A Letter to my Students

Some years ago I recall watching the first series of Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and in one particular episode, the wonderful Mr Drew says whilst chatting to his GCSE History class, “You have no idea how much I like teaching you”.

The pleasure in how he expresses this remarkably simple statement of affection is tangible to see. The students kick back in their chairs laughing, but they are not laughing at Mr Drew, as you can see on their faces that they are thinking something similar, perhaps “But Mr Drew, you have no idea how much we like being taught by you!”

The scene has always stuck with me because I have felt the same about particular students in the past, but this year I am incredibly lucky to have an entire class that I feel that way about.

I know that it could be described as unprofessional to have a ‘favourite class’ and when I was training this was described as a definite no-no, but on a day-to-day basis, I firmly believe that this labelling does not interfere with my other classes, all of whom I equally enjoy teaching. But there is something about this class; it could be down to the expressive joy in how you approach your learning, your individual inquisitive natures, the camaraderie that you express to one another in the class, or all of the above. But I look forward to each and every single lesson. There is something truly magical about it.

Some of you have asked about my reasons for leaving the school at the end of this academic year; why couldn’t I stay? At least to see you through until you head off into the big, wide world next year. I can assure you that my decision has nothing to do with you or any of the students that I teach.

I have been teaching for nearly a decade and worked in a variety of schools and over the years I have seen so much change. In many respects I thought that I had evolved along with the changes rung in by successive governments and school leadership teams; I have always done what has been required and more in most cases, I have put in the hours and have been rewarded by receiving additional responsibilities.

As the years have rolled by, I have become more confident in my own value as a teacher and as an individual; I have always been keen to develop professionally and have supported my teams in doing the same. I also found my voice and will speak up when I have felt it necessary, occasionally ruffling a few management feathers as a result. I don’t speak up to deliberately throw things off balance, but to hopefully provide some healthy dialogue about the rationale behind the purpose and practicality of some school initiatives even if I am left dissatisfied with the end result.

But then I moved to our school and found that the management did not appreciate or even tolerate questions being asked. By anyone. To them, asking questions is a direct challenge to their authority.

Last year when I submitted a formal complaint about a member of the senior leadership team about how he had failed to deal with what should have been a simple department related issue, and his subsequent insulting manner in how he spoke to a colleague and myself, I had hoped that by following a formal process that I was protected to some extent from any backlash. I was wrong and naive. As well as being ‘encouraged’ to retract the complaint, otherwise ensuring a significant blemish on any future references, I was also reminded that my management responsibility could be taken away at any point. In the end, I backed down, I didn’t want to potentially ruin the years I had put into my career and I quickly learnt not to question the management again.

The irony of this, of course, is that we wish to encourage our students to do just that – to ask questions. As teachers we want students to develop skills of analysis and evaluation, yet as adults, if you question the legitimacy of certain actions you are vilified for it. Therefore, over a few short years of working at the school and with a drip-drip effect of what has felt like my actions and those of colleagues being constantly undermined that is also supported by a culture of blame, and in some cases blatant sexism and racism, it has meant that I have become another passive member of the teaching body. I don’t speak up even to protect my colleagues and students by what appears to be bullying tactics from some of the management team. I am not only angry at myself because of this but I have gradually lost the passion that I once had for teaching, at least in this school.

My decision to leave the school has not been an easy one. However, in the past year or so the periods of depression that I have experienced, I believe can be at least partly attributed to burnout from the job and I have slowly come to accept that my mental health is more important than attempting to please any manager who sees the staff as mere commodities and students just as figures on spreadsheets. None of the management has thought to reflect on the reasons why over a third of the teaching faculty are leaving this summer because surely, it can’t be anything to do with them.

You’ve also asked if I will cry on my last day – I most definitely will! You genuinely have no idea how much I have enjoyed teaching you and so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Ps. Ask questions. Ask lots of them.

Reflect, Review, Repeat

As we near the end of the summer term and with exams nearly over, attention has turned to staff appraisals. Unlike previous schools that I have worked in, where these are completed twice a year (at the beginning and around now), my current school requires us to complete these each term, with five in total.

