The End of Term, the Brontës and Easy Spring Afternoons

IMG_2729It’s my second Spring in Oxford. It’s been a week of clear blue skies, with a slight chill in the air – but that’s how I like it. I’ve walked along the Thames, I’ve flitted from coffee shop to coffee shop. Alone, because it’s the first week of my Easter break. Part of me misses company and conversation during the day… but part of me loves it. Actually, it might just be the perfect detox to a busy, noisy term at school. I feel very relaxed, and as it’s not state school holidays yet, the city does, too. The streets are quiet. I walked into town yesterday, and didn’t see a soul for a good twenty minutes. I was even pleased when my Podcast cut out (low battery again), because then I noticed the birds singing. No traffic noises. Just wildflowers, buds on trees, perfect reflections on the water. The daffodils and blossom coloured in the grey spots where winter used to be.

I always thought I liked summer best, but perhaps that was the allure of the much needed six week break. Now work is easier, and it feels like this is the first Spring I’ve fully appreciated in years.

The end of term felt so different this time. I wasn’t exhausted. I wasn’t gasping for air. Instead, I still had the energy to enjoy the end of term rituals – a house music competition, poetry recitals, and short performances for the school by my drama classes (my directorial debut – and I was proud). I went into school on my day off to see the GCSE Drama performances – not out of obligation, but because I wanted to learn, and I felt I had the energy to do it. When school finished at 12 on Friday, I didn’t collapse in a heap on the sofa – I went to a talk on Volcanoes at the Bodliean Library. I still had the brain power to engage with this – and I even got a cool idea for a new YA series out of it (more on that later).

The_Brontë_Sisters_by_Patrick_Branwell_Brontë_restoredOn Saturday, I went to see my friend in a play about the Brontes. That was pretty wonderful. Performed in the reading room of St. Mary’s Church, there was a wonderful atmosphere. It was a wonderful script, a clever script – in fact you’d get a lot from it even if you’d never read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. What I took from it was a reflection on writing, on why we write. Those three women lived tragic lives, imprisoned by their position of as women, by their alcoholic brother, and by relative poverty. There must have been thousands of women like Jane, Emily and Anne, but we remember them because of their writing. They wrote as a survival mechanism, I think. It was an escape. Emily didn’t want her poetry to be published: she saw this as an intrusion. I can understand this entirely. Writing is a weirdly private thing. Yes, ironic, to say that on a public blog. Yet I still feel a bit weird when someone tells me they’ve read something of mine… even a blog post like this. Writing is a record of your thoughts, sometimes very private thoughts. Sometimes you don’t even realise what you’re revealing about yourself – and there’s a strange thrill in that.

It perhaps goes without saying that I left the play full of inspiration and ready to write. All in all, it’s been a rather perfect start to the holiday.

 

Wonderful Summer Optimism

I’m starting to feel so much better. I feel healthy. I’m not getting icky spots between my eyebrows, as I always do in bouts of stress and tiredness. I’m sleeping well (save the epic Week of Three Job Interviews – but that’s over with now). I’m eating lots of green things and waltzing around the city like I own the bloody place, because I’m feeling optimistic. The sun’s out, and the streets look beautiful. There are frickin’ bluebells sprouting up in our front garden – even the weeds look good!

The chirpy mood is partly down to the time of year – I feel so much better when the weather’s warm, and the days are long – but for another exciting one, too.

I have a new job.

I applied for a post at an amazing private school, thinking I’d never get it because I’m not clever or posh enough, and I’d never get that lucky. Then I got an interview… and it went really well. The interviewers seemed genuinely interested in me as a person, asking about my degree, my hobbies – not my ‘strategies for making progress’ and my classes’ GCSE results. The children were an absolute delight: eager to learn, sweet and earnest. They made me wait a week to find out if I got the gig, and I spent seven days thinking there’s no way – there’s no way I’ll get it. (Even though they interviewed me first. Even though they invited me to interview before the deadline passed. Even though everything went really well. Why do I beat myself up so much?)

