The Bear Pit

Jo has risen to be co-manager of a large organisation employing lots of people. She’s done this by ability, resourceful intelligence, and by working herself almost to death, as you’d expect from a Beaufort. I, on the other hand, have inherited my family traits. I’m dolefully aware of my own weakness. I’m prone to being overwhelmed and so deeply reluctant to take responsibility. I tend to sit there helplessly, not knowing what to do unless told, furiously berating myself but not doing anything about it.

Although I have taught English abroad and in Further Education, I’ve ended up as a learning support assistant at a large comprehensive school. I joined the department intending to transfer to secondary teaching but, within a week, I realised that I just didn’t have the skills.

Children start life entirely trusting. Secondary children have spent their whole lives doing what adults tell them. After 6 years of dutiful learning in primary school, they are ready to break free. They want to learn about the world through experiencing it. They want to experiment with independence, with who they are and how they can relate to other people, with projecting a persona and establishing a reputation, with power, hierarchy and how these are communicated, with lies and honesty, with relationships, sex and alcohol.

Teenagers are constantly learning, in their own way, but formal education is not their priority and they will do anything to get out of it. Even if they like a teacher, they will destroy them, exploiting any weakness, just to wriggle out of schoolwork so they can get on with their own concerns. They are constantly challenging, testing, resisting, arguing, manoeuvring, manipulating, taking offence: all 30 of the little buggers, without let up. It’s a bear pit. All teachers would quit within a year, if the kids weren’t so damn likeable: vivacious, funny, inventive, with an enormous capacity for enjoyment.

A good teacher, then, must be resolute and determined. Although it’s a hollow sham, they must put on their confident, commanding, teacherly persona as they enter the classroom, like a space marine donning their exoskeletal battle-armour and weapon-systems. They must spend all their time directing, insisting, negotiating, seeing through bullshit, judging, punishing, consoling, encouraging.

It’s exhausting. You are permanently standing firm against the onslaught, resisting the babble of voices and needs, pushing against the pressure of it, just to make a little space to work in. It’s the most fraught environment, demanding level-headed acuity, self-possession and the most sophisticated social skills.

And I knew I didn’t have them. In FE, you don’t get any of this. It’s post-compulsory. Students only turn up if they want to.

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