This is a poem that I wrote about the transition to high school. It’s something that is very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment as for only the second time in a decade, I have a Year 7 form again. Not only this, but I start again on the merry-go-round of teaching English to a new Year 7 class too. So, this year I will see a Year 7 class at least once a day every day.
As one of the people most responsible for these new students, you tend to find that they’re on your mind quite a bit. So, a few days ago I found myself discussing a particular student in my new form with a colleague and it got me to thinking about this stage of their school careers. I began to think about my role, but also what I’d compare the Year 7s with and the image of fledgling birds in a nest came to mind. It’s not the most original thing, but I ended up writing the following poem from the idea.
Fledglings(A poem best read in your best David Attenborough voice...)
Safely incubated over the course of a carefree six week summer,
now is the time for parents to let go of
one more downy feather,
as their latest fledgling ventures out into another brave new world.
Shielded up to this point by everything familiar
and much the same routine for the last 6 years,
now almost everything will change.
Another journey is about to be made,
new lessons learned and, with a tear of trepidation,
they are pushed from the nest.
Pushing through a door, a portal to a new life of possibility and potential,
some upright, confident, ready, while others seem still to lack
the confidence that will see them take flight.
Gathering in groups or shuffling into corners where adult eyes
are immediately alerted to the potential for danger
or a plan being hatched.
Already, lines are being drawn...
From here, a steep learning curve will be climbed
by choosing haphazardly from a list including
bravado, belligerence and bewilderment.
There will be casualties along the way,
tears and tantrums, but eventually all will thrive in one way or another
as confidence grows, feathers are earned and flight, however cautiously,
is taken, and however long it may take,
is embarked upon in order to begin yet another grueling journey.
With this poem – as with lots of the others that I write – it started with a few lines just arriving in my head after a little bit of thought. Usually, from there I’ll scribble them down and try to write more, before I decide what goes together…and sometimes even what it’s about!
The difference with Fledglings was that when forming those few lines in my head I could ‘hear’ the voice of David Attenborough reading them! As I wrote more, this just seemed to keep happening until, in the end, I just decided to try and write the whole thing as if it part of the narration of a show like Planet Earth. I really liked the idea of having a bit of fun with the poem. After all, it’s a very simple metaphor, so there had to be something else that anyone reading might find interesting! I hope that it’s a ‘twist’ that other people like. And I really hope that it’s not just me that sees or hears the poem this way. Maybe, if you find yourself a quiet space, you could try to read it in your best David Attenborough voice…
As ever, feel free to leave a comment as I always enjoy people’s thoughts about what I write, especially the poems!
Last week I posted a blog about that difficult first week back as a teacher. The anxiety, the new classes, the lottery that can be a timetable, building relationships and even just having to get out of bed a couple of hours earlier. Having spent 6 weeks living life at a slower pace, it can all be a bit much.
However, every year I tell myself the same thing. I tell colleagues too. And I tell my long suffering family, who have had to live with this ‘even grumpier in September’ bloke for far too long: get the first two weeks out of the way and it’ll be alright.
That first two weeks essentially allows me to find my feet and reminds me that I can in fact do my job effectively, having spent the previous two weeks – without fail, every year – feeling like I’m going to stand at the front of the classroom, trying to teach, but just not remembering how to do it anymore. My students will talk over me until it all gets out of control and I end up in a tearful heap on the floor! It never happens that way though.
My first two weeks have been incredibly busy, hectic at times, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Really, it’s been OK. I feel like I’ve found my feet quite quickly and that the confidence that is needed at the front of that classroom has returned and allowed me to jus do my job without too much stress at all. I’m back in the old routine, using the same skills, adapting to different texts and techniques, learning some of the new names that I have to learn (this always takes me a while) and even managing to get through meetings without too many thoughts of simply throwing myself out of the nearest window. I knw that will come though!
There have been some minor challenges as well. Sadly, I’ve noticed that my eyesight has got a bit worse, meaning that I can’t read the register without my glasses and that certain texts have been a little more difficult to read through than they were a year ago. In vanity news, I have had to come to work for 9 days with hair that has looked like a hedge left to its own devices for a number of years until it has just become untamed. This, courtesy of my hairdresser who had the audacity to go off on holiday without warning…for a month. Until last night I hadn’t had a haircut for over 10 weeks, which was beginning to cause me some trouble!
In one of my classes I have a student with a hearing impairment, which requires me to were a kind of digital microphone that hangs round my neck like a lanyard. Much to the student’s delight, I forget about it, without fail, every lesson and she has to remind me. But even this is good in a way as it allows me to overact, like some kind of pantomime dame, and really ham it up about how useless I am and what a great helper she is. Sometimes, even the simplest of things can make a student smile!
So, while it’s been as difficult a couple of weeks as I’d imagined, it’s not been too bad and it’s funny how old habits die hard. As the headline suggests, it really is like riding a bike…provided you could ride one in the first place!
I’ve been a teacher now for 22 years. It’s a job I love – despite the fact that I fell into it, rather than approaching it as some kind of vocation – yet a job that causes all manner of stress. And one of the biggest causes of stress is the first week back after summer.
