3.6 On and on and on, until pause

The term has stuttered to an end; it has kangarooed like a learner driver along the road, or a drunk stag stumbling between pavement and curb at 4 in the morning limping towards the promise of repose and retreat or the relief of a toilet bowl for cold company.

It’s a familiar feeling.  Every member of this nation who has courted a British education knows it as a school child, but we live it year after year, our very own special groundhog day; we notch the academic year, ’18/’19, into our very own grease-stained, sweat-stained bandoleers after another perilous cattle drive into our very own special sunsets saying adios to the beasts in our care.  Some will return for next year’s drive across grass plain and dry desert while others, at the end, muster up for the sharp cut of results day.

Over the Summer many of us will soon be tackling the mounting charges of a DIY deficit, flannelling honeying sweat on furrowed brows. Others still will be marking books – yes, there are a few of them. They tend to have those nice gel pens in all sorts of colours while I rely on whatever the latest lost, unredeemed, pencil case has to offer. Still others will be negotiating the sudden demands of parental care without the professionally trained Key Stage babysitter to rely on.  Still others will be aiming for the next personal achievement a, b or c on the latest trending chuck-it list.

For us it is a remodelling of the front bedroom and a new pantry with lime render and reclaimed timber shelves.  I know.  We are on Airbnb and we are Superhosts.

For me it is a year completed living away from home, sleeping in a Volkswagen T4, in builder’s white, with two duvets and sleeping bags in the belly of my tin shelter, moving from one secret park-up to another, listening to the night’s noises, sometimes recognisable, sometimes alien and very foreign.  Some nights I hid away in woody valleys, others on high clifftops watching the sunset immerse itself in a watery horizon, still others brazenly on show in tarmacked car parks.

I made it, they made it, we made it.  A few years back I was only just there, then; with no way of seeing here, now:  survival was one day to the next day.  Surviving that particular school year, in that particular school wasn’t a metaphor, a simile or an analogy for the trials and tribulations shared by many.  It was personal.  That year seemed to entertain only the lows, wining and dining one comment, one observation, one dismissive glance after another in gutter after gutter.  I remember so clearly the day of prescription; the day of judgement and the chalky-white soldiers of clarity enclosed in a bed of silver foil, ordered like a military grave.

In education, as I’m sure in many other professions, it is hard to escape times of severe toxicity.  That particular toxic period was so noxious to navigate that the invitation to escape the rules of life came at me like a siren’s promises and overwhelmed.  And so, one after another, I popped my chalky-white soldiers and stepped back watching the day unfold comic strip -like.

I remember thinking I ought to report this to someone, my doctor having talked about it as an “injury that could impact your effectiveness”, so I did.  My line manager, a voice of solidarity, pointed me towards a deputy.  I remember feeling like I was just bothering him, but then I thought ‘this is an injury and school need to know’.

He nodded.  Thanked me.  Sympathised.

A short while later I had an email.  I still have it.  It told me not to feel like I needed to report the ins and outs, the developments or the changes.  In translation it told me to just get on with things and stop wasting time.

That was it.  White noise.  I was on my own.

I left, handing in my resignation as late as possible, determined I would not return to teaching, but not knowing what I would do instead.  I was in God’s hands.

But, sadly, it’s not only us, the professionals, who have this field of clotted mud to wade through. We share it with others vastly less prepared.

I recently looked back at a year group photograph and counted, more than I care to share, a number of pupils who will not be seen again because they are gone. Some I saw on the corridors, some I knew from the lunch queue, some I taught briefly or for years.

There are days when a child walks towards you along the corridor and, if it’s a girl, has her skirt pulled too high, or a boy, has his shirt untucked, and there have been times when, for a moment, they are another.  Another child.  This uniform exchange is so common that the memory serves up ghosts of children past more often than we might expect from times of reprimand.  I’m reminded of Toms and Joshes, Jacks and Callums, or Sophies and Kayleighs, Chloes and Beths from days gone by.

Looking back at that school photograph, counting the loss, turned me to my keyboard and I sent out a special homework online to my GCSE class.  They had gone.  Exams were over.  The July swelter was here.  The homework won’t be seen by many of them, I know.  I sent it anyway just to remind them that school, this school, is always here.  There’s a family here for them ready to listen.

