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Turning a corner.

I’m starting to get things right. Inevitably, there are still vast canyons filled with room for improvement, and I’m still not sure how Ofsted will feel about me when we finally meet, but I’m beginning to see the fruits of my labour come to fruition. (Oh come on, who doesn’t like a mixed metaphor?)

I drove home on Monday on the verge of tears. Tears of happiness, of joy and serenity. I finally felt like I had cracked it. My students were safe, happy, engaged and learning and I was energised and on form. I even had a colleague suggest that I had the makings of a good head teacher. I’ve never even considered it; when you work at the coal face it’s hard to imagine being the boss. Besides, I think I’d miss the kids too much. But it was my greatest compliment to date in my teaching career because she claimed I ‘got them’ and my way of thinking is ‘good for them’. I’ll never claim to have the best subject knowledge; I’ll never say my teaching is flawless and that I tow the line every minute of every day, but I can say I’m there for my students, and from what they tell me and other members of staff they know I am there for them.

Above all else that’s why I’ve ended up here. Sure, I care about the considerately placed comma and the poor abused apostrophe, these things are important and any day now I will stop comma splicing! But being a constant for a young person who faces difficulty is what gets my out of bed every day.

I am always amazed by the resilience and tenacity our young people show; the things they have to deal with on a daily basis are remarkable, I don’t know where they find the strength but they do, and they inspire me because of it. It’s so easy to holler at a student and challenge them “Why are you late?” and when they reply with alarm didn’t go off, mum didn’t get up, ran out of electric, I had to get my brother to school, etc etc, it’s easy to see how we should be patient with them. It’s plain to see that it’s a miracle they even get to school at all some days. It’s simple to understand that their lives are bigger than the school day and getting to registration is not always going to be their most pressing priority, and often for good reason.

Tuesday saw one of my more reluctant readers asking about ‘1984’ after I’d mentioned it in class. He wanted to know if it really was as good as I’d said. I told him I’d lend him my copy and he smiled. It was a simple yet brilliant moment in my career so far. He’s fired up about reading again and he enjoys coming to English.

My students think I’m fair and that is a good thing. They know I am investing in them. There was a moment when I was concerned they didn’t think I meant business, but they do. And I’m content with this balance. I’m proud that my natural strength is my relationships with my students and that they feel they can come to me and be honest. It’s a privilege to earn their trust and enjoy their company each day.

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The fact that I haven’t blogged in a long while is testament to how all-consuming my new teaching life has been. When I haven’t been teaching – or doing something teaching related – I’ve been making up for it letting my hair down with friends, or making cupcakes with my niece. But there never seems to be enough time to do other things, and I’m not yet at the stage when I could confidently say I have a healthy work/life balance.

There’s always some meeting to get to, something to file/log/mark, someone to ask questions of or answer questions to, and of course the students are always asking “What are we doing next?”.

I’m one full term (or half term in old money) in to being a ‘real’ teacher now. Yes, I am exhausted, and yes, I underestimated quite how hard this would be. But something keeps me going in spite of the perpetual challenge and the ups and downs. Something stops me from throwing in the towel even when I’ve had a day which went belly up and I’ve hated myself for doing/saying something stupid.

My teaching skills leave much to be desired and I’d be surprised if Ofsted judged me fit to teach at all some days! I feel the constant pressure from the ‘data’ and ‘progress’, and every so often I crumple under the overbearing weight of responsibility I feel for their futures. Never more so than this week when I sat with my HoD and decided which of our Year 12 retakers would resit their Controlled Assessments. Decisions were based on what they had achieved so far and whether I thought they would a) resit 5 pieces of work and b) succeed at it. I ended up putting all of them back in the pot. I didn’t want my judgment to limit their achievement, it just didn’t seem fair. They’ll hate me for it, I know this, but the alternative was telling them we didn’t think they were good enough to secure their required C and as such they would not be allowed to continue with their Post-16 endeavours.

