7 kids in 7 days

This page collects the posts from my popular 7 kids series in one convenient place.

Day 1: Caitlin

I haven’t talked much about kids on here. This is mainly, perhaps, because I had no idea how much of an influence SLT and colleagues would be on my day-to-day, and I want to share that. But the kids are the ones I’m in a room with for four or five hours a day – so if I want to give you an accurate picture of a challenging school, it’s only right I describe them.

Over the next seven days I’m going to tell you about seven kids who I believe, altogether, typify my school community. Hopefully it will help some prospective teachers to get a bit more insight into the world inside the school gates.

It goes without saying that details have been merged/altered/removed and names have been changed.

I’ll start with Caitlin.

Caitlin got a level 3 in her key stage 2 SATS – the level that upper middle class parents of non-SEN children shudder a little at. She’s been playing catch up her whole school career. If we push her, she should get those all important Cs in maths and English. Where she excels, though, is Health and Social Care.

If you look at her file, there’s a note about her low literacy level, but in this school that’s nothing special and it doesn’t mean she gets any special support. She’s quite easily overlooked, in fact. Being in the lower sets, there are often “high profile” badly behaved kids who surround her who get the attention.

Caitlin can’t do any of her times tables apart from the 2s. She often counts on her fingers. She can draw a perfect cumulative frequency diagram, though. She’s been failed, frankly, by a maths curriculum that shuns mastery.

Times Table Rock Stars were initially the WORST. THING. EVER. according to Caitlin. She’s come round now that she’s seeing the successful strides she’s made. That won’t stop her complaining about the fact I play Led Zeppelin and not Taio Cruz, though.

Caitlin is a pretty normal teenager. Her two passions are street dance club and One Direction. Don’t even MENTION Justin Bieber in front of her: that’sso year 8.

There is nothing Caitlin loves more than hearing about your personal life. If you mention a boyfriend in passing, she’ll ask you whether you’re seeing him tonight in every lesson forevermore. But she’s charming with it. She knows the time and place to ask, and won’t push it when you say “back to work” like other students do.

Caitlin wouldn’t tell you she hates your subject, but it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. She spent the first term flying under your radar a little too much for comfort. She probably got away with slacking for a while. She doesn’t want to disappoint you, though. It usually only takes a raised eyebrow and calling her name to get her back on task.

She has had the odd temper tantrum or two over the year, however. She’s very attuned to “fairness”. Putting her name on the board when Shanice and Chloe were also talking can make Caitlin shut down for the remainder of the lesson. She can’t believe how unfair you are. The rest of the lesson can then go two ways. You catch her being good, give some praise and she’s back to normal. Or you have to reprimand her again. She will dramatically drape herself over her book and put her coat over her head or storm out to find her form tutor. She’s picked up these techniques from her peers; stick her in a grammar school and she wouldn’t dare react like that, I’m sure.

At parents evening, mum and dad both show up, neatly dressed and keen. They tell you they were rubbish at maths at school. You wince a little on the inside at this statement, but smile and tell them you have full confidence in Caitlin. She can do it.

Mum and Dad bring Caitlin’s severely autistic brother along. You see her being fiercely protective. You find renewed admiration for Caitlin. She never complains, never uses it as an excuse.

After half term, you look at the set changes. Bummer. All your best kids have moved up a set, including Caitlin. But then you tell yourself of course the top kids have moved up: that’s how set change works! You’re really happy for Caitlin. Moving up puts her into the D/C borderline group for next year – right where she needs to be to succeed.

You see her in the corridor later on and tell her she’s moved up. She squeals and jumps about excitedly with her friends. Then she anxiously chews her lip. “Miss, I don’t think I’ll like set 3. I’ll miss having you teaching me”

I’ll miss teaching you, too, Caitlin.

 

Day 2: Darnel

Ohhh Darnel. Darnel Darnel Darnel.

I really don’t understand this troubled young man – and not for want of trying.

I first encountered Darnel when he swaggered into my classroom 10 minutes late, quoting expletive filled rap lyrics. His trousers were halfway down his bum. Baseball cap on his belt. Patterns carved in his hair. He did not follow instructions, unless he felt like it.

