Back on September 6th I wrote a blog post about the start of the school year which saw me not starting one in the way I usually did. I wrote about how weird it was not being part of the whole back to school brigade and the almost sense of loss it induced. That blog post led to me co-writing a piece which was then published in the Times Educational Supplement online and received a great response from people who had felt similarly when they left teaching.
Anyway…fast forward to July 7th and it’s nearing the end of the school year, and once again I find it is not the usual end I have to the school year and this is all quite new to me and I’m having some odd feelings again!
So first off, what’s happened in the interim period?
Well, back in September I embarked on setting up a homework club and doing some private tuition. The private tuition took off more than the homework club across the year so that was an interesting direction I wasn’t necessarily expecting. I ended up even doing some English Literature GCSE tuition which, as a qualified primary teacher was unexpected and challenging, but I loved it. It made a great change from tutoring 11 year old children for Maths SATs! However, I found I also had to top up my income from tuition (as the business model for the homework club relied on a much larger intake than I ended up with), and this I did, if you recall, by accepting a couple of hours a day at a local school doing Maths interventions. (I blogged about that back in October here.) I was also lucky enough to have a few art commissions too and it has been great to have more time to devote to art as well as continuing writing my novels. (No, I haven’t forgotten about them. Yes, I know this is why I set this blog up in the first place years ago!)
So now we arrive at the end of the school year. The shops are full of the usual ‘Thank you Teacher cards.’ Facebook has been pimping a mug for teachers emblazoned with ‘I survived the 2016-17 academic year’ complete with depictions of fidget spinners, bottle flipping and dabbing on. (Any parent or teacher reading will know exactly the significance of this. If you are neither and have no idea what I’m talking about ask someone you know with kids or who works in a school.)
The year 6 children I did Maths interventions for SATs up until May have had their results through, as have the children I tutored, and now they are getting ready for end of year productions and leavers assemblies etc… But my end of school year has not been as linear as theirs, or indeed any I have experienced in the past twenty years. Tutoring for SATs and GCSE finished in May. Therefore quite a bit of my work dried up, although I’ve kept a few other children on who are in different year groups until the summer break. They will finish too when the school year comes to its end. And now interventions at the school are no longer needed in other year groups as everyone comes to a wind down and the usual timetable is replaced with more fun stuff such as transition days and sports afternoons. This means I’ve finished at the school two weeks earlier than everyone else (other than a one off session next week to finalise assessment.) And, as someone on a supply contract (and as I am re-locating over the summer break to a new city) my time at the school has come to a very low key end.
And it’s all a bit weird, and yet… not weird.
What do I mean by that?
Well, teaching (as I think with any profession) has a uniqueness of it’s own. Start and end of term rituals and all that. They are something which bind those of us who work in (primary in my case) schools together:
The ‘how many sleeps left’ countdown (often written on the staff room whiteboard) as a means of final motivation;
the stress of hot June/July days, particularly the afternoon teaching sessions which are the equivalent of trying to motivate dying wasps to fly at the end of the summer;
dragging the children through the necessary end of term assessments, long after year 6 have finished theirs;
the seemingly never-ending process of writing, editing, proofreading, filing and distributing reports;
the final parents’ evening where the parents of those you taught aren’t interested in coming to see you, but instead the parents of your up-and-coming class come to gawp at you and either nod their head in approval/relief or make a bee-line to the Head to request a transfer for little Johnny;
squeezing in the final dregs of the RE/PSHE/Art curriculum there wasn’t quite time for because of all the English and Maths that had to be done;
the endless rounds of cash collections and multiple card signing for the ones retiring/ people getting married or the mass exodus that seems to be happening year on year these days. (Last year when I left my permanent post I think there were six of us all going at once for varying reasons!);
year 6 discos/proms/barbecues;
Yr6/7 transition meetings/visits;
meeting new classes and finding out if the Head listened to your request to not have to teach Year 6 AGAIN then finding out who you’ll be teaching/won’t be teaching next year;
Spending most of July melting in the school hall watching productions, reward assemblies, final end of year music assemblies and of course the leaver’s assemblies;
ripping down displays (not worrying about removing staples properly of course) and despairing about the mess of the school, but knowing if we didn’t make that much mess across the year then September wouldn’t be so lovely in all its tidiness and newness;
loading up your car on the last day of term with cards and gifts from your class – usually comprising of chocolates (which have invariably melted. It’s July and it’s always hot on the last day of term before the weather turns arctic ready for the actual holiday!), more mugs than you could ever have people round to your house to use, flowers which you rarely get to enjoy because the next day you’re going away and if you’re lucky bottles of your favourite tipple. All of which you are actually really touched about and grateful for.
