Youth v Experience

Many years ago, I had the great privilege of working with an exceptional teacher. She was one of those extraordinary people for whom plucking some obscure fact or figure out of thin air was practically a daily occurrence. She was definitely one to have on your pub quiz team!

Of course, exceptional intelligence can sometimes be coupled with a degree of social awkwardness, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly relaxed in her company… That being said, her pupils adored her. Her lessons were full of energy, quirkiness and cynicism and every class that crossed the threshold of room C3 was mesmerised by the passion (and skill) with which she brought her subject to life.

‘In praise of middle age’ is intended as a light-hearted reminder that there will always be a younger, more attractive NQT hot on your heels, but that experience certainly has its strengths too. And in working together with the next generation of teachers (rather than feeling threatened by them) it is possible to enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’, where ideas are shared, and skills are honed.

In praise of middle age

“The years have not been kind!” they say, in whispers low and furtive,
“There are bangers with less wear and tear,” their judgement harsh, assertive.
Her sight is slowly fading, and she’s gained a couple of chins –
It’ll not be long before the ‘journey south’ of certain bits begins!

Her hair is slowly greying and there are crow’s feet around her eyes,
And wrinkles upon wrinkles which foundation can’t disguise!
Her walk is a little less purposeful, her stride somewhat lacklustre –
Her voice is unassuming; excitement hard to muster.

She quietly walks the corridors, she’s seen it all before:
Messy shoe racks, dirty socks, coats strewn across the floor.
She sidles into the classroom and softly shuts the door,
Greeted by rows of eager eyes, and faces full of awe.

The show begins, the theme unfolds, she places them under her spell,
With passion, guile, and anecdotes – the tools she knows so well.
She piques their curiosity, and tends their burgeoning knowledge,
She cultivates their interest, whilst for hidden depths she’ll forage.

The lesson ends, the pupils leave; her impact monumental –
Taking pride in her work is reward enough, she’ll not be sentimental.
But for those who mourn the passage of time, on retirement placing a bet,
She’s far from ready to hang up her hat – there’s life in the old dog yet!

Like it or not, life’s a competition!

When I think back to my school days, a multitude of memories come flooding back. From uniform quirks to school trips, inspirational teachers to lasting friendships, special events to unforgettable sporting fixtures. And I consider myself extremely fortunate that most of these memories are happy ones.  After all, ‘school days are (meant to be) the best days of your life’, right?

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that my behaviour (whilst at school) was not always entirely exemplary… However, I’d like to think that I managed to strike a balance between hard work and harmless mischief, and that I didn’t over-step the boundaries too often. (Being able to change one’s name as a result of being ‘joined in holy matrimony’ definitely has its advantages though!)

Have you ever noticed how certain subject teachers tend to follow a particular stereotype though? Being a teacher myself, I feel qualified to say this – and I apologise unreservedly to colleagues both past and present, for the heinous generalisations that are about to follow…

You’ve obviously got your ‘arty’ types, for whom a ‘grip on reality’ has been unwittingly traded for a ‘vivid imagination’ and vast quantities of creative flair. Then there are the IT and Mathematical experts for whom a sense of humour is not (unlike the world of teaching in general) seemingly a pre-requisite. And finally, you have your PE / Sports teachers who, it seems to me, take a slightly sadistic pleasure in ‘pushing you to your physical limit’ whilst casually observing your many anatomical shortcomings. (I mean, who doesn’t try to take a short cut during the termly cross-country run? It’s just a pity that my attempt was so poorly timed as to make me look momentarily like an Olympic prospect.) However, it is the words of one such PE teacher that have remained with me all these years later, and for whom I now have a (grudging) respect.

I remember the incident well. My friend had just come last in the house cross-country competition and she was bemoaning the fact that the effort expended was hardly worth the paltry house point that she had been awarded. The teacher looked rather disparagingly at her puce complexion and, noting her laboured breathing, declared that “Life is a competition. The sooner you get used to that fact, the better.” Of course (at that precise moment) my friend was in no fit state to be receptive to such advice, but I remember thinking (even then) that this ‘Nike-clad, no-nonsense nutter’ possibly had a point!