So far, so standard: Darnel thinks he’s a badman. Get the Head of Year in, get the parents in… bosh. Darnel’s story has complexities, however.

Darnel is in bottom set in every subject. He has complex speech and language difficulties. Digging into Darnel’s SEN history was a nightmare: chock a block of random unsorted attachments including doctor’s appointment slips, scribbled notes, percentage scores for batteries of tests given with no context, and vague, euphemistic filled accounts of past behaviour. It took me a long time to actually figure out his history. He was speech delayed. He still has trouble interpreting multi-step audible instructions. His sentences are often poorly structured and can be hard to understand. He tends to mumble and sometimes stutters.

Darnel is massively embarrassed by his special needs. This means he will often rather pretend to be deliberately defying you than admit he doesn’t know what to do. Darnel will try to make jokes or rap to distract his peers from his incapacities. It took me too long to realise this was what he did sometimes. I thought he was just being deliberately obstructive.

A further complication is Darnel’s parents. Darnel’s mum babies and spoils him. She is protective and defensive. Darnel’s dad is completely the other way. He calls Darnel stupid and weird and a freak. He beats him. Hard. A lot. Threatening to phone dad is the only thing that will get Darnel to sit down and be quiet. (Yes, social services know. No, they’re not doing anything about it).

The inclusion department make a lot of apologies for Darnel. The SENCO feels desperately sorry for him. Talking to form tutors and higher-ups gets the response, “well, that’s Darnel. He’s SEN.” More generally, I feel like we’re basically expected to babysit the very bottom set; concern for productive learning is seen as crazy talk.

These factors all combine and mean I really struggle with dealing with Darnel. All the questions swirling around make my head hurt.

What do high expectations look like in this context?

When is he defying me and when does he genuinely not understand?

Why does Darnel choose to defy clear rules on things like uniform when heknows he will get detention for them?

How much can I allow this individual to disrupt 14 other children’s education before I resort to threatening to phone dad – or actually phoning dad?

 

 

Day 3: Laura

The student data coordinator, Jill, catches you in the staffroom. “Can I have a word with you about Laura McDowell?”, she asks.

Laura McDowell. You say the name. It sounded familiar but you’re not quite sure why.

“She’s in your year 8 class”

Ah yes. Laura. The name you’ve just started skipping when you take the register because she’s never present.

You remember asking Laura’s form tutor in passing earlier in the year about her. Apparently Laura’s mum fell out with the school and announced she was moving Laura to a different school. But that’s not enough for Laura to come off our registers: she needs to be enrolled at a new school before that happens. This seems to be taking an awfully long time to sort out.

No matter. Jill has an update. Laura attended her new school for a day and didn’t like it. She wants to come back to our school again. Apparently we can expect her as soon as tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes and goes with no sign of Laura. As does the following week. It becomes clear that Laura is not the biggest fan of any school.

You hear that the EWO – educational welfare officer, or “wag man” – is ramping up his involvement in Laura’s case. Something he’s done must’ve worked, because she’s in your lesson the very next day.

You’re not sure what to expect from Laura, but her first lesson with you goes fairly well. She is notable only for how quiet she is.

Over the next few weeks her attendance floats around the 60% mark. Internal truancy is becoming an issue now. You see her for one or two lessons a week.

You’ve noticed Laura would much rather use her exercise book for notes to friends and paper balls than any Maths. She also seems to have found more of a voice now. She’s particularly vocal when it comes to one boy – Abdi. She finds him annoying. She is right. Abdi is annoying. But still, you can’t condone the string of expletives – some racial – heading his way.

After weeks of “learning” in your lesson, Laura has a page and a half of work in her exercise book to show for it.

Laura’s presence is becoming really detrimental to the class at this point. She is silly, with no will to work whatsoever, and is dragging some of her friends down with her.

Laura’s mum does not allow her to stay after school for any reason, including detentions. Furthermore, she is a champion evader of lunchtime detentions. You resort to stationing yourself outside the classroom she’s in during period 4 on a Monday – the only day you have period 4 free – so that you can actually pick her up before she goes to lunch. When she runs away from you, you realise it’s time it gets referred up. You tell your head of department. She gets put in for a more serious SLT detention. She’s absent the day that goes ahead. There is no follow up.