Well, I got the job. From September, I’ll work four days a week at this lovely, tiny little school in the prettiest part of the city. I’ll teach lovely children Drama and English. I’ll get a free lunch every day, longer holidays… and I’ll feel valued and respected by my employers. I’ll say it again: they didn’t ask me about results, they asked me about me. That’s got to count for something.

I always felt uncomfortable about the idea of private education, because I come from a family that couldn’t even consider paying for school – as is true for the majority. I’m not happy with the idea that your parents’ wealth should be able to pay for a hugely advantageous start in life. But then, I’m not happy with what’s happening in state schools either. I’m afraid the government has largely ruined it for me, what with the circus of testing and brutal, pointless bureaucracy of constantly covering backs in case Ofsted show up. It’s change for change’s sake, constantly. I feel teachers are suffering at the hands of the DfE’s ambition and misunderstandings.

Of course there’ll be high standards at this fee-paying school, and of course I’ll have to work hard. I’m OK with that. I’m looking forward to looking forward to work. Feeling purposeful, and secure in my work – because I know the school is managed well, and free to make their own decisions. I’m looking forward to knowing happy children who want to be taught and are hungry to know more. It feels a selfish move to abandon ordinary kids for a cushy job with free lunch (yes! literally free lunch!), but I feel I’ve done my time in the state sector. I’ve worked hard for so many kids who didn’t want to work for themselves, and at times it was truly gruelling. It feels good to be moving on. Yes, summer optimism is flooding through me.

The New Me: Freelance Teacher

I feel like I’ve smashed through a few frontiers in my teaching career this week: my first time as a one-to-one A Level tutor, my first venture into private sector education, and my first professional steps into an Oxford College. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I thought I was quitting teaching for good – but I’m now glad I gave this career a second chance.

After seven years working in state secondary schools (or should I say academies), I’d had enough of the workload and pressure. I’d worked in two schools that were very unhappy places due to the pressure of inspections, the constant merry-go-round of government changes and increasingly brutal target-setting culture.  I loved my subject, and I knew I was a good practitioner… but my job made me sad and anxious. Back in January, I had to take some time out. I’ve always been a worrier, but I was starting to get ill from the constant demands of my job. Even over the two week Christmas break, I hadn’t been able to switch off. My 30th birthday was on New Year’s Eve, and while I had a lovely day, I crept off to bed swiftly after midnight, tearful and miserable that now I had just a few days before term began again, and I had so much to do. I worked hard. I managed three days at work before I was full of cold, with a terrible headache. I had to take a day off sick, and then another. Before long, it was the anxiety of returning to work that was the real problem. I got dressed for work on the third day, and then cried, because I felt so incapable of going back. I got signed off, and after a few weeks, full of guilt, I asked to be released early from my contract.

Once I knew I was leaving that job, I felt instantly better. I applied for lots of different types of jobs, feeling free, and excited about trying something new. I applied for admin roles, school librarian jobs, and a tutoring job at a university. I didn’t get much of a response, so I resolved that my back up would be signing up with a teaching agency. I put my CV online and it suddenly felt like my phone exploded: so many voicemails, emails, missed calls. I genuinely had no idea there were so many agencies out there. There was lots of work, too.

My first supply role, which I will return to next week when the Easter break ends, is in an FE college. It’s been a great experience so far. I work four days a week, and I have very little planning to do, as all the classes are GCSE retake students, studying the same skills. These kids missed out on their magic ‘C’ at school, and many are disillusioned, frustrated or simply struggle. But they’re interesting kids. I’ve seen some challenging behaviour, but nothing worse than I’ve experienced in secondary schools. The pace of the day is easier – longer lessons, but longer breaks, too. I don’t feel exhausted at the end of the day.

This week, I’ve signed up with a tutorial college to teach A Level revision. It’s well paid, and the students are paying a lot for an intensive course, so I’ve definitely felt the pressure. Fortunately I’m teaching subject matter I know well, and I can rely on resources I’ve used before. I have two students, both lovely, and very appreciative of my efforts – which feels great. I’m teaching in a beautiful room in an Oxford college with views of daffodils and the quad, complete with obligatory ‘keep off the grass’ sign. I’m enjoying it, but I’m also pleased I don’t have to work this hard every week.