The senior management feel that these regular appraisals with a nickname of RAG (for red, amber, green) provides us with meaningful reflection, where our performance (for instance in terms of examination results) and personal conduct is scrutinised each term and then colour-coded with a few comments thrown in for extra padding.

But I wonder, aside from the additional paperwork that this fairly repetitive task creates for me as a Head of Department as well as for my peers, are these RAGs actually worth the paper that they are written on*?

This is a tricky question to answer in relation to teaching and education generally. The role is incredibly varied and although we receive a lot of instructions and directions from sources above us, with the idea of us obviously following these, on a day-to-day basis we generally have a large amount of autonomy, primarily in our classroom.

But this question came to my mind for a number of reasons recently, firstly because I am currently in the process of writing up appraisal reports for my team as well as receiving my own, and also when I hit publish on my previous post it forced me to reflect on some of the reasons why I am happy about stepping down from a management role.

In my current school’s system, in theory, nobody should receive a ‘red’ unless something serious has happened as staff should have been made aware of any concerns before it got to the stage of having it included on their appraisal. And conversely, no one should be awarded a ‘green’ unless they have done something exceptionally good.

But this is where the water gets murky for my current school’s appraisal system, as some of the categories on which we are judged are suspect at best and in some situations just bizarre; with things like ‘Behaviour as a role model’, ‘Appearance’ and ‘School ambassador’ included in the document alongside ‘Task completion’, ‘Attendance’ and ‘Relationships’.

In my first year, I was awarded amber for my ‘Appearance’ and I was fairly surprised. I have always thought that I dressed appropriately, comfortable and professional yet keeping within my own personal style. By my final appraisal and after receiving amber for the entire year, I queried this, how does one go about getting a green for appearance?

My line manager’s response was that he couldn’t give me many greens as it was only my first year and that ‘I needed something to work towards’. So I need to work towards wearing more professional clothes? But ultimately this told me that the rationale for the amber was less to do with my actual appearance and more to do with management not wanting the form to look too green, i.e., too positive!

Another example relates to a box entitled ‘Job fit’ where the same colour-coding system is used to establish whether you are effective as a worker, a manager and as a leader. The same line manager said that he felt that I was a good manager but ‘he couldn’t see me as a leader’. Again, I queried this, how would he identify a leader in an organisation? I was provided with a vague response about a leader having that special magical ingredient that sets them apart from just being a manager. His comment did make some sense, but in all honesty if that’s the case, I don’t see any of the management at the school as being leaders either.

Sigh…

In my current role, I have been required to issue a small number of reds on a couple of colleague’s RAGs. My line manager insists that these kinds of details are recorded on their appraisals and that it is discussed during our termly meetings. Sure, if something serious has happened then (if appropriate) immediate action may be required but in many incidences, the issues are rare and sometimes out of my colleague’s control (i.e., it’s not necessarily that they weren’t at fault, but other factors and other people were also involved).

It feels more like reflection just for the sake of reflection, without any clear guidance on genuine suggestions for improvements. The box can be ticked. Move on.

So it comes probably as no surprise but obviously with great sadness (!) that one of the aspects of my current role that I am not going to miss is related to what I feel is more like a pointless administrative task, which doesn’t actually provide sufficient support either to myself or to members of my team about their performance. I don’t know what to suggest as an alternative, but I know that colour-coding the negatives and positives doesn’t cut it.

* The short answer is no.

GOODBYE MIDDLE MANAGEMENT, AND GOOD RIDDANCE

Three years ago when I started working at my current school I was looking forward to stepping down from the ‘management plate’. I had had pretty much had my fill of working in the higher middle management echelons after working as Head of Key Stage 5 in my previous position. It hadn’t been all bad, I found that I was fairly effective at dealing with university applications and recruitment fairs as well as organising pastoral activities for tutors. And there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed and gained great satisfaction from, such as working with students to help them consider their options post school. But the shine had worn off quickly when I found myself repeatedly butting heads with a colleague working at a similar level to me over administrative tasks, she was constantly trying to pass additional work my way when this should have been shared evenly. Although the issues were minor in the grand scheme of things, it was like a drip-drip effect, somewhat like low-level disruption and it gradually wore me down.

