Should a holiday be a complete holiday?

“Yeah but you're on holiday half the time.”

Such is the response to any teacher who moans about their workload to their non-teacher friends. And yes, it's pretty sweet; I like my working life being broken into small, easily digestible chunks.

How much work should teachers be doing during the three months-ish per year we have off? Some are jealously protective of the time, proud that they never take any work home. They insist they will have no problem getting all their lesson planning done during term. In contrast, I know others who write off whole weeks of holidays as “work time”.

The decision is entirely personal. No one in senior leadership offers any instruction on it, no one can check up on what you've done.

If we, as teachers, want to be taken seriously as professionals then holidays can't be purely time off. No teacher can honestly say that during the frenzy of term, they have as much time as they'd like to plan. Our obligation is to deliver the best lessons we can; if doing that means putting aside some of the precious holiday time, so be it.

Or pick up a teaching theory book. I know we're all convinced that we know what we're doing but would there be any harm in seeking out some new ideas?

The unexpected gift

He's possibly the naughtiest student in school and he's in my form.

He often shouts in my face. I've sat with him countless times when he's been withdrawn from lessons. On one occasion, I had to persuade him to come down off a roof.

On the final day of term, he walks into my office without a word. He hands me a present and I'm speechless. He smiles and walks out.

We measure our working lives in achievements but, years down the line, I wonder if it won't be moments like these that define our careers.

Tis the season to be ill

How ill is too ill?

I know teachers who have taken a day off for a headache. I know others who will come in with a raging temperature. My school is pretty trusting. You ring up, say you are ill and no questions are asked. You fill in a small form on your return which no-one ever seems bothered about (like much of school paperwork, I have no idea where it finally goes). The only teacher I've known to get into trouble was one who took the day off “ill”, before coming to perform at the school talent show in the evening.

I've always been proud that, even when I'm feeling like death, I drag myself in. I feel guilty about making someone else do my teaching. I'm nervous about being seen by other teachers as a slacker.

I'm no longer sure this minor martydom is a good idea. In a previous life, I had a desk job. When I felt rough, I could hide behind my desk, do very little work and scrape through to the end of the day. Teaching doesn't let you hide and good teaching requires energy. An ill teacher struggles to teach decent lesson. Perhaps as importantly in a school like mine, they won't find the composure to deal with difficult behaviour.

Maybe I'm going soft but if you are too ill to stand in front of a crowd of rowdy teenagers then don't come in. Others might resent covering your lessons but they will appreciate not being coughed on.

A desperate hunt for a new teacher

We have less than a week to find a new teacher.

For most of this term, one of the positions in our department has been filled by a supply teacher who can no longer come in. Cue panic-driven recruitment.

There is a vicious cycle at work here. Bad schools are poor at retaining staff and are often over-reliant on temporary staff. Aside from the obvious disadvantages this turnover has for students, it also makes it difficult to find good teachers. It forces the school to recruit at times of the year (such as now) when most good teachers are employed and not looking for work. The time pressure also means the school can't be that selective; they have to pick someone, even if the choice is small and unimpressive.

The first candidate was not a success. As part of the interview process, he taught my Year 8 set. My Head of Department described it as a shambles.

Teaching a lesson seems the only true way to test quality. It's also a very rare instance when the school hands over power to the students. They don't make the decision but the extent to which they choose to cooperate with this new teacher plays a key role in how the lesson will go.

It's an odd thought that the applicant's future is at least partly in the hands of a group of teenagers.

Is a lazy student my fault?

He sat there and stared into space.

It was my Bottom Set Year 11's mock exam. In just over a month they will be doing the real one. Invigilating, I wandered nervously around the back of the hall. Mocks are the key indicator as to how students will perform in the actual exam. They are proof of whether I've achieved anything over the last two terms.

With an hour left, his paper was closed. I walked over, opened it and found almost half the questions unanswered. I looked at him imploringly and he shook his head.

Just how responsible am I for this? He's not the brightest student but I know I've equipped him with the skills to make a good stab at all of this paper. I clearly, however, haven't given him the motivation or confidence to do so.

As the January exams approach, I've been thinking more about this question of responsibility. My set will do ok but I know a few are going to miss their targets. I've taught them the course thoroughly and accessibly, built good relationships with parents to ensure home support and have run regular after-school sessions. Yet, in hindsight, it's always easy to identify things you could have done better.

Is it my fault if a sixteen-year-old cares so little they give up halfway through the mock exam? What hurts is that feeling of powerlessness; I don't know how to make him care.

p.s. The issue of who is responsible for exam results also links directly into the whole debate on performance-related pay, something I'd like to do a post on sometime.

