Cake, humour, patience… and more cake How can we help each other survive November?

November is a notoriously challenging month in teaching in the UK. It’s so very dark, the workload is relentless, and half-term can seem like a distant memory. House moves, relationship breakdowns, illness of close relatives, unemployment in the family, written-off cars… these, off the top of my head, are some of the challenges outside the work bubble faced by those I’ve come across.

I’ve asked around, watched and listened, reflected on the past, and come up with a list of things we might do with and for our colleagues to help one another through to Christmas. It’s not exhaustive. It’s not guaranteed to help. We all know that what might make one person’s day might well irritate the hell out of another, but here are some thoughts.

  1. Food and drink. These feature regularly in the suggestions. Not, as may be tempting, a quick vodka around the back of the hall, but spontaneous offers of cake, biscuits and tea to brighten up a challenging day.
  1. Take the time to smile and say good morning. Say thank you! Stop for a quick chat if you can. It sounds so simple, but it’s very easily forgotten when our head full of slippery ‘to-do’ lists and places to be. It makes a huge difference.
  1. Show appreciation. People go a ‘above and beyond’ all the time in schools. Take time to say thank you to those who help to tidy a classroom, offer helpful input on a lesson, share a resource, make you laugh. Thank students as well as colleagues – and never forget the support staff, in all their forms, without whom we couldn’t do what we do!
  1. Go for a walk. Visit other people’s lessons. Mainscale teaching can be remarkably isolating, especially when you’re on a full timetable for the day. Always a believer in the power of ‘open doors’, I think it’s great to get in there and join in with lessons. It has the added bonus of getting us out away from the ‘to-do’ list and the marking pile for a few minutes – and students seem to take particular pleasure in the spectacle of teachers interacting with one another like actual humans (rather than like bats, who hang in dark cupboards when not actually teaching).
  1. Most of us will tend to agree, frequently to the bemusement of our non-teacher friends, that teenagers are a rather fascinating, amusing and even likeable bunch. Getting out and engaging with them on pretty much anything, from the wisdom or otherwise of piercings to the latest episode of Educating the East End, to their most recent fishing trip to their take on the recent charts (sometimes quite refreshing!) always helps to cheer me up, not least because it reminds me of why I’m there.
  1. On which note… there is almost always a reason to laugh. Seeking out colleagues – and indeed students – with a similar sense of humour, be it ridiculously dark or ridiculously silly is often helpful. Seeing the funny side of the most stressful situation, because hey, if you didn’t laugh… Or being able to laugh at yourself in the classroom because being a stand-up performer for several hours a day invariably comes with comedy moments. There is a law somewhere which says I will trip over at least one bag a day…
  1. ‘Scratch any teacher hard enough, and you’ll find they’re in it to make a difference’. The vast majority of teachers are utterly devoted to making a difference, through learning, to the lives of our young people. When such dedication meets growing exhaustion, tussles can start to develop. Not, as some may have society believe, in the stampede to get out of the car park at 3.30, but because we may have different ideas about how things should be done. Because sometimes we feel undermined by others, or under-appreciated when our suggestions aren’t acknowledged or our hours of extra work not acknowledged. Also, our resistance is low when we’re tired and we tend to take it out on those closest to us – colleagues, friends, family…. Two things from this:

– be humble, be attentive. Say sorry for oversights and moments of impatience. Get it out in the open. And notice – notice when people are looking tired or stressed. Talk. Listen. Bring cake. Bring tissues.

– Avoid what my previous head used to describe as ‘toxic whingeing’. We all need to vent occasionally. That’s fine. Find a safe place, a trusted person, and get it out of your system. But don’t be the person who sees the negative in every situation. Suggest solutions rather than dwelling on problems. And if you’re really not happy, then take action. None of us is more important than the young people we’re there for. This is both reassuring and hugely daunting.

  1. Be pragmatic. Be realistic. If you have a full day, you can’t dance around the classroom and be a stand-up entertainer all day.in front of a PowerPoint for all of it. I love the new ideas around ‘spaced learning’. A couple of lessons of intensive input, then give them a chance, quietly and in a focused way, to apply the ideas, digest, be independent, whilst you get away from the front. Guess what? You can even use the time to breathe, reflect and offer students valuable face-to-face feedback.
  1. Finally, be kind. This has been the conclusion of all of my work on teacher well-being so far. Be kind to yourself and kind to one another. Be patient. Teachers can be notorious perfectionists and are frequently highly reflective. This can be the biggest strength and the worst downfall. Let that disappointing lesson go. Forgive the colleague who snapped at you over the missing pile of books. Ask the one looking drawn how they’re doing. Bring cake.
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Fasten your Seatbelts

