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I’m a secondary school teacher


Pupil behaviour is getting worse, according to teachers. Nearly one in five teachers in England has been hit by a pupil this year, a survey commissioned by the BBC has found. BBC News asked up to 9,000 teachers in England a series of questions about their experiences with behaviour in the classroom. A greater number of primary and secondary teachers reported pupils fighting, pushing and shoving compared with two years ago.

Evelyn*, 41, qualified as a teacher 22 years ago, and is currently head of history at a comprehensive secondary school in Wolverhampton. She tells i – under a pseudonym to protect her pupils’ identities – what’s been happening in her classroom.

There’s a lot of talk about the pressure that teachers face when it comes to marking, results, Ofsted and so on – and all that is absolutely true. Yet for me by far the worst thing about my role these days is the increase in physical violence in school.

I’ve been doing this job for over two decades now, so I command a level of respect, and as a teacher you get so used to the way a handful of pupils roll their eyes, mutter under their breath, and potentially swear in your direction or at their classmates when they’re angry. All of that I can manage just fine most of the time, it’s part of dealing with teenagers from all walks of life, five days a week.

What I find really tough now is having to intervene in physical fights, because I am a teacher, not a bouncer. Yes, fights have always broken out in schools, of course, but the type of aggression seems to have got worse.

In the last four weeks, just before the Easter holidays I’ve broken up two big fights, one where two year 10s were suddenly punching the lights out of each other during my class to the point where the other kids were clearly scared, and I sent two of them to go and get support. One of the pupils had quietly called the other a racial slur, as it turned out, and the whole thing escalated hugely.

The worst thing for me, apart from physically not being able to literally intervene because they are big, tall, teenagers, was that it was in my lesson, and I feel strongly that I want to be able to keep my class safe. Another member of staff and a learning support staff member ran in, and we managed to break them up between us.

The students suffered black eyes, a dislocated jaw, proper injuries. I really felt I’d failed. The head teacher was great – the senior leadership team where I work is brilliantly supportive – but it was really awful all round.

Just a week before, it was a child in year 9 in the dining hall provoking a boy with special educational needs (autism, and sensory issues). The staff on duty, which included me, told the provoker to stop, but then when they went outside to the playground, he followed the boy with autism, taunting him and saying “Want me to leave you alone? Make me, then”, and then the provoked child pushed him back, and it escalated into punching on the ground. The provoker is a child with a lot of anger and mental health issues.

Last March, I had to pull a year 9 boy off another boy in the stairwell, but it was also on my mind that I have to be careful, as you can’t go around tackling kids. He then pinned me up against a wall for a few seconds. I found it very scary – this child is very big for his age – and I felt intimidated and unsafe in a way I very rarely feel as an experienced teacher. This was the final straw in a litany of things this pupil had done, and although it’s a depressing outcome, he ended up being permanently excluded. I hate it when this happens because what problem has been solved then? But I do feel safer with him away from me, I have to admit. It’s just too much, for any teacher.

My colleagues and I have talked a lot about why things feel worse behaviorally than they were before, and the conclusion we keep coming back to is the lack of support staff, now, after so much funding has been cut. When I began teaching I could rely on learning support and teaching assistants who were able to give at least some attention to those vulnerable or challenging children. It was still tough to teach in a big comprehensive but I felt less like I was firefighting so much of the time.

When there’s some aggressive behaviour, it seems to be contagious, and there becomes an atmosphere of general discord. Smartphones don’t help either because kids message each other and send violent messages and are able to do things more easily under the radar.

There is also clearly more struggle with mental health, and a lack of support for that, too. Children who might have before been helped now have such long waiting lists, and even if we flag problems to safeguarding and their parents and carers, we know that unless they have the means to pay for private help, it might be a really long time until they get seen. We do what we can, but we are stretched within the school.

Then there are the children from impoverished, really tough, backgrounds who are struggling to eat, who we as teachers can’t spend as much time focusing on, and safeguarding. Many of them slip under the radar, but some of them understandably lose interest in day-to-day lessons, and where there might be trouble or tough things happening at home, become disruptive and sometimes aggressive.

Sometimes dealing with the parents in the aftermath of a fight is worse than dealing with the actual children in the first place, because sometimes they are themselves aggressive, or blame the teacher, or are reluctant to engage at all.

I overall love working in a school, I find it rewarding and I don’t plan on leaving the profession (although I can understand why many do), because most of the time I feel it’s stimulating and engaging to be with young people each day. We section heads and pastoral leads, combined with the senior leadership team, are looking at ways to seriously improve the behaviour and make sure everyone is safer. But in the end, I believe that a school is a reflection of the best and worst of society, and schools need to be better supported to handle the vast array of issues we face.

As told to Kasia Delgado. *Name changed.



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