Poetry Blog: End of Term

A hastily written poem this one. I had a few lines running round my head one evening in the final week of term and thought it might be worth seeing what happened if I tried to join the dots.

It’s about…well, let’s not treat people like idiots here, it’s about what it says in the title. As many of you know, I’m a teacher and so this time of year is very special to me – and all teachers, I hope – and it always prompts a great deal of thinking. What will next year be like, how will I get on, what’s kid X going to be like in Year 9, do I think I’ll get along with this class next year, etc. And that’s before you even get to thinking about how tired you are and what you’ll be up to over the 6 blissful weeks of summer.

The last week of the academic year is always quite a strange time. For me personally, it always feels like a week too far and I know that’s silly really. There has to be a final week and, as I’m reminded of regularly by people who clearly never went to school, I have a lot of holidays. On a side note, I’ve never figured out why people who moan about teachers’ holidays don’t just solve the issue by becoming teachers.

The last week generally sees a small dip in the student population, a smattering of unauthorised holidays being taken, sometimes a downturn in behaviour and eventually, a slackening off in the quality of lessons. The weather seems to always be ridiculously hot – relatively so; this is the UK after all so we’re not claiming European levels of scorchio – and so it becomes a case of trying to evade some form of heat exhaustion too, for teachers and students.

So anyway, I wrote a poem about the whole phenomenon.

End of Term

A strange mix of exhaustion, excitement and familiarity drifts around for days.
Every morning is greeted with half closed eyes and a walk that has more than a hint of Marley's Ghost 
You trudge out of the door, drag yourself through each day,
tolerate those you are faced with and smile through gritted teeth,
as if that alone will make the clock go faster.

From Monday through those last five days, classrooms will echo to a familiar refrain;
'Can we watch a film?'
And you brawl with your conscience hourly to stop from caving in.
The minutes fail to fly as you attempt to solve the mystery
of how to craft one more lesson on a text long since finished and tired of.

Outside the sun shines without mercy, turning the classroom into an oven
that bakes until all enthusiasm is burnt and thoroughly dried out,
like last night's re-heated lasagne.
Windows and doors are propped open and you battle with all on the corridor to be heard,
while your voice gives way and your feet grumble dolefully.

After a week that felt like a year you arrive on that final day,
too shattered to appreciate the glee that greets no uniform.
You smile weakly at the fashion show and finally put on a film, while your class complains 
that this one's boring and that the teacher next door brought sweets for her class.
Summer can't come soon enough.

It’s been a very difficult year in schools. Things have been different to say the least. Covid has changed everything and this year has featured a heady mix of room changes, teaching in bubbles, watching on not really knowing how to react when pupils have been taken out of class to be sent home for dreaded periods of isolation, bubble collapses and whole year groups going home, split starting times, dinner times and finishing times, Teams lessons, Teams meetings, school closures and teaching to an empty room, and of course more hand sanitiser than you could ever imagine!

It’s been a year to test the resolve of teaching and non teaching staff as well as students, parents and guardians. As a result, as the final line of the poem says – and with more emphasis than perhaps ever before – Summer can’t come soon enough.

As ever, comments are always more than welcome. Thanks for reading!

Poetry Blog: A future awaits…

I feel I should start this particular blog with an apology. I’ve written another poem with a terrible title, I’m afraid. It’s a common occurrence. A lot of the time for me, writing is instinctive in that I might be thinking about something and a line pops into my head. This is a common starting point and it’ll often see me scrawling in a notebook and finalising a poem fairly rapidly, without a great deal of drafting. However, what it also leaves me without is a decent title. I tried a few, but in the end just plumped for a phrase from the poem. A proper cop out if ever there was one! Sorry.

This poem came about when I was considering a few things to do with my future. It was mainly to do with work and my profession, but I was also thinking about the future in terms of the coaching I do and also my parents, who are both elderly and not in the greatest of health. It led me to considering what the next few years might hold for me. It’s a subject I’ve written about before and one that I’ll think I’ll return to as well. Here’s the terribly titled poem though.

