Notes from the Classroom

Schools-out-for-summer

It’s been a challenging year. For much of it, I had utterly fallen out of love with teaching and decided that it wasn’t for me. The crushing workload and constant onslaught of soul destroying government changes to the system made me feel like I was on a hamster wheel: constantly exhausted, stressed and completely unappreciated. Paperwork and observations took up increasing amounts of my time as the prospect of an Ofsted inspection loomed (and never eventually came…roll on next term!). I always had marking to do, always had a lesson to plan, a new text to read and work out how to teach, a new scheme of work to create, a parent complaint to deal with, some paperwork to fill out, a student to console or chase…there was never a moment of rest, reflection or completion within a day. There was always more to do and never a tidy desk to look at and feel a sense of achievement. I often found myself wondering why I was putting myself through it all.

I had plenty of dark days, beating myself up for making yet another bad career decision, for ruining my twenties with aborted career plans, for being a failure at everything I set my hand to. I cried myself to sleep, wondering what I was going to do with my life, where I could go next, when all I had ever wanted to do was be a teacher and now that had all turned to dust.

But slowly, as the evenings grew lighter, the weather grew warmer, and the exams loomed, I began to emerge from my despair and view things from a different perspective. Putting aside the paperwork and the pressures, the actual act of teaching itself is extraordinary. It is endlessly creative, exciting, interactive and full of possibilities. Every lesson is an adventure; a journey of discovery not just for my students, but for me, too. I get to experiment, to try out new methods, to hone existing skills and to develop my own knowledge of literature through listening and responding to the insights of the young people in my classes. Every day I learn something new, and every day I am exposed to fresh ideas and intellectual challenges. In the process of doing this, I get to build relationships with hundreds of fascinating and utterly unique young people, who all come to my lessons with entirely different perspectives. Over time, I get to know them individually and find out what makes them tick. I enjoy teasing out their personalities and being welcomed into the turmoil of their lives. I can see when they’re not happy and need a quiet word of encouragement or commiseration. I take pride in their achievements and give them the praise some of them will never get at home. I laugh with them and cry with them and have a bloody good time with them. They are my joy, my pride, my inspiration and my reward. They are worth every tear I have shed this year, and it took me nearly leaving them behind to realise it.

It makes me sad that teachers have so little respect in our society. It makes me sad that the government treats us with contempt, and treats our children like cogs in a machine. It makes me sad that our pay system is based on the results our children achieve in their exams, as if that is the only worthwhile measure of what we do on a day-to-day basis. It makes me sad that our curriculum is constantly being tampered with to suit the whims of an unqualified and unexperienced government minister who thinks that teachers can’t be trusted to use their expertise and experience. It makes me sad that so much of my time is taken up with pointless paperwork that has nothing to do with giving children a good education. There are so many things that make me sad about our education system and there are so many things I wish I had the power to change.

However, ultimately, I can choose to let these things ruin teaching for me, or I can choose to focus on why I became a teacher in the first place. I became a teacher to make a difference to childrens’ lives. I wanted to be a positive influence. I wanted to open their eyes to the wonders of the written word, and empower them to use language to express themselves creatively. All of these things I get to do on a daily basis, plus so many more wonderful things that I never even imagined would be part of my job description. Yesterday I received a card from one of my most talented pupils, who wrote ‘thank you for teaching me that anything is possible.’ It made me cry because when I read those words I knew that despite all of the difficulties I have faced this year, I have still managed to achieve what I set out to do in my classroom. I couldn’t ask for anything more, really. Being a teacher was never going to be an easy option. That’s why all those people who say teachers are slackers and they wish they got our holidays aren’t queuing up to train to be teachers themselves. But something I have learned this year is that sometimes taking the hardest road is the most rewarding. As my summer holidays start, I am exhausted, mentally and physically, but I already can’t wait to do it all over again.