There’s no white noise here.

On my last night in the van I park up somewhere special.  A church car park overlooking a beach.  The shouts of a hen-do chorus across the sands in between the pitch and swell of the waves breaking on the shore and I sit listening, jotting down a reading list for the summer.  Tomorrow is our last day – I have a school tour to conduct, one lesson to teach, a room to tidy, speaking and listening assessments to record and assess; there are leaving speeches to applaud and the obligatory after school drinks to attend.

Breathing follows.

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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 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

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

3.5 Of Squeaks and Scoundrels

It’s only 4 teaching days away, but at this point it feels like it might as well be the distance from Houston to the Sea of Tranquillity.  I too have a cramped shell of tin to shelter me, and I too, at times, feel as far from home as the men of the Apollo missions must have done, but at least they had some company along the way.

This term seems like a special kind of torture.

A special kind of heat affronts rather than comforts.

And, accompanying the stilted summer air is the rather special squawk of the resident seagulls, a veritable colony of litter munching flying rats in residence.  Each call is a deafening dirge and never fails to interrupt the lesson.

It’s time.  Surely it is.

We all feel like we’re just playing out our time on our own special stage.  The Extended Director’s Cut no one asked for, or that Hobbit film that takes longer to watch than to read.

Despite the need for recess it’s been a term I’ll remember.  It’s not one to be filed away and forgotten.  Not this time.

How could I forget a term of nights spent watching sunsets from the comfort of my van?  Having been scared out of my valley retreat, I made for the cliffs and have enjoyed every sunset since.  Pulling up shortly before sundown, I slide the side door open and lounge, book in hand, watching the summer’s light disappear leaving a haze of peach and burnt tangerine behind.

One night, last week I stood on the cliff’s promontory watching a pod of dolphins circle, jump and pick at what must have been a school of mackerel hidden below the table-linen flat water’s surface.

This spot attracts much company and I’ve now spent time swapping trampervan upgrade ideas with other vagabonds, all who are rather more prepared than I have been for van life.  I’ve survived.  Just about.  But I cringe at the looks I get from my fellow campers as they gawk at my humble nest.

Despite the isolation of my cliffside abode, I am sharing the site and I miss the quiet nights in the valley, disturbed only by the tawny owls in the evening and the buzzard call in the morning.  There are times that I lie there, my imagination fully engaged with no hope of sleep, as I try to place the sounds outside: sometimes muted bass music intrudes, or muffled conversation and, every so often, the heavy approach of a new engine guzzles, somewhere, out there, shifting back and forth in first and reverse, first and reverse, until it stops and the night’s noises return to black.

But these nights, despite their beauty, have become harder and harder.  I have less and less work to keep me at my desk and I have found myself done by 4pm, the prospect of 5 hours ahead of me before the time I normally choose to park up appals.  With this breadth of time and the loneliness of it I have retreated, gone home and surprised my wife.  I hate the cost, the waste of fuel, the emissions and the time spent travelling the 80 miles home, but the van is not home, it is a facilitator.  It defeats the point to do this, but there has been an increase in sighs as much as there has been an increase in sunsets: lonely romanticism is no comfort.

The second night I return we slip into bed at 11.  We read, we kiss goodnight and the light goes off.  Almost immediately the town’s minstrel strikes up.  At first we lie there trying to place the sound.  We agree it is a guitar, but the tune alludes us it shifts around so much.  Finally the light goes on, so does my wife’s dressing gown and I trot downstairs.  It’s one thing listening to neighbouring campers play out their last few beats before settling down, but outside my home my patience is thinned.

I step out in gown, bare-footed and bare-balled standing at the edge of the square upon which we are perched.  I spy the musical malady and engage the inner ruffian’s voice.  At heart, I’m not as middle-class as my P60 and profession might suggest.  

“Oi!”Yes, ‘oi’, I know.  “Oi, some of us are trying to sleep sweetheart!  Offski.  Pronto!”

I stand there, arms raised and for a moment I think: shit, what if he doesn’t offski like I asked he?

But he does.  Slinking away into the lamp glare of the high street.

