Poetry Blog: Rain on the roof

There’s no great mystery about this poem. Quite simply, it was prompted by rainfall on my classroom roof. It’s quite a cool noise I suppose and I think the sight of it and the relief I felt at being indoors and being able to just sit and watch and listen to it, was quite inspirational.

I have what I think is referred to as an outdoor classroom. It’s not actually outdoors, but it’s a stand alone building away from the main buildings of school. Maybe they’re trying to tell me something. My classroom is actually known as the ecopod; I think it’s supposed to be eco-friendly, but I’ve never really worked out why. The structure is covered with wood and we have skylights and also movement activated lighting, so I suppose there’s something in the name. That said, because it’s wooden, early on in its school life my room was also widely known as Nandos…

It was the skylights that partly influenced the poem, which is basically about the sound and the sight of the rain during a particularly heavy downpour about a week ago. My class were working and the rain just got me thinking, so I scribbled some lines down on a bit of paper and went back to it later to finish what I’d started.

Rain on the roof

Incessant, unrelenting and blended into almost one wonderful noise,
you set the tone, make me feel glad of these four walls
and the roof above, reluctant to leave and glad of my warm, dry room.
Through the window a filter of unedifying grey
blights the green of fields and trees, makes fools of the eyes,
blurring houses, factories, towns on the horizon.
The vague hope of home is lost in the mist
as the rain plays its song on the skylight.
This will pass before I venture out once more,
but its footprint will remain for hours yet.

The effect of rain on the roof of my classroom always raises a smile. It will always prompt at least 50% of the group to stop working. Next we might get an incredulous ‘Woah’ before finally eyes turn to the windows in order to watch the downpour. It’s as if the rain couldn’t actually be happening if all they could do was hear it! And given that we live in the north of England, where rain is fairly frequent, it never fails to amaze me that my students can be so captivated by something as simple as this and that they see on such a regular basis. That was kind of what I meant in the last line as you can always guarantee that your class will struggle to behave if it’s raining. Throw some wind into the equation and you’ve got a battle on your hands!

From my classroom windows I can see in the direction that I live and am able to spot certain places that I’ll pass on the journey home. It can be a bit of a comfort when I’m having a bad day. And so, when it’s misty and cloudy all of that disappears; hence the line about the ‘vague hope of home’. Strange how such a simple thing can spark so much into happening!

As always, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment.

A New School Year: Five Predictions for September

I’m writing this on the Sunday before the last week of my summer holiday commences. Before I know it it’ll be the Sunday before school starts again. Already, I’ve got the fear. If you’re a fellow teacher, you’ll know the fear.

But rather than write about how terrifying it all is to go back to work and get strapped somewhat unwillingly into the education rollercoaster for another year’s worth of fun and frivolity, I thought I’d just make some predictions about what I can see happening within a few weeks.

It’s safe to say that I’m firmly in the category – one that I’ve literally just made up – of grizzled, cynical, tired old knobhead in terms of the type of teacher I am. It’s a category that think Ofsted are yet to recognise, but it’s definitely a category. Despite the label, this doesn’t stop me from doing my job effectively and I’m still reasonably sure that my students enjoy my teaching and that my colleagues enjoy working alongside me. And when I say ‘alongside’ what I mean is that years ago they stuck me in an outside classroom while they nestled together on a corridor, are safe in the knowledge that there’s not enough room for me in the office, but still enjoy my more absurd emails and the fact that I’m rather good at swearing and character assassination. I mean, everybody has to have their uses, right?

Thinking about September leaves me cold. It’s not because I don’t enjoy my job, because I do. Like any job it has its downsides, but ultimately I do enjoy my job. However, to me – and I can’t be the only one – September represents the end of a lovely spell of time where I get paid for doing nothing. And anything I actually do is my choice and can be done at my own pace. Who wouldn’t enjoy this? So when September comes and my six weeks of paid leisure time come to an end, well I’m bitter to say the least.

So how do I envisage September going? In no particular order, here are my 5 predictions.

