Everyton Comp was my second job in my career. I’d stepped up the ladder and was now 2nd in charge of English three years after qualifying. Well done me! Though by today’s standards I had taken my time and would now be considered unambitious… ‘just’ a classroom teacher. The bottom of the heap. The pariah of the educational community. The root of all evil, complacency and youth crime. However, in the old days you worked your way up, collecting experiences as you went, doing work for free to show you were willing to learn and wanted to make sure you did the best job possible. You did not turn up fresh from college or on the job training and dictate that your way was the most innovative, inspirational and original way of sitting children in rows.
Everyton was in a once thriving mining community in South Yorkshire. Now the village was a heap of scruffy council houses, unemployment and over worked social workers surrounded by more affluent villages in the rural outlays. The comp was in its second incarnation, the first having been destroyed in an arson attack by some bored students years before. It truly was a comprehensive school with children living in extreme poverty jostling with those who went on skiing holidays biannually with a trip to Disney thrown in between.
Inevitably exam results were not where they should have been according to government targets but what do governments know about the barriers families in low working class areas of deprivation face? When people knew where I worked they were horrified and asked if I was ok and safe! Being an immigrant from the North East, I was unaware of the area’s reputation. It didn’t put me off. In fact I found that coupled with the label of failing school and the area’s problems, the staff were incredibly supportive and the children amazingly kind.
Now. With this kindness also came pockets of extreme behaviour and a level of passivity that I, in my university educated bubble, had never experienced before. For many it was enough to just get to school…doing work there as well? Don’t be daft, Miss!
This particular morn I was aiming to get my Year 11 class (15-16 year olds) to organise themselves into groups and discuss the whys and wherefores of Macbeth’s downfall. Was it his fault? His wife? Fate? We’d done a lot of background to the story researching the supernatural and the role of women in Shakespeare’s time. We had done drama lessons exploring Lady Macbeth’s guilt to the soundtrack of ‘Insomnia’ by Faithless in a darkened drama studio. We had watched the modern BBC ‘Macbeth on the Estate’. We had explored peer pressure; mental health issues; modern day crime. Heck, we’d even read the text…the original script…the one that Shakespeare actually wrote! We were, in short, as ready as we would ever be to get the discussion rolling in preparation for writing an essay down the line.
Groups of friends had huddled together around badly positioned tables (I still do not understand why the prospect of ‘group work’ renders all students incapable of joining two rectangular tables together to create a square). Because friendship groups had been allowed in this instance there were two tables of between 5 – 6 boys per table arrangement and then several sets of perfectly organised girls, 4 to a group. Then there was Sarah. No one wanted to work with Sarah. She’d already ‘done time’ and was currently awaiting a court appearance for verbally abusing three police officers in the village whilst they tried to prevent her stealing a little old lady’s shopping bags. You may have seen Sarah in her later years. She occasionally popped up in ‘The Sun’, ‘The Mirror’ and even made a couple of appearances on ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’! Sarah snarled at anyone who came near her. She was happy to do this on her own.
The task had been set. Each group had a series of statements to consider and they knew which specific area their group was going to feedback on. It was important to consider every statement however as these would form the basis of said future coursework essay. This instruction would of course make no difference. Students would simply just do ‘their’ statement and would “be reet” when it came to writing their essay! Immediate hubub ensued. None of it to do with ‘Macbeth’ obviously. Group work clearly means Miss isn’t expecting us to start til we’ve caught up on the gossip that’s occurred since we saw each other fifteen minutes ago in the Science block(!)
I went round each group encouraging them to make a start, ensuring EVERYONE was writing down the notes in their books, cajoling those who claimed they didn’t have a clue what was going on until finally I was convinced most students were on task and the noise became more purposeful.When the noise level began to rise I reminded of the need to find quotations from the text to support what they had said. The noise level dipped for a bit longer. The odd screech from self appointed team leaders as they admonished those “sitting on their arses doing nowt, Miss” but generally it was a fairly good working atmosphere.
I was initially impressed with the group of lads at the back left corner of the classroom. Not only did they seem much more animated than the rest of the groups in terms of engagement with the task, they were all leaning forward as if intent on hearing every single morsel of their team’s discussion. This was particularly pleasing given the make up of the group. Gareth who rarely attend school; Tom who is far too cool to come to school with pen, planner, bag and positive attitude to learning; Jack who was stoned for most of his existence; Adam who quite liked school but just didn’t quite ‘get’ anything and Mark…the team leader…the one all the girls in years 11, 10, 9, 12 and even 13 fawned all over. It was not your typical study group. Obviously, now I was into my fourth year of this teaching lark I was much more attune to ‘situations’ such as these. Rather than being pleased- they-were-quietly-getting-on-with-something-and-quite-frankly-I-didn’t-care-what-just-so-long-as-they-weren’t-mean-to-me…I was actually suspicious. I had been hoodwinked many times in my first few terms but I was becoming wise, hardened, no longer an idealist!
I wandered around the room assessing progress and approached the boys. It went quiet.
“What are you up to, gents? Getting on ok?”
“What conclusions are you making?”
“About, Macbeth. Do you think he’s to blame for his own bad luck? Or is it down to something else?”
“Er, dunno, Miss”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“We don’t know, Miss”
“Have you been discussing the key statements?”
At this juncture I notice something on the table and begin to step away. Slowly.
“What have you been doing then?”
“Comparing pubes, Miss”, says Gareth removing his hand from his crotch and adding to the pile in the middle of the table.
Well. What do you say at a moment like that? I chose to take the obvious route.
“Gentlemen. Could you now consider whether you think Macbeth deserves what he got. I will be asking you to feed back first”. And I walked to the next group of busy students.