My Weekly Special
HEARTS AND MINDS
Claire feared her unor thodox teaching techniques would get her fired… but she was in for a surprise!
Claire Roberts, late 50s, was a dedicated English teacher at St Mary’s Secondary School in Bradbury Park, which was the rougher part of the Shropshire town she’d lived in all her life. She came to teaching late in life and had a wide variety of jobs before arriving at St Mary’s. For a couple of years she was in a band, Legion, who even had a top 40 single in the early 90s. She loved teaching and she adored the kids – even if they were challenging. Now that St Mary’s was in Special Measures, Claire had a new Head of Department, Fiona Baker: a cold, ambitious and unpleasant woman who frowned upon Claire’s creative approach to teaching and made it clear that data and GCSE results were all that mattered. It seemed being engaged or inspired by words and literature was no longer important.
It was a dark, gloomy Monday morning and Claire greeted 11C at the door to her classroom. As with all 16-year-olds at 9am, they trundled in like zombies, holding phones and looking like they’d rather be anywhere else than her classroom. There were only eighteen students in 11C, and only half were likely to get the GCSE English Language Level 4 that counts as a pass. In recent weeks, Fiona Baker, or the Nazi in nylons as the staff referred to her, had been putting pressure on Claire regarding 11C’s slow progress.
Looking down at the poetry anthology that they were making painfully slow progress through, Claire’s heart sank a little.
“OK, if we can get out our anthologies please?” she said in a cheery tone.
There were the usual grumbles.
“Miss, I saw you in that band you was in on YouTube,” Callum snorted. “It was sick.’
The rest of the class laughed. The fact that she had once been in a band had somehow leaked and the kids loved to ask her about it once in a while.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, Callum,”
Claire said. She had a soft spot for Callum.
“Miss, did you meet Stormzy?” Aleisha asked with a grin.
There was more laughter from the class. The only thing Claire knew about Stormzy was that he was a famous British rapper.
“I think Stormzy was in nappies when I was making records,” Claire joked. “And I know you’re not enjoying poetry, but if you think about it, that’s what Stormzy does. He writes and then recites poetry over music.”
There was a moment of silence. Claire realised that she had said something that actually interested them.
“I tell you what,” she said decisively. “Put your anthologies away, grab some paper and work in pairs. I want you write a rap about something you care about.”
“Miss, you’re a total ledge,” Callum said as he set to work with Harvey.
“Thank you, Callum. I’ve never been a ledge before,” Claire chortled.
Half an hour later, 11C began to perform their raps to each other. Callum used her laptop to find an appropriate backing track.
Claire was delighted to watch 11C enjoying themselves for once, and what they produced was funny, intelligent, and even poignant. They talked about what they wanted to do with their lives, what was important, their families, and what made them angry about the world. Claire couldn’t have asked for more.
Suddenly, the door to her classroom flew open and Fiona marched in.
“Miss Roberts, I can hear this noise all the way down corridor,” she said in a withering tone. Then she looked around. “11C, I’m pretty sure you should be sitting quietly with your GCSE poetry anthologies out.” She glared at them. “And what are you all doing with your phones out?”
Claire shrugged. “They’ve been using them to research the work they’re doing.”
Fiona frowned. “But that’s against school rules, Miss Roberts. Either they put them away, or I’ll confiscate them all.” And with that, Fiona turned and marched out of her classroom.
Callum looked at Claire with a scowl. “That teacher is a right –”
“Callum,” Claire said, interrupted him before he got himself into trouble. “It looks like you’re going to have to put your phones away, guys. Sorry.”
In the next few weeks, Claire began to worry that teaching wasn’t for her. Maybe she should look for a new school? She attempted to teach 11C class, getting them to copy chunks of essays from the board and using tedious PowerPoints. They just weren’t interested and they certainly weren’t learning anything. Claire also knew that 11C sensed that her heart wasn’t in it.
On a wet Friday afternoon, Claire asked 11C to turn to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130.
As she looked around, she could see they were secretly using their phones under the desks, munching on snacks, or gazing out of the window in utter boredom. Right, I’ve had enough and so have they. Claire looked out at them. “OK, hands up who’s bored?’
11C looked around at each other in bemusement as Claire raised her hand too.
“I’m going to spend a few minutes telling you what this Shakespearean sonnet is about. Then you’re going to work in pairs and write a rap about the same theme.”
