2.5 Providence Provides

I teach 80 miles from home, live away, bedding down in an increasingly rusty van, currently with three oil leaks, a window that won’t roll down, a broken aerial courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood unmentionable, and iffy power steering juddering at every turn. And, I’m contemplating extending this excursion, moving ever forward into an undiscovered country, though I do plan to return, at the weekend, to a smile and a hug from my loving and eternally patient wife. My application is in and I have been shortlisted.

Despite the less than glamorous lifestyle I’ve decided to have another swing in the crease. My wife approves. I want to stay at the school I love, the school I redeemed a career at; to live on in the van past the hitherto arranged tin can’s expiration date.

I made it through the coldest nights. I can do it again. The dice has been thrown.

The interview brief lands in my inbox. ‘Prepare and deliver a lesson on the unseen poetry section of the English Literature paper for AQA; use The Tyger by William Blake.

Right.

I spend a night editing and submit my lesson for print, I add sheen and gloss, I cut and stitch and click ‘send’. Colleagues discuss the competition. Talk and gossip of ‘The Teacher from London’ rises and there is little ebb of such talk. An impressive CV, a number of responsibilities held, used to attend the school, a bright pupil, remembered fondly. At each word I wince. All I can think is that if she teaches in London she must be good, otherworldly, a towering Titan with the patience of a hallowed and holy saint.

The day comes. The field has been cut and four of us are left standing, ready to impress, appropriately dressed. I remember one member of the senior team has a penchant for shoes and careers rise or fall at the click of a heel. I slip out of my my slip-ons and into the shoes reserved mostly for weddings.

Before I can strut the stuff, a photoshoot looms. The Guardian want a shot of me, the van, the grime and, even though there is little time, I oblige. An hour hour before the day of tribulation, interviews, observations and stirring enthusiasm uttered at every turn I pull up in a lay-by, a grey car flashes its lights, I flash mine, aware of the reputation hereabouts regarding such etiquette. Fingers crossed, I exit the van and meet my man. It’s an instant hit, he surfs too; the fondness grows.

Click, clack, close up, wide lens, short lens, stumpy lens, one thoughtful gaze after the next carefully hidden, anonymity guaranteed: an hour passes. We’re done. We shake. We part ways. It was my first time.

Moments later I’m back at school. The tributes have arrived and are on tour with the Head. It doesn’t take long to track them down. I’ve known the school for a good while. I’ve done my stint, but it would be a missed opportunity to not cruise the corridors with the competition, miss out out on knowing nods from passing pupils. Now is the time to assert, parade and swagger; I’m not a natural peacock, but a moment ago, in a lay-by not so far away I got the taste. This is my job and I shall not go quietly.

As it goes, we see no children on our tour, no imagined mid-air high fives for me. No affirmation at all and my confidence gets a kick, until the Head explains my late entrance. A certain newspaper article is mentioned; a certain photoshoot explains my tardiness and sudden appearance. I hide the blush and engage humility mode. At the end of it all they need the best candidate for the current and changing climate and if that’s not me, I get it. The clockwork of Necessity is cold. I know this.

The day ticks along.

The lesson goes well. Pupils engage. Every one. There are smiles and even room for some banter. Tensions ease and children deconstruct The Tyger bit by bit, stripe by stripe.

But between this and the interview there is a gulf of time. I’m last on the list. I sit alone in the staff room marking books for a some of it, take a walk around school too, half of me saying goodbye as I go, until, eventually, I pop into an open classroom and am invited to team teach. I step in and remember this is where I belong, at least I think so.

The interview comes and in a flash is over. Faces I’ve known for years sit in judgement but they can’t see my shoes.

An hour later and I’m off.

Four miles down the road I get the call.

Though there is little that is flash-able about the van, I do have Bluetooth.

Fists pump the air on a windy country road. The job is mine. Full time.

The London Titan and other tributes have fallen. Only another 76 miles till I can tell my love of the future ahead.

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If you are enjoying this journey then please follow through WordPress, sign up for email notifications when there is a new blog post. You can also find me on Twitter @tin_teacher or on Instagram through Tincanteacher

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to get in touch and share your responses to the adventure my wife and I are on. Mental health is a rising issue for many and this blog has been, in many ways, a life saver, as has the feedback.

If you missed the article in The Guardian you can find it here:

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/16/teacher-live-back-van-personal-story-anonymous#comments

2.4 The End Could Be Nigh

New threats approach. My contract will come to an end. Again.