  1. Someone will introduce an idea or a process or a system that will utterly baffle me. And the more I give thought to said idea, process, system, the more I’ll be convinced that it’s been introduced before, at least three times. Everything is cyclical in teaching. I will instantly hate this idea, whether there’s a reason to hate it or not. I have no doubt that this idea will be introduced in a staff briefing or at a meeting where I am required to stay quiet and keep a straight face. I will achieve both of these things by covering my face with both hands and pretending that I am doing this because it’s been a long day, regardless of the actual time of day. A good example of this type of thing, and to be fair it’s one straight off the top of my head, was the introduction of ‘Growth Mindset’ which as far as I could see would have been done better if someone had got out a guitar and started performing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. If they’d done ‘Kumbaya’ as an encore, I’d have bought into the whole idea in a heartbeat.
  2. I will forget my log in details for almost everything I need to log in to. I will also forget how to use all of the systems apart from SIMs. I’ll be OK with SIMs, which for some reason has stuck with me, but everything else will leave me feeling like a lost child, despite that fact that we’ll have a cohort of Year 7s whose job it is to feel exactly like this. I will undoubtedly do ‘lost child’ better than they will. By far the favourite here in the race to be forgotten is the system we use for Performance Management. Firstly, I will forget my log in details and when someone that I email for help sends them to me, I will lose what they send. Or I’ll shut down completely and just continue to use what I think are my log in details until I am forced into an act of sheer petulance, such as throwing things from my desk to various parts of my room. Don’t worry, this is usually an after school ritual. Usually. Then, when someone has literally pressed the key for me and spoken about it in their gentle Disney mummy voice to me, I will access said system and find myself unable to work it. I will shout, I will swear, I will stride around my room throwing times that I previously evacuated from my desk, back at the desk. None of this will work. Only by slow process of elimination will I finally arrive at a screen I need and then I will read my targets and not understand what they mean. At this point I will realise that it’s getting dark outside and that I should probably go home, safe in the knowledge that I will have forgotten everything by the next time I come to use said system.
  3. My desk will be consumed by stationary by the Wednesday of the first week. And this, by the way, is a conservative estimate. Monday is entirely possible as the winner that romps home in this race. I will receive so many handouts, folscap folders full of ‘useful’ documents, emails that I siphon down onto post its and instructions from people that I scrawl onto random bits of paper that I will forget what colour my desk is within a matter of hours. Anyone who visits my room will be forced to try and disguise the fact that their eyeballs may well pop from their sockets when they see my desk. They will fail in this mission. I won’t give a shit, but for a select few I will offer the explanation that I know where everything is when in fact I don’t even know what most of it is, let alone where it’s been put. Meanwhile, the cleaner will attempt to force everything into neat piles, nightly, by way of being helpful. She no doubt believes me to be some kind of animal. In turn, I will smear said piles around my desk daily, proving her theory to be right. As the week continues I will add several seating plans to the pile as well. Then I’ll lose them.
  4. I will fill in far too many things on my desktop Weekly Planner. To make matters worse, my friend Charlotte will still be on maternity leave – the selfish cow – and will not be able to add helpful reminders such as ‘Nail appointment’ or ‘Buy sweets’, which always make me smile. I may add bogus jobs of my own, just to confuse anyone else who is timetabled in my room, such as just writing ‘Colonic, Tuesday’ in one of the rows. 75% of the jobs that I put on my weekly list will remain undone for some time and my weekly planner will stay on the same week well into October. It will no doubt have some nice doodles on it though, so you know…every cloud and all that.
  5. I will arrive in my classroom full of good intentions about how it looks. I will vow to change the displays, swear that this year will definitely be the year I put up the roll of blackboard paper I bought and finally recreate the Mr. Crosby’s Wonderwall that I last had in a classroom 7 years ago and I will promise myself that I will start to point out some of the inspirational signs around the room designed to help students and myself out during lessons. I will also look around other classrooms and think to myself, ‘Oooh, that’s a good idea’ with every intention of nicking it and putting my own slant on it for my own classroom. Weeks will pass and I will have scribbled out the names on the pieces of work on display so that no one can tell that this Year 8 display was done by kids now in in Year 11. The blackboard paper will still be in my cupboard and it will occasionally catch my eye making me think, today was gonna be the day…before I find something else, less taxing to do. I will realise that I’ve probably clocked up 100 hours of teaching and instead of pointing out inspirational signs I’ll have just said something like, ‘Right, come on then, let’s get this done’ and I will have forgotten whatever good idea I had admired three weeks ago. In fact, it will have slipped from my mind as I walked down the corridor from the very room I saw it in. I will steadfastly refuse to change the time on my clock to the actual clock.

