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I’m reminded of the handshakes

‘Someday, someone will walk into your life and make you realize why it never worked out with anyone else. Shon Mehta

Friday June 16th, 2017 was meant to like any other teaching day. I was ready to go for lunchtime duty where I was called in by the Head via radio. Her exact words, “Shuaib, a group of the Year 11s won’t leave until they see you”. I rushed down to the school gates and I mauled by my Year 11 RE class. I will never forget how they circled around, like in a huddle and gave me card. This was an extremely tough cohort, so challenging but also so resilient. This is my NQT year story.

I was so overwhelmed with these wonderful cards. This is how every teacher should feel.

‘That class’

It’s so wonderful seeing NQTs begin their teaching careers, many of whom have successfully got a role to complete their induction year. I can relive the euphoria, buzz and excitement roughly this time four years ago. I was on top of the world, overjoyed and literally ‘living the dream’. Although my career has taken an alternative trajectory, every teacher will tell you about that ‘one class’. That ‘one cohort’ where it all just clicked. Where our pedagogical just all comes to fruition. Where we feel like Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers or John Keating in Dead Poets Society. We often look back and reflect on these classes with real nostalgia and a sense that it was all worth it. During my NQT year I had this class. I want to pay homage to these students and also to reflect on the lessons I learnt that year.

We should never single out students or particular cohorts as consistency is of paramount importance. However, given the context I found myself in and the pretty challenging behaviour across the school, my Year 11 Religious Education class kept me going. This was a mixed-ability top-set class, many of whom didn’t take to RE and missed out on key content in the previous year. I remember during the very first lesson, simply getting them to write their names on their exercise books took 30minutes. I was very keen to make a good impression and worked tirelessly to get this class on board. Also given the fact they were Year 11s and it was my NQT year, this was my one big opportunity to make my Dad proud. I wanted to be someone, to mean something and leave a legacy of my own. This class was tough but resilient, loud but engaged, challenging but winnable and at the core, just a group of kids that needed consistency. Yet, let’s not beat around the bush, I was in rural Lincolnshire, this was Brexit territory. I am Asian, perhaps the only Asian in the town and there was a sense of ‘Me vs. Them’ right away. This was my first barrier. The town had recently gone through the UKIP claptrap, banners were plastered everywhere and as you can imagine, I felt right at home!

Our Breakthrough

By November, after many teething issues, I requested a week away to visit my late Grandad’s (Dads) grave in Kashmir. The guilt I felt completing that yellow leave of absence form was enormous. I didn’t want to leave my class with Supply, they had openly told me they have supply in virtually every other subject. As I was explaining the cover work for the following week, one female student said, “Sir, you aren’t leaving us are you?” Quickly followed by a lad who uttered “You leave, we riot, you’re a legend Khan”. After explaining the reason for my week-long absence, many students were so incredibly moved. It is a surreal sight seeing a 6”4’ lad wiping away a tear as they left the class that day. Seconds later it hit me, I have won this class. I won them by being open and transparent with them, by being myself and simply, by being their teacher. A few Football conversations, rapping sessions in class and general jokes did help the cause too!

From December to June, this class who were dubbed ‘dysfunctional’ were as good as gold. Lessons would start promptly, books would be out, they would respond to marking and some of the philosophical debates we held were simply unbelievable. We could discuss euthanasia, capital punishment and abortion in a mutually respectful environment. I was able to take risks, peer work and innovate. I knew my class, and this was fully respected. As an NQT, that’s all you can ask for! My Head of Department was so understanding and supportive. She always considered the context before she scrutinised data and given that this class had little teaching the year prior, I was given the confidence to lead lessons how I saw fit. This confidence permeated into my lessons and into my students. I was at peace but with exams looming too, it was important to not to caught up in the moment and focus on preparing these students for exams.

Immortal.

