“Thank you sir, you are really funny.” This is not a commendation I would typically strive for as a solicitor. However, given the circumstances, it was a plaudit I was happy to take, especially given that it was offered by a street savvy 15-year-old student before 9 ‘o clock on a chilly Thursday morning.
I should clarify. I wasn’t representing a client in an under-age employment scandal, but rather taking some tentative baby steps towards a potential new career as a schoolteacher. Even before stepping a foot into the classroom and facing down a blank-faced jury of teenage girls, the harsh realities of teaching were obvious: lesson planning; curriculum demands; an obscene 6.30am start; nervous, self-conscious preening and tie selection.
What sort of a teacher would you want to be? I was never going to be the football team coach slash PE teacher. The only standard I set for myself was to improve on the occasional supply teacher I remembered who could never take control of the assembled rebellion troops who would only work together against a common enemy.
Fortunately, having managed to convince the assistant headteacher that a citizenship class teaching students how to get themselves dismissed from a future job was probably not a constructive or sensible use of time, my experience was not at all unpleasant. In fact, given that this was a firm-wide CSR initiative it was ultimately quite good fun. Once in front of the class, it became quickly obvious which of the students were potential trouble makers (fortunately few), which were shy and which were alert and keen to learn. Having run through an explanation of who I was and a challenging five minute introduction to basic employment law principles, we proceeded with a variety of employment scenarios to identify what the issues might be. Using the usual class tutor as an improvising begrudged employee, the class took to quizzing her about the potential employment claims she may or may not have. Although it was difficult to fathom what some questions were intended to achieve, in the main these kids were surprisingly aware of their rights and astute in their occasional manipulation of the limited facts. Finally, voting on what the outcome should be, it was startling to see how there was a unanimous call for blood and a P45.
I soon realised that there was a greater understanding and empathy for other beliefs, ethnicities, abilities, quirks and lifestyles than there was when I was at school. Admittedly, the northern town where I grew up was less diverse than the central London school I now experienced, but the class mates here exhibited a real camaraderie – each one respecting one another’s efforts to participate, or not.
Of course, there were the usual loudmouths who weren’t afraid to share their opinions, but even interruptions were presented politely.
The employment law session was part of a series of classes over a number of weeks and covering a range of subjects including starting a business, buying a property and legal environmental issues. The chance for school children and students to meet with practicing solicitors in a positive, educational environment is both sensible and rewarding – for all involved. I learnt that the employees of the future are wise to their rights. More importantly, I learnt that future employers would be worldly-wise and not likely to stand for any nonsense from their staff. I only hope there are opportunities for these kids in the real world.
Although these classes were compulsory, but extra curricular, there was real engagement. I didn’t expect the interaction that I experienced, nor the sensible questions and what appeared to be a genuine thirst for knowledge. That said, as soon as the bell rang to mark the end of the period, something resembling organised chaos ensued which saw an immediate exodus through the door and into the bustling corridor.
“Thanks Sir, you are really funny” was just one generous comment. More interesting though was from one girl who was surprised that lawyers could be “fun” too. It’s not the word that springs to mind in my experience, but I think I will take that as a compliment.
I was pleased to leave the school corridors behind and head to a local greasy spoon for a de-brief with the other solicitors and trainees who had volunteered themselves. It was a positive experience all round from what I could tell, some classes relishing the salacious details of the case studies more than others.
Maybe I’ll aspire to being a cool teacher, or failing that an inspirational one next year, but for now I don’t want to see 6.30am again for some time.
This article was first published by Solicitors Journal on 10 April 2012, and is reproduced by kind permission