I return to the champion’s trump and we sleep soundly before the 5.30 alarm nudges me back into reality.

That morning I sit at my desk, logging on, opening my documents for the day, printing resources and sipping a coffee.  Two pupils are in attendance, horribly early, victims of parental routines and limited public services.  They tell me I’m the most attractive person in the room and my eyebrow goes up.  I have two eyebrows, but just the one can go up like this, Spock-like.

This is one of those moments some teachers, the good-looking ones, fear.  The inappropriate moment.  My mind begins to carefully record the words in fear of future investigation.

I ask, “And, how exactly do you get to that conclusion?”

“Sir told us.”

Alarm bells really start to sound now.  We have a safeguarding policy and I know I’ll be double-checking it shortly.

“Right?  And why did Sir tell you that?”

“Well Sir, you’re bigger than us.  Not being rude.  So, you have a denser mass.  Therefore, according to the laws of attraction, you are the most attractive person in the room.”

Sweet relief.

For a moment.  Just for a moment.  A long moment.  I worried.

But, in more ways than one, I guess they are right.  I am the most attractive person in the room.

Later that day, last period, I sit at my desk as Year 8 complete a writing task.  I make the mistake of leaning back and let out a little, yet undeniably audible, squeaky little fart.  All work is frozen in time.  This has never happened before.  No one knows what to do.  I look at the nearest kid and besmirch him as quick as I can.

That one eyebrow rises: “Kieran!”

Everyone stares.

Save!

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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

3.4 The Frills Begin to Fray

The end is nigh.  A year spent living in the back of a van, mid-week, away from home, away from the wife, comfort and company.

The nights have been strange of late.  The light has peaked.  I leave later and later from school just because there’s something odd, sad, pitiful and self-loathing about parking up in my hidden places in the clear light of day.  Arriving in the darkness and shutting myself away has been so much easier.

In the light I’m on show and out of place.  A sad man in his van camping on a bed on the floor.  A little more comfortable than a shop’s entranceway. No frills, no allure.  The poetry

stops.

The window blinds, kindly donated, go up, but it’s just not right.  Of course I leave the tin shelter and walk.  Watch the sunset, walk the cliff path.  But still, I feel on display.  I feel driven from my shelter by the light.  The routine creates worry now, rather than contentment.  I was happy working, marking, eating, sleeping, waking, repeat.  Now there’s an interruption and the needle jumps the groove.

The second night of the week I park up again.  The same spot as last night.  The engine goes quiet and I look out and see a sign.

“No motorhomes or campers 23 hundred till 08 hundred hours”

Thanks to a plentiful diet of wartime films on a Sunday afternoon I understand this.  I’m in contravention of the rules.

A new sign.

I’ve made it the whole year till now feeling as though I wasn’t treading on any toes, but now I clearly will be.  I’m not a motor-home though.  But am I a camper?  I don’t have a tent and this isn’t a camper-van.  It’s your bog standard white panel van.  If you needed a man, I’d come with a van.  The only reason my wife took any interest in my online dating profile.

On a technicality I could be okay here.  But.

The paranoia of vulnerability, mixed with the clear, clear light sets in.

Nevertheless I decide to chance it.  I do, however, prepare for discovery and flight.

I wear a pyjama top (a shalwar kameez.  Or long shirt top to me and you) ready for the off.

The sign read 23.00 hours.  At 23.30 a car pulls in.  The lights drag past my rear view and I leap into action.  From my darkened dive I observe.  They park a little way away.  It’s now too dark to see any signage.  No indication of who this is.  I waste little time, taking it for a sign and hop bare-bottomed into the driver’s seat.  The engine hums, I pull out and escape.

But I don’t go far.  Wary that this is just my paranoia playing with me.  I’m parked in half an acre of darkened parking and I’m the only one there.  Have they really come for me?

I park near the road and pull on my shorts and trainers; no time for pants or socks.  Then I retrace my retreat, find a bush and stand watch.

It’s not as if this is the first time a car has pulled in to this particular secluded park-up so late.  Up till now I had assumed they were ne’er-do-wells of one description or another.  Uninterested in me and more interested in midnight fidgets and fumbles or the inhalation of weedy puffs.

But these ne’er-do-wells could be the real deal.  The council.

