Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

This is a poem that’s been sat in my notebook for a long time. Months, not years, but a long time all the same. In truth, it’s one that I was a bit unsure of. I didn’t know what to do with it and as such it got a bit lost. Every so often I’d flick through said notebook looking for something else, only to re-discover this forgotten poem. Finally though, after a closer inspection, I’ve decided to give it an airing.

I think the good weather has helped. The poem is about a time when I could exercise a great deal more because for almost the whole time the weather was glorious. Looking out of the window as I write, it’s another glorious evening, much like those of last April and May.

It’s a poem about the pandemic. I don’t know quite when I wrote it, but I know that I took the whole thing deadly seriously once I realised the extent of the devastation that seemed to be going on. I was adamant that I was definitely sticking to lockdown, but determined to take advantage of our daily exercise allowance. And so I did.

The poem is about lockdown in general, but also the fact that I took the opportunity that lockdown presented as a chance to make some changes. I’d have said that I was reasonably fit or even kidded myself about being ‘naturally fit’ when it all started. But as I read more and more reports about coronavirus and took into account my own vulnerability to it, I decided that I was going to have to get much fitter. After all, there was little excuse; I wasn’t at work and all I really had was time. So, as the poem says, I ran.

I ran...

When the danger struck, I ran.
Not away from it, but straight at it,
maybe heroically, possibly naively, 
feigning bravery because I didn't know what else to do.
Such is my way with everything.
Don't think, don't plan, act on instinct, 3 in the morning thinking
and possibly a dash of Dutch courage.

And so, when the unseen, yet definitely alien villain headed our way,
sounding dangerously, almost laughably familiar,
I ran.
Decked out like a skinny, pound shop part time superhero,
I somewhat limped into action, exercising evangelically
in an attempt to out-cardio this beefed up cold.

But while others stockpiled toilet rolls and 
took another paracetamol from their selfish stash,
I got fitter, leaner, stronger.
My thirst for the fight meant I doused my fear in fresh fruit, 
nuts, seeds and an ever present bottle of water,
and I ran.

Thousands perished. Some sought solace in illegal road trips
or standing on doorsteps hypocritically acclaiming those who chose the Hypocratic.
I doused my guilt with physical torture, pushing myself to limits I'd not explored in years,
enjoying the isolation, getting evermore prepared to face what felt inevitable
and hoping that this wasn't all in vain.
I ran.

The effects of lockdown – or lockdowns, plural – can’t be underestimated. I think, more than anything, I benefitted from it, but it was still an awful, scary time. Running got me through the fear. In fact, running quite often dealt with the early mornings, while writing steered me through the late, sleepless nights. So my poem is both about what I did as well as being a direct result of what I did.

I’ve tried to inject a dark humour into parts of this poem. At first, I didn’t really believe the hype about coronavirus. It was the flu, it was a ‘beefed up cold’ and I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep about that. I soon realised the truth though! I’ve attempted a little more dark humour later in the poem too. Although I was fit, I probably didn’t really look it; hence the ‘skinny…superhero’ reference. And let’s face it, not many tall skinny fellas look good in lycra!

The whole pandemic scared me and the best way that I could think of to deal with that fear was just to throw myself into something. Exercise, fitness and in particular, running was that thing. Initially, my thinking was simply that if I was fit, the virus would stand less of a chance against me, so I was exercising in different ways every day. At first the whole family joined in and then, as the world righted itself and people went back to school and work it left me largely on my own in terms of exercising. And this was when the running went into overdrive. I’m guessing that when I wrote the poem I was feeling particularly evangelical about it all!

That’s certainly why there’s the reference to people stockpiling certain products. I think lockdown saw a lot of people showing their true colours and it angered me that while I was doing my best to stay safe there were others just making sure that they didn’t run out of anything, that they weren’t inconvenienced. I’d see social media posts from people about how they’d joined in the ‘Clap for Carers’ knowing that they’d been visiting friends or family when it just wasn’t allowed. The hypocrisy of that support for the NHS really bothered me when all it seemed to be for some people was a chance to pat themselves on the back and look good. And I watched in horror as various high profile people in the UK were caught out visiting family hundreds of miles from their homes, while I couldn’t head out to visit friends and family myself. In fact, at the time of writing, I still haven’t seen my parents, my sister and some of my best friends and it’s been well over a year.

So there you have it. A poem that may take people back in time a little bit, despite the fact that large parts of the world are still in lockdown and that even here in the UK we’re only just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Back to school diary – Sunday and Monday

I thought it might be interesting to write a diary style blog this week about the return to school for pupils in England. I work as a high school English teacher and so, at the very least, I can give readers some first hand reactions to what’s going on. I’ve avoided the sheer drama of referring to this series of blogs as something like ‘Tales from the Frontline’ though. It’s just a diary to let you know how it goes.

So, it’s Sunday night and everywhere I look on social media, people are saying that they ‘can’t wait’ to see kids back in schools. It’s on TV and radio on adverts deemed necessary to promote the fact that everything’s going back to normal…honestly, it’s all going to be normal again. Promise.

The excitement is a large chunk of my reaction too, but I must admit above everything else, I’m nervous. I’m nervous about being among nearly a thousand people. I’m nervous about standing in front of classes. I’m nervous about how students will engage with work, with routines, with each other and with discipline. It’s not just the staff who will have to adapt. At our school, as with countless others across the land, hundreds of kids will be fearful of what comes next too. And of course, I’m nervous, we’re all nervous, about Coronavirus, bubbles collapsing and the dreaded fourth wave.

I distract myself by watching the film ‘John Wick 3’ which although I’m a fan, is absurd enough to stop me thinking about work. I’m thrilled, as a man of Literature, when John Wick kills a bad guy using a book (he’s in a library, so ‘when in Rome…) and it’s enough of a distraction that my worries don’t stop me from getting to sleep. Even when I wake in the night, I’m more thinking about John chopping off his own finger and still being able to control a speeding motorbike while being chased by umpteen bad guys, than I am the prospect of classrooms full of masked children.

Before I know it Monday has rolled around, as it tends to on a weekly basis, and it’s time to go to work. I’ve been doing this throughout lockdown and school closures anyway, so there’s nothing new here and today we only have pupils in for testing. There will be no actual lessons and the only glimpse of students I will get is if I venture into main school and away from the protection of my classroom. I’m out the door and on my way in by 7.30am and am clocking in at work by just before 8am.

Our Year 10 & 11s have been invited in for their Covid tests, but other than that this will be a day for preparation. It should be relaxing, but I have to admit that the slightest thing puts me on edge. Upon seeing more than the ‘usual’ amount of cars at a big set of lights in town I’m quite startled and do a double take at the amount of traffic. When I see colleagues that I simply haven’t seen for two months, I’m knocked out of my stride and by the time there’s a full department meeting where we’re all together I’m happy to sit right at the back of the room out of the way. I’m not on the verge of a breakdown, but clearly this is going to be a situation that I ease myself back into.

There’s lots to do in order to prepare for Tuesday, when we will have both Year 10 and 11 in the buildings. All seating plans have to be updated and all previous ones deleted. If there’s a positive case then seating plans have to be checked quickly in order to isolate whoever needs isolating, so there’s no time for trawling through to find the most recent seating plan. These plans will have to stay the same for a while too, so there’s a bit more careful thought than usual! However, I’m done surprisingly quickly – the only seating plan shaped hurdle now is to navigate my way around a new set of photocopiers and thus far even logging in to one of them has had me on the verge of challenging it to a fight!