Part of the appeal of the school I applied for three years ago (that is, my current school) was that I would return to being ‘just a teacher again’. I had been burnt in my previous position and aside from a desire to lick my wounds for a period of time, I was lacking confidence in my own ability. I was ready to focus on teaching again after putting this largely on the backburner for a little over a year. I had still been teaching whilst holding the Head of Key Stage 5 position, but in reality, the demands of the management role superseded my teaching and it had suffered as a result.

After a few days into my new role three years ago I was approached about taking on some additional responsibility as a Head of Department. Shocked and surprised didn’t even cut it. Gobsmacked more like. I had only been there a matter of days and was still feeling some of the effects of jetlag, and so I knew that I wasn’t thinking straight when the headteacher asked to speak to me in his office.

It transpired that a colleague was stepping down due to illness; it would only be for a year he said, there’d be plenty of support he said, and don’t worry he added. A people pleaser through and through and having my ego stroked (including the prospect of an additional monthly financial incentive) cemented my acceptance of the role with little real thought at the time of what the role would entail. I even glibly ignored the fact that the headteacher had said during this meeting that one of the reasons they were considering me was because I had no ‘ties’, i.e., no kids and having my then partner based in another country meant that I had no distractions. I would focus on the job at hand. Why the hell I didn’t walk out the door at that point I have no idea, but then that could have been the people pleaser in me. But then, he was right, I was in that position. However, knowing the headteacher as I know him now, I am well aware that the issue of ‘ties’ would never have been raised with a male colleague in a similar position.

Three years on and I am still in the role of Head of Department, although I will be stepping down once more when I leave in a few weeks time. To say that I am excited would be an understatement, I am ecstatic. And to illustrate how happy I am about relinquishing the role, when I was being interviewed for my new position the headteacher asked me for my feelings on this, i.e., would I be comfortable in going back to being ‘just a teacher?’

My response?

A huge smile lit up my face.

THE COMPARISON GAME

It’s that time of year again.

Study leave for examination students.

During this summer term I have been in the fortunate position of having a lighter teaching timetable and so it has meant that I have been able to get on with some planning for my new position that begins this summer, as well as have a general tidy up of existing planning and resources. Due to my management position also, I have been required to organise relevant documentation in order to pass onto ‘the new me’, so apart from a few slightly extended lunches since we returned to work after the Easter break I have been productive with my gained time.

However, not everyone in my school is happy with a section of the teaching body getting ‘all this free time’ with the majority of grumbles coming from the primary section. Unlike the schools, I worked at in the UK where primary and secondary schools are predominately separate in terms of geography, in the two international schools I have worked in so far their primary and secondary schools have been located on the same site.

A close friend made these familiar-sounding grumbles recently where, during dinner with a group after work, she proceeded to compare her working hours as a primary teacher to that of an ‘average secondary teacher’. I tried to maintain a cool and calm exterior whilst she berated the ‘average secondary teacher’, arguing that our work was easy in comparison, particularly at this time of year. Perhaps understandably I felt myself become defensive in response to some of her remarks. Of course whilst there will always be some teachers who kick back during this time, they are in the minority. It is in fact during this time when most secondary teachers are catching up on planning and resourcing for new courses or updating what currently exists, and that’s if they don’t still have a heavy teaching timetable (for instance with KS3) or, if they are working in a school that doesn’t offer their students study leave.

But at the time I didn’t say any of this out loud at the time, as we would have ended up going around in circles as well as probably ending the evening by falling out. Plus, I have heard it all before, from her in particular and when I have tried to provide some balance it has fallen on deaf ears. It’s like comparing apples and oranges I reminded myself and that there are some comparison games that are simply pointless in playing.

But what would be nice is that rather than working against one another and seeing ourselves in a perpetual state of competition over our hours, our tasks and even our status within teaching, couldn’t we try and be a little bit more supportive?

TAKING A CHANCE: INTERNATIONAL TEACHING

As part of a new series of posts looking at teaching in an international context, including some of its most wonderful aspects as well as some of the things that I wished that I had known in advance, I thought that I would begin by writing a post about some of my reasons for leaving the UK to teach abroad in the first place.

Ten years ago this June, I participated in a graduation ceremony confirming the completion of my teacher training. I was finally leaving what had felt like a relatively safe and fulfilling bubble of academia and heading out into the big, wide world of full-time employment.