There’s a junction in North London soon before the A1 meeting the A406 where I invariably have an moment when I start to signal to the right. This was my route to work for several years – to a comprehensive school in North London, led by Kevin. In that moment, a number of thoughts go through my mind. Kevin would delight in hearing about my stroppy daughter’s latest display of stubbornness. He’d ask after my husband, my Mum, my Dad, my brother-in-law and my cats (all by name). He’d be proud and happy that I’m loving my new job and thriving on new challenges. There’s so much to tell him, ask him, share with him. And, in that moment, I wonder how on earth I’ve left it so long.

And then I remember. On the Sunday of the August bank holiday weekend, Kevin was found dead in his flat. He was in his late forties. I have kept a record of the following days in my blog: https://thosethatcanteach.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/losing-your-head/. The funeral was a humanistic ceremony. Unflinching, celebratory, full to bursting, with people jammed into every corner. ‘Awkward to the last,’ we joked.

You know what? I still haven’t been able to tell my children he’s dead. I changed my youngest stinking nappy in his office. He threw them sky high, invited me in to teach when my youngest was a 6 week old in a sling on my front, and totally undermined my attempts to boycott Isla’s Hello Kitty fixation by supplying her with every Hello Kitty article he could find. In her short life, my eldest daughter, now seven, has had to hear news of death a number of times. She goes to a religious school, and we have endless discussions about whether her great Grandmother is in Heaven; whether Uncle Peter can see her now; whether Sheila is still in pain. We’re not a religious family, and I frequently find myself coming back to the simple idea that people live on in our memories, our values and our actions.

This may sound rather pithy, but it’s never been truer than now. Kevin’s pride made you feel a million dollars. He celebrated success by writing to our parents. He simply thrived on, was fascinated by, loved to nurture and grown and inspire people of all ages. He transformed the school from a urine-stinking shabby one in Special Measures to a brightly coloured spectacle full of laughter and impulsiveness and small (and rather larger) animals. The cleaning staff were treated like royalty. He knew everyone’s name.

There was an infinite sense of exuberance and optimism and possibility in the way he led. He loathed negativity, found criticism difficult, and would take on ‘toxic whingeing’ head-on, frequently with dramatic scenes and melodrama. Any idea was embrace – run away, do it, and come back with the impact!’ he’d say to the latest proposal. ‘Yes! Go to New York!’ ‘Bring in your children!’ ‘Write that novel!’. His promises frequently seemed outrageous, but he had an uncanny ability of making them come true. His faith in people to always be better seemed infinite.

He could be a real pain. Having settled Year 10 to their latest controlled assessment, him bursting in with a loud rendition of 99 Luftballons (with appalling accent) was rarely welcome. His new kitten used the middle of the classroom to relieve itself. He’d change his mind suddenly about a policy, and initiative, leaving others to deal with the consequences. Employ someone he’d met on Hampstead Heath with no consultation. Take personal responsibility for finding a missing student.

But, as an emerging leader, he instilled in me several things for which I will always be grateful. His sheer passion for people – with their idiosyncrasies, their foibles, and ultimately, always, their potential was infectious. He spoke endlessly of kindness, supporting upwards, honesty and transparency. He was constantly presenting around the school, his energy appeared tireless. He took injustice and tragedy at global scale almost personally – most recently, he was shattered by the death of Ann McGuire.

All of these values are so much a part of the fabric of my teacher identity that I’m barely conscious of them. At times, too, I can be annoyingly impulsive and have to check myself. I don’t always think things through either…

I often quote him talking about doing up your own seatbelt before you help others on an aeroplane. The importance of well-being was paramount to him. He could spot you having a bad day at 200 paces. He poured compassion and support into those who needed it. I only wish that, in the end, his own seatbelt had been done up a little sooner, and a little more tightly. Look after yourselves, people. It’s the most important thing you can do. Then, and only then, can you be what you want to be for those you care about.

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Missing Miss

I am on duty every break and lunchtime outside the Key Stage 3 toilets. The rules are strict. No phones, no food, no drink, no chewing – and they apply to staff and students, because consistency is important. I have mastered several jokes, glares, gesticulations and catch-phrases to keep me amused, and, as I stand in my orange gilet with my walkie talkie, I’m always slightly surprised that students, in 99% of cases, obey, and usually wfith a smile, and a ‘sorry Ma’am’. ‘Don’t TRY it, young man!’ ‘No, I’m not nearly as stupid as I may look’ ‘Turn around, bright eyes.’ As I say, it keeps me amused.

