One boy rounds my desk where I stand, then moves towards my laptop, which is open, the instructional video queued and on ‘pause’ until the students settle. The image on the screen is of a young woman.
"Hey, Miss, is that you? She’s pretty hot, yeah."
"That’s the ad before the video", I say, motioning for him to take a seat. Already I don’t like his tone. I feel a bit creeped out, but I don’t show it.
When all students are finally seated, they keep chatting amongst themselves and talk over my requests to "shush, we need to start the class". So, I move around to their desks with my roll and ask them their names to tick off the list.
For other classes, sometimes I’ve stood at the door with this list and won’t let them in until I’ve ticked off their names with a cheery ‘Welcome’ or ‘Hello’.
It makes no difference to their behaviour in the classroom, however. They treat me as a substitute teacher, as I’m not a “real” teacher, many of them have said to my face.
With this class, I notice one of the boys has the same surname as the principal. I ask if he’s related.
"Yep. That’s my dad."
This boy is sitting next to his peer who invaded my personal space at my computer. Stupidly (in retrospect), I think having the principal’s son in my class will make their behaviour easier to manage.
It goes downhill. My brain so fried from the experience, I have trouble now, months away, remembering what exactly was said but it was ugly, it was demeaning and sexist. It never let up. I felt physically afraid but was unable to show it as their teacher.
With 10 minutes to go before the bell rings, I ask the boys to switch off their laptops. Soon the devices sit like smacked-shut little red clams, higgledy piggledy on the desks.
It’s time to take the computers back to the pod, I remind them.
They scoot out of the room, while I stand nearby, in a nanosecond, I know what I need to do. I walk 10 or so steps to the deputy principal’s office and interrupt him mid-email.
"I’d really like your help with this class. It’s been sexual innuendo the moment I’ve walked in and I’m not getting anywhere with them. I’m feeling really uncomfortable in there and need to you set them straight, please."
He looks at me. Pauses.
"If you could come over now, that would be good,"I plead.
He must have read my anguished voice and facial expression. He hurries over. The boys have actually returned to the classroom and as we push open the door, the bell sounds.
In a barking voice, I hear myself say "Go back to your seats, now. You’re not leaving yet."
They silently return to their seats.
The deputy principal plies into them – the sternest voice I’ve heard him use yet. Words about ‘this isn’t the way to treat one of our valued relief teachers’.
I won’t use that word “relief” with high school students. It just took one student at another school to say "hey, Miss, are you here to give me relief or all of the other teachers relief?" I’m just not going there.
But here, at the end of my harrowing hour, the class doesn’t react to the word “relief”. They’re soundless, taking it in.
When the deputy principal pauses, I say I need to point out the main culprits who need detention for being so disruptive.
That I’m old enough to be their mother, indeed grandmother, has made no difference to them. They wear detention and suspension like a badge of honour.
In their skewed perspective, disrespecting teachers gives them a laugh now, but how well does it bode for their lives as workers, partners, parents or members of society?
A US study reported in The Australian (19 May 2018) found that student behaviour at school predicts education and career success more than does socio-economic background, IQ or even personality. This was a pretty robust study as it followed students from 1960, tracking them four times over 50 years.
The Australian said students’ higher interest in school “was related to higher educational attainment and higher occupational prestige and income”.
If you’re a parent of a high school student, check in with them what they say about their teachers, including the relief/casual/substitute ones that cross their path.
You might be surprised, like one friend, a parent whose son goes to a school near me. They did the sums and realised in the past year he had a casual teacher for 45% of his classes. That’s way too much time for students to take the “hey, it’s only a casual, we don’t need to do any work” route.
Respect starts at home.
I’ve never got into the head of that leering student in my metal fabrication class, you know, I can’t say he acted that way because he disrespected me as a teacher.
Was it ageism, was it gender discrimination? Was it my threadbare arsenal of classroom management skills? There’s a lot to unpack.