I’ve also been invited to work for an education publisher on a text book, which is a privilege, and something I’d never have time for if I was still a full-time secondary school teacher. It’s work I can do at home, though I’ve been asked to go into the office too and help out. It’s flattering that my skills and experience are valued, and I’m grateful to develop another string to my bow. It gives me hope that I can continue to teach part-time, and find other ways of making money.

I’ve been an examiner before, and I signed up for the summer exams as back up in case I didn’t get enough work. I’ve been offered so much, that I won’t have time to examine as well – but again, it’s another source of income if I need it. I don’t particularly enjoy marking dozens of papers, especially under immense time pressure – so it’s not the kind of work I’d choose. But it’s an option, and something I know I can do well.

All in all, I think I now qualify as a freelance teacher. It’s a new way of thinking about my career, and I like it. I feel like I’ve got a bit of breathing space. I don’t feel trapped, waiting for the next half term holiday. It’s giving me time to write, too, which is of course what I really want to do (as is the case for so many teachers, I’m realising). I think it’s opened my eyes to see working life in a different way… something to fit around my own well-being, perhaps. I do miss the relationship you can build up with classes over time, and there might be a time when I want to go back to more full-on teaching. Maybe when the government stop messing about with everything (will this ever happen?). Until then, I’m content with part-time work, and going freelance.

My first day teaching FE

Well, it wasn’t much like life in Channel 4’s Skins

 

Today was my first day in the world of supply teaching, and it began in an FE college, teaching IGCSE English to students on vocational courses. It seems that FE is crying out for more English and Maths teachers after change in legislation in 2013 means that student who do not achieve the magic ‘C’ grade will have to continue studying both core subjects until they do, or until they turn 18. I’m not sure on the fairness of such a scheme, as it seems punishing for students to be forced to study GCSE past 16, regardless of their ability; on the other hand, nobody can argue that gaining GCSE English and Maths is really beneficial to all.

I hadn’t really recognised the scale of the problem until today: over a thousand students at the college are on the exam retake treadmill. As you’d expect, some are disaffected, don’t turn up to lessons, or when forced to, do very little. These are young people on vocational courses like health and beauty, travel and tourism and health and social care. Many are committed to the practical ,work-based aspect of their college lives and don’t see the point in being forced to study a subject that they’ve hated all their lives. Others are more optimistic, and appreciate the opportunity of a second chance to gain really valuable qualifications. One girl today seemed to light up when I told her I’d noticed she writes sentences with strange syntax, and she should try to express things more simply. She was EAL, and I would assume that her teachers over the years would have told her the same thing. Perhaps they didn’t. It seemed a bit of a lightbulb moment for her – she really did take on the criticism with a smile. ‘That’s why I fail in English!’ she said, and I felt sad. It’s difficult, because knowledge of that particular grammar quirk isn’t necessarily going to help her. It might even make her write even more strange sentences as she tries to conquer it. With the exam just two months away, is it realistic for her to take on the natural syntax of the English language? Not really. Especially not on one hour’s tuition a week.

I wonder if I’m going to like working in FE. So far, I do. The students have been fairly amenable, genuinely appreciating my help, though of course there’s the same old issue of phones out in class, and headphones barely hidden beneath long teenage hair. Those kids who haven’t been quite so amenable were not rude. They all did a fair amount of work, and didn’t seem to have the attitude that I should mark it over night, else there was no point. They seemed to understand the the experience of writing for an exam was useful in itself, and the verbal feedback I gave them was valuable. This was refreshing – as in a secondary setting, kids seem to be obsessed with my marking of their work.

