Posts by tincanteacher

Shakespeare lover living in a van half of the week away from home just to teach at a fabulous school.

2.0 Back to School: The Second Lap

January is here. Term two has arrived with a thump. Christmas gave us all, weary from testing, marking and smiling, a well-earned respite from children, colleagues and the classroom’s confinement.

Time to breathe.

But I’m back. By popular demand no less. Season Two. The season that was never planned. My adventures living in a van and teaching away from home were only meant to be for a term, but happily I’ll be blogging till the end of the academic year. Moving from the confinement of the classroom to the confinement of the van at night, after night, after night.

If I’m to make it another two terms living in the van and away from home it occurs to me I need a list. Something to live by: a code no less. It’s the new year and that’s what you do because, as Shakespeare’s Beatrice says “We must follow the leaders.” Though I’m probably a little late to this party, and of course the lists of others are already underway.

  1. Only follow routines that are good for me.
  2. Don’t make a habit of parking in the same place two nights in a row
  3. Don’t let the kids get you down
  4. Don’t let teaching get you down
  5. Don’t swear at children just because the van’s suspension rocked and swayed in the wind last night preventing my Fitbit from recording a restful night’s sleep
  6. No alcohol in the van
  7. Go to the gym more than not at all
  8. Take a walk around school at the end of the day
  9. Not so much fish and chips
  10. Or pizza

After Christmas I need to check my health. Long days with no exercise has had its toll. I’ve already started Point 8. I met two of my kids on my last circuit round school at the day’s end, (timed nicely to avoid the cleaner’s hoover and incessant chatter mid-marking), I asked them what they were up to.

“Twat laps, Sir.”

That’s what they said. It’s not quite what I heard at first, so the word ‘twat’ was said quite a lot before I caught the thread. I’m sure it’s all on cctv: a teacher, a perplexed look on his face, and two kids repeatedly saying ‘twat’ at him.

“What’s a ‘twat-lap’ then?”

“Just walking, Sir.”

I guess there’s a root to this new term and I apply Assessment Objective 2.

“So, I understand why it’s called a ‘lap’, (a homonym btw) but what about the prefix to what you’re doing?”

“Well, we’re idiots aren’t we sir; we’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Come on,” I challenge, “use your Assessment Objective 2 language.”

They sigh:

“The negative connotation to the word ‘twat’, while also being a derogatory reference to a woman’s bits, now means ‘idiot’ or ‘fool’, but is more visceral than this and suggests a sense of uselessness through the sexist allusion to a woman’s lack of power.”

“So what is a ‘twat-lap’?” I ask again and also point out that ‘a woman’s lack of power’ is a stereotype and not necessarily an acceptable truth in today’s society.

“It’s a waste of time, Sir.”

Now we’re all on the same page and I feel I’ve mined enough language analysis out of our encounter, I wish them well and continue on my lap; I need to hit my Fitbit’s goal of an undisclosed number of steps before I return to chatting with the cleaner and trying to mark 30 test papers. My lap is entirely purposeful.

The big freeze looms and on INSET day, our first day back, my teacher’s chair which swivels and is black leather, is a block of black ice. I grimace and suck it up, staring at one email after another. Thankfully, the turkey curries my good wife prepped and froze are sure to keep me going. I mark as late as I can before the caretaker visits to ask how long I plan to stay tonight. Every night for a term I’ve left at the same time, but he still asks.

I have to finish this lot of papers, prepare breakfast for tomorrow, clean my coffee mug, fill the kettle in readiness for the team tomorrow, check I’ve covered all the day’s admin, tidy, heat my turkey curry in the microwave, pack up and log off.

“Twenty minutes?”

“Right-o.”

The routine in the van is no less mundane. I work as late as I can to reduce the time in the van. There is nothing leisurable about it; certainly nothing worthy of Instagram or Pinterest. Yet.

Those days are Halcyon dreams to come.

Now, where I park up, I am truly alone. There are no other campers, they have all hi-de-hoed so my hidey-holes are dark, vacant and quiet with no other neighbourly excitement but the midnight owl’s shrieks and dawn chorus to disturb me.