And now looking back over my career to date, I realise that I have not only jumped over what feels like a hurdle (or should that be a shitload of hurdles) of getting to the infamous five-year mark of employment in teaching, where it is estimated that approximately 50% of new teachers will have left the profession, but I have also added five more.

But the fact is that for at least for me, if I had remained in the UK to teach, I don’t believe that I would still be teaching at least in a secondary school context.

There was most definitely not one single factor that led to my decision to leave the UK, but five years ago I was presented with a choice: stay or go (as in move abroad to live and work). The latter primarily instigated by my then partner who had already moved to Spain for a teaching role. The romantic in me would say that I moved for love, although I have subsequently realised love is not necessarily the best reason to move jobs let alone countries.

Prior to the move abroad, I had been working at a city secondary school, which reported generally strong examination results and had good connections to parents and the local community. All of which were part of the lure for me apply for the job in the first place. My immediate team were also incredibly supportive, something that I had been craving having left my previous position partly due to an absence of this at the departmental level. However, after less than a year of working at what was my second teaching position in the UK, I realised that I didn’t quite ‘fit’ within the school itself. My previous school had been considerably smaller in size and therefore on a day-to-day basis I would regularly see familiar faces, those of students and staff alike, and it felt like a warm and close-knit community. But in my second position, I often felt lost and there were times when I didn’t know who to turn to for advice. Plus, I realised that I simply wanted to work in a school with a smaller student intake.

Finding a school that ‘fits’ is much like a romantic relationship, you can go in thinking of what you desire in a partner; such as a steady job, good hair, own teeth, wants marriage and so on, but you end up falling in love with someone who doesn’t fit any of that criteria. And the same can be said for a school, sometimes the things that you think you want, just don’t work in reality.

Another significant factor that could be said to have influenced my decision to leave the school itself was related to the behaviour of the students. There were times when I found it really tough, to the point where I absolutely dreaded going into work. For some lessons, it felt more like crowd control than anything else, as I couldn’t say any real learning took place for some of the students. I issued warnings, handed out detentions, contacted home, and fortunately the team I worked with were always willing to have some of most badly behaved sat in the back of their class with some work to do. There were, of course, times when I would skip stages of the ‘behaviour management process’ when I was tired and/or stressed, but I followed school policy mostly to the letter.

Things came to a head with one particular class towards the end of the academic year that contained a number of ‘characters’, to put it politely. I taught them for a double (two hours) on Monday after lunch and they were all over the place in terms of academic ability. There were two students in particular who appeared to go out of their way to disturb the class and learning in any way that they could each week. And, after months of using various strategies to manage their behaviour, I cracked.

I had contacted a member of the management team to remove one of the students, who, in this specific lesson was the catalyst for most of the disruption. He had continually refused to follow my instruction of waiting outside for a ‘time out’. But whilst the member of management delivered a grave speech to the entire group about the importance of the learning that should have been taking place, I began to cry. I didn’t break down completely but it was certainly enough for the front few rows to notice the tears.

It perhaps should be left to a future post to provide my own opinion about the effectiveness of certain behaviour management strategies for some students and even my own failings in this regard, but as you can imagine I was embarrassed by the incident and also by what appeared to me was that I simply wasn’t up to the job, at least in that school. In effect, I had lost all confidence in my ability to teach. It was only upon moving on that I realised that I wasn’t completely rubbish at teaching and in a different environment I could thrive.

So when I was presented with an opportunity to leave and move to my first international teaching position in Spain, I jumped at the chance. My partner was already working at the school and so he provided a backdoor opportunity to meet and receive an interview with one of the headteachers, a convenient break certainly.

In the next instalment… Sun, Sangria and Salary Woes

FINDING INSPIRATION IN SHAKESPEARE

A little over a year ago I participated in some teacher training that provided me with an existential experience. A dramatic statement I know, but it was and still is perhaps the best and most useful training I have ever had in my teaching career to date.

The training was focused on developing effective leadership skills, but its audience was to the teacher and not specifically aimed at the higher echelons of management. We are, as teachers, leaders of a sort in our classrooms and the organiser wanted us to reflect on our own leadership skills and to see how we could link some of the work of Shakespeare to our role.

