Recently, I wrote an article about the fact that this time of year is nothing short of arduous and painful for us teachers. I know it’s difficult for a lot of people at this time of year, but having done other jobs in my time, I’d definitely say it’s tougher than most places in education. I haven’t worked down a pit or anything, but I’d hope you take my point. With this point in mind, I got to thinking about the kind of things I dislike the most about my job at this time of year. And so, in no particular order and with more than a hint of sarcasm and tongue firmly tucked in cheek, here you go!
The constant question – “Can we just watch a movie?” For starters, we call them films where I’m from, so no, we can’t. However, from week 1 right the way up until the last week before Christmas, at least one of your classes will think that the time is just right for watching a film. They’ll cite the number of days until Christmas, the terrible weather and tout the blatant lie that all the other classes are watching films…anything that might just make you budge. And the cherry on top of this particular cake is that when you finally do put on a DVD – on the last day, bosses – your students will generally sit and talk through it! Well my wonderful students, I’m afraid you’ve just met DVD Scrooge and instead we’ll be doing that far more traditional English Christmas half term activity of writing lots and reading a bit. Bah humbug indeed!
The other popular question – simply because the first question wasn’t annoying enough, students will then turn to another, genuinely more offensive question. And all in the name of Christmas. And it’ll often be the first thing they ask as they walk through the door. In fact, sometimes, as a Christmas treat, they might ask you it before lesson as you’re passing on a corridor. The question? ‘Are we doing anything fun today?’ Now there are several levels of offensiveness to this question. Firstly, is there a veiled accusation here that our lessons aren’t fun? Task-wise, I might take their point here at times. Maybe writing an analysis of how a writer creates tension isn’t that much fun in a world where we have the internet, X-Box, Love Island and erm…fidget spinners (look it’s spinning on my finger…), but we’re in an English class; what did you expect? Secondly, I try to run a relaxed ship. I like a little bit of a lighter atmosphere and a bit of a joke now and again (a bit of ‘daft carry on’ we’d call it where I’m from), so the suggestion that my lessons aren’t fun is actually a personal affront. Or maybe I’m just not that entertaining? *Dismisses such a ridiculous notion with a smug little chuckle and moves on.* And of course there’s the fact that the study of English has been pretty much a constant in my life. It was an important GCSE for me, then an A-Level, then I did it as my degree! Fun? Bloody fun? Bollocks to fun, pal. Appreciate my expertise! Feel my love for the subject! Then get your 18th analysis of the half term written up! And look forward to re-writing it, in PURPLE PEN no less once it’s marked and I’ve demanded improvements! Then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to write a diary entry from the point of view of one of the characters in the play we’ve been studying! Don’t worry though, I might just dress up as a clown and do some juggling for you if the fun’s really getting ramped up as well. (I won’t. Ever.)
Christmas Cards – it’s not that I don’t love getting them; I do. I think it’s a lovely traditional gesture and I always enjoy taking them home to put up round the house. However, I am utterly rotten at remembering to write my own and send them/bring them in to school to give out. Cue a cringeworthy few moments every time I get one while I meekly explain that I keep meaning to write mine, but I’m an utter shambles of a man. Cue also me rushing around on the final morning of the half term delivering my cards – if I’ve remembered to get them out, write them up and then put them in my bag – like some kind of apologetic, pathetic Christmas loser. Oh, the yearly shame!
The final lessons before the Christmas break – it’s not the lessons themselves. They’re fine. Granted, I’m practically on my knees by this point, exhausted and steeling myself for finishing work and heading home to face the onslaught of pre-Christmas jobs that will inevitably only get finished some time mid morning on the 25th. No, it’s the fact that even though I’ve finally relented on the film question, my classes are still not satisfied with such wonderful Christmas benevolence. And why? Because my colleagues – God bless them, every one of them (to paraphrase Dickens) – have brought in snacks – snacks I tell you! – and are holding some kind of bloody party in their rooms! Well sorry kids, but ‘The Ghost of that Shit Christmas When All You Got Was Socks and Pants’ here didn’t get that memo. You know the drill…altogether now…Bah Humbug!