In all honesty, my feelings on the subject haven’t really changed. After all, there can be only one winner in a competition, and only one candidate will ultimately ‘get the job’ at an interview. So, why do we have such a problem with celebrating supremacy? Shouldn’t we be preparing our children for failure as well as success? Isn’t that how we become more resilient, and learn to work that little bit harder to reach our goals?

I am, of course, frequently outvoted on this particular issue and have (regrettably) had to succumb to the ‘sticker for all’ mentality on more than one occasion. It will come as no real surprise then, to hear how secretly delighted I was to discover that my youngest seems to share my (seemingly antiquated) view on the matter. He recently refused to display a certificate that proudly stated that he ‘had taken part’, on the grounds that another one declared him the ‘winner’.

Sportsmanship (and learning to be gracious in defeat) is evidently still a ‘work in progress’!

Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

Many friends have told me that they have acquired new skills during the course of one national lockdown or another, and Facebook has borne witness to a veritable deluge of posts about the success (or otherwise) of home baking projects, ingeniously crafted ‘Fakeaways’ or the cultivation of fresh produce.   

I have to admit that (pre-2020) I had staunchly shied away from baking of any kind, believing that my efforts would almost certainly fall woefully short of my mum’s delectable creations. However, with lockdown 1 came the desire not only to rekindle precious childhood memories with my boys, but also to lay that particular ghost to rest. And by choosing a homemade chocolate cake (over a shop bought Harry Potter one for his birthday earlier this week), my youngest son unwittingly gave my baking skills the resounding endorsement that I so desperately craved! However, as I sat basking in the glory of my new-found culinary success, I found myself taking a somewhat reluctant trip down memory lane to a week’s work experience, carried out shortly after sitting my GCSE examinations. 

It was the summer of 1991 and my parents had kindly arranged for me to go and help out at the local primary school. My mum dropped me off at the school office and I waited nervously for my instructions. The Headteacher (a terrifyingly exuberant character) cantered towards me, welcomed me to his school and promptly dispatched me to Class One. I was immediately put to work cleaning up the painting corner (surely that was a job for a Friday afternoon, not a Monday morning?) and sorting the Lego from the Duplo – which I dutifully did. Later that day, I was entrusted with delivering ‘Storytime’ to twenty-four rather fidgety four- and five-year-olds but I relished that particular challenge, and I have to admit that (before long) I had them all captivated.

By lunchtime, I was beginning to feel much more relaxed and had already warmed to several of the children in that class. It was evident that many of them viewed me as a sort of ‘big sister’ and, rather like the Pied Piper, I seemed to have quite a following by the time I accompanied the TA out onto the playground! When I returned to the classroom, the teacher presented me with a large canvas shopping bag and quickly informed me of her plans for the next session.

The children had been growing their own cress and so they were going to make egg and cress sandwiches for their afternoon snack. I glanced into the bag and saw a loaf of bread, some low-fat spread, some hard-boiled eggs, and a plastic container filled with a thick creamy substance that looked like a cross between mayonnaise and salad cream. The cress, of course, was on the windowsill on a bed of cotton wool. All very straightforward, I thought.

The children were sent to me in batches of six where we swiftly found our rhythm (in true production line fashion) buttering bread, removing the shell from the eggs, and combining the ingredients before plating up the sandwiches and allowing the children to tuck in.

Well, they were thrilled with their efforts and utterly effusive in their verbal feedback. I beamed at them, rejoicing in the notion of a job well done. The teacher seemed pleased with our efforts too and it was soon time to tidy everything away and send the children home.

Once the last child had been safely handed over to his parent, I went to collect my things from the staffroom. As I was leaving, Miss B called after me to ask where I had put the canvas bag etc. I proudly informed her that I had placed it under her desk with the plastic container (meticulously washed and dried) inside. She looked at me aghast:

“But what have you done with the contents of the container?” she enquired.

“Most of it got used,” I replied. “So, I didn’t think that there was much point in keeping the rest.”

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

(I began to wonder why Miss B was being quite so slow on the uptake!)

“In the sandwiches,” I stated rather incredulously, “to bind the egg together.”

“Oh, no!” she cried. “That wasn’t mayonnaise, it was Friendship Cake mixture!”

She went on to explain that she had been given the recipe by a parent and that it was one that had taken quite some time to ‘cultivate’.

