An Ode to Staying Put

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Being a precocious whipper-snapper whose 21st Birthday cards arrived whilst starting my first year in the classroom , I represent that oddly dislocated ‘parachuted in’ type of young urban TeachFirst teacher we tend quite justifiably to dislike. But a spare a thought for us geographical vagrants who have left behind all of our family and friends to be plopped in a random city or town in England or Wales. There’s no wonder we migrate to Twitter en masse to populate the edusphere, wrapping ourselves in tweets like a cyber-cocoon to protect us against that great unspeakable void of loneliness (probably). Maybe that is why many cluster together, like a penguin huddle (pro TF perspective) or a rat-king (anti TF perspective).

Young chummy teachers on shore leave from the gentry - companionable fluffy penguins or FESTERING RAT KING, TIED TOGETHER WITH THE BLOOD OF SELF-ELEVATION? Or neither maybe.
Young chummy teachers on shore leave from the gentry – companionable fluffy penguins or FESTERING RAT KING, TIED TOGETHER WITH THE BLOOD OF SELF-ELEVATION? Or neither maybe.

One thing that is clear to see is that the game of teaching and the art of ‘being employed’ has changed. I have friends teaching in London who come from Ireland, and they bemoan the fact that teaching jobs become available once in a blue moon. If that fresh-faced 30 year old teacher gets the job in the village, she won’t be departing til her hair grows silver or her blood runs cold. When I think back to my own primary school as a lad, I remember a fairly unshakeable tableau of the same faces. The Year 6 teachers when I was in Reception were the Year 6 teachers when I was in Year 6. They had been at the school, mostly, for upwards of a decade. They had their own chairs, their own mugs and their own reputations.

I don’t know whether I think this is good or bad – it is probably neither. It is certainly different though. Now, there certainly seems to me to be a move towards being more Moth like.

Are we all becoming horrible moth people?
Are we all becoming horrible moth people?

By moth-like, I don’t mean sprouting wings or becoming a form of suprahuman fear-monger. I mean ‘being drawn to the lights’, happily flitting from place to place depending on circumstances, and certainly not loitering on the wall long enough for some malevolent human to come and SMUSH YOUR BRAINS OUT. No, to be moth like implies transience, survival and a constant state of movement.

Of all the friends I trained with in London just 5 years ago, I know of only 5 who are still teaching in London (if at all) and only one other who remains in her first school. They come and go these twenty-first century moth people. They have left London, some of them. One moved to Scotland. Two to Dubai. One to Hampshire. One to Bristol.

Among my non TeachFirst teacher friends, which is most of my friends, there is still a fair amount of movement in the wings, even among those for whom being a caterpillar is a distant memory. Many of the Elmhurst Primary names and faces I learned in my first year have fluttered away – to the USA, to Mexico, to China, to Australia, to Hungary and most controversially, to the other side of Green Street.

As a newbie, there is a message I have picked up from somewhere, though I can’t trace its origin, that it is good to move about constantly. I recall being told this ladder metaphor of climb, switch ladders, climb a bit higher, switch ladders…and so on. Some people seem to be doing it very effectively, and I know people who are growing schools of their own despite not being able to facial hair (it is mostly men as well #WomenEd). I am progressing well in my place, though I am strangely not enticed by any of the prospective ladders around me, even though leaping across might allow me to scurry at a greater pace. My hands are in fact tightening their grip on my current ladder.

I am very aware that in writing this, I don’t want to imply I am a veteran, able to impart wisdom in a Jill Berry, Chris Chivers sort of way. Me, as a 25 year old, becoming overly ‘retrospective’ in my worldview will end up being a bit like this.

I am 17. This was my life.
I am 17. This was my life.

No, bear with me on this. I am not saying to young teachers that you should do what I have done. I am not saying that you shouldn’t jump between schools a lot. All I am going to do now is share with you some of my experiences of Staying Put. Ah ah ah ah Staying (a)Put, Staying (a)Put.

From Workmate to Matemate
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I had a visitor from the USA come to school last week, and she asked me and our Head of School what it is that makes us stay here and not move on. We both mentioned the same two things. The first was our staff. Now I haven’t worked in another school, but I know lots of people who do (like YOU), and I stand by the fact that our school has a staff that gets on like no other. Of course, like in any workplace, there are pockets of low-level bitchiness, but they tend to be situational rather than personal. More ‘Why can’t they just bring me some new pencils?’ than ‘I hate the person who is meant to supply me with pencils.’ Our staff room is full of laughter (and little else at the minute, for example chairs) and we are in and out of each others classrooms constantly. We just get on with stuff and we work collaboratively in our little teams. We socialise as friends. Hell, I have lived with other teachers from school for the last 3 years (and with trainees before that!). I eat and drink with my work friends.
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I have created horrible anecdotes on nights out with my work friends (See ‘I Have Made Friends With The Men In The Park, Don’t Worry About Me, They Aren’t Being Mean Any More’ and ‘That Time I Was Thrown In The Taxi And Recognised The Driver From Parents Evening). I have been to the ruins of Ancient Greece with school mates. I have perused the bazaars of Marrakech. I have drifted across serene lakes in Northern Myanmar, and swam in the soothing waters of Southern Turkey.

