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.

Poetry Blog: Rain on the roof

There’s no great mystery about this poem. Quite simply, it was prompted by rainfall on my classroom roof. It’s quite a cool noise I suppose and I think the sight of it and the relief I felt at being indoors and being able to just sit and watch and listen to it, was quite inspirational.

I have what I think is referred to as an outdoor classroom. It’s not actually outdoors, but it’s a stand alone building away from the main buildings of school. Maybe they’re trying to tell me something. My classroom is actually known as the ecopod; I think it’s supposed to be eco-friendly, but I’ve never really worked out why. The structure is covered with wood and we have skylights and also movement activated lighting, so I suppose there’s something in the name. That said, because it’s wooden, early on in its school life my room was also widely known as Nandos…

It was the skylights that partly influenced the poem, which is basically about the sound and the sight of the rain during a particularly heavy downpour about a week ago. My class were working and the rain just got me thinking, so I scribbled some lines down on a bit of paper and went back to it later to finish what I’d started.

Rain on the roof

Incessant, unrelenting and blended into almost one wonderful noise,
you set the tone, make me feel glad of these four walls
and the roof above, reluctant to leave and glad of my warm, dry room.
Through the window a filter of unedifying grey
blights the green of fields and trees, makes fools of the eyes,
blurring houses, factories, towns on the horizon.
The vague hope of home is lost in the mist
as the rain plays its song on the skylight.
This will pass before I venture out once more,
but its footprint will remain for hours yet.

The effect of rain on the roof of my classroom always raises a smile. It will always prompt at least 50% of the group to stop working. Next we might get an incredulous ‘Woah’ before finally eyes turn to the windows in order to watch the downpour. It’s as if the rain couldn’t actually be happening if all they could do was hear it! And given that we live in the north of England, where rain is fairly frequent, it never fails to amaze me that my students can be so captivated by something as simple as this and that they see on such a regular basis. That was kind of what I meant in the last line as you can always guarantee that your class will struggle to behave if it’s raining. Throw some wind into the equation and you’ve got a battle on your hands!

From my classroom windows I can see in the direction that I live and am able to spot certain places that I’ll pass on the journey home. It can be a bit of a comfort when I’m having a bad day. And so, when it’s misty and cloudy all of that disappears; hence the line about the ‘vague hope of home’. Strange how such a simple thing can spark so much into happening!

As always, I hope you enjoyed the poem. Feel free to leave a comment.

That difficult first week back: This teacher’s diary.

Having written a blog a couple of weeks ago about my predications for September and seeing that people seemed to genuinely enjoy the mixture of cynicism and ridiculousness, I thought I’d diarise my first week back at work as a high school teacher. Typically, having been thrust straight back into the chaos of a high school, it’s taken longer to write than I thought!

The first week actually went fairly well and wasn’t half as painful as I imagined it might be. And as a bonus, it seemed to pass very quickly. Where that first week back can sometimes feel as long as the holiday we’ve just enjoyed for us teachers, this one seemed to just take the required week’s worth of time, which is always nice. So here’s a look at the week.

Day 1

Having settled back into my classroom and thrown a few old resources out – new year, new start and all that – I went to a neighbouring classroom to attend our first online briefing of the year. It’s not a criticism to say that these are usually tedious affairs. I mean how do you talk about results, approaches to teaching, school routines etc without it sounding a bit boring? So, it’s safe to say that although my eyes are open, my ears are at least partially shut. My brain, as ever, is focusing 90% of its efforts anything but what’s going on in front of me.

Talk of disadvantaged students makes my mind wander and I’m faced with the horrific realisation of my own disadvantaged school days. Here, because we didn’t have a great deal of money, my trousers were bought at Geordie Jeans – a kind of budget version of a charity shop with the emphasis on cheap versions of last year’s styles – and for at least one year, my jumpers were knitted by my mam. The memory of those jumpers alone makes me almost squeeze into a corner in embarrassment and it’s a wonder I don’t shed a tear.

Our Head Teacher’s briefing is held in the hall, meaning that I’m thrust into a crowded environment where I’m not really Covid comfortable. So I make a beeline for a back row.

The briefing is quite an entertaining affair, but I’ll mention a few highlights. Firstly – and forgive me, I can’t remember what parallel was being made – but the Harry Potter Castle is mentioned. The toy version, that is. Apparently it costs the best part of £400 and it makes me think they’d need a special kind of magic to get my credit card out of my wallet to pay for it. More pertinently though, I didn’t even realise that there was a Harry Potter castle. If there’s a castle, what on Earth is Hogwarts then?

Further to this, our head then throws in a couple of old photographs of himself from the 90s. Definitely a highlight because it’s always funny to see those – dare I say it – embarrassing pictures from back in the day.

The rest of the day is spent both in my class preparing for the rest of the teaching week, as well as in more meetings. By the time I get home I’ve taken on the haunted look of a soldier returning from war. It’s going to be a long year.

Day 2

The hours before students actually come back to school are possibly the best few hours of any year. Sure, interaction with your classes is great, but it’ll never quite beat the serenity of pottering in your classroom while they’re not actually there. Suffice to say, I’m grateful for the fact the Year 11 have a later starting time today.