Alien thoughts dominate; an invasive species not indigenous to these shores 
nudges you off an axis you've been comfortably balanced on for years.
Simply what to do is no longer the question,
but what to do with the rest of your life.
How to bring back purpose, like light to a darkened room,
heat to a vacant house.
If this path has run its course, you'll endeavour to have faith
that another will emerge from the undergrowth that currently crowds
your thinking, blocks your way.
A future awaits, not immediately demanding your attention,
but tugging at your sleeve every once in a while, reminding you that it's there,
that you keep it in mind.
Its patient nuisance can wait for now, but won't let you ponder forever.

This one is undoubtedly a poem born of middle age, but I don’t doubt that pondering one’s future is exclusively a middle aged thing. Sometimes, whatever your age, it’s a good thing to ponder what next. I suppose it helps you feel stable, prepared. And that’s part of what this poem is about. There are certain things in my relatively immediate future that I feel are inevitable and that will shake me to my boots when they happen, so to speak. So giving it some thought, although not usually my favoured course of action, is likely to be a wise idea.

As a younger man I imagined that this time in my life would be very different and that I’d have everything straight in my head by now. It’s funny how it all turns out!

I hope you enjoyed the poem. Maybe it prompted a bit of thinking of your own. However you felt, I’d love to hear it, so feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading!

Poetry Blog: Around Town

This is a poem that was prompted on an early morning run. I’d already written a poem about this particular sensation – being sweaty and knackered in the freezing cold of a winter’s morning – before, so although the idea was there, the concept was not.

I’ve taken it upon myself to take photos while I’m running. We have a number of lovely old building in Morley and it’s the ideal time to take photos of them when the place is deserted. But it seemed a bit of a waste just to stick them on a Facebook post about how far I’d ran and how tired I was.

In time, I thought I might start writing the odd blog about some of the different places in and around the place I live. The sign as you drive up to Morley has us billed as a ‘Historic Market Town’ so I wondered what mileage there’d be in writing about some of the places I found interesting.

My poem – ‘Around Town’ was more just about observations of what was going on as I ran past. While I was running around the town where I live as it was waking up, it felt like the perfect time to be viewing it. It’s quiet, yet in little pockets of town, busy all at the same time. Needless to say it put lots of ideas into my head as I ran.

Around Town

The vitality of the bright sunshine and the stillness of the hour
mean that town looks different today.
Sounds different too.

The solitude is punctuated by a few hardy souls
setting up for the day, their moods bouyed by the
immediacy of the light, the warmth of the air.

The majesty of the town hall is amplified tenfold
by a peerless blue sky that frames it perfectly
as the clock tower stretches like Icarus for the sun.

Elsewhere vans decant high viz clad bodies
to breathe new life into decadent old buildings,
boosting the heartbeat of the place where we live.

Further out of town, the cricket club looks primed for action,
as if everything has had a scrub and a fresh coat of paint,
yet because of the hour, not a soul treads the outfield.

In the park early morning dogwalkers amble
to start their day; no one commutes, but a 
light breeze rustles through the blossom, to remind us that it's there.

Emerging through the gates and onto the main drag 
that acts as a spine between two busy towns, 
reality bites and the slumber of the silence is smashed.

Down the hill home beckons.
Soon, outside will be swapped for in and the day will begin again.
Different sights, different sounds, same town, different life around town.

A few things to point out about the poem. Firstly, everybody’s town looks better in the sunshine and of course an early morning brings a quiet that won’t last. I was getting at the different feel of a place in the early morning sun as well though, with that first stanza.

I had to mention the Town Hall as it’s a place I regularly run past and it is an amazing old building. That’s it in the photo at the start of the blog. Furthermore though, it’s what prompted me to think about an About Town blog as mentioned at the start of this one. I think lockdown opened my eyes to quite a bit about the town where I live. I was able to explore and exploit the largely empty streets and discovered not only lovely buildings, but lots of completely unexpected things like a miniature railway covering someone’s entire back garden (which was massive, by the way). These are the kinds of things I look for now when I’m running, not least because they take my mind off feeling tired!

With both the cricket club and the park that are mentioned, it’s surprising how close they are to a major road. And yet, both have a feeling of peace to them, not only in the early morning. They make running around town quite a lovely thing to do.

I hope you enjoyed reading and as ever, would love to hear what you thought. Feel free to leave a comment and, if you’re feeling relaxed like I was running around in the early morning, you might be kind enough to let someone else know about the blog!

