Unless you’ve stood where he has stood

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Next week, I will be speaking at a memorial service for a friend and a relative who succumbed to the effects of his alcoholism and died, aged sixty.

He and I had an outdoor relationship from the beginning, almost thirty years ago.

I invited him on my stag weekend in Snowdonia so that I could get know him. And I think I truly did. He walked hard and talked just as hard, all the way up and all the way down the mountain. He got on well with my friends – better, I think, than I did that night.

But when they crept into my hotel room in the early hours, intent on doing mischief to me, he was the one whose nose I broke. It was quite a struggle, and I think a few of my friends were ready to leave the hotel early the next morning. Then, as I sat in silence at breakfast, in he walked. He grabbed a coffee and sat down opposite me, wearing his big, sunny grin. “That was quite a night, wasn’t it?” We were friends from then on.

I saw the best of him when he worked tirelessly to organise the team for the Three Peaks Challenge, in aid of children affected by the Chernobyl disaster. We had many long conversations before it, and spoke at length as he drove us between mountains. He was driven by something. I’m not sure if I ever found out what it was.

I saw a gentle side to him with his children when they were little, but also towards the end, when I walked beside him through the lanes around his home town. He counted on me as a friend and was never anything but kind and polite to me. That is the man I will choose to remember and celebrate.

I have a photograph of him from my stag weekend. He’s standing on Adam, a rock more than two metres in height and a little more than a step away from another rock, known as Eve. They are at the top of a mountain called Tryfan. Unless you’ve stood on the top, you don’t know how dangerous it feels to step from one to the other. If you get it wrong, there seems to be nothing between you and a thousand foot drop. He got up onto the rock and then stood there, unable to step across. He agonised for a very long time, pacing around the top of that rock, oblivious to the encouragement and impatient shouts from those around him. And finally he climbed down from the rock. It was brave to get up there in the first place. It was perhaps just as brave not to take the risk and to get down again.

Unless you’ve stood where he has stood, you cannot know how it feels.

The First Week

I’ve just found these accounts of my first days of teaching.

Day One

Well, yesterday doesn’t count because it was just an Inset Day. All meetings and preparation.

I slept extraordinarily well last night, and only woke when my alarm went off at six. I dozed for half an hour, knowing that I had a five minute commute to work (five minutes!)

Arriving at half past seven, I set about the final touches to my classroom: the notice on the whiteboard, the labels on the book boxes, the presentations on the smart board.

And at ten to nine I was walking out to greet my new class. I had plans to have them troop into the classroom in alphabetical order. A worried glance from the head teacher said don’t, and I didn’t. Good advice without a word.

In fact, they just quietly walked into the room, sorted their bags out, lined up as I had asked them and then went to sit down in their home places. And that’s how the morning went on. Not sullen, silence (there was a fizz of misbehaviour that reassured me they were normal children). They labelled all their books, got up, transitioned, sat down, labelled more books and all without a mishap.

For English, I had shot a video in a local wood. It showed a ruined nissen hut and the adjacent outhouse. My camera style was quite Blair Witch, and the children had to imagine what had happened in this strange and slightly scary place. They exceeded my hopes with their ideas. We chatted, planned and wrote our hearts out.

I had lunch with a few of them, including a new boy. I said, “I am assuming that you would like me not to come on with the embarrassing adult bit and that you’ll shout if you need help.” He smiled and nodded.

The afternoon is a slog. Two hours without a break. I’d prepared a different maths lesson for them, based on the first chapter of David Eagleman’s book ‘Sum’. In the chapter, he imagines that the afterlife is simply this life repeated, except with all similar activities collated. So you spend weeks eating, years sleeping, days in excruciating pain – you get the idea. The lesson was an exercise in estimation and calculation. One of the children would, of course, be estimating how long she spent on the toilet just as the Head appeared. “Well, we all have to” was his reassuring response. The activity dragged on a bit, and they didn’t all get how to do it, but it was a reasonable session. They became quite boisterous, but responded well to a hotel reception bell (rung by children on the best behaved table) and some quiet counting down to five.

I finished off the day with a somewhat desultory exercise in work for a display – what they aimed to do in the year. And, with a little homework to take away (just flipping through a book) they were off home.

I walked out and met the eyes of parents for a while, then returned to sit in my class for an hour’s marking. Goodness, some of those stories were good! At six, after a little more prep, I was off home.