Christmas JumperDay – or as I see it, the chance to look like a tw*t for a full day. That might not be everybody, by the way. Some people can look quite cool in their Christmas jumpers. Allegedly.
Can you turn the heating on?/It’s so cold! Another question that makes my internal, scarcely dormant volcano start to rumble. Not a day goes by at this time of year when I don’t have to go through my early morning in-school routine with a class. And they’re always told that the very first thing I do when I unlock the door and come into class is to put the heating on. If only they could remember. They also always fail to notice that the heating is actually on, despite the lit up display which again, is pointed out to them every day. Come in at 7.45am kids, I’ll allow my room to demonstrate cold for you! As for the fact that it’s cold; of course it’s cold. We live in northern England and our school is on the top of a great big hill; of course it’s cold!
So there you have it. The bane of my life at this time of year. Just as I’m feeling like I could sleep for a week, tweens and teens are busily digging the same old ways out in order to make all of our teaching lives just that tiny bit more stressful. Christmas can’t come soon enough!
I hope you enjoyed the blog and if you have any irritations at this time of your work year, whether you’re a teacher or not, feel free to let me know in the comments.
I’ll end on a big thankyou to the friends who got in touch to remind me of some of their own personal lowlights of teaching at this time of year in order to help with this blog. It’s late in the year, I’m tired and was flagging in the ideas department. Not for the first time the English Department at our school helped me out. I work with some truly wonderful people (although they always forget to bring me cakes and biscuits when they’ve been left in the staffroom as a reward for our hard work), so once again, cheers!
As a high school teacher of over two decades I think I’m qualified enough to say that we’ve just entered our toughest half term of the academic year. I think we’ll all agree that the 7 weeks from the start of November until nearing the end of December is like swimming in sand at the best of times!
We started our half term this week and although nothing major has gone wrong and none of the so-called ‘red flags’ have been raised, it’s still falling into a familiar pattern.
For a start, the weather has been predictably dreary. As we blink our way into Wednesday, I can safely say it’s the first time I’ve viewed a blue sky all week. And even that is being flanked by ominous clouds. So although the blue sky is a welcome sight, I’m aware that the weather could break at any given second and bring with it that predictable grey that bleeds into a charcoal, so often found in the UK. It does nothing for morale!
On top of the clouds we have the wind; there never seems to be a still day at this time of year. Unless of course we get a bright autumn day where I might get some washing out to dry and then the gale becomes a breeze, becomes a veritable vacuum where literally nothing moves! It’s the time of year when sometimes you feel like nothing will ever go right for you. And that’s a feeling that can quickly multiply as a teacher.
The wind, the rain and the general feeling of an almost permanent mist hanging over the season can be a terrible combination for your classes. I’ve certainly learnt over the years that if it’s windy and raining I’ll get at least one class who are completely off the wall for the hour. They come in, soaked because they didn’t feel the need to get undercover, and then complain about the weather. This will often then morph into complaints about whatever it is we might be doing and however we attempt to do it. And it would seem that once they’ve been knocked about by a windy day, kids can’t help shouting out and making daft noises, which will inevitably lead to fits of giggles. Not ideal for the flow of a lesson!
Sitting at a desk going through what should be a familiar routine can prove impossible. You might as well present them with a pair of mittens and a Rubiks cube each. And all this because it was blowing a gale, the rain was travelling sideways and my students didn’t have the common sense to stay out of it as much as they could.
The dark mornings and dark evenings also make the winter term a real pain. It shouldn’t make a great deal of difference really. But it does. It’s no fun leaving the house in the dark and it’s even less fun getting to the end of your day and driving home to find, light wise, it’s night time! It does strange things to your state of mind. Being greeted by a dark classroom that resembles the inside of a walk-in freezer doesn’t help either. I imagine it’s a bit like living in the far north of the planet near the Arctic in Sweden or Finland and having either almost permanent daylight or long, dark days, depending on the time year. Probably an over-the-top comparison, I know, but please feel my pain. Sometimes, the only daylight I see is through a window and it can start to get you down. Add in the weather and how that can disrupt the commute and it’s quite the pain in the rear end!