I was dubious at first and naively, I thought to myself, what could Shakespeare teach us about how to improve our leadership skills in the classroom? For example, one of the set texts for my GCSE English Literature exam was Macbeth and we all probably know what happened to him.

Well, it turned out (surprise, surprise) it could teach us quite a lot.

At the beginning of the day and for those who didn’t know a huge amount about the story of Henry V, including myself, we were given a synopsis of Shakespeare’s play including a few (amazing!) direct readings, most notably the St. Crispin’s Day speech where Henry motivates his soldiers on the morning of the Battle of Agincourt. The rousing speech along with Henry’s evident clear direction of goals is believed to have helped the English defeat the French despite being vastly outnumbered. But the purpose of the training wasn’t to provide a history lesson, although that was an added bonus, it was to illustrate how some of the themes Shakespeare used in his depiction of the story of Henry V could be utilised inside and outside the classroom, in particular, the importance of how effective leaders inspire the troops.

The troops in my case are students and one of the key message that was emphasised from the very beginning was that despite what the government, the media and some members of school management may say, the kids are not the most important part of a school. It’s the teachers. If teachers are largely happy, confident and feel supported in their role, then this will translate into their job of actually teaching, ultimately leading to hopefully happy, confident students who feel supported in their own learning.

And it was also at this point that I felt something unfurl within me, as though a part of me was stretching and waking up from slumber. It struck me that I knew I couldn’t stay much longer at my current school and it even raised larger questions about whether I wanted to remain in teaching. The realisation shook me to my core and at various points throughout the day, I was holding back tears as for the first time, in what felt like a long time, I felt as though I was being listened to but without having to say anything at all.

The organiser made the point a few times throughout the day about the importance of a supportive work culture that begins from the top (the organiser illustrated this point using Henry’s St Crispin’s Day speech which he read in its entirety without prompts) and it was during this time that I noticed a few disgruntled faces amongst the management team. I believe that the shit hit the fan for some as this guy was inspiring us. He was waking most, if not nearly all of us up from a compliant and passive slumber.

I couldn’t describe the school as having a supportive culture. There are shades of it for sure, but unfortunately blame and fear ring closer to the truth. I certainly don’t want to paint all of the school management as completely unsupportive but I learnt quickly that to speak up about something was akin to branding yourself on the forehead. And those who stood out generally didn’t last long.

This was what I have always found a bit odd and disconcerting about some of the schools that I have worked in and I am sure that I am not alone in thinking this, we like to encourage our students in the hope that they will be inspired to study and think about the content they learn,  admittedly some of this motivation may come in the form of sweets or other extrinsic reward to simply get a piece of work finished, but teacher motivation is something that is rarely given as much consideration. It is assumed that working with students is reward enough. But sometimes it is quite nice to be simply told, ‘Well done, you’re doing a great job’, something that rarely happens in my school from upper management.

It obviously hasn’t been as straightforward as experiencing this realisation and then leaving. The training was over a year ago and if simply due to contract requirements I have been required to provide nearly a year’s formal notice of resignation. But I am now in my last term working at my current school and it feels incredibly strange to think that I won’t return there come the end of summer. I have learnt a great deal over the past three years and this realisation is one of the bigger things, work culture matters and a school that doesn’t value its staff will eventually lose them.

A NEW OPPORTUNITY

A few weeks ago I signed myself up for the ‘Blogging Fundamentals’ course, part of WordPress University. I was really excited from the off as I was hoping to spend time working on my writing muscles and also engage with fellow bloggers.

I have a tendency to be pretty hard on myself when it comes to ‘getting shit done’, believing that there is always more that I could be doing. But I have been trying to stick to my commitment, that is, of posting at least once a week.

That was until this past week or so because work happened… Well, to be more specific, a new job happened.

As I mentioned in some of my earlier posts I have been torn for some time between whether to remain in teaching or not (I am talking at least five years). It is the only profession I have known apart from stints of working in various retail outlets and then a waitress when I was a student, and I can’t leave out the two years doing a newspaper round in the neighbourhood in which I grew up. But in the past few years I have been toying with the idea of leaving to do something different, either still within the field of education or breaking away entirely.