The rounds of goodbyes, leaving ‘dos’, signing of Year 6’s shirts and autograph books and the ever increasing dramatic floodgates of theirs’ and their parents’ tears…
(Looking at this list it is not difficult to understand why I both loved and loathed the summer term in equal measure! And people question why teachers need a six week holiday! Hmmmm! I wonder how I ever had time for anything else. Oh…wait…I didn’t! )
Anyway, the list of end of year rituals, which start as early as May, go on and on and vary only slightly from school to school – in my experience at least.
Now as a part-timer for the past five or six years I’ve felt a certain detachment from all this already. It has been a gradual change and pull back for me so I’ve got used to it. This year however, has been a real eye-opener to the varying emotions I have for the profession and the roles I have held in education for over twenty years.
When children I’ve taught this year found out on Monday I’d be going this week, most were, to put it mildly, a bit put out. They didn’t understand how someone who’d only just arrived was leaving so soon. Some were really quite upset about it, despite the fact that I have only taught them in small groups for half an hour a week for just, in some cases, a couple of months. This I found very moving and made me realise how valued I am by the people who matter. The children. To some of these children I have been as important to them as the class teacher they have built a solid relationship with over a whole year. I find it weird, because, whereas I am quite happy these days to dip in and out of roles in tutoring and in schools – not getting emotionally attached or involved in the whole picture – I’ve been seen by them as an important and vital cog. I thought that would really only be the case when you work in a school full time or for a long time, but in fact I have had a significant impact working on a more casual basis and have gained the job satisfaction I have always craved without the immense pressure or stress I always felt full time class teaching. That’s not to say I don’t miss it – the buzz of a school day, a school year and its cycles. There continue to be times I do, but on balance I really don’t. I have been lucky enough through the choices I’ve made this year to have flexibility which I desperately needed given my personal home circumstances. Yes, I may not have a stable, regular or predictable wage, sick pay, holiday pay or huge pension contributions, but I have been able to live my life better, AND do what I’m good at, AND have a positive impact on the educational chances of lots of children. It’s win-win-win. I do feel a little bit rotten for the children though at times – in that I feel a little bit like Mary Poppins. By that I mean I blow in with the wind where I’m needed, and, once my job is done, I ride out again. Not on an umbrella, but in my little Ford Ka. Never to be seen again. And some of the kids I’ve worked with (I have worked mainly with children from more disadvantaged backgrounds) have evidently found that hard.
All this got me back to thinking to what makes for a successful teacher. What makes a good teacher? And over my year of building many, many relationships with children in a different way to the way I usually do (ie with classes of 30 where you have to build a class relationship and then the individual relationships) I know for certain something I’ve always known: The relationship you have with children comes first. It comes before you can teach them a single thing. And that’s what I’m good at. Building a good relationship first and foremost, instilling confidence and then tackling what needs to be learnt. I also realised this year I work well by myself. I work better when I am in control of what I’m doing, rather than someone else. The parents who have hired me and the school who have hired me this year have trusted me to do my job and do it well and I have striven, as I’ve always done, to not let they or their children down. No OFSTED inspector has ever made me feel that way. Few Headteachers have made me feel that way – trusted me to do what I’m trained for; given me more autonomy; trusted my common sense to get the job done. Does that mean I can’t work as a member of a team? Not at all. I’ve just discovered I am happier working this way. Because I am at a stage of my career where I know what I’m doing without the need for too much intervention from others. That probably sounds arrogant, but I’d like to think most people get to that point eventually. It doesn’t mean we stop learning ourselves, but surely there has to come a point where there are those who have enough experience and confidence in their chosen profession to go solo or to pass on what they know to those who are early into their career without constant watching, criticism and questioning? Unfortunately I was finding the education system doesn’t support that way of working and one of the many reasons why I got out last year, and perhaps will never go back.
And how does this thinking fit into the end of school year rituals I started talking about? Well, do I miss them? Do I miss the feeling of being part of something? Maybe. A little. Especially putting on Year 6 productions and leaver’s assemblies. I always had a love/hate relationship with the stress that bought about! But ultimately no I don’t miss it as much as I thought I might. These days I am quite happy to be the Mary Poppins: To helicopter in and help when and where help is needed, but to quietly drift out, stage right, when the job is done.