The idea of phoning home is laughable. Mum only makes Laura go to school because she’ll go to court otherwise. She doesn’t care about actualeducation.

You have resorted to getting On Call to remove Laura whenever she starts throwing paper now. Which is exactly what she wants to happen. Then she can sit slyly looking at her phone in the back of another classroom.

You feel guilty for basically giving up on this girl. But when children are – almost literally – throwing their education away deliberately and forcefully, you feel certain that your energies could be better applied elsewhere.

You find yourself saying to your colleague “you can lead a horse to water…”. It’s a phrase many holier-than-thou teachers shun. You sit, staring at Laura’s attendance records, and wonder how many Lauras they really have in their schools.

 

 

Day 4: Tyrone

In the horrible, dark days of December, there was only one class that I actively looked forward to. This was mainly because it was the one class that I could get through without a student being rude to me in some shape or form. Class 8a1 was that lovely class.

Chief amongst the gems was a shining diamond called Tyrone. Tyrone was, and is, a legend.

Tyrone is faultlessly polite, wonderfully enthusiastic and astoundingly good at mathematics. His answers to open questions are so elegantly expressed I want to write them down and frame them. If I’ve planned a shoddy uninteresting and unchallenging lesson, Tyrone’s impassive and unenthused face will say it all. Must try harder.

One early conversation with Tyrone broke my heart a little. I’d given him a UK Maths Challenge problem to try as an extension. His response was, “oh cool! I saw a question like this on the Hogwarts entrance test”. Hogwarts is the only remaining grammar school in the area. I have no doubt that Tyrone would have soared like an eagle there. Yeah, he may do that here too, but one can’t deny the probability of excelling is lower. I just pray he stays on the right path and doesn’t get sucked into the local gang culture or any other negative influences.

Now, the million pound question has to be why aren’t Laura and Darnel like Tyrone? They all went to the same mediocre primary school, live on the same estate and have uneducated parents.

Is it talent? I haven’t made my mind up about the whole Growth mindsets and Bounce thing. Attitude is undoubtedly important but natural ability surely comes into it too. Tyrone’s talent feels so natural that one can’t imagine it being any different, but feelings aren’t exactly reliable cognitive science.

Is it his parents’ attitude? Tyrone does have incredibly dedicated parents. They barely speak English but that doesn’t stop them from doing everything they can to help him succeed. They are unabashedly pushy. Tyrone does extra work in the holidays and weekends. He is in the chess club and reading group. When I phoned home to say how fantastically Tyrone had done in his end of term assessment – getting the highest mark in the year – his mum cried and just kept repeating “God bless you”. His parents support him to the ends of the earth.

Is it exposure, knowledge and practice? All that reading and extra work gives Tyrone a really solid knowledge base. He’s got a reading age of 14. He has a flawless mathematical grounding in terms of times tables, square numbers, powers of two and all that malarky. It really does make a massive difference. He makes connections lightning fast. His basic arithmetic doesn’t hold him back like it does for that vast majority of the students I teach.

Is it his hard work? Tyrone is always striving and is hungry for more work, more challenge and that feeling of success. He is not scared of work. Hewants hard questions. He is not interested in the gossip about which 12-year-old is now going out which other 12-year-old. The focus is maths.

It’s probably a combination of all the above. But by god, that combination is potent. If only we could bottle it.

 

 

Day 5: Malachi

I do not teach Malachi, but I’ve known his name since September. He is a BNOC.

Malachi is the politest child I see in and around school. Every adult is Miss or Sir. Doors are held open for adults. He’ll offer to carry your books for you if you’re struggling. He makes appropriate small talk: “how’s your day been, Miss?” None of that nonsense for his peers. But he does the teenage equivalents – whatever they may be – so his peers are enamoured with him too. The girls swoon around him. Basically, he’s incredibly socially switched on.