The story is, across county, the second homeowners are calling the shots and the council are hot to take action against anyone hoping for an early morning surf or enjoying a semi-wild camp out.  Recent planning applications sprang up at one local favourite spot; local interests clashed with the two-week holiday slots of anyone from Surrey and the council gave way to holiday money.

I stand in my bush, and time ticks by, expecting an exit and hoping for a resumption of my slumber.  Eventually I give in and head to my back up ground. It’s 1am. Dreams come quickly.

In the morning I leave earlier than usual in order to scout out other camp spots I’ve heard tell of, and discover a sea view a stone’s throw from the school gates and make plans for the night.

That night the caretaker appears on the corridor with a cricket stump.  We greet each other.  I make the necessary enquiry.  Apparently the Zumba class has been disturbed by foreign gentleman, rather less than sober.  They could be anywhere.  Details emerge.  A campsite has been observed by the school boundary line.  I offer to drive round the site to see what I can see, but see nothing.  On my return we discover the campers.  I’m in a dilemma.  My brethren are at the gates.  From twenty yards two things are immediately obvious: they are asleep (the snores are testament to this) and they are well-oiled.  I’ve never smelt alcohol from such a distance.

These men have unwittingly pitched a tent in a not-so-concealed spot, that, at 8am will be fairly obvious to any passing pupil as will the abundance of wine bottles.  The police are called.  The gentlemen are cuffed, cautioned.  Their English is good and they competently punctuate each sentence with an expletive.  Eventually they move on after complaining about the Zumba music.  Her majesty’s constabulary and I chat while we watch them disappear into the distance.  He too is a camper.  He too has a VW; his a T5, mine a T4. We’re not quite hand twins.

We watch our less fortunate comrades fade into hedgerows and silently recognise the moment and its note of hypocrisy.

He leaves and so do I, to a windy cliffside pitch and a rosy sunset.

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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

3.3 Preparing the Next Course

Next course please. Yes. More of the same.

The exam season is almost at an end.

For us, in English, it is. Done. Dusted. Just the ‘dar-dar-dar-DAH-DE-DAR-DAH-DE-DAR’ of the approaching Imperial Cruiser to wait upon now.

August’s end. The end for some and new hopes for others.

Now’s the time to crank up the pressure on Year 10. Put the scare into them. I’ve had a year of Year 11s only partly engaged in the hyperdrive to GCSE success. The stalwarts who stuck with it will be fine, but I despair for that kid who delighted only in leaning back on his chair legs and the other who can pull all topics round to inappropriate sex references, or entertain with his random stories of finding sheep on the front porch in the middle of the night. It was entertaining, but my blood rose. I remember it rising.

I took year 11 on from another, mid-journey. But my Year 10s; they’re all mine. From start to finish. Strike while the iron’s hot, and it’s hot now.

I lay out the year ahead and provide appropriate anecdotes of success and failure helped by the past ten years of memorable howlers:

  • The kid who turned up late, out of school uniform, and was turned away. Probably a good thing due to his obvious intoxication.
  • The kid who was late, still in bed and only came in because the head of Year went and fetched her.
  • The one who just wrote “I don’t know” on a 30 mark question.
  • The other who answered every 26 mark question when only one was needed. This is not as uncommon as you might think.
  • The one who put their lack of written material down to the invigilators’ squeaky shoes.
  • And, lastly, that kid who just drew pictures over the 12 pages of the exam booklet.

“This won’t be you.” I declare. Reassuring myself more than anything else.

Our little horde face a multitude of hurdles. They’re carers; mum’s ill ; dad’s ill; they’re ill; they have jobs; they work on the farm and dad relies on them to be out at 6.30am with the sheep; they don’t have access to the internet at home; they take their brothers, their sisters to school and sometimes get them ready in the mornings. They have social commitments.

In the week of my rant I’m given one bottle of Prosecco, one bottle of cab sav and a box of posh chocs, but the card of thanks is the thing I love the most, especially from that quiet one, the one you gradually begin to think must hate you. Small successes. Some acknowledgment. The child who looks back and recognises the A Level Lit decision came down to our little year 9 class many moons ago. Gold.