Euro 2020: Fan Diary Entry 1

It’s safe to say that us football fans have waited too long for the return of tournament football. A year too long in fact, as of course this tournament should have been over and done with last summer.

We’re a few days in now and I thought I’d quite like to write a diary about the whole thing. I’ll be watching as much as I can on television, but also keeping up with things via social media too. Being abundantly English, I’ll be following England, but I’ll have an eye on various other teams and players too. I can’t pretend I’ll see every last minute of the tournament as I have a family and a life, but I’ll do the best I can.

So far, we’ve had an exciting start to the whole thing. The Euros kicked off on Friday night and even the build up to the game prompted an observation.

  1. Don’t the Italians look good in a suit? I mean, it’s kind of the home of style isn’t it? And Italian kits are always good. Without fail. But, as a man who wears a suit every day for work, I was taken with the tailoring on show, especially on the touchline. I hope I look as good in my suits as Roberto Mancini and his pal look when I get to their age.

And then, like a bolt from the blue, there was one of those moments of unexpected drama that will stay with us forever.

2. The incident on the pitch with Christian Erikson should teach everyone something. I didn’t see the game. As the drama unfolded I was working around the house and in the garden. Only when I checked my phone did I get a hint of something going on. The details were emotional to say the least. Not to make this all about me, but what happened brought back memories of my own heart failing a few years ago and it was a struggle to hold back tears. I came away from it all and checked back in later that evening.

The actions of everyone involved were admirable. The respect shown, the teamwork, professionalism, the dignity, the spirit, the diligence and the emotion; all incredible evidence of what we’re capable of as humans without even a moments thought. It was a timely reminder of the fleeting nature and fragility of human life. And in the days since, it’s been brilliant to see pictures of Erikson sat up and smiling in his hospital bed.

Sunday meant it was time for England and…

3. England won their opening game for the first time ever in a Euros! That’s it really. We we far from scintillating. We were solid. We got off to a decent start. Let’s see if we can build from this point. But remember; this is England, a team and a nation primed and ready to break your heart just when you decide to get carried away.

It wouldn’t be a tournament unless you go the whole hog, so…

4. I’m getting one of those sticker books. You know the one I mean…sounds like a posh sandwich. I’m not putting stickers in though. Far too costly and the kind of thing that will obsess me all too easily. So I’ll do it my way. I’ll keep you updated.

The sights and the sounds are as good as ever. Better in fact…

5. It’s incredible to see fans back in stadiums. I thought I’d be a bit ‘whatever’ about this, but actually it’s brilliant. The sight of the full stadium for the Hungary game stopped me in my tracks. On the same evening I saw a Facebook post from someone saying that watching 22 millionaires chasing a ball around was a waste of 2 hours of life. I rolled my eyes and swore under my breath. In Hungary a stadium full of fans reminded me of the sheer joy that football can bring. Trivializing it is like saying admiring fine art is a waste of time because it’s just a bit of paint and water or that the opera is a waste of 3 hours of your life listening to someone singing funny.

There are weeks left of this tournament, so I’ll keep it all diarised. It won’t be particularly serious, I’m sure. But let’s see what I can spot and let you know my thoughts on. In the meantime, feel free to let me know what you thought of the blog.

Poetry Blog: Tunnel Vision

This is a poem that I drafted very roughly a couple of days ago. I’d just had some bad news and on top of feeling exhausted with work, sore with a running injury, sick and tired of living with Covid restrictions and worried about various other matters in everyday life, I think I’d just had enough. So, rather than simply explode and kick things about the place I scribbled some thoughts down.

I don’t normally suffer with my moods. I tend to manage to live life on the same level most of the time. I’m rarely too bothered by anything and have always told myself that things will work out, whatever happens to be going on. It’s definitely an advantage of being such a simpleton! However, over the last few weeks lots of things seem to have been bothering me and it sees to have all piled up and caused a bit of a bad mood logjam. Not the end of the world and at least it’s meant that I can be creative.

Here’s the poem.

Tunnel Vision

Feral dogs gather, sensing blood, teeth bared
snarling, putting a tentative foot forward,
circling without grace, eyeing you constantly
until they finally snap and leave their mark.

