Poetry Blog – Teams Meeting

This is a new poem about a fairly modern topic – the online meeting. Now, I understand that they’ve been around for a while, but my point is more that they’ve never before been so widely used. As Coronavirus struck and lockdown ensued across the globe, businesses and other organisations were forced to find new ways of keeping in touch with employees and clients who were now being forced to work from home. And thus, words like Teams, Zoom and House Party, among others, all took on a new meaning.

I’m generally left deflated by even the mere mention of a meeting and, probably as a result, I’m inclined to simply drift off. I’ve fallen asleep in more than one. But if people insist in reading entire PowerPoint presentations back to me, word for word, then I reserve the right to get bored.

Lockdown and working from home felt, as much as anything else, like time off from meetings for me. And then someone mentioned Teams and Zoom. And so, as I sat in my first ever Teams meeting I made sure that I was paying attention – they could all see me, after all, but kept a notebook out of site after realising that there could be a poem in this! So here you go – the secondary result of my first couple of Teams meetings.

Teams Meeting

A little blue circle floats and spins, taunting me with my lateness. Usually, said circle is laughed off, commented on with a half-baked witticism, something like, ‘It’s thinking about it’ accompanied by a knowing smile, a raised eyebrow. But not today. Today’s blue circle is a slow death, evoking only many muttered expletives.

After what feels like hours, but is probably only minutes faces emerge, framed in their own rectangle and assembled in front of you like a gameshow panel in a strangely decorated studio. There are welcoming smiles and the possibility of others yet. Who knows amongst an array of webcam settings? A nose here, a chin there, the very top of someone’s head. Who knew that a chair could be sat on in so many ways?

It’s orderly at first. One voice with instructions, an agenda and, worst of all, jobs to delegate. Maybe that explains the top of someone’s head? A cunning attempt at work avoidance that clearly I should have thought of first. I consider sliding down into my chair until I’m sat beneath my table.

Virtual hands are pointed out, to wave at the thought of a question. Mine will therefore be very much more virtual than others. Some things never change. Despite virtual hands, still a tangle of voices ensues as we relax into the familiarity of it all; the agenda temporarily capsizing in these rapids while the meeting floats aimlessly downstream. Familiar voices bring warmth, a smile and I consider something juvenile to get noticed, extend the laughter and take the meeting out of reach and off towards the sea. But order resumes, our professional heads fixed firmly in place as the bullet points are ticked off and a department is run at a distance safe enough for all. Strategies discussed, ideas shared, virtual hands waved and questions asked. After such a long time, even meetings can be enjoyable.

But all too soon it’s over and we settle back in our home ports, perhaps, like me, wondering what the next weeks and months hold and longing, ever so slightly, for just a few moments more.

I thought I’d conquered Teams after dipping my toe – my real one, not virtual – for the first time and being able to use it with ease. The first stanza tells you that I was wrong. Teams took forever to connect for my second meeting and I actually ‘arrived’ late, which in truth is much more like the real me anyway. In this instance though, it was nothing short of torture.

Once I was in attendance I took a look at my colleagues – the ladies I refer to as my big sisters – who I hadn’t seen in months. And while it was great to see faces, it was a veritable puzzle working out why they couldn’t use a webcam! It meant that for a good portion of the meeting I was just puzzled and distracted by the fact that someone was sat with just the top of their head in view, while others were so close to their webcam that I could just see a nose or an eye!

Despite the presence of virtual hands for people to raise when they had a question, our meetings would start in an orderly fashion, before descending ever so slightly into a gaggle of voices talking over each other. As usual in meetings, I kept quiet and observed from the safest distance I’ve ever managed in a meeting. But I realised, after a short while, that just being in the meeting was lovely. These were not just colleagues, but friends with familiar faces and voices that just relaxed me and made me feel quite normal for the first time in the months of lockdown. Even when we got back to the agenda I was enjoying the meeting.

In fact, I’d enjoyed it so much that when it ended and faces began to disappear from the screen, I felt more than a little bit low. And then it was back to isolating and trying to find enough things to do in order to keep myself from going mad.

Feel free to leave a comment about the poem and if you really enjoyed it you might like to click on the links below to have a look at some of my other stuff.

Back to School again…

This time last year I wrote an article about how it might feel for teachers returning to work after their annual – and much begrudged by anyone else in any profession, ever – 6 weeks summer holidays. Despite the holiday, I felt stressed about the prospect of returning to work and having worked in the industry for so long, I know that lots of us feel the same way. I looked at things like the anxiety dreams that we would be no doubt suffering from, the clothing I’d have to wear and even getting overwhelmed by stationary. It’s on the link below if you fancy a read, but you know, one at a time!

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2019/09/01/its-time-for-a-new-teaching-year-and-im-stressed-out-already/

This year, the return to the classroom is days away and I’m more than a little anxious about my return. However, with all that’s happened over the last year, I’m anxious in a whole new way than ever before!

Wednesday March 17th 2019 is a date that will stay with me until I decide it’s time to stop the world and get off. Or someone/something decides for me. This was the date that I spent my last day in school for the 2019-2020 academic year. I haven’t been back since.

As we got into March of this year, Covid-19 was beginning to make a name for itself (actually I imagine scientists made the name, but you get the picture). Around school, pupils were starting to ask about closures and fellow staff were, in truth, a little giddy about getting a couple of weeks off work. I mean, we hadn’t even had a snow day, so a little bit of time off would make anybody giddy, surely. Because that’s what we imagined it would be. This was a bad case of the flu; it would pass. and before we knew it, we’d be back in work.

