I miss teaching

It’s been 3 Septembers now since I stopped teaching. I loved September as a teacher- new timetables, new classes, new ideas. So it’s always a bit weird when September comes back around and I’m not going into school. It’s made weirder by the fact that I never had a ‘this is my last day’ moment because I went from school in an ambulance one day to hospital and then went off sick. And that was it. I never got to close anything off properly, so to try to help with that, I wrote about it last September, about the things I missed about teaching. I didn’t share it on my blog at the time, but I remembered about it this week so thought I’d share it now.

I miss teaching. I miss walking down a corridor and having pupils saying hello or chasing me down to tell me about their weekend.

I miss the kids who wiggled back when I said ‘bell’s gone, let’s get a wiggle on’ on gate or break duty.

I miss the ‘PA kids’ who turned up every day before school, at break, lunch and after school to say hello and tell me about their day.

I miss having to google maths homework or other subject’s homework to help pupils, and the way we’d find it funny I couldn’t do it, so that they could come to after school rehearsals rather than extra maths intervention.

I miss extra-curricular activities. Full stop.

I miss the feeling you get when a kid who lacks confidence suddenly manages to perform in front of others. When you have a hi-five, victory dance, jump up and down or hug to celebrate along with them.

I miss the pride you feel when a pupil performs well, after lessons or weeks of saying ‘good, but you can do better, I know it’ and they eventually ‘get it’ and it’s amazing. How they change from kids to performers.

I miss concert days which are the most stressful things in the world, but you wouldn’t swap them with anything. How someone always has inappropriate clothing, a meltdown, an argument, forgets their words or hasn’t bothered learning them in the first place. How there’s always a moment where you sit and think ‘holy crap, I’m in so much trouble if they don’t pull this off’ but they always do.

I miss kids bringing me sweets because they know they’re my favourite and it’s a choir day.

I miss sixth formers who help out with anything and everything because they love the subject so much even though they don’t study it.

I miss giving the ‘I’ve already got my qualifications certificates hanging on my wall, I don’t need to add yours to my collection- I’ll help you with it but I’m not doing it for you’ speeches.

I miss school trips where the kids are in awe of concert venues or older performers. How they’re moved by live music and want to tell you about it.

I miss disclosures when we’re studying the meaning of words of a piece and how they can affect different people. I obviously wish they hadn’t had the terrible experience in the first place, but I feel privileged they feel safe enough to share it with me.

I miss the running jokes with the older kids, like how I can’t work the iPad so someone always does it for me.

I miss the feelings of ‘fab, they’re all really engaged in this’ mixed with ‘don’t screw it up by saying something stupid’ when a hard class is finally settled and listening.

I miss shouting ‘ I am not a house elf, I am not tidying up your keyboard for you’ at the end of every lesson at least once.

I miss asking for ‘glamorous assistants’ and the boys rising to the challenge brilliantly with humour and style.

I miss mispronouncing some of the names and then the class cheering when I eventually manage the register without any mistakes or grovelling apologies.

I miss hearing kids encourage each other, copying my phrases or my actions.

I miss kids correcting my ‘coolness’. How they roll their eyes at my attempts.

I don’t miss marking, but i do miss when kids write brilliant pieces of work. Or when they make me laugh and despair with some of their more silly answers.

I miss kids emailing me when they’re late for school because they’ve finally listened to my ‘take responsibility for yourself, how could you make the bad situation better’ lectures and know that apologising first won’t fix it but it’ll help.

I miss kids saying ‘I thought what would Mrs M do and then I did that’ when they’re problem solving and are stuck.

I miss worrying if a kid’s ok because they were upset in lesson.

I miss the constant noise of pupils making music all day every day.

I miss the annual game of telling the new year 7s that I can read minds and managing to ‘prove’ it so that they behave in practice rooms.

I miss the new espo order coming in!

I miss late night emails from kids about work, but feeling happy to reply because I know they’re working hard.

There’s more I miss. I miss teaching and knowing I won’t do it ever again is really hard.

