A broken system

******* Pre-read warning *******

This is a subjective account of my experience with wanting to become a maths teacher. The path I took led me straight into some of the most underfunded and overstretched schools in this country.

I do believe that to some extent the issues I talk about here are relevent in a great number of schools around the country. Examination pressure is incredibly widespread even in good schools.

In places my actions were clearly not the correct choices and with hindsight I wish that I had not accepted the offer of cover supervisor work and had pursued a proper university led program.

It is a long piece and I have aimed for it to be exactly as honest as I can remember, in the interest of sharing the madness I went through.

******* End of warning *******

When I was 18 two life-changing things happened.

The first is that through a family contact I got an internship in the House of Commons and got to work right alongside the amazing man who is now the “Speaker of the House of Commons.”

The second is that my best and only friend killed himself over exam results.

After a lonely childhood in a world that kept demanding I stop being ADHD, no matter how impossible that was for me, I was diagnosed with the incurable disease Crohn’s Colitis. This is a disease that the NHS classifies as giving you a “miserable quality of life.”

I chose to go home at lunch time almost every day, in too much physical pain to endure the emotional exhaustion of wandering around the playground facing rejection and isolation from group after group of students who seemed somehow fluent in the social languages that were an inscrutable mystery to me.

The year after I left, while I was working in the house of commons, my best and only friend, who was supposed to be retaking his exams, killed himself because he thought he would fail them again. He got good grades, but our grammar school had told us we needed to get all As. I always saw my GCSE results as embarrassing until I one day saw the exact same grades celebrated as an achievement on a poster at a school I taught at.

I will remember, until my dying day, the priest at his funeral saying “being a teenager can sometimes be like walking a tightrope over a rocky abyss. Not every teenager makes it to the other side.”

I will remember crying, with no control over my body, until I had no more tears left to cry.

I will remember hugging his distraught parents and sister.

I had no words.

Sometimes the only thing you can do is hold someone near and share in their heartbreak and grief.

I will remember pouring my first glass of single malt whisky just to numb that pain.

On that day I wanted to burn the entire ghastly system down.

I was planning on travelling the world. I couldn’t, I cancelled, crumbled and cowed away from the world.

But I knew that I wanted to see the whole broken system fixed.

I stopped taking the ADHD medication that kept me up all night with my grief.

I did a degree in politics but couldn’t put full effort in without access to my medication.

No matter how many times I went out at university and tried to drown my sorrows it did not make the pain go away.

I remember watching a documentary that said, “when people commit suicide, it is common for those they leave behind to develop depression.”

I did not connect the dots though.

Depression was something that happened to other people.

Not me.

I knew, when I graduated, that at 23 I was not ready to go into politics. I suspected that there was so much more about the world that I needed to learn before I would be able to be the version of myself that could make things right.

After university, I became a fundraiser and learned how to communicate the need for hope and action, and even giving bank details to a stranger on the street – It showed me people out there did really want make the world a better place, they just had to be shown how.

I overcame the social boundaries that had always held me back as a child. I now know that children with ADHD develop social skills at a slower rate and it is almost ubiquitous for them to develop crushingly low self-esteem.

I wish someone had told me.

After a couple years of hard work mastering fundraising, I quit my job to campaign for Luke Pollard, who is now shadow secretary for the environment.

My fundraising skills saw me given responsibility fast – I was a natural campaigner and I stood by Luke’s side knocking on doors and making phone calls to constituents.

I was put in Luke’s group for all of polling day, zoomed around town with his sister in a convertible, full of hopeful energy.

I called “ONWARD” to keep up our energy 12 hours into the day’s campaigning with another hour still to go, and sat with fellow campaigners in Lockyer Hall all through the night, which I had been asked to oversee.

That night, my heart broke twice.

My Grandma, who had always believed in how amazing I was and had spoilt me rotten, passed away from her battle with Lewis Body dementia.

I had been waiting to finish the campaign before I got to see her. I did not get my chance to say goodbye.

I hope that she would understand that I felt like I was doing something so important.

The second heartbreak was even worse.

