Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

This is another poem inspired by my Year 11 group, who are definitely one of my favourite teaching groups in years. So, I suppose that helps explain why I end up writing about them so much.

They’re a lower ability set and are currently going through the exams and assessments that will form their GCSE grades after more Coronavirus disruption meant that this would be based around teacher assessment for this cohort. And I’m desperate for them to do well, in relative terms that is, as we’ve reached the stage of the year where there’s only so much that we can do for them now, which makes me feel almost helpless.

I wrote the poem after our latest assessment. I was reflecting on the hour long input lesson that I’d done with them beforehand. After that I had to let a number of them go off to other rooms to sit their assessment due to access arrangements, like students being given extra time or being allowed to work in a room on their own. It’s safe to say that they weren’t on their best behaviour and it was something that I couldn’t shake when I was driving home. So I wrote the following.

In a perfect world...

In a perfect world you'd be ready.
Focused, a look of steely eyed determination spread across your face.
Knowledge embedded and itching to read and write.
But, it's not a perfect world, as I have learnt many times before
and you will discover on too many occasions that are yet to come.
Instead today, you are giddy and focus is replaced by noises,
bad mannered interruptions and nervous giggles that make me fret,
not just for now and the next hour, but for what is to come in the years that will follow.
I want to do whatever it takes to let you know the positives I want for you,
how I'd love for you to breeze through this,
just to give yourself a leg up, a boost, a chance at a start in life.
And despite the mood, the lack of focus and the approach of a toddler at soft play,
I will attempt to ignore the signs and stand,
fingers crossed in hope while you write, dreading what seems almost unstoppable
in its inevitability.
In the corner of the room, a poster that should probably be front and centre
declares that you should 'Dream Big' and 'Always Challenge Yourself'.
Maybe not today.

As soon as I got home I grabbed my notebook and wrote my thoughts down. I’d stewed on their behaviour in the hour before the assessment. It’s a small group but about 8 out of the 13 of them were just behaving ridiculously – making stupid noises, rudely calling out and interrupting, complaining about what we were doing and so on.

It’s one of the worst things about my job when I feel that I’m working far, far harder than the students in my room. I imagine lots of teachers feel the same. But that’s just how I felt for that hour. We’d spoken about this assessment for weeks, prepared for it intensely both during school and after, but here were my class acting like it didn’t matter a jot.

I wish I could show them how hard life can be. I wish I could show them the awful flats I’ve lived in and the terrible jobs I’ve had to do while working my way up in life and still feeling that I’m doing a bang average job of it all. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make sure that they get that pass in English that gets them some kind of start. But, of course I can’t. And standing there invigilating for the few I had left in the room made me feel completely helpless and incredibly frustrated.

As many of us know, it’s not a perfect world. I just wish I could enlighten these students to that fact a little more!

I hope you enjoyed the poem and I hope that the fact that it’s the same subject matter as another one I wrote fairly recently, doesn’t put you off. Whatever way it makes you feel – even if it makes you feel nothing at all – I’d love to hear what you think, so as ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Poetry Blog: Assessment

This is a poem I wrote on a whim. It came from boredom, if the truth be told. I’m sure I was suitably inspired by the company I was keeping at the time, but essentially it was the boredom that made me start scrawling on a piece of paper.

My Year 11 class were completing an assessment. I’d done about an hour’s input, fielding questions, giving reminders, making notes and then when the time was write set them off writing. After about 10 minutes of enduring the silence and trying to keep busy I realised that I just wanted to sit down. I couldn’t sit at the computer and do work because the screen that it was linked up to would show everything I was doing and I didn’t want my group getting distracted. So, I kept the title of the assessment on the screen and thought about what I could do.

It was a Thursday afternoon and we’re based in a fairly cramped room on a Thursday, so space and social distancing meant that I couldn’t just wander. I couldn’t really just stand either as the only place to stand would have been by the door and I felt sure that it wouldn’t be long before someone absent-mindedly opened the door and knocked me into next week. Hilarious for my class, I’m sure and not the fault of the door opener, as who would expect someone to be stupid enough to stand right in front of the door. So, a quick scan of the rom told me to sit at the one spare desk available.

