The contents of a teacher’s drawer

What confiscated items are in your drawer?

There’s a hacky sack in mine. Two in fact. One generic one, and one commemorating the World Cup Brazil 2014. I remember confiscating them. But I can’t remember which belonged to who. Both children are now claiming the Brazilian one. I tried Solomon’s ‘split the baby’ method. Neither of them cracked. Perhaps the bond between them and the hacky sack was not as strong as a baby and its mother. Or perhaps these children are sociopaths and enjoy seeing each other’s toys destroyed. The hacky sack remains in my drawer.

There are at least ten different writing implements. Some more collectable than others, like the pencil with Disney characters embossed in gold paint. Some are less valuable, like the zebra printed retractable pen. These were all confiscated for being used at the wrong time in the wrong way (probably incessant clicking when I was trying to talk). Plus all the erasers flesh out the collection of back-up stationery. These will never be used by myself or the students. I only write in pen and the students are not allowed erasers, because they tend to use them as a work avoidance tactic; rubbing the page endlessly until there is no pencil marks left on the page, and a 5mm indent has been made into the workbook. This being the case, the erasers must remain in the drawer for time immemorial.

A Justin Bieber ruler has been in the drawer for four years now. It was never confiscated. It was simply abandoned after class one day, and nobody ever claimed it. Either their fandom had waned or they had more self-respect than to admit publicly to ownership of a Justin Bieber ruler. One can’t help but think it ironic that there are measuring devices with Bieber’s face on. It’s doubtful he’s ever had to measure anything except for perhaps how long the length of his hair is. Plus in typical Bieber fashion the ruler has been over exposed (the numbers are mostly faded), cheaply produced (in Taiwan) and doesn’t measure up to expectations (at 15cm long you can’t even rule a proper margin down the page).

I confiscated lip balm in the hallway once. That went in the top drawer. “It’s to stop my lips cracking,” the ten-year-old I took it from told me, while kissing her teeth.

“I understand,” was my response. “But I don’t understand why it is fluorescent purple”.

When she came to retrieve the lip balm a week later, it was gone. Presumably someone else had pilfered it from the drawer. Or perhaps it was just caught up in all the other rogue items stuffed in there and had disguised itself as a pencil sharpener. Either way, I never heard the end of it. Every time I bumped into the girl in the hallway, she reminded me that I owed her three pound to pay for the replacement of the lost lip balm. Luckily a friend who is a chemistry teacher gave me a container of lip balm she’d made with her Year 11 class. I passed it onto the girl three months later. She didn’t notice the difference.

However, the same did not apply when I lost a miniature finger skateboard, back when they were ‘cool’. The untimely tail stops, ollies and Godzilla flips led to the handing over of this prized possession. So prized in fact that it was not in the drawer when I returned the following day. No doubt stolen by an envious peer, if not by the student who owned it; just to make a scene. He made no end to the complaints that his mother had spent ten dollars on the fingerboard, and how would they ever afford to replace it. I couldn’t replace it. I didn’t know any chemistry teachers who made finger skateboards with their Year 11 class.

The following week he arrived in class with a miniature finger scooter. This too was confiscated, but placed in the office safe until it was returned at a later date.

There are other things in my drawer: handmade pea shooters, blue tack, five unopened packets of chewing gum, notes passed between students, a bottle opener, wristwatches and a five pence coin.

What’s in your drawer? Please comment below.

Film Review – Night at The Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Let’s talk about the parenting skills of Larry (Ben Stiller) in the film Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

His son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) is completing his final exams and about to apply to universities. So when Larry returns home at 3am from a work event, he finds his son holding a house party with over 30 of his mates. It’s a family film, so the debauchery extends to a few polite greetings when Larry enters and the consumption of non-alcoholic punch. But it is still 3am in the morning. You would think Larry should have at least sent his son to stay with his mother for the night, or kept tabs on his son earlier than 3am.

It doesn’t get much better once Larry shuts down the party. Instead of accepting a stern talking to from his father, Nick approaches the situation of cleaning up the apartment by asking his father to fund his gap year and saying, “Let’s call it a night. Let’s not even clean up, right. Let’s come back tomorrow. Let’s reboot the whole energy; the whole tone of this puppy. And we’ll kill it man.”

Far be it for me to tell Larry how to raise his child, but you would think this might be a good time to cut Nick’s allowance off and ground him for a couple of months until his exams are complete. Instead Larry suggests that Nick clean up the mess and they’ll finish the conversation tomorrow.

He doesn’t finish the conversation tomorrow. He takes his son with him on a work trip to London to assist in returning the tablet of Ahkmenrah to its rightful place at the British Museum. Obviously Larry and company didn’t do much research about how the British Museum historically garnered its worldly collection of artefacts, otherwise he’d have questioned why the rightful place for an Ancient Egyptian magical rock was in a class cabinet in the middle of London.