I’m grateful too for the fact that I manage to avoid the call to arms to go and welcome in our new Year 7 cohort as they make their way in, earlier than every one else. I don’t avoid it on purpose; I’m just in the repographics room having my daily wrestle with the various photocopiers in there. I leave with around 60% of what I came for, which is definitely above average for the spoils one takes when heading into battle with these machines. And anyway, it’s for the best that Year 7s aren’t greeted by me. It’ll make for a more enjoyable day for them, I’m sure.

Later, during an extended form period I have to explain that the school isn’t “all so strict” as one of my students claims. Rather, it’s the fact that minor issues like Covid meant that attention was diverted from things like uniform and make-up issues. In the fightback against Covid, masks, bubbles et al are somewhat under control and so we have time to address the fact that some people are dressed for a hen night, while others look like they’re planning to jog into the office in their black trainers. Not strict in terms of being in a school, when you think about it. A bit of a culture shock to some though, clearly.

In other news, I’m already developing a mint habit and a chewing gum addiction…

Day 3

Wednesday marks the first full day of school. And to mark the occasion, I’ve got a full day of teaching; 6 lessons, 4 different classes and a 2 hour lesson with my Year 11 form to start with. Exciting news…if you’re a masochist. It’ll only get better from next week when someone will add a Period 7 to the day and more Year 11 time.

To be fair, it’s mostly what we call expectations lessons today – going through plans, rules, giving out books etc followed by a short task or two if there’s time. But it’s not the work that’s the problem. It’s the managing the behaviour and emotions of 20-30 kids in a room after they’ve spent much of the last two academic years not in a room together.

By the end of the day I’m wiped out, a physical wreck. I’ve promised myself an early finish, but 4.30 ticks by and I’m still planning and trying to lay my hands on various bits of equipment, books and copying. An old headteacher used to tell us that it was like we were on an oil rig and wouldn’t see our families for a while during term time. I feel like I’m already staring longingly at the sea.

Day 4

Like a child on a long car journey, my head is full of ‘Are we nearly there yet?’ And it’s a case of answering with ‘we are and we aren’t’. Thursday; not quite the weekend, but still in the right half of the week.

Year 11 start the day full of complaints. ‘We’ve done Macbeth’, they tell me almost to a man. Only we haven’t. We covered some of the context at the back end of last year and as the rest of the lesson reveals, they’ve forgotten it all anyway across the course of a six week summer.

I’m down to teach 2 periods of PSHCE to year 9 this year and today I have my first lesson. It’s about healthy and unhealthy relationships. One young man, who clearly doesn’t understand the concept of accents, tells me that I’ve got his name wrong. I point out that I haven’t and that’s it’s just a matter of pronunciation; as a Geordie I’m going to pronounce things differently to someone from Yorkshire. He refuses to understand. Apparently, I’m wrong and just got his name wrong. I guess we’re all learning about how to create an unhealthy relationship. From now on he’ll need to start making ours healthy again, otherwise it’s going to be a long year. For him.

Day 5

It’s taken what feels like 6 weeks to arrive but today is finally Friday. And while last year my Friday featured free periods from 11.30 until 2.45 (none of it wasted, by the way, always productive in order to reduce workload elsewhere) this year I have a full day of teaching. That Friday feeling is conspicuous by its absence.

Part way through Period 2 however, we have an assembly to go to, so at least my day is slightly reduced. I settle at the side of the hall to have a good view of the assembly and its audience, but also in order to ensure a swift getaway at the end. It is from this vantage point that I spot one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen, stomping its way across the floor. It is no exaggeration to say that this spider is the size of a dog. Maybe even a bear. OK, maybe it’s a slight exaggeration, but it’s big.

Across the course of the ten minute assembly, said spider mainly stays still. Clearly it can sense that I’m watching it. However, occasionally it makes a dart across the floor. I know this as the ground shakes when it moves; it’s that big. Before I know it this veritable monster is heading towards a girl on the front row and as anxious as I am about the shock she’ll get if and when she spots it, I’m more relieved that I wasn’t asked to pick it up and do the humane thing by accompanying it back outside. I’m not particularly bothered by spiders, but this one must have measured a couple of feet across and stood at least a foot tall…

There’s more drama later when one of my still new Year 8s decides he doesn’t really fancy the classroom today and follows up on his refusal to remove his head from the cover of his blazer by getting up and walking out, giving us all not one, but two middle fingers. Not on the same hand, I hasten to add. This little drama is equal measures frustrating yet mildly amusing but makes me worry about many of our pupils and what the future holds after the stability provided by our academy (and I take very little credit for this) is taken away.

The week ends with a huge outward breath followed by the realisation that my early finish still won’t happen. After students have left, I sit at my desk planning, catching up on various bits of admin and sending resources to print for photocopying. It’s getting close to 5pm by the time I leave.

It’s been a relatively stress free and smooth first week. In what will feel like a year it’ll be Christmas and my body will be screaming at me to stop. I’ll take stress free and smooth for now.

As ever, feel free to leave a comment, good or bad. I hope you enjoyed reading. Enjoy your next week at work!

Lockdown 3 – Some thoughts on my first week at work.

Here in the U.K., on the evening of Monday 4th January, it was announced that we would be entering lockdown once more, this time for a period of around six weeks.