The term ahead promises assessments, tests, quizzes and chocolate rewards. It promises tears and tantrums; the fire alarms have already been attacked and lunch time lost as some form of protest. But there is a golden promise there too: the promise of summer achievement and like gluttons we push on towards brighter days.

1.7 Straw Dreams and Stone Tablets

img_3873For four months, in order to work, to pay the mortgage, to teach, to work at a brilliant school, I’ve lived in a van 65 miles away from home, or 96 minutes, door-to-door, if you don’t meet a tractor along the way. My home is white. A V-dub, but lacking any style; at night I hide it in the shadows of empty car parks, a secret and toothless boogeyman. On cloudless nights I am grateful of the second duvet; on windy nights the van rocks to and fro and on rainy nights I sleep soundly: white noise and the comfort of the dry is all I need.

It is the last day of 2018. My last night in the van was 10 days ago. I had hoped the last of my books would be marked by now, but alas they lie, undisturbed, chilling in the van parked overlooking our home town and the river mists.

Everyone talks of their achievements over the past year, their towering accomplishments and crashing failures. Instagram and Facebook are awash with it, so too is Twitter (and so too am I). TES seems to toot by the hour: articles on teachers’ mental health; marking practices; inspection scares; the latest resources; the latest jargon, but nothing of Christmas cheer. It seemed too ironic to engage in any of this and read about teachers’ fears of emails over Christmas, over Christmas. It has been a time of rest and recuperation; I can’t remember ever being so exhausted and in the background the mill wheels keep turning in quiet anticipation and the countdown has begun.

Over our final days some of us talked about the factory reset button on our pupils: the 2019 trigger. The kids had had enough, as had we – of them in some cases. Christmas excitement grew and grew, but the word was “No films”. ‘Attendance’ is our watchword and we find ourselves walking the tightrope between exclusions and bunking off just because it’s the last week. Not only was Christmas around the corner, but the threat of Ofsted too. Eagle-eyed bone-pickers chasing the latest fault trend doing the rounds.

I’m in the pub. The best place to write (and mark when I get round to it). I pause mid-reflection to chat with a fellow drinker. Education doesn’t take long to come up. He talks of his kids. His hopes, his fears. I profess my profession and he asks advice. His 12 year old has already been pulled into a crowd of Year 8s who smoke weed. His 15 year old has openly admitted it too and kindly warns his dad he’ll be smoking in town on his birthday. “There’s nothing you can do dad”.

The father holds up his hands and tells me the only thing he can do is let them smoke in the shed at the bottom of the garden, rather than in town. It’s probably a stretch to remind a father, I happen to be sharing a table with, that he’s the parent in this situation, not the child.

Here it is then. The prevailing wind of responsibility. Schools attendance concerns and Ofsted’s jabbing finger of shame. Schools and parents ‘managing’ unruly behaviour, fighting for air in the frothing currents and tides with nothing but quick fixes to offer any sense of buoyancy. Stone tablets dictate ALL must just jolly well put up with it and that’s that, but stone weighs heavy and all sink under the restrictions of shame.

Christmas is gone. The new year is ahead. Perhaps a more honest age too. A time where parents can be parents and teachers can be teachers, a time where the lion and the lamb eat straw and oversight isn’t over-watchful.

1.6 Pit Stops and Paper Jams

I started the week hiding in the cinema, at a late showing, just to avoid the cold. The cinema was toasty, the film was rotten. I give it two stars, but I think I’m being generous on account of the radiating warmth.

Friends are nothing if not utterly essential on this adventure. At various twists they’ve been there. Offers have rolled in from colleagues since I took up life in the tin can three nights a week. Hot showers, meals, beds have all been on offer. But, at every offer, a pang of guilt rickets through me. The challenge is assailed by charity. Temptation beckons. I’m determined to see it through, but it’s good to know there are plenty of safety nets below as I fling my body temperature against the coming winter freeze.

