The Christmas tree is well and truly done, lying in an ash bucket in the pantry. Christmas is still a familiar dream, but the half-term break is already in sight. A dusty horizon of bright promise after the darkness of January and the unceasing piles of class tests.
My wife and I have renamed the van. We have, until now, referred to is as a “camper-van mid-conversion”, but it’s time to own up to its true state. It is nothing less than a tramper-van! As I lie there in the darkness, piles of wood at my right, insulation ready to be glued in to place hanging limply; saw, drill, screws and other sundries; I dream of the finished article. I embrace the irony that by the time it is insulated, enjoys an electrical supply, hosts a gas ring and a wash basin as well as a sock drawer, it will be summertime and my contract will be coming to an end.
With horizons on my mind I allow trepidation to take a foothold. To teach or not to teach. Post summer is truly an undiscovered country. What to do? Hang up the red pen or set course towards a horizon only half in view. Melancholy thoughts. I google “benefits of teaching” and I am inspired! A digital void answers me. There is talk of holidays and that’s it. Every other article is about how we can benefit learning. Nothing talks of our needs, just the cold nod at the continuing growth of professional development.
So, what is it? What is the benefit? It’s not holidays. Paying school holiday flight fares and accommodation rates alongside the fact that while you’re on holiday the slavering tykes are out there too. I remember taking my wife to Paris, and beneath the Arc d’Triumph being accosted by an excited sixth former-to-be who introduced herself: excited to have me in September. My wife looked at me rapt by this meta-being, who could inspire children even on foreign shores, and hugged me tighter.
When I came back in January, the temperature had dropped significantly and so too had the warmth of the school showers I rely on at 7.30 in the morning. The first morning I couldn’t do it. I managed a splattering of freezing water atop my bonce just to wet down my double crown and vowed to book in to the barbers in order to do in the cockerel peak. Short hair is key to a professional look on emergence from the tramper-van. Now I shower before leaving school until the winds of change do blow more favourably.
My first day in, after my haircut, and at 8 am a lanky year 11, from 50 yards, cries “Fresh trim, Sir”. Indeed my trim is fresh. I hide my gleeful cheer at being noticed in case he spots this too. Only the kids seem to notice I’ve had a haircut. No staff. It takes them four days. And, I muse: benefits? The benefits of teaching are hardly centred on the aggrandisement of the ego, but as one child after another comments on the “trim” I consider what we look like to them. Figures of constancy in their lives; reliability and safety. I have cultivated the habit of taking interest in their lives and now I see it reflected in my own and the value of this.
Still, I wonder: benefits?
My Year Nines inspire me. Half way through a lesson (Romeo and Juliet) one of the lads asks to use his time out card. I haven’t made my mind up about these freedom passes, but I nod. When he leaves I pull out my Fitbit and take bets on his length of absence and hit the timer. This is almost a class expectation. Recognition, between us, that attendance and absence is equally acknowledged.
“Sir?” A voice ventures, pausing our exploration of Act 1, Scene 1.
“Kieran?” I reply.
“Do you know you’re the only teacher who doesn’t shout at him and gets him to actually work?”
“Well. That’s cool.” I almost splutter.
For a term, all I’ve wanted is for Mr Timeout to actually write something in his book, take an interest and not foul up his assessments. I turn back to the board and challenge them to work out what Shakespeare’s England meant by the term ‘maid’, but really I’m reminded of the benefits.
When kids recognise you: A person. A human being. Accomplishment. Kindness and boundaries. Acknowledgment.
Is that all the benefit we need?
“He’s back, Sir” points out Rhys.
“Stop the clock.” I hear.
“What is it?” Asks another.
“12 minutes.” I say. “I’ve won.”
Mr Timeout smiles in realisation and sits down, copying up notes after a friendly but curt reminder.
This is quickly followed by the recognition that being a ‘maid’ in Shakespeare’s England came with the expectation of virgin honour; that when the Capulets talk about putting maids to the wall, they are really talking about rape. The room is abuzz and eyes are wide.