After seating plans come lesson plans. All of our planning is done within the team, but you still feel the need to adapt each one for the needs and foibles of your own classes. I want to get as far through the week as I can, so a good while is spent sifting through PowerPoints, making nips and tucks to fit where needed. And it’s only when I sit down to scroll through these lesson documents that I’m fully confronted by the realisation that tomorrow I will have an almost 3 hour lesson with students sat right in front of me.

Late in the day I have to make the trip up to our photocopying room. Or Repographics, if you want me to sound clever and important. Surprisingly, I’ve got some photocopying to do. And yes, it’s likely that I will be forced to throw down my glove and challenge said copier to a duel should it insist on being a dick about letting me log in!

Now, I could stay down in my department for this, where we have a perfectly good photocopier, but I fancy a walk. I’ve been sat at my desk almost all day. So it’s mask on and off I pop.

It’s all going fine until I turn a corner and catch my first sight of people. Actual people. Of course, we have two year groups in for tests and I’m about to walk straight past them all. For a moment that’s barely a moment I freeze at the sight of this many people, especially as they’re in a place where I’ve encountered less people than are there now in the entirety of the last 8 weeks. I could turn around and take another route to avoid them, but tell myself to stop being so silly and carry on.

It’s a strange sensation walking past these students – only about a dozen of them – all masked, all queuing in a socially distant fashion. Dizzying almost. And it’s odd what such a shift in routine can do for you. They’re only people. They’re the same people or at least type of people that I’ve encountered every day for the last 6 years, but just walking past causes me to feel ever so slightly wary. Around the next corner are a few colleagues that I’ve not seen for months and seeing them has a similar effect. It’s evident that being amongst people is going to be more testing than I’d imagined. But I’ll cope, I’m sure.

Tomorrow, both of these year groups will be in school, in lessons. There will be a lot more people in front of me. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Remote Learning Diary – leaf blowers, toilet requests and possible psycho killers.

It’s been over five weeks now since the new school term started. Under normal circumstances, us teachers would be tired, but with the end in sight and a week’s half term break to come, we’d be sure that we could make it through. Although, in truth I think I’d probably be acting the drama queen about it all and making sure that everyone was sure about the exact level of my exhaustion. Unfortunately though, circumstances have been anything but normal and as we lurch towards that half-term break, it feels like we’ve rowed across an ocean, climbed a mountain, been thrown to the lions in the Coliseum and then locked in a room, waterboarded, lashed to a settee to be the meat in a double Nigel Farage sandwich and subjected to the non-stop playing of NIck Knowles’ Greatest Hits. Safe to say, it’s been a tough one.

It started simply enough. Personally, despite the government leaving the decision to close schools until almost the last second, I thought teaching remotely would be quite good. I enjoy my own company, am comfortable in my own skin and so I imagined it would be quite a lot of fun just talking to my class through a screen every day. That lasted about an hour into the third day, when I realised that without the human interaction and the showing off aspect of my job, well, I don’t like my job anywhere near as much.

But that’s not what I’m here for. I can moan about things another time, I’m sure. The idea behind this blog was just to make it a kind of remote learning diary (hence the oh so imaginative title), but with a selection of high and lowlights, rather than a day by day account of every last detail. In the main, I wanted a chance to record what went on in order to capture it for posterity. Something to look back on in years to come, if you will.

What’s probably surprised me most is my willingness to just go into work every day. I know what I’ll be faced with, which is an empty English corridor most days, an almost empty school, just me in my classroom faced by a load of desks that still have the chairs up on them, barely any human interaction and almost zero movement, yet every day I trail in. Having spent years envying those who have been able to work from home, I’ve found I can’t really bring myself to go for it! While part of this is down to a mistrust of home technology, it’s strange to think that mainly, my reason for going into work is just that I like the familiarity of the surroundings…even if they’re not that familiar at the moment. I keep everything familiar too. I start every day with a ‘To Do’ list – boring jobs are carried over from days and weeks before – , I check emails, turn on the heating, activate SIMs and usually join my own call very early in order to get everything in place. It’s still difficult to make it feel ‘right’ though. This is anything but normal.

I do actually have a little bit of company in my room during the week. Some of our more vulnerable students who are in school prefer the familiarity of the classroom and so when I was asked if they could join me, I thought why not. The chance to exchange even a few words with people has benefitted me and if the students are enjoying school a bit more by being in their classroom, well who am I to deny that? But it’s given me a situation that acts as both a lowlight and a highlight because these boys seem blissfully unaware of their propensity for farting! And so, a couple of times a week, I’m treated to something akin to the accompaniment of a brass section parping away very much in the foreground of my lesson as I try to make myself known to the other students at home online. It’s safe to say that it’s 60% amusing 30% smelly and 10% worth of worry that an online student picks it up on the mic and thinks it’s me. I can only imagine the texts pinging around the school community about Mr. Crosby’s guffs. Well, at least I know the truth and what happens in the classroom, stays in the classroom!

One of the biggest downsides, across the board for teachers and students, has probably been how bad it all is for the eyes. Lots of my colleagues have complained of headaches and migraines and I’ve found, the longer I’ve sat at a screen, the worse the headaches have become. On a few occasions recently I’ve even experienced a bizarre fuzziness around the edges of my vision, almost as if my eyes are slowly shutting down and my field of vision is shrinking; it’s not at all pleasant. But I’m guessing that’s what spending so long in front of a screen will do for you. Our school have introduced longer breaks, but even then, such is the pressure you put on yourself to produce work of some kind, I rarely leave the screen. It’s been an unexpected side effect for me, but the fatigue at the end of each day is a real concern. I genuinely thought that with students not in the classroom taking away the draining effects of dealing with in class behaviour, life would be a lot easier. Little did I know. Everyone I know that works in education seems exhausted and it seems we’re all going to end up wearing jam jar glasses as well!

Another of the quirks of working in a school that’s closed is the intrigue caused by a fresh face. Sadly, the fresh faces generally all come in the form of tradesmen, but beggars can’t be choosers. Over the course of the last 6 weeks I’ve had several blokes join me in my room in order to fix or check something or other. The first was a man who, during the first week of January, popped in to check the fire exit and who seemed genuinely offended that I had the heating on. He actually shook his head while informing me that it was “hot in here”, while ignoring the fact that it might be something to do with him having just walked in from outside. I’m not sure why he seemed to think I should be working in the cold, but on second thoughts, you’re right mate; I’ll just sit here trying to make myself understood through all the shivering and chattering of teeth.

In another heating related visit, one of our caretakers was summoned to the classroom next door in order to sort out their air conditioning and having wrestled with it for a few minutes, simply knocked on my door and asked if I knew what to do! Fortunately, having being summoned by my friend next door at least once a week to sort the same thing for the last 5 years, I was able to make a difference! (On an unrelated to lockdown note, the best heating problem is when someone asks for help and I go in to find that they haven’t actually turned it on!)

The other notable tradesman related tales were the timing of the man who turned on an industrial sized leaf blower, just as I started my lesson recently – it could be heard by the students on the call! – and the man who seemed to be out to kill me. No, really. This was the bloke who was fixing something on the neighbouring building and kept either staring in my window while working or staring while walking past. Whatever the location he seemed to have taken an instant dislike to me and just stared with the dead eyes of a shark who wanted me dead. I’ve not seen such levels of disdain for me in…minutes. Equal parts unnerving and amusing and an incident that led to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer being the earworm of the day. Well, I suppose if there’s no in class behaviour to worry about, I can always rely on tradesmen to keep me on my toes!

Technology has been a constant irritation. And not just because in general, I can’t use it. One of the main features about having to rely on technology for so long has been the amount of times when it just goes wrong. But at least that can be solved. Usually, if there’s a problem with sound or what can be viewed on screen, if the student leaves the call then returns, it’s problem solved. So, we’re relying mostly on the remote learning version of turning it off and then back on again!