Then, as if the makers of this film haven’t demonstrated enough average parenting skills, the film begins to depict a substantial amount of untruths about the British Museum. These incorrect facts are not just a couple of under-researched history notes, but substantial redesigns to the layout of the museum and the addition of a number of items that do not appear in the museum. The most notable being the inclusion of dinosaur bones, which are housed at the Natural History Museum, not the British Museum.

The British Museum has dedicated an entire page of its website to clearing up some of the confusion. The most damning point made relates to Sir Lancelot being an entirely fictional character. Yet in this film, Lancelot is portrayed as an armoured Downton Abbey dropout – a most racial generalisation. It’s no wonder he aims to sabotage the entire operation.

The redemption, for what is actually quite a comedic jaunt, is the concluding scenes with Larry and Nick, where the son explains that he’s going to Ibiza to pursue his career as a DJ. They both state their love for each other, hug and walk off into the snow. It’s heart-warming to know that when you’re losing direction in life, you can always convince your parents you’ll find meaning by DJ-ing a seedy nightclub until 6am on a Spanish island.

Film Review – Paper Planes

The fresh faced naivety and optimism of a student teacher is soon beaten out. There is a flashing neon target on their head asking for students to cause them no end of grief. Idealistic aspirations of ‘making a difference’ and inspiring children to ‘follow them dreams’ soon become incinerated by the inferno generated for the mere self-preservation required in the classroom.

Despite this, Paper Planes insists on providing a fancifully functional classroom environment in this coming of age piece about aeronautical origami. If we begin by looking at Pete Rowsthorn’s portrayal of an enthusiastic classroom teacher, we get a picture of how good communication with children works. He is creative and fun, while still remaining aloof and being a disciplinarian. Case in point is his collection of mobile phone devices in a sombrero. In contrast Rowsthorn’s student teacher Jethro arrives from Melbourne with too much smiling going on. This is not to say I didn’t go into my first classroom with a big enthusiastic grin on my face. The difference was the grin was smeared off within minutes as my students misinterpreted my expression for weakness.

Paper Planes 2

In this film, the students continue to respond positively to the student teacher’s elated mood. They are cooperative and show no sign of cutting this inspirational nincompoop down at the knees. Then, in a most unconvincing portrayal of pedagogy, he introduces his first lesson with the immortal lines, “Today I’m going to teach you how to make the perfect plane”. I mean what lesson was this? Where was the educational value? Why was he using fresh paper from the packet, instead of recycling scrap paper?

If a real teacher was to pull this kind of stunt on their first day of practicum, they’d be lynched by the class, and marched to the principal’s office by their mentor. Additionally, and I say this from experience, you would not want to demonstrate to students how to fold something that could become a major disruption to your class. A sheep at the abattoir would not show a butcher how to sharpen a blade; a mouse would not invite Mr Tibbles around for tea; and a priest would not invite a convicted felon to give a guest homily at mass.

Perhaps it would have been more convincing for the paper plane session to have been conducted by a touring group of plane enthusiasts, rather than the student teacher who should have been conducting a handwriting lesson.

The message of the film is positive. And if we suspend disbelief in regards to the lacking nature of behaviour management strategies, the film certainly has adult characters who encourage children to dream big. I only wish the students I have taught had been as compliant as those in the film. Maybe I’d have produced a few more high achievers who ended up competing in international competitions.

Paper Planes was certainly a good reminder that every now and then it may be worth going back to my original doe-eyed views of education and how a little bit of honest enthusiasm can affect massive change.

The Tribe – Film Review

Clicking of a pen, drumming of fingers on the desk, sliding of a chair leg, whispering, zipping of a pencil case, clearing of a throat. These are all things that throw a teacher off their game, causing disruption to the flow of their lessons. Or so I thought. But watching The Tribe, a film where the dialogue is communicated completely through signing, my opinion of what amounts to disruption was challenged. Even in complete silence major disruption can be caused.

There is a scene early on in the film where new student Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko) enters the classroom at his Ukrainian boarding school. Upon entering the room, one of the other students immediately begins to sign to the other students. The student strides his chair, legs spread wide, one elbow resting on the desk, and body leaning slouched upon the seat. And in an instant I realise that it’s never the sound itself that creates disruption; it’s the attitude.

The teacher turns her attention away from Sergey and stares daggers at the teen who is kicking back like a real ‘Mr Coolio’. She tells him to be quiet. He continues to slouch, while spinning his pen nonchalantly in his hand. Again, complete defiance is communicated without a single noise.

Sergey sits down and the teacher begins her geography lesson. Again she is interrupted by the class clown. She requests he stand up. She negotiates with him, comes to some sort of agreement and then he sits down again. The moment she turns to examine the map at the front of the room, he is signing again. The lights flash and it’s time for break.