So there we have it. Five predictions, that I hope are not just restricted to me. Surely I’m not the only teacher who seems to stumble through September? I hope you enjoyed them. As ever, let me know in the comments what you thought and of course feel free to leave your own September predictions. I’d love to read about how you see our favourite month going! Regardless of how it goes though, let’s hope teaching and education is slightly easier this year and that we find things getting back to some kind of normality. Thanks for reading.

My Hopes for Summer

It’s been a strange old year. The academic one, that is. I’ve found it a bit of a struggle, but always try to keep stuff to myself – he says, writing a blog that thousands hundreds fourteen or fifteen people will read – and so I don’t think many people would realise. Apart from a few people that I’d class as relatively close to me, who either notice that I’m not myself or that I might just confide in.

It’s cliched, pompous and pretty poor form for me to say that I’ve been to Hell and back, mainly because I haven’t. But I think it’s fair to say that I’ve boarded the bus to there a few times in these last twelve months or so. I just got off a few stops early.

I won’t divulge much by way of detail, but a lot of my problems have been either work related or age related and despite the presence of more than enough good people in my life, I’ve felt very alone at times. If you know me, please don’t mistake this as a cry for help; it’s not. Imagine the mess I’d make of one of those! But, I have felt alone. It’s no one’s fault. Worse things probably do happen at sea, as they say. I mean, imagine who you could get stuck next to on a deckchair on your dream cruise for instance. That’s if cruises even do deckchairs. I’m aware that everyone has their problems though.

Given the age nature of some of my problems, you could be excused for mistaking this for a mid-life crisis. It isn’t. But if it was, I think only I could get it so badly wrong. No Porsche, no ponytail, no piercing or ill judged tattoo and no cringeworthy flirting with younger women as I struggle to cling on to my youth and masculinity. No, if it has been a mid-life crisis, I did it by writing a blog and some poems. Trust me to err on the side of a cautious crisis.

With all of this in mind, my summer break can’t come soon enough. Six weeks of not going to work but getting up in the morning with each day stretching out in front of you and a lot more possibilities than usual. Bliss. I’m even looking forward to the mundanity of jobs around the house and garden. Anything that takes my mind away from the type of things that I find are bugging me on a daily basis at the moment.

So what do I plan to do with my time? I always imagine that the summer holidays is some kind of blank slate upon which I will write a novel, do some sketching, do more running and fitness, watch some football, do some decorating, but in fact life gets in the way. The mundane still needs to be done, so there’s food shopping twice a week, days out to places I don’t really want to head to, but have to in my role as dad and husband, shopping trips for uniform and school shoes and endless talking and planning about jobs that we need to get done, but run out of time to do. So it’s a balancing act between idealism and everyday life.

A friend used to say that, as teachers, our summer holidays were worth £10,000 a year and I have to say that I’ve always agreed. I can live without the extra money, but don’t even think about taking my holidays away.

I imagine that at this time of year every teacher is simply hanging on in there for the end of term. I’m exhausted and I need to know that there’s a block of time when I don’t need to be up and out of the door before 7.30am five days a week, I don’t need to be dealing with the demands of 30 pupils and everything else that comes with working in a modern academy trust.

Most of all I need the time and space to be able to think. I’ve been a teacher for over 20 years now and have found things a little stale this year. At the very least, summer gives me time away form it all, enough to be able to re-charge my batteries, so to speak and to work on regaining some of my old enthusiasm.

I have some serious questions to ask. I need to think about retirement plans because ideally it’s not that far off and I want to be well and truly prepared so that I can spend it doing stuff that makes me, my wife and my family happy.

