What is the most ridiculous and humiliating thing that has ever happened to you in a professional setting? Well, if you want to feel better about yourself, laugh at my misery and learn about why indecent exposure is unwelcome in teaching then just come this way…
Being a teacher can be a thankless task at times, and at others it can be truly diabolical. In an attempt to avoid paying a psychiatrist to work through the scar tissue of my past with me, I have decided to revisit and retell one of the moments of deepest failure from my teaching career.
When you undertake a PGCE (the qualification to get full teacher status in the UK if you weren’t sure) you have to have an inhumane series of galling observations, as well as satisfying a file the size of a telephone directory full of tick boxes. The observations are probably the most important part of the whole qualification, as they give your link tutor (teacher at the school who liaises with your uni), your professional tutor (expert from the uni) and other teachers a chance to see you in action in the classroom. Despite intensive planning that would have put Hannibal from the A-Team to shame, the best laid plans of many teachers can be utterly destroyed, resulting in observation feedback that feels like nuclear fallout poisoning your ears. This happened to me, in comedy fashion, in my final and most important observation on my PGCE.
There was a veritable audience amassed to pass their judgements on me: professional tutor, link tutor, deputy head teacher and the English department leader.
The class was Year 10, the subject matter was ‘A View From The Bridge’ and half way into the lesson I was absolutely nailing it. ‘I’m going to get an outstanding’ I smugly thought to myself as a lull descended on the classroom. But true to the conventions of Greek tragedy, upon which ‘A View From The Bridge’ was based, my hubris was my undoing, pride coming before an almighty fall. In modern parlance: I was about to be heading up shit creek without a paddle.
I made my way around the class to check on the progress of the students, riding on the crest of a wave of confidence that I had no idea was about to break and crush me.
Now there is some crucial background to this story… A few weeks prior to this incident I had the cringe-worthy misfortune to have to deal with one of the girls in the class developing a crush on me. Seeing as the most common reactions that I usually instigated in women were rejection and nausea, this was a wholly unexpected issue for me. How did I know? Well, it was brought to my attention after she had confessed her crush to her boyfriend, who then decided to embarrass her by revealing her no doubt humiliating secret to the world. Both the girl and the boyfriend were in this class. Despite the issue being dealt with, the whole of the class in this tale knew about the filthy secret and I’m sure the girl had taken her share of piss-takings as a consequence.
Back to the moment.
Surveying the room, everyone was at work; it was the kind of scene that trainee teachers perceive in their dreams – heads down, frenetic scribbling, purposeful conversation – a portrait plucked straight from the Ofsted gallery of great classrooms. Then a girl looked up from her work; it was her. She smiled awkwardly at me and then averted her gaze slightly lower. She looked back up again and raised her eyebrows and inclined her head in a ‘haven’t you noticed’ kind of nod. I had no idea what she was trying to communicate and so I did what any good teacher would do. I asked her if she needed help.
She shook her head silently, before she repeated the action of looking down and trying to guide my gaze lower. Because I am an idiot, I didn’t know what she was trying to communicate to me without actually speaking.
At this point, I began to get into a very minor panic. As any trainee teacher will tell you, if there is the slightest disturbance in the force, the mildest deviation from the plan or the tiniest hint of the inability to think on your feet, then you shit a brick and worry about failing the course. I had no idea what she needed, or what was up with her, and so I asked her – loudly and directly, lest the observers should smell my fear and incompetence.
She shyly pointed at my crotch, where I could now see that my fly was wide open (replete with pink boxer shorts just to make the error a glaring and metrosexual one), before saying ‘flying low sir’.
This was bad enough in itself; I can’t think of many things that any person wishing to join the teaching profession could want less than a student disturbing a lesson by pointing at your genitalia, especially when that trainee is receiving their final assessment in front of four judgemental observers. There is no tick box for that: timekeeping – tick, planning – tick, behaviour management – tick, accidentally exposing your penis to your class in front of assessors – tick.
I turned a shade of red that would have put a baboon’s arse to shame and a machine gun patter of titters and giggles rippled through the class, but the humiliation was not yet complete. I just about managed to hold it together and say ‘thanks’ before turning to my observers, grinning moronically and raising my eyebrows in a ‘kids – hey?’ gesture. Then the breezeblock hit me.
The boyfriend of the girl was surveying the scene with amusement, the look of a patient wolf marking his features. Then he opened his mouth – or should that be jaws? turning to the girl and saying,
‘What are you doing looking THERE?! Why were you looking at THAT BIT of sir? How did you know his fly was undone?’
If I had been baboon’s arse red before, my face was now incandescent enough to roast marshmallows on, reddening and reddening in a potent fusion of rage and humiliation. The laughter that had been like machine gun fire was now a mushroom-bomb cacophony of maniacal cackling and guffawing. I did the only thing I could think to do, the most visceral, instinctive thing.
I unleashed a shout that would have made Gandalf shut up and turn the other way on the bridge of Khazad-Dum, that would make Al Pacino’s patter look sedate and demure, that would have made Stanley Kubrick recast me in the role of Gunnery Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. The sonic boom laid waste to the laughter as I screamed ‘SHUT UP, SHUT UP, JUST SHUUUTT UP’ before adding ‘GET OUT OF MY SIGHT. GET OUTTTTTTT.’ The silence that followed was deafening…
The lesson finished. All that was left for me to do was get my feedback.
I stepped into the English office; three of the remaining observers seemed to be wearing stern, condemnatory expressions, waiting to crush my hopes and future. The door closed behind me.
In a moment that was one of life’s rare gifts, all three of them broke down in fits of laughter. I didn’t give a rat’s arse if they were laughing with me or at me; it punctured the tension. My professional tutor, believing herself to be the comedic peer of Billy Connolly, offered a piece of ‘witty’ feedback ‘there was nothing wrong with the lesson but you should be at least trying to adhere to the staff dress code’. Thanks. For. That.
I guess as teachers we are often exposed – out there at the front of the class or the assembly hall, all on our own, isolated, us against them. Just as long as you make sure that your exposure never extends to your reproductive organs then you might just make it in teaching.