After a whole five minutes I was bored, so I grabbed a sheet of paper. Perhaps I could practice my autograph? Instead, having sketched for a few moments – my current favourite is to draw myself as a Charlie Brown character – I found myself thinking about the group. And what started as a few rough lines of a potential poem about an assessment became something of a poem about how much they mean to me.

Assessment

In an unusually silent room the creaking desks are a constant source of annoyance.
Every so often a stare is accompanied by a sigh as another realises that there's nothing to be done about the noise.
The dimming of the lights adds an eeriness to the tension and I am helpless; the pigeon fancier who opens the loft to the flutter of wings that he can really only hope he'll hear again.
He can only pray they stay safe.
This is our first race. A journey that we have trained for and will repeat again until the future beckons
and I can no longer help, cajole or comfort, but still make time to worry, 
despite the reality that I may never see you or hear of you again.
We are left to count down the coming weeks and spread our wings a few last times, turn circles in the air, swoop, arc dive then return to the loft each time until it's time to fly the rest of the journey alone.

I’ve mentiond this group before. I’ve taught many of them for the majority of their school lives. I remember most as fresh faced, quite naughty Year 7s. In short – and not to insult them in any way – they’re a bottom set. My bottom set. Their language skills are at best, weak even at the top end and their knowledge of the world often leaves a lot to be desired. Sample fact to prove this? When I taught them for intervention English in Year 9 it took more than a few minutes of an hour lesson to convince at least one of them that Roald Dahl’s The BFG was not a real person. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t alive. Roald Dahl had just made him up.

Studying Shakespeare, Dickens etc can be a challenge, both for them and me. But then one of them will offer an opinion or just remember something obtuse about the text and it feels like a huge win for all of us.

The group are currently enduring a series of assessments put in place to enable me to award them a GCSE grade in lieu of not being able to do the real exams due to Covid-19. I never really let on to groups how much I care, but as I sat and watched them write, witnessing every grimace, every pause for thought and every tongue slipped out of the side of the mouth in concentration, I couldn’t help but think about them in previous years throughout their time at our school. Of course I care. I care deeply, especially about my weaker groups and I found that I was just hit by how little I can now do for them. I genuinely worry about what some of them will end up doing once high school is finished and I desperately want them to get some kind of English GCSE to help them along the way.

As for the poem, I’m not really sure where the image of the pigeon fancier came from. But I was struck by how wondrous it is that these pigeons come ‘home’ to their loft after every race.

I was aware of pigeons and their owners from an early age. I was brought up in the North East of England where racing pigeons can attract some quite fanatical people. I have memories of several ‘uncles’ (not real family, probably family friends or neighbours, but always called uncles or aunties) who kept racing pigeons when I lived at home. They’d spend ridiculous amounts of money and time making their birds as comfortable as possible in the hope of winning races and it always held a bit of a fascination for me. On the afternoon of the assessment that was how I felt. Like I’d lavished time and energy on my group and that soon it would be time to let them go. In truth, I don’t want to.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. I think the subject matter might inspire more in the weeks and months to come! Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

Poetry Blog: ‘On teaching those that aren’t really listening…’

I wrote this poem after a particularly trying lesson with one of my lower ability English groups. Please don’t get me wrong when you read the poem – I love teaching these groups and I certainly don’t mean to be disparaging in any way. It’s the students that are struggling, the ones who’ve been in and out of trouble for years, the ones that can’t stand the subject and the ones that want to push your buttons, that I enjoy teaching the most.

I seem to have become a bit of a specialist in this area of my job and I’ve lost count of the number of bottom set GCSE groups I’ve been handed over the years. It’s definitely an aquired taste, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So here’s my poem

On teaching those that aren't really listening...

On teaching those that aren't really listening,
the disengaged and disenfranchised and those who would, quite frankly, rather be anywhere but here 
you must make like a boy scout; be prepared.

