Warning: this post is far more gushing, emotional and optimistic than my usual blogs. I’m feeling nostalgic and decided to #talkupteaching. I’m not apologising for loving my job. However, I do apologise if you feel a bit nauseous whilst reading. If you don’t like reading sentimental, slightly self-indulgent, rose tinted blogs then please either stop now, or go and get a bucket before reading on.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Natalie Scott and published with kind permission.
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So, it has been a fortnight since I went to Dunkirk last, I had planned to go in the holidays, but my first pay cheque as a part time English teacher left me a bit deflated and left my wallet far from full, and getting to France costs..
Then, in an attempt to sleep and rest, after the crazy whirlwind that was last term, I managed to put my damn back out. Great!
So this Easter I have relaxed, joined in with #teacher5adayslowchat on twitter, seen friends (who thought I’d been lost forever under a set of books or in a muddy field) and tried to get to the gym. I have walked, watched films and box sets and done some reading up on ESOL qualifications and approaches to EFL and EAL. I’ve come to realise that like anything, different people think different things, different experts have different opinions and different pieces of research prove different points. There’s simply no pleasing everyone. But I’m learning and triangulating it with my knowledge of the English classroom, and my time with Kurdish learners and I’m coming up with my own thoughts as a result. I’ll find my best way.
So two whole weeks off. It has been amazing. I feel refreshed and ready to get back to work. I have also started thinking again about full time roles for September and where I go from here, I’m not sure what exactly I will do, but it will absolutely be in education. I want to work with teachers, and children, so am scouring the pages of the TES and may apply for a post or two tomorrow. The battered, exhausted and dented me of November has gone and without being too naff I really do like to think that my career could be a bit like a lotus, no mud no flower and all that.
Over the past week I have focused on the positives. I have written a date in my diary, to meet up with some inspiring local educators for a teachmeet with no agenda, basically a meeting of teachers who just want to chat and share ideas, strategies, practice and hope over a drink and snack. It sounds perfect. No powerpoints, no timers, no ‘experts’ on mikes, or preparation, just a random bunch of colleagues from across Herts, who are all in it together and have passion for their work.
Everything was, is, looking up.
Then the tears came.
I cried yesterday.
Don’t worry though, they weren’t the miserable self indulgent tears of last year, this was my brown eyes filled with tears of overwhelming joy and emotional pride. You see, I was rummaging through boxes for an old address, one from my former life in Manchester, and I stumbled across 7 heavy photo albums spanning my university days, up to my 4th year of teaching.
After looking at the carefully catalogued glossy prints for a while, reading the labels, each carefully written in my own younger hand, I decided a few things.
Firstly, that like a fine wine, I have aged pretty well- I’m not blowing my own trumpet, you see the evidence is undeniable; I was a little chubby at the start of uni, then I put on more than a few pounds as a student and I very clearly had no grasp nor understanding of fashion. Pink leather jacket and big platform heels… what was I thinking? The 90s were so cruel.
But looking through these old captured moments also reminded me that I have the very best job in the world. I decided whilst looking at the rose tinted, effervescent, freeze framed moments that I have lived very well and that I have done some good. They say that teachers never know where their impact and influence ends, that most of their work isn’t visible and that we are mongers of hope rather than the reality of the instant- but I don’t think I agree. Sometimes we do get told we made a difference, often in fact. Sometimes we could see it, if only we would stop to look.
In a time where teachers are constantly slapped and slammed by the media and are increasingly tired of working long days in high pressure environments, drained by the data and left shuddering at the constantly shifting sands of examinations and assessment, wearied by the government’s next latest newest idea, it is all too easy to get caught up in the negatives and forget WHY we teach.
And those reasons, those highlights, aren’t just to be found in an old photo album of lessons and proms, but also in our classrooms every day. We need to focus on the 28 kids doing their very best rather than going home thinking about the one who ripped down part of the display. We should focus on the single thank you at the end of the lesson, the piece of work that proves that the struggling kid has finally got it, the lightbulb moments, the cards and smiles just as much as the data. Kids are not machines, and shouldn’t be reduced just to labels and percentages. As teachers we owe it to ourselves to look for the great in the day. We owe it to the children in our care.
I sit here now and photos, images and memories are swirling and fizzing through my mind, choking me and playing the bongos on my heart. Yes, some of my thoughts go to the sparkling students posing in the pictures long ago, but I also think of the many children who I have helped in some way, however small. The notes in old leavers books and cards join in the celebration in my mind. Kind words tiptoe out of my dusty memory, flashing and jumping out from under the bed onto my inner eyelids as I try to blink the emotion away.