I also need to give thought to my present role. While I don’t feel tremendously unhappy, I also don’t feel tremendously fulfilled and it’s clear that something needs to change. Whether that’s where I work or just how I go about doing my job, I don’t know, but it needs some serious thinking time. I still have ambitions as a teacher and I think I’ve let things drift a little off course. I love my job, the school that I work at and the people that I work with, but something still doesn’t quite feel right and at least this summer gives me time to figure things out. Summer might just give me time to relax and be able to start all over again in September refreshed and raring to go.

I started writing a novel during lockdown. I know, I know…half of the population started writing novels and screenplays over lockdown. But I genuinely felt that what I was writing was good. It was a fully formed idea, rather than just something half baked that I believed I could make into something as I went, but it got shelved somewhat once I returned to work. It is without doubt something that I’ll be revisiting over summer, with the intention of getting at least a first draft finished. I figure all I’ll need is a typical British summer with just enough rain to keep me indoors for long periods of time and I’ll have the timeframe needed! It’s definitely something that I feel positive about though, and definitely one of the most exciting aspects of my summer.

There are lots of other things that I want to achieve over summer, as well as the kind of things that just need doing and can no longer be avoided when everyone knows you have so much time on your hands!

I’ll be looking to run more and get fitter and I think that will involve as many early mornings as I can manage as I just love the freedom and solitude of being out running at that time of day. I even have a race to take part in in early August and I’m looking forward to testing myself against others again. It’s been such a long time since I ran among lots of people, so it’ll be very strange, but I’m sure hugely exciting too. If nothing else there’s a blog that’ll come out of it! Once I get that out of the way, I’m hoping that there might be the opportunity to compete in at least one more as well. I think I need to get back to fitness workouts too, so if nothing else I’ll be revisiting my old friend Joe Wicks’s YouTube channel and flinging myself into that!

We have a holiday to go to as well. We’ve managed to book a week in North Wales, despite rising costs and demand, post Covid, and it’ll be lovely just to relax on our favourite beach. It’s always a good place to do all of that post work reflection!

I’ve also considered taking in a bit of sport. I don’t think it’ll be football, as I think I fancy something different. Before lockdown I was looking into going to watch our ice hockey team, Leeds Chiefs (now Leeds Knights) but Covid scuttled that plan. I think it’s something I’ll revisit, but the season doesn’t seem to commence until September. I’m considering taking in some games in the upcoming new format of cricket in the UK, The Hundred. We have a team based in Leeds and I reckon that the shorter format might be enough to keep my son’s interest, so I may well have a look.

But it can’t all be exciting over summer. There are a lot of humdrum jobs that need to be caught up on. I have a back garden that resembles a jungle and is in need of major maintenance. My wife seems to have big plans that centre around the movement of some long standing shrubs – and we’re talking plants that are my height and above here – and I would imagine that this will end up being a time consuming job.

Summer always sees decorating rearing it’s ugly head in our house too. My daughter’s bedroom – recently started while she was away on her Duke of Edinburgh expedition – needs to be finished. Our kitchen and dining room still awaits and our bedroom could really do with updating as well. And I see that I’m stretching myself quite a bit here and that there’s quite possible no chance at all that these rooms will all get finished, by the way! But if we can’t be optimistic at this time of year, then when can we be?

I hope to be able to visit my parents for the first time in something like 20 months, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’ll be able to happen. Having spoken to them, they still seem very reticent and fairly paranoid about Covid. Despite us being double jabbed, I think that my mother in particular would rather avoid contact and I have to respect that. There’ll no doubt be conversations to be had, but I’m starting to wonder if the thought of hugging my parents once again will remain just that for a while longer yet. Hopefully I’ll have some nice weather to offer some comfort instead…

So, with a few days still to get through at work, my summer holiday feels like it’s more important than it’s perhaps ever been. Clearly, I’m going to benefit from the time, but hopefully I’ll find lots to do and be able to enjoy lots of it with my family and friends. I’ve no doubt there’ll be a few unexpected surprises; there usually are, but in all, I’m just hoping to feel a lot more settled about everything by the time September rolls around again. I feel that I need to be coming back to work feeling an enthusiasm that not only gets me through the first week, but keeps me going for long enough that I’m not starting to feel restless again.

