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20 August 2014
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Fergal McGuckin
Fergal McGuckin

My name is Fergal McGuckin. I am a late thirty something teacher of Politics and History at Lagan College, Belfast. I am married with two sons, aged 9 ˝ and 5 ˝ . (The ‘half’ is terribly important, I’m told!) I have only recently started putting my semi-autobiographical ramblings to print and I am still not quite sure what has prompted me to do so. I have been told that I have some good stories to tell but I am not sure if I can write well enough to do them any justice.

Kitcheners' Recruits by Fergal McGuckin

So, here I was, I had survived the first term of my post-graduate teaching placement relatively unscathed, at least physically. (I’m told the mental scars may heal in time!)  Okay, so I had made mistakes, which was understandable, indeed, inevitable. I had even made a fool of myself on occasion. This, too, was not entirely unexpected under the circumstances.

It was an uncompromising situation, a tough station with some rough and ready pupils. There were also some great lads; genuine, funny, endearing and others who were more menacing, even sinister and then some who were almost pitiful. I had the full gambit, the complete deck, each one very different. There were also some people who weren’t the full deck, if you know what I mean! (…and that was just the staff!) It was an environment that was rich in humour, often black in tone and deeply ironic; but there were some laugh out loud moments. Sometimes it was a case of; if you didn’t laugh you would cry.

As a post-graduate teaching student you are quite literally thrown in at the deep end, a shark infested deep end in some cases, or should that be piranha infested? It was more of a relentless nibbling away at you rather than a singular catastrophic attack; little but persistent incisions into your self-confidence and self-esteem. Unless you developed solid, self preservation mechanisms fairly quickly you could be a gonner! Many teachers, who quit the profession, do so in their first year. You know the ‘Oh my god, what the hell have I got myself into here?’ kind of feeling. Out of your depth, up you know what creek without a paddle! You need to be very determined and resourceful to get through this phase. Once you get through that initial pain barrier it gets easier, or so I was told! I likened it to pre-season training at my local football club, if you got through all the sadistic stuff in January and February, indoor circuit training and the like, it got easier in the lighter evenings and you knew that, in hindsight, it had prepared you well for the rigours that lay ahead. (The third division was not for the faint hearted!)

I learned to deflect and diffuse with humour and a quick wit in the classroom. Sometimes I would veer onto the borderline of what was deemed to be accepted practice. Inflicting minor public humiliation and utilising an unrivalled ability to administer knock-out put downs (slagging!) formed a crucial part of my arsenal when dealing with disruptive and ‘smart alec’ teenagers. Taking them down a peg or two in front of their peers does no harm at all as long as it’s done in the appropriate way and you’re in control. You also learn to choose your battles carefully and, as a history teacher, I could appreciate the historical military parallels. Teaching a ‘rubbish class’ was a war of attrition, whereupon you would employ the age old military strategies of; divide and conquer, outflanking the enemy, using the element of surprise and employing reinforcements or even tactical retreats when necessary. I drew the line at chemical warfare, although pupils resort to this despicable tactic on a regular basis.

Nothing can disrupt a class quite like a really pungent fart, timed for maximum effect. S.B.D’s are the worst! - Silent But Deadlies! If it is not audible, it is much harder to identify the culprit. Eradicating the smell can be a protracted process also. I’ve even known the smell to follow you out of the room, almost as if it clings to your clothes, embedding its foul stench in the very fabric of your otherwise smart looking ‘Marksies’ blazer. What the hell are they feeding these kids? Mind you, it’s not always the pupils’ fault. Can I help it if my body instinctively knows when it’s break-time? Have you ever tried clenching for three teaching periods on the trot?

