Friendship in the Making

Prior to moving abroad five years ago, I tended to socialise with friends from outside of the work setting. This wasn’t anything necessarily deliberate and also didn’t mean that I had drawn a thick line in the sand separating work and home life (I still developed friendships with colleagues too!), but it was just the way things worked out at the time. Saying that, since working in the environment that I have in Vietnam, I have become more aware of drawing a line of some sort between my work and home life, if just to avoid some of the anxieties surrounding office social cliques. Something that I feel is heightened when in an environment such as the one I worked in.

***

It was Friday night and the last day of the formal induction period for the new staff and the school had arranged a social evening on site for all staff to get acquainted. I had been in Vietnam for less than a week and whilst still suffering some of the effects of jet-lag during the week, I had also been busy setting up my classroom, opening a bank account, filling in countless pages of paperwork for work permits and health insurance, and generally finding my feet.

It was the first time that I was going to properly meet many of the existing staff and the event was going to test aspects of the social anxiety I sometimes experience in novel situations. I can remember heading for safety once I arrived into the arms of the group of other newbies, but after a couple of drinks I ventured out to do some meeting and greeting. Alcohol can be good like that.

I managed to chat to a significant proportion of colleagues over the course of the evening, who provided valuable insights into adjusting to life in Vietnam, plus gossip was traded about the underbelly of the school itself, a necessary rite of passage when you start at any organisation. But it was at this time that I also made what turned out to be a classic social faux pas, I chose not to continue the merriment at a club in the city, having turned down the invite from an existing colleague Jane. I was tired from the amount of information that I had absorbed over the course of the week, and also from having to maintain the friendly work face to a heap of new people, so I just wanted to go to bed. At the time I thought little of it.

It was only a few weeks later at a birthday celebration for a colleague who had arranged afternoon tea when I noticed something was up. I joined a group of female staff on the taxi ride as we all lived in the same staff accommodation. After making a few attempts at small talk, I realised that I wasn’t gaining any ground, and in particular, Jane appeared to actively excluding me from participating in any conversation, with chat focusing quite deliberately on their activities over the weekend. I tried to push down the feelings of discomfort and hold onto the fact that I was 31 and not 14 years old. Surely, I wasn’t getting blanked?

Well, it turned out my intuition was correct and I was getting blanked because as soon as we arrived at the venue, the group scuttled to the last remaining seats at the table leaving myself and one other colleague who had also arrived in the same taxi without a place to sit. Heather had been sat up front on the journey and so although we had been introduced and chatted before on a few occasions, we didn’t know each other very well.

The woman who’s birthday we were celebrating immediately came over for a chat before apologising about the lack of space on the main table. Subsequently, the cafe owner sat Heather and me together with another late-comer to the gathering on a table a few metres away, where, aside from a few people passing to stop and chat over the course of the afternoon on their way to the bathroom, we were largely on the periphery of the action.

It was a strange and memorable afternoon for a number of reasons, but two things stand out now that I look back. Firstly and most importantly, I discovered a wonderful connection with Heather that day and we are still incredibly good friends, and secondly, it transpired that the reason for the cold shoulders from the rest of the group was due to the fact that they saw me as ‘boring’, because I hadn’t hit the clubs with them a few weeks previously. It was, in fact, Heather who told me this, and at the time, her admission upset me. I couldn’t even see past how ridiculous the whole thing was for a long time afterwards. But perhaps the craziest thing in all of this was that Jane didn’t appear to see past this too, and she would barely exchange two words with me when we passed in a corridor at work during the entire academic year, although she did seem happy enough to glare at me instead. I felt like a teenager again who had been refused a seat at the popular kid’s table (quite literally in the case of this particular birthday party).

The events at the birthday party and other situations that followed involving Jane and this particular group of women were reminiscent of the film of ‘Mean Girls’, and as much as I tried to ignore the feelings of inadequacy that tended to bubble up after yet another awkward encounter, things only became easier when she left at the end of that academic year. Looking on the bright side, at least I wouldn’t have to see her again.