“September is coming”, I hear whispered in a faintly familiar northern lilt. I’ve agreed to work here till the summer. One term after another my time living in the tin whale on wheels has extended. Necessity and Circumstance are casting the dice in looming clouds above. Their fingers outstretched pitting us against the wolves, the harpies, the emails, the parents; they point to this path or the next and we follow.

Nothing is coming up. No Elsewhere appeals. Each job that does is either in a less than prestigious school environment, or as far away from home as I work now. But my time in this battlefield, where I know the trenches, the sniper points and the enemy has to end. We’re not moving. It’s vanlife or nought.

September without an income does not delight. My wife teaches. A SENDCo (Special Education Needs an Disability Coordinator) no less. Part-time. She can walk to school. I say this not from jealously, but from a point of detail. This is the perfect balance in such a role for the upkeep of sanity, love and endurance. She excels in her role and plaudits land like roses at her feet. She deserves it. She works in a sector that sails a leaky boat, her chosen bark barraged by increasing numbers of children swarming up the sides from the deep dark, to her freshly swabbed timber. Under her watchful eye she observes a national explosion of need assaulting all captains in the SENDCo fleet, but she is a good captain and has the legs for it. HMS Sallyforth keeps on sallying-forth.

One of my year 10s asks if I will be teaching him next year. The next period a girl in my year 8 class asks the same. I let them know I signed on till the summer. They both sigh, the loss of consistency on their collective minds. I sigh too.

The same day The Guardian get in touch. A recent pitch has been successful. A, not-so broad, broadsheet is interested in my questionable life choices. It starts with a request for an interview then the invitation to write the piece myself. There’s soon talk of a photoshoot and my fists pump the air; I’m reading emails during a silent writing activity with year 7; the stillness is shattered and the inquisition begins.

After school I drop in on the Head and a deputy who are chewing over the day’s antics. Their disposition shifts when I tell them about The Guardian offer and their frowns turn upside down. They drop not so subtle hints about extending the contract into September and beyond, but how can I continue in the van? We can’t move. Can’t afford it. Love our hometown too much, now it really is home, can’t move away from family again not if we want free and friendly babysitters when we finally get round to children.

“So, you’re happy for me to write a piece? It’ll be anonymous and the school too.”

“Absolutely.” My fists pump the air. I didn’t need the permission. It wasn’t about permission. Writing about this time was never my idea. The school has never needed to watch its back.

That night I write it, email the Head. She loves it.

It’s important to honour those standing in the dugouts.

In the morning it’s off and the next few days are spent tweaking and editing, qualifying points of understanding and readability. The essence of why I am doing what I do is there, but much is not. A thousand words cannot explain it and I know much relies on inference.

Finally finished the lines go dead. It’s in the lap of Guardian journos now. Thoughts of September return.

The weather has turned and the worst is behind. I’ve made it this far. Can I keep going?

Many put up with worse and I know this. A long commute is not uncommon for the majority. It’s not insurmountable. Many sit in traffic daily, sit in trains, on buses, but time is an asset and this is the only way I see of doing it, so why not make the most, accept the inconvenience and soldier on.

They want me to stay. That is certain.

The advert goes out.

Nationally.

My wife and I talk,

I apply. Again.

Last time we had one other applicant. This time we have a field. The competition looks good. Too good. None of them will live in a van. They’ll move. Settle down. Bed in. Sink roots.

How can I compete with that?

September becomes another wolf at the door. The growls growing deeper.

At the beginning of term a deputy looked at the situation and offered to reduce my timetable.

“Less time in the van. Surely that’s a good thing?”

Less time in work is not though. Less time spent in purposeful fulfilment is not. The labour isn’t laborious, but languor would be a patient killer.

I’m shortlisted. Time to scare the wolf away.

2.3 Knights in the Darkness, Light in the Days

I’ve survived 7 months living in the van, discovering one darkened car park after another. I imagine the day I’ll be parking on a beach, looking out to sea, waxing my board in some romantic Pintagram vision of what teaching could allow life to be; leaving at 3.30pm to hit the surf and float away upon a sea of dreams, the occasional wave below my feet.

The light is changing. Spring now. Less and less cover for my exclusive and classified camping lifestyle; my spots remain undisclosed to those who ask, but the light is spreading; the darkness of the early nights provided some security from prying eyes and disapproving twitchers, but now I stay later and later at my desk waiting for the eternal eye to drop low and, finally, below the earth’s end.