If you’re a non teacher, I see the irony in that last statement. You don’t get 6 weeks off in summer and therefore probably think it’s decidedly ungrateful to feel stressed about going back to work after such a long break. Truthfully, I don’t really care what others think. It’s how an awful lot of us feel and probably not something that can be understood too well if you’re not in the job.
Some teachers are seemingly full of enthusiasm for the first week in September. I’m still not convinced by this enthusiasm though. To me, it seems simple; you’ve been on full pay for six weeks during summer and within reason you can get up to whatever takes your fancy. A wonderful way to live one’s life and the closest some of us are ever going to get to some kind of carefree celebrity lifestyle (albeit it as decidedly Z list celebrities). But then someone orders you back to work and all of the early starts, late finishes, politics, behavioural issues , meetings…children and everything else that comes with being a teacher. What a pain in the arse!
I thought I’d write a post reflecting back on some of my experiences in the first week back this year. I feel sure that any teachers who read, or indeed anyone who works in education will recognise at least some of what will follow.
The first day back used to be a time for easing yourself back in and just generally getting things sorted out. Then someone had the brainwave; the brainwave that became known as an Inset day! In my experience this started out as having to endure a couple of hours of various members of SLT talking at you about results, routines and – shudder – mission statements. There’d be some graphs that you didn’t really understand, but smiled through anyway because you knew you’d be released back to your classroom soon enough.
Gradually, this developed into things like lectures and group activities, often prompted by the dreaded phrase, “You’re going to work together” while you gawp at the people from different departrments that, if you’re me, you don’t know the names of. One of the worst of these was on some Head of Department training over a decade ago when we had to develop strategies for what was called a marketplace activity where students work in groups and then ‘teach’ other students via the presentation on their ‘stall’. I can still hear a woman bellowing “Roll up, roll up!” at the top of her voice in an affected cockernee accent as she got deep into character and it still makes me want to crawl under the nearest rock.
This year, our first day back was spent in two locations. Make of that what you will. We started off at the lead school in our trust for what felt like 36 hours before returning back to the more familiar surroundings of our own school later on for more briefings and I think 8 whole minutes of our own time to prepare for the next day when the kids came back. At several points during the briefings I snapped back to reality faced with the fact that I’d probably just been staring blankly at the person speaking for what could have been 7 or 8 minutes. I was finally able to leave work at just after 5pm, almost organised for the next day, only vaguely aware of my own name and already knackered.
Staggered returns have become a new way of thinking since I started in the job. So now, instead of Year 7 being plunged into big school, with all of the other enormous, scary students they’re given a bit of grace and allowed to come in before everyone else. Depending on the school, this might be for a few hours or a full day. We gave them half an hour (!) but then kept them in forms for most of the day to preserve their innocence for a little while longer. This was a particular delight for this grizzled old English teacher who has never been a fan of year 7s. By the time the whole school went to a token lesson for the last period I was delighted to see my Year 9s, having worn out my fake smile and Disney teacher voice and grown tired of repeating several variations of the phrase “If you’ve got any problems come and see me” with my fingers crossed behind my back. At least the later start allowed me a couple of precious hours of planning time, even if I couldn’t remember how to get my board on, leading to a call to IT support who then came down and, much to my shame, made it work by plugging it in.
Wednesday brought our first full day. By this point, the 6am alarm was taking its toll and my body had gone into a state of shock. My brain wasn’t coping well with the fact that both of own kids didn’t start school until Thursday, either.
My second lesson of the day was with our alternative curriculum lads in our internal PRU. I’ve never taught them before in this setting, but had taught several of them in mainstream school, so in a way I knew what to expect. They didn’t disappoint! Thus, after much calling out, the odd piece of bad language and every last one of them moaning about doing any work, they waited until I walked to the other side of the room and ignored them a bit before just doing the work. Wasn’t it Robin Williams who in his role as an inspirational teacher in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ said, while standing atop a desk, “kids, even in a non mainstream setting, are funny little buggers”? Well, he was spot on.
Thursday and Friday passed in a blur with Friday being all the more memorable for having to fend off the ‘we’re getting two weeks off school because the Queen died’ rumours all day. I told them that they were very wrong; it was three.
Friday also brought me into contact with a brilliant new Year 8 groups. They’re a very low ability group of only 8 students, with low literacy levels and a cavalcade of complex stories between them. Fifteen minutes in, I quickly emailed the friend that I’m sharing the class with to tell her that I wanted to adopt them all. I wanted to take them all home and cook them a nice, hearty meal before letting them watch telly for as long as they wanted. Every so often you get a group like this, who regardless of ability, you just adore. I am going to absolutely love teaching these kids!
And that was that. First week done, eyes barely open having zombie-walked through 5 whole days and done the commute on auto pilot, 4 trips to the supermarket because fatigue and stupidity made me miss something every time I went, sore feet and a Friday where I wore a black tie to somehow pay my respects for a lady who I never knew, but whose death shook the word. And while I remain convinced that I wasn’t born to work for a living, I’ve found out once again that it’s strange the way that you can slip back into the same routine as if you’d never been away.