However, as the month wore on, the changes were glaringly obvious. People were preparing themselves for the worst by buying entire supermarkets worth of paracetamol, cold and flu drinks, dried pasta and anything that they could lay their hands on to then put on said hands and clean them. Oh, and some folk were clearly imagining that their houses were going to fall down and that they would recover from this particular blow by building igloos out of toilet roll. At least that’s what I think was happening.

In amongst all this madness, I was starting to worry. A little, tiny bit. As much as I ever do about anything, apart from my wife discovering the true size and cost of my box(es) of ‘To Read’ books. (If you’re reading this my love, my life, that’s just a little joke for all of the other readers – just never go into the loft.)

I have a couple of health issues that seemed to make me a little vulnerable to the virus that I was reading about. Firstly, I’m asthmatic and much to my embarrassment have been on the ‘At risk’ list at our doctors’ surgery for years. To add to this though, a couple of years ago I was admitted to hospital with a heart complaint and ended up having surgery to correct a couple of things a month later. I was born with heart problems too, so as much as I don’t like it, the fact is I have history with a bit of a major health issue. Bang goes my plan to live forever.

And so, after discussing the problem with my wife, I went into work on March 17th promising that I’d speak with our HR department. The first colleague I met as I went into the building that day almost shouted at me – ‘You shouldn’t be here!’ – which in truth is not that unusual, but as I was on my way to speak to HR, I didn’t feel too hurt.

I remember my exact words when I got there – “Julia, I’m not sure I should be here.” Yep, dynamic as always! However, I was ushered into an office, told Julia my concerns and asked to go and teach until she’d got back to me. A couple of hours later I was back in the office being told that today would be my last day. The situation would be re-assessed after the Easter holidays, giving me four weeks off. I won’t lie, I was as delighted as I was relieved. Not only could I stay safe, but imagine the amount of episodes of Homes Under The Hammer, Bargain Hunt and American Pickers I could watch!

Anyway, four weeks came and went and I was told to stay away from work. For my own good, not because no one likes me. Because people like me – I’d use up almost all of the fingers of one hand if I had to count them.

Weeks later, I was informed that, in all likelihood that was me done for the academic year. Schools were closed and any re-opening wouldn’t need to involve me. Because no one likes me. Not really; it was because I’m such a sickly weakling. Clearly, if someone were to sneeze in the same room as me it could be fatal.

I return to work in less than a week. When I do it will have been 174 days spent at home. That’s 4176 hours or 250,560 minutes, if you prefer. Or if you like, it’s almost as long as the gestation period of a baboon, but only around half of what it takes to make a baby sealion, llama or alpaca. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a long time away from the classroom and a long time in mummy’s tummy.

As my return approaches I have very much mixed emotions. I swerve wildly between feeling really excited and an extreme sense of dread about the whole thing. During lockdown it felt like I’d never have to go back to any kind of normality and so such a drastic change is going to take quite a bit of getting used to, I suppose. It’ll be brilliant to see people – pupils and colleagues – again, but then again I’m really not used to seeing people. So I suppose mixed emotions are to be expected.

Ironically, the lockdown life should have been the life I dreamed of. The solitude, the days stretching out ahead of me with little in the way of plans, the lack of pressure for any kind of face to face interaction. Not having to work for a living was something I’d long ago fathomed out was perfect for me. I’ve often thought that I might well have been swapped at birth and that my rightful family – noble of lineage, rich, idle, better than you and knew it – didn’t want the poorly specimen they were presented with (that’s me) and instead helped themselves to the athletic baby in the next cot. I could never shake the feeling that working just wasn’t for me. Harry and Margaret weren’t my actual mam and dad. The life on the Tyneside estate wasn’t what I’d really been destined for. So being able to do what I want, when I wanted through lockdown should have been perfect, or at least a bit more to my liking.

To an extent, that’s exactly what it was. But the name tells its own story and lockdown meant no travel and not a whole lot of freedom. Within a couple of weeks I’d painted all of our fences and both sheds. The gardens were looking good, I was reading and writing more and discovering Netflix. Our house was even beginning to resemble the type of place that people would want to live and not just the kind of place that was being photographed by the police having been freshly ransacked by burglars…and bears. But I missed going into work. I missed my team, my friends. I missed the kids, the random things that they’d say and the bizarre situations that you’d inevitably find yourself in.

So now, at the time of writing, I’m days away from heading back to work. And although some things will be familiar, the structure of lessons and the day has altered due to COVID and I don’t even know if I’m allowed in my own classroom yet. I’m excited about going back. As I’ve already stated, I’m honest enough to say I’ve enjoyed having time away from work. However, the bit of me that likes feeling like I’m making a difference to people can’t wait to get back in. I think it’ll be good for my own self-worth too. It’s nice to feel like you’ve got a purpose and for 6 months my purpose seems to have revolved around things like being Joe Wicks’s imaginary best friend and being able to make nice sandwiches for my kids. Try as I might I can’t really say there’s a future in either of those things (although I reckon Joe Wicks would be really impressed with my efforts, if not my hair.)

I’m excited about standing in front of my Year 11s again. I’m excited about coming up with new ideas to help my department out. I’m excited about speaking to a class, explaining things and watching the penny drop with kids who were adamant that they didn’t understand (it happens, on average about three times a year). I’m excited about sending sarcastic emails to our department. I’m excited about sending stupid emails about the ideas that swim around my head all day to our department too. I’m excited about meeting deadlines for projects I’ve been working on for months. I’m excited about taking staff briefings and slipping in silly jokes or daft pictures to a PowerPoint. I’m excited about attending meetings…alright, I’m not excited about that; I’m not some kind of pervert.