Taken from an Amish tradition, the idea was to keep adding ingredients over a ten-day period and then to give portions of the ‘starter batter’ away to friends, so that they could bake (and enjoy) a cake for themselves.

I remember thinking that this was quite a long and drawn-out process. That it might have been considerably more ‘friendly’ simply to have given someone a cake that could be enjoyed immediately, with a nice cup of coffee perhaps? I resisted the urge to voice these thoughts, however!

And with that, my first day euphoria instantly evaporated and I beat (what can only be described as) a hasty retreat. I had absolutely no idea how Miss B might go about telling the parent in question that her well-intentioned gift had just been ingested (uncooked) by each and every child in Class One. Looking on the bright side though, the week could only get better!    

The digital abyss

Is it really only a month since Christmas? Just four meagre weeks of ‘blended learning’ are starting to feel like a lifetime, and the extra workload is beginning to take its toll on teachers up and down the country. But before you cast your phone aside (consigning the self-pitying words of yet another ‘whinging education professional’ to the ignominy of your trash folder) I don’t mind conceding that this much eulogised, ‘blended learning utopia’, is not exactly a barrel of laughs for parents either.

Courtesy of the snow, I had the grave misfortune of spending a (mere) day and a half ‘overseeing’ my children’s home learning. Quite apart from achieving absolutely nothing myself, the sheer logistics of accessing resources, supplying the necessary stationery, finding additional reference material, and sharing the bandwidth amicably (amongst a family of four) left ‘Team Hall’ feeling more than a little jaded! The very notion that children (of primary school age) will be able to seamlessly access hours of online lessons whilst other members of their household calmly hold down a job would be highly amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that this gargantuan struggle is now a daily reality for many. And there are definitely no winners, as far as I can see!

‘Living the Dream’ was inspired by the stories of countless colleagues, desperately trying to navigate their way through the trials and tribulations of online teaching. Do let me know if it strikes a chord!   

Living the Dream

Hi everybody, I hope you’re all well.
As we enter week 4 of this virtual hell…
Did you finish your work from yesterday’s session?
Wait for it, cue a whole host of confessions!

“I couldn’t find any paper to write on”.
“My printer’s broken; there’s simply no light on”.
“I didn’t hear what you asked us to do”.
“Miss, I’ve got COVID, well that or the flu”.

Ok, not to worry, I think we’ll move on.
This is clearly a battle they think that they’ve won…
Today we’ll consider the use of apostrophes,
No doubt the signal for some new catastrophe.

Can you name both types; explain how to use them?
Contraction, possession – one mustn’t confuse them!
“Miss, my screen’s frozen, I can’t hear a word”
That’s the fourth time this week, Jimmy, don’t be absurd!

Try leaving the meeting, then joining again,
I’ll send you the PowerPoint, questions and then
You can finish the work just as soon as you’re able,
Return it via TEAMS when your broadband’s more stable.

Jimmy doesn’t answer, he’s eating his lunch –
Or playing on his Xbox, just call it a hunch!
But Edie’s on fire, answering question after question,
Completely oblivious of my hands-up ‘suggestion’.

Remember to use your virtual hands,
I’ll be with you shortly, or as soon as I can.
I do need to help all the pupils in school,
They cause far less grief, as a general rule!

Anne, can you tell me what you have just written?
It’s blatantly obvious you simply don’t listen.
We’re on question four, the one with the plurals…
Which you’d know full well if you’d viewed my tutorials!

James, please stop eating and sit on your chair.
He’s sprawled on his bed again, legs in the air…
How far have you got? Have you reached question six?
“Not yet, Miss, I thought I’d just stop for a Twix!”

Please do remember to check through your work,
The sheer lack of accuracy, drives me berserk!
I’ll mark it this evening and upload your score,
No rest for the wicked no, not anymore!

I’ll ‘see’ you all later, be ready for Science,
I’m hoping for something resembling compliance…
We’ll be looking at some foods which can cause tooth decay,
Not a moment too soon from what I’ve seen today!

“Miss, are you coming? I think you’re on duty”.
“Ben’s fallen over; his cut is a beauty!”
“I’m coming”, I call – through teeth tightly gritted,
If only I’d been just a bit more quick-witted…

I head to the playground, in search of poor Ben,
Only to discover it’s raining again.
The wound, now self-cleaning, is far from severe,
In no time at all, he’s been given the ‘all clear’.