Whatever form it takes and whatever you’ve got planned, enjoy your Summer everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay safe everyone!

Back to School again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with women – it’s a ton of fun being in the minority!

The guys tried to hide their excitement and look professional, but the chance to book drag queen tickets didn’t come along that often. Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

I’ve wanted to write this blog for a long while now, but I’ve never been sure of the approach to take. For me it’s a topic worth writing about because it’s a part of my life that I really enjoy, but I can’t help but think it’s a tricky topic to broach and get right. Writing a blog about working with women for instance may flag up warning signs of some kind of pervert. I mean, we all know ‘lads’ who’s imaginations would go into overdrive just at the thought of being in a room with several women. Not me. Apart from anything else, I don’t rate myself highly enough to actually head down that route! Every woman I’ve worked with had eyes. They can all see what a lanky, awkward knobhead they’re working with!

Or maybe people might expect some kind of sexist rant about female colleagues not being up to the job. Again, not my thing. Of course there have been exceptions along the way, but so many of the women I’ve worked with or am working with are extremely talented, hard working and driven by a love of what they do. They can handle anything! I think though, the main reason that I wanted to write a blog on this subject was to try and get across how brilliant working with women has been for me. And when I say ‘working with women’, I’m generally referring to being the only man in the place. It’s never been a 50/50 split or even a close run thing.

Being outnumbered, so to speak, doesn’t faze or intimidate me. In fact, it’s never felt like any kind of problem. But I can see that for some men, working within a department of 10 or more women as the only man would probably be terrifying. Well let me try and express why I’ve always loved being one of the girls then!

As an English teacher in high schools, I’ve worked, often as a lone man in departments chock full of women for the best part of twenty years and it’s never anything less than entertaining. So, I couldn’t possibly write some kind of misogynistic rant. It has to be more of a fond recollection of the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learnt. That and the chance to gently mock some of my colleagues…

Working with women is…eventful, to say the least. It’s generally fun, but can also be incredibly stressful because…how to phrase this…well let’s just say that, in my experience, women are a great deal more complicated than men. And that’s not a criticism. Goodness me, dogs are quite often more complicated than men. And conversely, as a simple – in every sense of the word – man, maybe that’s why women can seem so complicated. But working in a female dominated environment daily throws up the kind of bizarre and hilarious situations that I don’t think I’d ever tire of.

That said, my first proper English department should have put me off working with women for life. There were two men and 8 women, if I remember rightly and I quickly found out that the other man in the department was the target of much mocking at the hands of the female teachers. Much of it was horribly personal – about his appearance, his sexual prowess etc – and I became aware fairly quickly that I was possible only missing out on being the victim of this ‘hilarious’ banter because I was new to both the school and the profession. Luckily, I’m fairly quick with a verbal response and for a while I held my own when the inevitable happened.

However, I’m not sure someone standing up to them was what some of the women in that department wanted. Without boring you with the finer details, let’s just say that they found a way to bully me which resulted in me leaving the school after just two years. In fact, it was so bad that I considered leaving the profession. Some of my female colleagues were wonderful people, but none of them actually stood up for me or spoke out about what was happening. One of the more sympathetic ones smiled, shrugged and avoided the topic. She later went on to become the Head of the school.

I still vividly remember being physically and verbally bullied by two particular women on a night out at the end of my first year of teaching. It wasn’t a vicious assault, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to have an enjoyable 2nd year in teaching. They literally told me as much. Still, as prepared as I was, it was worse than I could have imagined and by the end of the year I had a new job to go to, but was reasonably certain that I’d be back working as a civil servant sooner rather than later. I was a complete mess for the experience and not really a person that I recognised anymore. This teaching lark, with its girl gangs, just wasn’t for me!

I didn’t quit though. In fact, I lasted 10 years at my next school. And this time it was largely the women that I worked with that kept me there. Regardless of age – they were all younger than me – the women I worked with became my big sisters. They were always a great deal more mature and responsible than me and undoubtedly brighter. I adored working with them. They filled me full of confidence by laughing at the majority of my jokes and poking gentle fun at me and more or less just giving me the platform to become the department show off, a role that I was absolutely born to play! When they fell out with anyone – husbands, partners, colleagues – I felt defensive and would try to offer advice or just an ear to rant into. They were my big sisters and I was their little brother – the Scrappy Doo to their Velmas and Daphnes if you like!