Since finding this simple treasure I’ve been reflecting. Thinking. Remembering some students and moments I have known in my career- moments and students who kept me passionate about my work for so long.
My first form group, a beautiful bunch of kids from Reddish, Stockport. In my album they sat in a circle and then they sat in class, later they grinned, smeared in face paint at an army activity day. They looked out at me from the images, warming my heart. Looking at those pictures I’m an NQT again, wrapped in the glamour and hope of Dead Poets Society.
Those children, in 7ST, have grown up to be basketballers, make up artists, soldiers and designers, mechanics, lawyers and teachers. They are well adjusted and many are parents themselves. I love it when they get in touch; some of them do once in a while.
There was one lad in that class, a proper rough diamond. His mum was raising him, and his tearaway brother, on her own. One day some children from another form group were picking on a lonely girl from ours in the canteen, putting salt into her hair ‘assalting her’ (I know…) and this lad went right on over, with skin head and sparkling honest blue eyes and he sat with her, telling the others to get lost. He was gentle and kind and was being a friend to someone who needed one. He had lunch sat with her each day that week, and on and off for the following weeks. I remember telling his mum how proud I had been to hear, then witness, his actions and I will always remember her response; her older, wiser, gentle blue eyes locked on mine, as she affectionately rubbed her hand across his short stubbly hair, pulling playfully on his ear. She patted her boy and told me ‘I tell my two all the time, we don’t have much, but manners and kindness don’t cost a thing’. It’s true, they are free and they can be both celebrated and taught. Teachers don’t just teach English or maths, we, like parents, teach respect and instil values. We promote right and good. When I look back to that boy’s innocent, magnificent gesture, it wipes gently away the tears that over the years I have watched colleagues cry, fading the never ending lists that have grown in my overactive mind in the darkest of early hours.
I also found images of cheeky GCSE aged lads grinning up at me out of the album. Stood there, pictured by my side at their prom, smiling widely, eyes alight and dancing, full of possibilities and teenage dreams. Stood there, wearing a heavy air of teenage awkwardness in their ill fitting suits and topped with heavily applied wet look hair gel. I’m not the only one who has made a fashion faux pas or two, it seems, but they were kids, it’s part of being a teenager. Most are pictured, gawky and clumsy with their nervous body language unmistakeable, fearful of overstepping the mark. Whilst others went in for the hug as the flash lit our faces, a parting farewell that struck the fear of God into me as a young female teacher. But harmless and I smiled through it.
I taught many of these boys English, they were cocky lads but they were free from the apathy that I face more frequently in classrooms today. Rather than moaning those boys would ask for help; they really wanted to do well. We used to work on coursework after school, I remember a group of us sat around the table, looking at Sherlock stories and A Lamb to the Slaughter, comparing writers’ crafts and conventions. And I remember how very determined they were to do well.
Some of those boys have been in touch in recent months, now 28 year old men, 6 years older than I was when I taught them. Time flies. Groan. But every cloud has a lining, at least I don’t wear pink leather biker jackets anymore…
One has coached football in America, travelled the world and has been accepted to train as a secondary school teacher at Edge Hill next year. He contacted me last year and asked for interview advice, and then again some time later to say that he had ‘totally smashed it’ and ‘nailed the interview’ and was proud to then report back to me that he had been accepted. This week he dropped me a line to thank me for the help, not just with the application and interview questions but back at school too. He told me that I had ‘seen the best’ in him and that was why I had been his favourite teacher. I inspired him to teach, he said. That’s a privilege, to be told that. Those short heart-warming words melt away at the many lonely hours I’ve spent on data, the nights I sat alone triple marking.
The other is a corporal in the Royal Marines. He was a quiet, gentle, diligent boy; really hard working and oh so polite. I’ve often wondered about him over the years and hoped that he had found success. He dropped me a line recently, tracking me down through social media, telling me he ‘got out’ of Reddish, and made something of his life. He used a rich vocabulary and perfect punctuation, his writing was impressive. His lines eloquently crafted and highlighted with the fire in his belly, telling me that he has a career which he loves, is the captain of the footy team, has dogs, wins fitness tests and has a long term girlfriend; he is confident and proud of his successes, his achievements, and rightly so.
