Today has been a bit of a strange, disconcerting day. I had my third lesson observation, with the same class whose behaviour has been such a challenge for me lately. It didn’t go too badly, but then again neither did it go as well as I wanted. My head of department, who was observing, noted a definite improvement in settling the class down at the start of the lesson and getting them to work on their starter task silently.
However, this did not last. Once we transitioned to peer marking of the quiz, noise levels increased once again. With some effort, I managed to get their attention so that I could explain to them the next task I wanted them to do. At that point, the observation ended, and I carried on, stopping and starting every so often when it got too noisy (which was pretty often). It wasn’t all bad though. I got them thinking, I got them learning. I even trialled out the exit tickets and found, to my relief, that most of the class had answered my three questions intelligently – suspiciously, a bunch of students who all sat at the same table wrote exactly the same worded wrong answers, evidence if I needed any, that those who don’t listen don’t learn.
Later on, I had a brief chat with my HoD ahead of the formal meeting we will have to discuss my observation. Her words were encouraging and she promised to discuss with me possible strategies for keeping the behaviour on track beyond the starter task. ‘You’ve got some pretty challenging students in that class, miss’ she went on. Don’t I know it! I vented my little gripes. The tables in the classroom I have to teach in are set out for group work, with 4 sets of students sitting facing each other rather than facing me at the front. 31 students are thus arranged around 6 tables in the room and it is quite tricky to access the back tables as this entails trying to squeeze in between the backs of chairs. In effect, this means I am stuck at the front and unable to position myself so as to directly look in the eye or easily approach any of the chatty students at the back. My colleague was sympathetic – she has her tables set in rows in her own classroom – and said she too finds it a struggle to manage behaviour when she has to teach her year 8s in the art room. ‘I had that same group last year and they were so well behaved then’, she said. For me this is a no brainer. We have so many challenges to deal with already, why make things harder by having the tables positioned sub-optimally?
I know that this is early days yet, and I’m sure as time goes on, I will get better at this lark. I am troubled though by two things. In my lesson planning, there is already a sense that maybe I should aim to do less – the dreaded urge to dumb down (which I will endeavour to resist). My second thought is this. I am a mature, fairly confident person, not a shrinking violet. If I’m struggling to control the behaviour, then you can bet that all those other young cohorts doing Schools Direct are having it possibly worse. And so I keep coming back to my inevitable conclusion. Behaviour is the biggest issue facing our schools today – attainment will not improve until the classrooms become calm and purposeful. Unless strong systems are in place, with simple behaviour policies that makes it crystal clear both to teachers and students what procedures are to be followed in response to poor behaviour, then we are not going to get anywhere.
So that was my day at school. But there was more to come. On reaching home, I found out that my cousin’s husband, a personable young man in his thirties, had died from a heart condition leaving two young children without a father. I took out my phone to call my uncle in Saudi Arabia to give my condolences, but first I had to consciously practice the words I needed to say in Arabic, as these kinds of phrases don’t roll easily from my tongue. Despite this, I found myself stumbling in my speech, listening to my emotional uncle and not being able to fluently express my sympathy, falling back instead on the two stock phrases I knew and repeating them a couple of times. God I sound stupid when I don’t know the words to say! It is so incredibly frustrating to want to express your thoughts and not being able to.
This puts me in mind of something else. I notice in the news today that King Salman has lifted the requirement for women to get permission from their male relatives in order to travel abroad. On the back of the decision to finally allow women to drive, there’s a definite feeling of change afoot. Perhaps I should make plans to visit again in the near future. The last time we travelled to Saudi Arabia, about five years ago, I had a bit of trouble at the airport because there wasn’t the correct stamp in my passport from my husband giving me permission to travel. Never mind that my husband was right there with me and quite clearly wanting me to travel with him. The passport officer still had to go and discuss with his superior before finally giving me the green light to board my flight. These kinds of little incidents stick with you and put you off from wanting to repeat the experience. So it is that I have not been back ‘home’ for many years.
In the meantime, my passport has expired, and this means at some point, I need to venture to the Saudi embassy to get a new one. This is not something I want to do. Interacting with officials in a language I’m not comfortable with, having to fill out forms in my inelegant Arabic script and struggling to formulate the right sentences. I dread it. So I keep putting it off. I was meant to go there during the Easter holidays, then it was the summer holidays, now the plan is to try to get it done at half term. I’m an intelligent woman with a Master’s degree but I feel foolish and inadequate when faced with a situation where I don’t have the requisite literacy skills. This must be how many of my students feel when they can’t find the words to express the intelligent thoughts in their heads. They know they don’t have the skills to articulate what they want to say, and that makes them feel foolish. Nobody likes that feeling. In turn, they may then do their best to avoid getting into such situations, perhaps by misbehaving, or by keeping a low profile in class.
There, that was my little light bulb moment for the week.