The afternoon passes without too much trauma,
As numerous facts are presented with humour.
Jimmy returns, fresh from battles Royale,
There’s clearly ‘nowt wrong’ with his internet now!

Homework is issued, the kids have all left,
Teachers pack up, feeling strangely bereft.
Time to reflect on this changing profession,
Fuelled by drinks sipped in rapid succession!

‘Snow Day’

Since it was first published in 2014, ‘Snow Day’ by Richard Curtis has been a firm favourite within the Hall household. For those of you who haven’t read it, the blurb states that: ‘When Danny arrives at school, the last thing he expects to find is a deserted school and his LEAST favourite teacher. But that’s exactly what he does find. And what starts as the worst day imaginable ends as the most magical day of the year’. In essence, it’s a tremendously heart-warming story about finding friendship in the most unlikely of places – and my boys (and I) absolutely love it!

Over the past few days, much of Derbyshire has (once again) been shrouded in snow, and this inevitably brought back many happy childhood memories. However, as my husband and I regaled each other with various snow-related anecdotes, we were both suddenly struck by the harsh realisation that ‘Snow Days’ (complete with days off school) have effectively become a ‘thing of the past’. Courtesy of COVID (and the associated national lockdowns) the chances of a child being allowed to simply enjoy the snow are becoming increasingly slim. Remote learning is fast becoming the ‘norm’ and the teacher who finds himself unable to travel to work (owing to hazardous driving conditions) is now simply expected to calmly trade their ‘Toyota’ for ‘TEAMS’ and continue with their teaching. And so, it seemed only right and proper to pay tribute to that much hallowed (albeit largely obsolete) institution – ‘The Great British Snow Day’.  

Ode to a Snow Day

That shroud of white that doth appear
Forsaken by children, once held so dear.
Nor from the garden beckoning,
Her icy fingers languishing.

‘Tis time to draw a veil o’er thee
And venture towards technology.
The snowman spurned, the sledge bereft,
With hours upon hours of tuition left!

Those halcyon days, so free and guileless,
(Listening for school closures on the wireless)
So cruelly displaced by video lessons
And daily commutes that last mere seconds!

Oh, how we pine for those simplest of pleasures,
(Instead of fractions, or other measures)
The crunch of snow beneath one’s feet,
A well-aimed snowball yielding victory sweet!

My wintry companion! My childhood friend!
You afforded such joy for hours on end,
But now those adventures have drawn to a close,
Just another sad symptom of COVID, I suppose.

After the gorillas

Anyone who works in a school will know that Christmas (out of necessity) comes incredibly early each year. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely rather Grinch-like in my approach to the festive season, and I really don’t enjoy being bombarded with (often rather alarming) statistics about the rapidly decreasing number of sleeps until a certain event! For me personally, Christmas begins once all of the end of term performances have been successfully completed, the parents have been reminded of the exceptional power of music to genuinely move them, and the children have experienced that tremendous sense of satisfaction gained from knowing that they have been part of something special.

Having entered the final stages of the Autumn Term once more, I found myself reminiscing about the run-up to Christmas some 17 years ago. 

I had just joined the staff as Director of Music, and I was ultimately keen to make my mark. I had put together an ambitious programme for the traditional service of Nine Lessons and Carols, organised a concert for our junior instrumentalists and (rather foolishly) decided that I could also fit in a performance of Herbert Chappell’s ‘The Christmas Jazz’ courtesy of our Year 3 pupils. Rookie error!

Well, the rehearsals had been something of a struggle (largely because I had grossly overestimated the ability of 7- and 8-year old children to commit large amounts of song lyrics to memory) and I found myself taking the dress rehearsal and genuinely wondering if we would make it safely from start to finish.

I had started by instructing the children that we needed to run through the whole work without stopping, and that they should be listening out for their cues, especially if they had a solo to perform. We had spoken (fairly exhaustively) about the need to learn their words (from the sheets which had been provided several weeks earlier) and to make sure that they knew where their part fitted in. Satisfied that we were all working to the same agenda, I took my place at the piano and looked up expectantly. Just as soon as most sets of eyes were looking in my direction (there’s always one, after all!) we began.

