This is a ramble about breaking up for Christmas and the mental space that accompanies that. Every time a term ends, I feel weird for the first few days of the holidays. Often, the weirdness is accompanied by illness. Everybody likes to mock teachers for our apparently pathetic moanings, holiday ailments and constant tiredness. But it’s an experience common to most, if not all of us. And the reason is that we go from fast and furious, bustling busyness to mental silence, overnight. The adrenaline continues to pump, the cortisol levels are up, and the only thing to stress about is, in my case, vegan Christmas dinner. So the adrenals are pumped and primed for constant fight or flight, and there’s a shopping list and some wrapping. That’s it. The body then decides to get ill, just so that it has something to do with itself. Orange juice, vegetable smoothies, little walks and plenty of sleep don’t seem to do anything to help. Fingers crossed this year might be a healthy first.
Now I’ve got a day to reflect, though, I’ve decided to acknowledge the facts, in writing, to remember every year, in order to respect my 47 year old, understandably tired end of term self. I started a new job in September, in a very different school, with kids who are more defiant and a lot tougher than those in my previous job. I stepped back from having additional responsibility to being ‘just a teacher’, which means more lesson planning and more marking and more time in the classroom for less money. I’ll be applying for a TLR again asap! These kids rubbed their hands together in glee when I stepped into the classroom. Year 10s who had had four different teachers over the past two years, had developed a self-appointed reputation as being a tough class and saw a kind, smiley new teacher, older than their parents, with a ‘posh voice’, thought that they’d have a ball. They did. There was paper throwing, loud singing, noise so loud that I couldn’t speak over them, a perpetually husky voice on my part and four hours a week of hell in a classroom. The same, to a lesser extent, with two year 9 groups.
I had to ask for support from my HoD. I felt ashamed of this. The class were rude, obnoxious, loud and manipulative. They’d behave impeccably when the HoD stepped into the room. They behaved beautifully when I was inspected by Ofsted. But the minute it was just them and me, they went wild. Blue slips, detentions, arguments and about a hundred confrontations in the corridor later, they now like me. At least that’s something. But the reality is that they’ll never be a well-behaved class. And I had to decide whether to up sticks and leave the school in despair or stick the bugger out. It’s a very good school, outstanding in fact. But the teachers are tough and I’m having to get tougher. I’m from a council estate in Margate but I’ve become middle class and I’ve got used to teaching ‘nice’ kids. This is a journey into the rougher-edged side of teaching. I’m not going to leave. These kids are little shits but I was one, too, and still am, deep within, and I’ve stopped being ‘posh’ and started shouting back, louder and stronger. I hear myself yelling ‘WHAT ARE YOU SMILING AT?’, ‘HAVE YOU FINISHED?’ or ‘GET OUT OF MY CLASSROOM UNTIL YOU CAN BEHAVE’ in a way that I’ve never done before. It’s strangely liberating and the children seem to like it. Very bizarre. But my lessons are still a circus. It’s like being an NQT again.
Every morning, we wake up in the dark and try to dress in a professional manner. We get to school and have to lead a tutor time and 4 or 5 hour long lessons with children who will do anything and everything not to complete any work. The lessons have to be planned to the enth degree so as not to give any opportunity for unstructured talking time, which can get rapidly out of control. There is no time in between except for a 20 minutes break, 5 of which is taken up with behaviour talks and another 5 taken up with setting up the next lesson ready to go the minute they stroll through that door, shouting and hollering like hooligans. Lunchtime often comprises of sitting with a defiant detention completer, or even worse, a chatty one who just wants to be mates, when all we really want is a cuppa soup and some quiet. Admin, planning and marking has to be completed outside of school time and we are never up to date.
This term my anxiety got out of hand again and I got diagnosed with severe Generalised Anxiety Disorder and moderate depression. I’m back on meds, Citalopram this time. It works a dream and I’m much calmer now. Lots of teachers are on anti depressants but we rarely discuss it, because there’s little tolerance for mental illness in schools. This is still the case, ironically, because my GP said that her most stressed patients are teachers. She offered me time off but understood that, as a teacher, this is often a career killer. Self-help sounds like a great option but it takes time and attention, neither of which we can afford in term time. We either change our circumstances or change our brain chemistry. In my case, the former isn’t an option and the latter is practical and works.
In my opinion, the only thing that will make teaching a feasible and enjoyable job again is another curriculum reform and a re-visit of teachers’ employment conditions. The kids are bored of Shakespeare and Dickens and trying to teach this in a low ability 11 plus fail school with some kids barely being able to spell or punctuate properly is utterly pointless and frustrating for all concerned. They love writing stories, creating characters and settings, reading relateable stories and sharing their own experiences. Not reading about Victorian England in language that they cannot access. I feel sorry for them and was delighted when said Year 10s announced that Pip is a ‘wasteman’ and a ‘melt’, because at least it showed some engagement.
Most of us love teaching and are good at it, given the right curriculum, support and time. But teachers are leaving in their droves, feeling like failures, when it’s the system that is failing, not them.
This term has been challenging. There have been some good moments with lower school: Year 7 and 8 are fantastic fun to teach and my Year 12 language class are equally lovely. But the daily reality and the Sunday anxiety has been quite crippling at times and I fully understand why young teachers leave in their droves. What should be a wonderful career is blighted by the stupidity of education ministers who know nothing about a classroom, and by expectations of achievement that are beyond all possibility, given that socio-economic status and home circumstances are far more influential in a child’s life than anything a school or an individual teacher can do.
This has turned into a rant about teaching, but sadly this term has been very much about coming to terms with a new job, and that has taken precedence over setting up a new home with my new husband. When we need the steady income and the personal sense of efficacy that a job brings, it becomes a pressing priority, and I can but hope that the work-life balance rights itself as the new year progresses.
And to all struggling, tired, anxious and disheartened teachers out there, have a bloody good break, do whatever you have to do to get some quality time and don’t give up unless you have to. Things will eventually get better. They always do.