It’s a more human problem, that can really get in the way of the technology though. It’s safe to say that we’ve all had some bizarre interruptions to our lessons. For instance, despite the fact that our pupils are generally working from home, you’d be surprised by the amount of requests I’ve had for pupils wanting permission to go to the toilet. And while I see that this is common courtesy on their part, I have to admit to at least once telling them, “It’s your toilet, you don’t need my permission!” Perhaps I’d been asked one too many times at that point! Another friend has had requests to leave the lesson from students on one occasion because their budgie had escaped and on another because the kid’s puppy had just decided to use his bed as a toilet.

And while other colleagues have enjoyed the relaxed dress and hair code they can adopt at home, others have been on the end of some rather harsh feedback from students. A friend working at home while looking after her toddler subsequently found out through the Comments on the lesson that her students had nicknamed said toddler ‘The Beast’. Another was asked, “For real miss, are you okay, ‘cos you sound off” which I suppose could have been worse if they’d said she looked ‘off’. And then another friend was recently asked if she was okay because she looked ‘poorly’. My friend tells me that she’d made an effort to actually put the webcam on that day in order to give the kids someone familiar to look at, a bit of normality in these strange times and being asked if she was poorly was her reward!

I think I may well speak for the majority of teachers when I say that the lack of face to face communication has somewhat hampered progress. The level of miscommunication has been ramped up beyond belief. During an assessment recently, a student waited for 30 minutes before telling me they’d been reading the wrong text for the first set of questions, despite reminders as often as I could possibly give them about what to read and when. The information was also on the slides that we’d been looking at for weeks in preparing for exam tasks! Similarly, a friend relates a tale of telling a class the number of paragraphs they’d need to write – three – at regular intervals and also having the instruction on the relevant slide, only for a kid to ask, “do I do three or one?” Another pal explained the same assessment for 20 minutes without interruption and 7 minutes into writing one of her students confessed he’d forgotten what he was doing! It’s safe to say our students need that face to face interaction!

While there have been numerous stressful parts to the last 6 weeks of remote learning, I can’t deny the highs. Although some of them haven’t quite worked out as well as they could have. An excellent example of this was our recent Wellbeing Wednesday which was brought in to give people a rest and keep them away from screens for a few hours. The timetable was suspended for the afternoon session and pupils were just set assignments to complete and hand in. Lots of staff went home early, went on walks, did activities like yoga, spent time with family and stuff. Me? Well, Wednesday is a free afternoon for me, so I wasn’t gaining anything really. Normally I’d just spend the afternoon planning, marking or researching. I just knew that if I went home I’d waste the time and discover it was 5pm and that I’d done nothing. So I stayed at work to get ahead, but was adamant that I’d leave early. I didn’t manage that bit though, as I lost track of time feeding back to students on work that they’d done. So not a lot of wellbeing taken care of, but it’s my own fault. And I bet I wasn’t alone. I subsequently dedicated that evening to my wellbeing by drinking a bottle of red wine and passing out on the sofa. I didn’t really, that was a joke. My wellbeing is…well, don’t worry.

Another high this term was organised by one of our SLT. We were invited to a staff meeting on a Wednesday morning, during week 5, but with no real idea why? When we logged on there was a slide informing us that a secret email had been sent to students and that they were being asked to send in positive messages for staff. And then, for 10 minutes, we sat back and watched as the messages rolled over the screen; loads and loads of them. They even played the theme from The Golden Girls in the background! Sadly, just the once and not on a ten minute loop. I’m not a particularly sentimental person, but even I have to say that it was amazing. I sat there expecting to see nothing about myself, but was thrilled to bits (secretly and in a really cool way!) to see my name pop up on a number of occasions. Everybody likes a pat on the back occasionally though, right? It was a fantastic idea and the member of staff who organised it said he’d been overwhelmed by the amount of emails that were sent back. It was certainly proof that I work in a special place and a really timely boost just when I felt like I was flagging.

Strangely, as someone who always thought he’d be fine with just his own thoughts for company, I’ve found my own headspace a bit much to deal with at times. Even today, I was the only member of staff on our corridor and if I allowed myself to consider that too much I might start to feel ridiculously isolated and even a bit lonely. And it’s not as if it’s the first time this has happened. Yet, I’ve still not quite got used to it.

The boredom can be a bit of a problem too. With no face to face interaction, often, as we set a class off working on something, we’re left in a bit of a void. You’re still on the call and available to help, but you’re faced with a wall of silence. In class, I’ll wander round, keeping myself active and being readily available to help, but that doesn’t really work when it’s all remote and you’re the only person in the room! Instead, often I bring up another tab and start working on something else; some planning or some admin task that’s been on a ‘To Do’ list for weeks. I’ve also found another Teams related way to amuse myself, which is to change the backgrounds to my image on camera. It’s something that I occasionally share with my classes, but it’s mainly there to make me smile, although I have sent some of the images to friends via social media as well. You can see some of the results below.

As we limp to the end of the term, I think everyone is exhausted, including students. It’s safe to say it’s been a real learning curve and a very intense experience over these last 6 weeks. I’m sure other professions have had it even harder across the whole pandemic, but as someone who’s been in the eye of this particular storm, I thought I’d share a bit of what it’s been like.

Who knows how long we have left working like this. March 4th has been floated around speculatively as the date when schools re-open, but I’m not holding my breath. Best just to keep the mindset exactly the same, keep the head down and get on with it. After all, there are far worse off people in this pandemic, than people like me who still have a job and are being asked to do it in a different way. If you’re a teacher or anyone else who works in a school, or even a parent or child involved in home-schooling; keep on going! It’s all we can do!

How to survive the pandemic – 5 Top Tips that might not be all that serious!

It’s fairly safe to say and certainly not anything new to learn, but it’s been one hell of a year or so. Since news of Covid-19 broke in early January of last year, things have gathered momentum somewhat. As the virus crossed continents our moods changed and then as the world was locked down things plummeted to new lows. And since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of decidedly average highs and Mariana trench sized lows.

Here in the UK, we’ve been hit hard and people have been forced to battle to survive not just the virus and it’s various strains, but the boredom and isolation of successive lockdowns as well as the idiotic behaviour of their fellow Brits. As I write news broke just a few hours ago of a school hall in London being hired out and unbeknownst to the school itself, playing host to a wedding where 400 people attended. Thousands have died, but it pales into insignificance at the thought of not having your 3rd cousin’s neighbours and their postman at your wedding, right?

Aside from problems like this, something that has most likely affected a large percentage of people is the sheer boredom of it all. Within weeks I’d painted every fence panel we have as well as our sheds. I’d trimmed shrubs and trees, cut lawns regularly enough that they could have hosted Wimbledon, walked every available route around our town, read book after book, watched television until my eyes hurt, skillfully sidestepped the sensation that became Zoom quizzes and exhausted myself exhausting every possible Joe Wicks video on YouTube. I daresay many of you were exactly the same. Although, perhaps it was just me that approached Zoom quizzes with such grumpiness and cynicism.

As we come up to almost a year of living in a pandemic, it seems boredom is at its absolute zenith. We can’t exercise as much – well not in the northern hemisphere anyway; it’s bloody freezing. And just when you think you’ve pretty much learnt to live with every Covid related u-turn that life throws at you, something else comes along and smacks you right in the chops, sending you back to square one once more. So, I had a little think and I hope that I’ve come up with some top tips that you can try out to make living through the pandemic that little bit more interesting. As usual with me and lists, they’re in no particular order.