I have never seen Malachi lose his cool with a teacher or even be remotely rude. But he is more than happy to flout the rules in many other ways. He is one of the most prolific sellers in school. The last time the vice principal confiscated his bag she found over £50 and dozens of chocolate bars, doughnuts and fizzy drinks. He often implicated in “rushing”: a group of kids charging at at another group of kids – one form against another, one year against another, one ethnicity against another…

To be honest, I get why Malachi does it. In this school, the structures and clarity aren’t there for effective sanctions. The inconsistency makes the gamble worth it. And his charming ways extend to eloquent apologies, which mean punishments are inevitably softened. Malachi sees his misbehaviour as victimless, having fun and making some money in a place which otherwise offers very little to him. He’s a bright boy and school isn’t stretching or inspiring him.

Malachi loves being at school because it’s basically a glorified youth club. But in 15 years time, this clever kid will be 30, with underwhelming qualifications. I fear he may then look back and consider school the best days of his life. Which is pretty tragic. School should be but the starting point.

It’s our job to maximise the long term future happiness and success of the future Malachis, Sarahs, Abdis and Pauls in our care. However much they are enjoying the here and now of school, you only have to look at our exam results and leaver destinations to conclude we’re failing at that.

I love Malachi, but increasingly I find him frustrating. More accurately, I find it frustrating to see him unintentionally undermining the school’s authority and systems. He is a perfect example of what’s holding the school back from being a truly orderly, productive, learning-filled environment.

Hmm. Orderly, productive, learning filled environment. What does that sounds like? Oh, yeah. A school.

I’d nearly forgotten.

 

 

Day 6: Arianne

Arianne has 800 negative behaviour points logged this year. Given the average incident garners 2 points, that’s 400 incidents of poor behaviour since September.

But this is hardly a fair representation of the havoc she causes. Scroll through a standard students’ file, and they’ll have a handful of points for missed detentions and forgotten homeworks. There are no such points for Arianne. Does she not get set homework? Does she never get detentions? Course not. Teachers just realise they have to focus on frying the big fish or they’d be on the laptop all day talking about her.

In my first week, Arianne called me a “fucking tranny”. A few weeks later, she deliberately snapped every single ruler, protractor and pencil stored at the front of the classroom for later use in that lesson, because I’d made her angry by putting her name on the board for talking over me. Not long after that, she squared up to a boy in class and told him he was a dirty homo and liked it up the bum.

The response from every member of staff – from my colleagues in the maths office, SMT, and behaviour support officers – has been “just log it on SIMS”. Everyone knows Arianne’s treading the predictable path that leads to permanent exclusion. They just need enough evidence to make the case to governors and make sure it’s upheld.

Arianne is now in year 9, though. Arianne has been at risk of permanent exclusion since the first term in year 7. The scale and extent of disruption and hurt Arianne has caused is horrifying to contemplate.

I once looked into her record from primary school. The euphemisms started early on. She was “lively” in year 3. A “kinaesthetic learner”. She had “trouble making friends”. In year 4, Arianne was excluded for 3 days for assaulting a teacher. This was the first of half a dozen she’d acquire under the age of 11. In year 6, Arianne was asked to take the last few weeks of term off, because things had got too much. The primary school felt she could “do with a fresh start” in her new secondary school. This essentially amounted to brushing the problems under the carpet, minimising communication between relevant services, and starting to create the perfect storm for secondary.

Arianne has a SEN label of BESD. This is not provide an explanation of her behaviour – it’s just a description. The label has given her access to a series of short term interventions that seem to have had little impact. She’s had anger management classes a plenty. Still didn’t stop her flipping over my table hulk-style when the TA asked her to do some work.

The main effect of the BESD label has been providing an excuse. No longer is her poor behaviour a choice. It is an inevitable consequence of her special needs. No longer is there any need to dig deeper to find a solution: she’s on the SEN register. It’s just how it has to be.

I’m sure the system does not have to work this way. I read about a primary teacher who worked really hard to get kids off the SEN register by working with parents to provide focused support until they could work successfully in the mainstream context. But not here.