This scene alone was a revelation for me in regards to my own teaching. Whenever I teach I am on a never ending quest to reach a state of near silence in my classrooms. As though silence will bring about an equilibrium for learning. The Tribe threw that in my face and proved to me that even in a situation where nothing is heard, there are plenty of other ways to rebel. Even if I could sign, I would not work at that boarding school. Not just because of the slouching pen-twirling teenagers, but more due to the violence, drugs and sex that infiltrates the corridors of the dormitories and spills onto the streets.

Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has created an insane community of characters and situations in The Tribe. Despite claims by some critics that this is a silent film, I feel it’s not. The characters are signing with their hands. So there is communication and dialogue occurring. It’s a film with-out subtitles, which presumably means there is another level of depth to the film that would be accessed by those who understand Ukrainian sign language. But for the rest of us, the slow reveal of the plot through gestures and action is what makes this film masterful.

The performance by Grygoriy Fesenko and his co-stars Yana Novikova and Roza Babiy is thrilling. The cast of this film were unknown non-actors who were trained up on set and developed a set of intriguingly broken characters, not limited by their hearing impairment. There are few scenes where their lack of hearing directly affects the action of the film.

The Tribe is no Hollywood teen movie. If an allusion were to be made, then perhaps it is Mean Girls on acid, with a Ukrainian Michael Cera as the lead. While the situations in the film are mostly extreme, it should be an eye-opener for teachers who may wonder why students turn up to class withdrawn or angry. It is a wake-up call for parents who think their children spend time riding horses and playing hockey at boarding school. It will give students some dark and perverted ideas for entrepreneurialism and revenge. For the rest of you it can remind you to read the world through what you see, not just what you hear.

Kid #17 – Compromising Contraceptives

The seventeenth kid I hated walked into my classroom unannounced and offered me a condom.

There was no context; no provocation; no boys. It was an all-girls school. Why were they carrying around condoms? Perhaps a question better left unanswered.

It was my first day teaching in a British school. So it’s a wonder I didn’t pack my bags then and go back to where I came from. My only error on that particular day was perhaps envisaging that all English schools were like Hogwarts, where the vilest female student you may come upon would be Pansy Parkinson; and I don’t imagine she ever waved a contraceptive in Dumbledore’s face.

There was a lot of expectation hanging on this first day. I’d spent at least a week living in a hostel, waiting for the call from the job agency to provide me with my first day of work as a supply/cover/relief teacher. You needed to be ready by 7am each morning to sit by your phone and wait to be sent to whichever far corner of London needed you for the day. Every morning I had woken up early, waited by the phone, headed down to the basement (with no phone reception) for breakfast at 8am, waited in line with 60 plus French students queuing up for their camp breakfast of jam on toast, finally got my own two slices of jammed toast, headed back up from the basement to find three missed calls, returned the calls only to find the jobs were now taken, eaten breakfast, and by 9am realised that I wouldn’t be working that day.

So when the call to work finally came, I was ready for action. My first big day of work in the big old city of London!

Onto the Jubilee line I went, heading on what I assumed would be a five minute journey – everyone who visits London tells you how efficient and fast the train system is. I was expecting the Underground to be some sort of TARDIS, so was rather confused when twenty minutes later the train was above ground somewhere in Zone three or four, and I was alighting into the leafy London suburbs.

Wandering down the road to the school, I couldn’t help but notice a large population of Muslims pottering about their business. I had not realised at this point how many people in London seem to cluster together with their own countrymen. The French hang out in Chelsea; Australians drink anything but Fosters in Clapham; English people drink Fosters everywhere else; Jamaicans enjoy Lambeth; New Zealanders complain about coffee in Kilburn; Indians keep everyone well fed in Harrow; and so forth.

Seeing so many pleasant looking Muslim families put me at ease. Many of the women were wearing headscarves and if they were like my Muslim friends back home, they’d have a good heart and moral compass. And so it was, that I erroneously let my guard down. I had already learnt in Australia that students at Catholic schools can rebel just as strong as non-religious students. I don’t know why I thought the Muslim students would be any different.

The school itself was not religious. But there was such a high percentage of Muslim students that the entire school menu was Halal and good value to boot. I remember being quite excited that it was a mere £2 for a full plate of curry. In light of this my optimism naively continued.

When I entered the school I was asked to teach five sessions of Mathematics. Walking into the first class it became evident that I should not fall back on any assumptions that the children with nice religious upbringings would be any more respectful than the rest of them. Their headscarves were all akimbo, they slouched in their seats and wore a variety of scowls on their phizogs.

I began the lesson. Students began talking over me asking questions about why they had to work when their normal teacher wasn’t there; where was my accent from; and how long until the lesson finished. This was going to be a long day with a discount curry somewhere in the middle.

Most of the day went along smooth enough. I went for the ‘make sure nobody leaves their chair or get injured’ approach, which is not strong on learning time but big on survival. Students responded positively and there was no animosity. I started to relax again. Four lessons down and one to go. Then the real clincher came.