Every ache and pain nags and presents a new question,
crowds the mind, leaving a feeling of fog
until you feel like lashing out with a primal scream
from somewhere deep inside that you've never found before.

Questions, although answered time and again
remain, echoing back and forth, disrupting sleep
to pick away at the scab that they created,
allowing it to spread to unchartered territory.

Tunnel vision is adopted, just to get through seconds, minutes
as something hidden in the shadows threatens to grind you to a halt
like hazard lights on the motorway, just as the urge for freedom and speed 
is at its highest.

Searching for a way to break the cycle and feel a sense 
of achievement, or at least a moment's blessed relief
from the sheer boredom and strangely gargantuan effort
needed to just keep going.

Writing this helped. It’s very easy to sit and moan at anyone who’ll listen, but I much prefer to keep things to myself. It’s a mixture of embarrassment and just the thought that I don’t really want to burden anyone with my troubles. Especially as most of the time I feel like I’m exaggerating in even labelling certain things as ‘troubles’. I know that lots of people have things much, much harder than I do. And as I said earlier, I’m reasonably happy to get through and operate under the assumption that any mood will pass and that things will get better.

In the poem, I’ve tried to describe how I felt; as if the thoughts, the worries were circling me, taking turns at bothering me and bothering me on various levels and with various results. Hence the ‘feral dogs’ line which I felt summed up the fact that I didn’t feel like I had complete control at times and didn’t feel that I could just dismiss things. Those thoughts just kept coming back, biting me.

If it helps, or it’s of any interest, I think I feel better today. I’m just keeping myself busy and it definitely helps that the weather is great, I’ve been able to get out for a run and that the Euro 2020 international football tournament has just started. Like I say, I’m happy to keep things simple.

I hope you liked the poem – ‘enjoyed’ might be a stretch I suppose! Whatever your thoughts, feel free as ever, to let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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.

Book Review – The Soundtrack to My Life by Dermot O’ Leary

Dermot O’Leary, for those who don’t know, is the presenter of The X-Factor in the UK. He also hosts a radio show on BBC Radio 2 and appears almost ubiquitously on TV as a presenter, talking head or just as the face or voice of various adverts. In short, you could be forgiven for getting a little irritated by him!

As the presenter of The X-Factor he is quite a divisive character. Not in the same way as say, Simon Cowell, but divisive all the same. There are probably thousands of people who just don’t like him because of his association with the behemoth that is that particular franchise. Whether that’s fair, I don’t know and I daresay, Dermot O’Leary doesn’t particularly care.

For the record, I like Dermot. But then again, we go way back. I remember Dermot as the fresh-faced presenter of a programme called T4 years ago, which for many of us represented perfect hangover TV. As such, I feel like I’ve followed his career a little bit ever since. Personally, I find him funny and quite an engaging presenter and while I might not like watching The X-Factor, I would gladly watch him on other shows or tune in to his radio show simply because he seems like the kind of bloke I’d be friends with (You know, if massive TV fame hadn’t got in the way!).

And this is sort of where the book comes in. It’s part autobiography and part discussion of music. Dermot whisks us through his forty odd years on the planet via the medium of music, linking various anecdotes to many of his favourite songs and artists. So it’s an autobiography with a ‘twist’, which Dermot himself explains in the book. And it’s an understandable twist given his experiences within the world of music, from being a regular gig-goer in his teens and onwards to presenting shows such as T4 and The X-Factor and then his long standing time as host of various radio shows from XFM to BBC Radio 2.

If you’re a music fan, ‘The Soundtrack to My Life’ will most likely prove to be an interesting read. Dermot knows his stuff and certainly has a wide range of tastes and influences. He links infleuential artists, bands and songs alongside key moments and anecdotes from his life to pretty good effect. And if you’re insisting on attaching that X-Factor stigma to him and expecting that his list will simply be chock-full of One Direction and Little Mix, then you may well get a number of pleasant surprises. Sadly though, there’s no mention of Same Difference or Jedward…

Amongst the choices you’ll find some of music’s big hitters – from Springsteen and The Rolling Stones to Amy Winehouse and Beyonce as you’d reasonably expect from a man who’s spent quite a while mixing with some of music’s big hitters. But it’s not at all predictable. In among the star names are other less well know acts like Brendan Shine (a nod to O’Leary’s Irish heritage), Terry Wogan and Beth Orton. Add in tracks by Guns n’ Roses, Wham, Ian Brown and The Killers and we’re being served up a varied musical banquet here.