As some of you will know, I’m a teacher and lockdown has meant that schools have closed again. Last time this happened, because I’m classed as being vulnerable to the virus (bit of a heart problem and asthmatic) I wasn’t allowed to come into work to help out with vulnerable students. So the first lockdown, despite various work-related IT problems and the paranoia that surrounded the whole virus thing, wasn’t that much of an unpleasant experience. In fact, faced with days of great weather and lots of time to go out for a run, work in the garden, or just do some actual school-related work with no pressure at all, it was downright pleasant at times.

Things have certainly changed this time around. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not unpleasant, but there’s a definite change. Schools have once again been closed, but this time around, armed with greater technology and greater know how, students are generally being educated remotely online, via live lessons.

At my school I’ve been given the option of actually coming into school to teach my lessons remotely and so far I’ve done just that. I’m mulling over what to do for the rest of lockdown and will probably work from home occasionally, but for now, I’m in school. So I thought I’d get my first week and the experiences of it down in a blog.

On Monday night, when another period of lockdown and school closures was announced, I felt a little bit of panic. It wasn’t about the virus or anything particularly; I’d left my laptop at school, meaning that working from home – with two children doing the same – was going to be ridiculous. Luckily, I was brought gently back down to Earth a short while later when our Head Teacher floated the idea that we could actually come into school to work. Given that the technology is here, as well as things like registers and student details, it made perfect sense. I had a short discussion with my wife, who was going to be working from home, but now with the added responsibility of two children, and we agreed that it made a lot more sense for me to actually go into work. So, on Tuesday morning, that’s just what I did!

The Prime Minister also announced that there would be no exams for Years 11 and 13, meaning that for the second academic year running young people would be faced with teacher assessments based on a shorter time of working at their subjects, to grade them. This might seem like great news. Being 16 or 18 and not having to sit vital exams, avoiding all of the stress etc. But it isn’t really. Our students will be geared up for the exams. Some may feel that they need more time to get to the level that they want to be at or have been told they need to be at. Now, they don’t get the opportunity to show exactly what they can do and for a lot of them, that’s devastating. So a lot of the next 6 weeks will be about supporting our older students and reassuring them that actually, things will work out for them. And in order to do that, I would be better placed in school.

School without pupils – and indeed a lot of the staff – is a strange place. It’s calm and really quite pleasant, but there’s a certain eerieness that I’m not that keen on. It feels a little bit dangerous being in the building during a lockdown. But then again, it’s a lot more of a danger to my health when everybody’s here!

It’s noticeable on the first morning that the traffic is a bit lighter. And unlike the previous two-week lockdown that we had earlier in the year, there are a lot fewer people on the streets. Driving through town back then I’d see gangs of men heading to an industrial estate for work and wonder how this was possible, given the nature of lockdown. I mean, the clue’s in the name. That and the fact that it was made clear that only essential businesses should remain open. Now, I struggle to see anyone walking through town and it’s a lot more reminiscent of our first period of lockdown.

When I get in, I get the heating on in my classroom and start setting everything up. There are no resources to photocopy or give out, no behavioural issues to give a lot of time to, and of course no students. Everyone – even vulnerable students and those whose parents are key workers and are in school – is being taught remotely. I guess the big question is, how many will show up for their live lessons?

Despite my air conditioning being turned up in order to heat the room, the one thing I cannot escape today is that it’s freezing cold. Everywhere. It’s bitterly cold outside and as a quick email reveals, it’s bitterly cold in everyone else’s room. It seems blankets will be the order of the day with my female colleagues from tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do; a blanket seems a little extreme. I do, however, consider wearing running tights under my suit trousers!

Today, I have two lessons. Since September and with the need for social distancing and all the other precautions around Covid-19, we’ve been doing two lessons of 2 hours and fifty minutes per day. The students stay in one zone and we go to them. So now, I have the advantage of being in one room, but the ‘problem’ of relying on the internet working for almost three hours for everybody in the lesson! Oh, and did I mention that being in my room is a little bit like being in a walk-in freezer?

As it turns out, the lessons go well. My Year 10 group is a dream and take to remote learning really well. They’ve had a little practice when their ‘bubble’ collapsed earlier in the year, but credit to them; today we get through almost every slide of the PowerPoint and lots of them submit their work straight after the lesson. There’s no silliness with people unmuting microphones, no childish comments in the chat; it’s a generally good lesson. There are a few suspicious absences , but the majority of the group are up and ready for 8.40am and plough through almost three hours worth of work on English Language and Fiction Texts. I then have my Year 7s in the afternoon, who although they work well, are a lot more fussy and at times, silly. Some repeatedly leave the call then come back a minute later, blaming technology problems. Others clearly aren’t listening and keep asking what we’re doing using the Chat function. Typical Year 7s then! We get through it though and before I know it, we’re done.

Wednesday brings more freezing cold weather, which I confront head on by wearing a jumper! It helps in keeping my body warm, but by the end of the day, when I still can’t feel anything from my ankles down, it’s clear I’ll have to make an adjustment.