It’s the kind of landmark day that you probably don’t give a passing thought to as a parent for quite some time. Not before your child is at least a decade old, I’d say. Until then, there are far too many landmarks to give thought to, meaning that those that are going to happen just as your kid is on the verge of adulthood (but still very much your little girl or little boy) won’t even occur to you. After all, with everything from emptying the contents of their stomach or bowels all over you to first steps, first words and first days of nursery and school, there’s a lot to think about. Your thinking time is pretty well taken care of for quite a while!
However, at some point, as I’m finding out in the next few days, your child will start to come up against potentially life-changing days and will either achieve things that you would have never thought believable or be forced to cope with the biggest phase of adversity that they’ll have had to face up to so far in their time on the planet.
Thursday is GCSE results day in the UK and my daughter, who at present is staring out at me across the kitchen on the side of not one but two mugs as a very cute, laughing toddler, will be faced with opening the most important envelope of her life so far. On Thursday, she will collect her GCSE results as the biggest phase of her education so far draws to a close, ready for the next one to start about a week later. It’s quite a concerning time for all!
As a parent, I feel quite calm and rational about it all. This is probably because wen I’m off pretending to be a proper adult, I’m a high school teacher. So Thursday won’t be my first rodeo, as they say. I know the drill and have worried about literally hundreds of kids and the contents of their envelopes over the years. So, in a sense everything’s zen for me personally.
However, while the above is very much true, it still promises to be a stressful day. Results day has never mattered this much. And while I’m calm on the surface and not a natural worrier, I’m still obviously feeling concerned and over-protective.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to worry at all. After all, my daughter is a bright kid who realises the importance of education and qualifications and has the will and determination to do well. She’s worked damned hard too, spending much of the last two years revising in her spare time, making notes, flashcards, doing online tests, battling through hours of homework, listening to podcasts and just generally leaving no stone unturned in her quest for success. The trouble is, it’s not a perfect world. She really deserves a good set of results, but there’s obviously no guarantee of success with exams.
There have already been reports that results will take a hit this year, due to the fact that they were viewed as being inflated during the two non exam years of the pandemic. So, there’s that to contend with straight away, before she even gets the envelope in her hands. And we’ve been contending with it. Such is the reach of social media and 24 hour news these days that kids see almost everything that’s out there. And of course, my daughter has read all of it, meaning that she’s thoroughly stressed out already. I really feel for her. In my day I had no awareness whatsoever about results and grade boundaries and everything else that goes into gaining a GCSE. Having scare stories thrown at you left, right and centre can’t be any fun and there’s very little we can do to protect her from it.
As a parent, I can’t help but hope that she just does really well. I understand that good GCSEs aren’t the be all and end all of things for her and that she got a lot of life to live, with a lot of opportunities to come whatever her results; but I’d still love to see her come home with a great set of results. Whatever her future holds, it’d be great to think that had a firm foot on the first rung on the ladder!
Despite our attempts to make her look into colleges and different types of courses, my daughter was very firm in her intention to carry on at school via 6th form. One of my biggest regrets is doing just that and while our schools are enormously contrasting (hers is good, mine was like a cross between a safari park and a prison), I wish she had at least assessed her options properly. Now – and this has been discussed and will be handled on the day by my wife who is heading to school with her – she has to make the final decision on which A-Levels she’ll be taking. She knows what she wants to do, but this will come down to results, which has meant more stress and more ‘what ifs’! We’ve talked about options though, so there’s at least a Plan A and a Plan B, which is two more plans than I had at that age!
I think the main point in dealing with such a big thing as GCSE results has to be reminding your kid of how loved and valued they are. While I’m desperate for her to do well, obviously in the main for her but let’s not deny that parental pride won’t come into it, this is merely a step to get over. If the results aren’t what she would have really wanted, then it’s still a world full of options and it’s still a house we’re she’s always made fully aware of how loved and supported she is.
Given how quickly things move, I suppose it’ll not be too long before we’re discussing her next steps. At the moment, university seems to be at the forefront of her mind and I’d love her to go, but I’m hopeful that with a bit more maturity, she’ll listen to as many options as possible. She has some interests where she shows a huge amount of talent and I’m quite hopeful that these may be areas that she can explore further in the future. It would be wonderful to think that her work was also something that she loved.
Before then though, we have two more stressful nights to get through. And then the drama will begin in earnest on Thursday morning! I’m hopeful that it won’t actually be too dramatic though. Whatever happens, as parents all we can do is to be as supportive as possible, listen carefully and try to offer useful advice, even if this is a day that we’d happily tucked to the back of our minds with the thought that it was far too far off to really worry about!
Fingers crossed that everything will turn out alright!
A simple one today; a poem about a quiet class. A silent class, in fact, but not in a good way!
Now, if you’re a teacher, you’ll know all of the anxiety that such a class can cause. You’ll know that just as you’ve prayed for your groups to work quietly, when one of them just isn’t giving back it can be the worst feeling that you’ll have in a classroom. And it will invariably happen when someone else walks into the room, leaving you to imagine all manner of things that they’ll think – or worse still – write down about your ability to foster a relationship with your classes!
