I celebrated my twenty-fourth birthday a few days ago, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how strange a time this is: Covid aside, being at the crossover of early and mid-twenties is honestly bizarre! Some people are still studying, some are early in their careers, and some are lucky enough to be fairly established in their field. Some live at home with their parents, some are renting, some are saving for a mortgage deposit and some have bought their first home.
Everyone I know is doing different things. It was easier when we were at school, I think. Back then, there was a simple, orderly system by which to measure where an individual ‘should’ be. Year Nines chose options, Year Tens did coursework, Year Elevens did exams, Year Twelves wondered what on earth they’d put themselves in for and Year Thirteens wrestled with UCAS, A-levels and Student Finance England (shudder.) It was easy; I knew where I was supposed to be and understood where other people were too. Now? I wish it was so clear-cut.
Navigating a career is hard, and nobody tells you that, growing up! As much as I know that there are thousands of teachers at the same point in their career as I am in mine, there is no-one else in my school who is going through their second year of teaching, right now at the same time as me. Everyone’s done their second year in the classroom, of course, but no-one else is doing it in my school, this year. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all – how is it possible to sometimes feel alone, in a room full of friends?
It’s that realisation that there’s such enormous diversity of experiences now, that I think is more than a little mind-blowing. I am carving a path for myself as I go, knowing that there is no-one walking ahead of me to tell me what’s coming next or how to do it right. So much of adulthood is working it out for yourself and good grief, I never realised it would be so hard!
As a child, I remember imagining that I’d reach my mid-twenties and be absolutely set. When you’re a child, it seems so far away to be twenty-four, and it seems entirely likely that you’ll reach that age and live a cookie-cutter-perfect life all of your own. Children draw it every day, that square house with the garden, duck pond, car and usually a family to match the one they grew up in. A child I teach proudly told me that they’d drive a Lamborghini when they grow up (I teach in the Home Counties so perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch, but their wonderful childhood naivety took me aback.)
There isn’t a map for adulthood, and I often wish that there was.
There also isn’t a map for navigating neurodiversity, a category I’ve recently realised that I sit quite comfortably within.
Neurodiversity – noun – the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioural traits, regarded as part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders)
As far as I have always been honest about mental health on my blog, I think it’s only fair of me to be transparent about this newest development in my self-understanding. Like everything, I’ve given it a great deal of thought and am in the process of giving it the time and research it deserves and requires. While I’m happy to accept that I am neurodivergent (a person on the spectrum of neurodiversity) that doesn’t make it any easier to see myself through this new lens, to have so much of my life and my experiences suddenly make sense in a completely new way. The closest thing I can compare it to is having your eyes tested, and having your eyes pulled into uncomfortably sharp focus all of a sudden – that’s how it feels to have my worldview shifted like this.
I will undoubtedly blog about this again, when I have a little more of an idea what to say, but for now it fits squarely into my shout into the void of ‘Does anybody have a map?!’
Those words are not my own (as I get older, I’m beginning to wonder if there even is such a thing as a wholly independent thought…) They are borrowed from the opening number of a musical I saw recently, the incredible Dear Evan Hansen. The song in question, Anybody Have a Map? is from the perspective of two mothers who struggle to relate to or understand their teenage sons, but the lyrics speak to me deeply, especially now.
Can we try to have an optimistic outlook?
Can we buck up just enough to see the world won’t fall apart?
Does anybody have a map?
Anybody maybe happen to know how the hell to do this?
I’ll be honest, I did question why I’d sacrificed my Saturday lie-in, as I got on a train at 8.11am yesterday. (For those thinking ‘Surely you’ll just have Sunday though?’ you’d be wrong, I was up early again for figure skating this morning!) I’m not very good at new things, or rather, I don’t feel like I’m very good at new things! Having moved halfway down the country by myself and started a new school I suppose there’s been quite a lot of ‘new’ in my life of late!
However, accompanied by a good friend and having already tapped into the TfL network, there was to be no backing out – and I am very glad that I didn’t. Attending my first WomenEd event, the London network’s first face-to-face ‘Unconference’ since Covid struck, wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was every shade of brilliant.
I’d come across WomenEd before; being fairly active on Twitter in educational circles, it’s hard not to be aware of the network of women that always seem to have each other’s backs and be doing Something Important. However, until I attended the 2022 London Unconference, I’d kind of felt that WomenEd wasn’t quite for me. (I couldn’t have been more wrong, but I’ll get to that.) It seemed intimidating, a club that I couldn’t possibly fit into. Queen of Self-Doubt that I am, I assumed there would be some kind of qualifier to be a part of this vast group. On the outside looking in, I saw women in Senior Leadership positions, women with MAs and PhDs, women with life experiences I just haven’t had yet.
And then I was asked if I’d like to go to the Unconference. I said yes on a whim: I’d never been to any kind of networking event or conference, but I knew I wouldn’t be brave enough to go alone!
Twelve months ago, it probably would have been my nightmare. Sitting in the hall of a school I’d never been to, in a part of London I’d never visited, with people all around me that were complete strangers, bar one friend and two faces I recognised from Twitter. And yet, there was the most wonderful feeling of camaraderie in that hall. Around me, I could hear women introducing themselves to total strangers they’d just sat next to. There were women meeting each other for the first time since Covid and for the first time in-person, after two years of Zoom calls and tweets being their only medium of communication. There was an unspoken air of it not mattering where you came from, what phase you teach, if you’d moved on from teaching, whether you had children, whether you were newly qualified or had served twenty years in the classroom. In that room, in that moment, everyone was welcome.
Everyone was incredibly welcoming, all day long. Even I found myself getting talkative in a session on amplifying women’s voices through the history curriculum, quiet as I am. I wondered if the event would be for me, and somehow I found that it was – it was for everyone. There were sessions that appealed to me as a barely-qualified newbie, and for the numerous headteachers and deputies who attended too. And there was fantastic crossover: some sessions and talks bridged the divides and opened up conversations across the levels of qualification.
I think a mark of the atmosphere at the Unconference is this: at no point during the day did I use the word “just” to describe what I do. So often, I negate my role or my experience with that four-letter minimiser. “Just” a Year One teacher, “just” my second year in the classroom, “just” a teacher in a small school. Yesterday I was not “just” anything, and it felt fantastic. Every experience among those hundreds of women was valued and valuable.
Being from a small school, it’s easy to become quite insular in that it’s easy to forget there’s a whole world of education out there. It is not just my one-form-entry bubble! Hearing from so many different women, listening to how they got to where they are today and recognising how many paths there are to that fuzzy concept of ‘success’, was inspiring in every sense. Professional and personal growth are important to me, and widening my perceptions by meeting so many different people showed me that there is no single way to achieving those ends – and equally that neither one is something that can ever be completed. Growth is exactly that, the act of growing (wordhippo definition) and I’m quietly thrilled to finally be part of a community of women whose every energy is focused on lifting others to facilitate this.
At the close of the Unconference, we were all asked to make a pledge, something that we could each do to continue to Break the Bias and continue to grow. I held the pledge card in my hand, my mind swimming with ideas from the day and my pen poised but unable to produce words. What could I put on this card that was anywhere near the inspirational words I’d heard, or anywhere close on the scale of confidence surrounding me?
Only being three years post-graduation, and two years into my classroom career, I am quite used to being the youngest in every room of educators. I hoped that it wouldn’t be quite so apparent at a meet-up of educators from across the London and further afield, but it was not to be. I wonder if there are other young women out there like me, looking in from the outside and thinking that maybe WomenEd isn’t for them? So, I’ve found my pledge at last, more than twenty-four hours post-Unconference.
WomenEd is for everyone. Between now and next spring, I pledge to make other young teachers aware that it’s as much for them as it is for those with years of experience. I left the Unconference tired enough to nearly sleep on the train home, and yet wildly energised by how much I’d learnt, how many connections I’d made and how much I couldn’t wait to do it all again.
I haven’t blogged in quite some time, the reasons for which are multiple. Some of them will make their way into another post in the pipeline, hopefully after not such a long hiatus as this one!
Something that I have been doing, however, is buying books. Like many readers, I’ve come to the conclusion that reading books, and acquiring books, are two entirely separate hobbies. Visiting any bookshop is something that I regard with anticipation and excitement, and being now within easy distance of London, with its immense bookshops and choice of booksellers I regularly feel like a child in a sweetshop. There is something brilliant about being surrounded by books, and the low hum of other people who also seek the written word like moths to a flame. And I think this is something I’ve always felt, a joy handed down from my parents who’d take me to the big library in our hometown, what felt like every Friday night when I was small.
That thrill of being surrounded by books, and wanting to read them all, is what’s led me to this blog post and my current predicament. I possess a frankly shameful number of books that I have not yet read. That feels like a weighty confession, one that I’m mildly ashamed of despite how much comfort I glean from being surrounded by reading material.
As of yesterday, I’m on a self-imposed book-buying ban. I compiled a list of all the books on my TBR (that’s a ‘To Be Read’ pile/list, to those unfamiliar with online reading vocabulary) and was horrified how large that number had grown. I keep a record of the books I read each year, and this year those books will be ones that I currently own/have borrowed, whether they are physical books, ebooks or audiobooks. It’s an unusual challenge as far as my reading habits go, as I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t buying books. But nonetheless it’s one I’m determined to stick to – 2022 is the year I read what I have instead of seeking more titles for the endless TBR!
2021 Reading Round-up
I finished thirty-seven books last year. My genre choices were an eclectic mix, to say the least, from memoirs to historical crime fiction, and middle-grade to my ever-favoured YA Lit. Instead of typing them all up, I have collaged all the covers, and will provide a link below to bookshop.org where you can view my whole list. (Disclaimer: if you decided to purchase any books through that link, I would earn a tiny commission at no cost to you.)
My very first blog, published on April 1st 2020, was as good a beginning to a blog by a teacher as I could have come up with. September was a fluffy, upbeat, optimistic account of that first month in the classroom, reflecting how I felt about it at the time of writing. That was the lens I saw my job through, and it largely remained that way until the summer term of 2020, when everything came tumbling down around me.
Reading back that blog entry, and even more so reading my source material from the time, there are red flags that neither I nor my family knew were red flags. The fact I was so exhausted as to be in tears about behaviour on so many evenings, and felt so judged by colleagues about my noisy class (who weren’t ‘noisy’ but rather inexperienced Year Ones, sitting at tables too soon) should have alerted me to something being not quite right with the professional relationships I tentatively built.
But this is the problem – entirely unresolvable unless we begin to talk about it – with being an NQT/ECT. I didn’t know, because I had nothing to base my experience on, that I was entitled to so much support that I never received. I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to be in school from 7am to 5.30pm, and then work between 7pm and 10pm or later still.
I’m too forgiving. My first impulse now is to write that every story has two sides, and I can’t try to speak for those on the other side of mine. But actually, I don’t have to be graceful about it, and I don’t have to protect anyone from my NQT year except myself. What happened to me was wrong: personally and professionally. It was put to me that I was too fragile to cope with the demands of teaching well. After hearing this from someone I had trusted, I was adrift. I was ready to walk away from teaching because I thought it would always be like that. I wanted to leave the profession, even though I could never see myself doing anything else.
I was able to construct my NQT-year blogs (September, October, November and December) due to my meticulously-kept journals from the time. These are something else I won’t revisit – the notebooks sit in a box under my bed – for much the same reason as I won’t write blogs addressing the months January to July 2020. It’s too painful to see those words written in my own handwriting, to read red flags that I just couldn’t see, and equally to read the moments that truly felt wonderful because I didn’t know what was to come. Even the positives are called into question because I don’t know how to interpret them anymore. I wouldn’t be doing myself any favours to write up those months like I did the others. It would also do a disservice to any ECTs looking for genuine experiences and advice from my blog entries!