Callum frowned and pointed to Sonnet 130. “I just looked at it. What is this Shakespeare bloke going on about, Miss?”
“I want you to write a rap about the Shakespeare sonnet,” she told them
“You all probably think Shakespeare is a load of boring old words that don’t mean anything,” Claire said. “But Shakespeare was actually very funny.”
“I ain’t buying that, Miss,” Callum said. “In this Sonnet what Shakespeare is saying is that he’s not going to say that his girlfriend is more beautiful than the stars, with golden hair and incredible boobs,” Claire explained as the class laughed. “He says she’s actually got dry, wiry hair, saggy boobs and bad breath. She doesn’t walk like a feather, she stomps like an elephant…
But he loves her and that’s all that matters.”
Aleisha smiled. “Aww, that’s really nice. He loves her even if she needs a bit of a glow up, Miss.”
“Exactly, Aleisha.” Claire laughed. “So now I want you to work in pairs to write a rap based on what I’ve just told you.”
The class was once again full of energy and excitement.
Half an hour later, with the music blaring, and a group of girls rapping about the modern pressures on women to look good, disaster struck! The Headteacher, Mr Phillips, opened the door and came in with the board of governors who were making a tour of the school. Claire’s heart sank as she quickly turned off the music and everyone stopped what they were doing.
“Miss Roberts,” Mr Philips said with a curious smile. “This is a year 11 English class, isn’t it?”
Oh God, I’m definitely getting sacked in the morning.
“That’s right,” Claire said with a gulp. “Can you tell us what they’re doing?” “The students have written a rap based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130,” she explained wishing the earth would open and swallow her.
“Do you think we could see them in action?” Mr Philips asked.
“Of course,” she said thinking this was the worst idea ever and wondering why Mr Philips hadn’t whisked the governors away to see a class who were working quietly on GCSE preparation.
Mr Philips and the governors watched the girls perform with bemusement, before thanking her and the students and leaving.
“Are you getting the sack, Miss?” Callum asked when they had gone.
“Probably,” Claire said shaking her head.
The following morning, Claire had been summoned to Mr Philips’ office. It was inevitable she was going to lose her job. In fact, she’d already started to plan how she was going to get work as a supply teacher.
“Claire,” Mr Philips said with a cheery smile. “Come in, come in.”
Entering the headteacher’s office, Claire sat down and prepared herself for the worst. Her stomach was churning.
“Firstly, I need to commend you on what the governors and I saw in your classroom yesterday,” he said.
Erm, what did he say?
“Your classroom was the one place we saw on our tour where the students were fully engaged in what they were doing,” he said. “And my philosophy is they learn best when they’re enjoying what they’re doing. There’s no point spoon feeding them exam essays. Afterall, we’re preparing them for life, not just to pass a few GCSES.”
Did he actually just say that? It was music to her ears! “Thank you,” she said, still a little gobsmacked. “That’s exactly how I feel about teaching.”
“Great,” he said. “I’d like to talk to you about something else. I’m creating a new role here at St Mary’s to look at how our school can engage the more deprived and challenging students. It seems to me that you would be perfect for that role, so I’m really hoping you’d be interested?”
Claire gave him a beaming smile. “Yes, I would be very interested.”
It was the end of the school day and Claire strolled across the staff car park with an extra-spring in her step. Not only was she pleased that she had been offered a new role in the school, she now knew that the Headteacher also shared her views on how best to engage and educate the students.
“I’d better say good luck with everything then,” said a snooty voice.
It was Fiona, who as usual was looking down her pointy nose at her.
Claire didn’t know what she was talking about and gave her a puzzled look.
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” Fiona guffawed. “I’ve been offered the Assistant Head job over at the Catholic Grammar School. I can’t wait.”
The Catholic Grammar School was where all the middle-class families in the area attempted to get their children educated.
“Oh, congratulations,” Claire said flatly. At least she wouldn’t have to suffer Fiona in departmental meetings any more.
“It’s a great school,” Fiona said. “Incredible Value Added. And really gifted students. They sent two girls to Oxford last year and they…”
However, Claire wasn’t listening. She had already made her way to her car, got in and put on her stereo, leaving Fiona standing there frowning mid-sentence.
In her car, a track from a Stormzy CD played with a heavy bass as Claire smiled, gave Fiona a cheery wave and sped out of the car park.