Speaking of the commute brings to mind the simple fact that it can be awful at this time of year. A few parts of my journey into work are prone to flooding and we get more than our fair share of rain here in West Yorkshire. I think our monsoon season is between January and December. There are a couple of places where it can be a real hazard and times when I wonder if some sort of amphibious vehicle might be a better option.
And then there’s the snow. Now, I’ll preface this with the fact that the UK can come to a complete halt if there’s a centimetre of snow and that looking at other countries who cope admirably with far more, we’re a bit rubbish really. However, it doesn’t change the fact that snow always makes me shudder about my commute. Over the years I’ve had multiple journeys to and from work that have involved sliding around roads and spending what have felt like endless hours getting to the end of my journey. Last year, I managed to get into work on a snow day only to find out that the school was being closed and that I faced a long journey home. Little did I know however, that it would take me over 6 hours to drive home! So any snow this year will be approached with dread!
As I write, we’re a week into the new half term. Just 6 more to go until it’s almost Christmas and a blissful two weeks off! In the meantime though, I’m hoping for less of the wind, rain and snow that will lead to the inevitable terrible in school behaviour from some of our students. I’m hoping for less moans and groans about the temperature in my room. Amazingly, there are many times where I have students complaining that it’s cold while others are asking to take their blazers off and claiming they can’t work because it’s too hot!
There are other daunting features of the next six weeks to come too. These include marking mock exams, data collections, avoiding secret santas, avoiding having to take part in our department production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and avoiding colds, flu and COVID!
One thing’s for sure…this next 6 weeks will feel like years!
Having written a blog a couple of weeks ago about my predications for September and seeing that people seemed to genuinely enjoy the mixture of cynicism and ridiculousness, I thought I’d diarise my first week back at work as a high school teacher. Typically, having been thrust straight back into the chaos of a high school, it’s taken longer to write than I thought!
The first week actually went fairly well and wasn’t half as painful as I imagined it might be. And as a bonus, it seemed to pass very quickly. Where that first week back can sometimes feel as long as the holiday we’ve just enjoyed for us teachers, this one seemed to just take the required week’s worth of time, which is always nice. So here’s a look at the week.
Having settled back into my classroom and thrown a few old resources out – new year, new start and all that – I went to a neighbouring classroom to attend our first online briefing of the year. It’s not a criticism to say that these are usually tedious affairs. I mean how do you talk about results, approaches to teaching, school routines etc without it sounding a bit boring? So, it’s safe to say that although my eyes are open, my ears are at least partially shut. My brain, as ever, is focusing 90% of its efforts anything but what’s going on in front of me.
Talk of disadvantaged students makes my mind wander and I’m faced with the horrific realisation of my own disadvantaged school days. Here, because we didn’t have a great deal of money, my trousers were bought at Geordie Jeans – a kind of budget version of a charity shop with the emphasis on cheap versions of last year’s styles – and for at least one year, my jumpers were knitted by my mam. The memory of those jumpers alone makes me almost squeeze into a corner in embarrassment and it’s a wonder I don’t shed a tear.
Our Head Teacher’s briefing is held in the hall, meaning that I’m thrust into a crowded environment where I’m not really Covid comfortable. So I make a beeline for a back row.
The briefing is quite an entertaining affair, but I’ll mention a few highlights. Firstly – and forgive me, I can’t remember what parallel was being made – but the Harry Potter Castle is mentioned. The toy version, that is. Apparently it costs the best part of £400 and it makes me think they’d need a special kind of magic to get my credit card out of my wallet to pay for it. More pertinently though, I didn’t even realise that there was a Harry Potter castle. If there’s a castle, what on Earth is Hogwarts then?
Further to this, our head then throws in a couple of old photographs of himself from the 90s. Definitely a highlight because it’s always funny to see those – dare I say it – embarrassing pictures from back in the day.
The rest of the day is spent both in my class preparing for the rest of the teaching week, as well as in more meetings. By the time I get home I’ve taken on the haunted look of a soldier returning from war. It’s going to be a long year.
The hours before students actually come back to school are possibly the best few hours of any year. Sure, interaction with your classes is great, but it’ll never quite beat the serenity of pottering in your classroom while they’re not actually there. Suffice to say, I’m grateful for the fact the Year 11 have a later starting time today.