So, here it is; my poem dedicated to that very strange phenomenon, the quiet class.
The Quiet Class
When faced with the class that's just not giving back,
the front of even the most familiar room can be the most isolated place in the world.
Silence ensues from the very start, aside from the shuffling of paper,
the turning of pages and the scratch of a pen on the page that seems to creep furtively around the space.
Even a starting gun would fail to rouse such a group,
and yet, today you are charged with just that.
Questions are met by ever longer silences whose shadows stretch further and further across the dewy morning grass,
as if answering would result in almost certain death.
Eyes are frantically averted, darting around the room,
like those shoals of tiny fish that children chase in the shallows at the beach,
before the resistance of the waves sees them crash face first into the sea.
And this is your fate today,
where every request is met with a room sized helping of nothing.
Today is a day to jump the waves, corner those fish and fill the room with noise.
To be blunt, I didn’t want to bang on too much about the subject matter in this poem, so I kept it short. It’s a quiet class after all and a niche market for all but the teacher, really. But a quiet class can make life very difficult. I mean, you’ve heard the saying about getting blood out of a stone, right? Well, when you’re faced with an hour – or sometimes more in post Covid teaching – in front of a class that’s just not giving back, it can be an exhausting process! Obviously there are strategies that we can use, such shining the spotlight of doom and just nominating people to answer or offer an opinion, but I personally don’t always like that type of thing to be rolled out within the first ten minutes! Hence the feelings that led to the poem.
Hopefully, you enjoyed reading this one. However, whatever effect it had on you, feel free to leave a comment as I also enjoy reading them and it’s nice to interact with people about what I’ve written.
I’m starting this blog at break time, which is mid morning on the last day of our half term. Some of you will know this already, but I’m an English teacher in a high school. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but the day starting as it did I felt I had to in the interests of sanity. Some of you – fellow teachers – will read this at the very least with a knowing smile on your face, while others will have their eyes opened at least a little bit about what can happen in a classroom.
It’s been a tough half term. We’ve been busy preparing classes for GCSEs, which is taxing to say the least, but obviously then you’ve got all your other classes and day to day dramas on top of that. For me personally, it’s been a stressful week; three sets of assessments to mark, pre-exam sessions with my Year 11, after school sessions too and the sheer unadulterated fun of a fairly vicious fight happening in my form out of absolutely nowhere!
So today, the last Friday before a week off, should be about tying up loose ends relaxing at least a little bit. So why am I finding myself so wound up? Well, let me tell you a story…
I teach a lovely Year 7 group and they are the start of my worst day of the week, which is Friday. Friday’s timetable is book-ended by my Year 7s and my nice Year 8s. In between I teach my bottom set Year 10s twice and then my bottom set Year 8s. Both provide, shall we say interesting lessons.
However, today it seems even my Year 7s have been sent to try me!
It should be simple. Today we’re improving on a recent assessment; a process we call EPIC time. Basically, using feedback given on their assessments the pupils improve on a new topic, but the same type of writing. So their assessment was a newspaper article on one topic and now they’re doing one on a different topic. Simple, right? No actually. You’re wrong.
I start by getting them to copy down the date, title and learning purpose. I tell them to do it in purple pen, adding more than once that everything we do today should be done in purple. Cue the first question.
PUPIL: “Sir, do we write that in purple” ME: “Yes, like I said, everything” PUPIL: “Oh. I’ve written it in black.”
And so it begins. I must have been asked about purple pens at least 8 times after this. It felt like it would never end, despite the fact that every so often I’d remind them that EVERYTHING should be written in purple.
A similar theme emerges when we have a couple of small worksheets to fill in; one as a recall Do Now task (we stick them into books every lesson), the other a checklist for the task. These small loose sheets need to be stuck into books. I tell them this. I tell them again…oh, you get the idea. Still, they ask if they should stick them in. One even informs me that they’ve stuck one of the sheets next to their assessment, which must be 4 pages further back from what we’re doing today.
I’m beginning to think that today is going to be one of those days…
Having completed their assessment a couple of weeks ago, it means that the class will have to turn back some pages if they need to refer to it. So I tell them the date that we did it. Friday 13th May. Maybe I was asking for trouble, eh? Still some can’t find it, but they eventually do, leaving just one who is adamant that it isn’t in his book. After much to’ing and fro’ing about the date I head across to his desk, where I promptly find said assessment. The assessment is on the page that has the date Friday 13th of May on it. I resolve that these things are sent to test us and move on…very quietly grumbling to myself.
With 35 minutes of the lesson remaining, we’ve covered all of the input into their task and it’s time for them to write.
I am able to relax for approximately 4 minutes before, despite trying to encourage their independence since September, a barrage of questions. I’m asked what emotive language at least 3 times. I’m asked to spell every word in the dictionary, despite the fact that they’d all been given a dictionary as part of their equipment about two weeks ago. I’m even asked what my favourite cheese is? Not really, but it wouldn’t have been a surprise.
My next two English lessons are with the same group – my lower ability Year 10s. They’re what you might refer to as ‘hard work’ and although there are only 12 of them, they’ve kicked hard against Macbeth for the last month or so. Behaviour has not been good and at times I’ve ended their lessons exhausted.