Thermal barriers are becoming creepingly more essential. The coldest week so far coincided with my tin can’s water pump rattling unsettlingly and so the adventure was rerouted to the warmth of four walls and a double bed, courtesy of merciful friends, while the van sheltered in the pit stop.

My first use of the net so far.

Friends swing to my aid again with thermal windscreen blackouts. The drama teacher has heard of my plight; better still, her parents have. Word is spreading. She asks if some blackouts might be helpful and I almost bite her hand off. So far I’ve been blocking up the windows with my wife’s spare sarongs. I’ve parked facing into hedges too, in order to avoid an imagined nightly visitor’s face appearing in the windscreen while I’m mid pee.

I’m grateful for so many things. Even a top tip from a fellow camper regarding Comfort conditioner bottles.

“Ample room for your particulars, mate.”

“Oh?”

“Your willy.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Get the four-litre one”, he recommends.

“Less time spent emptying it. Yeah, good idea.” Say I.

“Well yeah, but also there’s an offer on.” He winks.

It has been invaluable. Comfort conditioner bottles really do leave ample room for your particulars and the four-litre bottle has the added benefit of feeling as though you’re peeing into an abyss, with no need to worry about overflow – as well as being on offer.

When I was finally reunited with my tin can at the end of the week, I said goodbye to good friends and held out my hand for Adventure’s embrace. There is rain ahead. I’ve avoided the freeze for now.

With the change in temperature outside, so too has there been a change of temperament amongst staff at school.

Mocks have been afoot. Revising, assessing, data entry – watchful eyes scrutinise from the shadows. Even the photocopier is in revolt. Its yellow light flashing, warning of a paper jam.

There is no paper jam.

There is rarely an actual paper jam.

But this is its go to setting when deeply unhappy. It sits idly, winking its yellow light. Ninnering at the end of the corridor, a half wakeful Siren luring in desperate staff in need of that last minute copy for the starter task to the next lesson.

Blink.

Wink.

Plastic cogs cricker, and tap. Blink, wink, blink: Paper jam.

The rising dread of winging a starter creeps in to the teacher’s mind along with those emphatic words we all understand so well: Bollocks!”

In breaks and lunches the rising patois of frustration mounts and breaks surface like the long-held breath of a biblical leviathan. The bi-annual pupil whinge has finally risen up, three days after the photocopier’s last gasp. Lunch, and useful time catching up is usurped by those who cannot contain themselves. Whinge court is in session. Suddenly children are reduced to a number of sighs, groans and expletives.

To partake or not, that is the question.

Curses fly like slings and arrows.

It is an unavoidable necessity for some. An indulgence for others. A requirement of the club. An initiation for some. Our trainee teachers watch on, quietly bemused.

That night, as predicted, it rains. It’s not warm, but it’s not freezing and I bury myself beneath three layers of bedding, at ease with the idea that three nights a week I sleep in a car park, somewhere between moorland and open sea.

1.5 A Knight’s Mournful Muse

As I drew in to my chosen hideaway one night this week, my lights beamed in, across, and away from two friendly fondlers in one of those not so mini minis. Their eyes lit up, not with abandoned passion, but fearful agility. The game was up.

I spent the next hour or so wondering how the liaison was going before they slunk away.

It was Halloween this week. And on that night I sat in the van wondering what was creepier: the increasingly rapid invasion of a culturally irrelevant night of gore and horror marching the streets, (and possibly the carpark) in search of plastic wrapped sugar or a man sitting alone in his white van, in the cold rain in some darkened car park hoping no one raps a tinny knock on the door.

Thankfully, whether a trick or treater comes, or not, the odds of my sanity surviving in a tin can on wheels is probably easier than it surviving in schools at times. I’ve been told a good school is worth the inconvenience, a bad school is to be avoided despite any convenience. I’m in a great school and finding the inconvenience an entertaining challenge.