I taught the same lesson three times, and I suspect I’m teaching the same lesson all week, which is a weird concept. As a secondary school teacher, I was used to holding five plans for five very different lessons in my head in one single day: ‘A’ Level linguistic theories one hour, following by spelling quizzes with bottom set Y7. Having to switch gear and juggle so many demands was exhausting. Teaching the same thing all day every day might be a bit dull, but it’s not stressful. It means it doesn’t bother me when I have to spend extra time with a student who’s very weak, or needs motivating. It also means I have evenings free of marking and planning, which is bliss. I was home by four, and had chopped all the veg for dinner by five. Now I’m happily typing away while homemade spag bol bubbles away on the stove, chock-full of four different kinds of vegetable. My body’s going to like this new routine. I might even have the time and energy to, you know, do exercise, and have hobbies again.

I’m working at the college four days a week, yet I’m earning the same per week as I did as a full-time secondary school teacher with department responsibility. I know the counterpoint is that I’m not getting proper holiday pay, and it’s temporary. But it’s pretty great. It feels so liberating to get through a working day without feeling heavy with stress. I’m actually excited by the thought of where supply teaching might take me next.

 

 

Two Months Away from Teaching: What I’ve Learned

Image result for teacher stress

I quit teaching in January. It wasn’t a neatly planned exit: it began as a run-of-the-mill start of term bout of flu, and became a state of stress-induced panic. A few weeks of headaches and sleepless nights later, I’d firmly decided that my teaching days were over.

It was scary. Teaching has become a gruelling profession, but it was still a well-paid and secure one, and I had rent to pay. Expensive rent.

So I applied for dozens of jobs: admin roles at universities (I’m lucky to live in a city that has two of them), librarian jobs, retail jobs. I didn’t get a very good response. I was probably competing with dozens – perhaps hundreds – of applicants who had more direct experience for the role. So the first thing I learnt was that switching career paths is far from straightforward. I kind of expected it, but part of me was also thinking, I have two degrees. I have management experience, albeit in a school. I am EMPLOYABLE.

Perhaps if I kept going with the applications, or acquired some sort of admin qualification, I could make the change. A steady job in an office environment has an appeal it never held when I was at university and trying to make my very first career decisions. Offices seemed soulless and boring to me then. I wanted the intellectual challenge and lively day-to-day of the classroom, and I got what I asked for. Nine years later, I may have had a little too much ‘challenge’, a little too much of ‘lively’. Now a nice little role at a desk inputting data and organising emails sounds quite pleasant and peaceful.

Then, just to see, I put my CV online to say I was interested in doing teaching supply. It was back-up, and not really what I wanted to do. Then my email inbox went INSANE. I was contacted by twelve recruitment agencies within the space of about forty minutes. I couldn’t keep up with the voicemails.

Then I realised I could get paid pretty well for supply work, and my attitude changed. There was high demand, and it felt really nice to be wanted. I liked the idea of not being tied down by a permanent contract, too – if I didn’t like the school, or I got stressed again, I didn’t have to stay. I had five real-life job offers in one week.

I learned the earning power of my PGCE and eight years’ worth of teaching experience, especially since I teach English, a core subject that is struggling to recruit new teachers. I worked out I could earn the same money teaching four days a week as I did in full-time work with a TLR. I could pay the rent after all! Success! Not only that, I secured work at a private sixth form college where I’d be teaching one-to-one. Previously, I’d taught an A Level class of 25 students, and the marking had sent me slightly insane. One student, though? Really? I only have to mark one essay?!

I have work lined up until exam time, and then I’m going to mark for an exam board, working at home, picking up odd days of supply if I feel like it. I’ve also had an offer of work from a publishers, writing and reviewing teachers’ resources and content for a student text book. I might have to work August (shock horror!) – I’m considering signing up for more tutoring – but it’s nice to feel in control and to make my own choices. After all, I could go on holiday in July instead, and find a cheap deal for the first time in my life.

I’ve learned that it’s harder to quit teaching than I thought. It’s difficult to leave what you know. However, I feel more in control of my own destiny now, and much happier. I might seek a permanent role for September, but I don’t want to work full-time again, and I don’t want a TLR. I’d rather find other ways of making that extra money, because I know now that it’s possible.