When I got married and then had two children they were all there for me. This was never more evident than when my children were born and there were worries about their size and health. My ‘sisters’ would rally round and reassure me that everything was going to be alright. In return I’d play up even more as the class clown and they’d continue to boost for ever inflating ego by laughing along.

Those particular women in that department probably helped me to be at my very best. I barely spoke for the first 18 months of working there and it was my big sisters that encouraged me. Without them, I simply wouldn’t be a teacher anymore and I think I’d be a lot quieter and less interesting person as well. Not that I’m claiming to be particularly interesting!

In my experience women are just more fun than men. There’s little shame and no particular ego. I worked in that department for 10 years and we would take time out from the stress of the job to have things like music quizzes and themed days. At one particular time we held a Lionel Richie themed day, playing his songs in the office, wearing masks of his face and willing each other on to get his lyrics into our lessons. I’m not sure blokes would be quite so carefree and as silly in this particular kind of way. Despite my age I’m still very much a child at heart and I still take a huge amount of pleasure from memories like walking into colleagues’ classrooms on that day and asking, in front of a bemused class, ‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ before leaving with a straight face that quickly buckled into a fit of giggles. I’m not sure a lot of my male colleagues would have gone for this taste in jokes. But my female colleagues would allow me to have stupid ideas and actually entertain them. I have to say that for almost all of those ten years, I was in my element.

Working among so many women has definitely left me with a lot of dilemmas though. Mainly these would fall into the harassment folder. I’ve always been reticent to compliment my female colleagues, both in a professional manner or a personal one. If I observe and watch a genuinely good lesson am I being viewed as patronising them if I give a compliment? I always feel like I’m coming across as saying ‘Hey, that wasn’t bad… for a girl’! And I’m certain that this is just down to my own paranoia.

Then there’s personal compliments. If, when surrounded by female colleagues, you tell someone they look nice, or their new hairdo really suits them (because yes, I notice), am I coming across as an old perv? Rightly or wrongly, that’s genuinely how I feel I’d be perceived. But then I guess that the alternative might run to working in a factory and shamelessly telling a male colleague that he looked good in his overalls or something.

‘Ooh, Gary. Those overalls hang lovely off your shoulders and they just cling to your sugerlumps. You look fantastic!’ I’m not sure I’d just have my own thoughts to deal with in this situation. So I think the paranoia of complimenting a female colleague is probably worth it. Either way, all it takes to be able to look at someone and tell them that they look nice is to be in possession of at least one working eye. It’s not difficult, but I hope you can understand this particular dilemma. But it’s nice to be working with people that I feel I can compliment.

In my present job I’m once again the only man in the department. Or rather, the only full time male teacher in the department as the head is also an English teacher, but is usually a little busy with running a school to be able to join me and the girls. In all, there’s me and nine women; ten if you include the fact that our student teacher is also female. It’s a fantastic school in a disadvantaged area with a diverse cohort of students and a brilliant staff who, day in day out, come to work to give the kids in our community the best chances possible in life. I love my job.

It’s made all the better by the colleagues in my department, who if I’m honest, were the reason for writing this particular blog. I’ve been in this role for 5 years now and the women I work with have become my new big sisters. Once again they’re all younger than me. Some in fact are so young that I am old enough to be their dad. And if you’re one of my new big sisters and you’re reading this, let me repeat that, just for fun. I’m old enough to be your dad!

So happy in my work am I that one day, when something happened that I really didn’t understand, it prompted me to write. Because this thing could only have been presented to me, in the way it was presented, by my colleagues; my new big sisters.

It started in the morning meeting. Bizarelly – and remember, I’m a 48-year-old working class, Northern male – several of my colleagues were excitedly talking about drag queens; Ru Pauls’ drag queens to be precise. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t put drag queens and highly intelligent young women together. As I say, old, gruff, working class Geordie. It’s my problem, not theirs. But I just couldn’t understand. Suffice to say, I sat through this ‘meeting’ and really didn’t contribute aside from the odd curious smile.

