Exclusive Staff Room Spy teacher blog from Tutors and Futures

Staff Room Spy: School Theatre Trip

Miss, we’re not in the classroom anymore…

As a child, I was incredibly lucky. My parents are well-travelled and I was therefore accustomed to all sorts of planes, trains and automobiles, not just in the school holidays but also at weekends. Travelling was a luxury to which I had immediate access. Closer to home, we went to museums, to the theatre and to concerts. The excitement of clutching a pristine ticket (and probably a bag of Wine Gums) came with the knowledge of being able to enter an alternative land. On the flip side, I was also dragged round my fair share of historical buildings, ornate gardens and football matches, usually wondering how long it would be before I could have that ice-cream I’d been promised if I’d just be the dutiful daughter for a bit longer and accept that maybe my parents enjoyed a different calibre of extra-curricular activity to the ones by which I was enamoured. Either way, it never fails to sadden me when I hear of students who live in west London and have never been to the (free) Science Museum, students who live in north London and have never been to Hampstead Heath and students who live anywhere in London and have never been on the tube. So on top of all of my other teacherly duties, I am also organising trips like a madwoman this year.

Last week, I took 30 Year 11 students to see To Kill A Mockingbird at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. It was the second time I’d seen it myself, because it’s brilliant and it filled all of my criteria for an excellent trip:

1. It had educational value:

We’re studying To Kill A Mockingbird. Some clever soul adapted it for the stage. Those who hadn’t already read it (as per their summer holiday homework) were up to speed and those who had were able to consider how the novel worked on stage. I’ll chalk that up as a win.

2. It was inexpensive:

We try as hard as we possibly can to keep costs down for students. This trip came in at £16.50, which I think is a great deal for the theatre, especially one as beautifully constructed and magical as this one.

3. Transport was easy:

Getting the tube with students always gives me heart palpitations, especially at rush hour, on a Thursday, on a balmy late summer evening. But the students on this trip were able to plan the route themselves and giving them autonomy not only eased the pressure on teachers to be constantly counting how many stops left to go, it also upped the number of London teens who are actually able to navigate the tube system.

4. It was fun and the students loved it:

Guess what? Teenagers hate stuff that’s boring. There’s no point whatsoever in taking them to the theatre just for the sake of it. They whinge and rustle crisp packets and want to go to the toilet constantly. None of these make teenagers, let alone their teachers, very popular with theatre-going types. Trips have to be chosen carefully and this was captivating from start to finish. Even the students who hadn’t read it enjoyed it!

Of course there were some downsides too. Trekking back to south London at the end of an evening made for not just tired students but also tired teachers the next day. Don’t get in the way of a tired teacher: you’ll end up cleaning the whiteboard until it sparkles or making enough coffee to re-launch Noah’s Ark. And then finding us some biscuits. Any biscuit, even those Nice ones that no-one really likes and just spark an onslaught of dad jokes. More significantly, what about those students who can’t go? I know my utopian school isn’t quite ready to open its gates yet. When it does, there’ll be none of that money stuff to worry about because some Willy Wonka-esque philanthropist will leave a kindly donation in a sparkly purple envelope and then everyone will be able to go to Morocco or Stratford-upon-Avon or central London or wherever else the good stuff is happening. It’s going to be great.

Despite the barriers, learning can’t just be confined to the classroom. Students must have knowledge of the world around them if they are to truly succeed. There was outcry a few years ago during a GCSE English Language paper which featured an article about supermarket packaging and included an image of a swede. An alarming number of students didn’t know what a swede was. Despite the image which AQA had helpfully included, they’d never seen one before. So they panicked. When was I supposed to teach them about root vegetables? It’s definitely not the lesson in between the impact of poetic devices and Shakespeare’s representation of Shylock. Is it my responsibility at all? Where would I even start?

The next trip on the calendar is a weekend on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Anything which involves passport numbers and mothers who repeatedly email about their daughter’s propensity to “a bit of travel sickness” is always going to be tricky. I was lucky enough to go on the same trip when at school myself and I can still recall shedding tears during the Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate. I imagine it will be even more powerful during the centenary year and I hope the memories stay with my students in the same way they have with me. As soon as I’ve finished handing out the sick bags, I’ll let you know.

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Exclusive Staff Room Spy teacher blog from Tutors and Futures

Staff Room Spy: Targets

One out of three isn’t bad…

New pencil case? Check. Shoes polished? Check? Excessive amounts of positivity? Check check check. Yes, it’s back to school time all over again and I’m ready for it. I love the start of the new school year; there’s so much promise, so much expectation and so much new stationery. Nothing can go wrong when you have new mechanical pencils.

At the start of each school year, I like to establish a few goals to keep me on the straight and narrow. I expect my students to set their own targets and know how to achieve them so I like to work on the same principle. Without fail, the first target is always to work less during the evening and at weekends. And what happened this week? I drove home each night eye-balling anyone who was within a 6 metre radius of a pub, bar, restaurant, even the cinema. I wondered what jobs they did, how early they got up in the morning and how on earth they had the energy to be out socialising and enjoying their youths when I was in the process of frying my own brain trying to prioritise the first 47 tasks on my ‘to do’ list. I felt a bit jealous. The first weekend was no different. Hello sunshine pouring through my window. I can’t come out to play today because I have to analyse my exam results from last year, plan a couple of schemes of work and respond to the emails that have piled up in my inbox over the course of the past 5 days. But maybe I’ll be able to enjoy you soon, perhaps in May when you come back out again (please come back out again). On reflection, target one is going abysmally. But it’s only the first week.