I sat down to write this blog with every intention of writing something pithy and poignant but instead it’s just a virtual sigh. I hope to make this more regular, and stick to topics and themes a bit more, but for now, this is me, NQT blogger back in the fold. Look forward to recording some of the most exciting days of life right here.

I took a trip to the Guardian this week. It was actually a bit of a day out for me and my fellow trainee teachers to that there London, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was all part of supporting us in a project we are doing with two schools whereby we set up a newspaper simulation day for the children to get a glimpse at what it’s like to be journalists for the day. They have to arrange interviews, come up with story ideas and on the day will have to write copy, take photographs and create a print and online version of their paper.

Given my background, i.e., my degree in journalism and 12 years in the industry, I was faced with the obvious questions from my peers about my previous life. Where better to ask a so-called failed journalist if they regret not making it than in the hub of one of the most respected newspaper in the UK?

So it got me thinking, and on the train home I asked myself, and I asked for an honest answer of myself: am I ashamed of or regretful about my failed aspirations as journalist? And the truth is no, I’m not. When I set out to be a journalist I had the goal of a 15-year-old in mind. I wanted to use language to spread and share knowledge and being a news hound was the best way I could think of at the time. It all seemed so logical. So off I went down that path. But I can trace my ‘failed aspirations’ to a single moment in class. A time when we covered what is known as the ‘Death Knock’. And I knew from that moment on I wasn’t cut from the right cloth to be a journalist, in spite of pleas from my tutors to ‘toe the line for a couple of years’. I didn’t have what it takes to knock on the doors of people who had just tragically lost relatives and loved ones all in the name of ‘getting the story’. I’m not built to impose on people’s grief like that, and I never will be.

So it begs the question why did I continue with my degree? Well, I’ve never been one for quitting anything for a start. And for another thing I began to choose options which would send me down a different path, one of online and specialist journalism which eventually did lead to me having a few interesting and exciting jobs in the media.

Do I regret never becoming the Guardian journalist I always dreamed I would? Still the honest answer is no. I was passionately chasing a dream, but it was the wrong dream. The essence of what I wanted to do as a journalist (and why I chose it as my degree) was that I wanted to impart knowledge, share experiences and ideas, do something important for mankind, and what better way to do that than the way I am now doing as an English teacher? I can’t think of one. And that degree and brief journalistic career helped get me to this point. As my dear old Mum always says, ‘nothing is ever wasted’, my background has become the mainstay of my vision of what kind of teacher I want to be, how I want to share knowledge and encourage fresh and independent thinking.

Now I dream about fuelling inquisitive minds, and helping young people on their path towards their own dreams. And that is now the single most important thing that has ever happened to me.

This being my first book review of the year (and Lord knows I should be getting on with plenty of other work instead of indulging here, but…) I couldn’t let time pass without recording my thoughts on this book.

For the first time in a long time I found myself not wanting a book to finish, and yet I whipped through this one at such a pace even though I was convinced I was taking my time with it.

It explores five topics – or more appropriately overviews – in great detail and with grace. Davidson makes no assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge.  He doesn’t even make any assumptions about the reader’s interest in the evolution of language and etymology, even though it’s surely a prerequisite of purchasing this type of book. I mean, I know enough people who wouldn’t buy a book on words because they’re just ‘not that into it’. Whatever that means!

The book moves seamlessly through the ages of communication and celebrates every language and communication cornerstone and visionary. Its beauty is that it does not stick to a linear, chronological story-telling of the journey of language but rather ensures that one poignant moment remains connected to another regardless of its time in history. And this is what makes this work so delightful in its telling: it’s surely a reminder that no single event or revolution in language is in fact singular, but rather becomes part of a legacy or the means by which more progress and development can be made.