Why the school musical matters

I wasn't expecting to enjoy myself.

Musicals aren't really my thing and a musical adaptation of Cinderella was surely going to be too much to bear.

And yet I had a great time. The script was genuinely funny while I enjoyed the cheesy songs more than I should admit. I found the complex dance routines dazzlingly impressive.

Most importantly, everyone was having so much fun. The audience (encouragingly large, with plenty of parents as well as students of all ages) was roaring with laughter and clapping along to the music. Those on stage were clearly relishing the attention.

Events like these shouldn't be seen as an added bonus for the school. If we are to have a positive atmosphere around the place we need nights like this, where students, teachers and parents get together and enjoy an occasion. An evening like this does so much to make everyone proud of the school.

So let's add that to the much-vaunted "Development Strategy": must have more fun.

In school on strike day

I went into work today because:

1. I had a lot to do.

2. I didn't want to lose a day's pay.

3. I was uncertain about the impact of the strike.

The school was closed for pupils and only about half the staff came in.

I was impressed by the way in which teachers respected the decision to strike or not as a personal one. No-one was put under any pressure either way. I'm aware this certainly wasn't the case at all schools.

There was a generation split on the issue. Older staff were much more likely to strike. Younger staff like myself seem less riled because they don't perhaps have the same pension expectations. I also think the older staff are much more comfortable with the whole practice of going on strike.

The Headteacher was irritated. He had been very keen to keep the school open, particularly after he heard that all the nearby ones would be shut. A school isn't allowed to ask its staff whether they will be striking or not and that uncertainty eventually left him feeling he had no choice.

And the kids? They were delighted. Many informed me that they would be spending the day playing football, ice-skating or shopping. These consumers who seemunconcerned about being let down.

I don't want my bottom set to join the one million

I now know quite a bit about car bodywork apprenticeships.

There has been a shift in the thinking of my Year 11 bottom set. Suddenly, there is a lot of chatter about sixth form colleges and apprenticeships. The reality that they are leaving at the end of the year has finally dawned.

One student came to my office and asked if I could help him look up car bodywork apprenticeships on the internet. He had come to me because “I knew you would help me out.” It was a nice thing for me to hear but it's also worrying. No-one in the school had volunteered to help him and he couldn't think of anyone better to help than his English teacher. I did my best but I was hopelessly unqualified to offer advice.

His enthusiasm and seriousness surprised me. Put politely, he is not a model student. Yet this was his world and his ambitions. He just needed someone to give him a hand and no-one had done that.

In a society where over a million young people are unemployed, none of my students seem overly concerned. They all reckon that things will work out. Youthful optimism is refreshing but it will cut no ice in this grim recession. I fear for my bottom set. A combination of few qualifications and a complete naivety about the job market leaves them seriously disadvantaged.

Fighting the four letter words

A student swore in my class and I didn't bother to reprimand him.

I know why I made this slip. Students use foul language in a way that is completely routine. Many seem unaware of its ability to cause offense and some are surprised when called up for it; they don't think they've done anything wrong.

I can't really expect to alter the way they speak. These words are entrenched, they aren't going anywhere. All the same, I've decided to have a real crackdown on swearing. I like the idea of my classroom being an oasis of civility.

p.s. Staff probably can't get too high and mighty on bad language. Come to the staffroom for a real explosion of expletives.

Me, Jay Z and the idea of a hero

A Year 8 girl asked me whether I wished I was Jay Z. I considered briefly and answered no. I told her I liked being a teacher. She looked at me with disbelief.

“You're telling me you wouldn't wanna be rich and married to Beyonce?”

Part of me finds it depressing that so many students are obsessed with celebrities. It creates a view of success that is both unattainable and shallow.

I teach a unit on Heroes, both literary and real. We think about what qualities a hero can have. My students always seem surprised that there a people who have heroic qualities but aren't famous. It's a revelation to many because of the close connection they have between fame and success. They find it exciting that someone next door can be a hero.

We do inevitably end up discussing their celebrity favourites but this isn't a bad thing. For example, we can all agree that Jay Z does show a single-minded commitment that is pretty heroic. Maybe, just maybe the kids go away respecting him for reasons beyond his vast bank balance.

p.s. Many teachers are snobby about children reading gossip magazines. While I'd rather all my students were reading War and Peace, I reckon “Hello” and “OK” are better than nothing. They are engaging with language and I guess that's something.