On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified of the risk to my health. I’m terrified of hearing the news that someone has tested positive. I’m terrified of the amount of people. I’m terrified that after all this time, I simply won’t be able to do the job. I’m terrified of the exhaustion that I reckon I’ll be feeling in about three weeks from now. I’m terrified of the new routine. I’m terrified of messing up with COVID procedures. I’m terrified of the new routine, the longer lessons, the pressure on Year 11. I’m even terrified that I might get part way through the new term and find that I’m just not enjoying what I do anymore. I might want to return to my royal duties instead! I’m terrified that a department and a school that has done without me for so long might simply not need me.

In short, my head is swimming with it all. From genuine concerns and excitement like those above to silly things like the fact that I haven’t worn a suit, shirt and tie for so long that it’ll just be strange. I also haven’t worn proper shoes for six months. I’ve spent most of it in shorts and trainers (and a t-shirt just in case anyone who knows me finds their eyes are burning at the image that their mind just conjured up).

I’m fully aware that lots of people have worked all the way through lockdown and the trauma of COVID-19. I know some of them and have heard of the strain that this past 6 months has put on them. So I’m not asking for sympathy. But on Monday, as I find myself in a school again and on Tuesday, as I stand in front of a class for the first time in half a year, I will feel physically sick. I’ll wonder what I’m doing, if I’m doing the right thing, if I’m safe.

After over twenty years as a teacher, next week I will enter a classroom both more experienced and more uncertain than I’ve even been. And that is as exciting as it is terrifying. No doubt next week I can tell you all about it. Until then, wish me luck!

101 Things I’ve Learnt in Lockdown (give or take quite a few things for the sake of a title)

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Given some of the reading of dystopian fiction I’ve done over the years and some of the television I’ve watched, lockdown or quarantine has surprised me. We were ready for the apocalypse. And when I say ready, I mean that my tendency to over-buy, ‘just in case’ meant that we could have existed on a diet of Weetabix and shampoo for quite a while yet. As avid viewers of The Walking Dead over the years, we were also confident about how to stave off zombies or even rival gangs led by over zealous culty types.

So it came as a surprise when none of these skills were needed. There was disappointment too that my son’s baseball bat would not be customised and pressed into some Negan style action. Instead, it became an exercise in ridding myself of guilt at being unable to work and then staving off boredom. We figured out new ways to look at things and also worked out how to get through what was a pretty challenging situation. As a result, I feel like I’ve learnt a lot – about other people and about myself. So here we go; 101 things I’ve learnt during lockdown (give or take quite a few things for the sake of a title).

