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

3.1 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.

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

2.3 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.

2.2 Magic Pills in Short Supply

The second half of term has begun. Batteries have been charged and an INSET day introduction to the week dulls the hammer blow. The sight of a lone child walking expectantly to a childless school warms my cockles, particularly as I teach her and now have ready-made tease material for an opportune moment that awaits me.

I’m halfway through the adventure, the challenge and the cold.

Working almost 2 hours from home; living away in a tin can on wheels because the school I teach in is:

A) amazing, and

B) I’m not sure I’d survive anywhere else.

And, as mentioned before, survival is key if you want to live and last another 58 nights in a van before Summer bliss rolls in.

Also, it’s important to remember, not punching children in the face is key. A worthwhile mantra for any hardened educator.

I often wonder what keeps me going after 10 years in the biz, when the number of teachers training and remaining in post has decreased year on year since I entered the field. It’s called the churn. Images of bodies tumbling, drowning, suffocating in a wave foaming into shore is a suitable image.

A tidal wave builds. This time the groaning mouths of children hungry for the entitlement schools offer (or, sadly, an escape from home); after all pupil numbers have increased as teacher numbers disappear like the dead, down into the deep. In 5 years the numbers will be 10% over current figures and those remaining stalwarts, the statuary bedrock will face the swell of the unhappy mob tearing at the paper’s edge, disappearing scissors into murky pencil cases empty of pencils or pens. The hunger for the materials of education already supplant the hunger for inquiry in many children. Sticking in sheets becomes a ten minute activity as a single glue is passed round the fiends itching in their chairs.

The golden prize of a magic pill evades us all, but still, we all flirt with the elusive recipe. One minister after the next hubbles, broadsheet columnists sex up the bubble, but the hurly burly continues despite the ardent salvos from TES writers charged with solving the crisis of boys’ attainment levels, or providing the next acronym on trend, hash-tagging its way through Twitter like a smoking sword, bloodily executing the confidence of those bricked into the bedrock: blocks of granite, tried and tested against the swirling storms of social media gurus.

At Parents Evenings we sit across our desks peddling one cure-all after the next. A parent, her silent child and quiet husband sit across from me and we all stare at a piece of paper stiffly waving with a list of ‘strategies’.

“Have you seen these strategies?” I’m asked.

Words like ‘coloured overlay’ and ‘chunking’ float before me.

A number of responses are immediately censored and filed.

I begin to talk to the child about revision.

“Did you do any before the last test?” I ask.

“No.”

The paper goes limp.

“Are you encouraging him to read at home?” I pursue.

“We have a bookshelf.”

Gradually I shift the emphasis back to the child and his owners, focus shifts away from the five hours of contact time I have over a fortnight to turn his prospects around. Parents become co-conspirators. We’re all part of the recipe, and they leave reminded of their roll in the broth.

Driving behind a gritter that night I meet another coming the other way. “It’ll be cold tonight,” the salty spray tells me. And indeed it is. I sleep with a cold nose beneath two duvets while cows low loudly on the hillside above. Sleeping isn’t easy when the air is cold and thick with full-throated heifers in darkened chorus.

2.1 Acknowledging All The Small Things

The Christmas tree is well and truly done, lying in an ash bucket in the pantry. Christmas is still a familiar dream, but the half-term break is already in sight. A dusty horizon of bright promise after the darkness of January and the unceasing piles of class tests.

My wife and I have renamed the van. We have, until now, referred to is as a “camper-van mid-conversion”, but it’s time to own up to its true state. It is nothing less than a tramper-van! As I lie there in the darkness, piles of wood at my right, insulation ready to be glued in to place hanging limply; saw, drill, screws and other sundries; I dream of the finished article. I embrace the irony that by the time it is insulated, enjoys an electrical supply, hosts a gas ring and a wash basin as well as a sock drawer, it will be summertime and my contract will be coming to an end.

With horizons on my mind I allow trepidation to take a foothold. To teach or not to teach. Post summer is truly an undiscovered country. What to do? Hang up the red pen or set course towards a horizon only half in view. Melancholy thoughts. I google “benefits of teaching” and I am inspired! A digital void answers me. There is talk of holidays and that’s it. Every other article is about how we can benefit learning. Nothing talks of our needs, just the cold nod at the continuing growth of professional development.

So, what is it? What is the benefit? It’s not holidays. Paying school holiday flight fares and accommodation rates alongside the fact that while you’re on holiday the slavering tykes are out there too. I remember taking my wife to Paris, and beneath the Arc d’Triumph being accosted by an excited sixth former-to-be who introduced herself: excited to have me in September. My wife looked at me rapt by this meta-being, who could inspire children even on foreign shores, and hugged me tighter.

When I came back in January, the temperature had dropped significantly and so too had the warmth of the school showers I rely on at 7.30 in the morning. The first morning I couldn’t do it. I managed a splattering of freezing water atop my bonce just to wet down my double crown and vowed to book in to the barbers in order to do in the cockerel peak. Short hair is key to a professional look on emergence from the tramper-van. Now I shower before leaving school until the winds of change do blow more favourably.

My first day in, after my haircut, and at 8 am a lanky year 11, from 50 yards, cries “Fresh trim, Sir”. Indeed my trim is fresh. I hide my gleeful cheer at being noticed in case he spots this too. Only the kids seem to notice I’ve had a haircut. No staff. It takes them four days. And, I muse: benefits? The benefits of teaching are hardly centred on the aggrandisement of the ego, but as one child after another comments on the “trim” I consider what we look like to them. Figures of constancy in their lives; reliability and safety. I have cultivated the habit of taking interest in their lives and now I see it reflected in my own and the value of this.

Still, I wonder: benefits?

My Year Nines inspire me. Half way through a lesson (Romeo and Juliet) one of the lads asks to use his time out card. I haven’t made my mind up about these freedom passes, but I nod. When he leaves I pull out my Fitbit and take bets on his length of absence and hit the timer. This is almost a class expectation. Recognition, between us, that attendance and absence is equally acknowledged.

“Sir?” A voice ventures, pausing our exploration of Act 1, Scene 1.

“Kieran?” I reply.

“Do you know you’re the only teacher who doesn’t shout at him and gets him to actually work?”

“Well. That’s cool.” I almost splutter.

For a term, all I’ve wanted is for Mr Timeout to actually write something in his book, take an interest and not foul up his assessments. I turn back to the board and challenge them to work out what Shakespeare’s England meant by the term ‘maid’, but really I’m reminded of the benefits.

When kids recognise you: A person. A human being. Accomplishment. Kindness and boundaries. Acknowledgment.

Is that all the benefit we need?

“He’s back, Sir” points out Rhys.

“Stop the clock.” I hear.

“What is it?” Asks another.

“12 minutes.” I say. “I’ve won.”

Mr Timeout smiles in realisation and sits down, copying up notes after a friendly but curt reminder.

This is quickly followed by the recognition that being a ‘maid’ in Shakespeare’s England came with the expectation of virgin honour; that when the Capulets talk about putting maids to the wall, they are really talking about rape. The room is abuzz and eyes are wide.