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.

Kid #18 – Dealing with stubborn children and indignation

The eighteenth kid I hated thought I had called her a racist.

She was so insistent and fierce in her accusation it was almost as though the word ‘racist’ was a racist term. Mind you, it’s fair enough to be angry about being called a racist when you are not a racist. The point was I had never called her a racist. At most I would have said, “What you have just said to your friend is racist”, which is quite different because it would have been done with the intent of raising the girl’s awareness to the fact others may perceive her misjudged humour as racism.

It is very hard to explain logical thought processes to an angry 13 year old girl. What she had originally said to her peer, I cannot remember because of the hysteria that followed. I do remember that whatever it was, she shouted it across the room. It happened in a notoriously difficult school to manage students. They had an entire room dedicated to time out during the day and telephones in every classroom for teachers to call the ‘time out’ room supervisor to retrieve various problem children.

As was the case with most of the students there, they would look for any opportunity to get out of working. Any slight against their name was the perfect excuse for going on strike. This is exactly what this child decided to do.

“You can’t call me a racist,” she screeched, throwing her chair to the floor and storming out of the classroom.

This was followed by the customary oohing and aahing from the peanut gallery. Promptly putting a kybosh on that, I continued on with the lesson. Surely the whole thing would blow over in a few minutes.

How wrong I was.

Never underestimate the stubbornness of a tantrum-prone teenager. They’ll hold the sort of grudge you may expect from the victims, of a heinous crime, against their perpetrator. Their little teenage mind will stew the matter over and over in their head, seeking out revenge at any opportune moment. They write melodramatic hate notes in their personal journals in the hope their woes will be uncovered by a nosey parent or sibling. Then they will be vindicated.

It first became evident the situation was unresolved when the young madam returned to class the following day.

“I’m not doing any work until you apologise,” she moaned for the whole class to hear.

“Apologise for what?” I responded, feigning ignorance about what she was talking about.

“You called me a racist,” she exclaimed. “Didn’t he everyone? He called me a racist. Didn’t he?”

“I didn’t call you a racist,” I said calmly. “Now, please get on with your work.”

She started scanning the room for support. The only back up she was provided with came from her fellow ‘mean girls’ producing a set of indignant scowls on their faces. They started conducting their own little sit-in at their desk, refusing en masse to complete any work. This of course did not differ greatly from their normal output, but now they had an explanation for their lack of productivity.

Again hoping the whole thing may blow over, I waited for improvement the following day. Things did not improve. She became even more demanding of an apology. And the next day the same. And the day after that.

It was now a standoff. I couldn’t apologise, even if I had done something wrong. She’d then turn it into an even bigger situation. She certainly wouldn’t get back to work.

Because of her defiance to work, she began having detention after detention. It was usually 20 minutes at the end of the day in the form classroom. She and any other punks who’d been caught out, would sit and squirm and moan for the majority of the 20 minutes before finally scampering out the door like imprisoned rats on the escape. The other students would come and go from detentions. But she was iron willed. She was not going to get back to work until there was an apology.

Finally she was taken to the Year group coordinator. He had a lengthy discussion with her about what had happened. He tried to talk her down. But just when there was a window of opportunity for her to compromise, she’d unleash into a full blown attack again lamenting how she had been defamed. It was a worthy effort at deflection and would have been award-winning if schools gave prizes for such things. Alas, they do not. But also alas, she was non-responsive to punishments or temporary removals from the room.

The term came to an end and only upon the start of the following term did she appear to have somewhat forgotten her stance. Yet within the first few lessons she was arcing up again. Probably she had been cast as Frankenstein’s monster instead of Elizabeth, in the class play; or some such oversight.

I only taught that class for a short term contract. But when it came to the end it was done. The Little Miss ‘I’m not a racist’, had been a major contributor to my distress and frustration. Never had I taught a class where I’d spent time developing rapport to then have children continue being un-cooperative.

I remember shouting at them on the last day, “I have never met such a rude and impolite group of people in all my years of teaching”. Albeit, I’d taught for less than three years at that stage – it was true they were the worst. “I’ve taught five year olds who do more work than you. I hope you’re proud that you’re dumb stupid idiots and that you can go rot in the fiery pits of hell.” (The end part may be an embellishment – I don’t think I said ‘fiery’).

I then marched out of the building, only to return two weeks later to work another day of supply teaching; thankfully covering a different class.

I’m pretty sure it was puberty that caused this girl to be so unamusing. I was assured she was quite pleasant before she turned 13. She may well be a successful something or the other by now. But if I met her again I doubt I’d give her a bar of chocolate; she’d probably misconstrue it.