I’m grateful too for the fact that I manage to avoid the call to arms to go and welcome in our new Year 7 cohort as they make their way in, earlier than every one else. I don’t avoid it on purpose; I’m just in the repographics room having my daily wrestle with the various photocopiers in there. I leave with around 60% of what I came for, which is definitely above average for the spoils one takes when heading into battle with these machines. And anyway, it’s for the best that Year 7s aren’t greeted by me. It’ll make for a more enjoyable day for them, I’m sure.
Later, during an extended form period I have to explain that the school isn’t “all so strict” as one of my students claims. Rather, it’s the fact that minor issues like Covid meant that attention was diverted from things like uniform and make-up issues. In the fightback against Covid, masks, bubbles et al are somewhat under control and so we have time to address the fact that some people are dressed for a hen night, while others look like they’re planning to jog into the office in their black trainers. Not strict in terms of being in a school, when you think about it. A bit of a culture shock to some though, clearly.
In other news, I’m already developing a mint habit and a chewing gum addiction…
Wednesday marks the first full day of school. And to mark the occasion, I’ve got a full day of teaching; 6 lessons, 4 different classes and a 2 hour lesson with my Year 11 form to start with. Exciting news…if you’re a masochist. It’ll only get better from next week when someone will add a Period 7 to the day and more Year 11 time.
To be fair, it’s mostly what we call expectations lessons today – going through plans, rules, giving out books etc followed by a short task or two if there’s time. But it’s not the work that’s the problem. It’s the managing the behaviour and emotions of 20-30 kids in a room after they’ve spent much of the last two academic years not in a room together.
By the end of the day I’m wiped out, a physical wreck. I’ve promised myself an early finish, but 4.30 ticks by and I’m still planning and trying to lay my hands on various bits of equipment, books and copying. An old headteacher used to tell us that it was like we were on an oil rig and wouldn’t see our families for a while during term time. I feel like I’m already staring longingly at the sea.
Like a child on a long car journey, my head is full of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ And it’s a case of answering with ‘we are and we aren’t’. Thursday; not quite the weekend, but still in the right half of the week.
Year 11 start the day full of complaints. ‘We’ve done Macbeth’, they tell me almost to a man. Only we haven’t. We covered some of the context at the back end of last year and as the rest of the lesson reveals, they’ve forgotten it all anyway across the course of a six week summer.
I’m down to teach 2 periods of PSHCE to year 9 this year and today I have my first lesson. It’s about healthy and unhealthy relationships. One young man, who clearly doesn’t understand the concept of accents, tells me that I’ve got his name wrong. I point out that I haven’t and that’s it’s just a matter of pronunciation; as a Geordie I’m going to pronounce things differently to someone from Yorkshire. He refuses to understand. Apparently, I’m wrong and just got his name wrong. I guess we’re all learning about how to create an unhealthy relationship. From now on he’ll need to start making ours healthy again, otherwise it’s going to be a long year. For him.
It’s taken what feels like 6 weeks to arrive but today is finally Friday. And while last year my Friday featured free periods from 11.30 until 2.45 (none of it wasted, by the way, always productive in order to reduce workload elsewhere) this year I have a full day of teaching. That Friday feeling is conspicuous by its absence.
Part way through Period 2 however, we have an assembly to go to, so at least my day is slightly reduced. I settle at the side of the hall to have a good view of the assembly and its audience, but also in order to ensure a swift getaway at the end. It is from this vantage point that I spot one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen, stomping its way across the floor. It is no exaggeration to say that this spider is the size of a dog. Maybe even a bear. OK, maybe it’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s big.