It was a group of Year 11 students – presumably the ones who had lofty aspirations of sponging off their parents into their mid-thirties. You could tell this was the case, because of the vacant expression behind their over mascaraed eyes, their overuse of the word ‘like’ and their cheap costume jewellery (I realise that’s an oxymoron – but I want to emphasise the cheapness). Their superficialness was only surpassed by their subtlety in sending text messages to each other without being noticed. Normally you can spot the kid who’s holding their phone just under the desk, dropping it into their lap or with their hand permanently fixed inside their pencil case. Initially they’ll look around the room a bit and engage in trivial questioning to put you off the scent. Then eventually they’ll surrender to the need for self-validation through social media and begin fiercely punching away at their screen, thus giving up the charade.

These Year 11 girls, however, were stoic. I had no idea they had been messaging each other until three girls barged their way into the classroom and sat down at one of the desks to begin gossiping with their friends. When asked where they had come from and why they were there, they rudely ignored the question and continued on. I’d never encountered such a blasé attitude and disregard. I genuinely was unsure what to do. There was only 20 minutes left of my day at the school, but it was going to be a long 20 minutes if I didn’t do something about it.

One of the other students kindly volunteered the information that girls from another class had been messaging the girls in my class to let them know that they too had a relief teacher. This explained why they had so easily escaped from the room where they should have been. I at least had managed to contain my students within their classroom. The problem was I now had students I didn’t need contained with the classroom.

After the revelation of this information and another student informing me that there was a school security officer who could remove them, two of the three girls got the scare and scampered back to the other room. The final girl remained.

I offered her the chance to leave peacefully and began walking towards the door to open it for her. My plan being to stand at the doorway with a kind hand gesturing towards the hallway for her to leave.

Just before I got to the door, she jumped from her seat. Flying across the room, she flung herself between me and the door, then stood with her spine hard against the exit. I should have opened the door before telling her what her options were. Now I was stumped. I didn’t know how to contact the school ‘security officer’. It also seemed unfair to prompt the other girls for any more information about it, because they were already becoming the target of some mild ridicule from their peers for ‘snitching’.

I was starting to work up a sweat; and not from being unused to the mild heatwave of a London summer. The girl then pulled from her pocket the square foil packet containing the birth control device. She waved the condom in my face so all the other students could see.

“Do you want a condom?” she cackled.

It was the cackle teenage girls give to older men when they think the male they’re talking to spends most of his time residing in a monastery carving wooden toys and ordering take out with other monks. They have that condescending tone where they presume a man, who is simply doing his job by teaching arithmetic, is completely asexual and wouldn’t know a pharmacy from a porn shop let alone know what a condom is. They hope by being overtly sexual that the gentleman will surrender himself to her and leave him wide open for litigation.

Or maybe the girl simply had a condom in her pocket and didn’t know what to do with it.

Either way, this was not an interesting problem solving exercise to undertake on my first day of teaching in a new country. It was a headache. Not to mention the ramifications for getting embroiled in some sort of lawsuit while working overseas.

Luckily the problem was solved for me. The security officer arrived and made some light hearted joke with the child in question. Whether or not that joke was appropriate, I don’t recall. But that is by the by. The main thing was he managed to remove her. Easy of course for him to deal with behaviour management in a laissez-faire manner; he didn’t need to teach them how to find the square root of anything.

The main thing taken away from this whole experience was to guard the door and don’t let anything get between you and the door.

There was no malice behind what the girl did; she was just a jovial juvenile with a Johnny in her jacket. But if we met again in a sex education class, I doubt I’d get her to demonstrate the sheathing of the banana.

Kid #15 – How a silly name might affect your child.

The fifteenth kid I hated had a misspelt name.

Names can be spelt whichever which way people prefer, one would suppose. But you know the sort of names that everyone spells one way and then some chump parent decides to reinvent the wheel and add an extra vowel, replace an ‘i’ with a ‘y’ or spell the entire thing backwards. This child had one of those names. He won’t be named here, but it was similar to when ‘Geoffrey’ is spelt ‘Jeffrey’; or ‘Ashley’ is spelt ‘Ashleigh’; or ‘Sam’ is spelt ‘Psam’; or ‘Polly’ is spelt ‘Potato’.

Long story short, his name had been incorrectly constructed. If it had been spelt correctly it would have been close in meaning to ‘doing the right thing for the greater good’. Unfortunately this was not reflected in the child’s personality.

At first glance, he was a very charming child. All smiles and “how are you sir?”, “what can I do to help sir?” etc. He participated in class discussions and completed most of his work efficiently. Perhaps he was too smart for the other students or had some attention deficit. Either way, the pleasantries soon started to change in tone. They didn’t disappear. But there appeared to be a cunning flicker behind the fire in his eyes.

He was a Year Eight student, which at the time meant it was his first year at high school. He was exuding a particular over-confidence which was perhaps to intimidate his peers. While his contemporaries looked like deer in the headlights, he began to strut around as though he was Riff from West Side Story. He was the ‘the Fonz’ of Year 8. The boys steered clear of him and the girls swooned.