Top Tip 1

Simon was determined to have a risk free walk…even if it meant taking the long way round again. Photo by Jenny Uhling on Pexels.com

Perfect your ‘anti-people skills’. Avoidance tactics are never more important than in a pandemic, so these skills include: never venturing near anyone at all, including your own family, walking in zig-zags in order to avoid fellow government sanctioned fitness freaks and fresh air junkies (you may want to never get used to walking on the same side of the road for any more than a few hundred yards), squeezing onto kerbs like a tightrope walker if you can’t get across a road to avoid oncoming humans and holding your breath like a free diver whose life depends on it. Because your life might depend on it.

Top Tip 2

Spotting that a Maths teacher had committed an apostrophe crime, Yvonne stifled a sob and prepared a suitably caustic, mocking email to her colleagues. Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

Alleviate the at work boredom by writing sarcastic emails. This is also a lifestyle choice for me personally and there was no need for a pandemic to invoke this as a rule. However, in times of pandemic and as a teacher working alone, isolated all day in a classroom full of desks, chairs but no other humans, a slice of sarcasm often comes in handy. And while not revealing actual subject matter of work based sarcastic emails, I can reveal that the IT department remains, as always, a wonderful target. Always was and always will be. Furthermore, the silly ‘If you had to…’ style email is always a favourite.

Top Tip 3

Shit just got real in Sandra’s house. Someone was knocking at the back gate. Photo by Kony Xyzx on Pexels.com

Alleviate lockdown boredom by turning knocks at the door or tradesmen’s visits into a new and exciting game. We’ve done this for years in our house, as we much prefer not to answer the door to people until we’ve actually sussed out who they are. If you’re a relative you’re probably getting in…depends on the relative. So, in Covid times, imagine there’s a knock at the door or even a visit from the window cleaner. Now role play! Make sure you hide and shush as much as is possible. Shuffle on your front like an expert sniper and try seeing how close you can get to the window without its cleaner detecting your presence. I find chairs and sofas are perfect allies for this game. Try it. Next time there’s a knock at the door or you hear the rattle of a ladder, enter stealth mode and act like there’s a zombie apocalypse. Those confined to barracks hours will simply fly by!

Top Tip 4

These days, Emma found that calling lemons ‘Shit limes’ was her only source of fun. Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

See just how much you can get away with while wearing a mask. Local ruffians breaking lockdown rules and ‘hanging’ outside a closed off license as you walk by on a Boris appointed walk? Don your mask and stick your tongue out at them. Those cheeky scamps deserve your derision. Has a dog jumped up at you while tied up outside your local supermarket? Remember, you’re wearing a mask – it’s mandatory – so you’re free to call said dog a ‘massive arsehole’ or any other insult that you deem necessary. No one can see you doing it, no one could prove a thing. And surely no one’s going to ask if you just called that terrier an arsehole, are they? This game can also be played inside said supermarkets where volume control is your own issue, but the mask will cover your mouth so no one can prove a thing. So if you fancy making snide remarks at those supermarket dawdlers, now’s your time to shine.

Top Tip 5

“Good evening Wembley” cried Ian before pointing and winking at the fridge. “My name is Ian and I’m on a mission to rock!” Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

The pandemic, coupled with several lockdown situations, have robbed people of a sense of normal life. We are missing out on many aspects of our social lives and this in turn has had an effect on the mental health of millions of people. Sport continues via almost endless TV coverage but one place that remains largely uncatered for is music. Yes, various bands and solo artists have put on Zoom gigs, but it’s not the same as the excitement of attending the real thing. So I have a solution. Kitchen gigging. Put simply, ask Alexa to play songs by your chosen artist and then sing along. Are you in the band or the audience? The choice is yours, my friend. Me? Usually the singer, as you ask, but I play a mean bass guitar too. You may want to factor in other additions to add realism here, otherwise or you’re literally just singing along to songs next to a sink. My sources tell me that footstools make great front of stage monitors, brooms or mops are ideal microphone stands, while a pile of distant balloons and a squint can give the illusion of a passable audience. They tell me that the key here is to have a large enough space to dance or throw other wild shapes, a vivid imagination, no shame or dignity and to remember that the words aren’t important; this is a live gig so you’re free to go ‘off piste’ as it were with the lyrics. You can even pause said device for a bit of pre-song banter with your ‘crowd’ for added fun. My sources also tell me that this is a whole host of fun, it’s extremely cool and that even in middle age, you can play the pretend rock god. Obviously, I have to take their word for it…

So there you have it. Just when you thought you might allow the share size crisps and 12 packs of lager to seduce you into extraordinary levels of lockdown weight gain, I give you five tips to help you get through our current crisis!

I’d love hear what people thought, so feel free to let me know in the comments. Similarly, if you have a go at window cleaner zombie role play or insult the odd dog, let me know how it went. And if you have any tips of your own, I’m a very keen listener! I hoped you enjoyed the blog!

Live Lessons – My Top Ten Most Uttered Phrases.

Since we were struck by the pandemic early last year, everyone and everything has found itself having to adapt. We’ve adapted from the way we do our shopping or go for a walk all the way through to the way that we do our job.

In teaching – my field of work – we’ve had to make huge changes. Different schools have made different changes, but in the school that I work at we have the pupils in bubbles and we go to them to teach, we are obviously socially distant, we have had to change our marking policy, everyone wears masks on corridors and we have a one way system. And they are only a small fraction of the changes that have been made.

We been using Microsoft Teams for remote learning all year. At first it wasn’t used that often; certainly not for live lessons. We’d put assignments in there daily, in case students were missing and then, when bubbles collapsed and we had greater numbers of students away, we’d use it for the odd live lesson and some blended learning, where some people were isolating and on the live lesson while the rest of us were in the room. But for a while, the majority of lessons remained the same – classroom based, whiteboards, exercise books and all that jazz.

With the school closures of 2021, we’re now exclusively doing live lessons and remote learning is in full flow. I wrote about the differences in a previous blog Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work. but after a couple of weeks of working this way, although I’m quite enjoying parts of it, something struck me; the amount of times I utter the same phrases to a class on Teams is really quite something. Big up to my friends (in no particular order) Emma, Chloe, Laura, Gemma, Megan, Ellie, Charlotte, Bryonny, Lindsey, Em, Louise and Saba, who over the course of the last few months of doing live lessons, have provided much material and inspiration for this particular blog – oh the tales we could tell! So here, in no particular order is my Top Ten of most used live lesson phrases.