The soundtrack got all the more special for me when reading about tracks from the bands Elbow and Athlete. For starters O’Leary picks a very early Elbow track – ‘Newborn’ – which just so happens to be one of my favourite ever songs. It’s the band at their most melancholy and vulnerable and in a funny way, it was a nice surprise to find it nestling alongside The Macarena in a book by the bloke who presents one of the most popular shows on British television. It was nice to read mention of Athlete as not only are they a band that I like but one of their tracks – not the one chosen in the book – is a song that I’ll forever associate with the birth of my daughter and the frequent trips to hospital that I would take in those early days of her life.

Overall, the book works. O’Leary’s life story is, to a point, a familiar one. The suburban upbringing, the ordinary school days and the hard work that follows in order to make something of yourself. It just so happens that this ordinary boy went on to become probably one of the most recognisable faces on British television. The inclusion of the songs not only gives us a break from the usual ‘star’ autobiography format of a very dry, unremarkable account of someone’s life, with maybe a few quoteworthy opinions thrown in to grab the odd headline and sell a few more books, but it serves to give us a little more insight into the life of someone who many of us can say we’ve kind of grown up with. Others might find it interesting in terms of how it might change their their X-Factor based opinions.

It’d be easy to criticise people like O’Leary just because of The X-Factor, but as he points out himself, if you’re offered a huge gig in the field that you work in, you’d be silly to turn it down. O’Leary dreamed of working in TV from leaving school, so when the biggest show on the box comes calling, you’d be a mug to turn it down. And while this might reject things like principles, I daresay that showbusiness doesn’t always have time for such things. So while we may frown at The X-Factor, it’d be strange to not accept the fact that a presenter might want to present it.

One small criticism of the book comes with the style of O’Leary’s writing, which did get a little irritating at times. He almost abuses parentheses and at times it was a little troublesome just to follow the narrative. And as a lover of parentheses and the odd tangent myself, I can see the irony in not enjoying reading through so much of it! But sometimes the tales take a few too many turns and it did become a little grating.

Overall though, ‘The Soundtrack of My Life’ is an enjoyable read. It’s an idea that’s been played with before, most notably in Nick Hornby’s ’31 Songs’, but O’Leary’s light hearted tone makes sure that it’s not particularly derivative. This isn’t a taxing read. You’re not going to experience any emotional trauma or find yourself fighting back the tears at the author’s pain. But if what you’re looking for is an autobiography with a bit of ‘quirk’ then this might well be for you. As a fan of music and radio, I enjoyed it and I think you would too.

I give Dermot O’Leary’s ‘Soundtrack To My Life’…

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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.

Newcastle United – About last night…

It’s the morning after the night before. I could have written this post last night, but thought better of it in what might have been some sort of rare mature, rational moment. Instead, I was up early this morning, trying to write and not rant. What else was there to do when I couldn’t get back to sleep?

I didn’t avoid the keyboard last night because I was angry, although I was angry. I avoided it more because I just felt so sad. So tired. So deflated and almost resigned, ambivalent. I imagine a lot of us feel this way about Newcastle United at the moment. The pride and the passion are still there, but for me, the stuffing has just about been knocked right out of me. I knew that I wanted to write something, but instead I just drifted through the rest of my night until it was time to go to bed. Perhaps somewhere deep down I hoped I’d wake up this morning and find that it had all just been a terrible nightmare.

Well, I woke up this morning – there’s a cue for a song there somewhere – and it turned out that it actually had all been a terrible nightmare. Unfortunately though, it’s not the kind that’s all in your head. This is just ongoing and in real time.

Around 18 months ago, the heirachy at Newcastle United decided that, having allowed a world class manager to slip through their grasp, they’d appoint Steve Bruce as manager. They might as well have ran a competition and drawn the new manager’s name out of a hat. Perhaps they did. When the news broke that he was the target I was struck with the same feeling of terror that I’d got when Alan Pardew’s name entered discussions. And Steve McClaren’s. I have no doubt whatsoever that thousands of us were all struck with the same feeling.