I’m mostly over what happened at the end of that year, although undoubtedly it’s affected the teacher and the person I am now. I can’t get that year back, I can’t un-hear things that were said or un-give the trust that was broken. But what I can do is move forward. I can look back with respectful distance and see where I did make mistakes, and make sure I don’t make them again. I can keep reflecting on my new experiences, and slowly realise that this is how things should have been all along, so I can build on what has passed and be the best that I can be, without giving every moment of my life to this wonderful profession. We all know that teaching, as it stands in England in 2021, would gladly swallow us whole if we let it. But I’m not going to let it, not this year, and part of that is laying my NQT year to rest.
I’ve been totally obsessed with Vigil for its whole duration. It’s no secret that I love a good police procedural drama, with my past viewing history including Inspector Morse, Lewis, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, Death in Paradise and the first two series (so far) of Line of Duty. I was drawn into the first trailer for Vigil that I saw:
The premise is that DCI Amy Silva is put onboard HMS Vigil, a fictional Trident nuclear submarine off the coast of northern Scotland, to investigate the sudden and mysterious death of crewman Craig Burke. She receives a less than warm welcome, which only grows frostier as it comes to light that the death needs to be treated as murder.
DCI Silva, like every good fictional detective, comes with far more complexity than first meets the eye. Before the airing of episode one, I came across articles critiquing the arrival of ‘yet another traumatised detective’. At first, I was prepared to defend the cause purely from the standpoint that as a viewer, I love a bit of angst, so a ‘traumatised’ detective is never a character I’ll turn down!
Amy Silva’s complexity endeared her to me quickly. She’s an intelligent woman, a driven professional at the top of her field. A strong career-woman will always be a winner with me (see also: Elle Woods, Precious Ramotswe and Kate Henderson.) But what really stunned and impressed me was the dawning realisation that although Amy is at the top of her game professionally, she also wrestles with some pretty significant mental health issues.
By the end of episode one, we know that Amy’s claustrophobia on the submarine is neither feigned, forced nor unfounded. Within an unknown recent timescale, she was involved in a car accident with her partner and daughter that saw the car plunge into a loch, with devastating consequences. In episode two, there’s a very short scene that took my breath away: Amy loses one of her pills in her bunk room, and it’s the submarine doctor who retrieves it and enquires as to what drug it is. Paroxetine, for anxiety and depression. It’s such a tiny scene, but it was incredible to hear a conversation that’s become quite normal, although still difficult, for me over the last five years. I can’t quite explain what it means to have mainstream media representation of my normal (a ‘normal’ shared by millions of others!) All kudos to Suranne Jones, for perfectly capturing the tentative uncertainty that comes with ‘confessing’ to taking medication and the unspoken hope that the listener will still look at you the same way once those words have left your lips.
Things do not run smoothly for DCI Silva once the truth is out. Part of her investigation is derailed when The Stigma comes into play and briefly, she is accused of and widely seen as being mentally unsound because of her medicated status. It makes for uncomfortable viewing as a fellow medicated professional, even one in a very different field.
It means a lot to me, and no doubt to others too, that Amy’s mental health or lack thereof is an important part of her story, but nonetheless a subplot rather than the main event. Because that’s how life is for those of us on meds: we’re still the person we were before we started the meds, which arguably make us the person we were meant to be in the first place. Importantly, we’re still the same person we were, before you found out we were medicated. In Vigil, you see Amy for a whole episode, investigating a complex case alone, before there’s any indication of antidepressants, which is another very real representation of medicated life! People on meds don’t wear flashing beacons to identify themselves to the wider population, and we do just trundle along, living our lives like everybody else, until it happens to become relevant to mention the meds, if this ever happens.
While of course we need stories about characters whose mental health becomes front and centre, for example in periods of crisis (see: the brilliant OCD storyline done a few years ago on Casualty) it’s also vital, as the discourse around mental health continues to become more mainstream, that we have representation in the form of characters who are personally and professionally successful despite their mental illness. Partly as proof to the shame brigade who fuel The Stigma and seem to think that a few pills is enought to reserve a spot in a padded cell…
But actually, as someone with anxiety and depression myself, I’ve loved Amy’s subplot of trauma/anxiety/panic beacuse even though she’s fictional, it’s strangely lovely to see someone vaguely like me reflected back at me from the media. Okay, so I’m not a DCI, even with my extensive viewing history and associated investigative tendecies, but I’m a driven woman in a (sometimes) high-pressure career, juggling my profession with a side-order of anxiety. It’s not as simple this, obviously, but if Amy Silva can get on with it on a nuclear submarine, having run out of pills (rookie error there!) then I can keep on keeping on at what I do best, too.
Ever since I was a little girl, there have been fictional characters I’ve looked up to. Matilda, Hermione Granger, Cather Avery, Rory Gilmore (in the early seasons!) As a chronic overthinker it’s not uncommon for me as an adult to still deeply consider the fictional characters I encounter in terms of their similarity or difference to myself. To find one that I can draw so many parallels with and get behind wholeheartedly has meant the Sunday 9pm TV slot has been a very enjoyable one over the last month. Let’s have more characters like Amy Silva!
It’s been a while since I put pen to paper (99% of my blogs start with paper drafts, or at least rough handwritten notes) and, much like every other time I’ve left a hiatus of note between posts, a lot has changed. Usually, my idea of change is ‘just’ the internal sort, and I’m used to that by now, the slow chipping away of old anxieties (save for the odd relapse, usually in the darkest depths of winter – what can I say? I might be part sunflower.)
But the changes I’m experiencing now date all the way back to March 2021, if I’m going to timeline it correctly. A friend I had made through edutwitter, blogging and my podcast appearance, got in touch to say there was a vacancy for September at her school, maybe I’d like to apply? This came off the back of countless applications that winter: so few of them even merited a Sorry, you’ve not been selected for interview that I felt as though I was rather shouting into the void with each new letter. Someone, please, give me a chance! It had all reinforced what I’d heard at the end of my NQT year, that had made me feel strongly that I wasn’t good enough and I wasn’t cut out for this profession.
Lo and behold, this time was different. Like always, I ploughed everything into my letter and application, but this time I was invited to interview. I prepared so much for that Zoom call – it felt something like preparing for my A-level. I was surrounded by reams of notes, rewritten and redrafted and had zillions of tabs open on my internet browser: the school itself, the school’s policies, Ofsted, typical interview questions, interview technique, lo-fi playlists to try and soothe my stress.
I was very much prepared – but you know how it is. The moment I clicked into the call, I felt as though none of my prep had ever happened.
Somehow, I swallowed my nerves (well, most of them, I was still the same old Caitlin!) and after a gruelling hour I logged out and closed my laptop feeling that I could be happy I had done my best, over-preparation, GAD, fidgeting and all!
And then… a phone call.
“The job is yours, if you want it.”
My whole world changed from that point onwards, and you’ll read shortly how that isn’t much of an exaggeration!
Did I forget to mention, the job I accepted is at a school nearly two hundred miles away from “home”? (In inverted commas because of course my family home will always be “home” to me, but from day to day now, “home” means somewhere different!)
Yes, quiet little Caitlin, who at 14 tried desperately to find any way to become a teacher without leaving home to go to university, who at 17 basically stopped talking, who at 21 moved out but still came home twice a week, who at 22 moved into my parents’ loft, accepted a job that put a very finite time limit on living in the aforementioned (very cosy!) loft.
I grew up in a town almost universally described by its inhabitants to outsiders as “that town between Liverpool and Manchester.” It’s also known for being the location of the UK’s first IKEA, and for having Adam Hills on its Physical Disability Rugby League Team. It has an area of 180.5 square kilometres and a population of roughly 200,000. [It should be noted that while I do have a reasonable stock of QI-worthy facts, I do not just know these facts off the top of my head… well, I had to research the statistics at least!]
By contrast, I’ve moved to a much smaller but vastly more densely populated town, twenty miles west of London. The difference is enormous – I’m used to the capital being a five-hour drive and then a couple of train rides away, but I now live within walking distance of the Tube network, so can be in the heart of the city within an hour.
Geographically I’ve made a a huge change, and professionally too (a permanent contract! You should have seen me, the day I signed it and posted it off!) But what I didn’t expect what to feel so massively different in myself. You’ve probably gathered if you’ve been reading my blogs for a while that as well as being highly introverted and usually anxious, I’m also highly conscious of these two, which makes/made them feed into each other significantly. They can darkly complement each other at times, going hand in hand to create new problems all of their own.
But since moving out, having to do everything for myself and for the most part, by myself, has forced a lot of the anxiety away without my even noticing. It was a shock, when I traveled into London last week on my first solo adventure, to realise I’d made it onto a train and a Tube onto one of the busiest streets in the country, without so much of a whisper of wrung hands, hyperventilation or accidentally cracked knuckles. (I would have added my signature, disfigured cardigan sleeves, to the list, but even I as a clueless alien to the city knew that I wouldn’t need a cardigan on the Central Line in July!)
I traveled in by myself. I had lunch on Tottenham Court Road alone. I practically had a geeky little heart attack of joy on walking into Foyles bookshop for the first time, unescorted. I went to the theatre and saw an incredible show, on my own. I walked down the South Bank… yeah, I guess you’ve got the picture by now, and I’m running out of ways to say “I did it all by myself!”
Somehow, in amongst the noise of Central London (and good grief, is it noisy!) I subconsciously accepted that I am but a drop in the ocean.
I’m not trying to be pretentious, I’m trying to make a point about the shocking healing power I stumbled upon by diving head first into London’s approximate daytime population of over ten million people. If you’d asked me this time last year if I could imagine doing anything that I’ve done in the last week without anyone accompanying me, I would have quite comfortably said that wasn’t the life for me, thank you. The crowds, the noise, the rush, the sights, the lights, the very idea that I’d be alone and no-one would know me? I’d have told you it was all a panic attack waiting to happen.
To my great surprise, disappearing into the anonymity of the ten million is one of the best experiences I’ve had since moving down here. The rush that I was so afraid of, only means that everyone is too focused on getting where they need to be, to notice I’ve checked my paper Tube map, TfL app and the map on the ceiling of the car just to make sure I’m changing lines in the right place. (Side note: apparently they’re not called ‘carriages’ on the Tube, they’re ‘cars’? Thanks, Sherlock s03e01.) The busy people know exactly where to be and they aren’t looking at me as I step onto the platform and take a second to reacquaint myself with solid ground and locate the ‘Way Out’ arrow as the reassuring disembodied voice reminds us to mind the gap. And perhaps most importantly, literally nobody cares if I’m sitting under Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain with my book for forty minutes, waiting for my socially-distanced time slot to enter the theatre.
I realise that people have been telling me for years to worry less about what other people are thinking. But in this respect I’m no different to my Year Ones – I learned it better by doing it for myself rather than by being told. I didn’t know that I needed to learn it for myself, and certainly had no idea that I’d do so quite by accident! But somehow, by some miracle, it’s happened, it’s happening and the world is not so scary anymore.
As of 30th June 2021 (how have we reached the second half of the year already?) I’ve read 25 books since New Year’s Day. I’m an avid reader, as regulars to the blog will recognise, but for the last three years my book total per year has stalled around 35 titles for the whole year. Therefore, I’m pretty impressed to have reached 25 by the end of June! Here are the 25, linked where possible with affiliate links to bookshop.org (a brilliant site which supports independent bookshops across the UK – if you make a purchase from one of my links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)
I’m not usually one to go for poetry, but I was drawn in the by the hype around this book (albeit quite a bit late to the party!) And yet I found it to be a capital-s Something kind of read. So much of it spoke to me deeply, and made the whole book feel like a warm tealight glow on a dark day.
This was my second time reading 1984, and it still had me totally gripped. I had the same visceral shock reaction to a huge plot twist, that I felt the first time around. Once again I was lulled into the same false sense of security. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking read for sure.
The Rules of Modern Policing, by Guy Adams/DCI Gene Hunt
The Future of Modern Policing, by Guy Adams/DCI Gene Hunt
This and the above were complete impulse buys, in the wake of binge-watching both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes in quick succession. But I have no regrets, both were short, quick reads that made it impossible to keep a straight face.