  1. Can you mute your mic please?” As a rule, I have my students muted. In class during regular lessons. Just kidding. But on Teams, while I don’t actually mute them, let’s just say I encourage them not to unmute and talk to me. Hey, this is my show, after all! To be fair though, the reason that I have to say this phrase is the things that you get to hear. In various classes, a kid has unmuted and the whole lesson can hear their television as someone’s sat there (please let it not be my pupil) watching loud daytime TV. In other cases we’ve been met by a positively imperfect symphony of screeching relatives. I can mute them pretty quickly, but what I hear leaves me massively worried about the environment that they’re working in. And I guess that’s part of the problem. How can some of these kids get anywhere near the same quality of education at the moment? At other times, some students just seem to want to quickly unmute and make a silly noise and others do the same in order to just say ‘Hi’ and despite repeated warnings, it’s surprising how often it still occurs. So because my pupils seem unable to click a button that has a picture of a microphone on it, that phrase is definitely one of my most used.
  2. Just bear with me a second…” There always seems to be something that crops up that I have to deal with. There’s always a snag, a technical hitch or just yet another of my own deficiencies. One such hitch is when my movement sensitive lights go off on one side of the room. Now initially this might not seem like a problem that needs me to have a class “bear with me”, but let me tell you why they need to wait. I always have my camera on – I think being able to see their teacher might add some much needed normality to proceedings for my students and of course, I have a friendly face *coughs* – and so when the light goes off, it leaves one side of my face in shadow. As an English teacher I imagine it makes me look like Mr. Hyde, the monstrous side to Dr. Jekyll and that is not a good look or a friendly face for my students! So, just bear with me
  3. “We’re just waiting for a few people to join…” We’re not, we’re waiting for half the class! They all knew when the lesson started but they just couldn’t make it on time. I’m going to have to call them aren’t I? I’m hopefully sounding cool, calm, friendly, but I’m not. I’m quite irked, to be fair. The lesson times don’t change. It should be easier just to roll out of bed and pop a computer on than the usual whole ‘getting to school on time’ routine, but it would seem not.
  4. “Can we pop an answer in the comments? This is me saying, ‘I DON’T WANT YOU TO SPEAK!’ It’s also me saying ‘IS ANYONE STILL THERE?’ Live lessons rob us of the face to face interactions that we usually have and so asking kids to put answers in the comments is the next best thing as well as being that thing that comforts you when you’re just imagining your entire class has logged on then left the room to watch telly or play X-Box. And before you even think the thought, no, I’m not opening up everyone’s mic so that they can all call out the same right/wrong answers at the same time. So ‘Can you pop an answer in the comments?’ is all I’ve got.
  5. “Can you let me know if you can hear me?” or “Is this thing working?” There’s always someone who can’t hear you or can’t see the PowerPoint that’s being shared. I have no idea why. It’s there, on screen! And there’s always that bit of self doubt that nags at you as a teacher and whispers ‘You can’t use the technology properly’. Or is that just me? Oh, just me. The good thing – and I don’t mean actual good – is when you ask the first question and only about 8 kids respond in the chat and you’re left assuming they can hear, but that typing the three letters of the word ‘Yes’ is just a bit much to ask.
  6. “Can you just use the chat for questions and not emojis and winding each other up or bickering, please?” Safe to say that some of our younger classes haven’t quite sussed out the chat etiquette yet! Sometimes it feels like they’re not really tuning in for the lesson, just the chat. And then when you’ve stopped the nonsense you’ll inevitably get at least one of them typing, ‘Sir, what we doing?’ in the very same chat. Or failing that just, ‘Eh?’
  7. “Ok, I’ll just give you another 2 minutes on that.” Often, while a class are working I’ll mute my mic and turn off my camera, just to enable me to do something else, like read some emails or a bit of planning. I’m never, ever ready when the timer goes off and we need to move on, so I’m always adding time. Without the students in front of you it’s not only strange and a bit lonely, but also easy to get distracted, and so I’m forever pondering images to put on PowerPoints or thinking I can fit in one more email which always, always leads to me pretending to be kind by adding time on!
  8. “Are you still there? Am I talking to myself?” It’s definitely easier for your students to avoid the questions when they’re on the end of an internet connection and that silence can get quite ghostly. It’s lonely and isolated enough staring out into a room full of chairs that are still up on tables, without the kids in the computer ignoring you as well!
  9. “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please? It’s in the assignments. And I’ve pasted it into the chat. I can post them out ahead of the lesson if you need. Send them on a pigeon?” Ok, so the latter part of that isn’t true but we could easily have just had the comment as “IT’S IN THE ASSIGNMENTS MAN!!” Suffice to say, it can be very, very…very frustrating getting students to open up the texts they’ll need for the lesson. It doesn’t matter that you posted the assignment days earlier with the instruction that they’d need to have the texts open. It doesn’t matter that you’ve sent it to some of them on email. It doesn’t matter that out of the first 5 things you said when welcoming them to the lesson 4 of them were “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please?” And it doesn’t matter that you reminded them, in the chat, 12 seconds ago what the text was called, where it was and what they should do with it. 30% (at least) of your class won’t have a clue what you’re talking about! But it’s Ok. You’re the consumate professional who can stay calm and remind them AGAIN, YES A-BLOODY-GAIN in your best Disney teacher voice, what it is they need to do. But thank the lord there’s a mute button! Which brings me on to…
  10. “I’m just going to put myself on mute/turn my camera off/both” The ultimate censor, enabling you to karate kick every chair off every desk, walk outside and scream at the sky, open the window and throw marker pens at passing seagulls (they deserve it…the nearest sea is miles away), curl up into a ball, flick ‘V’ signs at the screen, shout things like ‘Which poem are we going to annotate? Which f*****g poem? The one we did last week! Definitely, definitely, not the one we’ve been doing for the last hour!” or volley the same kids’ books around the room. I just tell them it’s in case a colleague walks in and I have to have a chat when in fact it’s because I’m having the kind of spectacular meltdown that you thought only hungry toddlers were capable of.

It’s been a tough old academic year so far! If you’re a teacher, I’m sure you’ll have uttered all of these phrases and experienced all of these scenarios many, many times since September. If you have any I’ve missed out, then please let me know in the comments – I’d genuinely love to read them!

Regardless of what you do for a living or how you’re getting through these ridiculous times, keep on keeping on. I’m so full of admiration for so many people and their stories since March or so last year. Stay safe everybody – I hope you enjoyed the blog and that it managed to put a smile on some faces.

Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work.

Here in the U.K., on the evening of Monday 4th January, it was announced that we would be entering lockdown once more, this time for a period of around six weeks.

As some of you will know, I’m a teacher and lockdown has meant that schools have closed again. Last time this happened, because I’m classed as being vulnerable to the virus (bit of a heart problem and asthmatic) I wasn’t allowed to come into work to help out with vulnerable students. So the first lockdown, despite various work-related IT problems and the paranoia that surrounded the whole virus thing, wasn’t that much of an unpleasant experience. In fact, faced with days of great weather and lots of time to go out for a run, work in the garden, or just do some actual school-related work with no pressure at all, it was downright pleasant at times.

Things have certainly changed this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant, but there’s a definite change. Schools have once again been closed, but this time around, armed with greater technology and greater know how, students are generally being educated remotely online, via live lessons.

At my school I’ve been given the option of actually coming into school to teach my lessons remotely and so far I’ve done just that. I’m mulling over what to do for the rest of lockdown and will probably work from home occasionally, but for now, I’m in school. So I thought I’d get my first week and the experiences of it down in a blog.

On Monday night, when another period of lockdown and school closures was announced, I felt a little bit of panic. It wasn’t about the virus or anything particularly; I’d left my laptop at school, meaning that working from home – with two children doing the same – was going to be ridiculous. Luckily, I was brought gently back down to Earth a short while later when our Head Teacher floated the idea that we could actually come into school to work. Given that the technology is here, as well as things like registers and student details, it made perfect sense. I had a short discussion with my wife, who was going to be working from home, but now with the added responsibility of two children, and we agreed that it made a lot more sense for me to actually go into work. So, on Tuesday morning, that’s just what I did!

The Prime Minister also announced that there would be no exams for Years 11 and 13, meaning that for the second academic year running young people would be faced with teacher assessments based on a shorter time of working at their subjects, to grade them. This might seem like great news. Being 16 or 18 and not having to sit vital exams, avoiding all of the stress etc. But it isn’t really. Our students will be geared up for the exams. Some may feel that they need more time to get to the level that they want to be at or have been told they need to be at. Now, they don’t get the opportunity to show exactly what they can do and for a lot of them, that’s devastating. So a lot of the next 6 weeks will be about supporting our older students and reassuring them that actually, things will work out for them. And in order to do that, I would be better placed in school.

