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.

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.

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