We knew that it was a mistake. We knew it wouldn’t work. But then again, what do we know? We’re only supporters. 50% of the time disgruntled, ranting and raging and the other 50% head in the clouds, ideas above our stations and completely oblivious to our place in the grand footballing scheme of things, apparently. But we knew it wouldn’t work.

There’s little point in banging on about Bruce’s previous record in management, suffice to say that it’s been dominated by the mundane, a lack of vision and tactics, failure and excuses and as we’ve got to know all too well in the last few months, the old boys’ network. But we knew he’d fail here. We didn’t buy him identifying as a Geordie or a fan and we remembered his failure at Sunderland and Villa as well as the lack of loyalty shown to numerous clubs. Bruce had been given chances to come and manage the club on several occasions before the one he finally accepted. He’d turned us down, most likely under the misguided notion that something bigger and better would come along. He accepted our manager’s job when the chips were well and truly down.

Last night was the culmination of 18 months’ worth of short sighted football management. You could say that Bruce’s vision was so short-sighted that it might have been accompanied by a guide dog. This was the management of the late 1970s and early 80s. The man famous for telling the media that he “wasn’t really interested in tactics” has proved the point over and over again throughout his time in charge. He’s looked like he doesn’t know what to do with the players at his disposal and has played people out of position time and time again. He’s failed to motivate or inspire, got rid of talented footballers when he couldn’t get them to play and alienated others. Players, some of whom were initially delighted at the freedom given to them when Bruce was appointed, look uninispired, unwilling to run, frightened and most damningly of all, bored witless with it all.

It’s well documented that Sheffield United hadn’t won a game all season, but it’s worth repeating just to accentuate the inevitability of what went on to happen on Tuesday night. Newcastle have always been good at lending a hand when the going got tough. If your striker hadn’t scored a goal in 25 games, he’d no doubt find his shooting boots against us. Similarly, if you’re on a losing run, we’re happy to get you out of that particular shit.

This was different though. While you knew there was a fair old chance that we’d lose, once you’d taken a look at the team sheet, it was heart sinking stuff. It was as though we were almost happy to lose. Like we were gambling that the ball would drop, we’d snatch an undeserved goal and Sheffield heads would drop at the thought of another defeat. It felt naive at best and naivety is not what we want in a top level football team. The least we can ask for are tactics, but as we know Brucey doesn’t do that. So instead, we got the usual – defend until you can lump it forward for Wilson to chase or better still, just go backwards until you’re forced to give it back or just hump it out of play and reset.

To set up with a five man defence against a team that hadn’t won in 6 months is nothing short of scandalous. Pundits have asked what we expect, called our expectations unrealistic and over the top, told us that we’re always moaning. Our own manager has referred to reaction to our losses as ‘histrionics’. But surely, it’s not too much to ask that we go there and have a go? Even our midfield was subdued, defensive and adopted a safety first approach. Everything was geared towards not losing. And I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. It’s understandable against the top teams (although I think we’d all agree that giving them some sort of game is preferable), but this was simply waving the white flag against an opponent who were there for the taking. This was a team who you could say had forgotten how to win. How long before we’re that team?

Bruce did the usual. He stood on the touchline, gawping. He could be heard giving his usual single instruction, just repeatedly shouting the word “Up!” in the hope of catching the opposition offside. Then there was the face. Bruce stood there, as he always does, looking puzzled and pulling the expression of a man with heartburn who had forgotten his Gaviscon and was repeatedly trying to make himself do a massive burp. It’s truly strange the way that he makes those little ‘o’ shapes with his mouth. I daresay it does nothing at all to inspire his players either.

Bruce and his staff look like they don’t really care. There doesn’t seem to be encouragement, other than shouting names, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be anything other than a blank stare when we concede. Bruce, Agnew and Clemence aren’t at all animated and there’s no indication that any of this is actually affecting them. I have no doubt that it is. How could it not? No one wants to do a bad job. Unfortunately though, that is exactly the impression that’s being conveyed to supporters.

