The Joy Club member Roger Davies shares his formative experiences as a secondary school teacher…
I must admit I had not really thought it all through when I went to university to get a degree. I was a mature student and my degree was in politics. It was well into my third year before I realised that I now needed to do something with my new qualification. As a lot of my courses were history modules, I decided that I wanted to be a history teacher and successfully applied to do a PGCE in History and ICT. At college I was persuaded to change my secondary specialty to maths as they were short of maths teachers – the fact that my highest maths qualification was a GCE grade B was irrelevant.
Nearing the end of my course, I started to apply for jobs, but here I hit a large problem; most of the other students I was competing with were willing and able to move anywhere in the country to accept a job. I was married with a house, a wife and a mortgage. My wife was a senior sister in the RD&E hospital in Exeter. Her wages paid the mortgage, so we were not moving anywhere.
I graduated and September loomed with no job in sight. There were lots of interviews and I found that, as a mature graduate, my previous work experience was considered when deciding on which level of the pay scale I would start. I was dearer to hire than my young colleagues. Technically school governors were specifically forbidden from taking such factors into account – yeah, as if. So, I signed up with a supply agency. They assured me that I would be working as soon as term started and they were right.
Devon is a glorious county. It is sunshine and beaches. However, there is an underside to the area that is not so well known. Many of the poorest families in the country, in trying to escape inner-city misery, had moved down to the Southwest. You get the same financial aid there as in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham and the summers are so much nicer. In every large town in the area there are wards that have the same levels of deprivation as any large city. The trouble was that the deprived teenagers took their inner-city outlook into the classrooms of some of our schools and Ofsted did not like it.
My first September dawned and on the Thursday of the first week at 7.00am I got the phone call. Could I get to a school on the coast, about 30 miles away, for a day’s work with the possibility of more? I would be covering for the Head of History, who had just gone off on long-term sick leave. This was back to school with a bang.
I jumped in my car and raced off to the coast. I was met at reception by the temporary, acting Deputy Head, who was desperately handing out timetables and school maps to a clutch of nervous looking supply teachers. Apparently, I was the lucky one; I was teaching my own subject and the teacher, who was off, had left some worksheets for me to use.
I was directed to a temporary classroom on the edge of the carpark. It was the standard design, the entrance was in the middle with a store area and a classroom opening off to each end, History on one side and Geography on the other. Geography was being covered by a young lad in his early twenties – he too was on his very first job. I am a big bloke, I was older (but not ancient), so when my first class arrived, I portrayed a level of confidence and competence, enough to keep them guessing as to the level of my fear.
I was astounded to find the accents of all the big cities of the UK in this class of year 8s (12-year-olds). I was just starting to relax as my class was behaving almost as well as I could have hoped for, when the young teacher from next door burst into my classroom. “Help” he shouted, “they’ve set fire to the textbooks, what shall I do?” We raced back into his classroom and stamped out the burning books. Most of his class had disappeared out of the windows so I put the remainder in with my class and he went off to report to the Deputy Head. Yes, life as a supply teacher was going to be interesting. I started to realise that there might be more to this teaching lark than Exeter University had taught us. I made it through to the end of the day and went home.
Next morning, at 7.00am the phone went, “Are you available today?” – “Where?” I said.” “Back to the coast,” she said. I went, I survived. I found that if I only accepted work “one day at a time.” I could cope. It also helped that I was given jobs in other schools.
Two years later and, after getting a part-time contract there and some supply work, I finally got a permanent full-time position at a new school. I was now going to be teaching within the “humanities” department of a large secondary modern on the South Devon coast. I spent that summer preparing my lessons. I would be teaching lower school, Years 7 to 9 to start with, (you don’t trust a newbie with your singular precious class of GCSE students). I was quite chilled.
The first Monday and Tuesday were training days, with Tuesday afternoon given over to preparations for my first ever pastoral position. I was going to be class tutor for a new group of year 7s. I was given the “temporary classroom”. I made sure that the walls were clean and clear, so that we could display class work. I had 15 tables, which I arranged in three rows of four with a back row of three at the end of each aisle, two chairs per table. My desk (table) was in the corner away from the door. The whiteboard was on the wall to my right. All I needed was the students.
On Wednesday mornings, all the year 7s were taken to the hall for assembly, then after a welcome from the Head of Year, we went in crocodiles to our bases spread throughout the large campus.
My plan was to seat the students alphabetically to aid me in getting to know their names. So much for planning. Our school was fed from six primary schools and all the pupils instantly grouped themselves into their primary schools’ groupings. I realised that, if I broke these up now, it was going to be “tears time” for some, so I conceded and let them sort themselves out. There weren’t the same numbers for each school so there were a couple of difficult moments. There also was a gender split, the girls sat together as did the boys.
Once everyone was settled, I launched into the standard ‘let’s get to know each other’ routine. I asked everyone to stand up and tell the class their names and a bit about themselves. I started and opened with one of my jokes: “My name is Mr Davies, but you can call me Sir”. I paused for the chuckle, but nothing… So I ploughed on, “I live in Exeter and this is my first time as a form tutor so we will be learning this together”.
On to the students. “My name is Peter.” He sits down. “My name is Karl” and down. “What about a bit more.” I suggested. So up gets the next. “My name is Holly, and last year you made my sister cry.” Some of the other girls are nodding in sympathy. Time to move on, I thought. “Look” I said in desperation, “the sun is shining, let’s go outside and get a photo of the class”. We did and managed to get to the end of the session relatively unscathed.
Over the next three years I got to know these 28 students very well and through sports days, red nose days, charity long-walk days and swimming galas we became a team, working together. We looked out for each other and helped each other through good times and bad. There were tears, there was joy, there was failure and success but, whatever happened, I like to think we did it together.
Our school system at that time was that a Tutor picked up a group of students and took them from year 7 to year 9, then they were handed over into a new tutor group in year 10, after making their GCSE subject choices.
As it turned out they were my one and only Tutor Group because I had volunteered as an unpaid assistant Head of Year and, after a couple of years learning the job, I was appointed Head of Year 7, just as I handed over my Tutor Group. But that is another story for another time…