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 #12 – When manual arts go mad

The twelfth kid I hated fashioned a piece of sheet metal into the shape of a penis and testicles; then placed it on my desk.

I’ve not taught metal work, because my background is in English teaching. However, the odd time when I’ve covered a manual arts class, I’ve been left to complete worksheets with the children, as I myself am presumably uninsured or unqualified to supervise such activities. This said, it would seem the child in question had been permitted enough time to operate heavy machinery unaided, and create this metallic piece of genitalia; or perhaps he had been aided and had managed to convince his metal-work teacher, he had created a silhouette of a banana and plums. The latter seems less likely.

And so it was that with ten minutes remaining of a lesson, I went to place my Macbeth play script on my desk and looked down to find the sausage and meatballs in question. Not being very good at disguising surprise, the students could tell straight away that I had clocked it. The giggling started straight away. What was I to do? The tin trouser snake was quite large. Too large to use as a bookmark. Even if I used a World Book encyclopaedia, the end of the junk would be sticking out making the book look like a shrunken pair of speedos on an Australia Prime Minister.

I did the only sensible thing left to any teacher in this situation. I raised the offending item above my head and asked the class who had placed it on my desk. No response. But then the usual threat of, “We will all be here in your own time until somebody owns up,” seemed to do the trick. Fingers began pointing across the room to a small blonde boy who had an inferiority complex.

This same child had been seen on occasion sitting diligently next to his mother in church on Sundays, carrying shopping to the family car and being a general pillar of the community. But his behaviour in school was the complete opposite and usually consisted of what can only be described as some sort of voluntary Tourette’s syndrome. At any given moment in class when the attention from his peers waned, out would come the expletives. These were closely followed by a knowing smirk, making quite clear this was not a medical condition.

While his mother may have been unaware of the double life he led, he of course realised that I was more than aware; so aware in fact that he confessed to his crime right away.

In hindsight, what happened next is regrettable. But also apt.

The class was on edge as to what would happen next, wondering how this act of defiance would be swiftly remedied. When there’s expectation of serious consequence; for what is mostly tomfoolery that overstepped the mark; it’s sometimes best to bring things down a notch, while still maintaining the upper hand.

I asked the boy to walk to the front of the room and handed him his cold hard manhood (metal manhood, that he had made in manual arts – let’s be clear on that). He then asked how long he had to stand at the front of the room showing his steel plated privates.

Now, less because I needed to teach him a lesson, but more because the lesson on Shakespeare’s Macbeth had run five minutes short that day, I responded by telling him to stay there until the bell rang for break.

It was a very long and awkward five minutes that ensued, but an important point was made; even if I did have to thwart his odd attempt to place the metal cut-out near his forehead – because of course that would be going too far.

When the bell rang, the class were dismissed, hopefully taking their shame with them, but not taking the metal penis with them.

The inevitable outcome for the hand carved gonads is long forgotten. Most likely they were handed back to the metal work teacher so a year seven or eight student could re-sculpt them into a candle holder for their aunty.

It’s conceivable that everyone, including myself, learnt something about anatomy, Elizabethan theatre and humiliation that day. Being marginally more experienced than I was back then, I would probably avoid the public shaming part and privately shame him in front of his mother. Hopefully he’s matured since then and is now a sensible construction worker using his metal work skills for good. This said, if we ever met while I was building a new home, I doubt I’d get him to do any welding for fear of a phallic flue being fixed to my fireplace,

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 #9 – Fast food, moods and fones

The ninth kid I hated confused her father for a food delivery van. An easy mistake for any teenager whose mood would swing as easily as an arachnid hanging from a thread below an exhaust fan.

One minute she’d be the virtuous student, completing all her work, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, contributing to class discussions, helping to carry things and so forth. At other times you’d be lucky to get within ten metres of her without being hit by a spray of contumelious expletives. When she decided not to work, she would pout and erase her memory of anything academic. Often, her petulance would become so consuming, she’d be one step from regressing into a thumb-sucking ball of disgrace.

All of this changing between good and bad, was complimented by an ongoing truancy. The amount of sick days she was taking would put Ferris Bueller to shame. And where you may think it would be hard to hate someone who isn’t there, her absence made it all the more worse. The fear was ever present that at any moment she may return, revitalised from roaming the suburban streets of Perth with her goons for the past week. She would always arrive back with a stronger displeasure of the system, a bigger chip on her shoulder and, most importantly, armed with her mobile phone.

The phone would be my undoing.