My view on sitting exams as a student with additional needs

Lots of people got exam results in the last couple of weeks for either GCSE or A level. And lots of parents posted in some of the endocrine groups I follow about how proud they were about their kids having achieved good results despite having adrenal insufficiency and the additional challenges they faced because of it. Fair enough, they should be proud. The thing which bothered me was the amount of people who posted comments like ‘without additional help or support because they wanted to sit their exams like the rest of their friends’.

But they’re not like the rest of their friends. They have a life threatening illness which massively impacts on their daily living, and comes out with a vengeance when it’s hot outside and a stressful exam period. When you fill in job applications, there isn’t a box which says ‘these are my results but I did it all without additional help despite my chronic illness’. You don’t get any extra credit for it, except maybe self satisfaction. And no one would care if you spoke to someone, they’d just think you were making excuses if you tried to explain you’d had a bad day and that’s why your result was lower.

Adaptations or support don’t give disabled students an advantage over other pupils, it levels the playing field and makes them have the same chance of success in their exams as non-disabled students. Extra time doesn’t mean they just get longer, it means an acknowledgement of the fact it takes them longer to do it in the first place because of slow processing or needing extra breaks. Just like dyslexic students might get extra time or a reader.

So ‘taking the exams just like their friends’ is a false statement- they might sit in the same room with their friends with the same invigilator but the consequences later on or beyond are greater. Because they made themselves sit in the same room with no extra time might mean they don’t achieve as fully in the next exam because their brain is still fried from the first. They might not get the relaxation time they desperately need between exams at home because they have to immediately go to bed. And once you start the exam, is anyone actually paying attention to who’s in the room? Not really. People have special arrangements for a whole range of learning needs or conditions, so it’s not really that unusual to be put in a different room for exams.

Don’t get me wrong, I was a stubborn student who didn’t want to be treated differently. When I did my GCSEs, A levels and university exams, I had 25% extra time, rest breaks if I needed them and the option of doing the exam in a different room. Sometimes I used the breaks and extra time, sometimes I didn’t, depending on how I felt on the day. But I had the option in every exam if I needed it. With hindsight, I probably had undiagnosed adrenal insufficiency back then too, but I got mitigating circumstances because I would quite happily sleep for 20 hours out of 24 and felt sick and dizzy (unknown cause, it got put down to stress). And it got a lot worse when I got stressed about exams. My teachers suggested these things and I accepted them because I wanted to do well in my exams and I knew if I wanted to ‘be like the rest of my friends’ I only had one chance to do it. Unless I wanted to be held back a year and resit but then I would feel even more different than if I’d just accepted the adaptations in the first place. Aside from that, there’s no way my mum would have let me take my exams without the support anyway. She’d have made me take it even if I didn’t want it because that’s what was best for me.

So I know what it’s like to want to be like everyone else and I feel proud I did my exams despite feeling ill and inspite of having the adaptations. I kind of feel cross at those parents who said they were proud of their kids for ‘sitting their exams like everyone else’ because I know that had someone said that to me at the time, I’d have felt like a fraud, like I was cheating and that I didn’t deserve the grade I got because I had the ‘help’. While it might not be detrimental to their own children if they had a positive experience sitting their exams without support measures, it definitely would have been detrimental to students like me who reluctantly took the measures, hearing comments like that. Or to other students who struggled through their exams and kind of wish they’d felt it was acceptable to put support in place. I’m not denying that those parents probably think they’re being supportive by saying how proud they are in that context, but it’s another, more subtle, example of how disability and illness is often viewed as a weakness in this country the fact they need to mention it at all.

Shout out to the teachers

Teachers get a raw deal. People constantly make comments about how much holiday we have and how we finish at 3pm. Or we get compared with front line and NHS workers who save lives and how nothing we do is remotely close.