I love my job. I probably love it most because the kids are so great. I started this blog thinking I only had four months of it. I can happily report I’m now around till the summer. Prior to half term, when children furtively enquired, “Do we have you after Christmas?” I had to answer, “Sorry, no.” My heart sank. Consistency is key and they weren’t going to get it. But things have changed. I’ve been commissioned for two more seasons. This week, when those furtive voices asked again, “Are you still going at Christmas?” my happy answer was, “You’re stuck with me, sorry.” Smiling cheers were the air-pump to my balloon-like ego.

Kids are simple.

All children want you to like them, and all children want to like you. If we give them no indication we like them, and give them no reason to like us they will not work as well as they could, they will not enjoy our subjects and enthusiasm will rot away quicker than the teeth in the sugar-filled maws of this week’s ghostly spooks haunting the streets.

But contradictions abound. We are asked to be all things to all pupils. Our job is to teach, but our responsibility too is to stand as role models; sometimes play the parent; the exo-conscience; the nimble guide; sympathetic mentor; the gardener to emerging identities. But pulling out the weeds has become a dangerous endeavour.

When to intervene?

When to shine a light on a wayward shadow?

In one corner the plea to play a pastoral role, in the other the threatening cuff of an overprotective parent; the self-martyring administration sometimes one step ahead, sometimes one step behind; this strategy, that strategy. In some schools, not mine, “We don’t use the word behaviour. It’s a dirty word.” A discordant concert of prating knaves and mewling strings.

Good leaders say “Well done.”

Poor leaders don’t say much.

Is it wiser to say nothing?

Protect your wage, not the child.

A call out of the blue pulls me away from the dirge. Mum on the phone.

She asks for a Christmas list. It must be November.

I check.

It is.

Rotting pumpkins give it away.

“Bonjour, mother.”

We go through the usual play script. “I don’t need anything. Okay okay. A couple of books?”

“Is that all?”

At 40. Yep. Got my sock collection sorted now.

“What about you?” I ask.

She tells me about an Australian food show she’s been watching. Bake Off with sun and sand; maybe Kylie too, I imagine. She tells me she’s interested in Vietnamese cookery. Wonders if there is a Vietnamese cookery course she can attend.

“Right? Not Australian?”

I get the back story. Vietnamese refugees. Sisters. Don’t waste a scrap.

“They didn’t win, Jonathan, because they can’t do puddings.”

Ah. I muse. Seems unfair, but I don’t think I’ve ever been to an Asian restaurant that could do puddings. Maybe ice cream.

“Shame.” Say I.

I sit in my tin can, a chill air foaming in front of my eyes as I google: Vietnamese cookery courses.

1.4 Camelot’s retreat and Battle Preparation

A wise man once said “Survival is key if you want to live”

Half term has come and is now parting like an overly fragrant femme fatale on a busy high street. The whiff wafting, departing into a sea of heads and handbags.

A whole week of bedded bliss with the Mrs. Log fires. En-suite to hand. A shower at any time of the day. Hot food. Beer. Cheese. This errant knight’s very own Camelot.

Luxury. All now to be dropped at the yelling alarm of tomorrow morn.

I have not wasted the week though. I’ve invested against a tinny, chilly future. There’s still work to be done, but I feel the survival basics (plural) have been covered: warmth (singular).

This week I have mostly been reading step-by-step guides, looking at pretty pictures on Pinterest and how-to’s on YouTube. They recommend insulation, electric blankets; goose down; can openers. Even special pee bottles with handy handles and a wider entry point than the one I’ve been using.

I’ve followed two of these suggestions thus far.

Later tonight I will be decanting 4 litres of Lenor Comfort Conditioner and reassigning the bottle to assist with night time procedures. No longer will I have to kneel in the middle of the night, as if to Mecca, while blearily concentrating on precision gunnery. I shall pee with abandon my friends. Abandon. No more dream time risk assessments for me.

If you read my last entry you will know that my journey into the challenge of living in a van and teaching at a coastal school of beatitude has now been extended. It’s like that New Zealander’s version of The Hobbit. Three films of endlessness. I hope my adventure will be rather more joysome than the aforementioned bum-numbing dribble.

