John bowled into the science lab a little late, did a couple of laps and then leaned against one of the benches with a wide smile on his face.
I didn’t teach him but I had heard about him. He was from a single-parent family with a Nigerian background and he’d almost been excluded from school earlier that year. It was the Easter holiday and I was running a revision class for the Year 9 Science SATs – this was a standardised test that has since been abandoned in England.
These revision classes were important to me. We were a school that was working hard to turn itself around. We were carrying two permanent vacancies in our science department that were filled by an ever-changing roll-call of substitute teachers. The revision class was a chance to tie this together for some of our kids and, as head of science, I knew that this work was excellent preparation for the later GCSE’s.
Despite his demeanor, I took John’s attendance at this optional revision class to be a good sign. I went in hard with my no-nonsense act – it’s all an act – and John collected himself, sat down and began to participate.
A few months later, I observed a Year 10 science class of which John was now a member. The lesson was a little unruly and the teacher had no control over which students responded to verbal questions. John responded to most of them. They were all factual recall and John was mostly correct.
The class was group three out of five with group one being the highest performing science students and group five being the lowest. I spoke to the key stage coordinator who had put these groups together. The classes were meant to regularly change based upon test results but something odd was going on with John. He had missed a couple of tests and refused to complete another one. These were all factored-in as zeros rather than blanks and this had depressed his test score average. I made an awkward but obvious call and insisted that the grouping was redone. As a result, John moved up to group two.
A few months after that, John appeared on my own class list. That year I was teaching a top group in Year 10 (I feel the need to justify myself here and point out that I had a range of classes, including a lower group in Year 9). I taught John physics and some chemistry whilst my partner teacher taught biology and the rest of the chemistry to the same class. John seemed a little different to me now. He was quieter; more serious.
I took the same group through to Year 11 and John eventually gained A* grades in GCSE science. He opted to take physics at A-Level and so my relationship with him continued. But something quite unusual had started to happen.
John was organising the other students. He arranged study sessions where they would work through homework or revision together. He would come to class with lists of questions which prompted me to include a questions session at the start of each lesson – something I still do now. He was doing pretty well and we discussed his university options. I had studied at Cambridge and he showed an interest, so we sent him along to the open day.
He came back with a story. John had attended the open day with other students from the physics class who were ethnically very diverse. There were students with family origins in Somalia and Arabic countries. They all went into a shop together to look at souvenirs and were followed around by the shopkeeper. I was appalled at this example of blatant racism but John thought it was funny. “They’ll have to get used to us,” he said.
And he meant it. John did well in his A-Levels and took up a place at Cambridge to study engineering. I’ve since lost track of him – I’m not great like that – but I hope he did well and is enjoying life.
I learnt a lot from that guy.
Note: I have changed John’s name