And then there was all the weird stuff where I assume he was trying to find his true self. For example he painted his finger nails and wore eyeliner. Also the more the girls swooned, the more camp he became, which did not seem to deter them in the slightest. Additionally, this was all happening around the time Hug a Ginger Day, National Kick a Ranga Day and Say Sorry to a Ranga Day was becoming a big thing (it is still a big thing, right?). So life was confusing. So confusing he dyed his hair jet black.

But chameleon tendencies were merely a mask for his thinly veiled contempt for the system. As he became more and more preoccupied with his vanity, he became less and less occupied with the task at hand. The quality of his work began to slip. His attitude towards anyone who wasn’t a female 13-year-old, became loathsome. It was all eye-rolling, slouched shoulders and foot dragging.

When I confronted him on his manners, that’s when things would escalate. He’d get his usual warnings. Then it would be a move to an isolated desk at the front of the room. Sometimes the desk was moved into the hallway. He’d usually be asked to move the chair, which would result in a lot of banging and clanging, while he made sure the chair ricocheted off every hard piece of furniture in his path.

It was the real, “I don’t care what you do to me, because everybody hates me,” attitude.

I suppose he was, what someone from the mid-noughties may have called, an ‘Emo’ (emotional human being). I don’t know what name these characters go by currently.

Placing a agitated bald eagle in a cardboard box would have been easier than trying to get this child to work. I tried all sorts; complimenting him on his dubious appearance; scolding him about his attitude; commending him on his insightful arguments; giving him the death whisper when he spoke out of turn. Nothing was working.

Most other staff had trouble with him, too. He had trouble with himself. The world was against him. There was a chip on his shoulder threatening to tear through the cheap fabric of the tight-fitting T-shirts he presumably wore on weekends. If he wasn’t looking into a mirror, he was looking out of one wondering why everyone surrounding him enjoyed life and didn’t reflect the melancholy vibes back to him. Basically it was your usual run-of-the-mill teen angst, but with skinny jeans and a misshapen haircut.

His moaning defiant self-awareness haunted my dreams. He was the child who was getting under my skin. Maybe it was because I had seen his full potential in the first instance, and was upset about his decline in attitude. More likely it was the constant distraction and disruption he was causing to the classroom as his fashion sense became more outrageous and his attention seeking quips about everything from politics to narrative plot structure became the entire focus of the class. I wondered whether things would have been different had his parents given him a sensible name like ‘John’.

I was losing control. All because of one puny post-punk.

The inevitable outcome is a bit blurry. I think eventually I went for the old fashioned trick of turning some of the other students against him, so he’d pull into line. There was still a select bunch he would listen to.

It was early days for my teaching though. I’m getting better at spotting these characters; the ones who begin high school looking like they’re out of a Pumpkin Patch catalogue, then three months later look as though they’ve been kicked out of a Lady Gaga concert, with an attitude to match Justin Bieber’s pet monkey.

If I had my time again I’d probably be more compassionate to the child’s self-pity and provide better boundaries. But if we met again, I doubt I’d swap Fall Out Boy albums with him.

Kid #14 – The Wizard in the Hallway

The fourteenth kid I hated yelled “expelliarmus!” at me from the corridor. Not to be outdone I yelled “alohomora!” which only unlocked a filing cabinet. So then I yelled “crucio!” which unleashed intense pain on my victim. I later double checked the spell in my spell book (and on Wikipedia) to realise using this spell leads to a life sentence in Azkaban prison. But I don’t think anyone saw me.

These are the trials and tribulations of being a white middle class male who wears black rimmed spectacles. I don’t have a scar on my forehead, but I do have a scar on my chin from when I fell on a limestone wall in Pre Primary. When I first started teaching, students would question my age, claiming I looked as though I’d gone straight from Year 12 into the classroom as a teacher; without having been to University in between. Being told you look younger than you are may be a compliment in any other circumstance, but when you’re trying to wrangle teenagers, you want them to at least think you’ve got ten years more life experience than them. A wise colleague once told me to grow a beard as a method for stretching the age gap. It worked for a while, but by the time my beard had grown properly it was 2010, and Daniel Radcliffe was already collecting the Deathly Hallows while sporting his own grubby stubble. Thus my attempts to distance myself from this fictional prodigy wizard had backfired and I was one golden snitch away from becoming Harry Potter himself.

It became an ongoing whisper in every new classroom I entered. “He looks like Harry Potter”; “OMG it’s Harry Potter”; “Harry Potter”.

Had it not been my supposed resemblance to Harry Potter, it would presumably have been something else the children would cause me grief over. Students are always looking for something. I remember when we were students it would be everything from mimicking our teachers’ accents and nervous ticks, to critiquing their choice of fashion or poking fun at the volume of hair on their chest. Teenagers find a way to be cruel no matter the attempts to neutralise.