The season of sweat and tears is almost entirely over and early lunches will be gone. Come exam season we move lunch to midday causing major issues of fatigue for the last two periods of the day after a pasta lunch. Eyes flutter and we, pupil and Titan, struggle in equal apportionment. But now that is over and we go back to the default settings. Pupils and teachers, alike, can look forward to just one more hour of breathless wonder before the home bell sounds.

Then.

Roll on marking time. Books. Mocks. Printing. Emails. Phone calls home:

“Is your child feeling alright at the moment?”

“Why d’you ask?”

“Maybe because they were late three times in the morning and haven’t done their homework for over a week.”

“She had homework?”

“Yes. There is an online facility that you will have been made aware of at the start of the year so that you know when homework is set, what it is and when it is due.”

“We don’t have a computer.”

“Do you have a smartphone?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s an app.”

So many things are filtered from this conversation. I probably change the filter at least once, maybe twice during the course.

It’s not easy. The pulls on the threads of time come from every direction. Ours and theirs.

We ask: where does the learning really take place?

We have them for at least 30 hours of the week. There are 168 in a week. With an average 8 hours sleepy-time that leaves 112 hours, less 30 hours in school: 82 hours, or 3.41666667r days a week of time outside of school.

So when year 10 ask (because they’re good like that) what they can do to prepare now, for next year, I say: 1 hour. Give up one hour a week.

When you’re eating dinosaurs, you have to do it one bite at a time.

Plus they take ages to cook.

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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

3.2 Glue Sticks and Stalkers

These roads aren’t suitable for the likes of you

The season speeds on and at the start of the week I race on over to school. The alarm goes at 5.30 am.

It’s my warning alarm.

It buzzes and I silence it. Squash.

At 5.45 the next one goes and I begin to roll towards the edge and, by 6, I’m out.

Showered and changed by 6.15, kissed and blessed by my wife.

At 6.20 the toast pops, Sky News whirrs in the background and at 6.30 a.m. I’m driving.

At the beginning of this it was much darker in the mornings and the darkness seemed to punctuate the day; dark at my day’s opening and dark at its end. This endless light is unnatural now and the lack of demarcation by orbit and axis only confuses.

Thirty minutes into the journey I encounter difficulty: road rage.

I cross a roundabout and a dark shadow tries to creep in alongside my passenger side forcing me into oncoming traffic. I trust to the 2 tons of tin, sound the horn and continue onwards. He flashes and beeps furiously. Between this point and the next road I have another 30 minutes to contemplate my manoeuvre, but find no complaint. For 30 minutes he follows, sometimes at a distance, at others he laps at my exhaust. Finally I find an opportunity to pass the lorry in front and put some serious tonnage between us. My paranoia eases and I plough on until there he is again.

I eventually come to the dual carriageway and put pedal to metal and race to my next turn off, fighting off the paranoia. I turn. All is safe. He is nowhere to be seen.

Ten minutes in, he’s back.

The route I take to school isn’t one many others would follow and the fact he’s been with me now for the last 50 miles is perturbing.

I know the road and plan. Various tv theme tunes intrude and I pull off. He passes.

Paranoia.

Ah blessed paranoia.

I rejoin the road and there he is. In the lay-by. Waiting.

I mentally note his registration and Mad Max-like, sans bondage apparel, throom on by heading to the next rise and the farm entrance that I know is there, but, hopefully, he doesn’t. It works. I pull in but he doesn’t see. I watch him pass and rejoin the road. He gradually disappears into the horizon and I cruise into work.

I still park out of view of the road though, just in case.

The entire night I imagine a banged up Vauxhall rolling into my nightly hidey-hole, engine roaring monstrously, lights on beam.

It reminds me of how vulnerable I know I am, know that I feel, but dismiss for the sake of a restful night’s sleep. Four walls, in my dreams, are castle-like with sentries at every corner.

The next day the routine pulls me back in and the kids delight at every turn. My GCSE group seem to be getting it. Up till now thorns of terror seemed to envelop us, but we’re there and it’s time. A perfect storm. My midweek point ends with glueing and sticking and one boy telling me he can fit his ears into the glue lids. My eyebrows raise:

“I can. I can get my ears inside the glue lids.” He assures and proceeds to interpret my raised eyebrow as the starter’s pistol of challenge.