Ill-gotten rewards

While checking the list of children who were going on the Year 7 Reward Trip to the Science Museum, I got a shock. Top of the list was one of my most troublesome students, a boy who constantly gets in fights.

How had he been judged as one of the top ten students in his year? I was informed that he had a 100% attendance record. While I'm aware of the need to combat truancy, this seems to reward quantity without taking note of the complete lack of quality.

How not to sack someone

A teaching assistant has spent two years supporting a severely autistic boy in all his lessons. One day the boy told her that she was getting sacked. He said that his mum had received a letter about it.

It transpired that the school had sent letters to all the parents of special needs children detailing the cuts being made to the learning support department. No-one had informed the department.

Remarkably, the Headteacher didn't apologise. Everyone is wise enough to know that the sackings aren't his fault; they are the result of decisions made far above. With a touch of courtesy he could, however, make the process less painful and more dignified.

The mystery of the missing tooth

“Check your students' mouths. Try to see if they are missing a tooth. Make sure you are subtle. ”

A trail of blood in the corridors had led to a lone tooth. On this afternoon, we are not just teachers but amateur detectives. It is rather hard to be subtle about looking inside someone's mouth. I did my best and thought I might have found the tooth's owner when I found a streak of red across a desk. It turned out to be lipstick. The toothless child was never found.

Broken Windows Theory

It is now impossible to enter the school without seeing cracked glass. One of the entrance doors had its glass pane cracked by a hurled stone. No-one bothered fixing it. Over the last month, the other three entrances have all suffered the same fate. It's a very literal example of broken windows theory.

When those in charge don't care about the school buildings, students are encouraged to see vandalism as harmless fun. The school's appearance never gets discussed at meetings because it is seen as separate to the pressing behavioural and academic problems. Yet when students turn up at a dilapidated environment, it is instantly a struggle to convince them that school matters.

I'm not asking for an expensive rebuild; just the recognition amongst those in charge that appearances count. A lick of paint and a couple of new panes of glass would do nicely.

Inclusion and the Nutters

The “nutters” was not an affectionate nickname. Between them, the eight members of bottom set had an encyclopaedia of behavioural difficulties. The explosive results rang down the corridors.

Finally the headmaster decided that he had seen enough. A small class with specialist support was supposed to have been the solution. These “challenging” students were, however, responding badly to spending all day with other “challenging” students. He decided that the class would be broken up and the students split among the other sets. Cue lots of irate teachers. The staff room consensus was that yes, bottom set had been bad but at least its troubles had been contained. Disbanding it seemed like a willful attempt to spread the chaos.

Actually, for most of the children, it worked. They found their new calmer classes preferable to the exhausting anarchy of before. They enjoyed learning. They enjoyed being treated just like all the other kids.

So inclusion works? Not quite. Those with the most severe problems have got worse. The school's special needs department has admitted defeat and the parents have been encouraged to take their children into a specialist residential school. But they don't want that. They are adamant that their child stays because they don't like the connotations of a “special” school. While the dispute rumbles on, the situation in the classroom gets worse.

We instinctively accept that parents have the right to decide what's best for their children. What, however, is to be done when parents and experienced educational specialists disagree? At present, the result is often an unproductive stalemate.

The Point

Who I am

I teach English at a London school which was failing but isn't anymore. Its results remain the worst in the area. The school's surroundings aren't prosperous; over a third of our students receive free school meals.

My name is not Paul Pennyfeather.

Why I'm blogging

It's generally a bad idea to start a blog. The vast majority just clutter up the internet.

But I like Nightjack (now sadly gone) and Winston Smith. They write about their challenging jobs with candour and intelligence. In the process they say important things about the way society is. I'd be delighted to achieve something even a little bit similar.

I'm always surprised by how many people want to talk to me about my job. Everyone has an opinion.

"The kids/schools/teachers/beatings are not what they used to be."

"The kids should spend more time on spelling/counting/building walls."

In general, people don't much like the kids so they turn to the schools for the answers.

What this blog will do

1. Tell tales from “the coalface”.

: You may find a gripping portrait of the British education system.

You may find disjointed anecdotes that will make you laugh, cry or yawn.

2. Attempt to offer insight.

: I spend my working life surrounded by chaos.

Occasionally I try to work out what's going on.

What this blog won't do

1. Preach about how I am saving the world.

: I like my job and sometimes I think I achieve something worthwhile.

I don't, however, believe I am the Messiah.

2. Analyse every minor shift in education policy.

: I'll look at policy changes when they are interesting

I will ignore them when they are not.