Team selection is mystifying and without any consistency, apart from putting 11 on the field and defending. Last night, for me, was crying out for the likes of Matty Longstaff, Almiron, Gayle, even Elliot Anderson (regardless of his lack of experience). And yet none of them left the bench. Jacob Murphy has shown that he can open up defences and yet, he didn’t arrive on the pitch until it was far, far too late. Instead, Bruce persisted with players whose confidence looks shot – the likes of Sean Longstaff who has undergone a remarkable transformation in Bruce’s time at the club and now looks a shadow of the player he was – and those who look to have simply had enough like Hayden, Schar. And that’s before we mention Jeff Hendrick, who is a combination of both of the types of player listed above as well as looking simply not good enough.

Against Sheffield United we repeatedly gave the ball away, often when under little or no pressure. We reverted to long balls into corners and channels far too quickly and readily. When we got into good positions we turned round and went backwards with the ball arriving back with a centre-half or Karl Darlow within seconds. We didn’t press, we didn’t snap into challenges (not you, Fraser) and we largely didn’t put ourselves about the place. And as usual – and this is becoming something that will drive me mad eventually – we took an age over every throw in, like a team of darts players with the ‘yips’.

The short answer is that Bruce needs to go. It puzzles me that as the proud Geordie he claims to be, he refuses to walk away. If I was alienating the same people I’d stood on the terraces with all those years ago, as well as all those who’ve done the same since, then I’d leave. It’s the right thing to do. If I was doing such an awful job I’d like to think I’d be self-aware enough to stop doing that job. Not Bruce though.

When we look to those calling the shots it can only serve to inflict more terror on us. Charnley and Ashley are sleepwalking through yet another season, gambling that we’ll stay up and that the club can subsequently be sold. In doing so they fail to heed previous warnings that the likes of Kinnear and McClaren have given. We’re clearly not too good or too big to go down and right now, we’re heading that way fast! I have no doubt in my mind that if things don’t change soon, it’ll be too late. Last night was an opportunity to calm things down by simply attacking a vulnerable opponent, but instead we looked like the vulnerable side and what unfolded in front of us was as inevitable as it was upsetting.

I don’t have any great theories as to who I’d like to see as our next manager. Eddie Howe has been mentioned and maybe he could ignite something at the club. What I do know is that there are managers out there who would want the job, managers out there who would do a better job and managers out there who would be capable of taking us forward. Like the majority I’d like to see Rafa back, but I’m not blind to the possibility that someone else could come in and work much more effectively with these players than Steve Bruce has. Even Jeff Hendrick. What price someone like Joey Barton? And before you dismiss that, remember, up the road in Glasgow, Steven Gerrard is doing an amazing job at a huge club despite a lack of experience.

Like most supporters, I’m angry and like plenty of us I’m losing my faith, falling out of love a little bit with Newcastle United. That’s hard to take after over forty years of obsession, support and loyalty that has more often than not gone unrewarded. The long and short of it is that regardless of results, I’ve always enjoyed watching Newcastle United play and I just don’t enjoy it at all anymore. I know I’m not alone. Like most supporters, I just want hope, ambition and a bit of excitement. Steve Bruce’s reign as manager is taking this all away.

Here’s hoping for a brighter future. Howay the lads and #bruceout.

Poetry Blog: Transition.

This is a poem I wrote a while ago now, late August in fact. It was around that time that we were preparing my son – our youngest child – for the step up to high school. In the U.K. schools had been closed for months, but he had gone back to primary school for the final half term, as the government opened them up again to Year 6 students in a bid to make transition to high school that little bit easier. It didn’t work, but that’s besides the point.

I happened to be looking through some photographs and found one that my wife had taken of our son at the start of primary school, as he headed to his first day of Reception class. She’d stood behind him and having let him walk a few steps further down the path and – no doubt crying – had taken a photo of him as he walked off. Every visible piece of uniform is just too big and his backpack takes up his entire back. He looks tiny and vulnerable and not ready for school at all. Suffice to say that while the image always makes me smile, it still makes me feel sad too.

At the time, we’d briefly debated not sending him to school. We genuinely didn’t feel he was ready for it at all and so we’d even gone as far as tentatively researching moving to Scandinavia where children don’t start school until later. I think (my wife especially) we just didn’t really want to let go. In the end, we relented and sent him. But every time I see that picture I can’t help but feel we made the wrong decision!

