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A teacher’s messages of despair from the front line


TODAY, the Conservative Woman publishes the first of two letters of complaint from a practising supply teacher to her school bosses after which she wrote in desperation to education correspondent Chris McGovern:

‘At the end of a lesson, one boy came up and was fiddling with the things on the teacher’s desk. I told him it wasn’t his area of the classroom and to leave his teacher’s things alone. He grabbed a pencil and walked off. I followed him, held out my hand and told him to give me back the pen. His response was to hold the pen up high, throw it across the room shout, “Go fetch”.’

This picture of the teacher-pupil relationship has come to me from a practising teacher. To protect her identity and her career I shall call her Anna. She has been brave enough to send me a copy of letters she has written to management at two schools where she worked recently as a supply teacher.

‘. . . so appalled was I at the behaviour I encountered there. One school did not bother to even acknowledge my e-mail. The other school sent such a whitewash of a letter, so played down the behaviour I’d seen, that I was disgusted.’

It takes some guts to break the code of silence that schools impose on their staff. Her experience, sadly, is neither atypical or unusual. It is, though, supposed to be ‘hush-hush’. Head teachers prefer that their teachers do not speak out. Mum’s the word!

Even the 40 per cent or more of new teachers who flee the job within five years are inclined to say little beyond vague references to poor discipline as a reason for calling it a day. Their ritual humiliation in the classroom is not something to which they wish to admit – understandably so.

I have written before that, with a recruitment and retention crisis, the teaching profession and the Department for Education need to face up to some harsh realities about the job.

Some of those realities are reflected in Anna’s two letters. They were both written during the past twelve months but at different schools in a rural, non-crime ridden part of England.

Extracts from Letter 1

. . . in each class there were a small number of students who were pleasant, cooperative and helpful and who tried to get on with their work.

However, they didn’t get much work done at all, because of the bad behaviour of the rest of their classmates and the noise that they made:

1. Pupils having to be told sometimes four times to take off their coat or to take out something to write with when they entered the classroom.

2. Several pupils were given verbal warnings and then the second time told to go to (colleague’s name), but they refused to leave the classroom.

3. Papers were thrown up in the air and allowed to scatter on the floor. When I asked a boy (who I knew had been throwing paper aeroplanes and generally contributing to the mess on the classroom floor) to help clear up, it was met with, ‘You do it. You’re older and I’m not your slave.’

4. I moved a girl to separate her and her friend, as they were talking despite being told to stop several times. For this I was told, ‘You’re pathetic’.

5. I asked a pupil ‘Could you do x?’ (give out the textbooks, perhaps?) and the response was ‘You haven’t said “please”. Say “please” and perhaps I will.’

6. The computer at the teacher’s desk was switched off at the wall. I was on the opposite side of the classroom from the teacher’s desk, and I looked round to find a student sitting there in the teacher’s place.

7. I confiscated something (some earphones I believe) until the end of a lesson and put them in the drawer of the desk. The pupil was sent to (colleague’s name), and wanted to take the earphones before he went. I replied that he would have to come back to the classroom at the end of the lesson to collect them. He came up to the desk, calmly opened the drawer and took out the earphones.

8. I was making a list of those I’d given verbal warnings to and one boy snatched it out of my hand and ripped it up.

9. I was sworn at (the f word).

10. I was imitated a number of times.

11. A girl walked in unannounced three minutes before the end of one period, with ‘I’m in your lesson, darlin’. I was also called ‘bruv’ and ‘boy’.

12. Pupils in Year 10 and 11 were loudly talking to each other, and calling across the classroom using sexualised language, talking about Tinder and Grindr, and a rhyme that I think went: ‘Bend over and touch your toes, let me show you where the rocket goes.’

13. Another boy took a sizeable stack of untouched lined paper, screwed it up and threw it in the bin.

Welcome to the teaching profession! Small wonder that we have a problem attracting and keeping teachers. Tomorrow, I will publish Letter 2 from Anna. Anyone considering a career in teaching would be advised to read it.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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