, they responded with aggressive misbehaviour.

Perhaps, from among his pupils, due to his influence, teachers to replace the fleeing 40% would emerge.

1. See, for example:

Category: Regular Columns, Winter 2015

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