I believe that the vast, vast majority of the population is capable of exercising control over their behaviour. But if that basic standard really is not possible for Arianne, by god, she should have gone to specialist provision years ago. If we’re going to decide a child is incapable of taking responsibility for their own actions and behaving properly, someone else needs to step in and take that responsibility for them. That takes money, resources and time. There’s no denying that. But at the moment these uncontrollable children are operating in a responsibility vacuum, insulated by layers of obfuscation and excuses.

Whether you’re an apologist for Arianne or you think she’s a disgrace, everyone agrees that she is not containable in a mainstream school. This has been clear for years. The idea that we just have to wait it out until her behaviour record gets long enough to kick her out helps absolutely nobody. It is the inclusion agenda at its absolute worst.

 

 

Day 7: Fawsia

My final 7 days blog isn’t on a particularly high profile kid. In fact, she’s pretty well hidden. I’m writing her story last for precisely that reason.

Fawsia goes to school day-in, day-out without attracting much attention.

Fawsia was a casual admission to our school half a year ago. She spoke no English. After a short induction programme, she was whisked into the mainstream classroom. After a few weeks of the silent period, she started to speak a little in class, but she will rarely volunteer answers and her English is still very broken.

There are two main reasons I want to talk about Fawsia. The first relates to my experience of trying to teach her maths. Fawsia was placed in the second from bottom set. I remember her coming into my class on that late November afternoon with her pristine timetable clutched to her chest. She looked terrified. This set contained some of the rowdiest characters in school, and a clueless and exhausted Teach Firster trying to control them. It wasn’t going well. I looked at her face and felt intensely guilty. I knew I wouldn’t be able to give her the maths education she deserved.

Patience is a virtue that this class lack distinctly. Though I can now get them to sit up, listen, and do some work, a tantrum or drama or fight is mere moments away. Misbehaviour is most of the pupils’ main preoccupation. CONSTANT VIGILANCE is the teachers’ survival tactic for the class. The idea that I could set students off on a task, go over to Fawsia and spend an extended time helping her understand is a pipe dream. I’ve tried. I get 3 words in and it’s “Donnel, sit down”. Back to square numbers when “Shanice, it helps if your book is open. Sorry Fawsia. So if you multiply.. Donnel, your choice is to sit down or to get 15 minutes after school. Where was I? JAYDON, hands to yourself”.

The rowdy kids in the class are actually doing really well now. My lessons are engineered to manage that mass of disruptive pupils. An extremely firm, fast paced approach works for them: they’re not bored, and they don’t try it on. But students like Fawsia get pushed to the sidelines. My pedagogical decisions are forced upon me by my concern for behavioural issues rather than anything else. Again, I feel guilty, but at the moment I see little alternative.

The second reason I want to talk about Fawsia is because of her background. Fawsia has come to the UK from Sudan. She has lived a tragic and conflict-ridden life. She is a victim of female genital mutilation. Her life in Sudan was one of great poverty. She watched her mother die. She was sent over to the UK to live with an aunt and uncle she had never met before.

I don’t want to get into judging and ranking the tragicness of childhoods, but I’d say Fawsia’s early life seems difficult to say the least.

Despite this, it would never cross Fawsia’s mind to misbehave. She tries her hardest every day. She does what she’s told. She would certainly never talk back to a teacher. She goes to lesson after lesson seeming unremarkable to one teacher after another.

The allocation of resources to students in schools is basically based on how loud you shout, how badly behaved you are, how many problems you cause. I’m sure Fawsia could do with some counselling: she’d probably actually turn up to the sessions unlike a lot of the kids who do get that privilege. But Fawsia stays in the background, hidden.

Every time someone tells you a student can’t help but misbehave because of their tragic circumstances, think of Fawsia.

Every time someone rewards badly behaved students with school trips or even just personal attention, think of Fawsia.

Every time someone advocates including all the Ariannes in your classroom, think of Fawsia, sitting in the corner, having another hour of her education wasted.

Every time you’re planning or teaching or reflecting, try to think of Fawsia. Amongst the cacophony of the inner city school, you may be one of the only people that remembers to.

6 thoughts on “7 kids in 7 days

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