Poetry Blog: Fledglings

This is a poem that I wrote about the transition to high school. It’s something that is very much at the forefront of my mind at the moment as for only the second time in a decade, I have a Year 7 form again. Not only this, but I start again on the merry-go-round of teaching English to a new Year 7 class too. So, this year I will see a Year 7 class at least once a day every day.

As one of the people most responsible for these new students, you tend to find that they’re on your mind quite a bit. So, a few days ago I found myself discussing a particular student in my new form with a colleague and it got me to thinking about this stage of their school careers. I began to think about my role, but also what I’d compare the Year 7s with and the image of fledgling birds in a nest came to mind. It’s not the most original thing, but I ended up writing the following poem from the idea.

Fledglings

(A poem best read in your best David Attenborough voice...)

Safely incubated over the course of a carefree six week summer,
now is the time for parents to let go of
one more downy feather,
as their latest fledgling ventures out into another brave new world.

Shielded up to this point by everything familiar
and much the same routine for the last 6 years,
now almost everything will change.
Another journey is about to be made,
new lessons learned and, with a tear of trepidation,
they are pushed from the nest.

Pushing through a door, a portal to a new life of possibility and potential,
some upright, confident, ready, while others seem still to lack
the confidence that will see them take flight.
Gathering in groups or shuffling into corners where adult eyes
are immediately alerted to the potential for danger
or a plan being hatched.

Already, lines are being drawn...

From here, a steep learning curve will be climbed
by choosing haphazardly from a list including
bravado, belligerence and bewilderment.
There will be casualties along the way,
tears and tantrums, but eventually all will thrive in one way or another
as confidence grows, feathers are earned and flight, however cautiously,
is taken, and however long it may take,
is embarked upon in order to begin yet another grueling journey.

With this poem – as with lots of the others that I write – it started with a few lines just arriving in my head after a little bit of thought. Usually, from there I’ll scribble them down and try to write more, before I decide what goes together…and sometimes even what it’s about!

The difference with Fledglings was that when forming those few lines in my head I could ‘hear’ the voice of David Attenborough reading them! As I wrote more, this just seemed to keep happening until, in the end, I just decided to try and write the whole thing as if it part of the narration of a show like Planet Earth. I really liked the idea of having a bit of fun with the poem. After all, it’s a very simple metaphor, so there had to be something else that anyone reading might find interesting! I hope that it’s a ‘twist’ that other people like. And I really hope that it’s not just me that sees or hears the poem this way. Maybe, if you find yourself a quiet space, you could try to read it in your best David Attenborough voice…

As ever, feel free to leave a comment as I always enjoy people’s thoughts about what I write, especially the poems!

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!

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.

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.

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!

Poetry Blog: Age of Innocence

This is a poem that I had the idea for while teaching my Year 7 English group. I decided to publish it as it is, but am thinking about turning it into something about that age group in general and the state of their education over the last couple of Covid blighted years. It’s certainly something I’ve been able to witness first hand.

I wrote part of the poem while my class were working silently. It was just their approach that struck me; their diligence and their keenness, dare I say it for fear of cursing myself and finding that we come back after half term and they’ve turned into monsters, a real desire for knowledge. The more I thought about it the more I thought about the fact that this group of people have had their education disrupted terribly by Covid and that maybe, their energy and enthusiasm was just a direct reaction to all of the disruption.

I have a son who’s a year older than my group and I know that various lockdowns, school closures and enforced periods of isolation have affected his attitude and approach towards his education quite noticeably. He’s definitely not the same kid that started Year 6, just before the news began to filter out of China about this terrible virus. It seems that as much as we tried to keep him engaged through lockdown and a combination of home-schooling and online lessons, he’s changed into someone who simply gets things done as quickly as possible in order to open up more ‘leisurely’ opportunities. There’s still a diligence about him, but we just don’t see the same thirst for knowledge that he always had at primary school anymore.

Teaching this particular Year 7 group has been really refreshing for me. They’ve responded to me and the curriculum and tasks put before them in a way that I haven’t seen in a group for a good while. Their enthusiasm seems boundless, but their general niceness is also very welcomed. So here’s the poem.

Age of Innocence

Circulating around the room leads me to ponder.
How wonderful you are at this age on this stage.
Earnest, diligent, keen,
still without the air of cool detachment that will inevitably spoil you for a while.
At this moment in time though, I'll enjoy the patter of the rain on the roof
as you work on in an un-asked-for silence that is only 
broken by peppered questions from one or two from time to time.
The brows crinkled in concentration,
the eyes narrowed as you sit in the middle of an epic quest
to find just the right word
and the tongues allowed to escape from the corner of the mouth
as you perfect the curve of a capital letter, the wording of a sentence,
or the shading of a heading.
But for now, amidst the hum of the air conditioning
and time ticking on
it seems like nothing could divert you from this task.

My group will change after half term as we set them more accurately using data gained over these past seven weeks. I’ve already had sneak preview of my class and this glance told me that there aren’t many of my original group left. Fingers crossed that things aren’t going to change too much. As an experienced, grizzled teacher of over twenty years, it’s felt nice not to have to deal with the deliberate disruption that some classes seem to revel in. Let’s see how things are panning out in about three weeks time. There could be a very different poem ion the way by then!

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