Yesterday, a couple of young men bowled through with sandwiches and drinks, and received the usual treatment, before they were followed hastily by a PE teacher,  who informed me that they were in work experience. I complimented them on their studenty appearance, and they grinned and said, ‘thanks, Miss!’

North of London, I’m ‘Ma’am’, but in London, I was always ‘Miss’ and the rush of nostalgia took me by surprise. Miss was rather scatty, and could rarely find anything on her desk. Miss occasionally let the odd bad word slip out in class, and stifled laughter at an inadvertent innuendo (‘Just looking at you makes me hot’ was possibly not the most fortunate choice of expression for a child in a jacket and sweatshirt when it was 33 degrees outside). Miss hurled herself indiscriminately into the middle of fights, rarely thinking of the consequences.

I was ‘Miss’ to 6 foot 2 rugby lads who would suck their thumbs when they thought no one was looking, and to girls who told me I was ‘bare deep’ when I insisted that removing their chewing gum would not, after all, impede their ability to concentrate on German verbs. I was Miss to a young man who told me to f**k French before going on to become a management consultant based on Paris (whose French is now better than mine), and Miss to the girl who stormed into my office in fury when she heard I had the audacity to leave.

As Miss, I spent the last half hour at a central London school of five years playing ping pong across the classroom before placing the ball in a box of goodness knows what (have no memory!) and placing a time-capsule behind the slats in the wall. As Miss, I travelled to France, Germany, Spain and Italy with coach-loads of teenagers who’d frequently never left London, fell off surf boards and coated myself in French lake mud, surviving on little to no sleep, and inadvertently taking a group of young people to a gay bar for a particularly enlightening evening (it’s ok, I confessed to the Head and he laughed!). I explained to a group of boys that leaving bottles of urine outside the girls’ room would be unlikely to have the desired effect (and never told their parents, which makes for excellent blackmail material). Before the days of strict regulations, my husband and I drove a child home after his carer forgot to pick him up after a week-long trip abroad (last outside the gate, after 90 minutes wait) and on the way back, we talked about Zimbabwe and Mugabe and he told me that the black and white of the trees against the sky made him think of shades of good and evil.

As Miss, I rallied against causes for which I was passionate – the battle against PFI (we lost), the one against converting to Academy status (a good fight, but lost again) and ‘project Takar’, which saw me incite rebellion against the obsession with the C-D borderline and insist on celebrating students for whom it was an achievement to get Es (he got 5 Cs in the end). I protested against languages being made optional at KS4, and ultimately moved on from the school in process.

As Miss, I cared far too much what others thought, and lacked resilience, hating to feel criticised by others and sometimes shedding tears over a disappointing lesson. I spent far too much time in the pub, and not enough time marking books. I avoided difficult conversations and made someone else speak to a colleague about her visible pants…

As Ma’am, I’m wiser, more mature. I’ve truly earned the ‘stripes’ that my Head referred to when I was younger and more precocious (and not ready for leadership). I’m less hasty and impulsive – I anticipate problems and try to address them before they grow into bigger issues. I usually remember to consult the right people and I’m not afraid of angry and awkward people, preferring instead to speak to them directly to cut to the heart of the issue. I’m more measured, more careful, more experienced and a better leader for it. I’m more responsible and more efficient – I know my priorities and do my best to keep myself in check when the balance gets skewed. I’m old enough to be the mother of many of my colleagues, and rather relish my new middle-aged status. I’ve gathered a series of anecdotes and catch-phrases, and tell people that you haven’t lived lived until you’ve sobbed snot all over the office. I even make an effort to keep my desk tidy.

Of course, as I write now, I realise that, like the Russian dolls on my favourite dress, Miss isn’t actually gone at all. I’m still rash and impulsive at times. I still have to apologise for thinking or writing before I’ve thought things through. I still laugh at some of the most inappropriate things (though sharing the notion of ‘teabagging’ at @sltcamp may have been a step too far… my apologies!). And my desk, despite best intentions, is usually in default ‘mess’ mode.

As Miss, I always said that if I ever got bitter or jaded about education, I’d get out. And you know what? I’m still in. Because I’m still a stubborn optimist. So, I’ll forgive myself a moment of nostalgia and acknowledge that if it weren’t for all of those experiences, and thousands more, I wouldn’t be the Ma’am (or, occasionally, ‘Mum’) I am today.

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