Day Two

“So how was today?” the Deputy Head asked me after school. I laughed.

“It’s hard.”

“You knew that before you started, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I keep finding more things to do.”

Today’s “Oh Sh*t” moments were Guided Reading. It had slipped under my radar as it hadn’t appeared in any planning document or timetable. Apparently I need to hear every child read every week. Or a TA does (a significant “or”). And apparently I will be teaching hockey on Friday. HOCKEY! ME? I can’t hit a big ball with a big stick, let alone a teeny little one with a narrow-necked, tiny-headed stick. And I am largely clueless about it. I spent the afternoon frantically foraging around for lesson plans…

Today’s lovely moments:

The laughs we had in the book groups I convened today, for example. I’d asked the children to bring along a book they particularly liked and tell five of their peers what they liked and why. They (mostly) worked hard at the discussions.

The magic squares in maths. Take a three by three square and arrange the integers 1 to 9 so that each vertical, horizontal and diagonal line adds up to the same number (a clue: it’s 15). One boy found the answer in ten of the twenty minutes allocated to this brain-teaser. And he had such a simple way of working it out: the integers together make 45, there are three rows and/or three columns, so each row and/or column will be 15, and so on… The joy of the lesson was the co-operation.

The wide-ranging discussion on time and its bendiness and subjectivity, then our ‘pin the date on the timeline’ game.

Hearing that my mentor’s son, who is in my class, had gone home yesterday so excited by our writing exercise that he had told his father all about it (unheard of) and remembered what he’d written (unusual).

Hearing about my mentor’s lesson this afternoon (she covers my PPA) in which she turned my plan and resources into a brilliant dressing-up session complete with mullet wig, eighties stretchy tops, seventies shirts and hats and Alexis Colby-Carrington shoulder pads. I love teaching in a team with her.

I am still very shaky in my teaching, and sometimes narrowly miss boring or disappointing the children. I will become good at this, but it’ll take a while yet. I have spent far too long this evening preparing six excerpts from WWII-themed novels for the children to dissect grammatically tomorrow, and preparing for the measuring lesson. I suspect that my French lesson will be a little sketchy…

I have my planning afternoon with my mentor tomorrow. I am a little apprehensive but know I needn’t be.

Day Three

Tonight is the first bedtime when I haven’t felt a knot of panic in my stomach. I feel prepared for tomorrow and, after two hours this afternoon with my mentor, I feel less panicky about my limitations.

I have found the Quick Sticks lesson plans and now have a fun lesson in sight tomorrow afternoon. I have cased the area of Tarmac I’ll be using tomorrow, ensured I know what (little) equipment I have and spoken to the deputy head, who’s teaching Quick Sticks to the younger ones just before me.

We had a great deal of enjoyment in today’s maths challenge. The higher attainers took a while to get the solution and then set about teaching some of the other groups. My maths genius (she’s ten going on forty, quite seriously) did a double act with me up at the white board – she explained and I scribbled, for the benefit of the class. I worked with the lower attainers on a simpler capacity problem with water and the jugs and plastic beakers I’d had to nip out and buy the day before. To my joy, they got it. The middlies struggled with the task – I think I’ll have to spend some more time with them.

Our grammar and punctuation lesson was a kind of catch-all gallop through everything they could list. Once they’d told me what they knew, and we’d shared it with those who didn’t, I gave out the opening five pages to five different Topic-related novels. “Go hunt some grammar and show me,” I said. And I drove them like an enthusiastic swimming coach – if they were dabbling in the shallows of nouns and adjectives, I encouraged them out into adverbs and conjunctions. If they were coasting along with these, I lured them out into clauses and phrases. And all with a manic prancing about (I pranced in order to illustrate this verb, deliberately suggested by one of my cheeky boys). One of more complacent boys asked about ‘procrastinate’ and suddenly we were off on an etymological jaunt around Roman generals and the word ‘crastino’.

French was the high point for me. I almost danced into the staff room after the lesson, so overjoyed was I to have been able to speak in fairly joined-up French without feeling the shame I used to experience when I lived in Paris. I have a half decent vocabulary, a reasonable pronunciation and the ability to string simple sentences together. I was grateful for the modern languages session at college, as I was able to model the style and tactics of teaching we’d been shown. And the children seemed to like it a lot too.

