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, Guardian 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.

1.7 Straw Dreams and Stone Tablets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.6 Pit Stops and Paper Jams

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

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

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

My first use of the net so far.

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

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

“Ample room for your particulars, mate.”

“Oh?”

“Your willy.”

“Oh, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no paper jam.

There is rarely an actual paper jam.

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

Blink.

Wink.

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

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

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

To partake or not, that is the question.

Curses fly like slings and arrows.

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

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

1.4 Camelot’s retreat and Battle Preparation

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve followed two of these suggestions thus far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve gone with out.

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