The darkness has been a comforter, an excuse to stay at my desk, marking, emailing and calling parents. But now the promise of longer evenings stirs temptations as well as dilemmas. The van is by no means luxurious and hasn’t been for a while now. The light is good enough to leave and enjoy a walk along the cliffs, forage wild garlic in the woods and begin to breathe the air away from school, but that setting sun would still force me back into the van earlier than I would like. So I do none of these things. The van life is a freeing experience, but comes with its own set of prison bars.

Up till now I have parked up around 8.30-9pm every night. It leaves me the perfect amount of time to eat, rest up with a book or a download and then sleep. More time than this would make the trampervan lifestyle unbearable. So, I sit at my desk, still, waiting for that window of opportunity, watching that reflected sunset in a neighbour classroom’s window, before parking my bed in the inky shadows.

At the beginning of term I was late to INSET, delayed by three tractors and a road traffic accident with a fourth tractor. I don’t like to be late. I strolled in and sat at the first available table, alone. I hunkered down. No coffee for another two hours. Eyes from the corner watched. Saw a sullen expression and the next day a bag of golden eggs were pressed into my hands. The giver felt I needed a boost. I did. I saved them. Golden treats at lunch for the next two weeks.

The first day’s training brought more than golden eggs. An announcement. The Head is leaving. The decision made, governors informed. Time at the bar. Uncertainty looms, but when is anything ever certain?

More changes loom large. Set changes. Recent tests have illuminated the need to move children to and fro, here and there. I inform them:

“Children, I know not where thou wilt fall, on stony earth or in fertile soil, but some of you are for re-sowing. Your test scores have revealed you are too prodigious for the shores of this class and you outstretch your peers. It’s time to rise (for some of you). It’s also time for some of you weedy roots to fall.” I mutter this last point.

My lesson starter goes to pot. Pupils look from one to the other wondering who’s staying, who’s rising and who’s for the chop. At the close two remain behind. They know they’re going up.

“Sir, we got the top scores, but we don’t want to go up.”

I’m surprised. The chance to rub shoulders with their own kind is being rejected.

“Why’s that girls? Sir is a great teacher and you’ve worked really hard.”

“I never liked English before, but now I find it really exciting.”

This wasn’t what I expected. This is my tricky class, there’s no time for ‘exciting’ English. Targets, behaviour, assessment, reading and occasional banter if we’re lucky. That’s it.

Sensing a stretch activity, I offer one ray of hope. “If you don’t like it, you can always appeal, in writing, to the deputy.”

They leave. Appeased.

I make a note in my little book of ‘Reasons For A Pay Rise’. It’s maybe my second bullet point under the first: ‘Because I’m awesome’. Each bullet is a step closer, but I feel better about the second than the first.

That evening I forget to prepare my porridge for the next day. Usually I add a handful to a cup of milk and leave in the fridge overnight to eat cold with a banana and honey at 7.30 in the morning. When I roll into the shadows I curse myself emphatically. There won’t be anything open at that time to pick up on the way. I’ll have to make it through till break, but it’s a Wednesday and I have a break-time duty. Quelle horreur: lunch isn’t until 1.30pm. Six hours. I don’t even have any chocolate squirrelled away. My curses turn blue.

In the morning a eureka moment lightens my spirit. The hob in the Learning Support Base offers the opportunity to heat the porridge! 7 months and I’ve never thought of this. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

I choose my pot. Empty the oats. Add the milk. Heat the hob. And nip for a quick pee.

Not quick enough.

I return to billowing clouds. I open a window and quickly thrust the pot out into the air.

Save.

A distant bell rings.

Grows louder.

Not quick enough.

I pull the pot back and sink it between a jet of water in the sink before joining the growing crowd at the fire assembly point. It’s 7.50am. There’s a mock exam at 9.15am.

I dismount the stairs and see the caretaker struggling with the fire board. Yellow lights flashing. I raise my hands ready for the shot and shell. I stand in the cold with colleagues who were mid-lesson preparations, coffee, printing, email, loo breaks of their own and just arriving. At first they they think I’m joking. Not attuned to my lifestyle imposed by the van and the commute. When the pennies drop, one after the other, that I am indeed to blame and that I do indeed have breakfast at school, instead of mutters of fury, looks of forgiveness are quickly dished out.

The luck continues when I go to see the business manager and offer to pay the callout charge. There is none. We’ve just changed our policy and I’m quids in. She even offers me a yoghurt to replace my black oats.

The next day I receive a visit from the caretaker. He looks frantic. Peers out of my window and tells me there’s a girl who has gone missing.

“What? Oh, God.”

“She has blonde hair, in braids.”

“What’s her name?”

He turns from the window.

“Goldilocks.”

He smiles and leaves and the day continues, happily.