And then, not long after the meeting, I received the following email, which I’ve cut and pasted below for your delectation.

From: Laylor, Nindsey (that’s not her real name, but I’ve cleverly disguised it).
Sent: 25 September 2019 08:46
To: English Dept
Subject: Extra-Curricular Meeting 3:30pm – Heels of Hell – Drag Qweeeeeeeeen show

Hi guys,

Who fancies this???? Ru Paul Drag Queen Halloween show, Leeds O2 Tuesday 22nd October! We’re going to meet in my classroom after p7 (3:30) to book tickets.

hoh19[1]

Graham, I know you are well up for this, here’s what you can expect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q63RoZ9v4X0

Queeeeeennnnssss Everywhere!!!!!!!!

xxx

We won’t mention the spelling but to clarify, I was not ‘up for this’. I did click on the YouTube link though and it seemed to awaken some very strange feelings in me. It didn’t. That was a joke. And dad, if by some strange quirk of fate you read this, it didn’t awaken any feelings, that was really just a joke.

I’ve got nothing against drag queens (or even queeeeennnnnssss, for that matter). I hold no grudge with Ru Paul and I’ve never had a problem with Sharon Needles or Latrice Royale. And as matter of fact I count Biqtch Puddin as a personal friend (that’s another joke, dad). I just didn’t understand. The level of surprise is another reason why I enjoy working with women so much though. When I walked into our meeting I was genuinely not expecting anything so left field as a discussion on drag queens, let alone another meeting about them. As ever, when I walked into our meeting I was expecting t sit there sleeping with my eyes open. It’s my default meeting setting.

Drag Queen surprises aren’t the only surprises I get on a regular basis via my Big Sisters. I’m well attuned to walking into the office and a discussion about Weight Watchers or Fat Club as it’s often referred to. Being around 10 stone dripping wet, these types of discussions mean nothing to me. But I’d count myself as some kind of expert on the types of things that we should avoid eating and the kinds we’re allowed as treats.

Conversely, my Big Sisters are quite the sight when someone happens to bring in food like crisps or chocolate. The guilt is still there and all the ‘right’ things are said, but I’ll be honest, it’s not long before someone has opened the thing that no one was going to open and tucked in! And if you happen to be in there during lesson time it won’t be long before one of the ladies just happens to be passing and can’t resist something chocolatey! I find it all nothing short of entertaining. In fact, I should start to run a sweepstake or some kind of bingo around the kind of things I expect to hear. Phrases such as ‘Keep those mini rolls away from me’ are an absolute guarantee and it always makes me laugh, the thought that the mini rolls might be expected to aggressively follow someone round the room until they get eaten!

Among the other highlights are the random dances (one colleague will Grapevine on request. She’s also been known to stand singing the theme tune to Mr Tumble in the corridor), the accents (my friend Emma puts a particular spin on any accent that I’d never heard before until my daughter got old enough to start trying), the frequent period talk (that’s right Graham, we’re talking about PERIODS!), the rants about partners (one colleague would regularly put the phone down after having spoken to their husband and just say ‘Knobhead‘. For ages I just thought she was trying to get my attention) and the unexpected swearing (I thought I had a mouth like a docker, but in actual fact some of my female colleagues make me sound like the announcer on one of the old Pathe news reels). The crying I can do without and I’ve been known to just quietly leave a room when one or more of my Big Sisters are in tears! Not helpful and not supportive, I know, but then again there are 10 of them and I think they could literally cry me a river.

So there we have it. Having got to the end of the blog, I’m still not entirely sure what the point is. I definitely had a point when the idea occurred to me, but it doesn’t really feel like it materialised along the way! I suppose I just wanted to share my experiences and write about how much fun I’ve had at work. In all, working with a gang of women is just a joy. And apart from those first two years in teaching, it always has been. I’m entering my third decade of working in the minority, so to speak, and I look forward to every day. I’ve made amazing friends, have fantastic working relationships and have gained many ‘big sisters’ along the way. I’d definitely recommend it!