School without pupils – and indeed a lot of the staff – is a strange place. It’s calm and really quite pleasant, but there’s a certain eerieness that I’m not that keen on. It feels a little bit dangerous being in the building during a lockdown. But then again, it’s a lot more of a danger to my health when everybody’s here!

It’s noticeable on the first morning that the traffic is a bit lighter. And unlike the previous two-week lockdown that we had earlier in the year, there are a lot fewer people on the streets. Driving through town back then I’d see gangs of men heading to an industrial estate for work and wonder how this was possible, given the nature of lockdown. I mean, the clue’s in the name. That and the fact that it was made clear that only essential businesses should remain open. Now, I struggle to see anyone walking through town and it’s a lot more reminiscent of our first period of lockdown.

When I get in, I get the heating on in my classroom and start setting everything up. There are no resources to photocopy or give out, no behavioural issues to give a lot of time to, and of course no students. Everyone – even vulnerable students and those whose parents are key workers and are in school – is being taught remotely. I guess the big question is, how many will show up for their live lessons?

Despite my air conditioning being turned up in order to heat the room, the one thing I cannot escape today is that it’s freezing cold. Everywhere. It’s bitterly cold outside and as a quick email reveals, it’s bitterly cold in everyone else’s room. It seems blankets will be the order of the day with my female colleagues from tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do; a blanket seems a little extreme. I do, however, consider wearing running tights under my suit trousers!

Today, I have two lessons. Since September and with the need for social distancing and all the other precautions around Covid-19, we’ve been doing two lessons of 2 hours and fifty minutes per day. The students stay in one zone and we go to them. So now, I have the advantage of being in one room, but the ‘problem’ of relying on the internet working for almost three hours for everybody in the lesson! Oh, and did I mention that being in my room is a little bit like being in a walk-in freezer?

As it turns out, the lessons go well. My Year 10 group is a dream and take to remote learning really well. They’ve had a little practice when their ‘bubble’ collapsed earlier in the year, but credit to them; today we get through almost every slide of the PowerPoint and lots of them submit their work straight after the lesson. There’s no silliness with people unmuting microphones, no childish comments in the chat; it’s a generally good lesson. There are a few suspicious absences , but the majority of the group are up and ready for 8.40am and plough through almost three hours worth of work on English Language and Fiction Texts. I then have my Year 7s in the afternoon, who although they work well, are a lot more fussy and at times, silly. Some repeatedly leave the call then come back a minute later, blaming technology problems. Others clearly aren’t listening and keep asking what we’re doing using the Chat function. Typical Year 7s then! We get through it though and before I know it, we’re done.

Wednesday brings more freezing cold weather, which I confront head on by wearing a jumper! It helps in keeping my body warm, but by the end of the day, when I still can’t feel anything from my ankles down, it’s clear I’ll have to make an adjustment.

I only have the one lesson today, albeit a three hour one. However, it’s with my Year 10s and again goes smoothly and I make sure to congratulate them on their brilliant attitude and thank them for their hard work when it’s over. I have the rest of the day free, so knuckle down to a bit of planning and working my way through a list of jobs I made at the start of the day. Some of these are computer based, like preparing resources or feeding back to students who’ve submitted work, but others are more mundane, like getting Blu-Tac off the walls after most of my posters fell down over the Christmas break! In the middle of the lesson a couple of colleagues come round to my room. They have a tray of teas and coffees and have obviously been busy calling around everyone in the academy. It’s great to have a nice hot drink, but actually even better to see faces and have a minute or so’s interaction with two other human beings. It’s also nice that kindness seems to be at the forefront of so many minds in our school. It feels good to be being looked after in such troublesome times.

In the afternoon I have a meeting about my risk assessment as a vulnerable member of staff and it’s agreed that it’s fine for me to keep coming in as I’ll be out of the way for all but about 5 minutes every day. My classroom is outside of the buildings in a new unit at the back of school, so I rarely see people anyway, but during lockdown it’s really only going to be me and whoever’s using the room next door.

Two things strike me pretty much immediately at the end of Wednesday. The first is that this is a lonely way of working. It’s just the teacher, that’s all. Even the kids on screen are represented by an icon or their initials. It surprises me how isolated I feel and although I wouldn’t say I feel low or down, I realise quickly that this could cause a bit of strain mentally over the next 6 weeks. The other thing that strikes me is that teaching this way feels a bit dull. I’ve always viewed my job as just being showing off with the pinch of intelligence thrown in every now and again. And now, I have no one to show off to. I’m sat at a desk, I’m not up and wandering round a classroom, interacting with my class. The performance aspect of my job feels like it’s gone. The faces I might pull, the voices I’d put on when reading a text, the (bad dad) jokes I might crack or the gestures and body language that are involved in my job are all gone. I miss that already. It’s going to be a real adjustment to make and another thing that will be tough, mentally, over this half term.

I notice another thing as I walk to the car that afternoon too. This sitting at a desk is no good for my knees or ankles! It seems that everything has seized up and I hobble a little to get to my car! I resolve to take some walks round my room when work is being completed tomorrow. Remote learning’s desk based nature does not suit this old fella!

By Thursday it’s noticeable that quite a lot of staff seem to be teaching from home. It makes work an even lonelier place to be, but I can fully understand why you’d do it. No commute, for starters. But for me, with two high school aged children doing remote lessons and my wife working from home, I think the distractions would prove too much, not to mention the risk that technology might just fail me there too, as it did for almost the whole of the first lockdown.

Looking ahead, Friday will be the day when I’m most likely to work from home. I only have one lesson, meaning I’d be finished by 11.30 and provided I had at least my Monday planned, I could have a free afternoon to maybe sort out a few things around the house or even go for a long run, depending on the weather. Or I might to just take the chance to indulge myself in even more planning or creating resources! Or Netflix. There’s always Netflix!

As for the first Friday of lockdown, it would be hard to describe it as anything short of fun. We have a staff briefing – containing news of I think, the fourth different way of doing a register this week – which brings us up to speed about developments in the way we’re doing things. And that’s something to consider, if you’re unaware of how schools work (and especially if you’re one of those people who seems to have dedicated their life to criticising teachers). Things are changing by the hour in schools and of course with the guidance we receive about teaching in the pandemic.

We have regular briefings, daily bulletins and a raft of emails to get through in order to keep up to speed. With that brings the necessity to change what we’re doing or how we’re doing it on a regular basis. So you might spend hours planning a lesson and then just have to abandon it for something else or find a different way of doing it. The impact on our students can’t be underestimated either. While you might imagine sitting at home listening to your teacher talk you through a lesson would be simple and straightforward, you’d be wrong. Some kids are genuinely struggling with the stress of it all and even logging on to the Teams call leaves them terrified. Some don’t have the technology. For some, their internet connection means they’re regularly crashing out of the lesson and struggling to keep up. As a teacher, it’s my job to just act as if all of this is the most normal thing in the world, stay calm and make learning as interesting, fun and stress free as I can. And already, I can feel it’s taking its toll. By 10am on Friday, part way through a lesson, I’m yawning and rubbing my eyes. I genuinely feel like I could close my eyes and sleep.

However, I’m not looking for sympathy. Being able to teach remotely is still a privilege. I do get some interaction with my students and today’s Year 9 lesson is successful and in all honesty, a bit of a joy really. We get through the work, but we laugh together regularly too and that feels like I’m lightening the load a little for both my students and myself.

After that, I fill my afternoon with various tasks – from tidying up both the room and the storeroom and recycling old worksheets to responding to the work that students have sent in and planning things for next week.