He can.

Both of them.

Comfortably.

These last months all we’ve been interested in is testing children to our prescribed diet of achievement, but today there’s room for recognising and acknowledging the bizarre too. Our measures are those of the adult world, theirs’ are their own and they are unique for it.

The next day begins with a lovely email from the PE department. I haven’t seen the missing high jump pole they are missing, but I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

My last night, before heading home the following day, I disturb hidden lovers in the night’s choice of park up. A Mini, not a Vauxhall.

I roll by and park up as far away as I can, but that’s it for them. They head off sheepishly. There’s a lay-by up the road. I’m sure they’ll be fine.

In the night I hear strange sounds and imagine tapping. The Vauxhall driver. Thankfully, it turns out to be the blackouts on the window and the suckers detaching. I spit and reapply.

I’ll be home tomorrow.

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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

3.1 A New Season and an Old, Bad Man. Part 2

I’ve spent the last few weeks fluttering and flittering from one intervention to the next; answering worry, question and sigh one at a time. How can pupils still ask what is on the paper? It’s been two years. Winks of light speak up through the foggy darkness and concerns calm.

Year 11 dominate the staff room chatter and we pour out our woes and worries. We curse He Who Shall Not Be Named and call upon the stars and the gods. There has been a noticeable increase in sugary items brought in by our fresh-faced, brand new and shiny head of department. It eases the thickness of the air.

I remind myself I’m not piloting the boat. The only thing I can be is the albatross following my little ships as they venture ever closer to shore, hoping they don’t try and shoot me when the wind dies. Currents can be unkind and curses can cut deep. I’m buoyed up one afternoon after two hours of intervention. No less than 10 stalwarts attend and suddenly learning seems alive again. I realise we’ve been in a quagmire on the last frantic furlong. Discussion of themes, meanings and Shakespeare’s position on men, women and the supernatural bubble up and wink at the brim.

This is what the old, bad man has done: stagnation. Since the Change our pupils have been asked to perform Herculean feats that do not tally with what was asked of their predecessors. There’s nothing wrong with rigour and the pursuit of excellence, ideas usurped by the old, bad man – after all, who can argue with a robust education curriculum that challenges the best of ’em?

The application is the problem and a two party state of interest and ability is the result. The disenfranchised struggle more than ever. On the surface they are handed every leg up, crutch and push we can find, but when we wallow in a curriculum that bleeds enthusiasm and love of the subject it’s easy to lose that vital sense of purpose.

Poverty is the biggest hindrance in our society. I lose count of the number of texts that invite a study of the Human Condition. Discussions reveal much. I simplify the ideas for the chérubins rooted in front of me into three questions, just as my teacher had (hallowed be his name):

  1. Where did we come from?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. Where are we going?

The lunch hour often witnesses staff curse the living air with 2 and 3.

The divide is clear. And the divider is clearer. I can rely on finding that pupils from a low income background have rarely considered this, while others click. There’s always a middle ground, but the polarisation is stark. My heart silently breaks when faces happily confess they’ve never thought about it.

“What’s the point, Sir?”

That is the point, I think.

Have they accepted a prescribed destiny?

Are they pressing the levers and pulling the cords blindly themselves?

The workload is frightening. Who wouldn’t balk at the hurdles’ heights?

My week’s load is lightened when a tutee brings in cakes for all.

“What’s this in aid of?” I ask.

“It is your birthday, isn’t it Sir?”

A box of fairy cakes, easily wider than her torso is held by tiny hands.

“Yes it is.”

She offers me one and distributes the rest to the tutor group. A golden moment and an excellent cake. There are spares and I receive a second when all have been handed out. We live in the legacy of the old, bad man, but kindness is still alive and sweet, with a frosty topping, and I have a feeling she knows why she is here.

I dismiss the masses and glide to a double lesson with the year group who are thick in the fray.

I pray to God.

What good are the stars and the lesser gods other than for the frill and flower of poetry and metaphor?

He Who Shall Not Be Named perhaps thought himself one such star, the mover and shaker of fortune, and to a frightful extent he has been, and fortunes shattered and splintered around us.

