Leaving my first school

I am leaving my school at Easter. This is the school where I started in 2011, where I learned how to teach and where I have built up a huge collection of memories, relationships and anecdotes. In writing this, I am just getting my head together about the whole thing and for once, I am struggling to articulate myself. I’m pleased to be moving on to another challenge, ready now for the change, but I still feel reluctant. I have the luxury of moving on positively, not because I am unhappy where I am but because I feel prepared and ready to contribute differently elsewhere.

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I first visited my current school during my final term at university when I was 20. As I did the TeachFirst programme, I received a phonecall in which I was told the name of the school in which I’d be working, and I was told to get in touch with them.

I had never lived in London, and had barely visited it, so even getting the tube out to Upton Park felt like an exciting mission. The area was like nowhere I had ever lived. I arrived at the station very early and didn’t want to get to the school long before I was expected, so I just walked the length of  Green Street, the same road I have walked most days for the last six years.

I was watching myself as if in a film. I struggled to process the idea that this place of saris, halal butchers, chicken shops, mosques, madrasahs, gurdwaras and temples would be my new home. A life lived only in Doncaster and Cambridge does not lend itself well to fostering an accurate understanding of cultural diversity.

When I got to the school that first day, the plan was for me to meet the leaders, to check in with the teacher who would be my year-head next year, to spend half an hour observing a group of pupils who would be my literacy class and to then, at the end of the day, meet the children who would become my class. The day was a whirlwind of meetings and greetings with new colleagues whose names I immediately forgot, but who would become my best friends and, in some cases, future housemates. After lunch, when I was to meet the kids, I remember standing in the empty upstairs classroom looking out of the window onto the playground, feeling so deeply excited and terrified that my chest was thudding. They came in, giddy to meet this stranger who would become their teacher, and I just a lovely afternoon with them, feeling panicked all the while. I read them ‘The Dot’. They were meant to be with me for about half an hour, but I ended up staying with them all afternoon.

The first year flew by in an absolute blur. I loved every day, to such an extent that it was annoying for those around me. I sacrificed my social life almost completely though. I was completely skint, with less than £200 a month to play with/eat with after rent, bills and transport, and I was always working. I was setting off for school at 6:15am every day, getting back at 7:00pm and working until after midnight. I was horribly inefficient but enjoying life. I would go out and play basketball with the kids at break. My lessons were alright, and getting better. My handwriting was professionally concerning, but getting better. I didn’t ever need to raise my voice. In fact, there was once – a girl tried to get my attention by tapping me on the head with some rolled up paper and me raising my voice made her cry. It was the one and only time it happened, and I felt awful.

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In the first year, we had the Golden Jubilee and the Olympics.

That year, I taught a Year 2 class for my other-key-stage placement and had the most stressful time of my life. I tried so hard, and the kids enjoyed their time, but my teaching was embarrassingly shoddy. I had lost them by the time they had their coats on the pegs, which in my case was about 9:45. I quickly realised  that my regular Year 4 class were exceptionally well-behaved, because my school gifted them to me as a trainee. With these Year 2s, I realised I wasn’t as great as I had thought, and that it wasn’t so easy. Amusing memories were abundant. My first day teaching the Year 2s solo was ‘Chicks Day’. I had an ominous sense of foreboding as I covered the floor in newspaper and invited the kids into a circle. The bird flapped, a Year 2 flinched and stood on it. Impulses kicked in, and given I was struggling enough without having to grief-counsel them, I raised the bird up, smile transfixed, saying ‘This one is tired, I am going to put it back.’ The bird was fine. I was not.

This class became very meaningful as I would end up working with them in various ways for pretty much five years. Without question, it is with this cohort that I made the most impact, and I’ll always remember them, whether I want to or not.

I could carry on detailing things year by year, but after the first one, things tended to merge. Some things jump out at me that are worth talking about.

Something that I learned towards the end of the first year with my Year 4s stuck with me so powerfully. Towards the end, I became less ‘on autopilot’ and a bit more reflective. I recognised that there were a number of kids I  taught who I just did not know. I wasn’t aware of the depth of their learning, of their lives outside the class, of their hobbies and interests, their sense of humour. With some kids, I knew these things after the first day! By June, there were still a couple of kids with whom I exchanged pleasantries and taught them the things, but that was as far as it went.

One pupil was really shy generally, and was especially so around me. I was actively looking for a way to engage him, in order to find better ways to help him with his learning, but also because I felt sad I didn’t know him, and he was lonely among his peers. In one science lesson, identifying when circuits do and do not work, he suddenly displayed some deep passionate interest and knowledge. He was consulting for other kids, he was sharing his wisdom, he was talking and he was smiling. I know it sounds twee and improbable, but from that day, he was changed in class. He found his niche and from that position of comfort and strength, he could draw confidence to help him with things he was less confident with. I saw this kid a few days ago, now a 14 year old not much shorter than I am.