The Final Weeks

Before intervention began, my Head of Department assured my I would not lose my class and all intervention strategies would be supported. I was eccentric, doe eyed and I wanted to change the world. With the madness of standing on tables shouting, “Jesus will save us”, to washing lines and beach balls, my Head of Department knew I had those students’ best interests at heart. The final weeks of May, there was a feeling of sorrow amongst the entire class as we knew our time together was coming to an end. An 8-month journey was about to reach its climax. My personal anxiety was heightened because I had invested and sacrificed so much personally for this particular cohort. It was my first year of teaching and I was keen to impress and for these wonderful students to succeed. We ploughed on and to achieve 86% A-C with this class in the summer was absolutely wonderful. My Head of Department said I exceeded expectations, but I cut her off and said, “No, we exceeded expectations, Gemma”.

It meant the world watching these amazing students leave school. Admittedly, I am emotional and wiped away tears many a time in class. So, at the gate, three years ago today, my Year 11 class pleaded with me to attend their end of year prom. I was in two minds as I was unable to attend my own school prom because I couldn’t afford a ticket. I was so humbled and now privileged to be in a position attend. I picked my outfit, wore my suede shoes and trilby and had a fantastic, albeit emotional night. They would openly say, ‘Sir, you’re one of us’. Words let alone a blog do this class no justice. They needed a name because ‘legend’ was being branded around by every fast food joint in the world. I named them ‘The Immortals’. Heading home that evening, I wanted tell my Dad all about it, every detail. Although he’s no longer around, I remember hearing someone say ‘Shuaib, as we lose a father figure, aspire to be one’.

If you are a Peterborian, you will know the significance of a Doria Bakery Cake. This was our parting gift days before the final exams

In Summary

My apologies if this is a bit of a soppy one. Sometimes we pay homage better through written words, than verbally. 2017 seems so long ago but so often we live off nostalgia. I have found it difficult to rekindle that love and focus towards teaching again because of how much I invested into my NQT year. However, I find myself three years on being able to look back with a huge smile of my face, pride in my heart and a tear in my eye. That, for me, is worth more than any status or role.

Again, although my career trajectory isn’t soar to the heights I once but now there is a bigger fight on our hands. We have incredible NQTs, many of whom remind me of myself. They need a school that allows them to blossom and develop rather than be trampled on. My book on toxic schools fully intends to address this post-NQT burnout and how we can support teachers so that this ‘one class’ is not a once in a lifetime experience. We do need a system that focuses on developing our young teachers, one that enables them to have the autonomy to showcase what they can do.

I just want to say a heartfelt thank you to my Head of Department, who was also my NQT Tutor. Thank you, Gemma. You really let me live the dream. Penny, you too. Finally, to my students, many of you whom may read this, when people were growing up they wanted to be Footballers or Astronauts, I just wanted to be Mr. Khan. You let me be him and I will be forever grateful. 2016-17 was immortal. Three years ago today and I’m still reminded of the handshakes.

I would like to finish off with a poem I wrote for my Year 11s. They would always ask me to ‘spit some bars’ in class as I told them about my short stint as a Rapper, ‘88Keys Khan’.

My Bars for Gleed.

Back in 2015, I entered Gleed,

It shone so brightly with potential, it moved at light speed,

I took a year away; I had to train to teach,

No longer write bars, but in E1, I preach,

With all the negativity and Spotted Spalding,

Years 11 are the elite offspring,

We continue to rise and Year 11 continue to give me hope,

All these years of supplies, you never moan or mope,

You reflect and reject hate,

You welcome me with open arms, you’ll shout Wag1 sir, and often we’ll share a modest handshake,

See I’m just trying to use the gift that you have me,

Work with Gem and Pen to improve the year group that made me,

There are immortals amongst us, prefects sat side by side,

We’ve smiled, we’ve laughed and together we’ve cried,

But this fizzy water swigging, check shirt wearing, bar spitting teacher that stands in front of you today,

None of this would have been possible if you didn’t pave the way,

And since Dad passed away,

You make me feel like the brightest star, whether it’s night or whether its day,

As you are the brightest of stars,

Whether it’s night or whether its day.

Big up Year 11. Thank you. Bless you. Good luck.

Let’s make history.

Thank you for reading,

Shuaib Khan

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