Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Do smile til Christmas

This will be my third year of teaching, and next week will see my third attempt at 'setting the right tone' for the year with the kids. While my fellow trainees and I were cowering around before taking on our first classes, we were all given the same supposed gem of advice.

Don't smile til Christmas.

Whether taken literally (some did) or metaphorically (I did), it remains a very problematic piece of advice. It is deeply logical, and as soon as you get into a school, you can see those teachers who are free-wheeling through October as a result of having set a firm tone through September. In fact, one of the abiding memories I carry with me of my first year is the view of my kids in amongst the rest of the phase during an assembly. Every other class was able to sit calmly and sensibly. Mine were shuffling to such an extent they appeared to be vibrating. The idea of 'Don't Smile til Christmas' is the idea that by being firm early on, and by not smiling along with them, you build in a distance between you and the children which controls their behaviour; then, later in the year, you can loosen the boundaries.

I am a believer that those people we see as successful are just much better at concealing their inadequacies. It suits my mentality to perceive that everyone is deeply flawed in most respects, and it also opens up the revolutionary potential that by focusing solely on those things you are good at, you can attain excellence.

I'm not very good at not making the children laugh - I need that feedback cycle. I'm not very good at telling children that their work is not good enough. I'm not very good at building an airtight consistent behaviour routine.

In some ways, and on some occasions, I wish I was good at these things. But generally, I'm nonplussed, because I've got other things that I am good at. I'm good at keeping the children on task by winning them over with enthusiasm and structured silliness. I'm good at working one-to-one with kids who do misbehave. I'm good at acting mortified when a child snaps one of my rulers.

Essentially, I am reactionary and pragmatic. I am good at dealing with the fallout of my own inconsistency, but this allows me and my children to enjoy a lively, exploratory and - at times - unpredictable classroom life. My kids do as well as others in more 'Don'tSTC' classrooms in terms of attainment, but they get there a different way which - to the outsider - might appear a little patchy.

Hamlet's Polonius famously said
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Hear me world, I'm taking a stand. This year, I'm not going to punish myself by trying to maintain sternness in the face of amusing misbehaviours by my children. I'm not going to feel guilt for not having my books marked ten minutes after the work is complete. I'm going to accept that my style works better, for me, and I'm going to mark with a glass of Vino and a Mars Bar after nightfall. That's how I roll.

For those who want and can maintain a firm, deeply-structured classroom, do it. For those who'd rather not, like me, DO smile til Christmas, and the kids will be smiling with you.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Perils of living near your pupils

I've recently moved house and now I live dangerously close to my pupils. This is a result of convenience, financial necessity and the complete breakdown of relationship with the previous landlord, who I feel genuinely wishes I was dead.

When spotting this property, I felt assured enough that I wasn't going to bump into any of the kids from school, as I am a good walk out of the catchment area. What I didn't anticipate was how often I would need to dip through 'the catchment' in order to go to anywhere at all that I would want to go.

Just now, for example, I have been tasked with the innocuous chore of popping out to get some garlic bread and wine. This is no problem, and a bit of wine is just a delicious tipple to help the food down. You know who would disagree? My pupils, whose religious teaching has led them to believe anyone who indulges in even a gentrified sip of wine is in cahoots with Sheitan. As a result, what should have been the potential pretentious task of selecting a suitable wine instead saw me putting on a hoodie and hat, as though I was about to purchase a sack of heroin.

I feel as though I am constantly and forever 'in performance', as the likelihood of one of the many kids being out on the street or peeping through a window at any given time is high. I am not helped by the fact that my whiteness makes me ethnically obtrusive.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Summer Holidays Ruin Me

Although I look forward to the holidays with the unwavering single-mindedness of a sailor on shore leave, by about the third day in I become slave to this soul-destroying psychosomatic reboot.

I've taught long enough now to know that this happens, and I have pre-empted my ennui-waterboarding with some community volunteering this year, but now that it over, all those familiar symptoms are kicking in.

First up, I feel wholly and completely insignificant ... because I am. If I stayed in bed until 4pm tomorrow, nobody would care and it would affect nobody. If I died in that same bed tonight, nobody would realise until they notice the biscuit tin is uncommonly full in our 'Welcome Back' staff meeting. During term, I am hardly the Dalai Lama, but colleagues to come to me for advice, kids do come to me for support and cleaners do implore me to take responsibility for my desk. My actions have consequences and my voice has a purpose, but only for 36 weeks a year.

Speaking of which, I've lost my voice. Clearly, I maintain such a bellowing vigorous thunder of a teaching voice that it is now quietness that ruins my glands. It is only now that I use my gentle chat voice with small groups of adults rather than my usual battlefield-centurion PE-teacher voice, that my vocal cords have wilted and died. I'm actually ill right now. I'm snotty, snivelly and gross because my body is crying out for stress and adrenaline; these two friends have become the crutches on which I rest my entire professional existence.

I am good at teaching. It's nice to do things that you feel you are good at. Now that it's the holidays, my positive-feedback-loop of teach -> do well -> feel good -> teach... is blocked. Instead, I am faced daily with all the crap that has fallen by the wayside during the year, such as my unkempt flat, my shrinking network of non-teacher friends (I cannot interact with teacher friends because they, of course, are in Spain) and I am also faced with my desperate lack of hobbies.

Not only is all of the above intrinsically depressing and morbid, it is all experienced through a lens of aching guilt for feeling that way. I know I should be relishing my freedom and should be putting school in the deepest recesses of the back of my mind.

Nope. Can't do it.

I posted an Edutopia article on Facebook to a chorus of sneers from fellow teachers. 'Already???'

Fuck you guys. The honest truth is this. I am planning my new classroom layout almost constantly. I'm looking forward to going back, even though I know full well I will join in disingenuously with the 'Give us another week, you shit' rants, on the first day back.

During the holidays, it's like being unplugged from The Matrix, after having been plugged into The Matrix for so long you forgot that you were actually in The Matrix. Though it's way more stressful and injurious, I'd rather be getting seven shades of shit kicked out of me by the Agents (Ofsted) in The Matrix, rather than sitting in the fusty old Nebuchadnezzar, eating bowl after bowl of gruel.