So, to encourage myself I break it down. 23 nights. Twenty-three nights in the van till Christmas. With this in mind I have rolled out the thermal barrier and now the van’s innards look like the belly of Oz’s very own Tin man. There’s work still to be done, but stage one of the dream is complete.

If you’re reading this hoping for some advice, I used the following things:

  • A claw hammer
  • A screwdriver
  • A paint scraper as a handy lever
  • Spray glue
  • One onion

Once you begin, the use for all these tools will become obvious. The onion is to dispel the smell of glue. That glue smell is like the smell of Duncan’s blood after Macbeth murdered him in his bedchamber. All the happy couple needed was a skinned and cleaved onion. No need for all the perfumes in Arabia at all. So much cheaper. A happy conscience.

What’s also essential is that your work and progress is appreciated. Make sure a huff or two is heard when family members pass by. Coffee will come a-pouring. My brother-in-law played a vital role this week. He too is a van owner so we talked shop. He showed me his and I showed him mine. His is bigger and red.

Adopt a knowledgeable position and cross your arms, making sure to spread your legs while pointing out the obvious. In-laws will approve of your craft without hesitation.

It’s been a week of sacrifice. The weather has been amazing and enjoyment of this has been short-lived, but the endgame and its benefits has kept me going. I’ve even given the look some necessary thought and bought a beanie hat. My main issue has been fringe in or out.

I’ve gone with out.

1.3 Elsewhere is a shadow

Stop press. New season announcement.

I started this blog, this endeavour to live in a van and teach away from home, thinking I had four months in this tiny tin belly. Little did I know it would become eleven months.

I do a four day week. This gives me an optimal balance: 3 nights in the van, 4 days away from home; four nights at home, three days with my lovely wife.

That’s 44 nights sleeping in the van. That’s okay, I breathe.

Now it’s 73 nights from January to July on top.

One-hundred and seventeen nights in total. 117.

Exclamation marks are overrated.

“What happened?” you ask.

I pause. I don’t know how to tell this story. Let’s start with the fact I had two job interviews this last week.

One was twenty minutes up the road from the warm bosom of home, the other requires a DIY camper-van. What could go wrong? My head said, “Bosom. Bosoms are good. Stick with the bosom.”

My heart beat the loyalty drum. “Stick with what you know, you’ve managed two months in the van you can go the distance.” My heart is a competitive creature. It beats to the rhythm of challenge.

“Shouldn’t it have been an easy choice?”

No. No it wasn’t.

In the blue corner: A school I know. Colleagues I know. Children I know. Abounding affirmation from pupils and fellow champs. My love language.

In the red corner: A school, unknown. Twice the size. Twice the monster. Smiling faceless colleagues. Faceless children. A future on paper. Not lived.

I haven’t always taught in the same school. I taught elsewhere once. Elsewhere opened a door. Behind the door was a stairway into shadow. Colleagues were shadowy beasts, sneering, leering, lunging wretched wisps keen to find fault, find cracks, and all with a smile and a slip of paper reading “Could do better.”

At the end all I knew was I could not teach. I was not a teacher. I was less than I was when I began. My learning objectives sometimes took 27 minutes to appear. That was bad, apparently. It didn’t fit the checklist. I was the other. I was different and different was bad. I took pills, but the shadows were never dispelled. Not even now. After that I was a man with two shadows. One, my loyal partner, the other with breath of its own, a step of its own and a consuming stare that waits on every weakness.

Elsewhere’s scars are still felt. Still give pain. So, I was cautious of this new place. Even if it was close to that bosom. I can’t go to Elsewhere again.

I told them the truth. Why not? “I have another job interview tomorrow.” The school that restored me, I think. From mental dingy and back from the brink. The school that reminded me I can teach. Mental healthy. Told me my lessons are stunning. Quote. For real. That’s not even in the Ofsted vernacular. Special.

So I hedged my bets, cautious. Unsure whether I should risk it. There were some signs and they gave me pause, as they must. A text at 11 o’clock at night from the red corner was one. A TLR on the table, “but 24 staff uninterested?” I asked the question.

