It’s that time of year again. Us teachers are exhausted and conflicted. Year 11 are about to leave and we’ll benefit from the time that leaves us, so yay (!), but there’s also the shadow of ‘did I do enough’ hanging round. That particular weather front will keep popping back until late August and even then it’ll be immediately replaced by Storm ‘Could I Have Done More’ and Hurricane September!
Despite my vintage as a teacher – just over two decades and counting…not that I’m counting – this time of year doesn’t get any easier. I won’t lie and tell you that I’m not glad to see the back of my Year 11s though. We’ve got to that fractious stage together where we’re all pretty much sick of the sight of each other now, but it doesn’t stop the worry. Add to this the fact that my own daughter is also taking her GCSEs and it makes for a very tense and very tiring time. I’ve said this before about several things, but I think I’m just too old for all of this nowadays!
I wrote this poem – as I did another this time last year that can be found on the link below – while patrolling my classroom during a two hour pre-exam session while my class were working.
This year’s group are a set 2, so bright and capable, but watching them work all that came across to me was just how vulnerable, tired and disheveled they looked. So, when I got a little bit of time that evening after they’d gone, I began to scribble down the notes that would become this poem. As ever, apologies for the title; crap isn’t it? I wish I had more imagination when it came to naming my poems!
'A week to go.' The latest in a long line of young adults are about to step out of the building for one last time and see what the weather holds. The inevitability that you've been warning them about for years has dawned and the story is frighteningly familiar. Everything is out and ready for their arrival, yet still it takes two minutes to enter the room - some things never change - and even when I think they're in, several of the flock have wandered off. I guess there's always a willful one or two that will find their way into someone else's field in spite of the fences, just because they can. They arrive seven minutes late, quietly apologise, then, having received the same instruction as the rest, proceed to bleat idly to a fellow latecomer as if everything in this world was just perfectly zen. Oh, for just a tiny dose of this carefree youthful optimism, this lack of knowledge of the world for just a few more days. Functional stuff dealt with we attempt to power on, there's one week to go, nothing can be left to chance, no stone left unturned. While they work, I wander somewhat aimlessly, now adopting the roll of the lost sheep, occasionally taking sharp inward breaths as if to speak, but always holding back, telling myself to savour the silence, let them work. Outside, an ill wind blows ominous Shakespearean clouds across the horizon and I wonder, is this a sign. Maybe, maybe not. This is the north after all, where clouds are nothing if not ominous. Averting my gaze, I take in the sights of the classroom once more, looking for more positive signs. One is slumped over the desk, writing, one shoe discarded perhaps for some kind of aerodynamic reason, one wears tracksuit bottoms - more Sports Science in action, or more likely the result of what was lying on a darkened bedroom floor approximately 6 minutes before his lift arrived. Several are conducting a tiny rebellion; dyed hair, trainers, no ties, shirts untucked. I smile and hope that this sense of rebellion and experimentation grows and grows until it bears fruit, lightens these lives. I wonder though, what they're rebelling against, hoping that the answer would be 'Whadya got' but fearing excuses about not being able to breath with a tie on or school shoes breaking, giving up the ghost just at this most convenient hour. Rebels or not, for now all are working, minds hopefully being emptied of every quote, every interpretation and perhaps, if we're lucky a skewed version of some contextual nugget, a view of what life was like in the dark and distant past. Pens race across pages, wrists are shaken in order to bring new life, before the pen returns to the page to pour out more in one last effort. And then, time stops and for a wonderful moment it occurs that I might have done enough... Still, I think, a week to go.
It seems clear to me that there are a wide selection of attitudes and approaches to the exams and the final few weeks or so of high school among the students we teach. This was something that I was trying to get across in the poem, as well as the worry that we teachers can feel. So the bits about uniform and hairdos (and hairdon’ts in some cases) were supposed to reflect that. Sometimes I think that the exams take second place at this time of year because it feels more important to forget your tie and flaunt your new, casual look. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why though!
Popular opinion sometimes seems to think that teachers only care about results the students’ results affect our pay – they don’t. What matters to most teachers – I can’t say all because I’ve worked with some that seemed to utterly despise what they were doing – is that we’re able to make even just some small difference to the lives of those that we teach. Certainly, when I look at my Year 11s around now I find I worry about what’s next for them, hope that they get what they want out of life and that they can just put enough work into getting these qualifications, all the while knowing that there’s not a lot left that I can actually do.
Anyway, whether you’re a teacher or not, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment as I always enjoy reading what people have got to say about what I write; especially the nice comments!