I’m teaching a boy named Drayton. He’s from a typical Coventry family. I should know. I went to school in ‘Cov’. It seems like only the day before yesterday I was hopping the fence with Drayton’s older brother to go to KFC. But that was ten years ago. These days, Drayton orders an Uber Eats to be delivered through the palisade bars of the steel fence. And I’m the one in authority who is supposed to be reining him in.
‘Easy, Bossman. What we doing today?’ is how he addresses me as he enters my classroom.
‘Now, now, Drayton. It’s Sir, to you,’ I say.
‘Yeah, dat’s calm, innit.’ Which means that’s OK with him.
He asks me for a pen, then a pencil and finally a ruler as he does his work. I’m half expecting to hear ‘Got any tunes, boss?’ from his seat at the back.
I’m a next-level geography teacher. But I’ve also taught history and food technology at secondary level. Throughout all of it, I’ve learned that there are solutions to dealing with problem children.
It isn’t long before Drayton starts waving a yellow lighter in the air. He holds it aloft, sparks it, and I have no choice but to send him out, even though I appreciate the sentiment. As I say, I was a rough kid growing up. Drayton unwittingly serves as the missing link between the Asbo kid in me and the teacher I am now.
It was his brother who introduced me to the pleasures of throwing water bombs at teaching assistants. His cousin Kacey was the first girl I ‘got off with’ at the teenage disco, where we all wore Rockports and smuggled mini vodkas past the bouncers. His other cousin, Thurston, was the first lad to take a swing at me. The fight would kickstart my career as a delinquent and teaching Drayton brings these memories back.
Dealing with a pupil waving a lighter is just another day in what used to be called a bog-standard comprehensive, now an academy trust. But the clashes of my misspent youth have given me an invaluable insight into dealing with disruptive characters, which was perhaps why I started to get results, and why I decided to put down in print what I really learned about teaching, to the horror of the education authorities.
Because I understand challenging children, you won’t catch me pleading for their attention with gimmicks — what the kids call ‘begging it’. Do pupils really get anywhere by being taught where the Cuban Missile Crisis sits between ‘Lemon and Herb’ and ‘Extra Extra Hot!’ on the Nando’s ‘peri-ometer’? All this shows them is that you’ve never been to Nando’s.
In my view, the line managers in charge of British schools are not helping matters. When they suggest the creation of a trendy extra layer of learning to be implemented by underpaid and overworked professionals when there are perfectly good existing textbooks available, it becomes untenable. An example would be ‘carousel’ tasks. Instead of asking the child to read from a textbook, they want the teacher to print out five different worksheets full of tables and have the pupils pore over them.
Much like an actual carousel, it’s great for making the kids go around in a circle. At some point, we have to put away the gimmicks and stop begging. As Tom Bennett, the behaviour expert, says: ‘Engagement is an outcome, not a process.’
Whenever I teach Drayton, I think of his cousin. I saw on Facebook recently that he went to prison for possession of drugs. It is these difficult kids who fall furthest behind.
As a former delinquent, part of my mission is to actually teach these children, instead of facilitating group work, peer marking, carousel tasks and whatever other atrocity the Blue Peter badge brigade in the academy trusts see fit to dream up. They are infatuated with nonsense of this kind. The publication of my book, Asbo Teacher, has resulted in a Cold War of sorts in the trust where I work.
I’m saying out loud what we teachers are not meant to say: that none of these trendy new teaching methods work. The chief recommendation of Asbo Teacher is simplicity. I urge teachers to equip themselves when they walk into a lesson only with a board pen.
Controversially, I’m the kind of teacher you imagine when you think of the word ‘teacher’. I ask pupils questions. They read from textbooks. And they’re tested frequently. The tests are low-stakes so scores aren’t recorded. Because believe it or not, having your pupils excel doesn’t invariably demand a spreadsheet. Yes, this means you will have to fire out so many questions to keep their attention you almost need an interrogation lamp to set the scene. And you must be prepared to use conventional textbooks. As education adviser Mary Myatt puts it: ‘Fewer things, greater depth.’
Or as Drayton puts it: ‘Oi, my guy, Mr Elliott! I dunno why but I always remember tings in geography.’ His verdict is worth more than any number of outstandings from the fuzzy-wuzzies at Ofsted.
Did you know, the notion of being a straightforward teacher is so alien to most practitioners that we have to deploy jargon to describe it? What I do is called ‘explicit instruction’.
As the senior leadership team where I work have imposed a gagging order on my book, I know I must be on to something.