The idea of toying of leaving was very nearly going to become my reality when, after some months I was unable to find another teaching job. I work in the international circuit having left the UK five years ago and, unlike three years ago when I first moved to SE Asia, this time it was going to be much more difficult. In the first instance, my search area was restricted due to a move to be with my partner and also because the teaching market where he is based is incredibly competitive. Most, but certainly not all, international schools have many of their positions filled by Christmas with some advertising as early as September/October for the following academic year. By March, I was resigned to the fact that I would be moving without a job and would be living off some of my savings for an indefinite period of time.

But then a job came up and despite some mixed feelings about applying for it; primarily due to the resigned feeling and wondering whether I still want to teach, I put in an application. And things went from there.

I had an interview and received an offer a little over a week ago.

And the best thing? I am really excited about it!

TAKING THE TIME TO LISTEN

It is Friday afternoon and lessons for the week have just finished; students are heading home along with some of my colleagues. I don’t like to hang around too late on a Friday either, but I have set of test papers to mark that I would prefer to do from the relative comforts of a quiet classroom rather than in the real comforts of home. Besides, I have already allocated some of my Sunday to prepping for the following week, the test papers would just add to that load.

Then my door opens.

It is a colleague whose classroom is adjacent to mine coming in for a chat. But when I say ‘chat’ as that would presume that that there were two people involved in the conversation, it’s more like being spoken at about his day.

I put my pen and the exam paper down and listen to his frustrations; the students who haven’t quite registered that their final exams are in a few months time, the ones who have failed to hand in homework, and the ones who promised that they would turn up for the revision classes but didn’t. I listen and attempt to offer support and advice where I can, we are colleagues and part of the same team. I am also the Head of Department.

After he has left, I settle back into marking the papers. It’s a significant pile and I really don’t want to have to take them all home this weekend. Last weekend was spent proof-reading student subject reports for the department, I could barely see straight after I had finished.

Then my door opens.

It’s another member of the team, she’s relatively new and still working her way around the school and its quirks. I try to give her as much time as I can as I have heard on the teacher grapevine that she has already thrown around some flippant remarks about leaving before the end of the academic year due to the ‘unreasonable workload’. Much like a few minutes before, I am blasted with information and updates on her day. I sit and listen patiently with a set smile on my face, but in the back of my mind I am thinking about those unmarked test papers, about the data that it will then probably take another 30 minutes or so to input onto the school system, the emails I need to reply to, and the fact that I haven’t had chance all day to go the office to photocopy my resources for Monday.

After she leaves something strikes me as I am trying to get my head back into marking mode, I very rarely get asked about how I am by members of the team. Perhaps they think that I am fine because of the persona that I carry off (very successfully, if I say so myself) day to day. None of them is aware of the challenges I sometimes have just to get up in a morning and get to work, but then, why should they need to know? Or perhaps the reason I don’t get asked is because I am a member of management and there is a ‘them and us’ mindset to it. Sometimes people just need to vent and I do feel that part of my role is to cushion some of the blows or at least act as a sponge.

In this time-pressed profession, I would love to sit down and have more conversations with my team and other colleagues, perhaps about things going outside of the classroom and outside of the school. But I don’t see that happening in the near future, particularly as exam season approaches.

I admit my management style may have contributed towards this situation. Despite the seemingly constant curriculum changes and ever evolving school diktats, I try to manage with a democratic approach inasmuch as I can; concerns are discussed openly in meetings and if an issue affects someone directly, I will do my best to help. They are an amazingly hard-working bunch whose support I value every single day.

But it would be nice sometimes for one of them to ask how I am and pause for an answer.

A ‘CAREER GIRL?’

Each week at work like the rest of the teaching faculty, I am required to do two playground duties, one of which takes place in the morning before lessons begin. It’s a fairly uneventful and unexciting responsibility (unlike some of my experiences when I was working in the UK), where I wander around for twenty minutes, chat to students, give them a teacher glare if they are even thinking about doing something off the school-rules-book and perhaps catch up with a few colleagues.

The vast majority of the time nothing actually happens. That was until this Wednesday when a colleague who works in the higher echelons of the school hierarchy stopped to say hello. Although in fact, his greeting consisted of “Have you got a job yet?”

