I have been now at my new school for three weeks. This interchangeability is new to me. I have had to find jobs based on vague business-card titles and well-established skills for most of my life. I am used to defending the fit of my bunch of skills for a vague need, now I am suddenly quite recognisable and well-defined. I am a secondary maths teacher. I am good for all your maths-teaching needs and was not tested on animals. Of course I am also new, uncertain and finding my feet.
So here I am at a new school. The new school is very, very different. Where the chic, slightly staid Gymnasium where I started debated academically (I kid thou not) which classical statue should be on the first floor veranda the new school is juggling many, many more pupils of a huge range of abilities and many, many different home languages. The new school covers every imaginable education option for a child that does not need significant psychiatric intervention. It is huge, welcoming untidy, overstretched and awesome. There is a little chaos, but so many chances offered, so much love.
So here I am falling in love with another school, with another batch of kids. Damn my foolish heart.
I am a London boy at heart and I find myself at ease in the rough multiculturalism of a London Tube Train. My classes in the Gymnasium where white-blond with the occasional lonely droplet of another skin colour. The new classes are much more the Tube and the Lewisham of my childhood. They bustle in in headscarves, leather jackets, glasses and fresh make-up and I take care to pronounce names correctly and make plenty of mistakes. They are a different kind of student. They are the children of capable, hard-working people who consider education a precious gift. These children work hard. They do not want me to cherry-pick the problems for them. They want a starting point and a deadline. They are there to learn.
Of course I am glib here, but this is the fruit of three weeks of not properly understanding, not being the right teacher. I almost blew a class. Damn my foolish head.
It came to a head with the second-years, an Arts class heavy on the teenage girls. They were impatient: their last-year maths teacher was a brimming bucket of awesome (damn his hide it is true) and they resented me a bit quite simply for not being him. I started out too friendly and frenetic, my uncertainties bringing out the clownish, fast-paced strategies of my childhood, my explanations too hurried and high level, my attention too scattered. I got one lesson of mercy and then they ripped me to bits.
So that was not fun. A class is separate entity from an individual child. One of my most vivid schoolday memories as a relatively sweet, intellectual child was of a student teacher stepping into oue classroom and the sudden visceral knowledge sweeping through me and every other child there that we could and in fact would shred her. Easily. I remember making a German teacher cry. It was just part of being the class we were.
So here I am on the other side of that dynamic. Having spent a lesson in a literal muck sweat, a lesson being massively strict and a lesson surviving I was kid of dreading seeing them today, particularly as their mentor had mentioned that they took pictures of me looking chubby and sweat-stained. So here I am walking into my next lesson with them.
So I just sat on a desk in the middle of the room and talked to them as to a friend. I talked, extensively about my feelings and my privacy. I emphasized that I would never, ever look in their phones at any of their pictures. I had a conversation about my privacy and theirs, about my mistakes and their expectations and they performed the little miracle that teenagers sometimes summon: being the best of their adult selves. They said well, your explanations were sometimes not good, but sometimes they were fine we were just missing our old teacher and not listening. We have deleted the pictures we took. Sorry. We suggest you talk more slowly and wear dark colours.
I heard everyone out and took notes. We made a deal. Then most of the class moved up to the front and asked me to go through the problems they did not get, slowly and carefully. I did that with extreme care and was rewarded with that most precious of teacher moments: the sacred look of surprise when something becomes clear, when an idea explodes into understanding and your brain turns the corner. We did maths and they high-fived me on the way out of the class.
Old Dog, but still wagging.