The best thing about the last two months has been feeling like myself again. It took a while, but I’m writing again – lots – and painting, and being creative. I feel calm and happy, and I’m going to work hard to stay that way.

Sick Leave Anxiety

‘You’ve had a good day?’ said the nice lady in Caffe Nero.

‘No, it’s been a bit shit, actually,’ I replied. ‘I’m off sick from work with stress and anxiety. I bounce around the house all day trying to distract myself from myself. Then some guy turns up to paint the house without the letting agent telling me. He’s on a ladder, repainting all the window fascias, and I’m freaked out trying to work out which rooms he can see into. I did laundry and felt spied on all fucking morning. Then, I finally push myself out of the house for a drink and some writing time and I have to pretend I’m all perky and happy. I’m not. I feel a total useless mess. But thanks for asking.’

‘Cream on the hot chocolate?’

‘Yes. Hell, yes.’

This is what the voice in my head said, anyway. My exterior self forced a smile and said yes, I’ve had a nice day, thanks – though I feel sure I was the most unconvincing perky person ever.

I’ve been off sick for four whole weeks. It feels so strange. I wake up each morning and can’t quite believe that this is real. I try desperately to convince myself that actually, work wasn’t as bad as I’ve built it up to be in my anxious, anxious head. I should just go back, face the music, and get over myself.

Then I have a little cry and remember that actually it was that bad.

I spoke with my teaching union today. I explained my situation to a very kind man who agreed that the amount of crap I’ve had to put up with is pretty dire. It’s not all in my head (although my head is certainly a bit of a mess – see my previous post, Dark Days). In the six short months of my current job, I’ve faced the worst student behaviour I’ve ever encountered, I’ve been through two inspections, and I’ve been given a promotion (a.k.a. extra stress and responsibility) for no additional pay. Although my department are nice, they are quite obviously drowning with work and very easily slip into their own diatribes about the pressures of our thankless job. My passion for language and literature hasn’t been enough to see me through the day: students behave so badly that I can only manage them, rather than teach – or they question my teaching methods. Why aren’t we getting the same grades as Mrs X’s class, Miss? Why haven’t we finished X text yet? Miss, you still haven’t marked my coursework… Jeez, I wish I can the confidence of these kids.

So what have I been doing with myself for the last four weeks? Well, lots of laundry. I find ironing and neatly organised drawers supremely therapeutic. My husband does not iron his stuff, and I normally just let him walk around like a creased rag doll – but in the last week I have ironed ALL OF HIS STUFF. I’ve matched all his socks (he usually wears odd ones). I’ve watched a hell of a lot of films – mostly chirpy rom-coms of a Richard Curtis ilk. And oh, the podcasts. I cannot download enough podcasts.

I draw. I paint. I read. I write stories and I blog. I basically do all the things I did when I hid away in my teenage bedroom, in those years before university and boys and becoming a teacher. I think I might have regressed. Or maybe I’m just being my true self.

I’ve spent a few days with family – walking the dog and making soup with my Mum, chatting with my grandmother, watching films with my Dad. I visited my in-laws and played with my 15-month-old niece (who in her little life has swiftly become one of my favourite people). It felt pretty good to visit family without even considering getting out my marking or my teacher planner. It was relaxing. It gave me a glimpse of my life post-teaching, which has the potential to be pretty great.

I still feel sad. It’s going to be a long time before I get rid of the guilt all teachers feel when you put yourself before your students. Sometimes I think I’m feeling pretty good, and then I remember those sweet sixth form girls I’ve abandoned, the stuff I didn’t get around to teaching them and the half-finished coursework I can’t grade. I think of the naughty girl in my tutor group who was a complete pain in the arse, but was beginning to finally listen to me. Who’s going to wish her a good day each morning? Who’s going to smother her with kindness, even when she’s been rude – even when she’s shouting?

Ugh. THE GUILT.

I have to tell myself that I’m not the only teacher in that school who can be there for those children. But I am the only one who can fix myself.

