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.

1.5 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.

1.3 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.

Items may convey a sense of the beatific in contrast with the reality

1.0 An Errant Knight

Four months of teaching and living in a van.

And here I am.   Teaching again.  Four weeks in to living in a van away from home, a county’s distance, now north instead of south, jammed before creamed rather than creamed before jammed – though I’ve never swayed from the true and proper method – I am a wandering foreigner “Doomed for a certain time to” park up at night in secret and precious locations held as borrowed treasures and known only to those hardy residents with nowhere to shelter but their very own trusty, often rusty, van.

Mine’s a T4.  The last of the line of T4s before T5 swept the floor with them.  It is white.  A good service record.  A good runner.  Diesel.  Turbo.  2.5, and home for three nights a week.

I am a 40-year-old homeowner, married, childless (currently), dogless (currently); aspirations (many), geek (certified), four-eyed and fore-armed – yes I have two sleeping bags and two duvets fellow travellers.

The van is currently devoid of insulation.  Cloudy nights are my friends.

The back story:  The school was desperate.  On their knees, they begged me to return (this is how I tell it and may only reflect truth).  I mulled, sighed, considered and agreed.

“I’ll do a term”, quoth I.  “That’ll be ample time to find the one of whom the prophecies speak.”

And here I am. Chronicling the experience of living in a small van for three nights a week, parking up here, there and everywhere, travelling for work, negotiating showers, devouring sandwiches for tea and with time on my hand.

“How has it been?” say you.  “What have you learnt; what insights do you have for us?”

“Well,” I return.  “September has been a month of:

  • Establishing routines.
  • Finding safe harbours, preferably darkened.
  • Hiding from nosy dog-walkers and halogen torches brighter than the sun.
  • Cold sandwiches for tea time.  I’ve said this twice now.
  • Identifying the need to insulate the van.  Soon.
  • Foiling possible attempted robberies of garden sheds.
  • Scrolling through the efforts of Pinterest aficionados.
  • Disturbing a chap mid wild-poo on church grounds.
  • Catching up on my sunsets.
  • Jealously eyeing other van-dwellers with hot dinners.
  • Downloading items from Netflix on Sunday night in preparation for a dull evening.
  • Planning bed modifications, scrapping, re-planning and returning to ogling Pinterest.
  • Talking with a man on a faith walk along the coast with his unfriendly dog and nothing more than a tent, a Bible and the dog’s lead.  I’m sceptical of his credentials.

“And,” you ask, “do you long for four walls and a 16th century roof over your head?”

(We have a 16th century cottage, available for rent on Airbnb don’t you know)

“Well.  I’m coping.  Even though it gets cold.  Even though unseen footsteps draw me to twitch at the curtains.  It’s the 1st of October.  We’ll see.  December is only a sharp wind away.”

Items may convey a sense of the beatific in contrast with the reality

Photo by Nubia Navarro (nubikini) on Pexels.com