Today, I decide we’re going to do a big timeline of important events in Macbeth with key quotes added. We’ll do it via my whiteboard, which is actually three put together. The students will contribute via questioning and hopefully a bit of their own volunteering of information. It’s quite demanding doing it this way because as the teacher you’re driving everything forward, doing lots of writing, prompting with questions, key words and hints, while hoping that they don’t notice how hard they’re working and how much they’re writing. And you’re doing it with your back to the room for large chunks of the lesson, which with this group is a bit of a risk. Especially if one of them’s brought the darts again. Just kidding.
To my great delight it works. Have a look for yourself.
However, it’s not without its hitches. I have to stop within about 5 minutes as two students have copied what’s on my board exactly. So not only has their A3 sheet got a big timeline horizontally, but they’ve also copied the edges of each board – remember there are 3 put together, so my one big board space has two vertical lines down it. Rather than a timeline they’ve got a grid and when I ask why they tell me it’s what I did. They’re staggered when I tell them it’s the edges of two of the boards. They’d thought that I’d drawn on the vertical lines and despite the fact that they’d always been there, they hadn’t noticed them in almost a whole academic year! As horrified as they are and as amused as I am, it only takes a fresh couple of sheets of A3 and they’re good to go again.
By the end of the two hours though every student has an A3 timeline chock full of Macbeth flavoured goodness. They’ve enjoyed doing it, they’re telling me that they understand the play more now (even if it’s just what happens) and they have a good 15 or so quotes to learn/ignore. Maybe the day is taking a turn for the better?
After some dinner I face up to an hour with the class that is easily my worst behaved. Another low ability group, this time Year 8. They’re finishing off some non-fiction work and will ultimately design a poster persuading people to stop using single use plastics. There are too many ‘events’ to go through here though, but by the end of the lesson they all have a poster which consists of the word PLASTIC (their choice) in bubble writing done by yours truly and some facts about single use plastics scattered around. We’ll file them under the heading ‘Last Day, Not Very Good’.
Four hundred hours later – give or take an hour or so – it’s time for the final lesson of the day. Again, it’s Year 8, but a different group. Again, they’re working on an EPIC of an earlier assessment, so we’ve come full circle, which is nice. Workwise, they’re great. But our rewards system provides a couple of interesting moments.
Good work, behaviour, telling me they like my socks or that I’m just generally great is rewarded with tokens. Tokens can be placed in a box marked with whatever whole school reward they want at the end of the half term. Most tokens wins. Today, every kid is getting an ice lolly during the final period of the day. They’re delivered by a member of SLT called Emily Smellyfartpoo (Her 2nd appearance in one of my blogs and once again I’ve changer her name; she’ll never know it’s her). Her real surname is Shittyarseface. It’s not, I’m just kidding. It’s dafter than that.
Anyway, I’ll leave you with two gems that come out of the mouth of the same student as a result of an ice lolly. Firstly, when he takes a nibble from the lolly he literally screams before declaring ‘It’s cold!’. He’s really not messing around. This is genuine shock. I mean, the clue’s in the name, kid. Then, while everyone else is managing to keep working while they eat their lolly he claims that he can’t eat it with his left hand, so must do so with his right, his writing hand. He ends up spending a little bit of time with me in a short detention at the end of the day!
So there we have it. That last day is never as easy or straightforward as you’d like it to be but I hope you enjoyed the end of term as much as I did!
It’s that time of year again. Us teachers are exhausted and conflicted. Year 11 are about to leave and we’ll benefit from the time that leaves us, so yay (!), but there’s also the shadow of ‘did I do enough’ hanging round. That particular weather front will keep popping back until late August and even then it’ll be immediately replaced by Storm ‘Could I Have Done More’ and Hurricane September!
Despite my vintage as a teacher – just over two decades and counting…not that I’m counting – this time of year doesn’t get any easier. I won’t lie and tell you that I’m not glad to see the back of my Year 11s though. We’ve got to that fractious stage together where we’re all pretty much sick of the sight of each other now, but it doesn’t stop the worry. Add to this the fact that my own daughter is also taking her GCSEs and it makes for a very tense and very tiring time. I’ve said this before about several things, but I think I’m just too old for all of this nowadays!
I wrote this poem – as I did another this time last year that can be found on the link below – while patrolling my classroom during a two hour pre-exam session while my class were working.
This year’s group are a set 2, so bright and capable, but watching them work all that came across to me was just how vulnerable, tired and disheveled they looked. So, when I got a little bit of time that evening after they’d gone, I began to scribble down the notes that would become this poem. As ever, apologies for the title; crap isn’t it? I wish I had more imagination when it came to naming my poems!
'A week to go.'
The latest in a long line of young adults are about to step out of the building for one last time and see what the weather holds.
The inevitability that you've been warning them about for years has dawned and the story is frighteningly familiar.
Everything is out and ready for their arrival,
yet still it takes two minutes to enter the room - some things never change -
and even when I think they're in, several of the flock have wandered off.
I guess there's always a willful one or two that will find their way into someone else's field in spite of the fences, just because they can.
