In my first year of teaching I was attacked. I’ve been hit since, and – like many of us – have had to restrain my fair share of angry youngsters from damaging themselves, other children, members of staff and poorly-constructed walls. Nothing compares, however, to the events of that afternoon, sometime in the first term of my NQT year.
I was on duty at the end of the day, walking down the staff car park drive towards the long, platform-like bus stop at the front of the school. This was also a visitors’ car park, which often made 3:25pm an M25 of a home-time rush. I was normally on my own here, although this hadn’t previously bothered me as I could always see colleagues below me towards the other end of the bus stop.
There was a gathering of children, mostly older who I didn’t know, around what looked immediately like a fight. I searched for colleagues but saw none. What to do? I knew my union’s advice was to stay out of it, but I couldn’t do nothing. And so I walked towards, and into, the throng of chanting children, here seemingly transformed into a bloodthirsty crowd. Youngsters who I knew to be lovely, friendly children in the classroom seemed lobotomised by the violence of two large (and to my slightly stunned, NQT eyes, very dangerous) Y10s. One had the other against the railings by the throat. He was screaming at his victim. There was blood on both faces.
At the moment I reached the spectators a car screeched up and out stepped four young men who headed straight for the group and me.
A boy who I taught stepped in front of me.
“You ain’t fucking getting through”, he shouted at me. Now, although I felt way out of my depth, this boy’s head barely reached my chest. He put up his fists. I wasn’t threatened but still looked for help.
By now children were streaming towards us, and so, not seeing any staff, I looked for familiar faces in the crowd.
“You ain’t fucking getting through!” he shouted again, fists raised.
“Mark”, I said, surprisingly calmly if my memory is correct, “you need to move. If you don’t then I will have to move you.”
He stood still. “Come on then. Let’s fucking have it!” he shouted. Again, I looked for friendly faces. I’d told him that I’d have to move him, and the fight was getting out of hand. If I didn’t step in it looked as if the boy being held might be hospitalised. The men from the car were approaching, pointing.
“Go on, Mark!”
“Fucking hit him, Mark!”
“Mark, fucking kill him!”
This is what I heard. I’m afraid that, if anything, I’m being rather conservative with my language. The image of the girl in Y8 shouting at my apparent opponent, telling him to kill me, is something which I will unfortunately never forget. The crowd of baying children – children – turned on me. There was chanting and whooping.
I picked Mark up and moved him aside. I moved towards the fighting Y10s and tried desperately to separate them. Mark began to thump me from behind. Still no staff and no face I could turn to for help.
I separated the boys, with some difficultly, just as the four men arrived at the crowd. One of the boys, the aggressor, jumped in the car. I held the other.
At this point other staff arrived, though in no hurry. The boy I held back – for his own safety – escaped my clutches and ran off. The crowd, now dispersing, followed him down the road, beyond my sight.
What followed was, somehow, worse. Although staff were, of course shocked (I sat in the pastoral office trying very hard to contain my own shocked, shaking hands), I had no palm on my shoulder from SLT, no words of thanks; no apology for being alone. Nothing. I wrote my report and left it at that.
The next week I was asked to provide some work for a boy who was temporarily excluded: I was asked to provide work for the boy who had attacked me. The girl who had egged him on was allowed back into my class with the merest apology, given in a restorative meeting. My HOD made sure I didn’t have to provide work for the boy, but otherwise I just had to get on with it.
I considered resignation. I applied for, and was offered, jobs abroad. Early the next term my mum was diagnosed with cancer and so I stayed put for the family’s sake. Some colleagues told me to never get involved in an incident like that; others told me that the school’s reaction was to be expected: some said that this sort of event was the necessary conclusion to the chaos which was allowed to gestate in a poorly-led system such as ours.
A few months later the boy who attacked me was permanently excluded. That was, I thought, the end of it, although I did have the odd “Mark says ‘Hi'” comment directed at me from his friends around the school.
Tom Bennett recently blogged, in typically brilliant style, about why teaching is still a wonderful job. It doesn’t always seem like the best job in the world, but the potential to change the world for the better is more apparent and real in education than, perhaps, any other profession.
I am still a teacher in part because I want to help other young teachers not make the same mistakes as me. I don’t mean to say “never intervene”, because I still would now, though I’d approach that situation very differently. I want to help create the leaders of tomorrow who haven’t gained their lofty salaries because they are hoopla champions, jiggling their hips to the tune of nodding heads, but who are challenging and knowledgeable and clear-sighted.
This isn’t a piece about behaviour: it’s about the potential for chaos which arises from poor leadership. I’m not saying that something terrible can’t happen in a great school, but that this is so much less likely in a school where really high expectations are the norm, not just an assembly or a quote on a wall.
What I’ve found since then is that teaching is wonderful, but that the slightest clink in a school’s armour can make everyone’s lives harder and, sometimes, unbearable. If I, or any one of us, can be those high expectations then perhaps children can succeed in our classrooms despite other problems. But if all are to succeed then everyone needs to row in the same direction, and all need to be pilots, not just those few who’ve climbed the greasy pole.
I’m glad I stayed in education, though I wish I’d left the school sooner. Having said that, I learned a huge amount, though mostly about what not to do on a school-wide level. The main thing I’ve learned over the past eight years is that leaders need to make teachers’ lives easier by removing the clutter and obstacles, be these behavioural, financial or pedagogical – whatever. That afternoon all those years ago made the next few months incredibly difficult for me as I questioned what I was doing with my life and why this was, seemingly, the norm. I don’t want anybody else to ever have to think that because of systemic failure, and whilst this is something that has become a silent-mantra of mine over the last few years, it’s now public: I want to be that change.