Yes, I watched the Netflix series first… But reading the book felt even more intimately wonderful. This book made me want to play the kind of chess that the main character plays – a game that can be elegant, sophisticated and effortlessly intelligent. [I cannot play good chess, in the least.]
An absolute classic, that surprised me with how accessible and easy-to-read it was, considering it was first published in 1902! I love the energy between Holmes and Watson – it’s honestly a delight to read alongside wrapping your head around the mystery at hand.
The summer holidays are approaching rapidly. Hopefully so are more immersive reads!
I studied at university for three years to become a teacher, (‘become a teacher’ on paper at least, I wouldn’t say I’m there yet!) and not once did this topic come up in taught sessions, lectures or even in conversation – we just never thought about it! But as an NQT/ECT you spend a fair bit of time out of the classroom on trainings etc, so you have to get used to leaving work for someone else to manage with your class. It can be tough knowing where to start – where do you start, when it comes to imparting some of the huge amount of knowledge you employ every day to teach your unique group of learners?
I’ve worked on supply this year (only briefly; it’s really not my thing!) and been on the receiving end of teachers’ information of varying quality… Here are my pointers on the kinds of information that I aimed/will aim to leave, and that it was helpful to receive, on arriving in a brand new school and class.
If I’ve never been to your school, I have no idea how things work. Please tell me what time everything happens, including information like how long it takes your class to do things like lining up or collecting belongings for home time. Also, if you’ve set multiple tasks for a lesson, feel free to tell me how long you would normally expect each one to take. It’s fairly customary to leave more for a supply teacher than can be completed in the time they have with your class, so that they don’t run out of things to do, but please give a heads up when you’ve done this!
When you’re typing out your information for your supply teacher, it can feel like you’re being overly explanatory and insulting the intelligence of the person coming into your class. You’re not. You don’t know if the person coming in will have twenty years’ experience, and can run with a very brief plan, or if they’re someone like you at a very early stage in their career who would prefer all the details. From my point of view: tell me everything so that I can get it right for you! If you have strict rules on presentation, say so! I can do my best for you and your class wth all the relevant information.
How does your beautiful chart on the wall work? How many warnings do you give, and how many is too many? What are the consequences for ‘moving down’ on the behaviour chart/system?
Beleieve me, I know it’s really laborious to type out your expectations for supply staff to understand during their brief time in your class – especially if certain pupils have differentiated responses to behaviour. My tip is to have a stock document that you use for supply instructions, that has your behaviour expectations, timings of the day and SEN information already on it, so you do’t have to re-type it every time you’ve got someone covering for you.
I am in no way the best placed individual on this topic! If in doubt, speak to the SENCO at your school on what information needs to be passed on or not to supply staff.
However, here are some brief ideas off the top of my head.
Which children in the class have additional needs? Are there any accommodations I need to be aware of? [For example: making eye contact or not, sensory breaks, writing in certain colours or avoiding certain colours on the board, using a pupil’s name at the start of speaking to them, ensuring subtitles are on for any videos.]
You don’t have to leave a class list for a supply teacher (unless it’s your school policy to, obviously) but a seating plan can be really useful. Children are prone to pushing it with supply staff (in the style of Ted Hastings, “Give me strength!”) and it can be so helpful to be able to call out poor behaviour by name, rather than aiming generally at an area of the room!
Secondly, please leave a note for your supply teacher with key names of other staff around school. It’s really handy, for example, to know the name of the next door teacher, or to drop in the name of the deputy head if behaviour gets a little bit hairy! (Remember that a supply teacher may have only been called that morning, so may not have had chance to look up the school online for names of senior leaders etc.)
As a supply teacher, I didn’t want the class teacher to return and feel like Sheldon (above) on their return! I experienced a lot of marking policies as a student, but didn’t appreciate just how much marking differs between schools until I did supply work. Some schools are so particular about if and how supply staff should mark work. Like with your behaviour information, keep your marking policy saved as a staple part of your supply instructions and re-use it every time you need cover.
Obviously this section is subject to change – by the time this post goes live it’ll probably be outdated! But please tell your supply staff anything they need to know about covid responsibilities in your school: zones on the playground, staffroom access, wiping tables down etc. Even eighteen months on from the Great Coronavirus Shutdown of 2020, so much hasn’t returned to normal (not to be political, but nor should it, until we’re sure everyone can be kept safe!) Things are different in different local authorities and even across different schools under the same authority, so just let your supply staff know for their own peace of mind.
I think I’ve covered most things here, but if you’ve got other things to add or ask, start a conversation in the comments section, or tag me on twitter @CaitTeachesKind.
The (unintentional) break I took away from blogging left me with plenty of time to immerse myself in all sorts – that’s how I judge how good something is, I think. If I can forget the rest of the world while I’m consuming it, if I can slip into that world and feel at home there, then it’s usually an enjoyable experience.
It makes me smile to write about escaping reality through media – as an A-level French student, a question that our class dreaded though it came up far too often, was along the lines of “s’eschapper de la réalité” (escaping from reality) and those four words became a dreaded phrase. There were various things I hated about French (sorry Sir, Miss, if you’re reading this!) but trying to put into words the things that crossed my mind when I was buried in my introverted inner-world ranked pretty highly up there. I can still barely word it in English, the immense pleasure of sinking into an alternate reality and becoming pre-occupied by someone else’s problems for a while. It was infinitely easier, in French at least, to be cynical and try to argue from a standpoint like Carl from Up – reality is reality, you can’t escape from it. When your brain is hardly co-operating enough to get you through the next thirty seconds of speaking in front of a class, explaining the nuances of escaping reality is borderline impossible.
On to the main point of the post: five things that have assisted me lately in my missions to be lost.
1 (and 2) – Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes
I am decidedly behind the times when it comes to these two BBC dramas, although in my defence I wasn’t old enough to watch them when they originally aired! [Life on Mars aired across two series, from January 2006 to April 2007 and Ashes to Ashes aired three series between February 2008 and May 2010]
Life on Mars appeared in my Netflix suggestions early this year, and it sat in my list unwatched before moving to the ‘Last chance to watch’ section, which finally spurred me into action. I’m so glad that I did! The first three weeks of April 2021 were a rollercoaster of binge-watching (in my haste to stay firmly within the realms of Fenchurch East CID, I neglected to notice that the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, was not in the ‘Last chance to watch’ area…)
Both series centre around a modern-day police officer sent back in time following a violent incident. In Life on Mars, DCI Sam Tyler of Greater Manchester Police is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973, as a DI under DCI Gene Hunt, whose one-liners alone should be enough to land him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“Look at her, she’s as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot.”
Gene Hunt, Life on Mars
As you can imagine, a straight-laced, by-the-book DCI from the 21st centrury clashes at almost every opportunity with a DCI embodying every bit of the 1970s. I’m still not quite sure how the character of Gene Hunt endeared to me so quickly – think misogyny, racism, homophobia and excessive violence, and you’ve about got the measure of him. But underneath the bravado there are flashes of humanity that meant I couldn’t help adding him to my extensive cast of favourite characters.
The second police officer swept up in time is DI Alex Drake, a police psychologist who worked with Sam Tyler following his ordeal, in the Metropolitan Police. She is caught up with an old adversary and ends up being shot, only to wake up in 1981 in a sticky situation from which she can only be rescued by a certain aforementioned DCI (which becomes a running theme, as she can’t seem to stay out of trouble across the twenty-four episodes of Ashes to Ashes!) And if Sam Tyler had disagreements with Gene Hunt, they were nothing in comparison with the blazing rows between Alex and ‘the Guv’!
There was so much to like about both series: sharp dialogue, well-rounded characters, the reliable formula of police procedural dramas blended with the suspense and mystery surrounding Sam and Alex and their desire to go back to the future. But these series really envelope you in their timelines, tying you to and making you care about the characters, even when they’re saying and doing things that are so drastically opposed to your own moral compass. Over my three weeks of viewing, I tumbled down the rabbit hole in 1973 and subsequently 1981 with the same ferocious immersion as the two protagonist police officers. And I loved it.
3 – Face Value
I’ve always liked older music, having been raised on tunes from the 70s and 80s (thanks, Mum and Dad!) The soundtracks of all twenty-four episodes of Ashes to Ashes have been rotating on my Spotify for weeks now – brilliant songs from the eighties, many that I’d liked even before I had new favourite characters attached to them. (Seriously, s01e06’s use of Ultravox’s Vienna sends shivers down my spine. The climax of the episode, the cinematography, the suggested chemistry… Every single shade of yes!)
One afternoon, I remarked to my dad that I couldn’t understand why In The Air Tonight had a fade-out ending, after more than five minutes of some of the best lyrics and drumming of all time. I lamented that there wasn’t an ending as iconic as that immense crescendo drum moment.
Well, if you told me you were drowning // I would not lend a hand // I’ve seen your face before my friend // But I don’t know if you know who I am
Phil Collins, In The Air Tonight (1981)
Indulging my love of music of that era, Dad suggested I listen to the entirety of the album that song hails from – Phil Collins’ Face Value.
What. An. Album.
Seeing as a lot of my blog readers are older than I am, I’ll guess you’ve probably heard most, if not all, of Face Value. If you haven’t, I urge you to listen in its entirety. It’s raw, emotional, masterful. As songwriters go, few come close to measuring up to Phil Collins – who is not only the master of post-divorce angst-rich songs, but also wrote the soundtrack and lyrics for Tarzan (and recorded them in English, French, Italian, Spanish and German!)
4 – The Queen’s Gambit
Next in my selection of immersive media is a book/TV series pair. Unusually for me, I didn’t read the book first – I know, I know! Last summer I caught onto the huge hype around this unusual series about chess, and then early in the spring this year, I picked up the book, which turned out to be a compelling read. It’s as much about self-belief as it is about chess – the ancient game is the vehicle for Beth Harmon (the protagonist) to find herself, know her worth and conquer her demons.
The series follows Beth from orphaned child to troubled teen to train-wreck young woman and out into the sun again, against the backdrop of the 1960s. I’m spotting a decidedly retro theme to my choices in this blog! I found myself rooting for her from the start, admiring her mental agility and downright envying her ability to not only play chess but understand it, live it and breathe it. I can play, insofar as I know how the pieces can and can’t move. But the chess presented in The Queen’s Gambit has a unique beauty, a magic that cast a spell over me from the first episode to the last. I want to play chess like that! But perhaps cramming more into my head, spinning even more plates, is not my best plan when I’m three weeks shy of moving to the opposite end of the country for a new job!
For now, I might have to settle for working on a Beth Harmon-esque enviable focus instead, which would be no bad thing.
5 – Desert Island Discs
My final addition to this blog is yet more damning evidence that I might just be a little old before my time… I’ve been listening to DID podcasts for a few years, starting before a long car journey for a family holiday. Each episode is an insight into another person’s brain: hearing people talk about music that matters to them, in the same way so much music matters to me, is a pleasure. In sharing their intimate connections to music, the celebrity guests often share details that just wouldn’t be known otherwise: anecdotes from childhood, emotionally charged stories about family tragedies, glances into real life for these figures that become somewhat less ‘real’ for having been so prominent in popular culture. But not all the figures are super-famous and instantly recogniseable. Two of my favourite episodes are those featuring Dr. Sabrina Rachel Cohen-Hatton (firefighter, psychologist and writer) and Sinéad Burke (teacher, writer and disability activist) whose stories really inspired me.
I don’t envy those who have to choose their Desert Island Discs: the premise of the show being that you choose eight tracks that define you and that you couldn’t live without, should you be marooned on a desert island. Music is such a huge part of my life, I wouldn’t know where to start in trawling through my favourites and narrowing them down to just eight, and then to just one! At the end of the show, the guest is always asked which one of their tracks they would save, should all the others be washed away… How would I make that decision?!?
When I started writing blogs, more than twelve months ago now, I never would have suspected it would lead me here. First, that people would read it, and like to read it, too! Second, that I would make wonderful friends as a result of (quietly) shouting my thoughts into the great abyss of the internet! And third, that I would wind up writing a blog about a song that has a track record of making me run from a room to avoid hearing it!
