That difficult first week back: This teacher’s diary.

Having written a blog a couple of weeks ago about my predications for September and seeing that people seemed to genuinely enjoy the mixture of cynicism and ridiculousness, I thought I’d diarise my first week back at work as a high school teacher. Typically, having been thrust straight back into the chaos of a high school, it’s taken longer to write than I thought!

The first week actually went fairly well and wasn’t half as painful as I imagined it might be. And as a bonus, it seemed to pass very quickly. Where that first week back can sometimes feel as long as the holiday we’ve just enjoyed for us teachers, this one seemed to just take the required week’s worth of time, which is always nice. So here’s a look at the week.

Day 1

Having settled back into my classroom and thrown a few old resources out – new year, new start and all that – I went to a neighbouring classroom to attend our first online briefing of the year. It’s not a criticism to say that these are usually tedious affairs. I mean how do you talk about results, approaches to teaching, school routines etc without it sounding a bit boring? So, it’s safe to say that although my eyes are open, my ears are at least partially shut. My brain, as ever, is focusing 90% of its efforts anything but what’s going on in front of me.

Talk of disadvantaged students makes my mind wander and I’m faced with the horrific realisation of my own disadvantaged school days. Here, because we didn’t have a great deal of money, my trousers were bought at Geordie Jeans – a kind of budget version of a charity shop with the emphasis on cheap versions of last year’s styles – and for at least one year, my jumpers were knitted by my mam. The memory of those jumpers alone makes me almost squeeze into a corner in embarrassment and it’s a wonder I don’t shed a tear.

Our Head Teacher’s briefing is held in the hall, meaning that I’m thrust into a crowded environment where I’m not really Covid comfortable. So I make a beeline for a back row.

The briefing is quite an entertaining affair, but I’ll mention a few highlights. Firstly – and forgive me, I can’t remember what parallel was being made – but the Harry Potter Castle is mentioned. The toy version, that is. Apparently it costs the best part of £400 and it makes me think they’d need a special kind of magic to get my credit card out of my wallet to pay for it. More pertinently though, I didn’t even realise that there was a Harry Potter castle. If there’s a castle, what on Earth is Hogwarts then?

Further to this, our head then throws in a couple of old photographs of himself from the 90s. Definitely a highlight because it’s always funny to see those – dare I say it – embarrassing pictures from back in the day.

The rest of the day is spent both in my class preparing for the rest of the teaching week, as well as in more meetings. By the time I get home I’ve taken on the haunted look of a soldier returning from war. It’s going to be a long year.

Day 2

The hours before students actually come back to school are possibly the best few hours of any year. Sure, interaction with your classes is great, but it’ll never quite beat the serenity of pottering in your classroom while they’re not actually there. Suffice to say, I’m grateful for the fact the Year 11 have a later starting time today.

I’m grateful too for the fact that I manage to avoid the call to arms to go and welcome in our new Year 7 cohort as they make their way in, earlier than every one else. I don’t avoid it on purpose; I’m just in the repographics room having my daily wrestle with the various photocopiers in there. I leave with around 60% of what I came for, which is definitely above average for the spoils one takes when heading into battle with these machines. And anyway, it’s for the best that Year 7s aren’t greeted by me. It’ll make for a more enjoyable day for them, I’m sure.

Later, during an extended form period I have to explain that the school isn’t “all so strict” as one of my students claims. Rather, it’s the fact that minor issues like Covid meant that attention was diverted from things like uniform and make-up issues. In the fightback against Covid, masks, bubbles et al are somewhat under control and so we have time to address the fact that some people are dressed for a hen night, while others look like they’re planning to jog into the office in their black trainers. Not strict in terms of being in a school, when you think about it. A bit of a culture shock to some though, clearly.

In other news, I’m already developing a mint habit and a chewing gum addiction…

Day 3

Wednesday marks the first full day of school. And to mark the occasion, I’ve got a full day of teaching; 6 lessons, 4 different classes and a 2 hour lesson with my Year 11 form to start with. Exciting news…if you’re a masochist. It’ll only get better from next week when someone will add a Period 7 to the day and more Year 11 time.