Everything started well. The young lady who was singing the opening solo did a fantastic job, and the rest of the year group joined in lustily for the first chorus. I began to relax. As we moved through some sizeable solos, all of the children seemed to have peaked at just the right time. I dared to hope that we were heading for chart topping success.

As we progressed through the performance, I sensed that we had company. Having furtively glanced behind me, I gleaned that the catering staff had emerged from the kitchens to listen and we had also been joined by the Headmaster. My desire for a smooth run instantly intensified.

With the cow, donkey, Mary and all three sheep having sailed through their respective solos it would soon all come down to the Wise Men. No less than 45 voices (potent in their sincerity) sang the ‘Gloria’ with gusto. And then… silence! Not a single Wise Man had sprung to his feet and, not for the first time that term, I began to wonder quite why I had entrusted such a crucial role to the three boys who (even now) seemed oblivious as to the reason why our dress rehearsal had spectacularly ground to a halt.  

Utterly incensed, I leapt to my feet. I glowered in the direction of the three boys and enquired (rather acerbically) as to why they weren’t singing their trio? With a look of absolute bewilderment, one of the boys responded: “Because it’s not our turn yet, Miss.” With a withering look, I asked when he thought it might be his turn – after all we were within a few bars of the grand finale…

He reached for his word sheet, referred to it quickly, and fixed me with a look of pure defiance:
“It says here that we sing after the gorillas, and they haven’t sung yet!” he stated. For once, I was speechless. Gorillas?? Certainly not a feature of any nativity scene that I had encountered!

As I summoned up the energy to point this out, the penny finally dropped… In actual fact, his word sheet bore the instruction that ‘the Wise Men sing immediately after the Gloria’ – with hindsight, possibly not the most helpful of directions for a 7-year old boy suffering from dyslexia! Feeling rather contrite, I went on to explain just where the misunderstanding had occurred (much to the amusement of the entire catering staff) and we tried that section again.

Thankfully, having cleared up any confusion, the performance later that week went well. However, when ‘Love Actually’ was released (just a couple of weeks later), I found myself chuckling about the much-coveted role of ‘1st lobster’ and thinking that a ‘Gorilla’ was perhaps not all that far-fetched after all!  

Reading between the lines

I’m not sure whether acute cynicism has developed with age, or if I have always been just a little bit suspicious of the true message behind school reports. I know for a fact that as the various deadlines approach, there is often a sense of extreme trepidation on the part of the teacher. Exactly how truthful should one be? After all, honesty often equates to parental discontent, and ‘the path of least resistance’ can often seem like a wiser (and safer!) option. So, here is my attempt to capture both sides of the story:

Reading between the lines

“Eddie’s had a fantastic term,” wrote Mrs Addison-Cole,
“He’s settled in well, made new friends, and even scored a goal.”
He’s made no attempt with his writing, his spellings or his phonics,
In fact, we’ve not had a single day without his histrionics!

“Eddie has a real flair for using his imagination,
He’s constantly thinking up games to play at lunch, during recreation.”
He’s maimed or injured most of the class, at one time or another,
I’ve a list of complaints as long as my arm from every other mother!

“Eddie loves to share his thoughts, he’s a confident little boy.
He always knows just what he wants; be it a book, or a favourite toy.”
He does not listen, (or like to share) he simply makes demands,
And woe betide the little stooge who ignores ‘Big Ed’s’ commands!

“Eddie is lovely and punctual at the beginning of each new day,
He’s often the first to arrive at school – and reluctant to tidy away.”
He appears whilst I’m eating my breakfast, you can hear Dad leaving the site,
He’s obviously desperate to get into work, just not to collect him at night.

“Eddie is brilliant at helping his peers to locate all the things they have lost,
He seems to know where everything’s gone; he’s a real live ‘Detective Frost’.”
Most of the items have not gone far, snatched by his thieving fingers,
The looks of disgust that his classmates share, a deep mistrust that lingers.

“I’d like to put Eddie forward for some extra 1:1
In English, Maths and Science – this would really bring him on.”
He’d be out of the room each morning – for half an hour at least,
And I’d be so much happier, with just a moment’s peace!