  1. I love a bit of quiet. I work as a teacher and thus, working amongst 900 children as well as my sometimes over excitable department can sometimes be a bit noisy. At last count I worked in a department of 436 women – or it might have been 10 – and when they laugh, screech or encounter anything drag queen or dog related, it can get loud. I tend to stick to my classroom. I’ll look forward to finding myself right in the middle of it again sometime soon though. I miss those gals! Lockdown, with its lack of people, has meant lots of being out in my garden, pottering with nothing but birdsong for company. We live about a mile away from a busy motorway, but for a few months it couldn’t be heard. The quiet has allowed me to think, to contemplate, and to create, although that last bit has mainly been in the form of mindless poetry, so maybe there is a cloud to this silver lining! Whatever has gone on elsewhere, I’ve enjoyed the silence.
  2. It’s actually not that difficult to lose track of the days. I haven’t worked for months. Not in the actual work environment anyway. As a result, my routine has been knocked sideways and as much as I’ve tutted at people in the past for claiming to not know what day it was, I’ve found that at times I’ve really had to think hard just to work out if it’s a Tuesday or a Sunday. It’s usually been a Wednesday though.
  3. The four of us can actually live together in some kind of harmony. I imagined that we’d kill each other. Or that I might just snap and leave the house, Forrest Gump style and run for a couple of years until I reached Alaska or somewhere. None of this happened. None of it ever looked likely either. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve not been like The Waltons (Google them, younger people) but we’ve been quite the harmonious group. I’ve adjusted to home school-related tantrums, the bouncing and shouting that go hand in hand with Roblox, the daily updates on celebrities that I’ve never heard of and their latest moment of Instagram related glory (you’re cheering on people having their photo taken, young people) and even my daughter’s ever more angry explanations of why her phone is vital for school work. We’ve all adjusted. We’ve all coped. There have been afternoons of board games, TV marathons, family walks, baking, Wii Sing, learning of languages…all sorts to fill the time. And we’ve survived.
  4. I can live without football. Younger me would be appalled. But when football closed own at all levels, I coped. I’ve been around the game all my life – playing, coaching, supporting – and I adore it. But despite my horror at it being taken away, I didn’t find it difficult at all. I missed watching my team, Newcastle United. I missed coaching my Under 12 team. But within a few weeks, its absence was normal. I sought solace in exercise; working out, walking, and running and so the element of competition about me was sated quite easily. It’s helped that as a Newcastle fan, I’m used to information coming out of the club being a rarity. The fans don’t matter at NUFC and so we were fully used to hearing nothing. Even when on the verge of a takeover that would make us the richest club in world football, nobody bothered to speak. And after a while even that became normal. I just occupied my time with other things; something I would have never thought possible. Football? I’ve hardly given it a thought.
  5. I love being able to watch football every day! And then they brought it back and I was hooked again! Since Project Restart began there has been football on our screens every day. I haven’t watched all of it. But I’ve managed to sneak a look at some of it probably most days. The empty stadia haven’t mattered. I’ve even turned off the fake crowd noise in favour of the shouting of 40 or 50 people in the stadium and the occasional hilarious bit of swearing. Grassroots football has also resumed and so my Under 12 team has trained once again, albeit under very different, very strict guidelines linked to Coronavirus. No matter – it’s been amazing to be out on the grass again. Football? Inject it straight into my veins!
  6. Driving your car is now an acceptable eye test If you’re not from the UK or you’ve spent lockdown hiding under a rock, the name Dominic Cummings won’t mean anything to you. Quick explanation – he’s the chief adviser and political strategist to our government. Anyway, during lockdown he seems to have decided to visit his parents 264 miles away while the rest of us were confined to our homes. When he got found out he concocted a story about his wife showing signs of Covid19, which subsequently meant that he had to drive 200 miles to ensure childcare in case she was really poorly. Because, of course, he knew no one with any influence who could have sorted him out an emergency babysitter. He definitely didn’t just think he was above the law and fancied a visit to see mummy and daddy on their country estate. No way. Not a chance. Part of his crazy story involved the fact that he then developed a problem with his eyes – some guys have all the bad luck, eh? – and so in order to test his eyesight out, he chose to drive some thirty miles with his now not ill wife and not destitute child in the car. Thus, in the UK, we all learned that if you have a problem with your eyesight then the government’s chief political adviser says, “Go for a drive!”
  7. Barnard Castle is the new Lourdes. Cummings from number 6 again. Barnard Castle was where he drove to and miraculously cured his poorly eyes. He cured his eyes by spending the entire day there. And did I mention it was his wife’s birthday on that day? So, I suppose it was a fitting present from a loving husband to take his wife somewhere where they could cure her of a virus that was killing thousands of people across the globe. So really, he’s just a regular guy who turned hero in the midst of a global pandemic. Definitely not a privileged dickhead he thought he was a great deal better than the rest of us. So, if you’re ill and don’t fancy all the crowds that would typify a trip to Lourdes, head to Barnard Castle in County Durham. Tell them Dominic Cummings sent you. And if anyone asks, he did nothing wrong.
  8. A surprising amount of people can’t follow a one-way system or read a No Entry sign Despite having to self isolate for health reasons I’ve had to go to the supermarket on a few occasions during lockdown. Sometimes, with my wife’s work commitments, there’s been no one else. It’s been quite harrowing. I’ve had to stand in queues like something out of the Cold War and then when you get into the shop there has been an even colder atmosphere. People don’t look at you. Some practically crawl around the place forgetting that there will be areas where a 2 metre social distance just isn’t possible. And sadly, there are far too many absolute tools that refuse to follow the rules. That’s them, tootling up and down the aisles like they own the place, refusing to follow a simple one-way system or take any notice whatsoever of a massive No Entry sign plastered all over the floor in red. Arrow blindness! My local supermarket had ends of aisles railed off, big green arrows on the floor, and actual No Entry signs in red and white and yet some people still managed to get lost and conveniently wander down every aisle the wrong way. The irony a lot of the time is that they’re the ones wearing the masks! They might as well wear it over their eyes!
  9. I like my neighbours I’ve never been one for cozy chats across the fence. In fact, I’d probably have gladly put up a bigger fence in the past. However, throughout lockdown, my elderly neighbour has found a way to appear noiselessly while I’ve been pottering and then just started chatting whether I’m looking or not. One day, he crept up so stealthily and started talking so loudly that I actually threw what I was holding in the air, such was my shock. He just carried on chatting like nothing had happened. Despite this, I’ve found myself warming to him and I have to say, it’s nice to have good neighbours. Apparently, everybody needs them.
  10. I’ve glimpsed retirement…and I love it! No rules, no routine, no commute, exercise when I feel like it, no suit and tie…I’m more than ready for that pension!
  11. Me and IT don’t get along My work laptop won’t attach to the internet. It won’t let me look at documents from work. Its USB ports are all broken. It is essentially a fancy typewriter. My home laptop picks and chooses which internet sites it will find – you’d be amazed at the number of times that Google is unavailable. It also won’t open Word documents. Or PowerPoints. Or Excel. And it runs as if it’s on dial-up. All of this has made working from home incredibly stressful. Even thinking about it makes my blood boil. Anyway, how either laptop still exists is beyond me. My relationship with IT has seen me develop new and wonderful swear words, but I am yet to attempt laptop surgery with a hammer. I must have mellowed considerably.
  12. When someone knocks at your door in Lockdown it is utterly terrifying. It’s bad enough at the best of times when it might be someone trying to sell you something. However, during a global pandemic, when no one should be out and about and a knock at the door could just be a cunning zombie trying to lure you out with politeness, it’s heart stopping.
  13. Whatever the cause, people banging pots and pans with spoons is actually not all that necessary. Here in the UK the public took to their doorsteps every Thursday night for weeks in order to applaud and show solidarity with our NHS workers, who were putting their lives at risk every day. It was nice; a chance to show some appreciation for our often unsung heroes, while also feeling part of your local community. And then it turned into a competition. People turned out in fancy dress, there were fireworks, air horns…and of course pots and pans. Now I don’t want to be a killjoy here, but I’ll say it anyway. The air being filled with the sound of pots and pans is not nice. It’s not a fitting tribute, either. If, when I die, people turn up at my funeral banging pots and pans together, I will find a way to haunt them. I’d like to think that doctors and nurses thought it wasn’t necessary. I’d like to think they were all just thinking that it was nothing short of a racket!
  14. The town where I live has some real surprises. In Lockdown our government sanctioned an hour of daily exercise for families. So out we went, every day or night, often walking for 3 miles. It meant that we explored our town quite a lot. Without doubt, the best thing that we discovered was that in one of the more well-to-do households, where they have a very big back garden, they’ve got an entire railway track running around it. We’ve got a washing line, two sheds, a very annoying trampoline and a small football goal. Flash Harry up the road has got Thomas the Tank Engine and friends!
  15. The empty roads are an open invitation for dickheads to drive badly. Some people – mainly young men – mistook exercise for going out in their car. Some people – mainly young men – mistook a deserted road for a race track. Some people – mainly young men – are dickheads.