I’ve always been honest in my blogs, as far as I can be anyway, and this entry is no exception.
I spoke on a podcast last summer, where I talked about a teacher who had meant a lot to me, one who is sadly no longer with us. I talked about the impact that she’d had on me as a teacher, how I carry her legacy with me as I step out into the world as a new teacher myself, hoping to have even a fraction of the sparkle she brought to the profession. This song reminds me of her so much – she would spontaneously break into singing it when prompting us to choose the correct French tense (the simple future… maybe? With a head full of Y5 maths tuition at the moment, forgive me for not having a pinpoint-accurate memory of French grammar!)
In the first year after she died, this song seemed to be everywhere. I would joke to my mum in lighter moments that she was sending it to test me, though when its appearance came in darker moments, it would leave me in tears. The optimism, lightness and sheer joy of this song epitomised everything good that I remembered of her, and I found it so hard to come to terms with the injustice of her passing that even the opening bars of this song had the power to send me fleeing a room or punching buttons on the radio to hear absolutely anything else.
I’m not writing for sympathy – much to the contrary, as shortly I’ll be making an about turn to follow the example of Doris Day’s innocent optimism myself! I’m writing honestly because that’s what I do, and because we don’t talk about grief enough. It hits all of us at one time or another, and yet we bury it away, suffer it silently and alone, and try to hide it from others if it happens to burst from its box outside the privacy of one’s own home.
Just to make it super clear – it is totally normal to grieve in your own way. You do you, you remember your people in your own way. But you don’t have to do it on your own.
Almost six years down the line, this song still conjures strong emotions for me, though usually they’re not the kind accompanied by tears anymore! These days, Que Sera Sera sits on a playlist I hold dear, one that is made up of cozy, old-timey tunes. Tulips from Amsterdam, Moonlight Sernade, et cetera. Que Sera Sera sits proudly alongside the others, and like the others, I sometimes skip it, but sometimes too I take in all two minutes of the song and let it envelop me like a hug, or a quiet nod of acknowledgement.
Because I’m not the same girl who would flee a room or rush to switch to another radio station, anymore. In November 2015, I didn’t need one more reason to feel crushed by emotions I couldn’t keep a lid on. But in May 2021, I have grown up considerably, come to terms with my anxiety, managed that side-order of grief and learned to live with it too (no matter what anyone tells you, it’s okay for it to never leave you!) A long way from enduring A-level lessons where I couldn’t say a word, I now tutor up to seven groups of children a day, or tutor three groups in a morning then move on to supply work of an afternoon. I have to keep talking, and most days that simple act doesn’t have even a fraction of the difficulty it once had.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll be familiar with my struggle to find classroom work again, after losing out on an opportunity at my NQT school. So many on twitter too became invested in my optimistic tweets about new applications, and comiserated with me and supported me when rejections started to pile up. Que Sera Sera seemed insincere after a while: it was so easy for people to say that the right school would find me, of course they were only saying ‘your time will come’ to try and make me feel better, because it couldn’t be true, could it? I didn’t think the lyric ‘Whatever will be, will be // The future’s not ours to see’ had any relevance to me whatsoever. I was trudging along, applying for what every time seemed like it could be the right school.
And then, with cautious optimism, I threw myself into another opportunity, one that unlike all the others, paid off in spades.
This summer, I’m upping sticks, setting off for a full-time classroom teaching job at long last, and I couldn’t be happier. Moving approximately two hundred miles from home is sometimes a little scary, but to draw on some exceptional wisdom from a much-loved teacher, whatever will be, will be.
I recently read a book about books. Or, more accurately, a book about selling books. ‘The Diary Of A Bookseller’ by Shaun Bythell is a read I’d recommend for a number of reasons.
It made me finally watch ‘Black Books’, a Channel 4 comedy I’d been hoarding in my Netflix list for quite a while, which brought inordinate joy. It’s an irreverent series in a similar vein to Father Ted, kind of like a more grown-up Inbetweeners but with books everywhere.
Sometimes, you need a book where there is no significant action and drama. For a read to be gentle, to me at least, is no bad thing!
It opened my eyes to an industry in crisis, something which I’m sure has only been compounded in recent months by the pandemic.
You can buy a copy of the book here – I will give more details about this link later in this blog, and in the second part, coming soon. However, for legal reasons I must disclose that it is an affiliate link to bookshop.org meaning that it is free to folow the link but if you make a purchase after following it, I will earn a small comission at no extra cost to you (you will also be supporting independent booksellers across the UK.)
As I’ve grown up, I’ve made various conscious choices around sustainability and social conscience. I buy teabags that don’t contain microplastics, I don’t send clothes to landfill, I support small businesses where I can. But little did I realise, one of my great passions and the way I explored it, was contributing to the gradual destruction of hundreds of small businesses.
I love to read, and I love books: to be surrounded by them is a bizarre comfort I can’t quite explain. But the industry giant Amazon and even my perennial favourite Waterstones, are swallowing up the independent booksellers one by one. With their vast empires, the former two can afford to undercut the ‘indies’ with low prices, quick delivery times and multibuyu offers in a way that single-branch independents are simply unable to.
I’m not immune to the draw of Amazon Prime, in fact it was a regular thing for me to indulge in the near-instant gratification of the ‘Buy Now’ button, only to receive a shiny new tome a day or two later. But since becoming the owner of a micro-business myself (you can visit my Etsy shop here, and my instagram @classroomdreamsbymissb) my social conscience and desire for a more sustainable choice have increased considerably.
As I’m confined to home though (thanks, covid) it wasn’t easy as googling local options and roadtripping to catch all the independent bookshops like Pokémon. However, in googling, I did find an online option, one created for the purpose of competing with Amazon.
Bookshop.org launched in the US in January 2020, and by November, when its UK counterpart emerged, it had already raised $7.5 million dollars for US independent bookshops. Once you register (for free) on this platform, you can find an indie near you and choose it to receive the percentage from your book purchases, or you can add to the communcal pot which supports bookshops around the UK.
The site is user-friendly and way less visually cluttered than the overlord it aims to challenge!
You won’t find the rock-bottom prices and postal guarantees you’ll find elsewhere. Pure and simple, this is because these don’t support the survival of the book industry. So you will probably find yourself paying a little bit more, but is that such a bad thing, when you’re helping to maintain market choice by supporting the ecology of the book industry?
English is my favourite core subject to teach: as a student, I loved my uni sessions and found it so exciting to apply what I’d learned to placement experiences, alongside my own long-standing passion for the subject. However, I was as student with others who felt completely oppositely to me: they loved maths for its black-and-white-ness and the security of one correct answer (this is exactly why I’m not the greatest fan!) or they looked to science for its answers to all the big questions. English, to them, was a challenge for all the reasons I loved it so much. A creative subject, where the whole point is to think differently to everyone else, seemed an unpleasant intimidation both in the planning and the delivery stages.
In this blog, I’ve put together five key tips that might help you with planning and teaching English. If you’ve still got questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, follow up on the ‘Contact Me’ tab or find me on Twitter, @CaitTeachesKind.
Going into my first placement, I didn’t quite appreciate the importance of this. Sure, it had been talked about A LOT at uni, but how useful could it really be, in a real classroom? I can’t explain exactly how wrong my uninformed, first-year self was! It doesn’t matter what age you’re teaching (although modelling becomes more critical, the younger you go) pupils need to see what they’re aiming for, and probably see the process that goes into creating that, too.
Don’t rely on your own skills of explanation to paint a clear picture for pupils of what they should produce in a lesson. This is especially true during periods of remote learning, whether you’re delivering content live, in a recorded video or leaving written instructions.
As an example, here’s a video I recorded for my Y1 class in May 2020. It’s by no means perfect – looking back at it now there’s a lot I would do differently, HOWEVER, I was an NQT, attempting to keep my head above water with remote learning, and the responses produced by some pupils in my class were great! For them, seeing the process of me writing out an example piece of work made it so much clearer than just giving them a typed example. They could see exactly how it would take shape, they saw me colour code focus words like I did in class, and they heard me talk through some of my decisions, as well as changing my mind about punctuation.
Obviously, with different year groups, the goal posts for a piece of work will be very different. Know your objective, and work out how your modelled writing shows that objective being met.
There’s no reason why you couldn’t do a typed modelled write, if you have the ability to share your screen or record your screen and you talking through what you’re doing. I know plenty of qualified teachers who prefer to type over handwrite! Bear in mind though that with younger pupils, it is important for them to see letter formation in practice too.
2. Don’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge
The likelihood is, if you’re reading this as a student, you’ve had quite a lot of different life experiences to date. These shape everything: the examples you use in figures of speech, your vocabulary choices, and your ability to write, at the drop of a hat, about a huge variety of given subjects. Young children just haven’t had this life experience. And all the way through primary, children’s lives outside of school vary massively. Children might never have seen the sea, they might not know what it’s like to have grandparents, they might never have been on holiday or even left the town they live in. This is the reality for a number of children, so we simply cannot assume that children are on our wavelength and can respond when we say “Okay, we’re going to write about the beach.”
So, what do we do about that? How do we bridge that experience gap and allow children to access what we’ve got planned?
Use everything available to you. If you’re reading about a beach setting (as we were in Y1 with The Storm Whale in Winter, above) bring shells, fishing nets and a bucket and spade. Find large images (I actually borrowed a canvas from my parents for my display during this topic, as student in 2019!) Search for youtube videos that have ambient sounds of the setting you’re after. I had seaside sounds, but had to look also for a sound even I hadn’t heard before, as part of this book – an icebreaker ship. This kind of immersion really helps children with their understanding and in turn, their writing. They can describe their own experiences far better than imagining something abstract that they have never heard, seen or touched.
3. Varied voices in literature
There’s huge conversations about this at the moment, in all corners of the internet. People far more qualified than me have made convincing arguments as to why the curriculum shouldn’t be ignoring voices that aren’t white, heterosexual and able-bodied.
Don’t just settle for the first thing suggested to you. Even if, as a student, the curriculum is set already with a specific books, you can suggest alternative titles to your class teacher. If you know of a really great book by a BAME or LGBT author that is around the same topic, share this with them! There may well be time for reading to pupils, and this is a great time to share diverse voices with pupils.
The schools I’ve taught in so far have been majority white schools, with very little diversity between pupils racially. This makes it even more important that they are exposed to voices and stories by people who don’t look like them. But it’s also true that diversity exists even within 100% White British class. Your pupils may not all live in a household with a mum and a dad and 2.4 children. There are increasing numbers of books for children with LGBT parents, parents with disabilities, reconstituted families. In the same way that it’s important for ethnic minority children to see themselves in the stories we share, for a child growing up with two dads, or a chronically ill parent, it’s important for them to have representation too.
If you’ve already come across lists of diverse books, share these with your schools. They may have a plan in place already to diversify their literature choices, but if they don’t, you’ll be making a big difference.
4. Reading for reading’s sake
Granted, this is a lot easier when teaching in-person rather than remotely via Zoom or Teams! In a non-covid, ‘normal’ classroom, you can have beautiful displays of books you recommend and children recommend to each other, inviting reading areas, shelves and boxes of books for pupils to choose from. In the times we’re living in now, it can be a little more challenging. As I’m not a classroom teacher this year, I turned to that always-helpful resource of EduTwitter to see what other people are doing.
When I tweeted out for help on this, I got some fantastic responses. I have linked a few below, and will update this as needed.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, just promote a love of reading, because it has the potential and the power to change lives. I was lucky enough to be on a zoom call recently with the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and he spoke with such dedication about the ability of reading to set you free from the situation you are in. I couldn’t agree more. If you’re not a big reader, for the sake of your pupils you have to learn to pretend, because you might encourage a reluctant reader to try a book that unlocks it all for the,. Conversely, if you don’t, then an avid reader might be turned off it because their teacher doesn’t think it’s important. We have such power as teachers to influence pupil choices. Remember that when you don’t feel like being chirpy about books!