They arrive seven minutes late, quietly apologise, then,
having received the same instruction as the rest,
proceed to bleat idly to a fellow latecomer as if everything in this world was just perfectly zen.
Oh, for just a tiny dose of this carefree youthful optimism, this lack of knowledge of the world for just a few more days.
Functional stuff dealt with we attempt to power on,
there's one week to go,
nothing can be left to chance,
no stone left unturned.
While they work, I wander somewhat aimlessly,
now adopting the roll of the lost sheep,
occasionally taking sharp inward breaths as if to speak,
but always holding back, telling myself to savour the silence,
let them work.
Outside, an ill wind blows ominous Shakespearean clouds across the horizon
and I wonder, is this a sign.
Maybe, maybe not. This is the north after all, where clouds are nothing if not ominous.
Averting my gaze, I take in the sights of the classroom once more,
looking for more positive signs.
One is slumped over the desk, writing, one shoe discarded perhaps for some kind of aerodynamic reason,
one wears tracksuit bottoms - more Sports Science in action, or more likely the result of what was lying on a darkened bedroom floor approximately 6 minutes before his lift arrived.
Several are conducting a tiny rebellion; dyed hair, trainers, no ties, shirts untucked. I smile and hope that this sense of rebellion and experimentation grows and grows until it bears fruit, lightens these lives.
I wonder though, what they're rebelling against, hoping that the answer would be 'Whadya got' but fearing excuses about not being able to breath with a tie on or school shoes breaking, giving up the ghost just at this most convenient hour.
Rebels or not, for now all are working,
minds hopefully being emptied of every quote, every interpretation and perhaps,
if we're lucky a skewed version of some contextual nugget, a view of what life was like in the dark and distant past.
Pens race across pages, wrists are shaken in order to bring new life,
before the pen returns to the page to pour out more in one last effort.
And then, time stops and for a wonderful moment it occurs that I might have done enough...
Still, I think, a week to go.
It seems clear to me that there are a wide selection of attitudes and approaches to the exams and the final few weeks or so of high school among the students we teach. This was something that I was trying to get across in the poem, as well as the worry that we teachers can feel. So the bits about uniform and hairdos (and hairdon’ts in some cases) were supposed to reflect that. Sometimes I think that the exams take second place at this time of year because it feels more important to forget your tie and flaunt your new, casual look. I don’t think I’ll ever figure out why though!
Popular opinion sometimes seems to think that teachers only care about results the students’ results affect our pay – they don’t. What matters to most teachers – I can’t say all because I’ve worked with some that seemed to utterly despise what they were doing – is that we’re able to make even just some small difference to the lives of those that we teach. Certainly, when I look at my Year 11s around now I find I worry about what’s next for them, hope that they get what they want out of life and that they can just put enough work into getting these qualifications, all the while knowing that there’s not a lot left that I can actually do.
Anyway, whether you’re a teacher or not, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment as I always enjoy reading what people have got to say about what I write; especially the nice comments!
Early last week I had to teach in an entirely different room to mine. Occasionally, we get put on cover for absent teachers and on this particular day I was asked to cover a Year 7 Textiles lesson.
There are two ways that I look at this type of thing. Firstly, it’s quite nice to have a change of scenery and interesting to get a glimpse of what other people do and how they do it. I’ve taught English for 22 years now and although I love it dearly, nothing ever really changes that much. I might have to adapt ever so slightly to a different approach every now and again, but even then it’s probably all been done before under a different name, so it’s never too taxing. So looking in on other peoples’ jobs and subjects can be quite refreshing at times, depending on the subject!
The negative side is that there’s always a cynical little voice in my head telling me that it’s not really the same as what I do. English teaching is difficult, that’s a fact. So sometimes, other subjects can seem a little bit more simple and straightforward. I understand that there’s a lot more to every other subject than I might learn on an hour long cover lesson though. So, I’ll leave that there!
Anyway, I enjoyed being in the Textiles room and not just because the pupils were so engaged with what they were doing either. So while I was there, I scribbled down some notes and from those notes, I wrote the following poem a few days later.
Not quite out of my comfort zone, but refreshingly different all the same.
The difference is apparent from the first step across the threshold.
Welcomed through the door by an headless Adonis mannequin clad in sparkling gold hotpants, this is a place of learning but not as we know it
and although at first glance this is alien, a second look confirms that learning is here, there and everywhere.
Around the perimeter sewing machines sit, caped in the red of emergency,
poised to perform vital surgery at any given moment.
Colour dominates every surface with paper, thread and all manner of materials scattered,
nothing uniform, just imagination allowed to flow freely from one stream into another.
Hooked, I cast my gaze wide around the place, allow myself a moment to be carried away by the current, from Pop Art to Van Gogh, Hockney to Warhol,
not quite a gallery but not quite what I understand a classroom to be,
a place to create, with mannequins and safety pins strewn liberally,
a riot of colour where fabric sweet wrappers and washing up bottles adorn the walls, a supermarket's shelves stitched together, recreated around the room.
In a corner, tie-dyed swatches are labelled with names that I recognise,
enabling me to take a different view of what I see and where I see them.