Are They Colleagues? Are they Friends? Are they Global Explorers. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Are They Colleagues? Are they Friends? Are they Global Explorers. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Over time, colleagues become friends and allowing time for this to happen means that suddenly, you realise that despite the heavy workloads, we are all fairly happy to be at work to be in each others company. Management included!

The Kids
Despite the immaculate serenity of an empty school on an INSET Day, it is fair to say that a school is only really a school when it has kids in it. There is a decent argument that by being the teacher to a class, you are doing good by them – you are there, you have your lessons, they have their learning…great. I loved my first year of finding my feet. The parents were tolerant of my scrappiness at first, and I was open with them. Nonetheless, I had more affection for my children than understanding. It takes time to adjust to a school community enough to really begin to understand it. As I greeted my new class this year, I had four years of experience of meeting and greeting. I know which sort of things to anticipate – I know now to anticipate that some of my kids will be a bit sad, as they will have just left their families in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. I had a child very upset about this this week.

When I walk in the playground now, despite it being a thousand-pupil primary school, I am fairly sure that I know all of Year 4, 5 and 6. They certainly know me, which is also beneficial. I know the stuff the kids like. I don’t have to try as hard to build up a teacher persona, because I have 4 years of residual authority in the tank, passed on in stories from older siblings to younger siblings, from and between parents and from former pupils to future pupils.

One of my friends has been a teacher at the school for nearly twenty years, and earlier this year, as she took a rare foray into the world of ‘tidying the cupboard’ she found a scrapbook she had made with her first class 20 years ago, when she herself was in her early twenties. I was emotional just looking at it, so you can imagine what she was like. We looked through it and she pointed out names -still there, still remembered- and stories were flooding back to her about how she introduced them to music. She pointed to a boy in the pictures who she introduced to hip hop, then 8 years old, now a successful DJ. She pointed to a shy looking girl and let me know that this is the mother of a kid in the class she now teachers.

These are not joys you get if you move about. Short term rewards are still rewards but if you stick around, it seems from my friend’s example, that is when you get to see your legacy.

Change
Lots of people leave schools because they want a change. Even after my miniscule time in the school, I can testify that change happens everywhere and that the more you invest, the more you can make that change on your own terms. I have seen sad things. I have seen colleagues I have loved move on too soon, and I have seen kids I have known for half of their life times just disappear. I have lost many things – my inhibitions, my anxieties, my bank card and my hair.

This was the summer of 2012, a time of Olympic fervour and Monarchic Vim.
This was the summer of 2012, a time of Olympic fervour and Monarchic Vim.

When you stick about, you get to see the changes.

Although he now forbids me from telling other children about it, out of what is most likely a combination of embarrassment and shame, I still tutor one of my pupils from my first Year 4 class now that he has up and left and is in Year 8. It is strange to teach him and to be able to hark back to some grey afternoon 4 years ago when he did something hilarious, or to share a memory of some or other class ritual or trauma (such as ‘The Day I Broke My Arms Into Three Bits And My Class And I All Wept Until The Ambulance Came’). I have seen him grow up, and through him, I hear about how my first crop of bambinos are still doing.

On Staying Put
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There is nothing right or wrong about staying in one place for a long time. It is of course about your situation. All I will say is that from my experience, there sometimes feels like a ‘pressure’ to move on, even when the times are good. If that is the only thing causing you to want to move on, then resist it. Savour the joys of staying put, and go deeper. Become part of your school. Support the young teachers and the older ones! Humanise your management team. Spend time in your local community and get to know the parents as people. Be more than just ‘the adult that gives knowledge’ to your children – be their guide, their guru and their ‘go-to’ person.

Consider the benefits of staying put.

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2 thoughts on “An Ode to Staying Put

  1. I think any good school is likely to have a staff of mixed stock. And the worst risk is the new Head who comes in and thinks that anyone who’s stuck around a few years must be for the scrapheap.
    You need those connections, that bank of knowledge, that person who can say “Ah, but you know they’re connected to the Grayson family…?”
    You need the flightier sorts too, to point out that other places are different. Not always better, but different.
    But most of all, you need a team.

  2. I agree with you, Jonny, and with Michael – schools benefit from having a mix of staff who are more experienced in that context and those who may bring a freshness of perception from NOT being enmeshed in the context. There is no right or wrong, exactly, BUT….

    I do think I was a better head because I’d taught in six different schools in the first 20 years of my career (though not sure how I feel about the label “veteran”! I’m still 16 inside….) I did stay in my headship then for ten years, and remember how satisfying it was to watch a girl (girls’ school) develop between 8 and 18. But ten years in one school as head was definitely enough for me.

    Sometimes we convince ourselves that staying is good (and we love the school, and the school needs us….) partly motivated by fear of the unknown. In every school I taught in (six good schools) there were staff who felt the alternative was too risky and scary. Some of them were very effective, and some perhaps less so because a bit TOO comfortable and maybe edging towards complacency.

    I suspect that when the time is right for you to move on, you will know. You will see a post, and a school, that excites you and you will be ready for the new challenge. I’ll be waving from my bathchair.

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