Because, make no mistake; no task is ever simple.

Although each lesson will start the same for hundreds in a row, your simple instruction - 'Date, Title, Learning Purpose'
will still be met by at least one motionless student who may well imagine that the pen will write itself.
There will also be at least another who will ask, "Do we write the date?" and another who simply ignores what's on
not one board, but two to ask, "What's the title?"
You're allowed to sigh. It's fine to indulge in some eye-rolling. But.
Stay calm. Your sarcasm will fly through the nearest window, so be prepared to repeat
or at the very least, to point it out again.
Even your request to write even a bullet point list will be questioned.
"Do I need to use bullet points?" or "Can I do a Spider Diagram?"
Then, when you've spent the best part of an hour prepping them with every detail of every feature of how to write A REPORT,
showed them an example, got them to label the features and look for language examples, told them how to start,
told them how to finish and showed them the types of things to write in between, given them example sentences, 
and done everything you could apart from write the actual thing yourself...
you walk around the room, peeping over shoulders to see one will not start because, in their words, "Eh, what we supposed to be doing?" 
and, I'm not exaggerating, when I say that
32 out of the 14 in the class will not have written anywhere near enough
and that still half of the class are writing A F***ING LETTER. 
 

I’ve taught many of the members of this particular group for a number of years now. Some of them for every year of their high school careers. So it’s safe to say that I know what to expect and that nothing at all will come as a surprise. But I have to admit that the lesson that inspired this poem was a particularly trying one. Any copying out was met with at least one, ‘Do we copy that?’, any task was met with at least one, ‘So are we (and then they’d either repeat the task back at you or just ask if we were writing a letter!) and almost every period of silence was punctuated by a silly noise and a fit of giggles.

It didn’t make me angry at all. Well, not particularly. I’d like to think I have some patience in these scenarios. I certainly should do as I’ve taught these groups for over twenty years now. But the fact that it still left me a bit exasperated gave me the idea for the poem.

It was an unusual process for me in terms of how I wrote the poem in that I just sat down at the computer and wrote. Or typed. Where usually I’ll sit and write notes and maybe even the odd few lines that might pop into my head and then knit them all together later, this was pretty much a stream of consciousness. There were one or two bits of re-ordering made, but this poem was pretty much just written as I thought of it (and I’m not very sure of it as a result.)

As ever, I’m genuinely interested in opinions, so let me know what you think in the comments.

Back to School Diary – Thursday and Friday

Here’s Part 3 of my series of diary entries written to cover the return to classrooms in the UK this week. As a teacher in a high school, I thought it might be interesting to share how things have went, partly because I was curious myself. Today marks the end of what’s felt like a momentous week, so here’s how it went on Thursday and Friday.

Typical isn’t it? You get to the part of the week where the end is in sight and fate decides to extend one of your days. Tonight (Thursday), we have a virtual Parents’ Evening. For the uninitiated, the parents are real. They’re actually fully formed human being parents. It’s just that they’re not allowed into school. I’ll be honest, although it’s a weird thing to do, the system has its benefits. For one, no appointment is allowed to go over 5 minutes, so big mouth here can’t get carried away and any awkward appointments are tempered by an on screen countdown clock. Another benefit is that we don’t have to all sit in a freezing cold, oddly lit Sports Hall for 3 hours where you’re likely to leave at the end of the evening feeling worse for wear.

So, it’s safe to say that Thursday is a long day. And not only is it long, but it’s also my first full day of teaching. Covid has meant that we’ve switched to lessons of 2 hours 50 minutes in length and while we only have 2 a day, it’s tough. So far this week the staggered return of year groups has meant that I’ve had a fair bit of free time, but today apart from a morning break and a short lunch break, I’ll teach for well over 5 hours – stood up, talking a lot (my own fault due to being far too big a fan of my own voice), cajoling, (trying to be) entertaining and instructing with a room full of actual humans in front of me. All while wearing a mask and attempting in sometimes cramped spaces, to keep a social distance. It’s still a fairly daunting prospect.

