Friday, 15 June 2018

THE END

9 months.
24 weeks of school.
220+ hours of teaching.
Even more hours of planning. 
31,743 words worth of essays.

30 minute final tutorial...


...and QUALIFIED TEACHER STATUS.



This time last year I hadn't even applied to do my teacher training. Instead it came as a bit of last minute, whirlwind decision, and the entirety of the course has continued in that lightning (and sometimes tempestuous) fashion. When I started, I had all kinds of anxiety about teaching. Realising that lots of other trainees had already worked in schools, my experience of having actually been to school myself and doing some volunteering throughout university felt totally inadequate. I had no idea if I was going to like it, or be any good at it, or get eaten alive by teenage boys. I was already questioning why I was entering this profession that is presented so negatively in the media, being told that, statistically, I'd probably leave within the first 5 years. But it was one of the best decisions I have ever made, and 100% the best decision in terms of my career. 

I had planned to blog my way through this year, but it turns out you don't have a lot of free time when you're training to be a teacher, and somewhere between lesson planning, marking, essay writing and filling out a thousand different forms, this little space got lost. But here I am, now, in a post-PGCE pyjama and holiday packing day to think about what a year it's been. I've taught in two very different Inner London schools, and worked with some of the loveliest, most hardworking, funniest and naughtiest children I have ever met. Quickly, everything I'd read in Secret Teacher became nonsense, because my students weren't scary and I didn't fear them bringing knives in the classroom ('oooh not sure about teaching in London, there are gangs there); they were just children, most of whom genuinely want to do well, sometimes they just find it difficult to make the connection that success does involve them doing some work. So here's my year in a nutshell:

The first thing I was surprised by how quickly I became attached to the kids I taught. From genuinely rooting for a 15 year old boy who's worked really hard for his end of topic test, and then getting that YES! moment when you mark it, to wanting to take home some year 7 twins who are legitimately the cutest and most politest children you have ever met - it's astounding how much you care. The second was how important the people around you are. I had been told that your mentor makes your placement, and he/she does, but so does the guy in reprographics; the teacher who lends you her glue sticks; your fellow PGCE trainees who are only ever a WhatsApp away from some lesson slides or a huge rant; and the colleagues in your department who build you up and up, and never bring you down. It's not just about your classes, and your teaching, and your marking but being part of a supportive team and, most importantly, one with reasonable expectations. The third was that schools are weird and wonderful places. They are places where the colour of your pen has a huge influence on the meaning of your work, and where printing credit is like gold dust and the printing queue is the most stressful place you will ever find yourself. They are essentially all the same and, at the same time, completely different and, just when you think you know what's going on, you suddenly have no idea. And they are places which are so vulnerable to decisions made by others, often with no knowledge or experience of how they operate, what they need, and what their kids need. 

But perhaps the most important lessons I learnt were the ones I learnt, and then unlearnt (or am unlearning...). Teacher workload is an issue of huge concern and, before I started this course, I was told by so many teachers that your job is never done, there's always more, and that it's hard to stop. I thought to myself 'I'm pretty efficient...and are many jobs ever done? Is there not always more you could do?' But my god, you could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week really, really easily and still have actually significant things left to do. At the beginning of this year I said yes to everything; I have planned almost every single lesson this year from scratch and whilst I now have a some kick ass resources that I hope I will use again and again, there is no way I can do this sustainably when I'm a proper teacher with a proper timetable. I have promised myself that next year I will not do 7.15am starts and 6pm finishes, and working at home in the evenings and for most of the day on Sunday, and be more strict with myself - for my sanity, my health and some work-life balance. This does not mean, however, that I won't have to be physically restrained when someone says 'oh but you're a teacher, and you only work 9 - 3 and get all those holidays'. The next was about rapport. I knew the 'don't smile 'til Christmas rule' wasn't going to work for me, but throughout the year I learnt the enormous value of praise - and that, most of the time, praise > detentions. I learnt that I am not very scary, so good behaviour will need to from respect and a genuine desire to do well and be rewarded for it. This has, and will continue, to make my teaching a whole lot easier and more enjoyable.

The last was about the warning of evil academies: schools independent of local authorities with greater control over their admissions, and future development. Whilst I'm not going to be stepping into a huge academy chain where all the teachers look like investment bankers and the kids have to move between classrooms in silence like tiny robots any time soon, my experience suggested that state comprehensives are so poorly funded (particularly in the most deprived areas) in comparison to academies. Suddenly my opinion (based on no knowledge or experience) went from WHY THIS MOVEMENT TOWARDS THE PRIVATISATION OF EDUCATION to this is actually pretty well run; I have all the resources here that help me to be a good teacher; and the kids here have so many more opportunities. So whilst I don't claim to be an expert on the types and the funding of schools, it taught me to take it all with a pinch of salt. Try things out for yourself, see what happens and make your own decisions. 