So there you have it. I learned a lot during Lockdown. I think we probably all witnessed human behaviour at both its best and its worst. Or at least its most selfish. But where there are negatives, you’ll most likely find positives. And it’s always good to learn from your experiences.

Did you learn anything from Lockdown? Let me know what you learned and what you thought in the comments.

The lengths we go to: A review of ‘A Christmas Carol’ as performed by the English Department (and a Maths teacher) of Thornhill Community Academy

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Bob Cratchit’s sideline as a gangsta rapper was clearly of no interest to Scrooge who much preferred grime.

Labelled as ‘Laura’s Ridiculous Idea’ and granted its own Facebook Messenger group in order to get things organised this version of a Christmas classic was always going to be a tall order to pull off. But boy, did they manage it!

Late last year and indeed last decade, following a casual phone conversation, the idea was put to staff that the English Department at Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury should attempt to put on a version of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. The usual avenue of getting an outside theatre group in had proven far too expensive, but we still wanted our kids to have some sort of theatre experience. In a school that prides itself on doing things our own way and constantly striving to go the extra mile there was nothing else for it. We’d do it ourselves.

A wild idea? Yes. A bridge too far? Well, given that this was the famous ‘Educating Yorkshire’ school, then surely nothing was impossible. Needless to say, following several meetings and conversations as well as a few begging requests for props and costumes on social media, an ensemble cast was put together and a play began to take shape. A script was found, music and scenery arranged and staff put themselves forward for several roles each, some with a great deal more enthusiasm than others *coughs* Mrs Sinclair. (Episode 3 of Educating Yorkshire if the name rings a bell. Believe me, she’d want you to know).

Our production was to be put on twice in one day. A morning performance for the whole of Year 11 – and any staff that could make it along – and then a matinee performance, if you will, for Year 10 during the last hour of a busy day.

By the day of the performances the cast had managed to run through a whole two (count ’em) rehearsals. After all, any English department is a busy one, but let me tell you, the work we do here at TCA takes up an extraordinary amount of time. And thus, rehearsal time was at a premium. However, everyone in the camp – and also a lot of the pupils who would be in attendance – were excited and showing no signs of nerves on the morning of the performance. I say everyone, but personally I was terrified and all I had to do was work backstage and press a button occasionally.

Now although ‘A Christmas Carol’ is quite a serious play it was evident from the time the curtain went up (I mean, we have no curtain, but when writing about theatre, dahling…) it was clear that the objective of the whole cast was to have some yuletide fun. And so, while Scrooge (TV’s Matthew Burton) made his entrance he was roundly, and in an exaggerated fashion, snubbed by those making merry on the stage before we cut skilfully to his counting house – a beautifully prepared couple of desks and a different backdrop.

The pre-Christmas merriment continued as the play went on. The undoubted star of the show, Mrs Sinclair, brought out many a laugh, not least with her portrayal of Scrooge’s charwoman. Bent double, moving like some kind of hunchbacked Mick Jagger and in possession of what can only be described as a hybrid regional accent it was hard to keep a straight face as she asked, “Warm yer bed, sir?” Of course, this was a moment that one wouldn’t find in the novella, but it kind of set the tone for the rest of the action.

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Emma, Laura & Bryonny proving that for actors sometimes words just get in the way.

Other highlights would include the whole cast – those on and off-stage – gesturing furiously towards what we’ll laughingly call the mixing desk – in a vain attempt to get our ‘visual technician’ to change the background when Scrooge tried to talk to Marley’s face in a door knocker that hadn’t yet changed to a door knocker from a street scene. Our ‘visual technician’ was me, left in charge of the clicker for a screen with a PowerPoint on. It had taken me mere minutes to relax and enjoy the performance so much that I forgot my job. A little like my role in the school nativity as one of the three wise sheep (probably) about forty years ago when I got so distracted by concentrating for my prompt that I forgot my one line – ‘baaaah’ – entirely.

Personally, I enjoyed watching the sheer glee on the faces of my colleagues every time they took to the stage. I don’t mean that they were grinning like idiots, but their enjoyment of what they were doing was all too obvious. As a very shy bloke I wouldn’t have dared attempt to act and so the brilliance of the performances in front of me was a joy to watch. The play was worth an imaginary admission fee for the ad-libs alone, but the approach of our actors was just brilliant. Another thing to admire about our talented department.

Later, and much to the astonishment of the audience – and the audible delight of Mrs Bell – Mariah Carey showed up at Fezziwig’s party and the English department gave a master class in how not to dance and how to avoid the actual rhythm of the track. As Scrooge watched on accompanied by a ghost that appeared to be wearing a christening gown on her head, Fezziwig’s Christmas party fairly rocked to the sound of ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’. Nearby, the all female section of the cast involved at this juncture did their best dad-dancing and all of a sudden it wasn’t so clear to see why Scrooge missed his days with Fezziwig so much. Sadly my request that ‘Horny’ by Mousse T be playing was rather criminally ignored. I mean, what kind of party doesn’t feature Mousse T? And what kind of adaptation of a Dickens classic is complete without teachers dancing to ‘Horny’? Oh, hang on…

Further highlights included Scrooge talking like a parrot – and apologising for doing so – the appearance of a child’s unicorn in place of a horse and carriage and a veritable cavalcade of accents, none of which seemed appropriate and some of which seemed to morph from region to region as the lines went on. Mrs Stylianou in particular, with her hybrid Welsh/Carribbean/Glaswegian accent, brought a certain mirth to proceedings that made it difficult not to laugh from the sidelines. Well accustomed to her bad accents, this reviewer just shook his head. Getting back to the appearance of the unicorn by the way, I have no doubt that one will also appear in a student’s written response about ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the near future, just as guns and cars are referred to in essays on Romeo and Juliet as a result of the Baz Luhrmann film. Fingers crossed it’s not a GCSE exam response!

