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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!

Poetry Blog: ‘A week to go’

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.

Poetry Blog: ‘In a Perfect World’

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!

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!

Poetry Blog: Library Visit

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.

Library Visit

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.

Teaching: The road to Christmas

As a high school teacher of over two decades I think I’m qualified enough to say that we’ve just entered our toughest half term of the academic year. I think we’ll all agree that the 7 weeks from the start of November until nearing the end of December is like swimming in sand at the best of times!

We started our half term this week and although nothing major has gone wrong and none of the so-called ‘red flags’ have been raised, it’s still falling into a familiar pattern.

For a start, the weather has been predictably dreary. As we blink our way into Wednesday, I can safely say it’s the first time I’ve viewed a blue sky all week. And even that is being flanked by ominous clouds. So although the blue sky is a welcome sight, I’m aware that the weather could break at any given second and bring with it that predictable grey that bleeds into a charcoal, so often found in the UK. It does nothing for morale!

On top of the clouds we have the wind; there never seems to be a still day at this time of year. Unless of course we get a bright autumn day where I might get some washing out to dry and then the gale becomes a breeze, becomes a veritable vacuum where literally nothing moves! It’s the time of year when sometimes you feel like nothing will ever go right for you. And that’s a feeling that can quickly multiply as a teacher.

The wind, the rain and the general feeling of an almost permanent mist hanging over the season can be a terrible combination for your classes. I’ve certainly learnt over the years that if it’s windy and raining I’ll get at least one class who are completely off the wall for the hour. They come in, soaked because they didn’t feel the need to get undercover, and then complain about the weather. This will often then morph into complaints about whatever it is we might be doing and however we attempt to do it. And it would seem that once they’ve been knocked about by a windy day, kids can’t help shouting out and making daft noises, which will inevitably lead to fits of giggles. Not ideal for the flow of a lesson!

Sitting at a desk going through what should be a familiar routine can prove impossible. You might as well present them with a pair of mittens and a Rubiks cube each. And all this because it was blowing a gale, the rain was travelling sideways and my students didn’t have the common sense to stay out of it as much as they could.

The dark mornings and dark evenings also make the winter term a real pain. It shouldn’t make a great deal of difference really. But it does. It’s no fun leaving the house in the dark and it’s even less fun getting to the end of your day and driving home to find, light wise, it’s night time! It does strange things to your state of mind. Being greeted by a dark classroom that resembles the inside of a walk-in freezer doesn’t help either. I imagine it’s a bit like living in the far north of the planet near the Arctic in Sweden or Finland and having either almost permanent daylight or long, dark days, depending on the time year. Probably an over-the-top comparison, I know, but please feel my pain. Sometimes, the only daylight I see is through a window and it can start to get you down. Add in the weather and how that can disrupt the commute and it’s quite the pain in the rear end!

Speaking of the commute brings to mind the simple fact that it can be awful at this time of year. A few parts of my journey into work are prone to flooding and we get more than our fair share of rain here in West Yorkshire. I think our monsoon season is between January and December. There are a couple of places where it can be a real hazard and times when I wonder if some sort of amphibious vehicle might be a better option.

And then there’s the snow. Now, I’ll preface this with the fact that the UK can come to a complete halt if there’s a centimetre of snow and that looking at other countries who cope admirably with far more, we’re a bit rubbish really. However, it doesn’t change the fact that snow always makes me shudder about my commute. Over the years I’ve had multiple journeys to and from work that have involved sliding around roads and spending what have felt like endless hours getting to the end of my journey. Last year, I managed to get into work on a snow day only to find out that the school was being closed and that I faced a long journey home. Little did I know however, that it would take me over 6 hours to drive home! So any snow this year will be approached with dread!

As I write, we’re a week into the new half term. Just 6 more to go until it’s almost Christmas and a blissful two weeks off! In the meantime though, I’m hoping for less of the wind, rain and snow that will lead to the inevitable terrible in school behaviour from some of our students. I’m hoping for less moans and groans about the temperature in my room. Amazingly, there are many times where I have students complaining that it’s cold while others are asking to take their blazers off and claiming they can’t work because it’s too hot!

There are other daunting features of the next six weeks to come too. These include marking mock exams, data collections, avoiding secret santas, avoiding having to take part in our department production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and avoiding colds, flu and COVID!

