I once taught a girl who was, apparently, disruptive in every lesson bar mine. She didn’t do any work in mine, but she wasn’t disruptive. She wrote stuff down and at least began to answer exam questions, but nothing more. She was, for a year or so, lost in her own daydreams, a sort of history cataracts with the odd moment of, “Jemma, sit up, please” to jolt her sight back into focus.

She didn’t turn up to the parents/parent’s/parents’ evening in Y10, but surprisingly did at the beginning of Y11.

“Jemma, the thing is, I don’t think we’ve ever really spoken. You don’t answer my questions in lessons, and you barely murmur to announce your presence when I take the register, and you don’t even return my hello when you walk in. In fact, I don’t know what I’d say to you in the corridor if we passed each other!”

“That’s sad, Sir”, she said, in a Brummy accent which I’d not once previously noticed. It was as many words as I’d ever heard her strong together.

“I know!”, I replied, taken aback. 

“Why don’t you think we could have a conversation?”

“Because we never have in lesson, I suppose. I’d like to, but I’ve not been able to drag the historian which chose this GCSE out of you. What have I done wrong? Is there something I need to do more of?”

She was stumped, as was I. And then, as per the norm, she said nothing more as the conversation continued, now with mum. 

Jemma ended up getting a G, which was an incredible result given she’d done virtually nothing for two years. But that second year, after I realised she was from Birmingham, she did actually speak in lessons. Just occasionally her hand would flash up, too, and she’d have the right answer or sometimes even questions. 

At the end of the year she said goodbye, and that she knew she’d get a poor grade, but that it was her fault and that she wished she’d spoken more in Y10. I said that I regretted not having had that conversation in Y10, early on, when it was obvious that she wasn’t putting the work in. We both silently agreed it was too late. 

I have a couple of children like that in Y11 now, the children who’ve never spoken up for fear of being wrong, or just with the experience of never being listened to by peers, or even at home. They’re my focus right now, and it’s tough, but I think I’ve made headway with a couple. I’m determined that, if nothing else, they don’t feel like taking history was a waste of time. And at least I know they’re from Devon.