There is only one short mention of William Tyndale – a man who I became fascinated by through the work of Melvyn Bragg – and Shakespeare is referenced as he should be and no more: this is not a book about the contributions of one man or one era, this is about the shaping of the spoken word from the written symbols and pictograms of old and it’s power and exuberance.  I swooned when I turned the page and saw in full one of my favourite poems of all time ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden, and delighted to learn more about Esperanto and the languages of Ireland before the Hunger.

In short I would argue, as I sit here so Englishly in my pyjamas on a Satuerday morning sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, that this book is not merely for those who have an interest in the English language and it’s perilous and at times tyrannical past, but rather this is a book for anyone who enjoys fairytales, languages of the world and their people, poetry and lyrics and their importance in our lives, and above all else communication. Davidson never strays far from his belief that communication is the single most significant part of being human. The single most important part of evolution and what makes us different from one culture to another. I am envious of Davidson’s research: the trips he has made, discussions held with people I will probably never have the pleasure of meeting, and documents he has had contact with in the making of this book but I am grateful that he has created a piece of art which is accessible to all and which has left me with a burning desire to continue my discovery of language and communication.

Book diary 2012

A continuation of my book diary.

January 2012:

A Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

The Memory Cage – Ruth Eastham

Planet Word – J P Davidson

February 2012:

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman

March 2012:

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

April 2012:

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Oscar Wilde

The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

May 2012:

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

The Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

An Inspector Calls – J.B. Priestley

June 2012:

When God Was a Rabbit – Sarah Winman

Face – Benjamin Zephaniah

The Ruby and the Smoke – Philip Pullman

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane – Kate DiCamillo

Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools – Victoria Twead

July 2012:

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Understudy – David Nicholls

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Washington Irving

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

Holes – Louis Sachar

August 2012:

Skellig – David Almond

Kensuke’s Kingdom – Michael Morpurgo

September 2012:

Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo

Cirque du Freak – Darren Shan

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson

October 2012:

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

One thing They teach you on your PGCE is to ‘reflect’. You must be capable of reflecting on your practice and that of others you observe. You develop the art of reflecting, not because this is something which can be taught mind you, but more as a natural part of the process. The first two weeks of my school placement were a blur; I couldn’t tell you what happened now looking back at it. Not in any detail anyway. But I know I survived because I ‘reflected’ on it at the time and became more and more aware of what I was doing in the classroom and what I had to do to get the desired effect from each lesson (i.e., hopefully getting some teaching and learning done!).

It seems appropriate now, as I pause for breath during the Christmas break (the only school holiday which we actually get to enjoy during our PGCE year I’ll have you know), to ‘reflect’ on the last 3 months post-epic life and career change. And as I brace myself for round two (aka spring term) I wanted to catalogue my feelings and experience so far somewhere which is personal to me, and that I can share with friends from a previous life who have been somewhat neglected of late (apologies for this).

When I entered into this I did so with an adventurous spirit, a wealth of enthusiasm, stacks of innovative IT tricks to take into the classroom, and a naivety that I will never again know. We started the course and were told: “This will change you. You will be a different person this time next year”. After much protestation from me about how I’ve only recently learned to really like myself and it would be a crying shame if I were to change, I decided to pack that piece of ‘advice’ into a dark corner of my mind and ignore it for all eternity, sure in my own mind and spirit that nothing will change me now. I am who I am, and that is precisely why I had the courage to leave my old life behind and embark on pastures new.

Being a trainee teacher is a bit like being bi-polar: every hour is different, let alone every day! One lesson you’re up, you’re winning, you’re all having a delightful time and some actual learning is taking place. The next, it’s 15 minutes before all coats are off, bags are out of the way and pens are handed out. Modern teenagers don’t carry their own stationery. Gone are the days when your stationery was something to be proud of and show off at the beginning of every new term.

A few things surprised me about teaching. Best to list them rather than puff them out into a paragraph, we’ll be here all night otherwise and these luxury days of writing for pleasure are few and far between!