The Green Effect

faultinourstarsI know I’m a little late to the party, but I am working my way through the complete works of the current king of YA fiction, John Green. I was amazed at how many of my students read The Fault In Our Stars and loved it. One Y7 could recite entire passages of it. I had to see what all the fuss was about!

From the blurb, I don’t think I would’ve chosen to read The Fault In Our Stars. I don’t like sob stories, and on a superficial level, this novel sounded too close to mis lit for me. I’m really glad I picked up a copy, though, because I could tell this was beautifully written from the very first page. The voice of Hazel Grace Lancaster in quite arresting: sardonic, cutting to the quick, sparkling with intelligence. I work with sixteen-year-olds, and I have met very few as erudite and well-read as Hazel – but the secret is the bookish kids (like the smart-arse, pretentious teenage me) want to be like her. And it’s the bookish ones that fall in love with this book. The bookish ones fall in love with Augustus Waters, too. They learn passages by heart and make beautiful memes of quotations, because this book is also eminently quotable. John Green has practically trademarked the word ‘okay’. And why not fall in love with it? I applaud any kind of literature that inspires passionate readers.

Hazel Grace Lancaster is extraordinary because she’s been cut off from normal teenage life, having not attended school because of her illness. Her only company are her parents, and the characters from books. This, in my view, is sufficient justification for her wisdom beyond her years, and the erudite register of some of her narration is nicely contrasted with more ‘normal’ teenage life – horror movies, computer games and choosing outfits. I read that John Green wanted to convey a terminal cancer patient as human, as normal – not someone to put up on a pedestal as angelic, as an almost superhuman ‘fighter’ against invisible demons. Equally, he wanted to show us that we needn’t be frightened of cancer patients. Someone doesn’t stop being human after diagnosis. The medical drama of the book was compelling reading, though at times brutal and distressing… yet Hazel and Gus didn’t become any less themselves.

This novel was a winner for me without the cancer story, because it was a success in characterisation, pacey dialogue and portraying the minutiae of contemporary teenage life: the cornerstones of the Green style, I can tell, after reading Paper Towns, and my current read, his debut novel, Looking For Alaska. Alaska is another broken teenage girl, though her fragility stems from psychological trauma. I’m enjoying Green’s portrayal of boarding school friendships, and the ingenuity of the pranks played on so-called ‘Weekday Warriors’, the wealthy elite of Culver Creek School.

I haven’t found it as gripping as Paper Towns, though, which has all the depth of characterisation of TFIOS, with a whole load of suspense thrown in. The mystery of Margo Roth Spiegelman will have you hooked. Green describes it as a book about the dangers of idolising another person, because nobody is nearly as perfect as they seem through the rose-tinted glasses of a teenage crush. The imperfect version of Margo Roth Spiegelman is far more fascinating, anyway. Gifted with the super intelligence Green seems to bless all of his characters with, she likes to disappear, leaving clues for her loved ones that are so obscure and clever that it seems she might never be found. Quentin Jacobsen, or ‘Q’, as she calls him, is the only one who never gives up. I particularly enjoyed the friendships that developed through the search for Margo – Ben is hilarious, and popular girl Lacey has hidden depths. The road trip scenes already read very cinematically, so I can’t wait to see the film (there will be one following TFIOS, surely?).

The Green Effect, which I’m deciding to call this particular literary phenomenon, has my full support. It’s easy to be cynical about crazes in YA books – I’ve heard people dub TFIOS ‘that moany teenage book’ – but this is genuinely good writing that shouldn’t be dismissed. Like the Hunger Games, Twilight, and Pottermania, you can throw in the old adage about it ‘getting kids reading’, though I suspect the kids who are reading it would want to read anyway. At least they’re reading something of genuine quality, though. I’m already reading the effect of this in my Y11 students’ creative writing. The girls who have read the books write with ambition. They wax philosophical. They’re creative with their subtle imagery. They’re proud of their bookishness, too – and this, just maybe, is because of Hazel Grace Lancaster. She’s an inspiration to them. Like Hermione Granger before her, Hazel makes being clever cool.