Though I despair at times, his word shall not be the last.

This generation has a voice too.

To celebrate renewed hope, renewed resistance, I take the van for a hose down and dirty white becomes mildly glossy candy-white with a hint of rust.

3.0 A New Season and an Old, Bad Man. Part 1

In the eye of the brave and the foolish

I got the job. The week before the Easter break I was walking on eggshells. The day of the interview rose with fearful trepidation and fell in rays of shepherds’ delight. The title was mine. Is mine. The mighty London Titan, the feared competition, was defeated. Done. Kaput.

I breathe sigh upon sigh of relief and so do the kids.

The Easter break is like sinking into a warm bath, think Herbal Essences without the suggestive groans of inappropriate contentment, and staying there undisturbed. We rest for a week before venturing out on holiday: our dreams say sun, sea, sand, but our pockets say Wales.

The ground comes rushing up to my feet, to our feet, and before you can say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch we’re back in the fray of fiends and friends and the occasional fiendish friend.

The first week back is a shock to the system and not just because we have a new Head teacher joining us after the summer, or that we have a new Head of department, wellies on and waist-deep, but because I have only brought two pairs of pants away with me to make it through the week and the school shower is on the fritz. I won’t be making it to a sweaty game of squash this week. On the bright side I have plenty of socks.

Halfway through the week I uncover my backups, stashed between a tool bag and a pile of wood in my trampervan. I’m saved. Too many of our children work in the shops around here and I don’t know how I would have felt purchasing underwear from one of my year 10’s. I wisely make a new list for the new term:

  1. Stock up on spare pants, and socks
  2. Stash socks and pants in a more readily accessible corner of the can
  3. Replenish emergency rations of nuts and chocolate
  4. Leave a couple of spare shirts at work, they’re just as important as pants

On discovery of the backup pants the week begins to pick up, briefly.

The summer term is all about Year 11. They’re on the home stretch now. The first GCSE only weeks away, but they still seem to lack the bite and excitement of a horse on the final league. We all pause and wonder if it’s a national concern. Do we have a generation of non-runners? In an email with a parent I share that I hope their child had some fresh air between all the furious revision.

I’m worryingly reassured.

Plenty of fresh air was had:

“We went abroad. Did some revision, yeah, but got out lots thanks.”

(Fluency and command of grammar has been altered to protect the identity of the individual while trying to maintain tone and sense of assurance intended)

This is it. Not much can be done now. It’s their future so I spend lesson after lesson convincing them of the need to fight for it. I set essays, mark essays, set essays, mark essays. I create an imagined Viking sentinel at the drum and he beats out a rhythm to the steady sink of the oar and pull, and pull and pull and pull as I mark, mark, mark.

The sea is rough.

One morning a boy tells me not to worry so much. He intends to win the lottery. He sums up the apathy and the reliance on chance, but he’s really only conveying his fear. Before his attitude takes root. I tell him.

I tell them all. There’s only one lottery worth entering:

“The only lottery I ever won was when I met my wife.”

Most of them get the point and they work. Gradually it catches on.

The truth is, this year group, and the ones following, have it harder than previous years. The ladder rungs have been greased and climbers slip and sink. The reliance on memory is paramount; the value on Victorian Literature is far and above, and the list of those writing in English of Britishness is bitterly terse and the shortlist the bad man provided is nothing other than a blight for both teacher and pupils.

But how else to weaken the masses than rely on a blight?

Years ago the big bad man came along. We don’t say his name. He changed the system. Bad men like him had changed it before and he didn’t like it. So he changed it. He took away the system that enabled children to achieve and disenfranchised them. He cut and he hacked until the vine toppled and only wingéd angels could fly from this earth to clouded heights above in some sort of predestined gamble of luck or fitful ambition. The children left behind were left behind to languor in disenchantment while education lost its enchantment and its enchanters.

This is a narrative that holds truth, but I refuse to swallow it.

Swish, swash. The magic wand will have its day.

I imagine the term ahead as a warrior-teacher, a bandelero of board pens over one shoulder and my pockets filled with spare pens because “Sir, I don’t have a pen” has become part of the day’s mantra and I can either Ryu-Ken sonic punch the child, or hand them a Bic.

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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