We saw Cameron re-elected.

When we lost the 2015 election. After horrific education changes that we now know were masterminded by Dominic Cumming’s views on genetic superiority, things were worse than ever and the economy, which was the

ONE THING

that they promised

THEY KNEW HOW TO SORT OUT

and it was

STILL IN TATTERS

with the government

STILL

blaming it on Labour rather than the entire world

THAT ALSO HAD A FINANCIAL CRASH BECAUSE OF A LACK OF REGULATION OF BANKERS IN AMERICA THAT LITERALLY NEVER GOT FIXED.

I could not see how the public could back the conservatives to lead with a majority.

I gave up on politics.

Instead, I directed my life towards education.

I looked for the opportunity to get into education so that at least, I could make sure no student I taught would ever have to face the same wretched, hopeless end as my best and only friend did.

Universities say that you must do 2 weeks work experience before you apply for a teacher training course.

It is a sensible policy to stop people from applying for teacher training before knowing what it is like.

I wanted to do things properly. I wanted to be the best teacher I could be for my students.

On my two week unpaid work experience to get a sense of what schools are like, I observed classroom after classroom of belligerent students not listening and not learning, while their teachers pretended not to notice, or, more alarmingly, just did not care.

In response to these students, some teachers developed extreme coping measures.

I saw a teacher tear a kid to pieces, to a literal blubbering teary mess, because he had not done ONE homework.

Once the kid was crying, the teacher finally deigned to ask the student why he had not done his homework.

Through the tears, the student weakly responded “my mum threw me a birthday party and I forgot”

The teacher then spent another 15 minutes laying into the student for laziness and saying that he always did his work on his birthday.

I refused to ever go back in that man’s classroom.

I thanked my lucky stars, that, unlike his students, I had the ability to do so.

On my fourth day of work experience, a teacher left me alone with a class for 5 minutes.

I stood at the front like a lemon while he talked to a student outside, but it was so exciting!

The students were eager to learn and it felt amazing.

On my sixth day I taught a lesson on the charity Oxfam – about how much farmers get from the price of a banana. It isn’t much – 3p on a 30p banana. The students were fascinated, and I knew teaching was going to be something I love.

On my seventh day a colleague told me he would get a £100 bonus if I signed up with an agency to be a cover supervisor or teaching assistant.

I called them.

I interviewed.

I made clear my utter lack of experience.

They did not care.

I was given the job.

I was sent to a school in slough that had corridor fights at every break time and was given a day’s timetable of graphic design.

I had an amazing day telling the students how great their creations were and giving them suggestions to make them even better.

Fueling the spark of young creativity is like having pure electric joy running through your veins.

After my first day – the agency called me up to get me to quit my other job.

I negotiated a savvy 15% pay rise (£70 to £80, which does not account for the agency fee that the school gets charged as well) and set a new course for my life.

On my second day, on which I actually had to deal with some less than enthusiastic classes, a teacher pulled me close and said “if you are nice to them, they will eat you alive.

You need to be mean to them. They need to know that you are top dog, or they will think that they are.”

I now know that this is a matter of having authority in a classroom and does not in any way justify being an asshole.

On my third day I tried to break up a corridor fight – I stopped two students who were both half a foot taller than me, one by grabbing his neck, and I shoved the other, who was in tears, away.

I told the other kid to get himself to the bathroom and wash his face and took the aggressor to his head of year.

He chuckled and said, “oh Bradley, what are you like?”

The staff had given up on trying to stop these fights happening, they could not get through the challenges of their own day without their break time.

On the fourth day I was at the front of a maths lesson.

Well I say in charge – the school had knocked a wall down and made a classroom that could sit 60.

The class was run by a deputy head. He was not a maths specialist but had been given the role because he had a loud shouty angry voice.

They had 4 teaching assistants running around trying to help people.

The kids in the first classroom had a poor lesson.

The kids in the second classroom might as well have been in the playground.

But I went around and helped where I could.

They were struggling with fractions.

I showed them how and saw lightbulb moments. I remember this being the first time where I ever felt I had really taught kids maths.