I need to collect my thoughts and work out if I’m getting more from this than the children are. Next week, when the more formal teaching, learning and assessment kick in, I’ll see if it’s just been a honeymoon.

Day Four

…my first proper week of teaching.

I walked in today, as I had promised myself I would do every day. It’s such a joy not to be commuting, and it’s payback time for the environment after a few too many years of conspicuous consumption. But it’s an easy payback: a twenty minute walk across a beautiful common on an Indian Summer’s day.

I had stayed in bed for a little longer, as our family begins the day together, all three of us, two dogs and lots of tea. It was hard to get out: this teaching lark is bloody tiring!

So I had to scurry around, preparing the lessons for the day. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel like a master of ceremonies, choreographing all sorts of entertainment for my children. I was (you may have gathered) particularly worried about Quick Sticks in the afternoon. And suddenly out popped a full-blown lesson plan with timings, resources, layout and learning objectives. It’s getting easier. Today is, sadly, the last day of our team challenges. We have looked at number, calculation and capacity. Today we were looking at shape. This was a problem we’d been given as students, and I’d really enjoyed it. I hoped the children would too. I had the briefs, the cribs, the cubes and the interactive “work it out” sheet for later.

We have to work on the children’s spelling each week, so I had used the stories they’d written earlier in the week as a starting point. I picked out the words they’d used and struggled with, then divvied them up, five to a table. Each table had to look the words up, present a definition to the rest of the class and explain how to spell it. I wanted to gain a sense of whole-class involvement, even though the words were differentiated.

This Year’s RE topic is Buddhism, and I wanted to put on a bit of a show. So I’d found a couple of bits of material, one a cloth of gold and the other a cerise gauze, and I used these to create the backdrop to my display. It could be quite a dry topic, so I used my predecessor’s plan in the hope that I’d avoid death by boredom.

So, with all my plans, props and presentations ready, I went out to meet the children. I was on duty today, so I had to amble around in the sunshine, preventing the children from dying on school premises.

The long and the short of it (I am tiring of typing on the ground outside the pub) is that today was actually quite successful.

The cubes foxed almost all the children but enabled ALL the children to achieve something. And there were plastic cubes to play with, so everyone was entertained.

The approach to spelling seemed to work: it engaged everyone in the endeavour. And my TA is brilliant at ensuring that those who think they’re no-hopers actually DO contribute on an equal footing. They were terrified that they’d have to learn all twenty-five words: I reassured them later by only setting an appropriate ten (five achievable and five stretch).

Buddhism began with a big discussion about each table’s five most famous world figures. Mr Bean featured, as did Ronaldo, Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis, the Beatles, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Queen and (to many jeers) Stephen Hawking. Bless the boy who mentioned him! The presentation on the early life of the Buddha was necessary and not that interesting, but the lesson lifted a little when I handed around artefacts and asked the children to guess what they were. The prayer wheel was a toy, or a musical instrument. The alms bowls were for putting on your head, or musical instruments. The prayer beads a present after a party. Only the incense burner was correctly identified by one of the two Indian boys in the class. And it didn’t matter a jot: their views were valid and our discussion got where it needed to.

I have been having lunch with the children: yesterday’s golden bean pie (baked beans, stuffing and puff pastry for those of you who fancy it) was surpassed by cheesy pizza and a lovely chat with four Year Two boys. They are guileless, curious, garrulous and delightful.

After that, I got to blow my whistle for the first time. “Stand still,” I shouted. And they actually did! Oh, the power…

I had planned in a ‘float’ lesson for after lunch. By that stage of the day and the week, they’re up for very little, so I had them change for games, gave them their homework and, once they’d settled down, read to them for twenty minutes. What a mistake. I love ‘His Dark Materials’ to death; they were bored almost to death by it. I could feel the energy sapping out of them as I read it. The book’s moment may have passed, and I will have to find something more engaging.

The children shot out of the classroom, and Quick Sticks were upon me. I don’t know why I had worried: they knew what they were doing, they wanted to have fun, they liked doing the activities I’d found and all I had to do was facilitate it all. I don’t know how much they learnt, but they thanked me for it afterwards.

I retired to my classroom with a stupid smile. I had made it! After an hour and a half of preparing stuff for my parents information evening next week, I walked home, happy.

Planning can wait for tomorrow…