So this post is a shout out to teachers, specifically secondary teachers (because I used to be one so can comment on it), who are extremely busy at this time of year. It’s not meant to be a political post or a comparison with aforementioned NHS or front line workers, or a moaning post about how little teachers are paid. It’s a post to explain what teachers do at this time of year and why comments about long holidays and short working days won’t go down very well right now. It’s prime exam time. The goal is to have all your coursework in before the Easter holidays so that you can mark it all and still have a couple of weeks to get kids to make any changes. But Easter was early this year which means less time for the kids so invariably means intervention days with the kids during the easter holidays, if you weren’t already doing these, and no sleep for the entire of April/May while you mark it.

The government wants your child to be a statistic (ok, slightly political but relevant), so in a lot of subjects, their target GCSE or A-level (or other qualification) grade isn’t based on a teacher assessment or even based on that subject, it’s based on data which comes from primary school SATs/end of year 6 data usually in English/maths/science. So a music target is based on an achievement in science, for example. For many pupils this grade is set too high so they’ve already been set up to fail. Not to mention that the exam syllabi keep changing every 30 seconds and some students were actually having to sit exams for content they hadn’t learnt in years 7-9 and had to have crammed in, rather than having 3 years to learn it because a politician didn’t understand how schools actually work and decreed it.

Because of league tables and how schools are funded by the government, schools need the pupils to achieve their predicted target grades. If you don’t meet your stats, you don’t get funding for that child and if you don’t get the money, headteachers have to make difficult decisions about what (or who) to cut. Which creates an enormous amount of stress for the child and teacher. Note- teachers always want the best from their kids work wise and want them to achieve their targets. But these have to be reasonable and achievable targets, not ones generated by a computer and based on league tables and other random data.

So this time of year is fraught. And students are bombarded every which way because everyone has deadlines to meet and target grades to achieve. It’s too much for them, so at least three times a day you’re trying to support a child who’s feeling broken by the stress of it and has had a meltdown, had a fight with someone or just generally isn’t coping. This is normal stuff that teachers do on a day to day basis, but because it happens more often in exam time, there’s less time in general, so you find yourself torn between making sure the mental health of the child in front of you improves and trying to keep other students on track with their intervention.

Intervention means where a student isn’t meeting their target grade, or in danger of not meeting it, so you put in place support measures for them. These sessions usually take place at lunchtime, before school, in teachers’ ‘free’ (planning and assessment time) periods or after school. Sometimes at weekends too. Students don’t like coming to these sessions so you usually have to hunt them down. Or they’re needed in other subjects. And they feel pulled in all directions so they do what most people do in circumstances like these- panic and stop turning up to any of them.

Which means a lot of hunting and phone calls and, in some cases, turning up to children’s houses to get them to come in or give you their coursework. It’s knackering, both physically and mentally, and the more time you spend chasing one student, the less time you have for the others. But this is time you don’t actually get as extra on your timetable, you’re still expected to teach all your other classes and run all the clubs and do the duties you already had. And you can pretty much guarantee that the student you’ve been desperate to give help to turns up at your door when you’re teaching a year 7 class, but you know if you let them go, you won’t see them again. So then you end up trying to teach a class while also giving intervention to a student. Or 3.

And teachers are humans too. So when stressed teenagers aren’t coping, they tend to shout and swear at the people trying to help them. Which, even though you can understand and empathise, you’re stressed and tired too and no one appreciates being sworn and shouted at multiple times a day. The rest of the school pick up on this atmosphere, meaning ks3 pupils get more fraught and tense and teaching them becomes more challenging behaviour wise. They also still deserve a decent education, they need to have assessments and you still have all their planning and marking to do. Believe it or not, you can’t rock up and make something up on the spot and get away with it!

It’s the time of year for options to be made for pupils in the year below choosing GCSE and A-levels. If you don’t have enough pupils recruited, you can’t run the course. But everyone is in the same boat so you’re ‘competing’ for students to be on your courses. I tended to say ‘pick a subject because you love it, not because another person tells you to’ but it didn’t make it any less stressful. You have to offer taster classes, prepare presentations for parents and showcase your department.