They were bubbling with excitement at how easy I had made it for them.

It is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding feelings I have ever known.

On my fifth day I listened to a child who looked like the world had broken him, tell me how he was being mercilessly bullied and the teachers were refusing to listen. He confided in me because I had seen it in a class, and I had made it clear how unacceptable that behaviour was.

I reported it. He said that it had been reported many times before, but nothing ever came of it. I held it together until he had gone onto his next lesson, went into an empty classroom and wept.

At the end of my 6th day, as I was leaving the deputy headteacher suggested I could be a future head of maths (I think this was because he did not have a head of maths) and that I should have a discussion with him about my options to train with them to become a teacher.

“There’s this program called ‘Assessment Only’” he said. “It’s supposed to be for teachers from other countries whose qualifications don’t count here, but you can just start teaching and we’ll pay for it.”

I never got to have that conversation.

Not with him at least.

On day 7 I was dismissed from the school for acting in an incredibly unprofessional manner.

I do regret my actions, but without any experience or training, I should never have been put into the situation.

I walked into my final class of the day – and saw 3 girls on their phones and immediately tried to defuse the situation by making a joke out of it:

“You put those phones away, and I’ll pretend I didn’t see them and don’t know that the school’s rule is that I have to confiscate them.”

They looked up, and, in a very teenagerly fashion, tutted, sneered and went back to looking at their phones.

I tried another tactic.

“Ok let’s just think about some facts that we all know. We all know that Mrs K****t, the head of isolation, is in that door behind that window, and we know she will come and confiscate your phones, so we might as well get this over with now and save her and you the bother.”

Another round of tuts and sneers.

I followed through.

Mrs K****t came and asked for the phone in a much more forward and much less friendly manner.

The answer was still no.

There was a back and forth tennis match, at the front of the class I was supposed to be getting to do an exam paper:

“You’ll lose your lunch tomorrow”

“Still not giving you my phone”

“You’ll get a detention”

“Still not giving you my phone”

“you’ll get double detention”

“Still not giving you my phone”

“you’ll get a weekend detention”

“Still not giving you my phone”

“you’ll get put in isolation”

“Still not giving you my phone”

“You’ll get excluded”

“Well then I MIGHT AS WELL JUST LEAVE.”

And, much to the head of isolations bewilderment, she did. Just walked straight out the room.

The head of isolation then turned to me, as if this was my fault and snapped, “Is that sorted now?”

“I hope so” I responded.

It was not.

As soon as she left the other two girls who JUST AS EQUALLY HAD NOT GIVEN ME THEIR PHONES AND STILL HAD THEIR PHONES started SHRIEKING at me

“YOU GOT OUR FRIEND EXPELLED HOW COULD YOU DO THAT WHAT A NASTY MAN YOU ARE”

I exasperatedly responded, “You’ve just seen what happened last time, now I’m going to go and get the head of isolation again – are you girls sure you want to go to round two on this?”

They did not calm down, so I had to go back to the head of inclusion

.

She said she was busy; it was my problem and I had to deal with it, that’s what the school is paying my agency for.

Now I had enough grief off teenage girls when I was a teenage boy – and I was not about to take it from a group of bullies who just happen to have never tried to pick on someone they shouldn’t have.

I asked them once, politely to leave. I said that if they didn’t, they would regret it.

More shrieking.

I took out all my anger at the whole sordid system on them.

I tore them to pieces.

I laid bare exactly how childish and entitled their behaviour was, how disgusting that kind of behaviour was to each and every person that suffered their embarrassing behaviour as a detriment to their learning.

I spoke at length of how miserable and bleak the future that they were creating for themselves was and how for the rest of their lives they would remember my words and know that they deserved every bad thing that would happen to them.

I punctuated every verbal lash with the phrase “I SAID GET OUT OF MY CLASSROOM.”

They lasted around 20 minutes. Until, eventually, in floods of tears, and with no will left to keep screaming at me, they left my classroom.

At the end of the lesson I spent an extra hour writing up the incident on the school system.