I only have the one lesson today, albeit a three hour one. However, it’s with my Year 10s and again goes smoothly and I make sure to congratulate them on their brilliant attitude and thank them for their hard work when it’s over. I have the rest of the day free, so knuckle down to a bit of planning and working my way through a list of jobs I made at the start of the day. Some of these are computer based, like preparing resources or feeding back to students who’ve submitted work, but others are more mundane, like getting Blu-Tac off the walls after most of my posters fell down over the Christmas break! In the middle of the lesson a couple of colleagues come round to my room. They have a tray of teas and coffees and have obviously been busy calling around everyone in the academy. It’s great to have a nice hot drink, but actually even better to see faces and have a minute or so’s interaction with two other human beings. It’s also nice that kindness seems to be at the forefront of so many minds in our school. It feels good to be being looked after in such troublesome times.

In the afternoon I have a meeting about my risk assessment as a vulnerable member of staff and it’s agreed that it’s fine for me to keep coming in as I’ll be out of the way for all but about 5 minutes every day. My classroom is outside of the buildings in a new unit at the back of school, so I rarely see people anyway, but during lockdown it’s really only going to be me and whoever’s using the room next door.

Two things strike me pretty much immediately at the end of Wednesday. The first is that this is a lonely way of working. It’s just the teacher, that’s all. Even the kids on screen are represented by an icon or their initials. It surprises me how isolated I feel and although I wouldn’t say I feel low or down, I realise quickly that this could cause a bit of strain mentally over the next 6 weeks. The other thing that strikes me is that teaching this way feels a bit dull. I’ve always viewed my job as just being showing off with the pinch of intelligence thrown in every now and again. And now, I have no one to show off to. I’m sat at a desk, I’m not up and wandering round a classroom, interacting with my class. The performance aspect of my job feels like it’s gone. The faces I might pull, the voices I’d put on when reading a text, the (bad dad) jokes I might crack or the gestures and body language that are involved in my job are all gone. I miss that already. It’s going to be a real adjustment to make and another thing that will be tough, mentally, over this half term.

I notice another thing as I walk to the car that afternoon too. This sitting at a desk is no good for my knees or ankles! It seems that everything has seized up and I hobble a little to get to my car! I resolve to take some walks round my room when work is being completed tomorrow. Remote learning’s desk based nature does not suit this old fella!

By Thursday it’s noticeable that quite a lot of staff seem to be teaching from home. It makes work an even lonelier place to be, but I can fully understand why you’d do it. No commute, for starters. But for me, with two high school aged children doing remote lessons and my wife working from home, I think the distractions would prove too much, not to mention the risk that technology might just fail me there too, as it did for almost the whole of the first lockdown.

Looking ahead, Friday will be the day when I’m most likely to work from home. I only have one lesson, meaning I’d be finished by 11.30 and provided I had at least my Monday planned, I could have a free afternoon to maybe sort out a few things around the house or even go for a long run, depending on the weather. Or I might to just take the chance to indulge myself in even more planning or creating resources! Or Netflix. There’s always Netflix!

As for the first Friday of lockdown, it would be hard to describe it as anything short of fun. We have a staff briefing – containing news of I think, the fourth different way of doing a register this week – which brings us up to speed about developments in the way we’re doing things. And that’s something to consider, if you’re unaware of how schools work (and especially if you’re one of those people who seems to have dedicated their life to criticising teachers). Things are changing by the hour in schools and of course with the guidance we receive about teaching in the pandemic.

We have regular briefings, daily bulletins and a raft of emails to get through in order to keep up to speed. With that brings the necessity to change what we’re doing or how we’re doing it on a regular basis. So you might spend hours planning a lesson and then just have to abandon it for something else or find a different way of doing it. The impact on our students can’t be underestimated either. While you might imagine sitting at home listening to your teacher talk you through a lesson would be simple and straightforward, you’d be wrong. Some kids are genuinely struggling with the stress of it all and even logging on to the Teams call leaves them terrified. Some don’t have the technology. For some, their internet connection means they’re regularly crashing out of the lesson and struggling to keep up. As a teacher, it’s my job to just act as if all of this is the most normal thing in the world, stay calm and make learning as interesting, fun and stress free as I can. And already, I can feel it’s taking its toll. By 10am on Friday, part way through a lesson, I’m yawning and rubbing my eyes. I genuinely feel like I could close my eyes and sleep.

However, I’m not looking for sympathy. Being able to teach remotely is still a privilege. I do get some interaction with my students and today’s Year 9 lesson is successful and in all honesty, a bit of a joy really. We get through the work, but we laugh together regularly too and that feels like I’m lightening the load a little for both my students and myself.

After that, I fill my afternoon with various tasks – from tidying up both the room and the storeroom and recycling old worksheets to responding to the work that students have sent in and planning things for next week.

It’s been a frenetic kind of week. Lots of planning, lots of reading various pieces of guidance or information on students, subjects and protocol and a full week of remote lessons. I imagined that lockdown and remote learning, bringing with it the promise of no actual students to deal with, would be easier and quite a relaxing way to spend my working days. It isn’t. It’s stressful and frustrating at times, infuriating at others. But it also has a feelgood factor. The fact that hundreds of students are logging on and listening to our lessons, contributing to online discussion and then sending their work in is a truly wonderful thing.

I end the week very tired. I feel like I’ve learned a lot though and I can definitely say that I’ve enjoyed myself. It’s very strange working on my own for long periods of time in a classroom that would normally have up to 30 students plus support assistants in for a lesson. There’s barely a noise now. I’ve seen my friends even less than usual and been left a bit forlorn when they’ve been working at home. And did I mention that it’s freezing cold, like working in a walk-in freezer? Here’s to 5 more weeks, at least!