5. As a student, you’re not on your own
It’s easy to feel like you’ve been thrown in the deep end as a student, expected to know everything and know how to do everything. I definitely felt like this more than once when I was out on placements. But, now that I’ve come out the other side of training, and have had a year as a class teacher, I can see the error in this way of thinking.! If I’m ever responsible for a student teacher (and I’m hopeful that one day I could be!) then I’d never expect them to know everything there is to know (I’m doubtful that I’ll ever know enough to get by, never mind know everything!)
What I’m trying to say is that your class teacher is there to support you. You can go to them for support with your planning, you can run ideas by them, you’re totally allowed to say “I don’t know how to teach this!” In the unlikely event that your class teacher isn’t co-operative with this, you can get in touch with your training provider for help, and you can ask other teachers in school too. Find out who the English subject lead is and throw your planning struggles their way (asking nicely, of course!) Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is enough to solve a problem, and sometimes you just need someone to say “Oh, this is what I did when I had to meet that objective,” and it’ll settle more in your head too. And finally, you can always do what I did with the advice for reading – EduTwitter is full of people who have the bits of knowledge you’re missing.
“Blue Monday” is the name given to the third Monday of the year, the day dubbed the most depressing on the entire calendar. In other words, it’s one of the few days of the year when it’s socially acceptable, cool, even, to use the word depression to describe how you’re feeling.
For those of us who use it on a far more regular basis, forgive us for judging it all as a little bit insincere.
“Blue Monday” was coined by a travel company, believe it or not, as a marketing tool to sell holidays on a day when the warm buzz of Christmas had worn off, leaving behind a need to escape everyday life for sunnier climes. This year, when I browsed the feeds for #BlueMonday on various social networks, it took no time at all to spot similar attempts to cash in on winter blues. Unsurprisingly, there were lots of holidays, lots of gymwear and lots of at-home exercise subscriptions claiming to give you ‘the body you’ve always wanted’. Hardly the kind of material to cheer you up, if you really were feeling a bit on the low end of ‘I’m fine, honestly.’
Since the first UK lockdown last spring, there has been a huge rise in the number of people reporting mental health difficulties. We are confronted daily with a staggering crisis: a constant stream of death, every one of them a tragedy; constant changes to work no matter what sector you work in; and for many, unrelenting isolation.
Writing not only as a teacher, but as someone who has juggled mental health and work, I want to contribute something useful to the #BlueMonday discourse. It’s February now, so you may question my timing, but sometimes Blue Monday rolls into Blue Tuesday, Blue Wednesday and so on, until you feel trapped and suffocated by the darkness. Since the first lockdown began, many teachers are experiencing the darkness or the web of worry for the first time. I hope some of the points below might help a little.
How to keep calm and carry on, when everything feels a bit too difficult
1. Check your to-do list
I really do understand what it feels like when that omnipresent list tips over to become an added pressure you just don’t need. There’s a fine line between that list being helpful and making everything worse! But one thing is for sure, there’s always a lot to do as a teacher (one thing I’ve noticed since online teaching has begun, is that people’s lists are getting longer and longer.) When your mental health is suffering, it’s time to re-evaluate. Look at what’s on your list and ask yourself: why is this on my list? If the answer is not along the lines of this is going to impact children’s learning then it can wait until tomorrow (that being a proverbial tomorrow, meaning whenever you have the time and/or the headspace to accomodate it.)
2. Stay hydrated
Brain fog can be a real issue when you’re feeling a bit down. I can’t stand that feeling of thoughts moving through treacle (not that this motivates me to follow this piece of advice all the time!) Drinking plenty of water can feel like a chore sometimes, but it will help you stay focused and counteract some of that screen headache!
3. Back to basics
Try and get enough sleep, enough daylight, and enough proper food (sorry, grabbing a cereal bar instead of a meal doesn’t count!) It may be harder in a pandemic, but something I found in my NQT year was this: if buying premade sandwiches on your way to work/in your lunch break means you eat a proper lunch, then it’s a worthy expense until you’re feeling better.
4. It’s okay to say no…
I am terrible for saying yes all the time, to the detriment of my own wellbeing. If you don’t feel like you can do something, for whatever reason, or you just can’t do it, then you are allowed to turn it down. The world won’t end if you lay down a boundary and don’t add something to your to-do list. You might actually be helping yourself by taking a nap instead of attending zoom aerobics. However, there’s a caveat to this:
5. Sometimes you have to say yes!
Sometimes, it actually makes you feel better to say yes.
6. Reach out
Know who your support system is, and don’t talk yourself out of getting in touch with them when you’re struggling. Call your mum, text your teacher buddy, jump back into the group chat. Whatever it is, whoever your people are, remember them and talk to them.
Since January 2018, I have recorded every book I have completed, with a few notes of what I thought about each one. My reading journal now has three years’ worth of notes, quotes and musings around the literature I’ve consumed.
I read thirty-seven books in 2020. (In case anyone’s interested, I read thrity-three in 2018 and another thirty-three in 2019.) This year, I’m aiming for forty (and have completed 1.5 to date) but before I start getting ahead of myself, I wanted to release my list of reads for 2020.
Here are ten of my favourites, because I really couldn’t narrow it down any further!
Disclaimer – the affiliate links below will take you to bookshop.org, an online bookshop supporting independent booksellers. I will also earn a small commission if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows
This was a hugely comforting read for me – one that I dipped in and out of and then devoured, in the week culminating in the UK school closures in March 2020. At first I was hesitant, not sure how I would get on with the story being told purely through letters, but in the end I barely noticed. The story is charming in every way: I found myself falling in love with Guernsey and the characters easily.
This was a lovely escapist read. The town of Avonlea, where the book is set, struck me as very like Maycomb (the town in To Kill a Mockingbird) and the two books themselves felt quite similar, although this one is all the calmer for not having morality tied into every plot point.
I am in awe of just how much happened in this book. There were so many individual plot points but all of them seemed fleshed out and rich. The settings were so well-described that I felt like I was there, and the character development was exceptional. It’s a book that I wish I could always read for the first time, strange as that may sound, because I wish I could always feel so strongly about it as I did the first time.
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge
This book opened my eyes and opened my mind, making me re-consider my position of privilege as an educated white woman, and re-consider how I should be responding to acts of racial violence such as those we saw in 2020.
This was an inspirational read and it took me a shamefully long time to read it. But I was so inspired by Mrs Obama’s work ethic and determination – it made me so determined to work hard to get where I want to be, personally and professionally.
I found this book to be very moving in the way it tackled the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s a middle-grade children’s book, one that I look forward to recommending to children that I teach in the future.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy
This book is a masterpiece. It was bought for me by the mum of a child I taught last academic year, and there’s something extra magical about having had it chosen for me. It’s so pure and innocent, but equally deep and meaningful. Everyone should read this book.
As a self-certified history geek, I loved this book. It’s a riotous history book, kind of a like a sweary Horrible Histories. I couldn’t help laughing out loud as a I read some of it, shocked into laughter by some of the absolute atrocities committed by “Great” Britain. It’s a much needed reminder to all, that the Empire was a horrible idea.
From history geekness to rampant feminism now – I didn’t even know that ‘data bias’ was a thing until I read this book, but it infuriated me greatly (and probably infuriated my family greatly too, as I burst into indignant conversations about it at regular intervals while reading!) So much of the world is inherently designed without women in mind, because women were never part of the design process – example: did you know that your seatbelt is not designed to save you, if you’re biologically female? If you think we don’t have a problem with gender inequality anymore, you need to read this book.
This was a really profound read. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for, buying this on the recommendation of a family friend. I only knew that it was a teacher’s (true) account of a ‘difficult’ child. I was so drawn into Torey Hayden’s world and her classroom because it was such a powerfully told story.
I think it’s fair to say that I have extremely varied taste in my reading choices, which can be a blessing and a curse! I wonder what it would be like to walk into a bookshop and make a beeline for a particular section, instead of doing what I do – stand, dazzled by choice at the door before drifting between shelves all over the shop. I mean, it makes my reading life more interesting, but does my bank account no good whatsoever.
This blog post has been a very long time coming. I’ve hesitated, paused, rethought and rewritten, always afraid that I would cause offence by publishing it. Because this post is going to call people out, and if I’ve written it right, it might make others uncomfortable with their own language choices around the subject of mental health.
(I will link to resources at the end of the post in case you want/need further information, or if you need support.)
I’m not sharing this out of anger so much as a need to make sure that one day, no-one will have to experience The Stigma that still shrouds mental illness, and worse having this stigma thrust so hurtfully in their face. You need to know how much damage your words can do.
The first time, I was eighteen.
I thought I liked him, and I thought he liked me back. We would send messages back and forth every evening that made me smile. The whole world was ahead of us: we carved the headspace for conversation out of university applications, history essays and astonishing academic pressure from almost every angle. He knew that I was anxious. He’d been in enough lessons where I had frozen, no words coming out and no amount of reassurance going in.
We weren’t ‘together’ or anything, though I might have quite liked us to be. Neither of us seemed to fit in, but it felt like we fitted together.
He invited me out for coffee, a few months after my birthday. I thought something was about to happen – I felt like a helium balloon, tugging skywards on its string.
And something did happen. Mercifully, I have forgotten his phrasing, except for one word. The gist, however, was that I wasn’t someone he could consider a relationship with.
I was too “fragile”.
It wasn’t so much a pin in the balloon as a cannonball, obliterating it and me.
For a long time, I believed him. When you trust someone, it’s hard not to. But I know now that in that last year of sixth form, though I was the most anxious I have ever been, I was never fragile. I had panic attacks nearly every day. I was practically selectively mute at times (something which I’ll always be apologetic to my teachers for!) I buried myself in my schoolwork, desperate not to get anything wrong. But I showed up every day. I forced myself into that building every morning, no matter how hard it was.
I am loath to say it, for reasons you may understand shortly, but there was nothing fragile about me.
Unfortunately, he was not the only person to call me ‘fragile’. Someone else has done it too, though you’ll have to forgive me for being a little more cagey around my second example. I’m aware of how relatively recent it was, and maintaining as much anonymity as possible – to protect myself, more than anything else. I have a right to tell my story, but not to dob anyone else in.
She led me to believe that I could trust her. I thought that those of us with similar experiences appreciated how difficult it was to share those experiences, and understood the sanctity of the trust you place in someone you chose to share them with. Naively, I assumed she understood. She gave me her time when I needed to talk and gave me a huge amount of reassurance that things would turn out okay. I tried my best to return her kindness when I could, or at least make it worth something by working hard and proving myself. At least, I thought that’s what I was doing.
I know I’m not perfect. Good grief, I’ve never even claimed to be, I wouldn’t dare! I have many, many faults, but I did not deserve what I got, which was ‘fragile’ being used as a reason why I didn’t receive professional support that I should have been entitled to.
It’s difficult to explain exactly how much of an impact this had on me. She hit me where it hurt. Was I really not right for the profession because of my anxiety? I thought she had been supporting me from a place of understanding, not from thinking that my mental health made me a weak member of the team.
I had confided so much in her and she broke that trust in the worst way.
When the conversation was over, I cried. Although ‘cried’ doesn’t do it justice. If you really haven’t got the key message yet, that ‘fragile’ is not a good word, then know that I have never been that upset in my life. I wasn’t even safe to drive myself home – I had to call my parents to come and rescue me and my car, from a safe distance where I knew I wouldn’t be seen in my weakness.
The person who called me fragile that time saw no error in what she said. She probably doesn’t even remember saying it. But I will never forget. She made me doubt everything, breaking down walls I had spent years building up.
You can say all sorts of things about me and my anxiety, but ‘fragile’ is my hard limit. Please do not imply weakness on my part.
I am capable of talking myself down hideously, without any extra help from you, thank you.