My first lesson is with a Year 8 group and I can’t work out whether I’m just boring them senseless or they are just not really used to being back yet, but boy are they quiet. It’s been a bit of a theme this week; that classes have taken a little while to ‘warm up’ and are inclined to sit there like a set of rabbits caught in the headlights. It’s understandable really. Even before the latest lockdown, their learning had been severely disrupted with positive cases meaning pupils being sent home to isolate or bubbles collapsing and whole year groups being forced to take yet more time out. For some, school must feel almost like a thing of the past.

The afternoon session brings Year 11, meaning 14 students and two adults have to squeeze into one of the smallest rooms in school in order for us to stay within our bubble. There’s no chance of social distancing and the layout of the room means that I can’t even walk around, so I’m stuck in a small space at the front where I’m invariably in the way of the board. Like a caged animal. But more hamster in a carry case than lion at the zoo.

There are grumbles aplenty at the new seating plan and numerous requests to sit elsewhere. Don’t tempt me! It’s also noticeable that this group – who are one of the year groups that were the first back in – are the worst with their masks, one particular student needing to be told 4 times in about the first 10 minutes to position it back over his mouth. He gets a little spell of detention with me after school for his persistence.

There is the same attitude to hand sanitiser with some students too; they accept it with an open hand but it’s often shaken off when seemingly out of sight or the hand is turned over so that gravity takes its course. Sadly, I’m always on guard for these tricks and take far too much pleasure in inviting the students back to renew their sanitiser and get them to rub it into their hands while I watch! Such tricks are a reminder though, that we have a fight on our hands to keep standards from slipping.

By the time 2.45 trundles around it feels like I’ve done a 12 hour shift with this class. There’s no doubt that being back, when they’re due to leave school for good in a couple of months, is a bit of a chore for a number of them. It’s felt like everything is an issue this afternoon. Masks, sanitiser, social distancing, seating plans, the size of the room, the size of the board, the fact that we have to leave windows and the door open to safely ventilate the room…everything. Even during one of the high points of the whole lesson, when one student tells me he’s missed me, there’s still time for him to grumble about where he’s sat. But it’s nice to know that I’ve been missed!

As I mentioned earlier, despite it being the last lesson of the day, Thursday isn’t finished. There’s still the strange virtual Parents’ Evening to contend with. It’s the third one I’ve done now and so I’m fine with how it works, but it’s still just very odd. You have a 5 minute appointment accompanied by a countdown all the time that you’re talking. As the time counts down you tend to start speaking faster in order to get as much said as possible – never a good idea with my accent – because once the 5 minutes is up the call just cuts off! On top of that there are always technological issues and tonight brings a gold medal effort from not one but two parents who manage to have their camera rotated to one side, meaning I feel like I have to lean over and put my head on the desk in order to communicate with them. I don’t though. I’m not that stupid.

I finish my last appointment at 6.35, shut everything down and then slowly make my way through school and out to the car. A combination of lockdown and the time of day mean that there’s hardly any traffic, so I’m home by 7pm and dog tired.

Friday seems to have taken about a month and a half to come round. I feel like I’m sleepwalking through school to get to my classroom, but Friday is always good. I only have one class in the morning, leaving the rest of the day free and meaning that I can plan lessons and sort out resources for the next week. A quite majestic bit of timetabling!

My Year 9 group are just a good bunch of kids and there’s no sanitiser shenanigans or mask issues today. During lockdown’s live lessons I used to run mini competitions with them where the first student to answer whatever the question was would get one of a selection of rubbish prizes, like a straight to camera forced smile or a thumbs up, so I make sure there are a couple of these moments today. It’s brilliant to have that type of relationship with a group, but all the better when they’re in the room!

The same class have P.E. after my lesson and have to walk past my window on their way out to the field. Several of them would always give me a wave or shout ‘Hi sir’ even though they’d left my room only ten minutes previously and today marks a return to this. It’s one of those lovely moments that I realise I’ve really missed and as they start warming up and running round on the field I can’t help but smile. It’s great to be back.