Notes from the Classroom

VintageSchool

The school year is drawing to a close. This year has been a challenging, frustrating, exhausting and disheartening experience for much of the time. As a newly qualified teacher (NQT in education-speak) I have been subject to an extreme level of scrutiny, with two mandatory lesson observations to endure every half term as well as a folder of evidence to compile to prove that I am meeting all of the required teacher standards. On top of that, I have had to teach a full timetable of English classes across the 11-18 range, preparing schemes of work for each unit topic, marking mounds of exercise books, homework, essays, coursework and exams, reading and making copious notes on the novels I have to teach and producing armfuls of resources to use in the classroom. Within the boundaries of an ordinary working day, it is impossible to do all of these things and do them well. At the busiest time of year, between January and March, I was working every night until around 11pm and all weekend too, just to keep on top of my workload. I thought I was coping until one morning in the midst of this hell of never ending marking and lesson planning, I received a complaint from a parent about something innocuous I had done and all I could do was sit down and cry. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. I was always wrong. I could always do better. I was working all the hours I could stay awake, and what for? I was earning less than the minimum wage and I was so tired and so disillusioned that I started to dread going to work. I longed for my old office job, when I had time to go to the toilet whenever I wanted, time to drink tea and chat to my colleagues, time to think, time to innovate, and the right to walk out of the door at 5pm and not have to think about work again until the following morning. What halcyon days!

At the beginning of last week, I had written my resignation and decided that teaching wasn’t for me. I wanted my life back. I didn’t know what else I could do, but I did know that I couldn’t spend another year trapped in this hell. However,  I then had my last lesson with my GCSE class. I made them cakes and cards. They gave me beautiful cards and lavish presents. I cried. They cried. We have spent an hour of every school day together over the past two years. It’s been intense. I’ve seen them more than I’ve seen my own friends. I’ve stayed awake worrying about them. I’ve secretly looked forward to seeing them, enjoyed coming up with activities I knew they’d love, and spent many hours dissolved in fits of giggles as we’ve discussed the absurdities of their emotionally charged social and romantic lives. As I read their cards and realised that they really did appreciate every sacrifice I had made for them, I had the first truly rewarding moment of my career so far. It was a magical feeling.

Teaching is exhausting. It is often thankless. The public think we’re lazy moaners. The government thinks we’re useless and need more and more scrutiny and hoops to jump through in order to prove that we’re squeezing as much value out of our students as we possibly can (though exams are too easy now anyway, so what’s the point?). Senior staff members force us to do mounds of ridiculous paperwork that has no purpose in order to tick yet more and more boxes that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with league tables. Parents complain over the slightest hint of perceived injustice towards their precious darlings. And yet every day, we turn up, teach for five hours, sort out all manner of pastoral problems and run extracurricular clubs, and then go home and spend another five hours preparing for the next day’s lessons and marking the work produced in the lessons already taught that day. At my darkest moments, I’ve got so lost in all the crap that I couldn’t see why I was doing it any more. But then I got those cards and I realised; I’m doing this job because I love my students, and even if no-one else appreciates me, I know they do and I know they are grateful for the hard work I put into making their lessons the best I possibly can. Underneath it all, the moments I have had in my classroom, just me and my students, having fun, thrashing something out and achieving a shared goal have been absolutely priceless, and I wouldn’t exchange them for any other job in the world. As I saw my GCSE class coming out of their Literature exam this week, smiling from ear to ear, saying they felt confident they had got what they wanted, happy that they had been able to do their best, I was surprised to find myself becoming emotional and had to go off to the toilet and have a secret cry. My babies had done me proud. How could I have ever wanted to leave them behind?

Needless to say, the resignation got thrown in the bin. But things will need to change next year. I will need to work smarter, not harder. I will need to book up my weekends with social activities well in advance to prevent myself from spending all weekend working. I need to take more control of my life and not let my job take over. I need to stop caring that people think anyone can teach and that it’s a job for lazy people who just want long holidays. I need to stay cynical and keep refusing to tick the latest boxes (except during an observation of course) when they have absolutely nothing to do with improving the educational experience of children. But most of all I need to never lose sight of the magic that is happening in my classroom each and every day. I make a difference. And that really does make it all worthwhile.

