I trained to become a teacher in a school close to where I grew up in the West Midlands between the two cities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Like many 21 years olds, I had an attitude, charisma and certain arrogance. Walking into that secondary school, I remember the excitement, the deep feeling in my stomach, which may be interpreted as anxiety now. Still, at the time, I somehow used all that nervous energy to dream about my future.
My route into teaching was a baptism of fire—the GTP, the graduate teaching program. I walked in on my first day, and I was expected to observe, yes, but also to teach. Yes, deliver a lesson on my own on the first day. No problems here, a certain arrogance, remember.
I spent the morning planning the lesson in the prep room (I taught science for another two decades), and an older white colleague sat across the desk from me, playing with an inoculating loop. He spies over the Bunsen burners between us and says:
“You’ve got 10 S”
The S is elongated into an essssss. My heart started to jump into beat! my first lesson.
“Yes, I’m really excited”
“That whole class is a mess, and that’s the one with Nathaniel, that black boy, unteachable.”
I spent the next ten minutes in my head. Un – bloody – teachable, right? I’m five years older than these youths, nightmare? Today will be a breeze.
I met the year 10 S; I’m walking around like I’m bigger than ‘Prince’, and predictably 10s were not a nightmare…
They were worse.
In that first lesson, Nathaniel, a young Pupil of Colour, taught me more about life than the previous 20 years on this spinning rock could ever have. He and I didn’t get off to a great start. As teaching debuts go, halfway through the lesson, he jumps out of the window. Oh, I taught in 1.2; yeah, the 1 meant a first-floor, which means there was some height to that window.
“Someone died. I’m teaching my first lesson; I’m someone died.”
Said the voice in my head.
Unbeknownst to me – our Nathaniel had been a parkour practitioner. I clicked that as I saw him making his getaway across the field adjacent to my lab.
The lesson ends. I survive, barely. That voice gnaws inside my forehead.
“I’m not having it”.
Anyone who’s has ever met me will know this is a massive part of my personality, a persistent tenacity. These children are in the place that I was a meer set of months ago; that level of disrespect –
Like a dog with a bone, I spent the rest of the day pounding the corridors. Eventually, I collared our escape artist, and we marched back to the classroom where I’d previously slammed every window shut! As we walked in, I led us both, veering to the left to pick up a notebook from my desk and return to Nathaniel’s intended seat. I notice as I turn, Nathaniel is crying, tears but not blubs or sobs but continuous unabating streams.
Approaching with my notebook in hand back toward the desk and as I pull the stool out. Nathaniel says without his voice cracking and in one breath,
“you can’t punish me.”
Impossibly quickly. The words of response begin the form in my brain; slowly, the ideas mingle, rise and collapse into the solid form ready to drop.
“I, me, I can’t punish you. Me, the adult, can’t punish you, the child. Me teacher, you pupil – what part of this power dynamic don’t you understand?”
Before the words left my psyche, never let alone my lips Nathaniel again without the need for pauses between words said in one breath:
“You can’t punish me, sir. You can’t punish me. If you don’t love me.”
Both of us locked in eye contact, processing his little litany, and there is fell.
You can’t change, influence or support anyone’s behaviour if they don’t believe you have their best interests at heart. The conversation continued; the world for this Black boy taught him that he was not enough. He knew this was his lot; That no one cared about him, and he had ‘proof’ – this was the first time anyone had ever taken the time to hear him.
Nathaniel and I talked for some time about our world as People of Colour in the West Midlands. This interaction was a turning point for Nathaniel, but this was a 180 pirouette for both of us. I have spent the whole of my career with this at the forefront of my practice. All teaching is a relational act, and this is even more pertinent for Brown and Black pupils. The shocking thing is I knew this already; I had just learned to ignore it in the five years between my student and me.
I found myself remembering my youth and the lack of voice, no, the lack of people who were willing to hear, to the pleas of young boys, whose primary need is for those in charge to care enough to listen.
Caring (and showing that overtly) has always been at the root of my practice. It’s been at the core of my whole life. If you are in the privileged position of serving Pupils of Colour, then remember, in a society that denies their voices, you could be the one person who changes their world.