Stay safe everyone!

Back to School again…

This time last year I wrote an article about how it might feel for teachers returning to work after their annual – and much begrudged by anyone else in any profession, ever – 6 weeks summer holidays. Despite the holiday, I felt stressed about the prospect of returning to work and having worked in the industry for so long, I know that lots of us feel the same way. I looked at things like the anxiety dreams that we would be no doubt suffering from, the clothing I’d have to wear and even getting overwhelmed by stationary. It’s on the link below if you fancy a read, but you know, one at a time!

https://middleagefanclub.wordpress.com/2019/09/01/its-time-for-a-new-teaching-year-and-im-stressed-out-already/

This year, the return to the classroom is days away and I’m more than a little anxious about my return. However, with all that’s happened over the last year, I’m anxious in a whole new way than ever before!

Wednesday March 17th 2019 is a date that will stay with me until I decide it’s time to stop the world and get off. Or someone/something decides for me. This was the date that I spent my last day in school for the 2019-2020 academic year. I haven’t been back since.

As we got into March of this year, Covid-19 was beginning to make a name for itself (actually I imagine scientists made the name, but you get the picture). Around school, pupils were starting to ask about closures and fellow staff were, in truth, a little giddy about getting a couple of weeks off work. I mean, we hadn’t even had a snow day, so a little bit of time off would make anybody giddy, surely. Because that’s what we imagined it would be. This was a bad case of the flu; it would pass. and before we knew it, we’d be back in work.

However, as the month wore on, the changes were glaringly obvious. People were preparing themselves for the worst by buying entire supermarkets worth of paracetamol, cold and flu drinks, dried pasta and anything that they could lay their hands on to then put on said hands and clean them. Oh, and some folk were clearly imagining that their houses were going to fall down and that they would recover from this particular blow by building igloos out of toilet roll. At least that’s what I think was happening.

In amongst all this madness, I was starting to worry. A little, tiny bit. As much as I ever do about anything, apart from my wife discovering the true size and cost of my box(es) of ‘To Read’ books. (If you’re reading this my love, my life, that’s just a little joke for all of the other readers – just never go into the loft.)

I have a couple of health issues that seemed to make me a little vulnerable to the virus that I was reading about. Firstly, I’m asthmatic and much to my embarrassment have been on the ‘At risk’ list at our doctors’ surgery for years. To add to this though, a couple of years ago I was admitted to hospital with a heart complaint and ended up having surgery to correct a couple of things a month later. I was born with heart problems too, so as much as I don’t like it, the fact is I have history with a bit of a major health issue. Bang goes my plan to live forever.

And so, after discussing the problem with my wife, I went into work on March 17th promising that I’d speak with our HR department. The first colleague I met as I went into the building that day almost shouted at me – ‘You shouldn’t be here!’ – which in truth is not that unusual, but as I was on my way to speak to HR, I didn’t feel too hurt.

I remember my exact words when I got there – “Julia, I’m not sure I should be here.” Yep, dynamic as always! However, I was ushered into an office, told Julia my concerns and asked to go and teach until she’d got back to me. A couple of hours later I was back in the office being told that today would be my last day. The situation would be re-assessed after the Easter holidays, giving me four weeks off. I won’t lie, I was as delighted as I was relieved. Not only could I stay safe, but imagine the amount of episodes of Homes Under The Hammer, Bargain Hunt and American Pickers I could watch!

Anyway, four weeks came and went and I was told to stay away from work. For my own good, not because no one likes me. Because people like me – I’d use up almost all of the fingers of one hand if I had to count them.

Weeks later, I was informed that, in all likelihood that was me done for the academic year. Schools were closed and any re-opening wouldn’t need to involve me. Because no one likes me. Not really; it was because I’m such a sickly weakling. Clearly, if someone were to sneeze in the same room as me it could be fatal.

I return to work in less than a week. When I do it will have been 174 days spent at home. That’s 4176 hours or 250,560 minutes, if you prefer. Or if you like, it’s almost as long as the gestation period of a baboon, but only around half of what it takes to make a baby sealion, llama or alpaca. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a long time away from the classroom and a long time in mummy’s tummy.

As my return approaches I have very much mixed emotions. I swerve wildly between feeling really excited and an extreme sense of dread about the whole thing. During lockdown it felt like I’d never have to go back to any kind of normality and so such a drastic change is going to take quite a bit of getting used to, I suppose. It’ll be brilliant to see people – pupils and colleagues – again, but then again I’m really not used to seeing people. So I suppose mixed emotions are to be expected.

Ironically, the lockdown life should have been the life I dreamed of. The solitude, the days stretching out ahead of me with little in the way of plans, the lack of pressure for any kind of face to face interaction. Not having to work for a living was something I’d long ago fathomed out was perfect for me. I’ve often thought that I might well have been swapped at birth and that my rightful family – noble of lineage, rich, idle, better than you and knew it – didn’t want the poorly specimen they were presented with (that’s me) and instead helped themselves to the athletic baby in the next cot. I could never shake the feeling that working just wasn’t for me. Harry and Margaret weren’t my actual mam and dad. The life on the Tyneside estate wasn’t what I’d really been destined for. So being able to do what I want, when I wanted through lockdown should have been perfect, or at least a bit more to my liking.