All in all, it's been a hugely rewarding year. Part of me is glad to see the back of constant observation and essays in every school holiday, but the other part of me will miss all the support as I step into the big wide world (my own classroom) and find out what I'm really made of. Just before I started my teacher training a friend reflected on her own experience as 'the hardest but most amazing and hilarious and bonkers year of my life!!!'. 
I couldn't have put it better. 
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Saturday, 17 March 2018

It's not what you know...


"Yeah, but that won't be me. People like me can't do that..."

There comes a time in everyone's life where they realise that "if you work hard at school, you'll be successful" isn't quite that simple, that cause and effect. But maybe the saddest thing is the many who never bought into it in the first place. Teaching has taught me that some kids already know that life becomes about who your mum is, who your dad knows, whether your parents went to university, your race, your socio-economic background - and quickly you are not you - you are the product of all the connections you have have and the assumptions and stereotypes associated with your context.  They already feel like they don't belong and that this, whatever life this is, isn't for them. They know that it's not really about who are you, what you know and what you can do. 

And that's one of the reasons why I'm here and doing what I'm doing. Teaching feels like it might be a way to escape this system, one which didn't really discriminate against me but in which everyone was sort of like me, but usually better connected. My post-graduation working life revolved almost solely around the mind-numbing mockery of today's middle-class network which is LinkedIn and it pains me to think that this is how people get jobs and soak up each other's unnecessarily advertised success. I felt a bit like being part of it perpetuated it even though I could see flaw after flaw in the system. 

School, teaching, isn't really like this. Sure there's a network and teachers inevitably know other teachers but, deep down, it's far more about what you know - about your subject, your concept of teaching, your intention, your values - and who you are, why you're doing this. And it's not about Oxbridge and private school and being white, because it's one of those places where it doesn't actually matter and normal staff can better represent normal students. Even if my students tell me I remind them of a variety of the cast of Made In Chelsea. 

This week though, more than ever, I've come to realise that actually you can't survive on what you know and that who you know, as a teacher, is ten times more important - but in a completely different way. It is who you know that inspires you to be here in the first place and it's who you know that makes you the teacher that you are. It's so much about the kinds of people that you surround yourself with, and who you choose to take advice from. It's the person that gives you the acknowledging pat on the shoulder after the worst lesson in the history of lessons and reminds you that they're 11 and not to take it personally; and it's the person that drags you out of your worst day and develops you into achieving your best. It's the people you can turn to and ask "what am I doing?", "what went wrong?" and "help me do this" who make you do what you do and how you do it the best it can be. Maybe this is true of all jobs, but this is one of the few where most of your colleagues do essentially the same job as you - and they get it. 

It's been a long, but probably my favourite week of teaching. I've taught my best and my worst lesson ever and done it surrounded by people who are ready to praise you when it all goes right and listen to you vent, reassure you and help you laugh at the fact a room full of 11 year olds have spent 50 minutes destroying you, one ripped worksheet turned into paper ball at a time. This week has taught me that relying on who you know isn't always a bad thing, not to get a step in your career, but to help you make it through the day, week, term. It's made me think about the students who fear the conservative labyrinth to which they don't belong, and remind them of all the supportive people around them that are trying to help them dismantle it from the inside. It's made me want to remind them that when you have confidence in what you know and you surround yourself with people who help to build you up, you don't need anyone to carry you because you're doing it yourself. 


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Thursday, 1 March 2018

Rock bottom


Ok, rock bottom is a bit of an exaggeration. I’ve had a pretty good week, snow commute and chill blains aside, but today was the first time I felt like I’d hit absolute rock bottom with a class.


To give you some context.
Thursday, period 5, after lunch (an hour playing in the snow), 31 year 7s arrive at my classroom where I will be teaching them for the first time. They’ve forgotten where they’re supposed to sit, and I have to spend the first 10 minutes making everyone sit in their seat and moving those who have deliberately sat in the wrong seat. They ask why I’m teaching them and who I am. I feel ok, I usually like year 7s and they usually want them to like you.