Across the course of the ten minute assembly, said spider mainly stays still. Clearly it can sense that I’m watching it. However, occasionally it makes a dart across the floor. I know this as the ground shakes when it moves; it’s that big. Before I know it this veritable monster is heading towards a girl on the front row and as anxious as I am about the shock she’ll get if and when she spots it, I’m more relieved that I wasn’t asked to pick it up and do the humane thing by accompanying it back outside. I’m not particularly bothered by spiders, but this one must have measured a couple of feet across and stood at least a foot tall…
There’s more drama later when one of my still new Year 8s decides he doesn’t really fancy the classroom today and follows up on his refusal to remove his head from the cover of his blazer by getting up and walking out, giving us all not one, but two middle fingers. Not on the same hand, I hasten to add. This little drama is equal measures frustrating yet mildly amusing but makes me worry about many of our pupils and what the future holds after the stability provided by our academy (and I take very little credit for this) is taken away.
The week ends with a huge outward breath followed by the realisation that my early finish still won’t happen. After students have left, I sit at my desk planning, catching up on various bits of admin and sending resources to print for photocopying. It’s getting close to 5pm by the time I leave.
It’s been a relatively stress free and smooth first week. In what will feel like a year it’ll be Christmas and my body will be screaming at me to stop. I’ll take stress free and smooth for now.
As ever, feel free to leave a comment, good or bad. I hope you enjoyed reading. Enjoy your next week at work!
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.
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.
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!
There’s nothing overly complex or clever about this poem. Put simply, I wrote it after conducting a Christmas quiz with one of my last classes of the term just gone. It just struck me as such an excellent scene in the classroom – loud, tense, excited, never still. A bunch of children working together in teams and despite the fact that some of them would rather appear anything but excited, the element of competition is absolutely impossible to ignore!
So while acting as the showbiz style quiz master, I realised that this was an atmosphere that was too good to miss out on; so I wrote some notes and then sat down later and threw them together as something a bit more poetic. And here’s the result.
Catching them unawares is the really fun part. In fact, you could argue it’s downhill all the way after that.
As the quiz is announced the air crackles with a tangible excitement that is momentarily pierced by the feigned boredom of the cool kids. It won’t be long though, before they’re animated in glorious technicolour, shouting out, competitive as Olympians and quietly singing the words to Christmas carols in the missing words round.
With each question the tension builds and instead of ‘Lords ‘a leaping’ we have boys ‘a bouncing, girls ‘a screeching in teams competing and by question ten the chatter has become a rabble, has become a riot and we can no longer truly claim that all we have is a quiz.
This, in fact may well be a matter of life and death.
By the end of the quiz we’ve seen and heard it all. The careless calling out of what is very definitely the ‘right’ answer with a wink, the throwing up of arms, the almost audible straining of brains as the tip of the tongue is explored for an answer.
This is the chaos of the circus, the madness of rush hour and the irregular noise of the orchestra warming up all mixed together in the same bowl. This is the Christmas quiz.
If, like me you’re a teacher or you work in some capacity in a school, you’ll no doubt identify with the chaos of the Christmas quiz. If you’re not, then imagine a child’s birthday party, but with questions. The two will have much in common.
With the poem I wanted to capture the chaos and the noise, but also the subtleties – things like boys (and it’s always boys) pretending they’ve called out their right answer just a little too loudly in order to convince a rival team to write it down and thus lose a point. Sat at the front of the class with a blank sheet of A3 paper, I was able to note all of these things down; the attempts to cheat, the confidence even when it’s very clear that you’ve got completely the wrong answer and the looks of concentration on faces when kids search for an answer that they know, but haven’t the slightest hope of committing to paper!
The Christmas quiz has that element of fun that something like a revision quiz doesn’t have, but it still retains the desperate will to win in all who compete. And for that matter, despite the irritation of the rules being completely ignored within seconds, as the excitement kicks in, and all Hell breaking loose by about question three, it’s a whole load of fun. It definitely merits having a poem written about it…maybe not in your book, but very much in mine! I hope you like it and I hope, with some of my younger readers, it’s inspiration enough to join the teaching profession!
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.
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.
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.
At the end of June another chapter of my parenting journey came to a close. The baby years have gone and the toddler times flew by. Then we tackled life at primary school and all of the hurdles that would bring. Next, double figures happened and the end of the primary years, which was all too quickly followed by the challenges of high school. And now, it seems we’re to be in possession of one of those teenagers.