How to Teach a Novel

Image

One of the hardest aspects of my job is getting students to feel as enthusiastic as I do about the texts I’m teaching. With my university degree and several more years’ of life experience, I can usually analyse texts at a far greater depth than they can, and can relate to the emotions being expressed more directly. Passages that have reduced me to tears often leave my students cold, and poignant explorations of the dilemmas we face as we progress into adulthood are lost on the naivety of youth. Beautiful linguistic expression is dismissed, with a roll of the eyes, as ‘boring’ and the sight of any word that is polysyllabic results in the whining of that most annoying of phrases – ‘Miss, I don’t get it.’ Plots that seem slightly unfeasible (hello, Shakespeare’s entire canon) are simply ‘stupid’ and ‘pointless’ and anything that takes place more than ten years ago is clearly impossible to relate to in any way as ‘the people are like, from the olden days, Miss.’ I have lost count of the times I have looked up from the pages of a book, mid flow, to see several children staring out of the window, lying down on the desks, or up to some sort of mischief, while I have been transported to another world. As someone who has always been entranced by the worlds opened up to me through literature, I struggle to understand why some children can’t allow themselves to be swept away by words on a page.

However. Amidst the sea of rolling eyes, sighs, and doodles, I have managed to captivate a few minds. Teaching a novel is about more than sharing a story; it’s about inviting people to step into an alternate reality, and experience life from a different perspective for a while. It’s about showing them how to look beyond the surface, and find deeper meaning beneath what is literally printed on the page. It’s about getting them to decipher the clues left in the narrative that point to the author’s intentions. It’s about encouraging them to develop a critical voice; to question, to probe, to analyse, to evaluate. Studying novels makes us more enquiring and empathetic people; it makes us more aware of the way in which we construct the narratives our lives, of how we can manipulate language to suit a particular end, of how other people live and love and engage with one another. It allows us to consider how we would cope in situations we are yet to experience. It allows us to fall in love, to become irate, to make friends, to be inspired, to develop courage, to bring about change; all without leaving the comfort of our own homes.

So how do I manage to communicate all of these things? Well, the answer is as varied as the classes I teach. Sometimes we act out the events of the novel; through dramatising what is happening, we can engage more fully with the emotions being expressed. Sometimes we have debates, and trawl through the novel to find evidence that supports our varied perspectives of events. Sometimes we analyse a particular passage in detail, and are amazed at what alternative meanings we find behind a line of seemingly innocuous text. Sometimes we recreate the setting of a novel as a wall display, bringing the world of the novel to life through sugar paper and paint. Sometimes we make masks of the characters’ faces and walk around the room pretending to be them, channeling their emotions and emulating their voice and gestures to truly feel what it is to walk in their shoes. Sometimes we draw pictures, or make posters, exploring our impressions of the novel in a more creative way. Sometimes we rewrite a scene to explore an alternative outcome, or add a scene that didn’t actually happen. Sometimes we update the events of a novel to the present day, helping us to appreciate how people and their everyday concerns don’t really change over time. Sometimes we rewrite the events of the novel as a rap and perform it. Sometimes we model our favourite scenes in play-doh. Sometimes we just talk about how the story makes us feel, and we share our own experiences of the situations the characters are living through. 

Whatever we do, I try and get the students to connect with the story on a personal level. Transcending the barrier between fiction and reality is vital if a student is going to come to care about a text and the message it is attempting to relay. My proudest teaching moment so far has been reducing my entire class of too-cool-for-school 15 year olds to tears as we finished reading Romeo and Juliet. As I read the lines ‘for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo,’ a wave of sniffles went around the room, and, glassy eyed, they started complaining about how unfair it all was. ‘It’s all their parents’ fault!’ one shouted, irate. ‘They should have listened to what they wanted!’ ‘No!’ shouted another. ‘It’s Friar Lawrence – he was the one who came up with the whole stupid plan in the first place!’ Before I knew it, everyone was busy debating their perspective, eager to find some resolution, someone to blame, for the perceived travesty of two teenagers needlessly dying in front of them. I couldn’t believe this was the same class who had groaned their way through the first few scenes of the play, moaning about the language being too hard and the characters having stupid names. Somewhere along the way, I’d managed to convince them that this story mattered. And that, far more than any exam grades they achieve, is what I call a success.