Not a Girl Scouts’ Camp

This post is probably the most difficult to write because it discusses how teaching in the UK for the past three and a half months has been the opposite of a picnic.

Although by the time this post is published, I’ll have survived the first term. And I really do mean survived.

Don’t get me wrong. Apart from school, life in London is swell. Married life is better than I’ve been told it was, we’re making friends, experiencing new things and trying new foods. Always food. But school, truth be told, takes up about 32.7% of our waking lives and 80% of our mental lives. Since we had internet installed, we spend about 8 hours at school, arriving just before 8 AM and not usually leaving until some time after 4 PM. Once home, I cook dinner and Jack works. Once dinner’s done, we spend at least another 2 hours marking books or planning lessons for the next day or a few days in advance. That brings us to a minimum of 10 hours a day of work. We’ve done our best to refuse working on at least one day (although that doesn’t always turn out), and then we’ll start work again after church on Sunday for another 5 hours or so. 55 hours / 168 hours in a week = 32.7%. That’s not bad, I suppose. I’m sure numerous professions have heavy hours, especially at the onset of the career. Mentally though, school takes up most of our waking thought. “The kids” usually fill long hours of conversations with work buddies, thoughts of the students are always hovering somewhere in the back of our heads and how well we teach or assess or manage a classroom characterizes much of how we judge ourselves. Again, I’m sure that’s the same for many types of jobs. It’s no far stretch to imagine that everyone identifies themselves with the things they do and I’m sure that there are plenty of non-teachers who can only talk about their jobs every night when they come home. I think.

The difficulty lies more in the fact that day in and day out we deal with kids. Kids aren’t always rational and they’re still struggling to understand the world. It’s one thing to have a few immature adults in the workplace, because at least you can try and avoid them, but when you have to handle 30 students all packed into the same classroom, reacting to each other and their own life situations, the hour-long lesson will echo in your mind even after the day is over.

Handling the kids is only one part of being a good teacher too. Good teachers, we’re told, know not only how to manage children’s behaviour in a classroom, but they can also assess each student fairly relative to the student’s own work, assess on a regular basis, attend all meetings and contribute to the school’s numerous after-school programs, adhere to school policy in reporting poor behaviour, remember to follow up on all student behaviour and speak with parents where necessary, award students for good behaviour, create and maintain displays reflective of learning in the classroom and prepare lessons that differentiate for students working at different paces in the classroom. Oh, and good teachers teach things that students learn. Did I mention the behaviour management? I’m really not trying to make a case here for the hard work that teachers do, as if teachers are the only people who work hard. That’s not the case at all – every career will start and continue with its own obstacles and struggles, and plenty of professions require skill and attention to multiple components of the job.

What I am saying is simply that taking on all this “good teaching” business right now is tough to shoulder, because there are so many components to consider. Doing poorly in one area can affect the rest of your teaching job. Not attending school meetings because you were marking papers or talking to students in detention means that you’re out of the loop and may miss a development in school policy. Not marking your books in time means that you wouldn’t know exactly how your students are doing and how to differentiate for them, leading to them being less attentive in class because they feel like they can’t do the work, leading to more detentions for disruptive behaviour and then possibly back to missing school meetings. To top everything off, we are trying to teach in a school system that we were not raised in, and the quirks and jargon of the system are just contributing to an extraordinarily steep learning curve in this first year of teaching.

Mind you, my mentor back at my practicum school did his best to make sure that I understood what the first five to ten years of teaching would be like. “So long as you stay human,” he’d rumble, “you’ll get through. But you have to know that there is no such thing as a good first-year teacher, or even a good teacher after five years.” Knowing that you’ll be rubbish and feeling like you’re rubbish are two different things though. Jack and I take turns walking home discouraged and dejected. The biggest obstacle is behaviour, but I’ll save it for another post.

Suffice to say for now that life is good but teaching is rough, and that, along with everything else I’ve written thus far, is how life currently is.

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