Teaching: At times it’s just like riding a bike…

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!

Teaching: That first week back.

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.

Poetry Blog: ‘The Quiet Class’

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.

The Last Day of Term

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!

Teaching: The Worst Things About Christmas Half Term

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!

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

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!

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

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 Jumper Day – 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!

So, I got boosted

Last night I went to a local hotel, where part of it is serving as a vaccination centre and received my Covid vaccine booster jab. Today I have a full day’s teaching. Class after class after class. So I thought I’d document my day.

I wake up feeling groggy. Not the usual middle-aged-can-I-retire-yet groggy, but a grogginess that feels like I’ve been hit by a truck and then while I lay there, miraculously recovering, someone took a hammer to my left bicep for an hour. I am a shambling mess. More so than usual. And it’s painful to lift my left arm. Today is going to be a bit of a challenge.

After a quick shower, breakfast and time spent getting dressed, I’m heading for the door. The grogginess hasn’t subsided and to make matters worse now I feel sick. My legs ache like I ran a marathon yesterday and my head is spinning. Not literally – what a boon that would be for the anti-vaccers – but I’m dizzy and it’s decidedly unpleasant. As if commuting through the bandit country of deepest , darkest Dewsbury wasn’t hairy at the best of times, today I’m attempting it while feeling in the same headspace as Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.

There’s lots to do at work and handily I’ve written a ‘To Do’ list the previous evening so that I wouldn’t walk in and forget the urgency of certain things. Unusual foresight for me, but it’s a good job I have. Without it I may well have just sunk into my chair, flopped my head onto the desk and stayed there until someone burst in to wake me up and tell me that my class were outside.

I busy myself entering data onto a tracker, which as all teachers know, is easily one of the most beloved parts of the job and very much the kind of thing you do to give yourself a morning boost…

It’s a wonder that I can put anything like the right numbers in the right boxes, but miraculously I manage and hope that this little exercise has focused my mind a bit. It hasn’t though, as I’ll soon discover.

Before I know it, my Year 7 group are lining up, so I get the date, title and learning purpose on the board for them to copy and the Do Now task onto my other board. They can stay busy while I’m doing a register. And this way we can have a calm start to the day while I try and work out where I am and who is responsible for this cruelty.

It starts calm and stays calm. I’m very lucky with my Year 7s and even though the group has changed in recent weeks as the sets were shuffled round a little, the atmosphere in class has stayed purposeful and just all round pleasant. The group seem to like me – that’ll change – so it’s a nice way to start what promises to be a really hectic day.

What I do find is that I’m calling people by the wrong name quite often though. Feeling this dizzy is really not conducive to teaching!

During Period 2 I continue to refer to people by the wrong name and it becomes worse, if anything. Sometimes it’s the name of another student in the group, but at others it’s just a random name that pops into my head. It’s a surprise when I don’t refer to any of them by character names from the text. Imagine how bad you’d feel as your teacher responded to your hand up by asking, ‘Yes, Scrooge?’ or ‘Go on then, Tiny Tim.’ And heaven forbid I might try to wrap my mouth round Bob Cratchit’s name in this state.

At one point I reach a pretty early low when I realise that I’m writing about a character on the board, but it’s a character who doesn’t actually feature in the text that we’re studying. Little tip for you; neither George nor Lennie appear alongside Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’. Luckily for me, my students just diligently copy the notes out seemingly unaware of any problem. Me? I just quickly rub out the name and carry on. Once I’m finished I decide that a sit down is required while I contemplate whether anyone will spot that error in the next book scrutiny. At this moment in time, I don’t care.

I summon every ounce of strength I have to give my form a very stern talking to when they arrive for Study Skills. They’re also my English class and I finally finished marking their mocks last night, while struggling to keep my eyes open. My own fault, I suppose. However, their exams reveal the need for a renewed focus and lessons where we work at breakneck pace between now and Christmas. Four of my group decided to answer not only their Shakespeare question, but all of the others too. Actually, that’s wrong; one of said four wrote the title of the right one, left the page blank and then answered all the other Shakespeare questions instead. Aside from this absolute brainstorm, several of them clearly haven’t revised or just didn’t really bother putting effort in. It felt like every bit of advice was ignored and with the added bonus of feeling like I’d like to curl up for a nap, I’m in an awful mood. Our motto is ‘Be Nice, Work Hard’. Well they didn’t work hard, so I won’t be being nice for a while. God knows I have to work hard enough at being nice in the first place. I’ll save it all up for my Year 7s!

One of the delightful foibles of my timetable this year is that I have bottom set Year 10 group for 2 hours either side of a break. Someone called, Gemma Sillyfartpoo (not her real name, so she’ll never know this is her…) does the timetables, and now every Friday feels like she’s personally hinting that I should retire. I often wonder what I’ve done to make her hate me so!

For the next hour I continue in the same vein as before, forgetting names, talking nonsense and losing my thread in the middle of sentences. Some would say the booster has had no effect at all. At one point, as the students are working, I head back to my desk intent on doing an important job, but when I get there I have no idea why I’m there. I sit and stand a couple of times, stare into space a bit and mutter to myself before wandering off. In the words of the quite wonderful Inspiral Carpets, ‘this is what it feels to be lonely’.

At lunch I decide that the only course of action is to stuff as much food into my mouth as I can in order to build up some strength. I have two teaching hours to go. I go for a walk around school, primarily to keep myself awake but realise as I come up towards the Science department that if anything’s going to send me to sleep it’s the Science department, so I do a shuffling, mid paced u-turn and head back to what I lovely refer to as my cave.

My Year 8 group Period 5 are relentlessly badly behaved and it takes almost all of my energy to get them through and keep on getting work out of them. With 20 minutes to go I could weep. How has this only been 40 minutes so far? Time appears to be wading through treacle and I’m shambling around like a drunk at the back end of a wedding disco, just pointing and muttering to myself. I refrain from hoisting an imaginary bottle of strong lager into the air and singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in favour of getting 80% of students’ names wrong while cajoing them to finish an answer. My support assistant smiles at me sweetly. I’m not sure she’s really noticed a sea change in my behaviour, to be fair.

It is a blessed relief when my final lesson of the day goes smoothly. The kids work hard, probably suspecting that their English teacher is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and before I know it, it’s 2.45 and time to send them homeward.

I slump at my desk, pondering a nervous breakdown, before realising that I still have work to do. At 4 0′ clock I’m finally heading home back through the Mad Max territory that is Dewsbury town centre. I need to buy something for tea and will no doubt attempt to pay with Post-It notes, but it doesn’t matter; I got through.

Disclaimer: Some of this is a little bit exaggerated. None of it though, is fictional and I truly felt rotten all day, regretting waking up from…well, the moment I woke up. Apologies should go to Gemma Sillyfartpoo (not her real name); I know you just press a button on a big machine and it churns out all the timetables for you, so it’s not your fault. Similarly, a big sorry goes to the Science department who are lovely people. They just teach a really dull subject that has the ability to make me sleep, making them the envy of any hypnotist. I’m sure you were bored by English at school as well though. Weirdos.

Feel free to leave a comment. I’ll read them when I wake up from a deep, deep sleep.

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.

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