Target two is “just say no.” Sadly I haven’t recently been offered a starring role in Grange Hill’s anti-drug campaign (nor is it still 1986) and I’m well aware that this might seem a strange word for a teacher to advocate. I don’t mean saying no to a student asking for help in a lesson or my head of department requesting I take minutes in a meeting. I’m not completely unreasonable. But when it’s checking science homework (I’m an English teacher) or running errands to the post office (I’m an English teacher), I think I’m well within my rights to say no. So how did I fare this week? Terribly. A student from another class asked for some extra reading material; I was straight to it. A colleague needed help sorting groupings for a new A-Level class; that’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back. It turns out saying no is far harder than I imagined and it’s definitely something I need to work on, mainly because I have enough on my own plate without doing other people’s work as well. But it’s only the first week.

My final target is one that I have been a bit scared to admit to myself. This year I have taken on a new Year 10 class full of “naughties.” These are students whose reputation precedes them. Yet on paper this is a class capable of achieving C, if not B, grades at GCSE so the pressure is on. The target then was to establish a positive relationship with these 23 figures of my nightmares. I was expecting carnage so I went in with the “clean slate” chat where all preconceptions become irrelevant and we start afresh. They were silent, but not in a comatose way, in a manner which suggested they appreciated this opportunity and were ready to embrace their flourishing maturity and perhaps even a bit of learning. I took the bold move of beginning with Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” Not only was it written in the early 1650s (they’d already told me that they hated “old stuff”) but it also contains such charged metaphors as “let us sport while we may.” It was a risky strategy but it broke down barriers effectively. They made insightful comments about the characters in the poem, they analysed the language and they nearly fell off their chairs when I allowed one girl to go to the toilet (turns out my reputation precedes me as well). As first encounters go, this felt pretty positive and I’m now filled with a new found optimism about enabling these students to work hard and achieve great results. And it’s only the first week.

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Exclusive Staff Room Spy teacher blog from Tutors and Futures

Staff Room Spy: Holiday Highs and Lows

Before we begin, let me make one thing very clear: I love teaching. Having worked in a secondary school in inner London for the past 5 years, I have seen my fair share of fist fights, food fights and cat fights. However, I firmly believe that teaching is a wonderful profession. No two days are the same and students are to varying degrees witty, engaging, feisty, defiant and insightful, or perhaps all of the above in the space of a 45 minute lesson. It is safe to say that the world of teaching is never dull. Oh and did I mention that we are the lucky recipients of 13 weeks’ holiday? Yes, we spend approximately 65 days each year watching “Homes Under the Hammer,” having our hair done and swanning around on foreign beaches drinking cocktails from a coconut. Don’t we?

One of the most infuriating misconceptions about teaching is the idea that we arrive at 8.30am as the final few students dash through the gates and leave at some point during the hour of 3, skipping into the sunshine with an empty satchel, a cup of coffee and not a thought for a single one of the precious minds we have hopefully recently enlarged. If you’re reading this, I shouldn’t need to inform you of how far this is from the truth. But what of the summer holidays?

Naturally, I have caught a few episodes of everyone’s favourite property auction show over the past few weeks. Yes, I spent several indulgent hours having my tresses tamed. And I went on holiday, to a beach, which served alcoholic beverages. But I have also spent time reading Shakespeare, planning schemes of work, analysing exam results and generally preparing myself for the onslaught that is the autumn term. Partly, I do this to alleviate my workload during the dark winter months but partly (I’ll say this quietly) because if I didn’t, I think, to put it bluntly, I’d get a bit bored. Once your gasps have subsided and you are able to consider this logically, this fact becomes alarmingly obvious. Unsurprisingly, I am not cultivating a money tree which sprouts fresh £50 notes each Tuesday afternoon at the end of my garden, nor is my social circle entirely constructed of teachers. It goes without saying, therefore, that some days pass by and feel a little wasted.

Luckily, I am an adult and can cope with such nightmarish afflictions. What really concerns me as I smash the national tea-guzzling record for the ninth day in a row is the impact that six weeks of no school is having on my students. Some are diligent, devoted delights who will be cruising through “War and Peace” as we speak. Naturally though, most of them are children and I am a realist. Even though I have set work for them to do, I am fairly convinced they will leave it until the last minute. Despite the fact that I have sent them off armed with a comprehensive reading list, I doubt it has done much to rival Facebook. And whilst I warned each and every one of them to stay out of trouble, I wouldn’t be surprised if September yields several stories which will make my eyes water and my heart sink. There is no doubt that we need a break from school, but my concern is that six weeks is just too much and valuable time will be spent in September retraining and revising concepts which could have been retained over a shorter break.

The dearly departed Education Secretary Michael Gove proposed a four week summer holiday. Whilst this format has already been adopted by some schools in the UK and is widely seen in Europe, it is the subject of a debate which has been raging for many years without showing much sign of a resolution. Interestingly, he also proposed a longer school day; I don’t think there were many takers for that one. But he may well have been on the money with the shorter summer holiday. I can handle being a bit bored once in a while, but how is that helping students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are not being taken on holiday, to a museum or even to the library?

As the holidays draw to a worryingly swift end, I can’t imagine already being back at school. But if I were faced with only 6 weeks of term remaining instead of 8, I might feel rather differently. The debate continues…

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