To an extent, that’s exactly what it was. But the name tells its own story and lockdown meant no travel and not a whole lot of freedom. Within a couple of weeks I’d painted all of our fences and both sheds. The gardens were looking good, I was reading and writing more and discovering Netflix. Our house was even beginning to resemble the type of place that people would want to live and not just the kind of place that was being photographed by the police having been freshly ransacked by burglars…and bears. But I missed going into work. I missed my team, my friends. I missed the kids, the random things that they’d say and the bizarre situations that you’d inevitably find yourself in.

So now, at the time of writing, I’m days away from heading back to work. And although some things will be familiar, the structure of lessons and the day has altered due to COVID and I don’t even know if I’m allowed in my own classroom yet. I’m excited about going back. As I’ve already stated, I’m honest enough to say I’ve enjoyed having time away from work. However, the bit of me that likes feeling like I’m making a difference to people can’t wait to get back in. I think it’ll be good for my own self-worth too. It’s nice to feel like you’ve got a purpose and for 6 months my purpose seems to have revolved around things like being Joe Wicks’s imaginary best friend and being able to make nice sandwiches for my kids. Try as I might I can’t really say there’s a future in either of those things (although I reckon Joe Wicks would be really impressed with my efforts, if not my hair.)

I’m excited about standing in front of my Year 11s again. I’m excited about coming up with new ideas to help my department out. I’m excited about speaking to a class, explaining things and watching the penny drop with kids who were adamant that they didn’t understand (it happens, on average about three times a year). I’m excited about sending sarcastic emails to our department. I’m excited about sending stupid emails about the ideas that swim around my head all day to our department too. I’m excited about meeting deadlines for projects I’ve been working on for months. I’m excited about taking staff briefings and slipping in silly jokes or daft pictures to a PowerPoint. I’m excited about attending meetings…alright, I’m not excited about that; I’m not some kind of pervert.

On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified of the risk to my health. I’m terrified of hearing the news that someone has tested positive. I’m terrified of the amount of people. I’m terrified that after all this time, I simply won’t be able to do the job. I’m terrified of the exhaustion that I reckon I’ll be feeling in about three weeks from now. I’m terrified of the new routine. I’m terrified of messing up with COVID procedures. I’m terrified of the new routine, the longer lessons, the pressure on Year 11. I’m even terrified that I might get part way through the new term and find that I’m just not enjoying what I do anymore. I might want to return to my royal duties instead! I’m terrified that a department and a school that has done without me for so long might simply not need me.

In short, my head is swimming with it all. From genuine concerns and excitement like those above to silly things like the fact that I haven’t worn a suit, shirt and tie for so long that it’ll just be strange. I also haven’t worn proper shoes for six months. I’ve spent most of it in shorts and trainers (and a t-shirt just in case anyone who knows me finds their eyes are burning at the image that their mind just conjured up).

I’m fully aware that lots of people have worked all the way through lockdown and the trauma of COVID-19. I know some of them and have heard of the strain that this past 6 months has put on them. So I’m not asking for sympathy. But on Monday, as I find myself in a school again and on Tuesday, as I stand in front of a class for the first time in half a year, I will feel physically sick. I’ll wonder what I’m doing, if I’m doing the right thing, if I’m safe.

After over twenty years as a teacher, next week I will enter a classroom both more experienced and more uncertain than I’ve even been. And that is as exciting as it is terrifying. No doubt next week I can tell you all about it. Until then, wish me luck!

Working with women – it’s a ton of fun being in the minority!

The guys tried to hide their excitement and look professional, but the chance to book drag queen tickets didn’t come along that often. Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

I’ve wanted to write this blog for a long while now, but I’ve never been sure of the approach to take. For me it’s a topic worth writing about because it’s a part of my life that I really enjoy, but I can’t help but think it’s a tricky topic to broach and get right. Writing a blog about working with women for instance may flag up warning signs of some kind of pervert. I mean, we all know ‘lads’ who’s imaginations would go into overdrive just at the thought of being in a room with several women. Not me. Apart from anything else, I don’t rate myself highly enough to actually head down that route! Every woman I’ve worked with had eyes. They can all see what a lanky, awkward knobhead they’re working with!

Or maybe people might expect some kind of sexist rant about female colleagues not being up to the job. Again, not my thing. Of course there have been exceptions along the way, but so many of the women I’ve worked with or am working with are extremely talented, hard working and driven by a love of what they do. They can handle anything! I think though, the main reason that I wanted to write a blog on this subject was to try and get across how brilliant working with women has been for me. And when I say ‘working with women’, I’m generally referring to being the only man in the place. It’s never been a 50/50 split or even a close run thing.

Being outnumbered, so to speak, doesn’t faze or intimidate me. In fact, it’s never felt like any kind of problem. But I can see that for some men, working within a department of 10 or more women as the only man would probably be terrifying. Well let me try and express why I’ve always loved being one of the girls then!