“They all have too much on.” The reply.

Oh.

“You have a great CV. All these things you’ve done. The TLR?”

I pause. New school. Midway through year. New children. “We don’t call it behaviour,” they tell me. So many ropes.

I think, but do not say, TLR posts should come from within not from the outer rim.

The blue corner, with arms wide open want me to stay. And it turns out the red corner isn’t interested anyway. An apology a day later. “We called yesterday. Employed the NQT. Left a message, but just realised not on your phone.”

A message is out there on the airwaves, somewhere. Elsewhere.

1.2 The Knave and the Night

The nights are not always as lonely as I’d like.

It’s time to expand my dominion. I have my nightly routines, but I must not go gentle into the comfort of routine. Routine stiffens the will and it becomes a brittle beast. Last week Ezra stood in my routine – the Tizer (it was not Tizer). I can’t get sloppy with anything, particularly the slop. Colleagues seem concerned and I am the recipient of numerous offers of a shower. I hope it is purely kindness and not, instead, a comment upon my freshness.

At the moment I’m reliant on school for some key essentials. I wake at 6.30 am, stretch my legs in the brightening morn’s light before heading to school. It opens at 7.30 am. I shower at 7.31 am. I often muse, while scrubbing up, on the “what ifs”. “What if the caretaker is ill one morning and doesn’t open up? What if the boiler goes? What if Rose just shuffled over and made a bit more room for Jack?” The important stuff.

Because of this I have backups. I have wet wipes, tooth paste in my desk drawer and my Dior pour le homme-iest of hommes. It’s like Tip-ex for the unwashed.

These are my dilemmas and in the grand scheme it could be worse. I am reminded of my first month at it, in the tin shed on wheels, and the night I met Steve jumps to mind.

My routine isn’t complicated. I park up, block out the windows as best I can, swivel the captain’s seat 180, open up the iPad and settle into whatever is on my Netflix download that night. This particular night it was something about vampires. Bluetooth headphones on, the world on mute, the gore begins. Half an hour in though – a shadow. I turn. Not everything is blocked out. The shadow moves. It’s a head.

This night I’m parked in a church car park. Below me is the church and the head. I watch as it bobs down the bank, before shaking furiously and returning to cover. Odd. I think. Odd.

It appears again, a moment later, and makes its way to a shed. It opens the door, furtively shines a light in, back and forth, before returning to cover.

Netflix is on pause mid neck-bite.

At this point I realise horrors are better in the comfort of your own home rather than the back of a VW Transporter parked in the darkness.

I also realise I ought to check what’s going on. Are the tools safe? Did I see him remove the pick axe?

I make my way down and from the darkness he springs. His trousers around his ankles mid business. Out of common courtesy I pretend not to notice this. But he’s standing and his trousers are at his ankles.

“Alright mate?” Say I.

“I’m fine.” He returns as he pulls his breaches up.

I question him further, my teacher voice doing all the work for me. His plight tumbles out and there is no sign of a pick axe. This night I have met a fellow traveller, though his circumstances are rather less comfortable than mine and his need of a shower rather more obvious. He is jumpy. Thought he heard a sound from the shed. It is windy I allow.

He talks without listening, rehearsed in the story of his fall from grace. His life to-date takes about twenty minutes because it’s too cold to hear any more. He’s camping on church property, has poo bags, a bible and an unfriendly dog for company. I leave him to it and save my Netflix download for another time favouring the safety of the adventures of Captain Picard and his crew mates. I wake once, remembering we shook hands, and reach for the wet wipes. After this I sleep deeply.

It is October now and thus far I have established three pitches for my darkened slumber. Now is the time to venture further and deeper into this coastal quietude. This time, living in the van, should entail some discovery at least.

This week I shall rest my head in an abandoned village. There are many here in this coastal county, home to summer spirits. I will be nestled between the hillsides with my own silent harbour washing back and forth.

I pray for an absence of midnight encounters.