One thing’s for sure…this next 6 weeks will feel like years!

A New School Year: Five Predictions for September

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Poetry Blog: Assessment

This is a poem I wrote on a whim. It came from boredom, if the truth be told. I’m sure I was suitably inspired by the company I was keeping at the time, but essentially it was the boredom that made me start scrawling on a piece of paper.

My Year 11 class were completing an assessment. I’d done about an hour’s input, fielding questions, giving reminders, making notes and then when the time was write set them off writing. After about 10 minutes of enduring the silence and trying to keep busy I realised that I just wanted to sit down. I couldn’t sit at the computer and do work because the screen that it was linked up to would show everything I was doing and I didn’t want my group getting distracted. So, I kept the title of the assessment on the screen and thought about what I could do.

It was a Thursday afternoon and we’re based in a fairly cramped room on a Thursday, so space and social distancing meant that I couldn’t just wander. I couldn’t really just stand either as the only place to stand would have been by the door and I felt sure that it wouldn’t be long before someone absent-mindedly opened the door and knocked me into next week. Hilarious for my class, I’m sure and not the fault of the door opener, as who would expect someone to be stupid enough to stand right in front of the door. So, a quick scan of the rom told me to sit at the one spare desk available.

After a whole five minutes I was bored, so I grabbed a sheet of paper. Perhaps I could practice my autograph? Instead, having sketched for a few moments – my current favourite is to draw myself as a Charlie Brown character – I found myself thinking about the group. And what started as a few rough lines of a potential poem about an assessment became something of a poem about how much they mean to me.

Assessment

In an unusually silent room the creaking desks are a constant source of annoyance.
Every so often a stare is accompanied by a sigh as another realises that there's nothing to be done about the noise.
The dimming of the lights adds an eeriness to the tension and I am helpless; the pigeon fancier who opens the loft to the flutter of wings that he can really only hope he'll hear again.
He can only pray they stay safe.
This is our first race. A journey that we have trained for and will repeat again until the future beckons
and I can no longer help, cajole or comfort, but still make time to worry, 
despite the reality that I may never see you or hear of you again.
We are left to count down the coming weeks and spread our wings a few last times, turn circles in the air, swoop, arc dive then return to the loft each time until it's time to fly the rest of the journey alone.

I’ve mentiond this group before. I’ve taught many of them for the majority of their school lives. I remember most as fresh faced, quite naughty Year 7s. In short – and not to insult them in any way – they’re a bottom set. My bottom set. Their language skills are at best, weak even at the top end and their knowledge of the world often leaves a lot to be desired. Sample fact to prove this? When I taught them for intervention English in Year 9 it took more than a few minutes of an hour lesson to convince at least one of them that Roald Dahl’s The BFG was not a real person. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t alive. Roald Dahl had just made him up.

Studying Shakespeare, Dickens etc can be a challenge, both for them and me. But then one of them will offer an opinion or just remember something obtuse about the text and it feels like a huge win for all of us.

The group are currently enduring a series of assessments put in place to enable me to award them a GCSE grade in lieu of not being able to do the real exams due to Covid-19. I never really let on to groups how much I care, but as I sat and watched them write, witnessing every grimace, every pause for thought and every tongue slipped out of the side of the mouth in concentration, I couldn’t help but think about them in previous years throughout their time at our school. Of course I care. I care deeply, especially about my weaker groups and I found that I was just hit by how little I can now do for them. I genuinely worry about what some of them will end up doing once high school is finished and I desperately want them to get some kind of English GCSE to help them along the way.

As for the poem, I’m not really sure where the image of the pigeon fancier came from. But I was struck by how wondrous it is that these pigeons come ‘home’ to their loft after every race.

I was aware of pigeons and their owners from an early age. I was brought up in the North East of England where racing pigeons can attract some quite fanatical people. I have memories of several ‘uncles’ (not real family, probably family friends or neighbours, but always called uncles or aunties) who kept racing pigeons when I lived at home. They’d spend ridiculous amounts of money and time making their birds as comfortable as possible in the hope of winning races and it always held a bit of a fascination for me. On the afternoon of the assessment that was how I felt. Like I’d lavished time and energy on my group and that soon it would be time to let them go. In truth, I don’t want to.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. I think the subject matter might inspire more in the weeks and months to come! Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.