It’s been a frenetic kind of week. Lots of planning, lots of reading various pieces of guidance or information on students, subjects and protocol and a full week of remote lessons. I imagined that lockdown and remote learning, bringing with it the promise of no actual students to deal with, would be easier and quite a relaxing way to spend my working days. It isn’t. It’s stressful and frustrating at times, infuriating at others. But it also has a feelgood factor. The fact that hundreds of students are logging on and listening to our lessons, contributing to online discussion and then sending their work in is a truly wonderful thing.

I end the week very tired. I feel like I’ve learned a lot though and I can definitely say that I’ve enjoyed myself. It’s very strange working on my own for long periods of time in a classroom that would normally have up to 30 students plus support assistants in for a lesson. There’s barely a noise now. I’ve seen my friends even less than usual and been left a bit forlorn when they’ve been working at home. And did I mention that it’s freezing cold, like working in a walk-in freezer? Here’s to 5 more weeks, at least!

Stay safe everyone!

Poetry Blog – ‘Unused in Pandemic.’

2020 has been one hell of a year. Of course, we can put that down to just the one thing; coronavirus. Like something out of an unbelievable Hollywood blockbuster, a pandemic struck killing well over a million people worldwide. With it, our lives and lifestyles changed almost beyond recognition.

Confined to the house for a lot of the time, I did a lot of writing. The blog posts increased, but I also found myself experimenting with writing poetry. While the subject matter of the poems was often wide and varied I couldn’t help but keep coming back to lockdown and coronavirus.

It occurred to me that there a lot of things that I could no longer do. Simple things like work, see friends and family and attempt to have some kind of interests in life. But it also occurred to me that there a lot of everyday things that were simply off limits during the pandemic. Cash, for instance. Even my window cleaner had us paying by internet banking. I worried that I wouldn’t remember how to fill up the car when the time came for me to do it again and it even concerned me that simple things like shopping in the supermarket would be almost unrecognisable once they went back to normal. Out of all this came a poem about the some of the redundant objects that were now in my life.

Unused in Pandemic

Pandemic itself was a word rarely used round these parts. But to paraphrase a great man, these parts they are a-changin’. These days, as well as bringing death, fear, paranoia and the strange bumping of forearms by way of saying a more hygienic hello, it leaves in its wake a number of redundancies.

I’ve learned to live, for the most part, without a car. In turn, I have rediscovered my feet. I have left lonely shirts hung up, ironed or bundled on a shelf, crumpled and lifeless. Ditto suits and ties. However, in a U turn that any politician would be proud of I have begun to adorn my middle aged frame in undignified, clingy and regularly mismatched leisurewear.

A similar thing has happened in the shoe department where brogue is now rogue, usurped by a much plainer choice of trainer. Eschewing technology for horticulture I have ditched the fucking infuriating laptop and transformed, all too early sadly, into my father via spade, weeding implements, lawn mower and trowel. The planner is no more, replaced by an endless stream of envelope mounted bullet point lists. A laissez faire version of keeping organised and meeting targets.

Some days I don’t even wear socks, just pad around our pad barefoot, like some kind of castaway from society on an unchained island, occasionally seeing a speck on the horizon and imagining it’s my ticket back to normality. But it’s usually just a pebble, dragged in on a trainered foot. How long before I forego clothes altogether and embrace wandering round in the altogether during daylight hours. A second wave? A third?

For now I will continue to gaze in the direction of my passport and hope that should naked days come, I’ll have used it to head for warmer climes and a more continental acceptance of an out of shape, hairy white body.

I hadn’t looked at this poem in a good few months and it turned out to be a little less polished than I’d have liked. Not quite unfinished, but definitely in need of attention. In fact, at the side of the page there was a long note scribbled about my Nectar card, which was itself massively unused in the pandemic. I liked what I’d written but it didn’t fit in the poem when I’ve looked again and so I’m going to sit down with those notes and write another poem…about my Nectar card. Tragic really.

Anyway, the whole poem reminded me of how carefree things were when we were locked down. There was definitely something altogether healing about the whole process despite all of the negatives. I hope this tone came out with the clothing section. It was actually strangely liberating not to have to be ironing work shirts or wearing a suit and tie every day, even though it’s actually something I like being able to do.

For anyone who knows me and is actually feeling a little concerned, don’t worry; I’m fairly certain I’m not going to resort to naturism any time soon. I’m certainly not shy in terms of the human body, but I’m kind enough to realise that it’s not the time to inflict mine on the world! Had lockdown gone on another six months though, well who knows…

As ever, I hope you liked the poem and I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts, so feel free to leave a comment.

Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!

Poetry Blog – ‘Lockdown Museum’

This was a poem I wrote during our first period of lockdown. It was early summer and I sat down outside with an idea for a poem; something to remember lockdown by. Now, when you think about it, we’re not going to need anything to remember lockdown by. I think, for most of us, it’ll be firmly etched on the mind forever. For some of us lockdown brought the heartache of not being able to see family and friends, alongside thoroughly bizarre sights like fleets of empty buses on the roads, pubs and shops remaining closed and the sight of an oncoming family during your daily exercise stint striking fear into your heart as you played a strange game of chicken about who would cross the road first. And then there were the sounds…oh wait, with everyone locked away there were hardly any sounds!

For other people lockdown quickly lost its importance because apparently they weren’t allowed their human rights. Human rights such as being able to get ridiculously drunk in pubs every weekend, being able to walk down supermarket aisles any way they wanted and having to forego their right to ignore people’s personal space in shops. The term Covidiot quickly became a tired label, but it never lost its accuracy. It’s a hard life for some.

I decided – for some unknown reason – that I wanted to use rhyme in this poem, which is something I rarely do. It was a bit of a challenge to come up with rhymes that didn’t feel forced and, as a result, the poem took me a lot longer than usual. Another result, in my opinion, is that it sounds like I wrote it in Year 8. Sadly, I didn’t. So, a glowing reference for the poem from its writer then!

Anyway, here’s the poem, so I’ll let you judge it and its merits. You, dear reader, might just prefer a bit of rhyming…

Lockdown Museum

With 2020 fast being referred to as a hell of a year I’ve come up with my own commemorative idea. A grand exhibition with a pandemic theme, I’ve decided to create a lockdown museum.

With schools closing in early March, some educational artefacts would really look the part. Board markers, a highlighter, some stickers for praise, my own now redundant planner to prove I worked some days, a well worn copy of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a metaphor for the tragedy, disruption and the stress.

For the NHS and all of the intrepid frontline staff there’s PPE, rubber gloves and the obligatory mask. A child’s painted rainbow and a Thank You sign, pots, pans and applauding hands to represent that time, a video of Captain Tom, later made a knight, a latter day icon to help ease the nation’s plight.

A plethora of lockdown paraphernalia would make up all the rest unusual items that helped every day as the virus put us to the test. A beer pump, idle, to mark that pubs were closed, A ‘No Entry’ sign for supermarket aisles as well as empty roads. A ‘PE with Joe’ T-shirt and trainers for the boom in exercise recordings of Zoom quizzes, Teams meetings and House Parties arranged and on a giant TV screen, those daily briefings play to remind us that everything changed.

And perhaps, if hearsay’s true and this virus means there’s a new normality, our museum will grow and never be complete until a vaccine sets us free.

So there it is. A poem, that now I’ve read it through a few more times, I’m a little more proud of. I hope it captures the tone of those times, although I don’t think it quite cuts it where our second period of lockdown is concerned due to the sort of half baked nature of it all. Clearly, the first lockdown was very different.

I feel that there are some references that might need explaining, as I’m aware that not everyone who reads my stuff is from the U.K. So here we go.

Firstly, let me assure you that the first rhyming couplet works. The words ‘year’ and ‘idea’ clearly rhyme and I’ll have nothing said against it, even though if I read it in my accent it clearly doesn’t rhyme at all!

