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It Was Him

It was a cold, blustery, November afternoon in Barnsley.

As an NQT, in my first term of teaching, nobody had told me how to 'do duty'. To make matters worse there was a drizzle in the air and it was Friday afternoon. In those days schools used to have an afternoon break, but now it's deemed too dangerous!

I was standing on the corner of the playground observing the scene. Children laughing, playing football, skulking. All of a sudden a fight broke out in front of me. Two Year 10 boys took it upon themselves to knock lumps out of each other on my patch.

Now, for all those who have worked in a large town centre comprehensive school, we know what happens when there is a fight. Within seconds there were about 1000 spectators. Where they come from nobody will ever know. They appear from everywhere within seconds. Shouting, clapping, laughing and chanting. Like lemmings they flow across the playground, over the buildings and through the fences and gates. I will never know how a fight manages to communicate itself so quickly across a whole secondary school. Even before the days of mobile phones, a fight had an unbelievable ability to muster practically every child in a school into one place in about 30 seconds. Instinctively I dived in and was grateful for the swift response of a colleague who had also drawn the short straw of the Friday graveyard duty slot. Luckily he wasn't an NQT and therefore I wouldn't need to take a lead on this incident and could bow to his greater experience and professionalism. I took one of the boys one way and he took the other away.

I could see that my boy, Mark, was full of adrenalin. He was out of breath, bright red and highly anxious. He had, after all, been fighting! I took a quick decision to allow him time to 'come down'. I talked calmly to him and reassured him that he would be OK and we would sort it out. This was all I could think of saying at the time. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my colleague talking to the other boy. He was taking a totally different approach. His voice was raised, finger wagging and head bowed forward in an aggressive stance. The boy was on his heels taking small steps back as my colleague, with a nasty edge, issued what could only be described as a 'bollocking'.

Then it happened. The boy could take no more. With his adrenalin pumping, a teacher shouting in his face and a crowd of hundreds watching, he punched my colleague in the face! The teacher went down, the crowd went crazy and I nearly fainted. My instant response was a purely instinctive one. I walked over to the boy, put my hand on his shoulder and calmly said, 'I think you need to come with me'. His response, to my relief, was, 'Ok Sir, I think you're right'.

The children were like a football crowd in the last moments of a cup final. Steering Mark towards the door I could think only one thought: 'Get him inside, get him inside, get him inside'. Things were going well. He walked with me with his head bowed. He was silent and compliant. Two seconds from the door he stopped. My heart sank as he turned to the baying crowd. He stood before them, raised both hands in the air and shouted 'Come on!' The crowd went wild. He turned, looked at me, then walked through the door into the building.

That day was the last time that boy set foot in the school. He was permanently excluded that afternoon. He was moved to a PRU where he failed to attend, didn't take any exams and fell into the criminal justice system. Two years later he was in prison. My colleague, the teacher who shouted at him and wagged his finger in his face, is fine. It was a difficult few days for him I'm sure. However, he's now a successful deputy head with a nice house, nice family, nice car, nice holidays. I'm not sure what Mark is doing now but I'm fairly convinced that it will be different to that.

That day was a career defining moment for me. It taught me more about the responsibility we have as teachers than any course or book. I could possibly go as far as saying that it forged my career in a direction that led me to do what I do today.

We, as teachers, change lives. Hopefully for the good but, unfortunately we can sometimes do harm. We need to set an example, model the behaviour we wish to see and do our jobs with empathy and compassion. We must have high standards and expectations but we can deliver them with a friendly, assertive authority rather than using aggression and power. I think back to that day twenty years ago and wonder what I could have done differently. Nothing I guess - after all I was an NQT. It just makes me more determined to make sure I make a positive difference to children's lives today.

A few weeks ago I saw that former colleague again. I was watching my son play under 13s football. I noticed a parent on the opposition side shouting aggressively at the referee. He was the linesman and his son was playing. He wasn't happy with a decision made by the referee to the point where he threw the flag on to the pitch in a rage. The referee was forced to stop the game to deal with this parent. Twenty two 12 year-old boys had to stop the game as that linesman, a parent, was asked by the referee to leave the ground. It was him. [ITL]


Dave Whitaker is Executive Principal at Springwell Special Academy. He's a strong proponent of employing 'unconditional positive regard' to unlock children's potential and has contributed to the Second Big Book of Independent Thinking.

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