Mobile phones are my kryptonite professionally and personally. During my second year of university I insisted on using the landline phones in the student newsroom for assignments. It was only after a solid three months playing phone-tag with the subjects of my soft news articles, I succumbed to the power of the portable handset. It was the early 2000’s. Flip phones were at their height of popularity. So, taking my ever pragmatic approach to phones, I unofficially adopted my parent’s Nokia 3210 as my own. (That little metallic red phone would serve me monochromatically for a further five years until it flew from my pocket onto the garden pathway as I jumped to retrieve one of my thongs from a roof gutter – but that’s another tale).

My point is, when it comes to phones, I hate mobile telephones second only to the soon-to-be-adult people who brandish them brazenly in classrooms around the globe. There have been stories of: teachers collecting phones in a bucket as students enter the room; the installing of devices that disable any network coverage within school premises; or, as one lecturer led me to believe, a school in South Africa collecting all the students phone numbers, forcing them to wear their phones on a lanyard, and then using an SMS notification system to text students homework and other general business, thus rendering the phones as fun as an Advanced Calculus textbook.

Unfortunately most teachers are not privy to such technological tricks – like buckets. Most dialogue with students is as follows:

Teacher – “Please put your phone away.”

Student – “But I’m messaging my mother.”

Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”

Student – “I’m doing it.”

Teacher – “Please put the phone away.”

Student – “I’m just finishing the message, otherwise my mother will worry.”

My naivety and own general incompetence with phones led me to believe until quite recently that this was the case. It was revealed to me by a parent, not many years apart from myself, that when teenagers say they are texting a parent, they are normally just messaging a friend in another classroom – or in a fit of lunacy, they are messaging a friend within the same classroom.

It had always seemed strange to me that parents would want direct contact with their child in the classroom, listening to the every whim and woe of their ungrateful offspring. Back in the day, you’d split your head open on a limestone paving stone and be lucky if a staff member had the foresight to send another student to the front office for the school secretary to flick through the lever arch of parent contacts and call home, only to have the phone ring out because your mother was down at Woolworths, and leave a message with your father’s secretary that he’d only receive in time for you to have bled out. They were the good old days, where a bit of miscommunication would go a long way.

Now students in the classroom have a hotline to home. In the case of the ninth kid I hated, she used this hotline as regular blackmail when she was having one of her hissy fits. A power play would unfold where she would act as though she’d get in her parents’ ears before the teacher would be able to give their version of events.

Now, while this would be the perfect situation to have known what I now know, about students bluffing who they were actually messaging, one incident stood out that made clear this girl really was messaging home when she said she was.

One lazy Thursday afternoon during English, ‘madam’ was kicking off as usual. It was still twenty minutes until lunch break, which probably explained part of the mood she was in. But then with one inconspicuous vibration of her pocket device, things really heated up. She pulled out the phone. She was asked politely to put it away. But she continued to read it.

“Sir, sir! My dad’s outside.”

“I can’t see him.”

“He’s in his car.”

“I’m sure if he needs to see you, he’ll do the old fashioned thing and let Ms Smith in the office know that he needs to see you.”

This placated her momentarily, until a few more messages were exchanged.

“He has my lunch sir.”

“It’s lunch time in twenty minutes, so you can have it then.”

“But its takeaway, and it’ll be cold by then.”

This was the point I looked out the window to see first hand the cause of this child’s social ineptitude.

Parked in the loading bay outside the school reception was a beaten up old car from the 80s with the driver’s door open and a man standing beside the car with holding two plastic carrier bags of steaming chicken and chips.

“Sir!” Her voice was becoming shrill. “If I don’t go now, my brother will take all the food and won’t give me anything.”

“I’m sure he’ll keep yours safe for you,” I responded, not entirely sure that her sixteen year old oaf of a sibling would be so generous.

Sure enough, I could now see her brother heading out to the car park, having no doubt given his own teacher some cock and bull story about going to the toilet. Unfortunately for the girl her honesty, and the classroom’s proximity to the car park, had not lent her the opportunity to bulldust me.

“I can see him getting both bags now,” she squealed.

“I can see him getting both the bags, now,” I muttered.

Turning back to the class, I demanded another two paragraphs from each student about the character development of Griff Price in the novel Two Weeks With The Queen; not before the remaining moments of Year Eight English were interrupted by screams of “There’ll be no chips left,” and “He’s going to eat all my chicken”.

When I finally dismissed the class, we entered the playground to find the older brother stuffing his face with the contents of both bags as the young girl had predicted. I approached him and requested he give the appropriate share of the food to his sister.

But in this confused new world of mobile telephonic machines, parental fast food delivery services and misogynistic older brothers; I couldn’t help but feel somewhat complicit in the dietary and emotional assault that had played out on this vulnerable young girl.

Perhaps if history repeated I’d confront the father directly, but if we met again in a major fast food burger chain I doubt I’d join them in a Japanese style ‘potato party’.