That’s something you don’t hear about education – when you have the worst, most impossible day ever, you’ll get rewarded with having to write about it in excruciating detail so that the kids don’t get to make up their own version that would get you barred from ever teaching again.

My write-up probably still exists somewhere. It would be great to have a copy.

While writing the statement, the two non-excluded girls came back with another student who planned to tell me how much of a terrible person I was. He got the same treatment and left in the same floods of tears.

The agency called me later that evening saying that the school did not want me back.

But it was fine they told me – It’s a really bad school and stuff like that happens to everyone we send there.

We have another school for you to be in tomorrow, its much closer to you – near London.

I took a couple days leave, and then drove there and found the new school. Beautiful new building, big sportsgrounds, they even had a football academy!

But despite paying the agency an outrageous fee to have me there – they had given me a timetable with a free period.

I said: “that’s a waste of my time and your money: put me in a year 11 maths class so I can help out.”

I was placed with the head of maths’s year 11 class. They were trying to revise for their upcoming GCSE exam, but everyone was stressed out and their teacher could not look less invested in their future. She had set up her own business and it had taken off. She’d put in her notice and had given up.

The kids could not understand what their teacher, the head of maths, was half-heartedly explaining and when she had stopped trying, the two students nearest me turned and begged me to help them.

I started explaining how I understood it and the students started tapping the shoulders of the rows in front of them. Before long everyone was just looking at me at the back of the classroom, and the teacher gave up on the class and let me run it.

Within the hour she was outside the door to my next class, offering me the job of maths teacher.

No training provided.

No support provided.

No degree qualification in maths.

No qualification in teaching.

No experience in maths.

No experience in teaching.

Full progress responsibility.

Full safeguarding responsibility.

15 hours a week teaching timetable and a year 8 form with some incredibly vulnerable students.

I could not quite understand it.

I didn’t understand it really, I actually just thought that I was going to be still just doing the work of a cover supervisor.

I realised a week later when I found out they were firing the guy I was replacing.

I thought he would still be making the lessons, so asked the head of maths who would be planning the lessons I would be teaching and she said “You will”

I had not realised when she asked me if I wanted to teach maths that she was asking me to be a proper maths teacher.

I asked “should I tell the kids I don’t have any experience, training or qualification?”

“I wouldn’t” she responded.

On the day I realised she had asked me to be a real teacher I was shellshocked.

I went and played table tennis with students at the table tennis club, I told them what had happened, they were so excited, all hoping I’d be their teacher.

Chaos ensued.

The teacher I was replacing had a really sick child.

He had barely been coming in two days a week for most of the term and he is the 3rd person his classes had been told would be their teacher for the whole year.

I was the fourth, there would later be a fifth.

There were a few more weeks of cover supervising and then I was there.

Mr Russell.

Maths teacher.

Madness.

Before my first ever lesson I ask my head of department who hired me if she will check my PowerPoint slides that I have made with no help to make sure that they are ok and she gives me a tired look and said “Do I have to?”

“I’d really like you to” was my response.

She tutted, said she wouldn’t tell the kids any of the personal details I put in it to humanise myself and build empathy, but concluded that “it would be fine.”

It would not. I had absolutely no idea of how much worse things would get.

…to be continued…

In the meantime, follow me on social media if you want to know when the next chapter drops:

 

Since I’ve started a YouTube channel to document my adventures, including a tutorial on how I got half a million impressions on my first six days of Twitter with only 76 followers, How twitter let me buy advertising saying how they don’t check their ads well enough, and a music video with very little musical talent:

YouTube.com/c/russellwellbeing 

3 thoughts on “A broken system

  1. This sort of chaos was why I never finished a probationary year, but did do some supply work between 1977 & 2014.

    Schools need sorting out and I am certainly not volunteering to do so.

    Sounds like you have most of the necessary skills, but schools should not be the jungles they are in both staff rooms and class room.

    Like

  2. Quite an insight. I must commend you on your contributions to said school, and can certainly say that you made my experience there much more enjoyable.

    Like

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