Despite being an adult, when a teenager pokes fun at you to your face or from a distance, you revert to similar defences you had as a child. Mine was usually to ignore the bullies. As an adult you tell yourself that children don’t mean anything personally and they’re just bored or trying to distract you.

This works for a while until you begin to take it personally. Like the time a student asked why the tongues of my shoes were sitting over the bottom of my trouser legs, instead of vice versa. There’s nothing worse than getting fashion advice from fashionable teenagers. Even if your fashion is fashionable those judging staring all-knowing eyes of the youth will cut through your soul, because they are fashion. The attempts to ‘ignore the bully’ turn to anger. Their remarks are met with “Be quiet and get on with your work”.

Other times you may fight their abuse with logic, “Well if you’ve seen the latest Russell and Bromley range you’ll know they’re worn in this way”. This of course will be met with, “Russell Who?”, a smirk and a snigger.

Trying to make a game of it lasts for a short while. Embracing the Harry Potter persona by raising my pen as a wand often garnered some attention and cooperation. The unknowing nature of the intellectually challenged students, meant that they saw me as unpredictable. They questioned whether the fountain pens in my top drawer really could leave them with a mutilated limb or a head replaced by that of an animal. However, soon enough the intrigue turns to disappointment and they realised the only sparks flying from the nib of the wand pen would be congealed lumps of blue ink.

The last resort worked the best. I got contact lenses (A different pair of less rounded brown framed glasses did not work – apparently all glasses look like Harry Potter glasses on a short haired male in his early twenties). Removing the glasses altogether did nothing for me in the school where I was already working. The kiddily-winks saw straight through it. But entering new schools in the years to follow meant they would know me only as the short-haired white middle-class male who did not resemble Daniel Radcliffe in the slightest. They of course found a new feature to pick upon. I think it was my vague resemblance to a famous footballer I’d never heard of. Probably the weedy one who never goes to the gym and watches American sitcom DVD boxsets.

There is no winning.

In regards to the child who cast his spell through the doorway of my Year 11 English classroom, I never saw him again after that. He was not one of my students. But the fits of hysterics, he sent my students into, haunt me every time I wear my spectacles upon my face.

So although he was probably joking as he lumbered down the hallway that fateful day, if we met again I doubt I’d offer him any of my chocolate frogs.

Kid #13 – The Army Cadet

The thirteenth kid I hated was an army cadet. This is not why I hated him.

Being an army cadet is certainly not a hanging offence. In fact nothing is a hanging offence in schools because capital (sic corporal) punishment was pushed out of most Australian and European schools at least by the end of the eighties. I daren’t say all because, for example, Nollamara Christian Academy in Western Australia only removed the corporal element of punishment from their behaviour strategy at the beginning of this academic year. 1 Yet are we surprised when the motto of the school is “enter to learn…go forth to serve”? When the Egyptian slaves went about ‘serving’ they got a good beating; as did the slaves of Essos across the Narrow Sea; and the Wookiees who built the Death Star.

But I digress. This child did not require any heavy handed tactics. Even if I had, I imagine his army training would have given him the upper hand if I had entered into a combat situation with him. Army cadets are not to be messed with. I remember when I was at school someone turned up to school one day with a massive curved scar on one cheek. He’d been at an army cadet training camp and forgot to open his can of baked beans before putting it on the fire. The can exploded and opened his face instead. At the time it seemed pretty hard-core. Honestly, it’s still would be pretty hard-core if someone took out half their face with a tin can. If this was the damage an army cadet could do to themselves when they weren’t trying to injure someone, I wasn’t game to test my hated student to see what damage he’d do when he was trying.

Luckily the only time he turned up to school with his army uniform, and any semblance of a weapon (he was holding a wooden flag pole with blunted ends), was when the ANZAC Day march was held. Presumably he’d been trained to use a gun, but had he requested to bring that for the occasion I imagine he’d be declined under the strict Occupational Health and Safety regulations. This is the sort of nanny-state age we live in. No 21-gun-salute for these teenagers – which is fair enough considering the only warzone they’d ever experience is in Call of Duty: World at War facing an onslaught of Zombies.

Of course, it was not all the flag waving and fanfare that caused this child to be an ache in the bottom. It was because, the only thing he wished to cooperate with was flag waving and fanfare. If he was asked to write some words or complete a worksheet he refused. Worse still he acted as though he was above it. He was a leader among cadets and did not have time for trivial grammatical and punctuation matters when his queen and country needed his service for the protection of the free. The faint sound of gunshots, in distant lands over the sea, was calling him; and subordinate clauses would be of no use to him when his regiment would need nothing more than one word commands; ‘fire’, ‘hold’, ‘attack’ etc.

The other students had little time for him. They saw him neither as a threat or a potential victim for their chiding. He had fortressed his emotion in an iron-cast strong-hold and saw all others as subordinates. When he wasn’t condescending you with his words, he would have that suspicious look in his eye telling you he doubted whatever you said.

So, what to do with such a child?