Despite putting in the extra work at school, you don’t get to leave it all at school. You have to do all the marking you didn’t do in the day. One thing that people don’t realise about intervention is that it all has to be documented. Every phone call, chat with child, action plan, progress made has to be documented as evidence for people like OFSTED. Which means by the end of the week, you can find yourself having written the equivalent of a primary school teacher’s class worth of end of year reports just about your GCSE class. Every week for the whole of exam season.

Another thing that people don’t realise is that social media, educational social media and emails are used all the time by students. Which is great for so many things and it means you can offer help from home while they’re working on it. Great for the kids, not so much for the teachers. If you don’t reply straight away, chances are they’ll say ‘you didn’t reply so I didn’t do it’. And you need them to do it. So you end up hearing the email ding and picking up your phone straight away to deal with it. Kids like to do their work at about midnight in a lot of cases (not good for them either) so I have been known to be emailing help at 1am when my phone dinged and I woke up to deal with it.

And everyone underestimates the emotional aspect of teaching. You worry about your kids- and they are ‘your kids’. If someone was particularly upset or had a crisis of confidence, you worry if they’re ok. You worry about the kid who isn’t coping. You worry that you’ve not done a good enough job for them. You worry that you’ve failed them by not giving them enough help. I used to wake up in the middle of the night singing pupils’ compositions (which usually meant they were good if they were stuck in my head). You take it personally even though it’s not because even though the government only sees kids as a statistic in a league table, you can see them as humans who are put under an unbelievable amount of pressure to achieve a target grade decided by a computer when they were 11 years old, before they’d even set foot in a secondary school.

GCSE and A level classes make up a lot of a teacher’s timetable, but in my subject’s case, I still also taught all of key stage 3. So that’s 8 classes per year group for year 7 and 8 x 30, which is the average number of students per class. Summer term is usually parents’ evening for year 7/8 in most secondary schools and most of the time, you give them the academic report at the same time so they can talk about it. So that’s 16 classes x 30 = 480 reports. You can’t just write your reports when you want to and you can’t always do this from home because the reports are usually done on SIMs which is one of the most irritating programmes which exists- the ‘session’ is usually only open for 6 weeks and the remote access is so irritatingly slow it’s enough to tip anyone over the edge. So 6 weeks x 5 (working days) is 30. 480 reports divided by the amount of days (30) is 16. Meaning as well as all the exam stuff, you also have to write 16 year 7 and 8 academic reports per day just to be able to get them in before the deadline. This would be a lot of extra work anyway, never mind when you’re already up to your eyeballs in it. And copying and pasting and changing s child’s name isn’t allowed.

Admin and running around isn’t why you became a teacher though. Working with the kids is why you became a teacher. Seeing them achieve and working hard and enjoying your subject is why you do it. When something clicks with a student, it’s a great feeling for both of you. I really liked the challenging schools I worked in, and, thankfully, the schools I worked in placed the emphasis on the students being seen as humans and not statistics and they fought bloody hard for the pupils. But academies and other schools don’t necessarily care if English is the child’s third language. Or if someone’s mum killed herself the year before and the child is still struggling. Or if someone broke up with their boyfriend (which has a massive impact). Or self image issues. Or if it was Ramadan during exam season. Some kids don’t eat breakfast because there isn’t any at home, so I used to do a breakfast club in exam season so I knew they’d go into exams with the best chance.

Notice I’ve never mentioned pay at any point. You don’t get a bonus if your kids get their target or exceed it, like you do in other sectors. You don’t get paid overtime or antisocial working like you do in other industries. You definitely don’t get the support of the general public like the junior doctors do and I think you’ll find a lot of schools have started sneaking in the extra hour here or there that teachers don’t get paid extra for but it takes time away from their prep time. Teachers don’t go into teaching because they expect to be paid well. Teachers go into teaching because they love it and care about the students.

So yes. We might get 13 weeks holiday on paper. We might technically finish at 3pm according to school bells. But while you’re actually conscious, and even sometimes when you’re not, you don’t stop working during those apparent free times, meaning comments about holiday and working hours will not be well received at this time of year! 🙂