Updated: Jan 22, 2020
My credibility was in the balance. Establishing boundaries with my own top set and special needs classes was essential if I was to win over the staff. So, when five pupils arrived late for my first lesson with Year 11 at Eydon Vale, I was draconian. I lined them up at the front of the classroom and surveyed them with a death stare. "From now on, you will all arrive on time, with homework at the ready. Next lesson, the last person to come through that door will be sanctioned. We do not have a moment to lose. As the top set, you will have to be the pacemakers for the rest of the school.
“I shall be taking you through to your GCSEs. From now until May, you will be receiving written homework twice a week. I shall also be leading your catch-up classes in English every Monday evening. And this weekend, I shall be here for your Saturday morning lesson. Your parents have all signed contracts, giving their consent. These extra lessons are not voluntary. I expect all of you to be here on time. If I suspect you have gone to your Saturday job, I shall phone your employer there and then."
The first lesson on the Year 11s’ anthology was not a success. What was clear, though, was that I was going to be incredibly strict. However, I also emphasised the importance of intellectual freedom. “You will learn at least as much from each other as from me,” I told them. “My view of literature will reflect my life experience, but yours will mirror a teenager’s. A 50-year old’s reading will be different from a 15 year old’s; a boy’s from a girl’s. We will start by practising reading aloud. Each of you, in turn, will read a short section of this unseen poem. Then I shall wait until one of you makes a comment or asks me a question. I shall be looking for perceptive readings. You will teach each other how to think.
“Everyone in the class will learn to make at least one comment every lesson. English is not like any other subject. In Physics and History, it takes years of study to become an expert, but anyone of your age can get to the heart of a poem, provided that you read it carefully and reflect on it with full attention. What I want is for someone to ask me a question to which I don’t know the answer or make a comment which I have never heard before. I know it's hard, especially the first time, but I want you to jump off that cliff! Now, who would like to read the first section of Maura Dooley’s poem: ‘Letters from Yorkshire’?”
It was only later that I discovered the reason for my pupils’ tardiness. In her brief period as Acting Head, Miss Starr had staggered the pupils’ breaks to reduce the scrimmage at the playground doors. Older pupils had been pushing against them, hurting the younger ones in the crush. She wanted different year groups to be allowed into the playground at different times, but her scheme was almost impossible to supervise effectively.
After consulting Miss Starr, we agreed to simplify the system. As I told the next staff briefing, “We have been sending ambiguous signals about time and space. Some of you are releasing children before the lesson bell or letting them come back into school before the agreed times, leaving ownership of the corridors with the children, just when we adults ought to be maximising control. We need to clarify the boundaries.”
In my next Year 11 assembly, I told the pupils they would be kept on the playground until the bells rang. I would be looking for suitable volunteers to act as prefects on the doors. None was forthcoming.