Later, I settle back down in a chair, find myself reliving memories of Art rooms from the distant past, wrangling with paint, contemplating colour and depth and wondering how, at such a young age, I could express myself when no longer cocooned by this creative hive, but finally out in the vast expanse of the world.
The Textiles room presented a real contrast to the order and uniformity of my type of classroom. As part of an academy chain we’ve long since been expected to adopt the academy colours for borders and backing of displays and we even have displays on school policy in each room, so it can begin to look a little bit formal, shall we say. Unless your attention is grabbed by my desk of course, where the words formal, uniform and organised don’t sit well at all.
Sitting in that room got me thinking quite a bit, firstly about the skills that are taught there and then also about my own background in the more creative side of education.
In the poem I refer to the displays of work that imitates various artists, which made me think of my own daughter, currently studying GCSE Art and having worked through all manner of different artists’ styles with her, it brought a smile to my face. It also made me draw parallels to the writers we study in English, making the two subjects feel a little bit closer than I’d ever really thought of before.
Looking at the various ongoing projects took me right back to my own schooling, where I took a slightly creative approach to my GCSEs and then A-Levels with a CDT Design course and the more traditional Art. It was nice just to reminisce like that and it got me thinking about how happy it would make me to create something back in those days, as well as the stress and ultimately the pride when having to work out problems with materials like paint as well as metal and wood. It also made me doubly determined to get out and doing some sketching when my latest half term holiday comes around, as it’s something I haven’t done since last summer.
All in all, a nice way to spend an hour at work! I hope you enjoy the poem.
Recently, I wrote an article about the fact that this time of year is nothing short of arduous and painful for us teachers. I know it’s difficult for a lot of people at this time of year, but having done other jobs in my time, I’d definitely say it’s tougher than most places in education. I haven’t worked down a pit or anything, but I’d hope you take my point. With this point in mind, I got to thinking about the kind of things I dislike the most about my job at this time of year. And so, in no particular order and with more than a hint of sarcasm and tongue firmly tucked in cheek, here you go!
The constant question – “Can we just watch a movie?” For starters, we call them films where I’m from, so no, we can’t. However, from week 1 right the way up until the last week before Christmas, at least one of your classes will think that the time is just right for watching a film. They’ll cite the number of days until Christmas, the terrible weather and tout the blatant lie that all the other classes are watching films…anything that might just make you budge. And the cherry on top of this particular cake is that when you finally do put on a DVD – on the last day, bosses – your students will generally sit and talk through it! Well my wonderful students, I’m afraid you’ve just met DVD Scrooge and instead we’ll be doing that far more traditional English Christmas half term activity of writing lots and reading a bit. Bah humbug indeed!
The other popular question – simply because the first question wasn’t annoying enough, students will then turn to another, genuinely more offensive question. And all in the name of Christmas. And it’ll often be the first thing they ask as they walk through the door. In fact, sometimes, as a Christmas treat, they might ask you it before lesson as you’re passing on a corridor. The question? ‘Are we doing anything fun today?’ Now there are several levels of offensiveness to this question. Firstly, is there a veiled accusation here that our lessons aren’t fun? Task-wise, I might take their point here at times. Maybe writing an analysis of how a writer creates tension isn’t that much fun in a world where we have the internet, X-Box, Love Island and erm…fidget spinners (look it’s spinning on my finger…), but we’re in an English class; what did you expect? Secondly, I try to run a relaxed ship. I like a little bit of a lighter atmosphere and a bit of a joke now and again (a bit of ‘daft carry on’ we’d call it where I’m from), so the suggestion that my lessons aren’t fun is actually a personal affront. Or maybe I’m just not that entertaining? *Dismisses such a ridiculous notion with a smug little chuckle and moves on.* And of course there’s the fact that the study of English has been pretty much a constant in my life. It was an important GCSE for me, then an A-Level, then I did it as my degree! Fun? Bloody fun? Bollocks to fun, pal. Appreciate my expertise! Feel my love for the subject! Then get your 18th analysis of the half term written up! And look forward to re-writing it, in PURPLE PEN no less once it’s marked and I’ve demanded improvements! Then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to write a diary entry from the point of view of one of the characters in the play we’ve been studying! Don’t worry though, I might just dress up as a clown and do some juggling for you if the fun’s really getting ramped up as well. (I won’t. Ever.)
Christmas Cards – it’s not that I don’t love getting them; I do. I think it’s a lovely traditional gesture and I always enjoy taking them home to put up round the house. However, I am utterly rotten at remembering to write my own and send them/bring them in to school to give out. Cue a cringeworthy few moments every time I get one while I meekly explain that I keep meaning to write mine, but I’m an utter shambles of a man. Cue also me rushing around on the final morning of the half term delivering my cards – if I’ve remembered to get them out, write them up and then put them in my bag – like some kind of apologetic, pathetic Christmas loser. Oh, the yearly shame!
