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!

Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

This is another poem inspired by my Year 11 group, who are definitely one of my favourite teaching groups in years. So, I suppose that helps explain why I end up writing about them so much.

They’re a lower ability set and are currently going through the exams and assessments that will form their GCSE grades after more Coronavirus disruption meant that this would be based around teacher assessment for this cohort. And I’m desperate for them to do well, in relative terms that is, as we’ve reached the stage of the year where there’s only so much that we can do for them now, which makes me feel almost helpless.

I wrote the poem after our latest assessment. I was reflecting on the hour long input lesson that I’d done with them beforehand. After that I had to let a number of them go off to other rooms to sit their assessment due to access arrangements, like students being given extra time or being allowed to work in a room on their own. It’s safe to say that they weren’t on their best behaviour and it was something that I couldn’t shake when I was driving home. So I wrote the following.

In a perfect world...

In a perfect world you'd be ready.
Focused, a look of steely eyed determination spread across your face.
Knowledge embedded and itching to read and write.
But, it's not a perfect world, as I have learnt many times before
and you will discover on too many occasions that are yet to come.
Instead today, you are giddy and focus is replaced by noises,
bad mannered interruptions and nervous giggles that make me fret,
not just for now and the next hour, but for what is to come in the years that will follow.
I want to do whatever it takes to let you know the positives I want for you,
how I'd love for you to breeze through this,
just to give yourself a leg up, a boost, a chance at a start in life.
And despite the mood, the lack of focus and the approach of a toddler at soft play,
I will attempt to ignore the signs and stand,
fingers crossed in hope while you write, dreading what seems almost unstoppable
in its inevitability.
In the corner of the room, a poster that should probably be front and centre
declares that you should 'Dream Big' and 'Always Challenge Yourself'.
Maybe not today.

As soon as I got home I grabbed my notebook and wrote my thoughts down. I’d stewed on their behaviour in the hour before the assessment. It’s a small group but about 8 out of the 13 of them were just behaving ridiculously – making stupid noises, rudely calling out and interrupting, complaining about what we were doing and so on.

It’s one of the worst things about my job when I feel that I’m working far, far harder than the students in my room. I imagine lots of teachers feel the same. But that’s just how I felt for that hour. We’d spoken about this assessment for weeks, prepared for it intensely both during school and after, but here were my class acting like it didn’t matter a jot.

I wish I could show them how hard life can be. I wish I could show them the awful flats I’ve lived in and the terrible jobs I’ve had to do while working my way up in life and still feeling that I’m doing a bang average job of it all. I wish I could wave a magic wand and make sure that they get that pass in English that gets them some kind of start. But, of course I can’t. And standing there invigilating for the few I had left in the room made me feel completely helpless and incredibly frustrated.

As many of us know, it’s not a perfect world. I just wish I could enlighten these students to that fact a little more!

I hope you enjoyed the poem and I hope that the fact that it’s the same subject matter as another one I wrote fairly recently, doesn’t put you off. Whatever way it makes you feel – even if it makes you feel nothing at all – I’d love to hear what you think, so as ever, feel free to leave a comment.

Live Lessons – My Top Ten Most Uttered Phrases.

Since we were struck by the pandemic early last year, everyone and everything has found itself having to adapt. We’ve adapted from the way we do our shopping or go for a walk all the way through to the way that we do our job.

In teaching – my field of work – we’ve had to make huge changes. Different schools have made different changes, but in the school that I work at we have the pupils in bubbles and we go to them to teach, we are obviously socially distant, we have had to change our marking policy, everyone wears masks on corridors and we have a one way system. And they are only a small fraction of the changes that have been made.

We been using Microsoft Teams for remote learning all year. At first it wasn’t used that often; certainly not for live lessons. We’d put assignments in there daily, in case students were missing and then, when bubbles collapsed and we had greater numbers of students away, we’d use it for the odd live lesson and some blended learning, where some people were isolating and on the live lesson while the rest of us were in the room. But for a while, the majority of lessons remained the same – classroom based, whiteboards, exercise books and all that jazz.

With the school closures of 2021, we’re now exclusively doing live lessons and remote learning is in full flow. I wrote about the differences in a previous blog Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work. but after a couple of weeks of working this way, although I’m quite enjoying parts of it, something struck me; the amount of times I utter the same phrases to a class on Teams is really quite something. Big up to my friends (in no particular order) Emma, Chloe, Laura, Gemma, Megan, Ellie, Charlotte, Bryonny, Lindsey, Em, Louise and Saba, who over the course of the last few months of doing live lessons, have provided much material and inspiration for this particular blog – oh the tales we could tell! So here, in no particular order is my Top Ten of most used live lesson phrases.