This is a fairly standard question I get asked nowadays, after all, I handed in my notice to my current employers some months ago. In the time since I have had one interview (although I have only applied for two jobs due to my location restrictions) and was unsuccessful in that case. I usually reply with a smile and “Nope, nothing at the moment” or something to a similar effect. But this time, whether it was frustration, defensiveness, general annoyance, the fact that it was a Wednesday or all of the above, I changed tact. Instead, I replied with “Does that have to be the first question I get asked?”

So that prompted a surprised reaction for both of us, he hadn’t been expected that response, even his facial expressions and body language spoke volumes as he arched his back and glanced around. And I was surprised at myself for saying what I have been thinking for some time actually out loud.

“I am worried about you,” he said leaning in. “A career girl like you, not having another job yet. I thought you’d have one by now.”

I didn’t want to share with him that I am seriously considering taking a break from teaching, I don’t believe that it is any of his business. Plus at this point, I was annoyed by his line of questioning and the patronising manner in which he approached the subject.

It’s interesting because as I read back over what I have written so far, there is a part of me that is muttering away: Stop being so defensive! He was only asking out of concern, why make a mountain out of a molehill? I will concede that perhaps the reason for his initial query was out of genuine interest and concern, but I am curious, would a man be told that they are a ‘career boy’ for the same reasons I was? I find it unlikely.

For whatever the justifications for his concern and his perceived label of me, I have unearthed a few positives from the encounter. Firstly, when I next get asked: “Have you got a job yet?” I will try and steer the conversation in a different direction, one hopefully that doesn’t entail an analysis of my career to date. Secondly and more significantly, I have also reassessed a number of things, particularly in relation to how I label myself.

Am I a ‘career girl/woman/person?’

I wouldn’t define myself in this way as there is an implication that I originally set out in teaching to achieve what I have (particularly in terms of having a management position), or that I indeed want to continue climbing the career ladder if I were to stay teaching. In actual fact, the latter does not fill me with much motivation in the slightest! So I guess I’d like to thank my colleague for helping reaffirm this for me.

THE FUTURE PLACE OF EDUCATION

Six years ago I taught in a school that was undergoing a steady transformation, not in an ideological or pedagogical sense, but rather in its physical appearance (although you could argue that in some symbolic ways the areas are linked). The original buildings dated from the 1960s and by 2010 they were in dire need of an update for a student population of over 2000 and by general modern education standards. Aside from the general tired feeling associated with most of the rooms; many had leaky roofs, windows that you couldn’t shut, broken furniture that never seemed to get replaced despite requests, and these were the rooms that weren’t overly that bad…

… because then there were the temporary classrooms/portacabins.

Whilst the rest of the school was receiving a deep clean and facelift, the portacabins were deemed ‘fit for purpose’ by the school’s management and so were not going to be disposed of until the main building work had been completed. And around a third of my teaching took place in these.

The portacabins were simply depressing. I hated having to teach in them and I am sure that the students picked up on this despite my forced smile to the contrary. During the winter wetter months, sidelining the fact that the steps leading up to the cabins would often freeze over and therefore be a health hazard in themselves, the rooms were bitterly cold. The heating units regularly broke, resulting in both myself, colleagues and students having to wear coats in lessons (a big no-no in terms of the school uniform policy), and in some cases, I would also teach wearing gloves (an even bigger no-no). Conversely, during the warmer months, the classrooms heated up like greenhouses even with the windows and doors wide open. And you can probably imagine what a sweltering room smells like with the added potency or should I say the pungency of a bunch of teenagers!

Unfortunately, the state of crappy classrooms is nothing new. My own experiences were almost a mirror image of those I describe above but took place 20 years earlier. So I read with interest and dismay last week in the British press about the state of many school buildings that are “crumbling into disrepair” whilst money is being diverted into other projects such as the free school program. Money that is being invested into shiny new buildings or to convert brownfield sites to accommodate students, whilst existing local authorities and schools struggle to plug those leaky roofs and move students out of temporary classrooms.

I know my own experiences are only anecdotal and a building does not necessarily make an education, but it can help. It can encourage students to feel positive about their learning if the environment has some semblance of being cared for and valued, and it can allow teachers to focus on actually teaching, instead of adjusting the thermostat or their coat every few minutes.

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