The final lessons before the Christmas break – it’s not the lessons themselves. They’re fine. Granted, I’m practically on my knees by this point, exhausted and steeling myself for finishing work and heading home to face the onslaught of pre-Christmas jobs that will inevitably only get finished some time mid morning on the 25th. No, it’s the fact that even though I’ve finally relented on the film question, my classes are still not satisfied with such wonderful Christmas benevolence. And why? Because my colleagues – God bless them, every one of them (to paraphrase Dickens) – have brought in snacks – snacks I tell you! – and are holding some kind of bloody party in their rooms! Well sorry kids, but ‘The Ghost of that Shit Christmas When All You Got Was Socks and Pants’ here didn’t get that memo. You know the drill…altogether now…Bah Humbug!
Christmas JumperDay – or as I see it, the chance to look like a tw*t for a full day. That might not be everybody, by the way. Some people can look quite cool in their Christmas jumpers. Allegedly.
Can you turn the heating on?/It’s so cold! Another question that makes my internal, scarcely dormant volcano start to rumble. Not a day goes by at this time of year when I don’t have to go through my early morning in-school routine with a class. And they’re always told that the very first thing I do when I unlock the door and come into class is to put the heating on. If only they could remember. They also always fail to notice that the heating is actually on, despite the lit up display which again, is pointed out to them every day. Come in at 7.45am kids, I’ll allow my room to demonstrate cold for you! As for the fact that it’s cold; of course it’s cold. We live in northern England and our school is on the top of a great big hill; of course it’s cold!
So there you have it. The bane of my life at this time of year. Just as I’m feeling like I could sleep for a week, tweens and teens are busily digging the same old ways out in order to make all of our teaching lives just that tiny bit more stressful. Christmas can’t come soon enough!
I hope you enjoyed the blog and if you have any irritations at this time of your work year, whether you’re a teacher or not, feel free to let me know in the comments.
I’ll end on a big thankyou to the friends who got in touch to remind me of some of their own personal lowlights of teaching at this time of year in order to help with this blog. It’s late in the year, I’m tired and was flagging in the ideas department. Not for the first time the English Department at our school helped me out. I work with some truly wonderful people (although they always forget to bring me cakes and biscuits when they’ve been left in the staffroom as a reward for our hard work), so once again, cheers!
This is a poem that came into being while I was sitting with my Year 7 group during a library visit. We have a thriving library in the school that I work at and at Key Stage 3, English classes are booked in for regular visits in order to renew loans, browse or take out new books. It was on one such visit that I scribbled down the bones of a poem, putting it together as the finished thing later that day.
What prompted me to write was how amazingly fussy the students were. On top of this it felt like they hadn’t listened to anything they were told in what was obviously a carefully planned presentation. Their behaviour made me smile in part, but also brought out my sarcastic side, which to be fair is never far from the surface anyway.
If you are 11 or 12 it would seem to be impossible
not to fiddle with a plastic wallet when given one.
A temptation surely proven by science as unavoidable.
To crinkle, to flatten, to rustle and crackle,
might as well be written down as law,
with a sub-section of said law regarding the unavoidability
of crinkling, crackling and or flattening when the librarian
is addressing the room.
The same rule seems to apply when it comes to sitting
on an assigned chair,
especially if this process involves sitting next to
a member of the opposite sex.
Those who will take on, for most, the very properties
of a magnet in just a few short years are for now,
strictly persona non grata
and to park one's arse within a few inches is viewed as
an absolute, unspoken, unwritten non starter.
Silent browsing is now also beyond the wit of
the pre teen human. Instead this almost instantly provokes
inane chatter and a convergence around any available
window in order to gawp longingly at an outdoor PE lesson.
And so, the sanctity and stillness of the library
lies largely ignored, broken; the resistance of an enormous SILENCE sign
is futile and a thing of the past, long discarded and tossed unwanted
into the depths of a stock room, a relic of a lifetime ago.
What is certainly not impossible is the ability
to ask ridiculous questions.
Common sense flies out of the window,
somewhere on the corridor on the way here,
having the common sense to know that it will not be needed
in the next half hour.
Even organised, alphabetised shelves full of writer's names
will not reveal where to find the R of Rowling,
the D for Dahl,
and so ordered thinking gives way to questions that,
with a few seconds more thought, need never have been asked.
It’s funny how these library visits regularly pan out in exactly the same way. Our students are more than happy to revert to stereotypes when they’re left to their own devices at these times. So rather than scrutinising the shelves we’ll see groups of boys congregating by the windows in order to either gaze out of them or just stand there whispering.
The stereotypes continue as there are always boys loitering around the non fiction section grabbing books about cars so that they can sit back down and point at the glamour on the pages in front of them with their friends.
Similarly girls will wander around in groups, choosing books before sitting down and dutifully reading them. Because they’re good at doing what they’re asked to do.
It wasn’t a stressful library visit. In fact, if I could have predicted how it would go I’d have been pretty much 100% accurate. But it never fails to amaze me how classes don’t listen when they’re told where to sit, how boys seem almost allergic to sitting next to a girl or how even though someone is addressing them, some kids will fidget with something in their bag or pencil case. And so, I wrote the poem…
I hope you enjoyed what you read. If you work in education you might know exactly what I’m talking about or if you just remember such visits from school, it might have brought back some memories. I’d love to hear what you thought though, so feel free to drop me a line in the comments.