The message at the start of the week was to enjoy having students back in front of us. And I have. It’s been a real thrill to be able to teach properly, to run a lesson and just to chat to the kids and put a smile on some faces, including mine. No, genuinely. No, I can. I can smile. It’s been a good week; exhausting, testing, but enjoyable and it’s brilliant to be back to doing my job with students in a classroom. Just explaining a point to a sea of faces, most of whom are actually paying attention is exactly how it should be. Now that’s what we really call a live lesson!

It’s felt like a reasonably smooth transition back to face to face lessons. The kids have largely been great and the management of the whole thing has been brilliant. It’s genuinely felt like a normal week and it’s credit to everyone involved really. Next week marks the first time that all year groups will have been in school together for any length of time and it’s going to interesting to see how it goes.

Back to School Diary – Tuesday and Wednesday.

This is Part 2 of my diary of the first week back in classrooms for students who have been home-schooling since the turn of the year. I thought it might be a nice idea to have a look at how things would go at what is quite a momentous time for UK schools and everyone connected with them.

Tuesday. Normally such an ordinary day. That first day of the week is done with, but there’s still a long while to go. So, as a teacher (and possibly as a student too) you hunker down, grit your teeth and just hang on in there. However, this particular Tuesday is very different. In the school that I work in, this Tuesday marks a return to classrooms for some of our students after 8 weeks of live lessons and home-learning.

My morning routine is much the same as always and such is my rushing around that I don’t have too much time to stop and think about how the day might go. I’m out of the door the same as I would be in the previous 8 weeks when I would get to work to be faced with an empty classroom and a computer screen to teach at all day. However, as I approach our car park there’s the first indication of normality as a car full of students being dropped off – incredibly early – nearly wipes me out by not stopping at the junction. It’s a regular occurrence during normal term times, but having been used to empty roads for the whole of this year so far, I’m not quite ready for it. Still, I park up, have a mutter to myself and head to my classroom.

Today is the first time I’ve felt really rushed in over 2 months. Where usually I could casually bring up Teams, share my screen and wait for students to log on, today I have to make my way up to a Science lab, hauling everything I might and might not need with me. Teaching in bubbles means that it’s us teachers who have to do the moving! So, bag in one hand, spare exercise books, pens, copies of the poem we’ll study in the other, I trudge up to the room. Once there I discover that there’s no hand sanitiser or wipes, so I trudge all the way back to my room to get mine. The ageing asthmatic in me resents this enormously, but I paint on a smile (pointless as it’s hidden behind a mask) and try to express my false sense of humour at the little mishap via a raised eyebrow and a muffled greeting to any colleagues I meet along the way.

Bizarelly, the tune to High Chaparral – or is it Bonanza? – runs through my head as I prepare the room, log on, turn the board on and open windows. It will stay there all day to the point where I’m humming it behind my mask as I walk around my class checking on their learning. Younger readers probably won’t recognise either of those shows, but they were huge cowboy shows (the shows were huge, not the cowboys) when I was growing up. Why they’re back in my mind now, I do not know. Perhaps the challenges of the day are bringing out some kind of Wild West frontier spirit in me? If only I could discover gold…

Before I know it, it’s 8.30 and I step out on to the corridor to help keep an eye on the comings and goings of our returning students. If the chatter is anything to go by, they appear quite excited which is a good sign. I must admit that for me the sight of so many people in such a restricted space makes me nervous.

It’s odd how we so easily slip back into the same routines. Once we’re in the classroom any fears about remembering how to do the job are expunged and before I know it, I’m relaxed. Yes, it’s odd that we’re all in masks and there’s a certain hush about my students, but it’s great to be back. My job, essentially, is to show off and once relaxed I’m a decent show off. This is going to feel fantastic. And then I look at my watch and find that it’s only 9.15. I feel exhausted. There are 2 and a quarter hours of the lesson still to go!