As an English teacher in high schools, I’ve worked, often as a lone man in departments chock full of women for the best part of twenty years and it’s never anything less than entertaining. So, I couldn’t possibly write some kind of misogynistic rant. It has to be more of a fond recollection of the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learnt. That and the chance to gently mock some of my colleagues…

Working with women is…eventful, to say the least. It’s generally fun, but can also be incredibly stressful because…how to phrase this…well let’s just say that, in my experience, women are a great deal more complicated than men. And that’s not a criticism. Goodness me, dogs are quite often more complicated than men. And conversely, as a simple – in every sense of the word – man, maybe that’s why women can seem so complicated. But working in a female dominated environment daily throws up the kind of bizarre and hilarious situations that I don’t think I’d ever tire of.

That said, my first proper English department should have put me off working with women for life. There were two men and 8 women, if I remember rightly and I quickly found out that the other man in the department was the target of much mocking at the hands of the female teachers. Much of it was horribly personal – about his appearance, his sexual prowess etc – and I became aware fairly quickly that I was possible only missing out on being the victim of this ‘hilarious’ banter because I was new to both the school and the profession. Luckily, I’m fairly quick with a verbal response and for a while I held my own when the inevitable happened.

However, I’m not sure someone standing up to them was what some of the women in that department wanted. Without boring you with the finer details, let’s just say that they found a way to bully me which resulted in me leaving the school after just two years. In fact, it was so bad that I considered leaving the profession. Some of my female colleagues were wonderful people, but none of them actually stood up for me or spoke out about what was happening. One of the more sympathetic ones smiled, shrugged and avoided the topic. She later went on to become the Head of the school.

I still vividly remember being physically and verbally bullied by two particular women on a night out at the end of my first year of teaching. It wasn’t a vicious assault, but it was clear that I wasn’t going to have an enjoyable 2nd year in teaching. They literally told me as much. Still, as prepared as I was, it was worse than I could have imagined and by the end of the year I had a new job to go to, but was reasonably certain that I’d be back working as a civil servant sooner rather than later. I was a complete mess for the experience and not really a person that I recognised anymore. This teaching lark, with its girl gangs, just wasn’t for me!

I didn’t quit though. In fact, I lasted 10 years at my next school. And this time it was largely the women that I worked with that kept me there. Regardless of age – they were all younger than me – the women I worked with became my big sisters. They were always a great deal more mature and responsible than me and undoubtedly brighter. I adored working with them. They filled me full of confidence by laughing at the majority of my jokes and poking gentle fun at me and more or less just giving me the platform to become the department show off, a role that I was absolutely born to play! When they fell out with anyone – husbands, partners, colleagues – I felt defensive and would try to offer advice or just an ear to rant into. They were my big sisters and I was their little brother – the Scrappy Doo to their Velmas and Daphnes if you like!

When I got married and then had two children they were all there for me. This was never more evident than when my children were born and there were worries about their size and health. My ‘sisters’ would rally round and reassure me that everything was going to be alright. In return I’d play up even more as the class clown and they’d continue to boost for ever inflating ego by laughing along.

Those particular women in that department probably helped me to be at my very best. I barely spoke for the first 18 months of working there and it was my big sisters that encouraged me. Without them, I simply wouldn’t be a teacher anymore and I think I’d be a lot quieter and less interesting person as well. Not that I’m claiming to be particularly interesting!

In my experience women are just more fun than men. There’s little shame and no particular ego. I worked in that department for 10 years and we would take time out from the stress of the job to have things like music quizzes and themed days. At one particular time we held a Lionel Richie themed day, playing his songs in the office, wearing masks of his face and willing each other on to get his lyrics into our lessons. I’m not sure blokes would be quite so carefree and as silly in this particular kind of way. Despite my age I’m still very much a child at heart and I still take a huge amount of pleasure from memories like walking into colleagues’ classrooms on that day and asking, in front of a bemused class, ‘Hello, is it me you’re looking for?’ before leaving with a straight face that quickly buckled into a fit of giggles. I’m not sure a lot of my male colleagues would have gone for this taste in jokes. But my female colleagues would allow me to have stupid ideas and actually entertain them. I have to say that for almost all of those ten years, I was in my element.

Working among so many women has definitely left me with a lot of dilemmas though. Mainly these would fall into the harassment folder. I’ve always been reticent to compliment my female colleagues, both in a professional manner or a personal one. If I observe and watch a genuinely good lesson am I being viewed as patronising them if I give a compliment? I always feel like I’m coming across as saying ‘Hey, that wasn’t bad… for a girl’! And I’m certain that this is just down to my own paranoia.

Then there’s personal compliments. If, when surrounded by female colleagues, you tell someone they look nice, or their new hairdo really suits them (because yes, I notice), am I coming across as an old perv? Rightly or wrongly, that’s genuinely how I feel I’d be perceived. But then I guess that the alternative might run to working in a factory and shamelessly telling a male colleague that he looked good in his overalls or something.

‘Ooh, Gary. Those overalls hang lovely off your shoulders and they just cling to your sugerlumps. You look fantastic!’ I’m not sure I’d just have my own thoughts to deal with in this situation. So I think the paranoia of complimenting a female colleague is probably worth it. Either way, all it takes to be able to look at someone and tell them that they look nice is to be in possession of at least one working eye. It’s not difficult, but I hope you can understand this particular dilemma. But it’s nice to be working with people that I feel I can compliment.