I digress. It was nearing the Christmas holidays, which is a particularly stressful time for teachers. Exams must be devised and organised, then meticulously marked and graded. Finally, reports are acerbically written, ready to be sent out to unwitting parents by early January. We’re told to make school reports as ‘positive’ as possible these days. You can’t say things like; ‘Your son, Johnny, is a lazy, cheeky wee maggot with a major attitude problem, who needs a good kick up the backside! He doesn’t just have a chip on his shoulder; he has the whole fish supper!’ Some day I might just succumb to the nagging little devil on my shoulder, urging me to employ such brutal honesty; “It’s political correctness gone mad, tell it like it is! Just picture the wee runt’s face when his insipid parents get the mother of all wake-up calls in the school report from hell. Hee hee, go on, do it!”  

There is also the added pressure of ensuring that your pupils don’t fail miserably en masse, which would beg the inevitable question from our eloquent principal; “Just what the hell have you been doing with them all term?!” In fairness, he would probably use even more unparliamentary language than that but I think you get the sentiment. The entire class having the combined brain power of a turkey after a frontal lobotomy would be no excuse.

So, here I was with 10E, turkey central! They had been studying the First World War topic for most of the term in History. We had spent the last fortnight on ‘focused revision’; that is, where I tell them exactly what’s going to be on the exam paper! We are ten minutes into the exam and they are struggling, big time! For some, I realise the concentration span doesn’t stretch beyond about four minutes but this performance was poor, even by their meagre standards. Even so, as I paced up and down the classroom, glancing at their vacuous answer sheets, I felt embarrassed and immensely disappointed. It was so infuriating; I wanted them to do well so badly, at least some of them, for God sake! Not to assuage my own ego, you understand, but because I had grown to like the wee gits on some level. I was actually thinking that it might be good for their self-confidence, that they might actually get a buzz out of doing well and in that sense I might have made some modicum of difference.      
There was also the feeling of sheer frustrating bemusement at the fact that they couldn’t answer number ten. I mean, NUMBER TEN!  Come on fellas, this one is a cinch!

Q.10  The commander of the British armed forces at the beginning of World War One was Lord K_______r.  

His name had been on the blackboard almost permanently for weeks. I even had a full size print of the famous recruitment poster on the wall. ‘Lord Kitchener Wants You!’ You know the one! The handlebar moustached general pointing an accusing finger at you, seeking you out and shaming you into joining the war effort and no matter where you go in the room he’s still pointing at you! “Okay, okay, I’ll join the bloody army then, just stop flaming well pointing at me!” It’s the Mona Lisa eyes thing, only it’s his index finger.

Anyway, they weren’t getting it and it was embarrassing, so I said “Look lads, I can’t believe you’re not even getting number ten. It’s so easy, you’ll kick yourselves. I tell you what; I will give you a clue so listen up. His name sounds like a room you would have in your house.” I looked around the room expecting to witness the veritable piggy bank of pennies cascading from their reinvigorated little minds, but there was nothing; a sea of blankness and a shrugging of shoulders. Then, just as I was at the point of absolute despair, big Aidan put his hand up to enquire “Sir, if I whisper the answer to you, will you spell it for me?” I thought, thank you Aidan, for restoring my faith in humanity, there is a chink of light at the end of this virtual academic void. “Gladly”, I exclaimed. I rushed to where Aidan sat at the rear of the classroom. I stooped to listen. “Sir, is it cubby-hole?” whispered Aidan, in complete seriousness. Cubby-hole?  Cubby bloody hole? Is he for real, I thought? Worse was to come, wee Paddy at the next desk had overheard and immediately shouted to the rest of the class, “Lads, number ten’s cubby-hole!” They all wrote it down feverishly, grateful presumably, for the one answer they were guaranteed to get right.

I didn’t have the heart to correct them and I marked them all correct for number ten. Call it an early Christmas present. I learned not to expect too much from these exams. If these guys had a positive experience in your class and learned something, anything, along the way that was enough. Even if it wasn’t the name of Lord ‘bloody’ Kitchener! He was a crap general anyway!

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Beating the System
Kitcheners' Recruits

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