16 October 2005

I Adore Wayward Teenagers

A couple or three years back, I left my job as Admin Asst to the local Town Clerk and took on a job in a school.

It may sound stupid, but I left a solid, regular job I had held for three years, to go into a three month contract on the promise of full employment come the new financial year. As it happened, the full time work never materialised, but it was still the best thing I ever did.

I went to work at a school owned by Tower Hamlets (inner city London 'poor' area,) snuggled into the hills at the back of Seaford, with fantastic sea and hill views from the upper dorms. A rambling and ancient building with huge grounds, it was a retreat for kids with EBD - Educational and Behavioural Difficulties - the kind that even inner city teachers couldn't cope with.

The school admin was in flux. I was taken on by the acting Head, who wanted to have a teaching assistant in every class - not to help teach the subject, but to help teach self-respect - to be the runner, cajoler and safe-keeper when kids stormed out of class.

Most of the kids were total sugar addicts, if not addicted to other things. I don't think there was a single one that didn't smoke cigarettes and I am certain their chosen social groups back home (if not their own parents) provided most with access to other recreational buzzes.

Mondays were a downer for kids allowed home at the weekend - they were practically twitching, and withdrawal from family and lifestyle can do that as much as withdrawal from chemicals. This meant that, unofficially and off the record of course, certain classes were guaranteed full attendance - specifically the ones where good behaviour and staying on task were rewarded with a mini mars bar or a couple of peppermints at the end of session.

The rest, the ones conducted by die-hard types, needed a Teaching Assistant.

Being invited to assist unnecessarily in the 'good' classes only served to show the kids that you were a) human and b) in on the secret, that you could be trusted, so that when they stormed out into the grounds on the pretence of feeling offended by another teacher (but really, most usually, in desperation for a sly roll-up), you were tolerated as a follower and not sworn at or threatened with physical or sexual abuse.

The system was running on tick-over, the acting Head unable to make too many changes, his hands tied. In spite of what I was told at interview I got no training and no mentor. I had no rules at all, so dealt with the kids as human beings with no knowledge of the current framework of political correctness. It was a free for all.

You have to undertsand that EBD kids come to a school having already learned that the only way to be heard is to scare people. Yes when they really lose it, many have seen the depths of human behaviour and think themselves controlled and reasonable if they only knock you flat, but for the main part its all about testing you, acting out and trying your metal. I loved it, because I can be as cheeky and evil as the next nutter.

I considered myself honoured and seen as 'all right' because I had next to no threats of physical abuse, they were all sexual. Yes they were toying with the concept of control, but not annihilation, and most of the gross suggestions were tempered by them calling me Miss. You have to earn being 'Miss', otherwise you are fat slag/bitch/whatever. If they say Miss, then you know they are only playing.

"'Ere Miss, we're gonna drag you in the bushes and spitroast you!"

The only safe answer to that is to laugh and reply along the lines of "Bollocks you daft ha'peth", or "Ooh tell me when it's over, cos I might not notice". One of them used to continue playing - "Gis a shag miss!" and to my delight was shocked like an innocent schoolboy when my reply was to make the money hand single, or shout back "Show us yer money". School-ish grown ups were supposed to be mortally offended and incapable of a double bluff - straight, boring and character free, and I later discovered that I was supposed to be outraged and to report this innapropriate game of wind up as a serious threat of sexual abuse. Yeah, tight, no wonder he had no time for 'real' teachers, even I thought that was a bit anal.

They NEED to know that you know they are bull-shitting. You get nothing but derision from them if you blush or look scared - you become relegated from human to pet rat or sad old fart, meanwhile turning it into a big issue does affect them; depresses them, makes them feel completely misunderstood and picked on, and makes the behaviour worsen.

By the end of my time, to everyone's surprise, a younger, go-getting type of Head had won the full time position. Years of caring based experience were thrown out in preference for statistics and goals. I genuinely believe that image won out over the well being and survival of the pupils.

When the full time position never materialised - ostensibly through lack of funds, I was depserately sorry to leave my boys, but the system was changing and many of them were leaving anyway, refusing to cooperate with such a stark change in policy.

In my last couple of weeks, I saw where the money went - it was allocated to capital funds and wherever the beautiful old English Eaves dipped almost into reach, rubberised mock spikes were intalled to discourage roof climbing. Lovely. The message it gave is that this is longer a home, more of a Gulag.

All these barbaric looking things did was sit in even easier reach, on a solid metal cross bar, far easier to negotiate than a dodgy old piece of guttering. Those kids might delight in upsetting stuffed shirts, but not in killing themselves - they're not stupid - and incidences of roof climbing quadrupled overnight.

I left with a chuckle, for that.

Thanks to Fineartist for reminding me of this.


zilla said...

To what experience do you attribute your ability and willingness to greet a person where they are, instead of where the stuffed shirts would like them to be? Isn't that the reason, after all, that you earned respect?

This is an interesting and provocative sketch from your past. What if you recalled some specific incidents from that time, fleshed them out a bit? You've probably got some good stories and with your insight and awareness, I'm sure they would be quite illuminating.

Badaunt said...

Wonderful story. I agree with 'zilla - you should write more about it.

It reminds me of a friend's job, a few years ago here. She was working as an English teacher at a boarding school for delinquents way the hell out in the countryside, but had to team teach with a Japanese teacher, because everybody knows a gaijin can't handle delinquents, right? The students refused to study English, and so she got permission to start a Wednesday evening volunteer class for a few students who she knew wanted to learn but couldn't because of the atmosphere in regular class.

The volunteer class started off with five or six students, and within a few weeks was up to thirty. Students who totally refused to cooperate with the regular teachers came to her extra class and behaved like angels.

fineartist said...

I am with the others, I would love to read more about your experiences with your boys.

This post was fantastic and so real.