Teacher Blues

I like my fellow staff.  Let me just make that clear.  For the most part, they are kind.  They are open-minded.  They are interesting.

However, they are all also mainly over the age of forty.

Don’t get me wrong, I have had many a fascinating and scintillating conversation with people twice my age.  However, I find that at times my ability to empathise with what are the main interests in their lives is limited.  For example, I have not undergone labour.  I do not know what it is like to go through an eighteen hour birth.  I am still not entirely sure what it means to have your water break.  The idea of a placenta makes me feel slightly nauseous.  And let’s not even go into how I feel thinking about pushing out a squirming purple mini-person from my holiest of holies.

I do not know what it is then like to raise said squirming, purple, mini-person.  I’m sure that everyone becomes very fond of these mini-people.  But when I hear stories about how one mini-man kicked his au-pair in the shin to demonstrate his rights as an eight year old, I find it hard to empathise.  When I see a parent happily accept their toddler’s offering of a gnawed-on, soggy rice cake, I find it hard to hide my shudder.

And I know that this will change when I have my own mini-person, and I too will think they are the Second Coming and God’s Gift to Humankind.  But for now, I have very little to say on the matter.

The same goes for mortgages.  I am still not entirely sure why the ‘t’ is silent.  I am also not entirely sure as to how the work (the same goes for mini-persons).  All in all, I have very little to say on the matter.  And don’t even get me started on in-laws.

And yet I find myself nodding along in conversations.  Empathically nodding, might I add.  Every now and again I even comment.

‘God, mortgages are such a bitch, ammiright?’

‘Little Pandora sounds like such a delight.  And you’re right.  One must consider the benefits of breastfeeding up til the age of five’

‘In-laws!  Don’t even get me started on in-laws!’

And if I’m being honest, I look forward to the days when I find these things interesting.  But for now, I have very little to contribute.  I may lightly mock these subjects, but I of course understand how serious they all are.  Money worries.  Family worries.  And heaven-forbid, child worries.  All very serious stuff.   And I am only too aware of how naïve and unlearned I may seem.  And I seem that way because I am that way.  My main worries are my friends.  My parents.  How I will make rent next month.  How I can best plan my lessons to make sure that my ten-year-old foreign language student can really get into English and start loving school. And, of course, which perfume to buy that truly reflects both my inner and outer-beauty.  Undertone of vanilla, or a dash of orchid?

It can be lonely, being at a different stage and in a differnet place.  Whilst their worries are raising a family, making a home, or furthering their careers, mine are set right at the starting line.  I’m not looking for a promotion, I’m looking to survive my first term.

And the thing is, all my friends are also at different stages or in different places.  They are either not working, or they are working in universities or fancy consultancy firms.  And that’s great.

But it also means that it can be a bit lonely, being the only one in the school who has had no training whatsoever.  Or being the only friend in my social circle who has experience in teaching beyond going to school or volunteering.

It means that I don’t really have anyone to talk to about how hard teaching can be.  I have no one who really understands how much it hurts when a student doesn’t like you, or dismisses the book you suggested as ‘stupid and boring’ when you suggested that book because it was your favourite when you were their age.  I know that as time goes on, my baby-soft new teacher skin will harden and I will realise that the students I struggle with don’t dislike me, they dislike school, or my subject, or just don’t want to be there that day.  But for now it hurts.  And I really, really want someone to talk to who is going through the same thing.

But those are just the blue days.  On brighter days, things are different.  On the days when I get a standing ovation from a class of eleven year olds for my impersonation of Scrooge.  Or when I realise that some of my fellow teachers are starting to morph from Work Friends to just Friends.  On those days, I remember that the teacher blues are but a brief phase.  And those days outnumber the blue days a hundred to one.

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Making Friends

The staffroom. A focus of both fascination and terror. A place of which one only ever grasps a momentary glance. Through the keyhole, for those intrepid enough to be so bold. A fleeting snapshot for those lucky enough to be walking by as a staff member enters. For most of us, all we ever knew of the staffroom were murmured rumours whispered in hallways and classrooms from our peers.

And it was the staffroom where I found myself, that very first day. And the situation in which I found myself was one where I stood with my knees shaking, mouth fixed into the sort of manic grin only ever exhibited by those who are utilising their facial muscles for the first time or are on trial for a crime involving (but not limited to) public urination.

Many an hour was spent on planning my first-day outfit (I say that. I’m not much of a fashionista so what I really meant was many a minute, rather than the obligatory slap-on-enough-things-to-make-you-look-human). I had to look professional and mature, but not so mature that people thought I was trying to pretend I wasn’t ridiculously young for a teacher. Because I am. A fact I readily acknowledge (except when my students ask how old I am, to which I often retort somewhere in the mid-fifties. This will most likely lead to many a desperate parent pleading with me to relinquish the secrets of which anti-ageing products I use).