There is nothing fragile in the least, about being introverted and anxious, and still pursuing one of the ‘talkiest’ professions going. I’m a one-woman walking paradox, I’m proud of that (sometimes) and I am strong
Don’t call me fragile.
https://www.mind.org.uk/ – Information on (I think) all mental health conditions, wellbeing tips, plus a useful “Get help now” button, that doesn’t trigger the end of the world but instead can give you some real coping strategies for use in a crisis.
https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/ – The definitive campaign to end mental health discrimination across society, including use of language and how to talk about mental health with sensitivity.
Here we are, back in lockdown again… I’ll resist the urge to get all political and go on a rant, I promise!
As you’ll know if you’ve read my NQT year blogs (an ongoing project) I am an avid journaller, writing every day if I can. While being invaluable for recounting my NQT experiences, it’s also useful for looking back at how lockdown felt the first time around.
“There’s talk that all this – the lockdown, the social distancing, the school closures – could last six months or more. It’s a very sobering thought that all this could go on until September.”
29th March 2020
Reading those words, neatly put on the page in fountain pen (like now, I was at liberty to take the time to let the ink dry) I am very glad there’s no such thing as time travel. If I had known back then that nearly twelve months later nothing would be different, it would have been very difficult to find motivation for anything.
This lockdown is equally as difficult as the first, though for different reasons. The first time around, we didn’t know what to expect; this time, we kind of do, in that we know how grim it can be to feel trapped indoors! In the spring, I remember finding it hard to keep my house cool, whereas now it’s commonplace to hear variations on “Were you born in a barn?” or “Who’s forgotten to close the door behind the dog?!”
I should point out that for me, there are some major differences in my lockdown experience, First – last year, I had boldly gone out into the world, living with a schoolfriend in our first taste of young-professional freedom. For a whole collection of reasons, we’ve had to give up our house and move home to our parents’, which was really not part of the plan! Second – last year I had a full-time class teacher position, therefore a class to teach remotely and a rota of days to fulfil, teaching and caring for key-worker and vulnerable children at school. This year, as a school-based NTP tutor, I don’t have this. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be delivering tuition online or whether I will be furloughed. It’s hardly an ideal situation, and thousands of others are experiencing similar uncertainty.
Having upped sticks and moved twice in eighteen months, you can probably imagine the absolute chaos that is my assortment of belongings… My rented storage unit is the place of nightmares!
But I found something interesting the other day, that transported me instantly back to that first lockdown. I have a whole box full of notebooks, and slipped between two of them was a slip of paper, hastily scrawled some time in April, I think. I remember having plans to blog about it at the time.
So, nearly nine months on, we reach the crux of this post – the reason why it’s called “Under The Same Stars.”
Early in Lockdown 1, I took great solace from my work group chat. We all found it hard to suddenly be away from school and the close-quarters working life that a single-form-entry school can create. The whatsapp was full of memes, gifs and daily tales of lockdown life, though beneath the laughs there was undoubtedly an undercurrent of worry, fuelled by the uncertainty spawned by constant media speculation of reopening schools and regular spells of internet teacher-bashing. We muddled along as best we could.
One evening late on, I sat at my desk in the corner of my room, my attention split between the piece of writing I was working on and the little notification light on my phone, that relentlessly remained lit. The whatsapp was alive and kicking, and I put down my pen to join in.
Everyone was looking for a group of satellites in the dark sky: rumour had it they would be easily visible that night, and as luck would have it we had a clear evening. Some of us leaned from windows, some stood in gardens, others ventured out of their front doors for the first time in a while. We all gazed skywards, looking for the moving lights in the sky. And then came the perfect message, that brought inordinate joy. “Are we even looking at the right thing?”
I was alone in my bedroom but it still made me laugh out loud. True, we had no way of knowing if we were looking at the fabled satellites, or even if we were all looking at the same thing in the sky. But in that moment there was such beauty and warmth: it didn’t matter that we were spread out in our own homes having not been together for weeks. We were united by our separation, all looking up at the same night sky.
So if you’re feeling alone in lockdown, missing your friends or family or even the old normal of cramming into an overflowing train carriage, remember to look up. We are all under the same stars.
I’ve written about being introverted before (I am not ideal) and about supporting introverted and shy pupils (Empowering the Quiet Ones.) It shouldn’t feel like such a niche topic to write about: according to introvert guru Susan Cain, 30 to 50% of people show introverted traits and would likely identify as ‘quiet’. This means that roughly a third to a half of people don’t, and will never, fit the ‘extrovert ideal’ that is rife in all facets of society. While the number of introverts in the teaching profession might be a little lower, owing to it being such a people-oriented job that plenty of introverts would avoid like the plague, introverted teachers are everywhere. While that sounds a little bit creepy and subliminal, it’s not wrong! In every school, there will be introverted teachers. We are real, we matter, and we should be taken into account.
Lately, I was unsuccessful in a job application after making it all the way to interview (I don’t know how it is in other areas of the country, but it’s borderline impossible to even get that far, where I am!) My feedback stated classroom presence and confidence as a major contributor to my not getting the job. Everything that was outlined to me made perfect sense, except that it was a little like driving in the wrong gear, or having your eyes tested and trying to see through the wrong lenses.
My manner and classroom presence was mistaken for low confidence, because it hadn’t been taken into account that I was not a loud person. My own reflections on the lesson were quite different – though please don’t think I’m trying to launch a bitter attack on the headteacher who undoubtedly made the right choice for their school!
I walked out of the observed lesson feeling that I had done the best I could, and left the interview feeling like I had performed well. I am not good at interviews, so to feel collected in front of that (socially distant) panel was a massive achievement in itself. I wasn’t what the school were looking for, and there was a candidate who performed better. Such is life.
I mentioned an extrovert ideal earlier, and I wonder what damage this might be doing to the teaching profession. If we expect all teachers to be all-singing, all-dancing, all the time, then what will become of pupils who are introverted themselves, who never see themselves reflected in a teacher. As I see it, a child might go through primary school and have seven extroverted teachers – and that’s great if the child themselves is extroverted and can bounce off that energy. But imagine the child is quiet. Maybe a little shy, unsure of how to handle their quietness in social settings. What a difference it could make, to have even one quieter teacher!
Before you think I’m trying to sell myself as a not-very-good teacher, let me outline my classroom manner, so you can make your own reasoned decision on that. I’m not a shouty person, nor do I intend to become one. I’m not a fan of raising my voice (because I remember being little myself and hating it when adults in school shouted!) preferring to bring the class down to my level instead of raising myself up to theirs. I aim to bring a calm atmosphere into my classroom, something I’ve been successful in doing in the past – we can be noisy too, of course, but there’s always that return to a reasonable level. I want to create an environment that’s supportive to every child, something that I think has become even more important in the present climate. It’s undeniable that some children need and want a ‘loud’ teacher (‘loud’ in the sense of voice and personality) and I can throw myself into that state of mind for a while when the time comes. But my classroom is ultimately a haven for the quiet – hopefully it’s the classroom I needed myself, and a third to a half of any class might need too. I like to think that my classroom could be the place where introverted children can shed their shyness and simply be ‘quiet’. I have a child in mind when I write that, who certainly became a lot more comfortable in her own skin while in my class, not being pushed to be something she wasn’t.
For trainees or NQTs who might have had the not-so-helpful feedback of ‘you need to be louder’, here are a few tips that I try to follow, that your extroverted observer might be looking for.
Body language – Look like you’re going to be loud. Stand square with shoulders back when you’re addressing the whole class. Don’t fidget while you’re speaking, as your body language shows how much you value and believe what you’re saying.
Consider where in your body your voice is coming from, where you’re putting it, and the effect this will have on the room.
Wait for silence – You are the most important voice in that room, at that moment. Don’t settle for anything less than silence.
Don’t look to your mentor for approval or clarification – This one’s specific to trainees, but it’s something I was guilty of frequently! If you look to the usual class teacher to check you’re doing it right, you undermine everything you’ve said to the class. It’s your lesson and you need to own it, and own any mistakes you might have made in the process!
Own your space. It’s a tricky one, especially in a job interview when it’s not your room!But move around the room, use all of the space effectively (easier in non-covid times, I will admit.) In my NQT classroom, I had two different chairs, one by the computer and one by the whiteboard. My movement between these areas signalled parts of the lesson non-verbally to the children, which unconsciously puts you in control of the classroom and what happens within it.
This blog is in response to the Priti Patel bullying scandal that has swept through UK news recently. I’m not a politician and won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the situation – like any other member of the public, the view I have has been formed of what I’ve read and heard from the news and social media. What I do know the intricacies of, however, is what it is to experience bullying and its fallout. I will link resources throughout and below to provide further information on the story.
It has been alleged that Home Secretary Priti Patel has engaged in bullying behaviour towards officials and civil servants in the Home Office. An official investigation and report gives detailed evidence for this, culminating in a statement that she broke Ministerial Code, or, in layman’s terms, that she did not meet the professional standards set for her role.
While I obviously cannot pass comment on what she has or has not done, I know that an accusation of bullying should always be taken seriously. I also know that if I was accused of breaking the professional standards for my own job in such a serious way, then I would probably not be allowed to remain in post while it was under investigation.
I was bullied. Despite a love of learning, strong bonds with my teachers and some friendships to be treasured, from the ages of seven to eleven, I usually dreaded going to school. I lived in fear of people in my class. I couldn’t understand why I was a target, why they could turn on a sixpence and go from happy, laughing children to ones who took pleasure in wearing me down, tormenting me or making me look stupid.
The bullying I experienced ebbed and flowed. It wasn’t always there: there would be an intense few months, and then it would die away for a while, leaving me questioning every sentence and analysing it for the barbs and dual-meanings that could cut me to the quick.
I don’t think it was ever witnessed by my teachers. If it had been, I want to think that it would have been dealt with differently. But just because they didn’t see it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.
A number of MPs have spoken out in support of Ms Patel, stating that they have never experienced the behaviour outlined in the report. They have only seen a professional woman, who couldn’t possibly be deemed a bully. The people who bullied me didn’t look like bullies. Even when they were engaging in some of their bullying behaviours, it probably looked like a table of children having a laugh, maybe messing around a bit and avoiding work for a few minutes. Except one of them wasn’t laughing. One was close to tears, humiliated and wanting to disappear. She didn’t think she would be believed, because sometimes, just sometimes, it was just laughing and joking and she could be part of it too. Even though it could (and did) change in a heartbeat, she thought that because the smiles had been seen, the feelings of being bullied wouldn’t matter.
Our Prime Minister has wholeheartedly backed Ms Patel, which sends out a clear message: the important voice here is that of the alleged bully, not those she may have bullied.
I don’t think this is acceptable.
What is this telling those who may be being bullied in their workplace? That if their bully is in a position of seniority, their word and position will matter more? That their bully will be supported, even when presented with evidence of their behaviour?
Let me alter the situation slightly, rewrite it to allow a different viewpoint.
A number of children in a class report being bullied by one individual. The individual is the top of the class, the smartest child who works hard and is well-liked by several teachers. When the report of bullying is made, it is investigated – evidence is collated that exemplifies bullying under the school’s definition. But teachers begin to rally around the accused bully. “She’s never given me any reason to believe she’s a bully,” they say. “I’ve only ever seen her be helpful and kind to others. She speaks her mind and is focused on her work, directing others to get things done, but she isn’t a bully.”
Your child is one who is being bullied. They come home every night afraid to return. Their confidence is slowly chipped away, their work gets worse and they are terrified of being put in a group with this girl. You call the school, hopeful that the issue will be dealt with. You know from other parents that your child is not the only one. You are put through to the headteacher.
He tells you that the ‘bully’ isn’t a bully at all, the reports and evidence are meaningless and there will be no consequences.
If this doesn’t make you angry, you’re not paying attention (to quote the commonly-used phrase.)
It’s true that Ms Patel has a released an ‘apology’ of sorts in relation to the allegations made against her. I’ve watched the footage, and as a formerly-bullied individual myself, it made me deeply uncomfortable. Her words weren’t about those she affected, they were all about her. She made excuses for how she acted, stating that work pressures and lack of support could have been to blame. And maybe the worst, she said that concerns weren’t raised with her over her behaviour: she didn’t know she was upsetting people.
