From next week thousands of people will be returning to a place that they most likely have a love hate relationship with. A place that, while it brings them fantastic highs and untold joy, will also land upon them terrible amounts of stress and enough moments of disbelief in a typical couple of months to last a lifetime. Sounds like a cross between a crack den and a soft play centre, doesn’t it? Well in fact, I’m talking about school.
After 6 weeks of summer holidaying – or if you’re British, dodging downpours – us teachers (and other school staff) are set to return to work. Most, for any number of reasons, will be dreading it, which is something that lots of non teaching folk and those who don’t work in education simply refuse to understand. Well, allow me to explain.
You’d expect that after six weeks worth of holidays that we’d be fully relaxed, re-invigorated and enthusiastic to go back to work. And I’ve no doubt that some staff are exactly like that. These people are not to be trusted in my humble opinion. Wrong ‘uns, the lot of them.
This next academic year will be my twentieth in teaching. It’s a job I love – no two days are the same, there are highs and lows aplenty, there are some great people – we’ll leave the not-so-great ones for later – and working with kids will always make you smile. But I’m not one of the teachers who don’t mention the pull of the holidays. Thirteen weeks a year and I can honestly say I genuinely think that it’s still not quite enough. Every half term will leave me exhausted and so any time off is largely spent recuperating, rather than enjoying myself. I’ve never spent 6 hedonistic weeks in Ibiza or somewhere partaking in copious amounts of drugs and free love. More likely, I’ll watch a bit more telly and try in vain to do jobs around the house. For me, the holidays are vital.
So conversely, I find the going back to work bit quite the ballache. Now teacher or not teacher, I know what you’re thinking. Or at least the kind of thing you’re thinking. It’ll be within a ball park that contains outrage, a feeling of negativity towards my perceived ingratitude and probably the odd utterance of that strange phrase ‘Man up‘. I don’t care. And furthermore, I have plenty of colleagues and friends who don’t care either.
An old Head of mine used to compare teaching to being on an oil rig. The feeling being that mentally, we’d be completely out of reach for our families during term time, as if we were offshore, almost. It was a particularly challenging school, by the way. As each term ended she’d tell us to switch off, go back to our families and loved ones and spend precious time with them. So if you don’t like my trepidation about going back to work then you’re heartless; I’m off to a bloody oil rig, for Christs’s sakes.
Psychologically, the problems with going back to work can start at any time during the six weeks holidays. And we’ll all have suffered with it. I’m talking of course about the anxiety dreams. You’re sitting in front of a class who just won’t listen. They’re all laughing hysterically at you, even the nice kids. Especially the nice kids! Whatever you try, fails. And try as you might these kids just won’t listen or do what you ask. You might even end up in tears in front of them, pathetically calling out things like, ‘Guys?‘ (always as a question). Inevitably you’ll wake up in a cold sweat, heart racing and possibly in need of a parent. But that parent can’t help. You’re going to repeat that dream – possibly exactly the same dream – a good few times before stepping back over the threshold of your school again in September.
As a rule, I don’t suffer too badly with the anxiety dream and the out of control class. In fact, I usually save mine up for one big nightmare on the eve of my return to work, resulting in me going back looking worse and more exhausted than when we broke up for the six weeks! This year though, has been different. I’ve had a number of these dreams and every last one has left me sat in our bathroom, sweating and trying to yoga-breathe my way to some kind of tranquil mindset that will enable me to sleep again.
The worst one actually started quite well. I’m in control of the class, cracking the odd joke, everyone enjoying their learning and Mr Crosby is kind of a big deal around these parts. And then, slowly but surely, things fall apart. The odd bit of calling out, some general low level disruption. And just when it looks like I’m about to wrestle back control, a boy the height of a giraffe gets up and wanders into my cupboard before emerging again wearing a lampshade as a hat and wandering aimlessly around my room. Every time I try to get to him, he appears back in the cupboard. Try as I might, Giraffe-Boy Lampshade Head just will not listen. And you don’t get that in your council office, your accountancy practice or your supermarket. It’s not you sitting naked – sorry, fight that image, think of giraffe boy – sweating on the edge of a bath considering doing warrior pose or downward dog in order to get back to sleep.
The next thing that can contribute to a dread of going back to work seems like a nice thing, but in fact, it’s not. As an adult, I thought that those signs telling me that it’s ‘Back to School’ soon were no longer applicable. And then I went into teaching and found that every summer the lure of those Back to School signs and their promise of stationery was to prove all too much. Stationery is a huge part of life as a teacher. At least I hope it is and that it’s not just me clinging on to shiny notebooks and refusing to grow up! Even now, after nearly twenty years in the job, I still get a little bit excited at the thought of new pens, highlighters, markers and the like come September. And I still enter Asda with a spring in my step at the prospect of a rollback on notebooks and plastic wallets.
