Game of Thrones (just in case you have slept for a number of years).
Kevin’s expression spoke of his problems with sleep. He was ashen-faced and his eyes seemed to have sunk into his head a little too far. I greeted him with a Monday morning cheer that went some way to being a grunt. His response was even more dismal.
“What’s wrong, Kevin?”
Kevin is like me. We are the wrong side of fifty. We have interests that provide our lives with enough of an additional spark to see us through most of the dark days. Like me, he has dismal squalls that sweep in off the sea and reduce his capacity to see beyond their temporary reign.
“I don’t think I’ll last the week,” he said.
I asked him why he felt that way, though I already knew.
“It’s just this, this nonsense. It comes for me every now and again. All it takes is a tiny pin-prick and then it’s gone.”
It turns out that the pin-prick was with a Year 11 class. Although he is a supply teacher, like me, we have been given examination groups. The school can’t find decent permanent teachers and have to resort to a couple of grey-templed types to drag the less academically able students through the final few months of their secondary experience. I have the lesser of the two groups but my students are not burdened with the indifference and arrogance that the slightly more able groups appeared to possess. In a moment of frustration, Kevin told me that he had lost it. Not a fully underpants on the head moment nor a screaming fit that would have be suited a banshee, nor one of my personal favourite “Here’s Johnny” moments.
What Kevin experienced was an honest response to kids who had learnt not to bother or to take any personal responsibility for themselves and their efforts. When accused of not preparing them well enough for a mock examination, he lost it and told them that he was in fact only a supply teacher and that, like me, we were not responsible for all their learning or lack of it. When he told the group that he didn’t like their acidic insinuations, he then explained that he had the freedom to leave at any moment he chose.
He may have said, euphemistically, that he really didn’t give a …., but I think he fell some way short of that. Whatever he said, did find its way back to the resident head of English and she gave him a little dressing down about the need to tread carefully around the children because many were vulnerable, very vulnerable. At this point I felt the pain in my heart from the imminent blood-loss.
I had a buddy moment with Kevin. I did the, “We’ll stick it out together” and, “We’ll get through this” (until at least Easter). I didn’t break into a Vera Lynne song nor did I launch into a damning tirade on the acceptance of poor behaviour and lack of respect from fragile kids towards equally fragile teachers. What I did was to feel empathy and not a little sympathy for a fellow traveller who was reaching the end of a long journey.
Like a soon to be written out member of the Night’s Watch, my journey is also ending. I have stood on the wall for too long watching the movements of the wildlings beyond. I have made forays into the wilderness and have glimpsed beings such as wight-walkers or executive headteachers or overly enthusiastic trainees. At the sight of these, I did not flee. Instead, I took up my sword and faced them; and lost.
And now winter is coming. I can feel something in my bones that is telling me that my fight is done. Just to rub that one into the marrow, my oddly nice Year 7s turned up for a lesson in moods that can only be described as psychotropic. Before the end of the session I had recorded behaviour marks for half a dozen of them. One boy, who I like, went back to his twittering and wittering and strange noises conduct whilst another jumped up from his seat, threw a bottle across the room and shouted at his erstwhile buddy before slamming out of the classroom. Another sat gurning and rolling his eyes whilst whispering conspiratorially to his associate on the desk they shared. At the same time, another yawned incessantly in an attempt to explicitly undermine everything I was trying to do. There were others, my maths isn’t that bad. The point is that you can’t get complacent; the wildlings are the least of your worries.
So, let’s take my ridiculously extended metaphor and examine it in the type of detail that will illustrate why this particular English teacher is about to go native:
- I do not love and have never loved my students. I like them, most of the time, but love is for loved ones. I also think that love is a little dangerous in modern day teaching.
- I do not always know who is in front of me in my classroom. Sometimes I struggle with names. I get some names confused with each other-Rachel and Ruth is a good example of this. I put it down to the Old Testament.
- I don’t always act the grown up in a classroom situation. Often, I am infantile in order to remind myself and my students that being a little daft is a decent mental escape valve.
- I don’t plan lessons. I don’t plan on paper at all. It helps to keep it fresh and interesting; for me.
- I know that students can do more but have often taken it upon myself to do more for them so that they succeed. I have stopped this now.
- I don’t stick with literacy programmes as I think I know better.
- I do expect the very best behaviour and am often disappointed by the rough fare that is served up in schools as a whole.
- I take myself too seriously and believe that the profession in which I work has become a joke. Four different coloured pens for marking?
- I am told to have fun but I can’t see that much fun in this job any longer. And, by the time I’ve got home, I’m too knackered to have fun.
- I think that the best pastoral care for the students who I teach is to help them become decent human beings rather than becoming products of an industrialised education programme.
That’s my confession, the one for now. It may grow by the end of this episode and I may be charged with treason or witchcraft or fornication with my own self-awareness. I showed it to Kevin and he thought the same. He laughed and agreed that it amounted to heresy. Its author was already well on the way to establishing a kingdom here on earth or in Hull or the home counties. He that sees the truth and believes that we ‘ought to spake it and spake it loudly’ on twitter or Facebook.
In the beginning was the word and the word was dog, because a dog is a man’s best friend, if you don’t have a cat. Both creatures are equally talented at licking their own arses and in times of a world-wide tissue paper shortage there is something to be learnt from that.
Jumping into the void is never an easy thing to do unless you happen to like that type of thing. I read an article recently about the rise of extreme sports. These, for the relatively uninitiated, are for those individuals who want to do something in their spare time that can have a very positive impact on their fitness whilst having a potentially negative impact on their physical wellbeing; or continued existence. Base jumping, bungee jumping, mud running, fire-breathing, budgie-smuggling are all examples of extreme sports. For the budgies, it can be a terrifying experience. For those others who take part, the thrill comes from doing something that is so far outside of their daily office-comfort zone that they release endorphins, inhibitors and anxiety. A good long, freezing, rain-sodden mud run makes you feel alive. And I agree. When you are doing all that, self-awareness floats off in a different direction and the mind has a moment’s rest.
But why only do it in your spare time? If it is work and our accepted modern-day lifestyles that are the slow suffocators of our society, then we need to change.
The madman speaks and he is quite convincing when he faces the mirror. He becomes a little less so when he is talking to his laptop screen. You see, on the other side of this is you and you may not be quite so convinced by my ravings. You are probably someone who has the same type of stoicism as my wife, who has watched me standing on the edge and threatening to jump into a new future for the past twelve months.
She listens to my quiet assertions that there is something else that we should be living for and generally ignores them.