Those who are bullied don’t just approach their bullies to tell them they’re upset. The very nature of bullying wears one down to a state where you won’t look for help, and certainly not from the very person doing the bullying. And the bully knows this – it gives them power.
It’s common enough to say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and there are a plethora of other Pinterest-worthy quotes to suggest we should be grateful for our challenges for turning us into better people. But I refuse to be grateful for being bullied. It stole parts of me I will never get back. It shaped the adolescent I was and the young woman I am. I don’t doubt it contributed to my anxiety being what it is.
I don’t think it’s okay for the voice of a bully, proven or accused, to be allowed to continue in a position of power that gives responsibility for the safety of people in the United Kingdom. Being bullied does not make you feel safe. Being bullied leaves you feeling vulnerable, bruised and alone, which is only made worse by not being believed. And when the most powerful man in the country speaks out in support of the accused, that’s a clear signal that you’re not being believed.
This blog was originally published by True Education Partnerships. You can read it on their site instead by following this link (though if you do, please consider coming back here to leave a comment on it!)
I spent the summer term and summer holidays trawling every search I could think of, in search of a new teaching position. Fresh out of my NQT year, I was hungry for more, hungry for a fresh challenge and hungry to be one of the lucky few who appeared on my Twitter feed, rightfully celebrating every drop of their success at securing a post in what was a pretty awful summer for recruitment. As August’s days ran out like the sand in an hourglass, I began to lose hope.
To cut a long story short, I’ve found myself working in a nursery for a while. And it is wonderful. I was initially so reluctant to work in Early Years – all of which stems from being thoroughly put off at university – so if I can learn to love it, and in such a short time-frame too, I’m fairly sure most people can.
This blog is a taste of Early Years, a collection of snapshots of every day that still manages to feel somewhat magical to me. I think I’m aiming it at the student I was, pushing through my degree from 2016-19 with the misguided view that the most valuable place for me to be would be Key Stage Two (Early Years colleagues who may read this, forgive me – I was young and misguided! And student teachers, there is still just as much fun to be had in KS2, you just have to look a little harder to see it sometimes.)
The first day
My first day at preschool coincided with the first day for many of the children in the room. They ranged in age from only-just two to not-far-from four years old, and I think the scene was quite typical of preschool Septembers. A few tears (from parents and from children) a lot of cuddles, and some quick-thinking to thrust some distraction where it was sorely needed to ward off thoughts of hometime!
I felt way out of my depth, even having taught Year One in my NQT year so not being averse to quite young children. But I was immediately accosted by a confident three-year-old, returning for the first time since March.
“Read to me?” she asked, with approximately zero space for negotiation. And, being the massive bookworm and lover of children’s books that I am, I did not need too much of an invitation. Perhaps Covid-19 has robbed the preschool room of its soft furnishings, but there is still so much joy in sitting on the floor with a book, with a three-year-old hanging off your every word and leaning casually on you as if you’ve known each other forever.
I will never cease to be amazed by the trust the preschoolers place in the adults who work with them. I suppose it’s youthful naivety, something we have a duty to protect, respect and nurture, but it’s something beautiful too. That girl (who still asks me daily to read to her – we’re currently on Percy the Park Keeper and I couldn’t be happier) didn’t know I was feeling out of my depth but her timing was perfect, setting me at ease with a request for something I knew I wouldn’t be able to get wrong.
Everything you don’t see
At the end of the summer holidays, I collected a huge number of shells from beach walks with that gung-ho teacher attitude of “I might need those.” And I’m so glad I did, though I never envisaged them becoming part of a dinosaur tuff tray setup!
Everything in my NQT classroom was so planned and curated for progress (or so I hoped) that I almost felt uneasy at first, with preschool being so open-ended and free-flowing. For any trainees reading, who aren’t sure about Early Years, don’t be afraid of this! The conversations I’ve had with children over various tuff trays since that first week of September have been enlightening. And sometimes more so is the opportunity to sit back and just watch.
The average person on the street doesn’t see what I see or what Early Years colleagues see in our rooms every day. Average Joe might see a child pouring sand over a toy digger with its overflowing scoop pointed skywards, and assume aimlessness or ineptitude. I see a child exploring the capacity of said digger’s scoop. I see them learning how dry sand behaves and then seeing later that the same doesn’t happen when the sand is damp. I hear them narrate their experiences to themselves, making sense of their world.
The same goes for painting. I didn’t appreciate quite how much children get out of gradually covering a page with paint, with what I once saw as random splashes and streaks of poster paint. A ‘mess’ of mixed paint, almost soaking through the paper, is so much more than that to the two-year-old who proudly produced it. It’s the development of what will become a lifetime’s pencil grip. It’s learning to recognise colours, it’s learning what happens when you put those colours on top of each other, it’s experimentation with shapes, it’s raw joy in creating something.
If you’re a trainee who’s not really considered Early Years before, then be open to it. There’s so much happiness in a classroom full of children who are far too young to have any idea what’s happening in the big wide world. That happiness makes my current work days a pleasure. If you’re like me six months ago, thinking ‘there’s no way I could do that!’ then step out of your comfort zone – you might surprise yourself. And if you’re one of the far too numerous people who don’t give Early Years the credit it deserves, then think again. From tiny acorns, great oak trees grow.
It’s such a long time since I’ve written one of these blog posts, revisiting my NQT year with an eye to finding something useful to share! When I flicked through my diaries to find what I wrote in December, I wasn’t sure how any of it could become something useful to an up-and-coming NQT. Though the pages are in my handwriting, it feels as though they were written by somebody else – I have changed enormously since then, through my own determination and due to events in and out of school.
“The hierarchy that exists at work melted away once we all sat around a table for dinner. We were just friends […] sharing a good time.”
2nd December 2019, writing about the leaving do for our headteacher on 30th November
To NQTs reading this, don’t expect your December to start anything like mine: two consecutive weekends of social engagements! For an un-party animal, it was intense, but it really helped me feel like a proper part of the team, something I found really difficult, having been a student teacher in the same school for most of the previous academic year.
“The introverted part of me was at war with my GAD, which was also fighting with how much I wanted to remember the night for good reasons and have a good time […] I wanted the ground to swallow me up got most of the night […] But the last hour was incredible. We danced, we sang and I couldn’t have asked for a better end to the night.”
8th December 2019, writing about the night before (my first Christmas do…)
I cannot be the only person on this planet to have been the NQT not looking forward to the Christmas do. I’m just not good at partying! But know this: you’re not any less of a teacher if you don’t go, and it doesn’t have any effect on your ‘participation in the wider school life’ if you elect to give it a miss! Equally, there might be bits that you enjoy – I just wish my enjoyment hadn’t come after so much anxiety first!
“It’s four years since I interviewed for Hope. I’m not feeling enormously reflective but I am proud of how far I’ve come in that time, even if I do tend to crumple into a heap after too long in the dark.”
9th December 2019
Much as I hoped that November would be it as far as physical and mental health difficulties, it was not. December is a crazy time in school with very real power to drag you under in both capacities. NQT flu will do the rounds until early spring if you’re not careful, and it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come.
When December came around, I was tired. Early starts and all-consuming days were my reality: with preparations for Christmas and ad hoc timetable alterations on top of still juggling the business of learning to teach, I felt as though my feet didn’t touch the ground for most of the month.
I did, however, have the presence of mind (usually) to recognise that I had made progress. I definitely recognise it now, having explored my journey to teaching on a podcast and having re-read the blogs I’ve written so far about the autumn term. And you should recognise it too – stick it on a post-it somewhere visbile if you have to, so that when you’re in your classroom and it’s dark already (because it will happen) you have a reminder that you’ve made it so far already, and as long as you’re doing your best, you are enough.
If/When the lack of daylight starts getting to you
Try really hard to get outside at least once during daylight hours. Break duty, PE, or an impromptu run around the playground (which can be super useful when the little one have lost focus in the afternoons)
Think about getting yourself a daylight lamp. I couldn’t function without mine in the winter months. They’re not hugely expensive to buy online but they can make a real difference to your energy levels and state of mind, by mimicking the brightness of sunlight and tricking your body into making a few more happy chemicals. [Disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional, just a convert to the daylight lamp! If you find yourself really struggling mentally in the winter months, definitely see your GP to see if there’s anything they can do for you.]
Fresh air can have magical reviving properties in a stuffy, centrally-heated classroom.
Try to plan at least one day a week when you don’t leave in the dark (this is the hardest in December, but so worth it.)
“I owe it to myself to tell someone I’m not feeling okay. Bottling it up isn’t helping.”
11th December 2019
With the gift of hindsight, I do regret being so open when times were hard. I will never be ashamed of my mental health (or occasional lack thereof) through my own actions, but the actions of others can change everything. I would never, never advocate for bottling thing up to the detriment of your wellbeing though. If you’re an NQT and you’re struggling to stay on top of things, of course you should speak up. My advice is this: be certain that you trust the person you open up to. Sometimes that trust is better found outside of school.
“Friday morning (yes, all of it!) was my NQT assessment. And I’m not doing awfully! There are things I can improve, of course, but that was always going to be the case.”
14th December 2019
I will definitely write more about my experience of NQT assessments in the future, as there’s probably a blog’s worth and more that I could say! However, the notable point here would be that I was so worried about this assessment meeting and what I might need to prove or disprove. As are many of the things I worry about, this was not anything to worry about. It was an opportunity to go through my professional development so far in person, and it was an overwhelmingly positive experience.
“In that moment, hugging my gift basket to my chest and feeling wrapped up in loveliness, I realised that I matter.”
20th December 2019
Christmas 2019 was the first in three years that saw me make it to the end of term without missing any festivities. I saw it all. I lived and breathed Year One levels of yuletide hysteria. And I enjoyed every minute. Granted, I then slept for thirteen straight hours to recover, but I am proud of my autumn term. I changed, but more importantly, I changed things for ‘my’ children.
On Wednesday morning, I recorded a podcast with the wonderful Toria from Teaching Others and Learning All the Time. She has made it her mission to raise tiny voices from the Twitterverse, to help us be heard and to make our stories known.
One of those stories is mine.
My URL alone should demonstrate that a podcast is a long way out of my comfort zone. My interview technique or lack thereof is also a pretty good indication! But over the summer, something has shifted for me: a desire to be heard. This blog is one way, and being the first early-career teacher to speak on Tiny Voice Talks is another.
I won’t give too much away of what we discussed in the podcast: I think it’s an excellent snapshot of me, my story and my identity as a teacher. It’s a huge step for me to start this new chapter of finding a voice and using it – as you will hear if you give the podcast a listen, you’ll realise that for a long time I didn’t really have a voice at all.
You can hear the podcast on BuzzSprout here, or via Spotify here.
Something I did a whole lot of in lockdown, not surprisingly, was reading. There were plenty of times when I needed an escape from the stressful scenario we found ourselves in (arguably, that we haven’t left yet!) and my crammed bookshelves were the ideal respite. So for this Sunday Shelf, I thought I’d do a bit of a highlights reel of what I’ve been reading of late. I’ll warn you now, they’re three entirely unrelated choices and may appear an eclectic mix!
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse ~ Charlie Mackesy
This book was bought for me by the parent of a child I taught in my NQT class. It already held a special place in my heart for that reason alone, but once I sat and read it (in a single sitting, on the evening I received it) it became clear that place was well-earned. This book is a masterpiece, and I don’t throw that word around lightly!
You’ve probably seen pages from this book being shared around on social media – if not, then you’re missing out on a treat. The book tells a simple story of (unsurprisingly) a boy, a mole, a fox and horse. Each one needs the others for different reasons, but the important thing is that they are all needed and all important. The message the book sends out is a peaceful one, that the reader too is important and needed. Though the snippets of life advice are directed to the characters in the book, you feel drawn in and as though they are speaking directly to you.
