Photo by  Tyler Nix on Unsplash

2020 has brought some strange things into Education, and also some fabulous ones… one of my favourites has been finding myself as part of a virtual-literacy-policy-writing-group for a set of Alternative Provision and Special Schools across Brighton and Hove.

Coming together with other English specialists within the SEMH field who are as passionate about our young people as me, was an absolute pleasure – plus the Chair had chickens!

Through this group I had the pleasure of meeting Viv Cohen Papier (although I still haven’t actually seen the back of her head). She co-wrote the introduction to our fabulous Literacy Policy and it was just exquisite (yes, I am using that positive vocabulary about a Literacy Policy – you should see it in action!) 

So, I was thrilled when Viv agreed to write this piece – A day in the life of a PRU teacher. The more I train and bang my drum about pupils with SEMH, the more interest I get from mainstream teachers and schools wanting to know how we do it. Viv’s piece reveals that that’s really not what it’s about – we work with these pupils because we love it, yes there are *special* challenges working with pupils who have been excluded from other schools, but we love what we do – here’s why – 

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When I got to secondary school, I thought it was going to be like ‘High School Musical’, but it wasn’t, it was like fucking ‘Green Street – Year 11 student

It is 9.35 on a Wednesday and despite the fact that lessons started 5 minutes ago, it’s eerily quiet. Across the room, my TA is making the phone calls for the 5 students who are meant to have English for period 1. My power point presentation waits in anticipation on the smart board while I double-check my resources and fiddle with my emails. For the last 2 years, all the students who I am supposed to teach on a mid-week morning seem to have got the same memo, that Wednesday is indeed hump day (they’re not wrong) and have opted not to show up — today will be no exception. I look up from my computer and unthinkingly utter the forbidden phrase: “it looks like it’s going to be a quiet one today.”

As it stands, when I came to write this blog post it occurred to me that the title is a little disingenuous; there isn’t really such a thing as ‘a day in the life’ because each day is so different. Of course we do sometimes have quiet days, or loud days, or days which start one way and then veer wildly off into a different direction, rather like being dragged willingly behind an excitable horse. There are days when things start ‘kicking off’ too, though not as many as you might think. Any teacher will tell you that, working in a school, no two days are the same. Any PRU teacher will tell you that in our setting this adage is no less true— it’s just in our setting this is ‘turned up to 11’. When I taught in mainstream schools, flexibility and creativity were encouraged. In an alternative setting they’re not just encouraged, they’re essential.

I’m much happier and less stressed if I’m planned up to the hilt, so will never leave school before I’m fully prepared for the next day. However, it doesn’t really matter if I’ve got the ‘world’s best lesson™’ prepped and ready to go if my students won’t come in to the lesson, or refuse to do the work, or are having a rubbish day and are just not in the mood for English, thank you very much. The brutal honesty with which our students communicate is nothing if not refreshing, while making for a great ego check. Often, we are forced to ‘read the room’ and respond to not just student needs but also the extent to which a student is willing or able to engage. This might mean that the carefully planned lesson has to be adapted on the fly or nixed completely in favour of something else.

Some things are always the same; our lessons always start at 9.30 and finish at 3.20. I always arrive at 8.30 and eat breakfast at my desk (I’m a bit of a creature of habit, which is handy in this profession). Break is always at 11.10. If it’s a Tuesday it’ll be my day to cover reception, which also means I’ll inevitably be a couple of minutes late as I will have forgotten it’s my day, a fact which is so easily displaced by a conversation with a student about the lesson we’ve just had or the need to send an urgent email.

A 15 minute morning break is just about long enough to make a cup of tea and go to the toilet after which it’s time for lessons again. This means rounding up students who haven’t materialised and fielding the daily questions of ‘what are we doing in English? Is it something fun?’ My standard responses of ‘English’ and ‘it’s always fun’ are, predictably, met with eye rolls and sighs. If it’s a day that ends in a y I might get a more colourful response, which allows me to seize upon the opportunity to suggest coming up with a synonym for everyone’s favourite word (which rhymes with Jeremy Hunt). It’s a bit like being surrounded by tiny sailors, except most of my pupils are taller than me.