***

Part of me wonders if it is the nature of working abroad and moving in a transient foreigner/expat (I am not a particular fan of the latter term) bubble that means relationships develop out of necessity to connect in the first instance than any real, true bond. I would partly agree with this sentiment because as humans we all have a desire (more like biological need) to connect with others and much like dating, you may have to look around and dig deep to find people who you share common interests with. However, saying this I did make some wonderful friends in my (now) previous teaching position, and many of whom I worked with fairly closely at a curriculum level.

As much as I found aspects of the above experience and others difficult and confusing during my time at the school, it taught me a number of things (as life is all about looking for those lessons when looking in the rear mirror, right?). Firstly, good friends are hard to come by and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have reached a point in my life where I don’t have the energy to deal with friends who are continually flaky with their time for me or friends that want only a superficial connection. It’s those friends that have your back during the good and the bad (and hopefully assume that you’re not boring because you don’t want to attend a social event), that make a friendship worthwhile.

Secondly, I have finally realised that not everyone is going to like me. Gosh, this has been one of the hardest lessons to learn! As a fully paid up member of the people pleaser club and having spent a significant chunk of my teens, twenties and dare I say it, my thirties too worrying about what someone else thinks of me, it makes me want to scream. That’s not to say that the mental energy was all completely wasted, it is sometimes important to at least consider another person’s viewpoint of something you may have said or done but when it verges on obsession (as it has at times with me), it becomes thoroughly exhausting. That mental energy could have been better spent elsewhere.

To that end, I am going to be more self-aware of the bonds I create and particularly the ones I actively foster with colleagues when I start my new position.

  • Names have been changed

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

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!

AN INSPECTOR CALLS

I am getting ready for an inspection.

Okay, that just sounds wrong… the school where I work is due for an inspection and we have been informed that it is going to take place in a little over a week.

When teaching internationally, the regulations around formal school inspections are different to that of working in the UK, in that you get a different amount of advance warning to make your preparations. And I mean, a considerable amount of advance warning… I am talking at least six months if you work in many schools internationally! A little different to the minimum two days notice provided by Ofsted*. Shortly before the school finished for the summer break, management were very kind to drop the ‘I-bomb’ on us.

Of course, receiving this much notice for an inspection has its blessings, in that it gives you ample opportunity to get your stuff in order. But when it has come down to it, it’s actually rather difficult to plan lessons months or even weeks in advance. Even on a day-to-day basis things crop up: a ‘surprise’ school event may tear away half your students, you may end up having a fantastic debate that you don’t want to put on hold so the lesson has to roll over to the next day, or perhaps more realistically, you have so much to content to deliver that you end up either rushing or missing out chunks of information so you have to go back to it another time anyway.

Conversely, this much notice sent some of the management at my school into a spin and when the new school year started back in August the teaching faculty were swiftly issued with additional tasks to add to the already bulging workload. These additional tasks have so far included: gathering more data for our classes (as if we don’t provide enough), providing sample lesson plans and schemes of work together with resources to be scrutinised (I actually hate this word) and an ‘enhanced’ data review for each department/year group in the school – for some staff this took up to three to four drafts to complete, each edit taking at least a further hour or more. It’s significant to note here that in my two previous years at the school these reports came back with no feedback/complaints giving me the impression that, either no-one had read them previously or that management simply wants us to add copious amounts of information just for the inspection.

And the additional list of tasks goes on.

It’s been five years since I last experienced a school inspection, so you could argue now it’s my time. During my first, I managed to avoid nearly all detection from the inspection team with only brief contact made when one happened to pass through the library (where I was doing some work at the time) as they were on their way to the bathroom. My second experience couldn’t have been more different. I did receive one lesson observation and in truly stressed teacher fashion, instead of upping my game, I panicked, pretty much nearly forgetting what I was meant to be teaching and the kid’s names along with it. The feedback didn’t go as well as hoped.

At the moment I am feeling a little more prepared, but that could be the six months notice talking. There is still a lot more to do and I fear that next week will be filled with some more of those ‘additional’ tasks alongside my actual teaching.

*Ofsted: stands for the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills and they are the UK’s centre for school inspections.