In my present job I’m once again the only man in the department. Or rather, the only full time male teacher in the department as the head is also an English teacher, but is usually a little busy with running a school to be able to join me and the girls. In all, there’s me and nine women; ten if you include the fact that our student teacher is also female. It’s a fantastic school in a disadvantaged area with a diverse cohort of students and a brilliant staff who, day in day out, come to work to give the kids in our community the best chances possible in life. I love my job.

It’s made all the better by the colleagues in my department, who if I’m honest, were the reason for writing this particular blog. I’ve been in this role for 5 years now and the women I work with have become my new big sisters. Once again they’re all younger than me. Some in fact are so young that I am old enough to be their dad. And if you’re one of my new big sisters and you’re reading this, let me repeat that, just for fun. I’m old enough to be your dad!

So happy in my work am I that one day, when something happened that I really didn’t understand, it prompted me to write. Because this thing could only have been presented to me, in the way it was presented, by my colleagues; my new big sisters.

It started in the morning meeting. Bizarelly – and remember, I’m a 48-year-old working class, Northern male – several of my colleagues were excitedly talking about drag queens; Ru Pauls’ drag queens to be precise. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t put drag queens and highly intelligent young women together. As I say, old, gruff, working class Geordie. It’s my problem, not theirs. But I just couldn’t understand. Suffice to say, I sat through this ‘meeting’ and really didn’t contribute aside from the odd curious smile.

And then, not long after the meeting, I received the following email, which I’ve cut and pasted below for your delectation.

From: Laylor, Nindsey (that’s not her real name, but I’ve cleverly disguised it).
Sent: 25 September 2019 08:46
To: English Dept
Subject: Extra-Curricular Meeting 3:30pm – Heels of Hell – Drag Qweeeeeeeeen show

Hi guys,

Who fancies this???? Ru Paul Drag Queen Halloween show, Leeds O2 Tuesday 22nd October! We’re going to meet in my classroom after p7 (3:30) to book tickets.

hoh19[1]

Graham, I know you are well up for this, here’s what you can expect: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q63RoZ9v4X0

Queeeeeennnnssss Everywhere!!!!!!!!

xxx

We won’t mention the spelling but to clarify, I was not ‘up for this’. I did click on the YouTube link though and it seemed to awaken some very strange feelings in me. It didn’t. That was a joke. And dad, if by some strange quirk of fate you read this, it didn’t awaken any feelings, that was really just a joke.

I’ve got nothing against drag queens (or even queeeeennnnnssss, for that matter). I hold no grudge with Ru Paul and I’ve never had a problem with Sharon Needles or Latrice Royale. And as matter of fact I count Biqtch Puddin as a personal friend (that’s another joke, dad). I just didn’t understand. The level of surprise is another reason why I enjoy working with women so much though. When I walked into our meeting I was genuinely not expecting anything so left field as a discussion on drag queens, let alone another meeting about them. As ever, when I walked into our meeting I was expecting t sit there sleeping with my eyes open. It’s my default meeting setting.

Drag Queen surprises aren’t the only surprises I get on a regular basis via my Big Sisters. I’m well attuned to walking into the office and a discussion about Weight Watchers or Fat Club as it’s often referred to. Being around 10 stone dripping wet, these types of discussions mean nothing to me. But I’d count myself as some kind of expert on the types of things that we should avoid eating and the kinds we’re allowed as treats.

Conversely, my Big Sisters are quite the sight when someone happens to bring in food like crisps or chocolate. The guilt is still there and all the ‘right’ things are said, but I’ll be honest, it’s not long before someone has opened the thing that no one was going to open and tucked in! And if you happen to be in there during lesson time it won’t be long before one of the ladies just happens to be passing and can’t resist something chocolatey! I find it all nothing short of entertaining. In fact, I should start to run a sweepstake or some kind of bingo around the kind of things I expect to hear. Phrases such as ‘Keep those mini rolls away from me’ are an absolute guarantee and it always makes me laugh, the thought that the mini rolls might be expected to aggressively follow someone round the room until they get eaten!

Among the other highlights are the random dances (one colleague will Grapevine on request. She’s also been known to stand singing the theme tune to Mr Tumble in the corridor), the accents (my friend Emma puts a particular spin on any accent that I’d never heard before until my daughter got old enough to start trying), the frequent period talk (that’s right Graham, we’re talking about PERIODS!), the rants about partners (one colleague would regularly put the phone down after having spoken to their husband and just say ‘Knobhead‘. For ages I just thought she was trying to get my attention) and the unexpected swearing (I thought I had a mouth like a docker, but in actual fact some of my female colleagues make me sound like the announcer on one of the old Pathe news reels). The crying I can do without and I’ve been known to just quietly leave a room when one or more of my Big Sisters are in tears! Not helpful and not supportive, I know, but then again there are 10 of them and I think they could literally cry me a river.

So there we have it. Having got to the end of the blog, I’m still not entirely sure what the point is. I definitely had a point when the idea occurred to me, but it doesn’t really feel like it materialised along the way! I suppose I just wanted to share my experiences and write about how much fun I’ve had at work. In all, working with a gang of women is just a joy. And apart from those first two years in teaching, it always has been. I’m entering my third decade of working in the minority, so to speak, and I look forward to every day. I’ve made amazing friends, have fantastic working relationships and have gained many ‘big sisters’ along the way. I’d definitely recommend it!

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