As I looked at the photograph last summer it brought the memories flooding back, but it also made me think about how quickly both my children seem to have grown up. Within a few weeks of that moment they would both be high school students and essentially a large chunk of their childhoods were over. And specifically where my son was concerned, my precious little boy was no longer the tiny child in the photograph. With time on my hands, I wrote the poem you’ll find below.

Boy

That picture will stay with me as the summers fade into autumn. You, walking ahead of your mum, in a uniform that you’d grow into eventually and an over sized backpack straining at your shoulders. Your jumper a red light telling us to stop and let you go into a bright new adventure.

We’d thought to avoid this moment by moving somewhere where the monster didn’t want you for another couple of years, but stayed, defeated by normality and a system that we did not like; school became an enemy that we felt we couldn’t fight.

Your mother returned to her car and cried that day, her body inert as the tears tumbled silently down her face, mourning the loss of her sunshine. I spent the day thinking of the three of you – my big, brave boy, his sister there, determined as ever to look after you and your mother; robbed, cheated, bereft. How could I protect you all?

For years from this moment you’d tell us, ‘Did you know?’ tales at the table, your new found knowledge taken, processed, committed to memory, worn like a brand new suit and then shared generously like your cuddles. Parents’ Evenings revealed what we already knew; everybody loved you, fell under your spell, like insects stuck in a web.

Years later, and a day after my heart broke down, I sat weakly watching you perform in your school play, expecting to cry uncontrollably, but instead mesmerised by your voice, your courage, your talent, and as our eyes locked I wondered if my wounded heart might now burst with pride.

Now, you prepare yourself to face new questions, leaving your cocoon to become a magnificent butterfly one day. Your mother has already shed the expected quiet tears, sought solace by burying her head into my chest, while I held her tightly without possession of the balm of words that might soothe.

Before we know it there will be another photograph and it will hurt to look at that too, You, in a new uniform that still won’t fit, walking headlong into the next five years of your future, stoic despite the nerves, wiser and still eager for more ‘did you knows’.

I will fret daily until I know you’re safe, drift off thinking of you and your new experiences and race home nightly to steal a kiss or lie beside you, clutching your shoulder while you let me in on your brave new world.

I have watched, awestruck as you’ve grown, felt my heart ache as you blushed at your achievements, daydreamed about the impact you might have on the world. Now, I urge you, with every ounce of strength I have, to conquer new worlds, open yourself to those new experiences and grasp at all of the future offers that may come your way.

My son didn’t seem ready for high school, unlike my daughter who three years previously had been desperate to move on. I worried about them both though, fretted through minute after minute of my working day, desperate to just walk back through my front door and see them, ask them how it had all been.

Both have had interesting ‘rides’ through high school thus far, as probably any kid does. They’re doing well though and both survived those first days! As did their parents! My son isn’t quite so full of wonder as he had been at primary school and is perhaps finding the transition quite tough. We suspected as much, given that he missed nearly all of the last 6 months of primary school and Year 6 and didn’t get any real transition between the two schools due to Covid-19. So all the worry that is conveyed in the poem wasn’t misplaced.

It’s a very personal poem and although I talked about him heading to high school quite a bit with my wife, my son and some friends, this was my main way of opening up about it all and probably where any actual emotion came out. I think my wife showed enough devastation for both of us at the time, so it felt important that I stayed strong. I can’t remember too much about it all now, but I imagine, writing late at night that I must have shed a tear or two. It’s such an emotive photograph!

I hope that if and when other parents read it they’ll perhaps recognise their own feelings and experiences in there too. It’s a longer poem, but I’d like to think that’s alright, given the subject matter. I won’t explain any intricacies of the language in there as some of it is personal to both my wife and son and their relationship and it’s probably not my place to share so fully. On a similar note, I’ve not used the photo that I tried to build the poem around, as again I don’t think it’s one that needs to be shared with the world (or the few people who’ll read this!). So the child in the image accompanying the poem isn’t mine! He just looked small enough and vulnerable enough to represent the subject matter!

Most of all, I hope you enjoy the poem. I hope it doesn’t bring back too many traumatic memories in any parents who read! When a child moves up to ‘big school’ it really is quite the event and I felt it was just too much to deal with unless I got it down on paper. Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.