The general approach was to counter all the negativity with smiles, positivity, encouragement and feigned interest (disguised as genuine interest) in his alternative life as an army cadet. He also knew a thing or two about computers, so every so often I’d humour him and get him to demonstrate something technical to me. Playing to his narcissism usually resulted in the completion of one or two extra sentences of writing during a one hour English lesson. It became a game of concentration to avoid retaliating to his confrontational mood with further confrontation. A lot of deep breathing was required to maintain a calm diplomatic disposition when dealing with this aspiring army commander. He was always one step away from confusing a polite instruction for an insult; or confusing the school bell for a call to arms.

The kind, caring and humouring approach worked successfully for the most part with this child. The ANZAC Day march was a fine example of this. I’d never seen him look prouder to be part of something. His chest was puffed out in pride as he marched for his country, leading the parade around the school gymnasium. He was calm, centred and transcended his usual paranoid state. It took every inch of restraint to stop myself from sliding an analytical essay under his nose to see how he’d react. Perhaps his place truly was providing allegiance to the troops and not writing analysis of Dickensian literature. Perhaps institutionalised education was not for him. Perhaps it was another institution. Perhaps it was the Army.

So although I came to respect this child for the military officer he was, if we met again in the trenches I doubt I’d walk ahead of him. I’d walk behind. Always behind, with my gun cocked, ready for him to turn at any time.

1 Last WA school using corporal punishment forced to end practice from next term – ABC News Jan 7, 2015 (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-01-07/last-school-to-cease-corporal-punishment-in-wa/6004992)

Kid #11 – The perfect fallback for your average deliquent

The eleventh kid I hated wasn’t even in my class. He probably had what the professionals might call oppositional defiant disorder.

The most delightful element of his less than complex personality was his belief that if he disengaged hard enough, he’d be returned to New Zealand and work on his uncle’s sheep farm. If he showed the same application he was currently showing, to the sheep, he’d be lucky to find the sheep in the first place – let alone all the dredging, mustering, tailing, shearing, slaughtering etc.

He struggled a lot with simple tasks like sitting in a chair or holding a pen. He spoke a lot. However, to my knowledge the sounds of human words differ greatly to that of sheep; so inter-species communication was going to be of little use if he returned to the south island. I’m pretty sure being a sheep whisperer is not a thing; with the exception of Babe. But Babe was a fictional porcine creature, so that doesn’t count.

During my off-lessons the young lad would often come by the office and knock on the door. Usually when I was right in the middle of an exciting reading session of Two Weeks With the Queen.

“Excuse me sir,” he’d say.

“Why are you here again?” I’d splutter, sending flecks of instant coffee from lips – (I have written this last sentence for affect, not because I drink coffee).

“I was sent out of class again”.

“By who?” I’d enquire.

“I don’t know”.

“What do you mean, you don’t know? You’ve been in Year Nine for five months now! Go sit outside the office where I can see you”.

The last piece of rant didn’t happen out loud. The reality was I’d usually sit him down and try to complete some activity with him. He’d spend twenty minutes taking a lid off a pen and talking about his uncle, then it was onto the next class.

Not long after this mutual disinterest in each other had strengthened, I was asked to run a separate group with some of the “naughty boys”. There were only three boys, but one of course was the aspiring Farmer Brown.

We were set up in one of the side rooms of the school library. The natural daylight had been minimised by narrow windows, furnishings were minimalistic and I only allowed each student their reading book in the room. You must however remember the student struggled with chairs. So as per all the other classrooms in the school, this learning space also had chairs. It’s amazing how many times a person can fall awkwardly from a stable four legged seat when they don’t want to read page 54 of Tomorrow When The War Began. Perhaps it was the lack of woolly farm animals in John Marsden’s post-apocalyptic world that led to this. But again I would argue that, at the very least, straddling a stationery stool would be solid practise for rounding up sheep on a high speed bike. Yet this of course assumes the child had moved past his previous misconception that he may be able to adopt a comprehensible sheep dialect; and would merely negotiate the sheep into their appropriate holding pens. It was inevitable, one day, he’d be confronted with the proposition of doing some actual work while riding a bike to round up sheep and in an act of work-avoidance slide from the seat onto the burning hot exhaust pipe before falling under the wheel, where he’d be left with tyre marks across his chest.

It was at times when he avoided simple tasks, such as sitting, that Marsden’s dystopia – we were reading about – appeared an attractive alternative to the dystopia of the reading session taking place. The rest of the group weren’t much better than him. What with reading the book upside down, not knowing words and staring out the windows – that looked onto the underside of the tin verandah – it was any wonder we managed to physically open the cover, from the pages, in the first place.

The problem for these types of students is they are not learning how to develop a work ethic. They’ve developed a romanticised view of life on the land (or down a mineshaft, or inn a trade, or whatever the case may be) being easier than working a desk job where they may need to sit in a chair or write something.

