‘Unfortunately, there are some schools out there that even the plague would avoid’. Omar Akbar believes it’s our prerogative to speak of them.
When I was a good few years into teaching, I felt it was the right time for a change. Moving house had led to a back pain inducing commute, and the prospect of only teaching at one school for the rest of my life was a bleak one. So I applied and was successful. The school was inner city, and the department were keen and seemingly sociable. Nothing out of the ordinary. I fitted in well.
I started at the same time as the Head of Department -let’s call her ‘Joanne’. Joanne and I worked well together and had similar attitudes, perhaps because both our previous schools did not share the ethos- if it can be called an ethos- of this school. The problems for Joanne began almost straight away.
Every morning at 8.35am staff were to attend briefing in the staff room. The SLT who were running the briefing did not arrive- as if religiously- until 8.40am. They would make everyone await their presence and then all 12 of them would stand at the front and await silence and staff would humbly comply. The smiling, charismatic Head, backed up by his unsavory looking goons (sorry- Deputy Heads) would then begin his spiel for the day.
Joanne was line managed by one of the goons.
It became obvious that Joanne had no power as a Head of Department. Her line manager -let’s call her ‘Olivia’- had, in hindsight, a personality that can only really be described as sociopathic or megalomaniacal. Joanne wasn’t even allowed to choose the colour of the exercise books for KS3. Olivia would overrule any decision Joanne made and would disrespect her, loudly and clearly, in meetings. The keen staff I spoke of earlier? They were very friendly with Olivia and would often undermine Joanne. I backed Joanne from the get-go as the only thing she was guilty of was . . wait for it: doing things differently. How dare she? (plus, I don’t believe in all this cliquey that goes on in schools. It’s an embarrassment.) It wasn’t long before Joanne was regularly being observed, harassed with emails and called into meetings. I recall reassuring her when she cried on a handful of occasions.
The downward spiral began: Saturday sessions and pompous staff
Some of the aforementioned seemingly normal staff turned out to be anything but. You see, this school didn’t tell me that Saturday revision sessions ran frequently over the year. In other words, this was an expectation of staff; not one I was willing to live up to. So every time a timetable came round where staff were to sign their names to commit to a given Saturday, I was looked at with disdain when I didn’t. One Deputy Head- not Olivia, let’s call this one ‘Steve’- was particularly clever with his coercion. He would make statements such as: ‘We’re not expecting all staff to do every Saturday.’ In other words, we have to do some Saturdays. I didn’t do any, and as a result the whole department would receive emails from the pompous Head of Physics who would mention my groups as ‘key groups’ which ‘need intervention’ and that he’s ‘disappointed’ that the classes won’t get a Saturday session so he needs more staff volunteers. I was constantly being undermined.
With Joanne being constantly screwed over, me defending her, and also refusing to do Saturday intervention, it became obvious that I was now at the top of the list. The pompous Head of Physics would often publicly question my dedication, backhandedly disguising it as humour. Conversations would stop when either me or Joanne entered the room, and passive-aggressive comments were constantly made. I felt my anxiety and stress mounting, particularly when I found out what Olivia did to people who didn’t work on Saturdays: The following year they were teaching in up to 20 different rooms, i.e. not a single lesson in the same room. A sure-fire way to ruin any teacher.
Soon enough, it was time for us to do controlled assessments for GCSE. I followed the guidelines to the letter, yet the majority of my pupils got D/Es while my less experienced colleagues’ classes were getting A*s. It was all very hush-hush, but between the kids and the inability of my colleagues to keep their mouths shut, it became obvious: They were cheating. And I don’t mean giving-a-bit-too-much-help cheating, I mean mark-scheme-on-the-board cheating. I kept quiet as everyone pretty much hated me and Joanne by then so there was no point in rocking the boat further.
I was then approached by Steve to discuss my shit results. He asked me to repeat the assessments after school, which would have taken at least 2 hours per group. I point blank told him that the only reason everyone else’s results are higher is because they’re cheating. He ignored me and said that the kids have got to get As and it’s just a matter of repeating the assessments. I told him I’m not going to stay behind after school to repeat something I did right the first time and they can’t make me anyway with union regulations, etc. He left abruptly, then came back the next day with a threat that would tip my mental health over the edge. He said that the Head says they can make me because as a school we are under the 1265 hours of directed time. He then said: ‘When writing a reference the Head has to tick a yes or no box stating if he would employ you again. Which one do you think he’d tick?’