Then, in the second stanza, the reference to my ‘redundant planner‘ is there because just before schools closed I was sent home as I was classed as vulnerable to the virus. I didn’t work again until this September, spending 6 months attempting to work from home and fighting with a particularly unwilling and rebellious laptop. Thus, my planner was largely left unused. Oh, and I’m a teacher by the way, for those who didn’t realise.

The ‘pots, pans and applauding hands’ refers to our weekly clap for the NHS, performed at 8pm in doorsteps all around the country. To show appreciation for their heroic work people would stand outside their houses and clap for two minutes. This then quickly took on a new dimension as people added bashing pots and pans, bin lids etc to the noise they’d make to show their appreciation. Very, very British if you ask me!

‘Captain Tom’ from the same stanza was a 99 year old, retired soldier who took it upon himself to perform a sponsored walk of laps around his garden in order to raise money for the NHS. His aim was to raise £1000, but as his efforts became bigger and bigger news, he ended up raising £30,000,000 instead and was later knighted by the Queen. Arise Sir Tom and God Bless us all!

The penultimate stanza then references several things that stood out about everyday life in lockdown, my favourite being ‘PE with Joe’ – the fitness expert Joe Wicks would run exercise classes every morning via his YouTube channel and even on a quiet day thirty thousand people would be squatting in unison! What an endearing image! I personally became borderline obsessive about this – exrecise in general, not just squatting – even going as far as writing a poem about my bromance with the man himself. You can read it on the link below.

Poetry Blog – An Ode to Joe Wicks

So there we have it. Hopefully it’s an upbeat poem that brings back some more tolerable and perhaps even happy memories about a remarkable time in all of our lives. I hope you enjoyed it and feel free to leave a comment.

Lockdown 2 – the sequel no one wanted!

As the UK enters its second period of lockdown due to a disturbing rise in numbers of cases of Covid-19, I’ve found that there’s a hell of a lot to think about. And rather than throw myself into a world of sleepless nights, I thought I’d write about the current situation.

I spent the first lockdown isolating because of a couple of underlying health conditions which marked me out as vulnerable. This wasn’t something I was particularly comfortable with, but I had to swallow my pride and live with it. I’ve always thought of myself as fit, healthy and strong so the label ‘vulnerable’ doesn’t sit well with me. They’ll be labelling me as ‘not altogether that butch after all’ next! Anyway, in the end I was away from work – as a teacher – for 6 months.

This time around lockdown seems distinctly different and it makes me feel more than a little scared. The one major difference, for me personally, is that I will be spending this period of lockdown at work. This alone is responsible for a great deal of lockdown stress! Schools aren’t closing and whatever our views on that, it makes me anxious about coming in to work, where before Covid I looked forward to almost every day and almost very minute spent in the building.

Since September though, I’ve felt safe and largely looked after at work. My employer – being a school – had done their homework, so to speak. A risk assessment was prepared for myself and any other vulnerable members of staff who would be returning to work, so I was familiar with the way things would be before I had even entered the building. And I’d had a couple of ‘how are you’ type catch up calls and Teams meetings too.

We’re actively guarding against the virus. We wear masks, we wipe surfaces down before and after use, we have hand sanitiser readily available, we are socially distant where possible, we keep the kids in year group bubbles and a common sense approach has been employed across the board. I’ve felt safe. And you’d think that’d be the case across the board with schools, but I’ve heard tales of places where such protocols are simply not followed.

Things are different now though. It feels far more like the situation we encountered in March with rising positive cases, rising death rates and a general sense of confusion that is frankly quite frightening once again. And let’s face it, we shouldn’t still be confused about something that’s been around for such a long time. It’s not the fault of my place of work, but now, every day it’s a case of gritting my teeth and getting on with it in the face of quite a bit of trepidation. It’s practically the only place where I mix with people and although in theory we’re safe, it’s beginning to feel like keeping schools open might not be such a great idea.

Away from work though, it feels like a general sense of boredom and, dare I say it, a sense of entitlement is beginning to rule people’s thinking. You could feel it towards the end of the first lockdown. People had had enough of the same four walls and unfortunately it started to manifest itself in a lot of stupid behaviour.

Despite the one way systems in shops, the obvious need to wear a mask and the constant knowledge of what social distancing was, people decided that there was no need for any of it anymore. In the town where we live, as bars began to open again people began to congregate in ridiculous numbers both inside and outside of the premises. The message seemed to be ‘sod the virus, I haven’t been tanked up in a public place in far too long’. And while I’m no prude, it all just seems incredibly selfish. Is an afternoon drinking really worth it? The ignorance of people that can recognise what two metres looks like for only a certain amount of time is quite something. And they’re attitude to the one metre+ rule is just staggering. Rather than stand a decent distance away from someone or maybe just refrain from going out for ten pints, it just seems to have become easier to blame semantics and say that you can’t imagine what one metre+ looks like because it’s not an actual measurement.

As we settle into Lockdown 2 I fear that the attitude will continue. I wonder if people will reject the lockdown for the simple fact that it has an end date. I mean, what’s the point for four weeks, right? If you listen carefully you could probably hear someone saying it right now. I can imagine people doing four weeks very much on their own terms; like only locking down properly until the boredom sets in.

Then there’s the approach of the festive season – which isn’t actually that close at all. I feel certain that there will be a raft of people who decide that their pre-Christmas socialising is far too important to give up, even though we should be out of lockdown in time for it to commence at the right time anyway. Any excuse for a barbecue in the garden with your friends though, especially when your precious human rights have been infringed for so long! And anyway, you’re outside so it’s all OK!

It’s the thinking of simpletons and it worries me that I could be even more vulnerable to the virus because of this type of selfishness.

The second spike of the virus means that things that are dear to us all will continue to be out of reach too. Gigs, football, theatre to name but a few; they’re all out of reach. Then there’s loved ones. I haven’t seen my parents (or my sister for that matter) since December of last year. I don’t feel that I can visit as they’re both extremely vulnerable and with three of us in my immediate family mixing with lots of people in schools every week, going to see them would be utter stupidity. It hurts not seeing them and it hurts them too. But my parents are sensible enough to say that we shouldn’t visit, even just to stand in the garden and I’ll be respecting their wishes. But at the back of my mind, as things continue to get worse, I do genuinely wonder if I’ll ever see them again. They live over 100 miles away, so even going round to stand in the garden is a bit of a trek. It’s a thought too horrible to dwell on, but it’s the kind of thing that makes me even more angry at those who are determined to just carry on as normal and either deny that this thing exists or make excuses about the number of deaths.

Recent reports of a new strain of the virus make things worse and yet there are still people – and there in fairly large numbers – who happily deny its existence. There’s not a lot I can say about that that’s probably not already been said or that would be original, but it’s a frightening thought. During the first lockdown I overheard a conversation between two neighbours in their gardens blaming Bill Gates – apparently as it was his fault he “needed stabbing” – and was just astonished. These people are real! At one point they even blamed Brexit and even though I heard the explanation I couldn’t really work out what they meant. I imagine the idea of a second lockdown is being swiftly rejected by them and in fact a couple of days into it they were in their garden, mixing with another member of the family not in their bubble, letting off fireworks!

The long and short of this story is that Coronavirus isn’t going away. We’re not controlling it, we’re not coping with it and in fact, some people seem to be totally ignoring it. At the start of it all I laughed out loud at people panic buying toilet rolls, before being left without a smile when I was sent home from work as I was too vulnerable to be there and was subsequently away for 6 months. Now, as we get back to lockdown, there’s nothing about this virus that can make me smile.