Now I’ve watched a lot of McLeod’s Daughters – every episode in fact bar episode fifteen of the fourth series, which I forgot to set the VCR to record – and Claire McLeod and the subsequent daughters spent a fair percentage of their time sitting behind old Jack McLeod’s writing desk, completing paperwork and finding hidden chests containing old trousseaus and manacles. None of these tasks could have been completed without a solid understanding of mathematics and writing, nor without a committed work ethic.

Perhaps this young man could have learnt some sage lessons from the women of Drover’s Run and would have realised his own dreams of inheriting his uncle’s agricultural empire. Alas, Mcleod’s Daughters completed its eight year run in 2008 – two years before the boy entered my life. By this time I’d recorded over the tapes with episodes of Grey’s Anatomy.

Somehow things may have been different if he’d just taken a leaf out of Kid #4’s book and “calmed his farm”. Had this been done to his metaphorical farm, the actual farm he longed to work on may have been his.

That’s not to say he didn’t make it back to New Zealand. He may be there now with his tar pot in hand, waiting in demand.

But if I did meet him after a hard day on the boards of the shearing shed, I doubt I’d buy him a cold one down the pub.

Kid #10 – The kid who wasn’t there

The tenth kid I hated was never there.

For the first four months I taught him, I assumed he was a misprint on my register. Two months into teaching his Year 10 English class, I asked the administration staff whether he needed to be removed from the roll. I was informed he had been enrolled and the department were trying to track him down.

The department are trying to track him down? I thought to myself. How hard can it be? Is this kid the modern day Frank Abagnale of Year 10? Were we about to find him performing laparoscopic surgery at Royal Perth Hospital?

Yes, very, yes and no – respectively.

It turned out he had been spending time with his aunts and uncles in Geraldton, a major coastal port city, 400 kilometres north of Perth. Presumably he had not been attending school up there; otherwise he would have been registered on the state school database. Nor did I imagine his aunts and uncles had been providing him with the necessary pedagogical environment to further his academic education.

Things would have been a lot easier if his family had at least scrawled on a piece of paper letting the school know he had metaphorically (or actually) “gone fishing” – no doubt a rewarding decision considering he was mostly absent during rock lobster season.

When the child finally turned up, sometime in May, the other students treated him like a spectacle. His mere presence was excuse for distraction. They of course wanted to ask all the questions adults were too polite to ask. Worse than that, he was given some god-like status for his ability to have thwarted the system for so long without repercussion.

Having no background information on the child at this point, and knowing he had missed four months of learning, I started him off on Monday with a series of short Year 10 grammar exercises. Even with the teaching assistant watching over him, he struggled to string much together verbally, let alone write it down. By Friday, I had worked him down to Year 6 work, which was still not much easier than drawing blood from a stone.

The following Monday he was gone again.

I never saw him again. Ever.

Truancy for any reason is bad news. Whether or not a parent has their own views on the school system as an institutionalised whole, is irrelevant. Truanting is bound to cause an unhealthy cycle of avoidance from any future life obstacles. Additionally staying at home seems fun for a while, but inevitably there’s only so many times you can watch re runs of The Big Bang Theory, before you end up with Sheldon Cooper’s social skills minus the science doctorates.

Additionally for the child I had in my class, the root cause of his transience across the state of Western Australia, was most likely due to his Aboriginal culture. Sure, the government bureaucrats will say it’s because the indigenous people have substance abuse problems, health problems, teen pregnancy, negative school experiences and the list goes on; but there is the ever undeniable displacement of the aboriginal people which caused the problem back in January 1788.

The Aboriginal children I’ve worked with, have been nothing short of enthusiastic. There is always a strong sense of family and community. Sometimes a family may take their children to a completely different part of the countryside for a family funeral or major cultural event that involves ceremonies lasting days or even weeks. The unfortunate thing is, in the now changed and modern world it’s not always practical to rely entirely on this structure for your children’s future. Time out of school may cost them their future. There needs to be engagement between the Aboriginal communities and the school systems.

The wise and unprejudiced Australian leader Tony Abbott placed student attendance officers in some of the most rural parts of Australia at the beginning of 2014. (Not before re-allocating funds from pre-existing attendance strategies in schools1). The West Australian journalist Angela Pownall outlined how in early 2014 a government entourage followed some of these attendance officers around as they politely knocked on each of the doors of each of the homes of each of the students in Carnarvon – a coastal town situated over 450 kilometres north of Geraldton.

When the officers attended the homes there was “no response at the first two houses”; “a Year 8 student’s father is getting ready to leave for work while his daughter is still in bed”, because the daughter was “up until the early hours playing on her phone”; plus officers “carry a megaphone, mainly so they can use its high-pitched sound to ward off unfriendly dogs”.

The problem is complex and the solution is not on this blog.

But next time I head down the jetty, with my fishing rod, I doubt I’ll invite the kid I taught for one week of 52 – I probably wouldn’t be able to find him in the first place.

1Local Action to tackle truancy, Angela Pownall, Weekend West – February 8 2014