Many an hour was spent stressing over what I could talk about. And now, I really do mean hours. Because being twenty, I knew how I must appear. Unqualified. Inexperienced. Naive. I was the walking, real-life version of a teletubby trying to join in on a hard-hitting political conversation on the West Wing. And for the first time since starting university, I hated my age. Sure, for my age, I had done a lot. I had travelled. I had volunteered in various charities. I may have inadvertently saved a life or two (the water wasn’t that deep so it doesn’t really count). But I hadn’t coached a student with crippling anxiety and dyslexia through their A-levels onto their dream university. I hadn’t taught in the sort of school where students swear at you and carry knives. I hadn’t had and raised a child.

It was humbling, as a young Oxbridge graduate, to be reminded that whilst I may have been lucky enough to have gone to a fantastic university, when it came to the real world, I knew nothing. Sure, I may have known my subjects well. I may have been fully able to argue both sides of the Margaret Mead ethical and methodological debate. I may have been able to give a post-structuralist comparison of the Minangkabau and the Fa’afafine. I may even have been able to recount, word for word, the lyrics to ‘Baby Got Back’. But I had no idea how to pitch my voice in just the right way so as to have thirty fifteen-year-olds sitting down and paying attention. I had no idea how to deal with a student taller, bigger, and stronger than me when they stood up and refused to do as I asked of them. I had no idea how to vary my disciplinary techniques for each student – firm but fair for those who lacked ambition, sad and disappointed for those who lacked motivation.

I would like to say that everyone I met was incredibly understanding and kind. And whilst I can’t say that, I can say that many people were. For some people, I was invisible. For others, I may have been someone to patronise. For others, I was nothing but a nuisance. And in some ways, rightfully so. For as I cannot stress enough, in comparison to these adults who had been teaching for years, I was a puppy: full of enthusiasm, but knew nothing and was liable to get under your feet.

Yet for everyone who may have not been completely supportive, there were ten people who went out of their way to welcome me and help me. People showed their kindness in different ways. Be it nods in the hallway for those who didn’t even know their name, to sitting next to me at lunch when I was sat alone mournfully chewing on my school-regulation baguette. Perhaps the moments that stood out the most was when one teaching assistant stood up and enveloped me in a hug when I burst into tears after one especially tough class. Or when my entire department got together to organise a mini surprise birthday party in the office for me, when they had only known me a couple of months. What all this taught me, the teacher, is that in every stage of life there are people who make life hard. But for everyone who would have laughed at you when you dropped your plate in the school cafeteria, there are three more who would have rushed to help you pick it up.

Back to School

When I told people I had decided to go into teaching, the first reaction was one of intense amusement at the hilarity of what I had just said.  This was followed by immediate realization that I was, in fact, being serious, and amusement turned into confusion.

‘So how long are you going to do that for, until you get a real job?’

‘But…but why?’

Wouldn’t you rather do something useful and interesting, like consulting?’

‘Aaaaah.  That’s just adorable.’

My favourite response to my professional revelation, however, was one to my mother.  Upon revealing to a friend that her daughter had decided to become a teacher, this was the response she got:

‘After all those years of studying and getting into Cambridge, that’s all she’s going to do?  Be a teacher?’

I had to laugh.  Because if I didn’t, I would just feel annoyed.  Frustrated.  And yes, maybe a tiny bit unsure.  After all, it’s supposedly those who can’t do that teach.  I mean, everyone knows that getting up in front of a class of thirty adolescents, gaining their respect, maintaining their attention, and getting them to write perfectly phrased essays on the non-heternormative gender practices of the Fa’afafine is a piece of piss, right?  And so it was with a bitter, self-conflicted psyche that I attended my first day at school.  First day as a teacher, that is.

Within five minutes of my first lesson, I realised that teaching is not a piece of piss.  It is not a matter of sitting behind your desk and monotonously reciting from a textbook.

Teaching is like spinning plates.  Except that in this case, each plate represents a child’s future (at least, that’s what it feels like).  As I simultaneously gestured at one student to stop trying to stab their neighbour with a compass, demanded that another stop swinging on his chair lest he fall back and die, and scribbled on the board about the benefits of reading Of Mice and Men, I was filled with a feeling of intense guilt for having ever thought of my teachers as lazy/simple/vastly inferior.  I was also filled with an intense feeling of embarrassment when I realised that for all those years that I thought I was the human embodiment of subtly, sneaking notes to my friends, I would have been in blatant view of my teacher.  Because here’s the thing, readers.  Teachers see EVERYTHING.  If you are the only one standing, then you can’t help but to see everything going on around you.  Yet this is something students universally fail to realise, evidenced by the look of absolute shock and wonder on their faces if they are called out for texting under the table or (if they have hit puberty) subtly trying to place footsy with their crush.  Yet as well as feeling guilt and embarrassment, I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief.  Relief that I had indeed made the right decision.  Because it turns out that kids are actually pretty great.  They can be funny.  They can be creative.  They can be kind.  They can be little shits.  What they can never be is boring.  So hopefully this blog will never be boring.  Because it’s not really about me (and, if my predilection to recount my dreams in impressive detail to anyone who will listen is anything to go by, I am not always the most fascinating of subjects).  It’s about teaching, and it’s about my students.  And not necessarily in that order, for as I tell my students repeatedly, whilst I sometimes attempt to teach them, they are constantly teaching me.

And what they taught me within five minutes of my first ever lesson is that it is not those who can’t do that teach.  It is those who bloody well can.