  1. Can you mute your mic please?” As a rule, I have my students muted. In class during regular lessons. Just kidding. But on Teams, while I don’t actually mute them, let’s just say I encourage them not to unmute and talk to me. Hey, this is my show, after all! To be fair though, the reason that I have to say this phrase is the things that you get to hear. In various classes, a kid has unmuted and the whole lesson can hear their television as someone’s sat there (please let it not be my pupil) watching loud daytime TV. In other cases we’ve been met by a positively imperfect symphony of screeching relatives. I can mute them pretty quickly, but what I hear leaves me massively worried about the environment that they’re working in. And I guess that’s part of the problem. How can some of these kids get anywhere near the same quality of education at the moment? At other times, some students just seem to want to quickly unmute and make a silly noise and others do the same in order to just say ‘Hi’ and despite repeated warnings, it’s surprising how often it still occurs. So because my pupils seem unable to click a button that has a picture of a microphone on it, that phrase is definitely one of my most used.
  2. Just bear with me a second…” There always seems to be something that crops up that I have to deal with. There’s always a snag, a technical hitch or just yet another of my own deficiencies. One such hitch is when my movement sensitive lights go off on one side of the room. Now initially this might not seem like a problem that needs me to have a class “bear with me”, but let me tell you why they need to wait. I always have my camera on – I think being able to see their teacher might add some much needed normality to proceedings for my students and of course, I have a friendly face *coughs* – and so when the light goes off, it leaves one side of my face in shadow. As an English teacher I imagine it makes me look like Mr. Hyde, the monstrous side to Dr. Jekyll and that is not a good look or a friendly face for my students! So, just bear with me
  3. “We’re just waiting for a few people to join…” We’re not, we’re waiting for half the class! They all knew when the lesson started but they just couldn’t make it on time. I’m going to have to call them aren’t I? I’m hopefully sounding cool, calm, friendly, but I’m not. I’m quite irked, to be fair. The lesson times don’t change. It should be easier just to roll out of bed and pop a computer on than the usual whole ‘getting to school on time’ routine, but it would seem not.
  4. “Can we pop an answer in the comments? This is me saying, ‘I DON’T WANT YOU TO SPEAK!’ It’s also me saying ‘IS ANYONE STILL THERE?’ Live lessons rob us of the face to face interactions that we usually have and so asking kids to put answers in the comments is the next best thing as well as being that thing that comforts you when you’re just imagining your entire class has logged on then left the room to watch telly or play X-Box. And before you even think the thought, no, I’m not opening up everyone’s mic so that they can all call out the same right/wrong answers at the same time. So ‘Can you pop an answer in the comments?’ is all I’ve got.
  5. “Can you let me know if you can hear me?” or “Is this thing working?” There’s always someone who can’t hear you or can’t see the PowerPoint that’s being shared. I have no idea why. It’s there, on screen! And there’s always that bit of self doubt that nags at you as a teacher and whispers ‘You can’t use the technology properly’. Or is that just me? Oh, just me. The good thing – and I don’t mean actual good – is when you ask the first question and only about 8 kids respond in the chat and you’re left assuming they can hear, but that typing the three letters of the word ‘Yes’ is just a bit much to ask.
  6. “Can you just use the chat for questions and not emojis and winding each other up or bickering, please?” Safe to say that some of our younger classes haven’t quite sussed out the chat etiquette yet! Sometimes it feels like they’re not really tuning in for the lesson, just the chat. And then when you’ve stopped the nonsense you’ll inevitably get at least one of them typing, ‘Sir, what we doing?’ in the very same chat. Or failing that just, ‘Eh?’
  7. “Ok, I’ll just give you another 2 minutes on that.” Often, while a class are working I’ll mute my mic and turn off my camera, just to enable me to do something else, like read some emails or a bit of planning. I’m never, ever ready when the timer goes off and we need to move on, so I’m always adding time. Without the students in front of you it’s not only strange and a bit lonely, but also easy to get distracted, and so I’m forever pondering images to put on PowerPoints or thinking I can fit in one more email which always, always leads to me pretending to be kind by adding time on!
  8. “Are you still there? Am I talking to myself?” It’s definitely easier for your students to avoid the questions when they’re on the end of an internet connection and that silence can get quite ghostly. It’s lonely and isolated enough staring out into a room full of chairs that are still up on tables, without the kids in the computer ignoring you as well!
  9. “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please? It’s in the assignments. And I’ve pasted it into the chat. I can post them out ahead of the lesson if you need. Send them on a pigeon?” Ok, so the latter part of that isn’t true but we could easily have just had the comment as “IT’S IN THE ASSIGNMENTS MAN!!” Suffice to say, it can be very, very…very frustrating getting students to open up the texts they’ll need for the lesson. It doesn’t matter that you posted the assignment days earlier with the instruction that they’d need to have the texts open. It doesn’t matter that you’ve sent it to some of them on email. It doesn’t matter that out of the first 5 things you said when welcoming them to the lesson 4 of them were “Can you make sure you’ve got the text open please?” And it doesn’t matter that you reminded them, in the chat, 12 seconds ago what the text was called, where it was and what they should do with it. 30% (at least) of your class won’t have a clue what you’re talking about! But it’s Ok. You’re the consumate professional who can stay calm and remind them AGAIN, YES A-BLOODY-GAIN in your best Disney teacher voice, what it is they need to do. But thank the lord there’s a mute button! Which brings me on to…
  10. “I’m just going to put myself on mute/turn my camera off/both” The ultimate censor, enabling you to karate kick every chair off every desk, walk outside and scream at the sky, open the window and throw marker pens at passing seagulls (they deserve it…the nearest sea is miles away), curl up into a ball, flick ‘V’ signs at the screen, shout things like ‘Which poem are we going to annotate? Which f*****g poem? The one we did last week! Definitely, definitely, not the one we’ve been doing for the last hour!” or volley the same kids’ books around the room. I just tell them it’s in case a colleague walks in and I have to have a chat when in fact it’s because I’m having the kind of spectacular meltdown that you thought only hungry toddlers were capable of.

It’s been a tough old academic year so far! If you’re a teacher, I’m sure you’ll have uttered all of these phrases and experienced all of these scenarios many, many times since September. If you have any I’ve missed out, then please let me know in the comments – I’d genuinely love to read them!

Regardless of what you do for a living or how you’re getting through these ridiculous times, keep on keeping on. I’m so full of admiration for so many people and their stories since March or so last year. Stay safe everybody – I hope you enjoyed the blog and that it managed to put a smile on some faces.