However, while the acquisition of such things is a delight it will quickly lead to stress. Now I’m aware that this is probably just a particular foible of mine, but there is a possibility that somewhere, within the educational community there are more of us. So let’s see how many people find themselves nodding along to this. The fact is I get ridiculously precious about my new stationery and as a result I tend to stockpile it. I become like a stationery squirrel, with drawers of pens, pencils, notebooks, folders and files that are so lovely I’ll allow no one to us them; including me. Sometimes the teacher in the adjoining room to mine – a friend I’ve known for years – will pop in searching for a pen and I reluctantly agree to get one, slowly ripping opening the packet with a rictus smile spread across my chops as I attempt to hide the fact that this is killing me! Lately pupils have started to ask if they can have a plastic wallet, something I have hundreds of. They need them to carry certain notes around and I then have to pretend that it’s no problem and that of course they can have a plastic wallet, when really, hidden just beneath the surface the real Mr Crosby is screaming, ‘GET YOUR OWN PLASTIC BLOODY WALLETS!’ But of course I look forward to going back to work and of course I’m sure that my behaviour is fairly normal. Whichever way we look at it though, the pursuit of the perfect stationery can be a particularly stressful thing for us educators.
Another one of the stresses, one of the painful adjustments that needs to be made by people in education returning to work can be found with clothing. Imagine that, for a 6 week period almost everything you wore was casual. You got up in the morning, and dependent on the weather, you slung on a crumpled pair of jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. If you had to go out, you wore trainers, almost exclusively. And sometimes, just sometimes, you didn’t even bother to give your hair – and maybe even your make-up, although I personally like to spend at least a week in summer dressed as Ziggy Stardust, just for kicks – a second glance. Now you may not admit it, but this would be a world of bliss. Except for the Ziggy themed days, which frankly can be a pain in the arse. Go on, give it some thought…
Nice, isn’t it?
I haven’t ironed a shirt for over 6 weeks. And, let me tell you, when I do iron a shirt I’m pretty damn precise. No corners are cut and each one can take quite some time. So my break away from this is absolutely fantastic. The same can be said for polishing shoes. I haven’t even looked at my work shoes for the entire summer. I’ve slobbed around in Stan Smiths, Nike runners and even flip flops without a care in the world. I’ve worn t-shirts and shorts for days on end – different ones, I’m not an animal. I’ve gone sockless, like some kind of ageing surfer. And now, within hours, I’ll be back in a routine of wearing a suit, shirt, tie and brogues five days a week. All of this formality – and I love to look smart – weighs me down. I don’t miss the days of suddenly remembering, I need to iron a shirt. But I’ll miss not putting a great deal of thought into what I wear. I know, that as an adult – almost a fully functioning one as well – I shouldn’t find any stress in this, but I do. And you would too if you were annually given a massive break from it.
Lots of people don’t realise something really, vitally important about the summer break. And when they find out the truth, it can prove difficult to handle. But, for the uninitiated, here it is. We get paid for the time off. It’s a question I’m quite often asked and when I answer that yes, of course we get paid it can lead to meltdown for some. And while I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of this fact here, I would ask this. If you got paid to take 6 weeks off work, every year and do anything you liked, or even nothing at all, would you miss that when it was gone? It’s simplistic and almost boastful, but I really, really like getting paid for not going to work. It’s not just what gets taken away that makes returning to work for those in education a stressful and sometimes even miserable time. Undoubtedly, what happens when you get there can grind you down as well.
After 6 weeks away from work we inevitably return to what’s referred to as a ‘training day’. Now without swearing it’s hard to express my negativity about these days adequately. But, suffice to say, I’m not a fan. Training days used to be relaxed affairs. You’d have an initial all staff meeting, a department meeting and then be left to your own devices to get organised. This meant that the pay-off for sitting through two mind numbing meetings was the joy of pottering. Bliss. And it meant that I had time to sort out everything I needed in order to be ready for the new term. But not anymore.
Nowadays, with education it would seem moving in a far more corporate direction, training days are…what’s the phrase? Oh yes…’a massive pain in the arse’. An all staff meeting can last hours while various people tell you about things like ‘vision’ and ‘missions’ while referring to you all as ‘guys’. So lots of my favourite words then. The schedule that you’re given might as well come with a match to destroy it as time and again people talk beyond their slot, so to speak. And that’s not necessarily a criticism – when talking in class or conducting an assembly or a staff briefing I inevitable run over time while getting carried away at the thought of just bunging in another joke or better still, talking about myself. But after 6 weeks away from the job, I’m not in the mood – or headspace if you’re under thirty – to be talked at. In fact, I’m probably not listening. And I’m not the only one. You, dear colleague, are probably not listening either, so that later when we get together in another meeting, none of us has the first clue about where we work anymore, let alone our ‘vision’.