We only have year 11s at our setting which in essence means I’ve only got 9 months of teaching time to cover 2 years’ worth of English curriculum. Most, if not all, of our students will effectively have missed year 10— either through absence or through being removed from lessons due to behaviour infractions— so I’m playing catch up while trying to introduce new material, at the same time as trying to convince 15 and 16 year olds that they do want to learn about Shakespeare, really.

Similarly to mainstream, no one ever wants to do Shakespeare. Then at some point in the lesson a student remembers that Juliet is 13. The cries of “Romeo was a paedo!” ring out and I have to pretend I’m not thrilled that we are all suddenly having a debate about the importance of context and consent. Much teaching ends up happening in this way; I like to think of it as akin to covert ops. There’s something delightfully sneaky about students leaving a lesson thinking they’ve got away with doing no work because they refused to pick up a pen and not realising that having a debate about freedom of speech or the death penalty means they’ve been engaged in learning in more ways than one.

We don’t have a staffroom, so lunch time finds a selection of students and staff in the social area: eating, chatting, playing ping-pong and occasionally (depending on that day’s energy levels) trying to diffuse the seemingly never-ending hilarity that accompanies ‘the book fight’. We make a habit of reminding students when they’ve got 10 minutes until lessons, “so if you  want a cigarette or a cup of tea, go now”. As you might expect, this has little to no effect on anyone’s punctuality, and the afternoon sees another round of cajoling pupils back into their respective classrooms.

While on some days a student is not ready to learn (a fact that they will communicate through diverse methods such as exiting the classroom through the window, even though I’ve offered to open the door) there are other days where they’re all beavering away so quietly I almost don’t dare breathe. Tactics to get students to do their work in a mainstream setting aren’t available or applicable here— we don’t do detentions, or exclusions, or send students out of the classroom—  so your persuasive repertoire has to become a little more creative and dare I say compassionate (I’ve been known to make hot chocolates in exchange for essays). We operate on a ‘connect before correct’ basis and a little empathy goes a long way when it comes to teaching (and to life, generally). A last-ditch attempt when told categorically that a student “can’t be fucked” to write anything is to ask if they’ll do the work for me, as a favour, then to try not to look surprised when this works.

There are magical moments, the kind that crystalise why you have the best job in the world. A boy who previously wouldn’t pick up a pencil tells me he’s not leaving the classroom until he finishes writing his story—he’s just getting to the good bit;  another boy tells me he can really picture himself in the snowscape he has created—he reads me what he’s written and earnestly tells me “oi that’s quite good y’know”; one girl reads her story aloud and is so delighted by what she’s written that she immediately leaves the room to find the headteacher, so that she can read it to her as well.

The end of lesson 6 rolls around and suddenly it’s the end of the day. Some days it’s as though I’ve been spat out of the rough end of the spin cycle and find myself blinkingly trying to re-orientate now that the building is suddenly quiet. Teenage energy is unpredictable and utterly contagious — our kids seem to have rather more energy than most and when it’s harnessed and directed the thrill of the ride is unparalleled, but it does mean that you often feel you’ve spent most of the day surfing a hurricane (or several). Most days I am brought to tears of laughter, more often than I have been brought to the verge of tears of frustration, though both have happened. One thing that I can guarantee on a daily basis is that my step count will be through the roof.

The end of the day brings meetings and more planning as well as one-to-one sessions with students. It’s also the time at which staff tend to swap stories from their days; there always seems to be at least one hilarious quote to share. It’s time too to decompress and reflect— we’ve a tight-knit staff team and the atmosphere is hugely supportive by design as well as by necessity. Some days students’ emotions are very heightened and it’s part of our job to help bring these down, which does mean you’ve got to make sure you are looking after your own emotions, too. PRUs seem to get a bit of a bad rap as places where ‘naughty kids’ go, an epithet I find problematic for a number of reasons. Actually, I think we should be seen as a place students go when they need a refuge from the mainstream; we forge an environment which undoes an awful lot of harm, not one which causes it.  I do tend to feel like a bit of a fraud when others comment that our work here ‘must be so hard’ because I honestly love it so much. Our work is both extremely challenging and endlessly rewarding, and while some days may be trickier than others, it never stops being the best place I have ever had the good fortune to work.

To read more of Viv’s work take a look at her blog: https://viviencohen.wordpress.com/

As a thank you for this piece, a donation has been made to Viv’s charity of choice – Brighton NHS Workers Say No to Pay Inequality.

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