But that’s where it all goes downhill. We’re doing storm hydrographs with 11 year olds, which is sort of already a recipe for disaster. It takes another 10 minutes to write the title: is that the title? Yes. That one on the board? Yes. I’ve done it, Miss. Good, thank you. My hands are too cold to write, Miss. Try rubbing them together to warm them up. Which page do I write it on, Miss? The next available one in your book. This one? Yes. Here? Yes. And it goes on. I remind several that they cannot have written anything if they haven’t opened their book, another few don’t have a pen and I struggle to understand how they’ve made it through 5 hours of school today without one. But hey, they’re just year 7s right, they’re needy.

We start with some key terms. We discuss them, what they mean and I say that they’re going to be important for our task. I ask students to write them down in their books. Have I done it right? Yes, well done. Lovely handwriting. Do I have to write down the meaning too? Yes, or you won’t know what it means. Is this dis-c-charge? We pronounce it ‘discharge’. What’s discharge? What have you just written down? Why are we writing these? Because they’re key terms, and you need to remember what they mean. Do I have to write all of them down? Yes. Now? Yes. Can I keep my coat on? No. But it’s cold. It’s not cold in the classroom. Then can I keep my hat on? No. But it’s cold. Then imagine these questions all being asked at once, over and over again. I ask for silence. Nothing. I count down from 5. Nothing. I count down from 3. Miss, why are you counting? Are you doing the peace sign? Nothing. I stand and I wait, and wait, and wait. And then it happens, silence, for approximately 7 seconds. We try and draw a graph, well, fill in the gaps on a graph that I’ve already sort of almost finished. But every time I start to speak, or stop speaking, constantly, there is noise. Some people are doing their work really well, and I try and recognise this. Some are doing it but at half the pace they could and should be doing it. Others are turning round, crawling on the floor, dancing in their chairs (or out of their chairs) and constantly, constantly talking. Miss, I don’t get it? Ok, let’s work through this together. I still don’t get it. That’s because you’re not listening. Yeah, but I’m cold. But you need to focus now. Yeah, but I’m still cold and I don’t get it.

I reach the point where I have explained it more times than I can remember, in smaller, simpler stages and hardly anyone understands it. But because they haven’t listened. Every time someone starts talking, I stop and I wait, and then as soon as I start again, someone else starts and it’s constant and never-ending and I feel like getting up and walking out and leaving them all to it. Who really needs to know how to draw a hydrograph anyway?  The lessons end promptly with the bell and 3 slides left to go. No one’s stuck their sheet in, some haven’t finished it, and some have barely started it. I know not to take it personally, because they’re supposedly a nightmare with everyone and I know that was one (of very few ways) to make hydrographs fairly simple and mildly, very mildly interesting. But that doesn’t stop me eating 3 chocolate digestives (wishing it was 3 gin and tonics) to dull the dread that is teaching them again tomorrow morning.

The only way is up?

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Saturday, 20 January 2018

B a l a n c e

It was a cold and rainy day in January. The morning never really arrived, it was almost dark outside and the curtain made the bedroom gloomy and shadowy. I woke up, confused as to whether it was Friday or Saturday - but hearing 'Saturday' brought some, but little, relief.


Becoming a teacher is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It's the only job I have ever enjoyed, and it's challenging in a new way. It's not like getting your head around why you actually hate Cathy more than Heathcliff; if your dissertation actually makes sense or everyone thinks it's more made up and conceptual than it actually is; or if you've got on the right bus and, if you have, why it seems like it's going in the wrong direction. 

Imagine you're cooking a meal for 30 people you've never met. You've got a few recipes, but none of them are complete, and missing quite a lot of the key instructions. You need to source all the ingredients yourself, and you're not sure how easy it will be to get hold of them. Some people have allergies, you know that, but you're not really sure what they are and whether they're more intolerances than allergies. You don't really know what kind of food these people like, and how fussy they're going to be if they're not keen - they might even refuse to eat it full stop. You have one oven, and not enough time on the day to prepare and cook all the food, so you need to spend most of the day/evening before making sure everything's ready. When the guests arrive, they eat the meal. Some guzzle it down, and you can tell they've enjoyed it; others liked one course but not another; and some just pushed it around their plate, moaned about the food and ruined the dinner for others. At the end of the evening you feel relieved, but also aware that you could have done better and that, next time, you'll know better. Hopefully. Depending on the circumstances. 

And that's what teaching is like. I look forward to going to work almost every day, and I want to be there and I want to be better. But work isn't just what's in the classroom, it's the preparation and the marking and the constant necessary, but semi-unavoidable reflection on everything you've done and are doing. And much like making the meal, it's the fear and the preparation and the relief and the responsibility that's the hardest. So whilst the absence of an alarm, and slower start on a Saturday morning is much needed, it still doesn't feel like the end of the week. 