In the most stereotypical kind of truth, my daughter has been a teenager for years. Or at least she’s acted like one. And I know that not all teenagers are the same…but for the sake of a good read let’s stick to the stereotypes. I’ll write this with a caveat though. For all of her faults, my daughter is a sweet, caring and loveable kid. I’m very proud of what she is and what she’s becoming and, despite the fact that we clash and no doubt find each other equally irritating, I adore her. That said, if what’s gone in the previous 12 years is any kind of guide, then these teenage years promise to be interesting to say the least.
As the teenage years begin I guess I have to face up to the fact that my little girl – for that’s what she always will be – is going to turn into a woman. This is a tough reality for me, as I’m sure it will be for the majority of fathers. But it’s a reality that begins with those dreaded teen years. As many girls of her age will, she’s already moving on with her interests. She’s never been particularly interested in boys, viewing them as some kind of necessary irritant. However, just a few weeks ago I was present when she declared that a boy was ‘fit’ and a little bit of my heart broke, never to be repaired. The words were enough, but the delighted smile that spread across her face was the killer. The boy in question happened to be Zac Effron, so at least I can comfort myself with the fact that they’re very unlikely to meet and thus she can’t begin to explore what ‘fitness’ means and leads to.* Big sigh of relief. But it confirmed to me that my little girl is, in many ways, well and truly gone. And I feel sure that this side of things will go rapidly downhill now that the age of thirteen has been reached.
She confided in my wife that in Year 7 she’d had a boyfriend, but this had only lasted for a day! So there’s good and bad in that – bad = boy, while good = her boredom at him following her around like a lap dog. However, her choice of ‘boyfriend’ had been appalling – a ridiculous name, seemingly always in trouble at school etc. The kind of choice that was never going to impress her school teacher father, hence confiding in her mother!
I fear that this is the kind of choice that she’ll continue to make though. As teenhood – have I just invented a phrase – approaches she seems to label any boy who does any actual work or shows any sign of intelligence as a ‘geek’ and therefore untouchable, which for now is fine, but in the long term I’d rather she was going for the hard-working geeks than the ridiculous, half-witted bad boys that she seems to be attracted to. For now though, she seems a little behind the times in terms of her interest in boys. I teach kids of the same age and lots of them appear far more advanced than my own darling daughter, – goodness me I hope so – especially the girls. You only have to be on a corridor with them and you’re sure to overhear something that you really didn’t want to hear and that means you can never look them in the eye again. I sincerely hope that my nearly teen daughter isn’t thinking along the same lines for quite some time to come!
One thing that she is definitely advanced with is make-up. This is one that is very much against our wishes as well. I say ‘our’ wishes, but I suspect that my wife is ever so slightly in cahoots with my daughter on this one. I’ve been there when one of them has unintentionally mentioned some make-up that my daughter was going to get or had been promised, so the rules have definitely been relaxed without me knowing anything about it! My daughter also went through what can only be described as an out of character phase where she was regularly making her bed, hoovering her room, putting washing away etc, in order to gain pocket money. Now despite the incentive of money, she’s never been particularly interested in this before. But then, all of a sudden she’d be pointing out that her bed was made, or leaving the hoover outside her room to indicate that she’d been busy ridding her carpet of small animal carcasses or whatever disease had festered there in the years since the last time she’d hoovered. (And if you think this is unkind there’s an open invite to pop round and have a look at her room – enter at your peril).
It turned out that what she was doing was earning just enough money to go out and buy the odd bit of make-up in order to supplement the small amount that she already had. And as a result of this she’d also decided that she could walk all over the rules – a much more regular occurrence for her – and come down plastered in make up for no apparent reason. We’ve managed to curtail this to a point, by repeating the message that she looks so much better without it, and image being so important to a girl of her age, she’s listened to an extent. Still though, if we’re going out she tends to disappear for much of the afternoon, before emerging early evening looking like she’s wearing some kind of tribal mask. I expect this very much to continue as she moves through her teen years and the mask to get more and more colourful!