It was majorly downhill from here on out. I remember chain smoking in my car at 7am after many poor night’s’ sleep, thinking, worrying: Am I stuck here forever? I can’t cope with 20 different rooms! Is my career over? I’ve just bought a house! As well as the sleepless nights, the random waking up times and the loss of appetite, the not-so-irrational catastrophising thoughts insidiously occupied my mind and refused to leave. Steve got me good. I wanted to see a doctor but my then not-so-enlightened self saw the need for taking stress leave as a sign of weakness. Oh, how ignorant I was. Instead then, I channelled my energy to something more productive: Revenge.
After googling loads of teacher forums and seeing how many teachers had suffered the way I was suffering, I found the number of the whistle blowing hotline (yes, this is a thing). I figured that the best way to show the school who they’re messing with was to grass them up and let it be known that their controlled assessments are not so controlled. Unfortunately (?) for various reasons, the union office told me not to, so I didn’t.
Thankfully, Joanne repeated the assessments for me, and I just kept my head down and got on with my job. I made an effort with my colleagues who would continue to undermine me, and I even offered to do extra revision sessions after school to make up for the ones I wasn’t doing on a Saturday. I just couldn’t handle any more bullying (in hindsight that’s exactly what this was) so I humbly became the departmental prison-b**ch . . . until the end of term social.
While I was largely left alone after this, there was still an undercurrent of hostility which was to make itself apparent. For the end of term departmental ‘do’, we were to go to a restaurant followed by a pub which was yet to be decided. The thought of spending an entire evening with these a**holes did not exactly fill me with joy, so I said I’d meet them at the pub and bypass the meal as ‘I have to go to the gym.’ I asked them to text me when they were on their way to the pub, and they agreed.
So it came to 7.30pm and I rang a few of my colleagues (I had their numbers from September- you know, when everyone’s being all friendly and sh*t?) I say a few, because none of them answered their phone or responded to texts. Fair enough. I told myself- They’re probably still eating. I rang back an hour later and had the same non-response.
By 9.00pm, it was obvious what was happening. 4-5 out of a total of about 10 people not answering their phone or responding to texts was no coincidence: I was being ignored. They didn’t want me there, which was ironic, as I didn’t want to be there. I was just going as a formality to show that I’m ‘part of the team’ and that I’m ‘dedicated’- all the things they accused me of not being and threatened me because of.
Then, as if out of nowhere, some part of my brain switched. Not on or off, just switched. The same part of Walter White’s brain that switched when he gave the ‘I am the danger’ speech; the same part of Matilda’s brain that switched when she instigated the cheer for Bruce Bogtrotter.
The same part of your brain which I hope never switches in your teaching career.
I pictured them, sitting around a table laughing, joking, probably b*tching about me and Joanne. There was no way I was going to let them have their fun. Not after seeing Joanne cry again the week prior, and definitely not after Steve threatened to sh*t-reference me. I didn’t know which pub they were at, but in that particular area there is only a handful of pubs it could have been. I went to one pub, they weren’t there, so I walked over to the next one.
What was to follow was a feeling that will stick with me for a very long time. Like the feeling I had (and if you did too you know exactly what I’m talking about) when I passed my driving test after 329583058 lessons and 4 tests, it is comfortably printed on some lobe in my brain, never to be forgotten, always to be recalled.
There they were, exactly as I pictured. Around a table, upon which some of them had put their phones (didn’t get my calls?). I took a deep breath.
‘What’s uupppppp!!’ I shouted as I barged into the annexed room. The look on their faces was priceless. Olivia’s was the best. Whilst sipping her wine, she paused just long enough for shock and loathe to scream loudly. Steve just sat there with a stupid look on his face and asked me where I’d been. ‘I rang you twice, motherf***er.’ I said in my not-so-sarcastic, sarcastic Samuel L. Jackson mimicking voice. Then I pointed to his phone which was on the table. I’d never heard so many bullsh*t apologies in my entire life.
I made the whole night as awkward for them as I possibly could. Every time they tried to go to the bar to talk privately (presumably about Joanne, or how the hell I found them) I’d pop up behind them like a Jack-in-the-box. They continued with their ignoring, only giving me short answers for any conversation I joined in, and I made a point of constantly mentioning how much I loved how Joanne has taken the department forward. Watching them bite their tongues was too much fun. Olivia thought she could totally blank me the entire night but I thought otherwise. You would have vomited if you saw how pretentiously super nice I was to her.
I totally ruined their night. It was beautiful.
I left that school within the academic year, courtesy of a friend who told me about a job at her place and put in a good word for me. I put Joanne as a reference and the Head either didn’t care or didn’t notice.
Unfortunately, there are some schools out there that even the plague would avoid. I believe it’s our prerogative to speak of them.