That's where balance comes in. Before I started my PGCE, a friend said "it's the best but the most bonkers year of your life" and that sums it up perfectly for me. I feel like I'm all over the place a lot of the time, in my head more than anything else. It's about managing the workload and the guilt of the workload, and learning to switch off to lesson rationales, PowerPoint animations, and whether the printer will still have that frustrating streak on it on Monday, and being able to relax and enjoy the time that you have that is, and should be, yours.  Sometimes it's about being selfish and saying no because you're too tired to do the yes and putting yourself first; but it's also about recognising who the no is for - and whether you're not doing your life in favour of always giving 110% for everyone else's. 

Under the stress of the training, and in the seemingly endless cycle of sleep-teach-mark-repeat, I still don't know how teachers find the time and the mindset to be totally relaxed (and would welcome any suggestions!). Finding the balance seems paramount, to strength, sanity and sustainability. Saturdays should be Saturdays, no matter how dark and rainy, and the weekend should be something to look forward to rather than tainted with guilt. And sometimes you need to remember that if they didn't like the food, they can always get a McDonald's on the way home - and they might like it next time. 
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Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Sunday Before Blue Monday


We know the Sunday night dread well. The sun goes down, the heating comes on, and our minds are full of the perils of packed lunches, work worries and ironing. Before you know it, you realise Blue Planet isn't on anymore and you're settling down to an evening of disappointing tv and running tomorrow's activities through in your mind. 

Do you know what makes that feeling worse? Discovering that there's this thing called Blue Monday, which is supposedly the most depressing day of the year, and it's tomorrow. 

But on Blue Monday Eve, I'm trying extra hard not to dread tomorrow. Because I'm actually not dreading it, because I love my job, and I like going to work - and let's face it, it can't be worse than last Monday (more on that later). I'm going on the idea that the thought of Blue Monday is far worse than it is. That we're surrounded by people and adverts and robots telling us how things are, and how things should be, and it's easy for your own feelings to become sucked in and manipulated by that. And for all the talk of nuclear war, and Trump's state visit, and M&S' Christmas sales being really very disappointing, 2018 has been alright so far.

I made a few resolutions, and I feel like reflecting on them 2 weeks in is perhaps a better test of how achievable they actually are. My first was to go the gym twice a week. I haven't done it - I went once, last Monday. But it was a truly horrific day of having my university observation cancelled at 5 hours notice, after weeks of work, approximately 10,000 words and a whole Sunday of really hardcore preparation, it felt like it had ALL gone to waste. It was no one's fault, but I was so angry I could have punched someone, anyone, everyone in the face. But I still went. And then I got ill, so I haven't been since...but I will because I'm determined to enter 2019 looking like a 5ft Margot Robbie. My second was to have one tech-free evening a week: no phones, tv, laptops. I did contemplate extending it to electricity until I realised that 1) I'm not Amish and 2) this is about making my evenings more relaxing not entirely unpleasant. I am loving it. It is calming, and it is quiet, and I've already read two excellent books this year. 

My third was inspired by a friend: do not take on stress which is not your own. It's something I'm infinitely guilty of, and is going to be my mantra for the year. After 8 days back at school, I'm already worried about why my year 10 didn't realise that blueberries existed outside of muffins, how my year 9s will ever be able to answer a 9 mark question in 9 minutes and why I'm contacting every teacher I know to try and find a school for me to spend the next three months at. They're kind of all my problems, but they're kind of not. They're things I have to engage in, and I want to engage in, but ultimately they're all short-term for me and they're not just my responsibility. I want to try and work out a balance where I can try and help everyone and not destroy myself in the process. There are a few others which I'm working on. Have better packed lunches (can confirm that just adding lettuce to a sandwich does not achieve this), always go for a walk on a Sunday, and learn how to parallel park. They don't feel like major achievements, but they're things that I think will make a difference (however big or small). 

And now, when I think about Blue Monday, I feel a bit better. I'm feeling pretty good about what achieved this year so far: from making it through my first nightmare week, to managing to take year 7 on a field trip with a rash that felt like I'd fallen in a thousand stinging nettles, to spending a totally guilt-free Saturday with my best friends checking out wildlife photography and eating massive pastries. So whilst I might only have a really boring lunch for tomorrow, and I have to teach a whole hour and 40 minute lesson on the demographic transition model, I'm going to enjoy my Sunday beef stew and have an early night. I'm sure there'll be worse Mondays. 

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