It’s a hug in a book, for children and for adults because there are different layers of understanding to the profound lines in the book. (If you’re feeling in any way emotional before reading, bring tissues – I should have!)
“I’m so small,” said the mole.
“Yes,” said the boy, “but you make a huge difference.”
Charlie Mackesy – The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
All The Bright Places ~ Jennifer Niven
This book has recently been released as a Netflix film, so if the title seems familiar, you may have scrolled past it (or even watched it, it’s a quite faithful adaptation that adds rather than takes away from the original story.)
Everything about this book is wonderful. It came under scrutiny when it was released, and has been criticised again since, for its portrayal of mental illness (as someone who lives with mental illness and has struggled with grief, another major theme of this book, I’m not in agreement with the criticism at all.) The line on the cover is a succinct but accurate summary: The story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who wants to die.
I enjoyed this book for its attention to detail: the intricacies of grief, the fantastic character development for Violet (the female protagonist) and the minutiae of Finch’s struggle with his mental illness. Another tissue warning, and potentially a trigger warning, but I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It’s a star of the Young Adult Lit scene, and not without good reason.
Secret Service ~ Tom Bradby
This was an off-piste choice for me – I don’t do thrillers, I don’t do spies, I don’t do politics!
What I do do, is recognising names on covers and thinking I’ll try it because I recognise the author… I bought this not long after watching Bradby’s ITV documentary with Harry and Meghan, appreciating his apparent decency in his journalistic role.
And I wasn’t disappointed by the book in the least. It’s intelligent, sharp and extremely current. It was clear while reading that Bradby’s experience in the newsroom had a large input to the novel, as he knew what he was talking about with all the political processes that were the undercurrent of the whole book.
Through the beauty of my twitter trends list this morning, I found out that today is Book Lovers’ Day (known as National Book Lovers’ Day in the USA.) This is a day that screamed out for me to make a return to writing a Sunday Shelf post!
I am a reader. It is a defining part of my identity, which has probably come across before now through the course of reading my blogs! I come from a family of readers – I’m certain I wouldn’t read nearly as voraciously as I do, without the influence of my parents. Friday nights in our house were Library Night: I remember with such fondness how the children’s section used to look in the big library in town, and the almost-extinct sound of the library stamp is still so incredibly evocative to me. It is an untold pleasure these days (or at least, it was, prior to lockdown) to have to approach the desk as a book won’t scan on the self-service machine, for it to be manually scanned and a date stamp be added to the ticket glued inside the cover.
As a child, I examined these tickets carefully (I have always been a geek, okay?) I loved the idea of how many hands the book had passed through to reach mine. It was a source of fascination to see dates that reached back in time, to children who would have been long-grown up.
I hadn’t intended for this post to become such a love letter to the library, but it’s certainly heading that way! I think it’s a shame that children today who do visit libraries, a sadly dwindling number in many areas, recognise the beep of a self-scan machine rather than the satisfying click and thud of a date stamp. But it’s a shame full-stop, that so many children don’t experience the same joy I felt as a child, wandering into this room full of stories.
It’s an immense pleasure as an adult, to find others who are equally passionate about books. At university, I had a wonderful English tutor (who is now often a reader of this blog…) who recognised in me the bibliophile streak. She would often ask what I was reading when we passed in corridors, or if I was found (frequently!) curled around a paperback in a quiet corner.
It’s quite the norm to be regarded as an oddity for reading, something that I’ve long since gotten used to. I wonder if other book lovers feel the same spark that I do, when I spot a person on public transport, on a crowded platform, or in the middle of a coffee shop, with a book instead of their phone?
This Book Lovers’ Day, appreciate the readers in your life. Let them recommend you a book. And never underestimate how much obscure knowledge they might have squirrelled away, from all that reading!
Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, by Jessica Soffer
When ’empowerment’ emerged as a theme for the #DailyWritingChallenge, I thought long and hard about it. I feel as though I have been empowered by this blog, sharing pieces of myself with every entry I post and making connections with new people who have been affected by the things I have written. But this time, I’m keen to live up to the fact I tell people I’ve got an education blog! Here is my first attempt at writing some advice for teachers.
I was a Quiet One at school. It wasn’t the fault of my teachers (something I remind myself of when faced with quiet pupils of my own!) but their actions as a result of my quietness had an impact on it, I think. I remember feeling distinctly put out, when some of them tried to force a little loudness from me! Hopefully, some of these strategies will be useful to you in the classroom, to give a voice to your quieter pupils.
Think / Pair / Share
It’s a classic strategy, and can be used with all age groups (with my Y1 class I omitted the ‘think’ stage usually.) It’s benefical for pupils no matter where they fall on the loud/quiet spectrum: the pupils who might otherwise blurt out their first idea have time to articulate and refine their thinking, and those reluctant to participate have a much smaller stage on which to speak, which make go a long way to easing their worries.
In terms of empowerment, having that rehearsal time can encourage lots of quiet children to share their thoughts with the class. Additionally, you might pose the question “Who can tell me what their partner said?” In this case, you may hear from the quiet ones as they may be happier to share ideas that aren’t their own, or you may hear the ideas of the quiet one, verbalised by the more talkative partner! (I will admit to being the oft-silent talking partner at university, regularly saved by my chattier partner in crime!)
One important thing to note: never assume q uiet child has, is going to or has any intention (or need!) to get over being quiet. These strategies may help put them at ease, but they are not ‘cures’.
I made that naive mistake in my first teaching placement – I’m not sure why! But I listened in to the paired conversations and happened upon some brilliant ideas from a very bright, shy girl. When it came to class-wide sharing, I called on her to repeat her ideas to the class. She looked at me, appalled that I would put her on show like this. Her rabbit-in-headlights expression has stayed with me, and now my practice is quite different.
In this way, I make sure good ideas are heard and valued in the whole class forum, while minimising discomfort. Let the record show that I do recognise that sometimes it is better to push a child from their comfort zone, to speak up a little more. You know your children best.
This can be great for boosting confidence and for empowering quiet children by making them feel valuable in a class full of more extroverted others. Of course, displaying the work of more confident is entirely appropriate too – it boosts the self-esteem of all children. Never underestimate the lift it can give, for a pupil to hear their teacher tell their class that their piece of work is to be admired.
I’ve done with with Year 5’s and Year 1’s; it was effective with both. A Y5 boy who largely kept himself to himself positively glowed when I asked his permission to read out the opening of his story to the class. The rest of his work met the same high standard, and his confidence remained in subsequent writing tasks. In Y1, I spent a long time explaining and demonstrating how the children would be expected to show their thinking in a maths journal. When I gave the class time to practice on a whiteboard, one girl stood out. She was one of the shyest in the class, but her introversion was to her advantage: her thinking was clear. She was a neat worker too, and her board clearly showed all of her workings to find the answer. When I showed it to the class, I didn’t name her at first, but after a moment, she proudly proclaimed ‘That’s mine!’ with a slightly embarrassed smiles as heads turned her way.
This can be brilliant for getting to know your class, addressing current issues, and helping children learn how to discuss their feelings. The very premise of circle time can be empowering to some children: they feel safe within clear structures such as “you may only speak if you’re holding X” However, the feeling of having all eyes on you, waiting for you to speak, can have the complete opposite effect on others, producing a nightmare scenario for them.
This is why I sometimes followed up circle time discussions this year with colouring or a wordsearch. These relaxed, quiet activities allowed me to move between froups of children and open up the circle time topic afresh in a smaller forum or even on a individual basis. Having your voice heard is so important when you don’t enjoy speaking publicly. There are ways around it for shy/anxious/introverted children, so make time for the smaller voices in your class!
It’s not a secret that praise is good for all children. It can sometimes be easy, though, for extroverted teachers to make thoughtless comments when praising quiet children. “It’s good to finally hear from you!” “Now, was that so hard?” These remarks aren’t meant maliciously, but they give a perhaps unintended message: that quiet pupils are only valuable when they speak up. There is of course huge value for any contribution made in a class discussion, but is there not space in a classroom too, for the thinkers, the reflectors, the note-takers? Don’t assume that lack of participation equals lack of engagement full stop.
Praise your quiet ones as you would praise any other child. They may not appreciate having attention drawn to the fact they’re not the chattiest in the class! Once again, you know your children best – it might be appropriate for some to have a reward chart to commend contributions, others will simply follow the same reward system as the rest of the class for a really great idea shared.
Private praise cna also go a long way. I taught a bubbly but very shy girl this year (an odd combination of adjectives, I know, but there’s no other way to describe her!) When she plucked up the courage to join in class-wide games, she received Dojo points like the others, but I also took care to speak to her individually on the playground later that day. “I’m really proud of you for being brave and playing the number bond game today. I know you don’t find it easy, but you did well today.” A well-timed praise message to parents never goes amiss either.
Silent Answer Jars
These can be a great way to open a topic and ascertain prior knowledge, to collect pupils questions or as a plenary activity – the practical applications are pretty much endless! (Secondarily, they are also a great excuse to raid the art cupboard / have a good rummage in the craft aisle of your local shop of choice, because decorating the jars is all part of the appeal!)
I used answer jars as part of a project in my second year at university (see the picture above, I’m sure you can imagine the fun we had with piles of craft supplies in the uni library!) We delivered a week-log project on gender inequality, and used the jars to measure opinion and changes in opinion during the sessions. We gave the children squares of coloured paper (because it’s infinitely more exciting than writing on white or lined paper) and invited them to deposit their thoughts in the jars. The answers were anonymous, which empowered even the shyest children to be honest and open with their thoughts.
Hopefully, some of these ideas will help to empower the quiet children you teach.
Above all, remember that empowerment and confidence-boosting will happen at their pace, not yours. Don’t try to force anything. If you have never felt the pain of being put on the spot and wishing the ground would swallow you up, then lucky you, because it can be an agony like no other. If you’re not capital-q Quiet yourself, then please try to understand your quiet pupils, even if their behaviour seems totally alien to you.
It only takes one teacher to change a child’s story. Let it be you.
I’m in a weird in-between stage in my life, and I don’t know if I like it. Actually, I think my family would attest to me not liking it very much, considering how much I’ve moaned about it lately!
All my life, my next step has been predetermined and secure. I have always known what was coming next and I have revelled and flourished under the semi-pressure that came from knowing exactly what I needed to do to reach that next step. GCSEs, to get me into sixth form. A-levels, to get me into university. A degree, two placements and an interview to secure my NQT job. I’d never be so full of my own self-importance as to use the following phrase seriously, but I have always rather liked it:
Now, however, I’m in a position I’d hoped I wouldn’t be in, with no secure plans for September. It’s been this way since late May, and despite my efforts I’m no closer to having a class this side of Christmas. Coronavirus has battered recruitment across every job market: even the mantra of many of my family members, ‘there will always be a need for teachers’ seems not to ring true for me at present!
I was chatting with a friend lately, reminiscing old times and lamenting my lack of employment with a liberal sprinkling of humour and gifs (the latter of which is a staple of online conversation with me.) I likened the whole situation to having fallen off a treadmill that had run non-stop since I started school, aged four and a half.
My friend got me thinking though, when he very levelly remarked, ‘treadmills are over-rated’.
Treadmills are over-rated.
I think I’m beginning to have the realisation that most people have in their twenties: that life is not moving at the same pace fit everybody anymore.
I have friends who will start their NQT year this September, friends who have made plans to move and teach abroad this autumn, friends who aren’t teachers who are forging paths in their own fields. I have friends who are engaged, friends who are having babies, friends in long-term relationships, friends who are single.
It’s not like being in a secondary school cohort where you’ll all walk away with a clutch of GCSEs an a college place. My university cohort has scattergunned across the country (and the world) and nobody is doing the same as anybody else anymore.
Maybe I haven’t fallen off the treadmill at all.
Maybe the treadmill doesn’t exist.
In which case, my wise friend was entirely right. Treadmills are over-rated.
However, this does leave me with quite a task at hand – making peace with not knowing, and recognising that not knowing could lead to something wonderful.