For as long as my daughter has been able to express an opinion she has done so, forcefully. Now, as she enters her teen years, I fear that her level of perceived expertise is going to see her opinions go into a potentially dangerous overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, on important issues like race, sexuality etc she has formed good, liberal, accepting opinions. She’s against no one (well apart from the aforementioned geeks and me) which is not only good, but a lot less time consuming than if she was forming dangerous opinions. In fact, she’s more likely, if we have an opinion against anyone or anything, to defend them, however unreasonable. As a staunch Newcastle fan I’ve found it quite disheartening and disturbing when she’s routinely defended Sunderland fans. Maybe she’s just incredibly chilled out – she’s really not – or maybe she’s just wrong.
As she enters her teenage years though, the one thing she has strong opinions on seems to be style. Now given her formative years, this is quite the surprise – many’s the time she’s come downstairs in a variety of colours and styles that simply didn’t match – reds, yellows, pinks, spots, stripes, you name it. But now my daughter has developed some kind of style. She likes nice clothes and is constantly telling us how she’s ‘planning an outfit’. I suppose that this is to be expected, especially when she’s not paying for said outfits! But the worrying thing seems to be that she has installed herself as some kind of fashion expert. And this is where her opinions come in.
Recently she’s decided that she must have her bedroom decorated. Grey and pinks, dahling, don’t you know. And such is her sure and certain belief in her status as some kind of style guru that she literally won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. The fact that she currently resides in a room that look like squatters must have invaded years ago doesn’t seem to occur to her at all. She simply cannot keep it tidy. And I won’t embarrass her here by detailing the levels of untidiness, but suffice to say, you need to take your own ideas and multiply them by around a million to even get close.
We recently went on a shopping trip – a speculative one where we were more looking for ideas than actually buying anything. We found countless grey items, probably in even more than fifty shades, and yet she rejected them time after time. And this is understandable for a short while, but when it becomes clear that this is just because she is adamant that she knows better than you do on every subject ever, it gets a little frustrating. And again, I can only see this getting worse as the teen years advance. I imagine we’re leaving behind the years of buying her clothes from George at Asda that’s for sure, which will leave me as the only one in our house still wearing stuff from that particular designer!
Which brings me nicely onto clothes. As a self identified style guru my teen daughter has also decided that it’s perfectly within her remit to be openly critical of what her family are wearing. In fact, she seems to be making it her business to pass judgement on the style decisions of almost anyone and everyone, family or not. The ‘wrong’ t-shirt will instantly – and loudly – be deemed ’embarrassing’, while she herself is wearing something like a crop top with a coat over it…on the hottest day of the year. But it gets worse. She sees no problem, no lack of simple manners even, in declaring an item of clothing ‘ugly’. And why? Well, because teen wisdom seems to dictate that she must know so much better than anyone else.
Worse than the loudly proclaimed opinions is the choices that she wants to now be making. As a toddler and even as a primary school kid, we could get away with sticking to a budget and to an extent dressing her head to toe in clothes from a supermarket. But then she began to grow out of this. And we tried to accommodate it, but it’s quite a balance trying to buy your kid the ‘right’ clothes while also attempting not to bring up a spoilt brat. So now we’re told (and she really does tell as opposed to asking), ‘I need a Tommy Hilfiger top’ or ‘We have to get me a pair of Adidas leggings’. And this becomes a problem for me, personally. I was brought up in a household where the things that I wanted were often out of reach of my parents’ pockets, so to speak. So I became used to not getting most of what I wanted and I quickly realised that there wasn’t much point in asking, but also that it was a bit unfair on my parents to ask anyway.
As such, my daughter’s demands cut no ice with me. I want her to have the types of things that I didn’t have, but I also want her to appreciate them. And her teenage way of demanding stuff can be quite difficult to live with. So again, it’s going to feel like an eternity seeing her through these next 6 or 7 years!
I hope that seeing my daughter through her teenage years will be a largely enjoyable and ultimately rewarding experience. I know that there will undoubtedly be trials and tribulations along the way. But I hope that she begins to see that we’re not the enemy and that she simply doesn’t have all of the answers. That way harmony lies. Let’s wait and see!
Just in case your reading this, Zac Effron, should you ever turn up on my doorstep, asking for my daughter, you’ll be given very short shrift indeed. Take your fame, your Hollywood riches and even your impressive pecs, and nick off.