1. As mentioned, kids don’t carry pens

2. No matter how warm it is in the classroom, coats are a thing of pride and are not taken off lightly

3. Kids are like pinballs; they cannot stay still

4. They don’t make the connection between school and life after school; school is just something that happens to them

5. A lot of teachers don’t appear to actually like kids

6. Kids are really, really clever, just not in the way you’d perhaps like

7. They remember everything you say. Everything, that is, that isn’t associated with learning

8. Exercise books have a habit of taking mini adventures, at least one will be missing every lesson

9. Kids don’t like writing

10. IT can never be trusted in the classroom

Now that said, you might suspect I had a terrible time. But here’s the thing; kids are funny, if a little reluctant to learn, and most of them have a good heart and a good spirit and they want to get on with you in spite of their moans and groans which suggest otherwise. It’s really easy to get a kid onside, and that’s the only way I eventually managed to teach them anything.

We’re taught that you are not the kids’ friend, and that’s quite right, you aren’t supposed to reach that level of intimacy with them. Having said that, from my experience (brief though it is at the moment) they do want to feel that they can talk to you, and that they have things to talk to you about. Two of my greatest successes came from children being able to talk to me, and I took these little victories, as you must take all victories no matter how small, straight to heart.

I had more than my share of problems, failures and mistakes. But above all, I actually enjoyed the crowd control aka teaching. I never felt out of my depth or like I’d made the wrong decision, and by the time I was stood in their Christmas assembly on the final day of term I was sad to be leaving the kids.

They are mad, bad and dangerous, and they are crying out for a bit of routine and discipline. But they have a sincerity you don’t get from working with adults, a charm which I cannot describe, and I am looking forward to getting to know my next clutch of teens at my next placement in February where I shall not be doing the following:

1. Allowing my scepticism about the system to rule my teaching decisions

2. Not putting the kids into a seating plan of my choosing

3. Wasting time worrying about my lesson plans too much

4. Making assumptions about what the kids already know

5. Taking any shortcuts

6. Putting too much faith in the adults

So here’s to 2012, when I get to apply for real jobs and become a fully-fledged public sector worker. Whatever you have planned for next year, I urge you to take risks and to reflect on everything you do. It is the only way we grow and learn.

Not that I have many subscribers, but those of you who are around and wondering what has happened to me, here it is: I have left the cruel, corporate world and swapped my modem for a marking pen. That’s right, I’m training to be a teacher. Yikes, eh?

It was an obvious choice, but not obvious in the sense of waking up one day and realising this was what I was meant to be doing. It was a collection of experiences accumulated over the past few years which have carved this inevitable path for me. I did some teaching abroad – loved it! Had some time in classrooms here in secondary schools – loved it! Got tired of the repetative nature of my previous job and feeling unfulfilled and stuck, so added up the small pieces and lept out of my comfortable routine.

I took a chance. I applied for my PGCE course, and essentially signed up for no money, hard graft, being out of my comfort zone, leaving Bristol, and living back with my mother, all for at least one year. Sounds a bit shit when I put it like that, doesn’t it? But the reality of what I have done far outweighs these above so-called negatives. I finally get the chance to do something I genuinely love doing – learning! And what better way for me to ensure I keep learning for the rest of my adult life than by teaching others? None. I get to indulge in great (and sometimes not so great) literature and get paid for it. I get to wake up every day safe in the knowledge that today won’t be the same as yesterday, and that new challenges await me. I get to work with some amazingly creative, exciting, open, honest and inspiring people every day, people who haven’t had a lifetime of prejudice build up around and inside them, people who aren’t drowning in cynicism or political ideology. People who are fragile, and caring, and fun, and funny. Exciting isn’t it?

I hope to chart my progress here as and when I can so that any long-lost or ether friends can take a peek at what I am up to from time to time, and so that one day, when I am cynical and burnt out, I can remember why I took this leap of faith, and what I had planned for my life.