To cut a long story short, I get through the lesson. We all do. We cover all of the work and my students leave with what feels like a sound knowledge of the poem we’ve been studying – ‘Exposure’ by Wilfred Owen if you want to know. But I’m drained. Part way through the near 3 hour lesson I could hear myself wheezing behind the mask. Never something that sits well with the students, who I imagine think you’re about to keel over when your chest literally whistles in their general direction. It makes me light headed and so I take evasive action by standing at the classroom door, socially distanced in order to take my mask off and take some less restricted breaths. If you know me well enough then you’ll know that, of course, I’ve forgotten my inhaler, meaning that there’s no quick fix. Clearly, I haven’t talked this much in a long time!

While I’m at the door I catch two students – boys, they’re always boys – trying to sneak the wrong way down our Covid friendly one way system. I turn them around and they grin sheepishly, no doubt secretly pleased at the delay in their return to class. Old habits die hard.

Due to the staggered approach with year groups returning on different days, I have another free afternoon, so I spend it in my room planning and taking care of little jobs – and big ones – that need some attention. A department meeting after school tells me I really am back in the thick of it and by the time it’s time to head home I’m shattered again.

Wednesday means another year group are back in school, but information overload means I don’t know which one. I know it doesn’t affect me, so that’ll do for today! I do have a class in the morning though.

Today’s lesson means another trek through school as I’m teaching in a Tech room. Again it’s a case of taking my bag, resources, spare exercise books etc, with me. There’s no theme tune in my head today, but Mission Impossible might be appropriate given the nature of the room. The distractions are numerous – for me and the students – and it can be difficult to keep everyone’s attention fully focused with vices attached to the side of every work bench that serves as a desk!

The lesson runs smoothly, but there are one or two minor irritations that might prove to be warning signs for what to expect in the weeks to come. Firstly, after only a day there are some students suffering with mask fatigue and they have to be reminded several times to keep it applied over their face in the correct manner. One makes me smile – behind my mask of course – as he claims it’s suffocating him. Half of me wants to scream, ‘We’re in the middle of a pandemic! Grow up!’ while the other half just sighs at the over-reaction. It’s slightly uncomfortable teaching behind the mask and the constant talking made breathing a little difficult yesterday, but the students don’t have to be talking that much at all! This is definitely an issue that we’ll come back to!

The other ‘red flag’ is how bad my feet feel after only about an hour of today. One of the benefits of remote learning has been that I can sit on a chair while teaching. There’s no need to walk around a room when there’s no one there and, as I’ve heard it described, you’re teaching through a letter-box. For the last 8 work weeks, other than to occasionally stretch my legs, I’ve been sat at my desk and now my feet are protesting. My heels throb and the side of my left foot – currently suffering with a little strain from running – would scream at me if it had a voice. It would scream things like, ‘Can you please just ****ing sit down?’ and ‘Never put me in these shoes again, you knobhead!’ and it would be quite right. Clearly, I need some kind of hoverboard. It’s definitely not an unreasonable request and I’m sure there’s a gap in a budget somewhere for this kind of thing. It’d need to be a sit down version, if you’re buying…

At the end of the day I do duty on one of our gates, hoping that pupils can leave without a hitch, local residents will refrain from complaining about parking and that parents picking up their children will resist the urge to double park and then race through the tiny gap that exists between cars as they head home. Every week I reflect on the fact that I never once got a lift to or from school…today’s kids don’t know what their missing not completing a daily walk home in the rain!

As it turns out, it’s pouring down with rain. Luckily I have a coat, but no umbrella, so I spend the whole 20 minutes hands in pockets, sheltering as best I can from the rain and despite the sheer amount of people passing by and loitering, my focus is elsewhere. For once, the crowd doesn’t particularly bother me. My mask is doing a great job of keeping my face warm and Covid barely gets a passing thought.

Tomorrow is my first full teaching day, so I’m sure that will be eventful. Colleagues have experienced similar mask fatigue in their students today, so it might be wise to prepare myself for battle tomorrow! Mainly though, I’m just hoping that my feet don’t ache too much!

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!

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!

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!

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!