As the curtain went down (we still didn’t have an actual curtain) and the players re-appeared to take their bow there was rapturous applause from those in the cheap seats. The assembled staff and students had clearly enjoyed their hour’s entertainment.

There was a special and deserved round of applause for our director, Dr Laura Price (not an actual medical doctor; a fact we have to confirm at our school on an all too regular basis) who had worked ridiculously hard to make this all possible, as well as taking on at least three roles too.

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And therein lies the ‘thing’ about my place of work. This play was the epitome of what has become our mantra over the years – work hard, be nice. I’ve worked at schools where staff would gladly put on a show, but all too often these could turn into a vanity project. The staff panto at a previous school, for instance, was clearly always just a chance for the head to feed her ego by playing an overblown villain. This was anything of the sort. The people involved certainly didn’t need any more work. In amongst the planning, teaching, exam marking, after school lessons and other extra curricular work that we do, the thought of putting on a play was indeed a ridiculous idea. But the people that I work with will stop at nothing to help our kids. And so, vanity and in some cases dignity were put to one side, in the name of education and in order to give our pupils an experience that they otherwise would be very unlikely to have (and by that I mean a theatre visit, not just a chance to see their teachers dressed up and messing about). As I said, work hard, be nice.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this show was a triumph. It wasn’t slick or enormously polished, but it was a whole world of fun and I have to say my admiration for the people that I work with, already sky high, went up another few notches. The play was put on a day before the end of quite a brutal half term and yet my colleagues couldn’t have been more enthused about the whole thing. Me? I put the nerves to one side, scaled a flight of stairs off stage and pressed a button occasionally, but heroically.

I fear that the performance will now become an annual thing, meaning I’ll feel the pressure to get out there and perform. But, given what I watched at the end of term in December, I reckon my colleagues would carry me through. And if it’s got me thinking of taking the plunge on stage then it must have been a success.

Sniff the air folks…that’s the smell of a BAFTA!

It’s time for a new teaching year…and I’m stressed out already!

backtoschool

From next week thousands of people will be returning to a place that they most likely have a love hate relationship with. A place that, while it brings them fantastic highs and untold joy, will also land upon them terrible amounts of stress and enough moments of disbelief in a typical couple of months to last a lifetime. Sounds like a cross between a crack den and a soft play centre, doesn’t it? Well in fact, I’m talking about school.

After 6 weeks of summer holidaying – or if you’re British, dodging downpours – us teachers (and other school staff) are set to return to work. Most, for any number of reasons, will be dreading it, which is something that lots of non teaching folk and those who don’t work in education simply refuse to understand. Well, allow me to explain.

You’d expect that after six weeks worth of holidays that we’d be fully relaxed, re-invigorated and enthusiastic to go back to work. And I’ve no doubt that some staff are exactly like that. These people are not to be trusted in my humble opinion. Wrong ‘uns, the lot of them.

This next academic year will be my twentieth in teaching. It’s a job I love – no two days are the same, there are highs and lows aplenty, there are some great people – we’ll leave the not-so-great ones for later – and working with kids will always make you smile. But I’m not one of the teachers who don’t mention the pull of the holidays. Thirteen weeks a year and I can honestly say I genuinely think that it’s still not quite enough. Every half term will leave me exhausted and so any time off is largely spent recuperating, rather than enjoying myself. I’ve never spent 6 hedonistic weeks in Ibiza or somewhere partaking in copious amounts of drugs and free love. More likely, I’ll watch a bit more telly and try in vain to do jobs around the house. For me, the holidays are vital.

So conversely, I find the going back to work bit quite the ballache. Now teacher or not teacher, I know what you’re thinking. Or at least the kind of thing you’re thinking. It’ll be within a ball park that contains outrage, a feeling of negativity towards my perceived ingratitude and probably the odd utterance of that strange phrase ‘Man up‘. I don’t care. And furthermore, I have plenty of colleagues and friends who don’t care either.

An old Head of mine used to compare teaching to being on an oil rig. The feeling being that mentally, we’d be completely out of reach for our families during term time, as if we were offshore, almost. It was a particularly challenging school, by the way. As each term ended she’d tell us to switch off, go back to our families and loved ones and spend precious time with them. So if you don’t like my trepidation about going back to work then you’re heartless; I’m off to a bloody oil rig, for Christs’s sakes.

Psychologically, the problems with going back to work can start at any time during the six weeks holidays. And we’ll all have suffered with it. I’m talking of course about the anxiety dreams. You’re sitting in front of a class who just won’t listen. They’re all laughing hysterically at you, even the nice kids. Especially the nice kids! Whatever you try, fails. And try as you might these kids just won’t listen or do what you ask. You might even end up in tears in front of them, pathetically calling out things like, ‘Guys?‘ (always as a question). Inevitably you’ll wake up in a cold sweat, heart racing and possibly in need of a parent. But that parent can’t help. You’re going to repeat that dream – possibly exactly the same dream – a good few times before stepping back over the threshold of your school again in September.