To be fair, it’s mostly what we call expectations lessons today – going through plans, rules, giving out books etc followed by a short task or two if there’s time. But it’s not the work that’s the problem. It’s the managing the behaviour and emotions of 20-30 kids in a room after they’ve spent much of the last two academic years not in a room together.

By the end of the day I’m wiped out, a physical wreck. I’ve promised myself an early finish, but 4.30 ticks by and I’m still planning and trying to lay my hands on various bits of equipment, books and copying. An old headteacher used to tell us that it was like we were on an oil rig and wouldn’t see our families for a while during term time. I feel like I’m already staring longingly at the sea.

Day 4

Like a child on a long car journey, my head is full of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ And it’s a case of answering with ‘we are and we aren’t’. Thursday; not quite the weekend, but still in the right half of the week.

Year 11 start the day full of complaints. ‘We’ve done Macbeth’, they tell me almost to a man. Only we haven’t. We covered some of the context at the back end of last year and as the rest of the lesson reveals, they’ve forgotten it all anyway across the course of a six week summer.

I’m down to teach 2 periods of PSHCE to year 9 this year and today I have my first lesson. It’s about healthy and unhealthy relationships. One young man, who clearly doesn’t understand the concept of accents, tells me that I’ve got his name wrong. I point out that I haven’t and that’s it’s just a matter of pronunciation; as a Geordie I’m going to pronounce things differently to someone from Yorkshire. He refuses to understand. Apparently, I’m wrong and just got his name wrong. I guess we’re all learning about how to create an unhealthy relationship. From now on he’ll need to start making ours healthy again, otherwise it’s going to be a long year. For him.

Day 5

It’s taken what feels like 6 weeks to arrive but today is finally Friday. And while last year my Friday featured free periods from 11.30 until 2.45 (none of it wasted, by the way, always productive in order to reduce workload elsewhere) this year I have a full day of teaching. That Friday feeling is conspicuous by its absence.

Part way through Period 2 however, we have an assembly to go to, so at least my day is slightly reduced. I settle at the side of the hall to have a good view of the assembly and its audience, but also in order to ensure a swift getaway at the end. It is from this vantage point that I spot one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen, stomping its way across the floor. It is no exaggeration to say that this spider is the size of a dog. Maybe even a bear. OK, maybe it’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s big.

Across the course of the ten minute assembly, said spider mainly stays still. Clearly it can sense that I’m watching it. However, occasionally it makes a dart across the floor. I know this as the ground shakes when it moves; it’s that big. Before I know it this veritable monster is heading towards a girl on the front row and as anxious as I am about the shock she’ll get if and when she spots it, I’m more relieved that I wasn’t asked to pick it up and do the humane thing by accompanying it back outside. I’m not particularly bothered by spiders, but this one must have measured a couple of feet across and stood at least a foot tall…

There’s more drama later when one of my still new Year 8s decides he doesn’t really fancy the classroom today and follows up on his refusal to remove his head from the cover of his blazer by getting up and walking out, giving us all not one, but two middle fingers. Not on the same hand, I hasten to add. This little drama is equal measures frustrating yet mildly amusing but makes me worry about many of our pupils and what the future holds after the stability provided by our academy (and I take very little credit for this) is taken away.

The week ends with a huge outward breath followed by the realisation that my early finish still won’t happen. After students have left, I sit at my desk planning, catching up on various bits of admin and sending resources to print for photocopying. It’s getting close to 5pm by the time I leave.

It’s been a relatively stress free and smooth first week. In what will feel like a year it’ll be Christmas and my body will be screaming at me to stop. I’ll take stress free and smooth for now.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment, good or bad. I hope you enjoyed reading. Enjoy your next week at work!

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.

Back to School Diary – Thursday and Friday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to School Diary – Tuesday and Wednesday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to school diary – Sunday and Monday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!