I’m proud to have known him, albeit all those years ago. He has seemingly grown up into a very kind, beautiful and brave young man. In his message he asked if I remembered him and couldn’t believe that I did, he then told me he has learned that if you let ‘simple things make you happy, happiness becomes simple’ too. I think I’ll remember that motto, his ‘jam’ he called it, it is a message we could, should, must all learn from. Life is too short to miss out on, or fail to notice, the little joys. His message wiped away memories of the students who refused to stop talking, the one who hit a peer, the angry boy who stormed out of the room, another one who escaped his pending reprimand via a window. It softens, a little, my devastation at losing students along the way, because his simple theory comes from one who has lost many more than I ever will, in the line of duty. He has now taught me, made me think, just as I did him those years ago. He reads my blogs. I know you’ll read this. So thank you. You really are something.
I remember so many others: the GCSE student who wouldn’t write with anything other than a pencil, and no more than a line or two at best. I remember the the first day we got a black pen in his hand, I remember the smile when on results day he smashed his target grade of an F and achieved a D. I was more proud of that kid than anyone else that results day. That phenomenal D grade still boots the countless detentions I have sat through, and the homeworks that were eaten by dogs, way way out into the long grass. That shimmering D grade was sweeter than any grade I have ever achieved myself.
I remember the students who have made me laugh, the ones I wrote references for in the hope of giving them a nudge towards their goals, and more recently the big brown eyed children of Calais and Dunkirk so desperate to learn, and who proudly call me their ‘friend’. I think about the universities that I spoke to on a student’s behalf, to help them to swap a course and to start again, putting my own foot in the door for them, because I genuinely cared. I recall the ones I visited in hospital because they were so ill, and because they were not just a number or grade. Those I visited during their work experience come to mind too, those tearaways who had impressed their employers beyond all our expectations. The top set who gained 100% A-A* AND had personalities. These glow bugs in my mind light up the darkness felt when I hear that an ex student has made the wrong choices, been arrested, or when another child from the refugee camp vanishes, to who knows where.
I, oh so clearly, remember the dark haired cheeky one who told me every EVERY lesson that he didn’t ‘need a C in English’ as he was going to be a professional footballer; we got him that C, he got himself that C actually, and now he plays for Villa… it was his destiny and passion, but he may need that bit of paper as a back up one day. You never know. I hope for his sake that he doesn’t.
I remember the girl who wrote in my year book that she wanted to be just like me when she grew up- it left me speechless that someone could feel that way about me as a role model- she is an English teacher herself now, a passionate and dedicated one too by all accounts. And the boy who didn’t think he was good enough for a top set and smashed it by getting 2 A*s on results day.
I remember the form group who made me laugh every morning, with the lad who was late every single day and refused blank to conform to the uniform guidelines by wearing dark socks- he went on to be head boy, a member of the youth parliament, and is now reading medicine at Oxford. He gave me my own crazy multicoloured socks when he left school, I still wear them from time to time.
These are the dancing distant shadows of the students I have been blessed to know, the ones who I work for to this day. Their confidence and laughter cast bright light across my own insecurities and fears, my Sunday blues and end of term tiredness.
I remember the colleagues who have thanked me and those I have learned from.
The Heads who have inspired me, each of the trainees whose fresh enthusiasm has rubbed off on my lesson planning. I recall the speakers who I’ve heard, the great books that I’ve read and the events that I have attended; the buzz and positivity that is generated annually at Northern Rocks. As I remember the Real David Cameron’s DJ set and I’m filled top to toe with hope.
I sit and recall the wonder that was the birth of WomenEd, a year ago! I rejoice in the wonder of the inaugural unconference and the colleagues and friends that I have gained through the network. I admire those who are still pushing it forward today.
These are the thoughts I hold on to now, they rub away the memories of the unsupportive colleagues, the bullies I have known. They rub away the tweets that have hurt as I read them. Most teachers are kind and good, they mean well, I know that deep down.
Sitting here now I can still hear the kind words that colleagues and parents said and wrote about me as part of my AST application, I still look through the citations and dusty files from time to time.
The thank you cards and yearbooks that I have piled up under my bed also tell stories, of gratitude, laughter, thanks; of children long since grown up and teachers long since left behind. I read a few today, in my nostalgic gushy haze. The top few were from my wonderful class in the Isle of Wight and as I read I remembered the change in them from the first day that we met, with me stood in front of them as English teacher number 6 that academic year, the metamorphosis from the cynical bunch that they were to the articulate confident students they became. Butterflies.
Teachers do make a difference. The cards cheer it proudly and the pictures sing it without any words at all, but I know it to be true. I’m full of beans at finding those photos, of frozen, beautiful, vivid moments- long since gone- but moments that deep down are still urging me on today.
Thank you, to all the students who have allowed me to teach them, the colleagues who have taught me. Thank you to the teachers and pupils who have been receptive and worked with me, who have made me remember that my career, on the whole, has been worth something.
Thank you for giving me more than just data to judge myself by.