On the first day back at work I will almost certainly be given a schedule of where I have to be at any given moment during the day. And, when I read said schedule, I’d bet my mortgage that I will whine like a small child something along the lines of ‘Why do I have to go to that?’ And this is because, after 6 weeks gone rogue, I have regressed to kidult. And now this kidult is being forced to behave like a proper adult once more. Three days previously I was playing Scalectrix with a ten year old or burying my face in a chocolate muffin while watching ‘A Place in the Sun’ or ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ and now someone far more skilled at adulthood is banging on about their mission. Don’t tell me that 6 weeks off is long enough!
It gets worse. At some point you will be faced with a mad scramble to gather together things like exercise books, a diary, a planner, pens etc. Bloody stationery again! Inevitably, you will get to a store cupboard to find it’s already been ransacked by the dreaded young, enthusiastic colleagues who were ticking it all off their desk planner while you stared at your classroom walls for a moment that turned into 20 minutes! But it’s OK, because you will rise above this stress and have the last laugh by entering their classrooms once they’ve gone home, to pilfer the books that you missed out on, while telling yourself that your 20 years service to the teaching profession allows you such privilege! Little do you know, that you’ve forgotten to pick up any of the set texts you’re meant to be teaching, because year in year out, you don’t actually look at your desk planner.
More stress will come in the shape of things that others have planned for you. For instance, I dread the Duty Rota email like no other email across the year. Even writing about it makes my blood run cold. Will I get outside duties again? Because believe me, winter in deepest Dewsbury is like, well…summer in Dewsbury really. Rain, wind and more rain. And then there’s the issue of who else is on duty. Will I share a duty, will I know this person, will I have to actually speak to them? This year I’ve been blessed in that although I’ve been outside I’ve had good company. Someone of a similar cynical mindset to me (cheers Paul). But what awaits me this year? In terms of conversation I only really do subjects like football, music, football and moaning. And so if I’m lumped together with someone, what do I talk about? I mean perish the thought that someone wants to talk about education. And what if it’s one of those younger members of staff, someone in their twenties? I can’t escape the fact that I may well have to stand on duty with someone who I’m old enough to be the dad of. What can I talk about? These people are off living a life, going out, travelling, seeing bands, while I’m inevitably battling for control of the telly with a teenager at home. It may well be easier to just see the doctor and get signed off with stress at this rate! (If you work in HR, that’s a joke. I’ll explain jokes at a later date, but I’m not going to get signed off work with stress).
And there may well be other surprise bits of responsibility. Because while I know that the Duty Rota is coming, it’s not beyond a more senior colleague to have a surprise up their sleeves with my name on it. In the past for instance I’ve been assigned as a ‘buddy’ for newer members of staff. That’s right, me, a buddy. Imagine being so shit at life that you got me as a buddy. I think I managed to catch up with this person twice across the year, partly because I’m fairly useless, but also because they had already been assigned a mentor. And so I spent far too much of the year worrying that I wasn’t really helping, while simultaneously wondering what my job might be as a buddy. If it happens again I truly feel for the poor thing that’s landed with me. I’m not exactly sociable or talkative, I’m fairly certain I can’t solve your crisis and I have a tendency to furtively leave the room when colleagues cry. I’m genuinely shy and don’t actually like meeting new people. Clearly someone sees something in me that I simply haven’t got. Some buddy! But this is the kind of thing that we face in those first days back.
Once the initial training day is over we’re then left with facing new classes. And this truly is a battle of wills. Pupils are trying things out to see how much they can get away with while I’m, as usual, maintaining a heavily sarcastic streak and well, seeing how much I can get away with, really. If I have a Year 7 class I always feel that I have to appear ever so slightly cheery and friendly, which again is quite the battle due to the fact that I’m not in the least bit cheery or friendly, but I have to make the effort in their early days at ‘big school’. After all, by the time they reach Year 8 I’ll simply be a familiar grizzled and sarcastic figure for them so the odd smile at this point probably isn’t going to harm any of us. It does add to the stress of the return to work though.
Further worry will arrive in the form of new seating plans and trying to work out just the right mix of pupils in order to keep classes stable. This is complicated by the need to have certain types of pupil sat in certain areas in order to keep any observers happy when they look at data. Ridiculous really. And another time consuming exercise that for at least one of my classes will be inevitable forgotten about for far too long, resulting in chaos every time they walk in and find that there’s still no seating plan. Later, I’ll kid them that it was a deliberate ploy, designed to allow me to observe behaviour, friendship groups etc in order to create the perfect seating plan…eventually.
So there you have it. Having had 6 weeks off work many of us will feel nothing like going back, however much we love what we do. And many more people will not understand the stress. But this time next week, I for one, will be back to being Scrooge, although I mot likely won’t have collected the texts.
Is it too early to start counting down the week until October half-term?