As a rule, I don’t suffer too badly with the anxiety dream and the out of control class. In fact, I usually save mine up for one big nightmare on the eve of my return to work, resulting in me going back looking worse and more exhausted than when we broke up for the six weeks! This year though, has been different. I’ve had a number of these dreams and every last one has left me sat in our bathroom, sweating and trying to yoga-breathe my way to some kind of tranquil mindset that will enable me to sleep again.

The worst one actually started quite well. I’m in control of the class, cracking the odd joke, everyone enjoying their learning and Mr Crosby is kind of a big deal around these parts. And then, slowly but surely, things fall apart. The odd bit of calling out, some general low level disruption. And just when it looks like I’m about to wrestle back control, a boy the height of a giraffe gets up and wanders into my cupboard before emerging again wearing a lampshade as a hat and wandering aimlessly around my room. Every time I try to get to him, he appears back in the cupboard. Try as I might, Giraffe-Boy Lampshade Head just will not listen. And you don’t get that in your council office, your accountancy practice or your supermarket. It’s not you sitting naked – sorry, fight that image, think of giraffe boy – sweating on the edge of a bath considering doing warrior pose or downward dog in order to get back to sleep.

The next thing that can contribute to a dread of going back to work seems like a nice thing, but in fact, it’s not. As an adult, I thought that those signs telling me that it’s ‘Back to School’ soon were no longer applicable. And then I went into teaching and found that every summer the lure of those Back to School signs and their promise of stationery was to prove all too much. Stationery is a huge part of life as a teacher. At least I hope it is and that it’s not just me clinging on to shiny notebooks and refusing to grow up! Even now, after nearly twenty years in the job, I still get a little bit excited at the thought of new pens, highlighters, markers and the like come September. And I still enter Asda with a spring in my step at the prospect of a rollback on notebooks and plastic wallets.

However, while the acquisition of such things is a delight it will quickly lead to stress. Now I’m aware that this is probably just a particular foible of mine, but there is a possibility that somewhere, within the educational community there are more of us. So let’s see how many people find themselves nodding along to this. The fact is I get ridiculously precious about my new stationery and as a result I tend to stockpile it. I become like a stationery squirrel, with drawers of pens, pencils, notebooks, folders and files that are so lovely I’ll allow no one to us them; including me. Sometimes the teacher in the adjoining room to mine – a friend I’ve known for years – will pop in searching for a pen and I reluctantly agree to get one, slowly ripping opening the packet with a rictus smile spread across my chops as I attempt to hide the fact that this is killing me! Lately pupils have started to ask if they can have a plastic wallet, something I have hundreds of. They need them to carry certain notes around and I then have to pretend that it’s no problem and that of course they can have a plastic wallet, when really, hidden just beneath the surface the real Mr Crosby is screaming, ‘GET YOUR OWN PLASTIC BLOODY WALLETS!’ But of course I look forward to going back to work and of course I’m sure that my behaviour is fairly normal. Whichever way we look at it though, the pursuit of the perfect stationery can be a particularly stressful thing for us educators.

Another one of the stresses, one of the painful adjustments that needs to be made by people in education returning to work can be found with clothing. Imagine that, for a 6 week period almost everything you wore was casual. You got up in the morning, and dependent on the weather, you slung on a crumpled pair of jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. If you had to go out, you wore trainers, almost exclusively. And sometimes, just sometimes, you didn’t even bother to give your hair – and maybe even your make-up, although I personally like to spend at least a week in summer dressed as Ziggy Stardust, just for kicks – a second glance. Now you may not admit it, but this would be a world of bliss. Except for the Ziggy themed days, which frankly can be a pain in the arse. Go on, give it some thought…

Nice, isn’t it?

I haven’t ironed a shirt for over 6 weeks. And, let me tell you, when I do iron a shirt I’m pretty damn precise. No corners are cut and each one can take quite some time. So my break away from this is absolutely fantastic. The same can be said for polishing shoes. I haven’t even looked at my work shoes for the entire summer. I’ve slobbed around in Stan Smiths, Nike runners and even flip flops without a care in the world. I’ve worn t-shirts and shorts for days on end – different ones, I’m not an animal. I’ve gone sockless, like some kind of ageing surfer. And now, within hours, I’ll be back in a routine of wearing a suit, shirt, tie and brogues five days a week. All of this formality – and I love to look smart – weighs me down. I don’t miss the days of suddenly remembering, I need to iron a shirt. But I’ll miss not putting a great deal of thought into what I wear. I know, that as an adult – almost a fully functioning one as well – I shouldn’t find any stress in this, but I do. And you would too if you were annually given a massive break from it.

Lots of people don’t realise something really, vitally important about the summer break. And when they find out the truth, it can prove difficult to handle. But, for the uninitiated, here it is. We get paid for the time off. It’s a question I’m quite often asked and when I answer that yes, of course we get paid it can lead to meltdown for some. And while I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of this fact here, I would ask this. If you got paid to take 6 weeks off work, every year and do anything you liked, or even nothing at all, would you miss that when it was gone? It’s simplistic and almost boastful, but I really, really like getting paid for not going to work. It’s not just what gets taken away that makes returning to work for those in education a stressful and sometimes even miserable time. Undoubtedly, what happens when you get there can grind you down as well.

After 6 weeks away from work we inevitably return to what’s referred to as a ‘training day’. Now without swearing it’s hard to express my negativity about these days adequately. But, suffice to say, I’m not a fan. Training days used to be relaxed affairs. You’d have an initial all staff meeting, a department meeting and then be left to your own devices to get organised. This meant that the pay-off for sitting through two mind numbing meetings was the joy of pottering. Bliss. And it meant that I had time to sort out everything I needed in order to be ready for the new term. But not anymore.

Nowadays, with education it would seem moving in a far more corporate direction, training days are…what’s the phrase? Oh yes…’a massive pain in the arse’. An all staff meeting can last hours while various people tell you about things like ‘vision’ and ‘missions’ while referring to you all as ‘guys’. So lots of my favourite words then. The schedule that you’re given might as well come with a match to destroy it as time and again people talk beyond their slot, so to speak. And that’s not necessarily a criticism – when talking in class or conducting an assembly or a staff briefing I inevitable run over time while getting carried away at the thought of just bunging in another joke or better still, talking about myself. But after 6 weeks away from the job, I’m not in the mood – or headspace if you’re under thirty – to be talked at. In fact, I’m probably not listening. And I’m not the only one. You, dear colleague, are probably not listening either, so that later when we get together in another meeting, none of us has the first clue about where we work anymore, let alone our ‘vision’.

On the first day back at work I will almost certainly be given a schedule of where I have to be at any given moment during the day. And, when I read said schedule, I’d bet my mortgage that I will whine like a small child something along the lines of ‘Why do I have to go to that?’ And this is because, after 6 weeks gone rogue, I have regressed to kidult. And now this kidult is being forced to behave like a proper adult once more. Three days previously I was playing Scalectrix with a ten year old or burying my face in a chocolate muffin while watching ‘A Place in the Sun’ or ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ and now someone far more skilled at adulthood is banging on about their mission. Don’t tell me that 6 weeks off is long enough!

It gets worse. At some point you will be faced with a mad scramble to gather together things like exercise books, a diary, a planner, pens etc. Bloody stationery again! Inevitably, you will get to a store cupboard to find it’s already been ransacked by the dreaded young, enthusiastic colleagues who were ticking it all off their desk planner while you stared at your classroom walls for a moment that turned into 20 minutes! But it’s OK, because you will rise above this stress and have the last laugh by entering their classrooms once they’ve gone home, to pilfer the books that you missed out on, while telling yourself that your 20 years service to the teaching profession allows you such privilege! Little do you know, that you’ve forgotten to pick up any of the set texts you’re meant to be teaching, because year in year out, you don’t actually look at your desk planner.

More stress will come in the shape of things that others have planned for you. For instance, I dread the Duty Rota email like no other email across the year. Even writing about it makes my blood run cold. Will I get outside duties again? Because believe me, winter in deepest Dewsbury is like, well…summer in Dewsbury really. Rain, wind and more rain. And then there’s the issue of who else is on duty. Will I share a duty, will I know this person, will I have to actually speak to them? This year I’ve been blessed in that although I’ve been outside I’ve had good company. Someone of a similar cynical mindset to me (cheers Paul). But what awaits me this year? In terms of conversation I only really do subjects like football, music, football and moaning. And so if I’m lumped together with someone, what do I talk about? I mean perish the thought that someone wants to talk about education. And what if it’s one of those younger members of staff, someone in their twenties? I can’t escape the fact that I may well have to stand on duty with someone who I’m old enough to be the dad of. What can I talk about? These people are off living a life, going out, travelling, seeing bands, while I’m inevitably battling for control of the telly with a teenager at home. It may well be easier to just see the doctor and get signed off with stress at this rate! (If you work in HR, that’s a joke. I’ll explain jokes at a later date, but I’m not going to get signed off work with stress).

And there may well be other surprise bits of responsibility. Because while I know that the Duty Rota is coming, it’s not beyond a more senior colleague to have a surprise up their sleeves with my name on it. In the past for instance I’ve been assigned as a ‘buddy’ for newer members of staff. That’s right, me, a buddy. Imagine being so shit at life that you got me as a buddy. I think I managed to catch up with this person twice across the year, partly because I’m fairly useless, but also because they had already been assigned a mentor. And so I spent far too much of the year worrying that I wasn’t really helping, while simultaneously wondering what my job might be as a buddy. If it happens again I truly feel for the poor thing that’s landed with me. I’m not exactly sociable or talkative, I’m fairly certain I can’t solve your crisis and I have a tendency to furtively leave the room when colleagues cry. I’m genuinely shy and don’t actually like meeting new people. Clearly someone sees something in me that I simply haven’t got. Some buddy! But this is the kind of thing that we face in those first days back.

Once the initial training day is over we’re then left with facing new classes. And this truly is a battle of wills. Pupils are trying things out to see how much they can get away with while I’m, as usual, maintaining a heavily sarcastic streak and well, seeing how much I can get away with, really. If I have a Year 7 class I always feel that I have to appear ever so slightly cheery and friendly, which again is quite the battle due to the fact that I’m not in the least bit cheery or friendly, but I have to make the effort in their early days at ‘big school’. After all, by the time they reach Year 8 I’ll simply be a familiar grizzled and sarcastic figure for them so the odd smile at this point probably isn’t going to harm any of us. It does add to the stress of the return to work though.

Further worry will arrive in the form of new seating plans and trying to work out just the right mix of pupils in order to keep classes stable. This is complicated by the need to have certain types of pupil sat in certain areas in order to keep any observers happy when they look at data. Ridiculous really. And another time consuming exercise that for at least one of my classes will be inevitable forgotten about for far too long, resulting in chaos every time they walk in and find that there’s still no seating plan. Later, I’ll kid them that it was a deliberate ploy, designed to allow me to observe behaviour, friendship groups etc in order to create the perfect seating plan…eventually.

So there you have it. Having had 6 weeks off work many of us will feel nothing like going back, however much we love what we do. And many more people will not understand the stress. But this time next week, I for one, will be back to being Scrooge, although I mot likely won’t have collected the texts.

Is it too early to start counting down the week until October half-term?

 

 

 

 

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