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I wouldn’t go so far as to make a universal general rule out of it, but in my experience at least, I have found it possible to discover at least one thing that makes a kid tick, and that can be used as a platform to build better teaching relationships. I have bonded over knowledge of the first 40 square numbers, over the lyrical ability of Busta Rhymes, over limericks, over in-jokes and over a shared commitment to getting better.

I have had so many strange school trips in this school, and these really stand out. When I was a kid, I was actually phobic of school trips, once going so far as to spit on myself to try to convince the teachers I had vomited. Now I’m a grounded-up I just like getting out and about (except on District Line trains to South Kensington – I hate that). My SLT have really enabled me to go my own way with things like this, and have been so supportive of my ideas, even when they’ve needed some explaining. I took my kids to the Olympic games. I’ve taken Year 4 to Paris three times, been wading in the sea each year at Chalkwell, taken a group of kids from five different Newham Schools to the New Forest to write poems, taken 8 visits to the University of Cambridge, taken our champion cricket team to Arundel, orienteered accidentally in a cemetery, been driven about in Lincolnshire on the back of a tractor, talked about social class whilst visiting an elite private school with three Year 5 kids, witnessed lewd Cockney pantomimes, explored the migration history of Spitalfields and taken kids to the Yorkshire Moors to study Wuthering Heights where the Bronte sisters lived.

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I have some anecdotes. My basketball club has been running for six years and despite good efforts all round, we haven’t yet won a match. I very brutally and publicly broke my arm playing football against the kids in the Teachers vs Pupils match, and wept in front of all my class, whilst they wept back, like a GIF representing the cycle of trauma. Ambulance came and everything. I took up a dare from pupils and went on the TV show Countdown, and I lost. I accompanied two of my pupils to a breakfast meeting where they showcased their debating skills at the Wolseley, in front of  Sol Campbell. Stalybridge Sloth happened, a saga that continues to this day. I had a lesson observation interrupted by a helicopter emergency-landing in the playground outside my classroom window.

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I can teach now, and it is good. I can respond to the unexpected and know when to deviate from plans, and when to stick firmly to them. I can put together units of work that give pupils a solid grounding in the subjects, raising their core knowledge whilst coupling this with opportunities for reflective writing. I can walk into any class and get it under control. I am seen as being both funny and no-nonsense. I am confident that what I am doing works.

My interests, specialisms and passions have both deepened and narrowed. I considered myself inclined towards literacy teaching when I arrived, saw myself primarily as a strong mathematics teacher for the first four years, and more recently, I have develop a passion for teaching citizenship and the humanities. I value curiosity, criticality and clarity at the heart of education: curiosity so that pupils want to know more, to question insightfully and to embrace their own leanings; criticality to value the importance of proof and evidence and to be aware when they are being misled; clarity so that they can articulate themselves, their learning and their perspective clearly both in writing and in speech.

I am intensely proud of some of my students. The benefit of having stuck around in my first job so long is that I have been able to see what happens next for my pupils. This morning, this very morning today, I was tutoring one of the pupils who was in my first Year 4 class in 2011. We were learning maths towards his GCSEs (because once a Walkerbaby, always a Walkerbaby…) and he has been one of the only constants across the whole six years; colleagues came and went, pupils left and went to secondary, but every now and again, up he’d pop seeking a bit of help.

I have seen pupils triumph over adversity and hardship with huge dignity. I have seen pupils demonstrate such a commitment to their learning that even to me, as someone who is averse to cliche, I can’t help but feel that they could achieve literally whatever they set their minds to. I have seen pupils just being authentically, proudly and unabashedly themselves, and respected them enormously for it.

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Colleagues. (Before beginning, I wish to declare that I am aware many of you reading may be tiring of this – I am aware this is an indulgence for my own benefit by now, but if you are still with me … that’s great).

I have made some brilliant friends through school as well. I respect them as teachers, we struggle through the same toils and there is no better group of people to spend time with. I have watched some of my best friends leave the school before me, and I would be lying if I said this wasn’t a nudge factor. I have had the great joy of being able to walk into the staffroom and see my housemate/co-parent of cats, my best friends, my drinking buddies, my foreign-holiday partner and all the cliques all convening over bowls of school-dinner crumble. Our lot came together because we wanted to teach, happened to all do it in the same school and it just so happened that we all get along. It has been great to be with people who always are able to see the funny side of the job’s ups and downs.

This community itself has become the thing that has maintained its pull on me. Only very recently, as of the last year, have I properly begun to know parents and to consciously play a role as a member of the local community. Coming to know the parents not just as ‘them who take the kids home and drop them off’ but as people to exchange stories with, people with hopes and fears and as comrades in arms has been probably the most important and enjoyable part of my work this last year. Mums are easily taken for granted, by their own children and by us teachers, and having become friends  through our Mothers Group, I can say it has been a privilege to work with these quietly dynamic women and my respect grows the more I know. I am looking forward to continuing working in the local community through all of our little projects.

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Photo credit: The Sheba Project

I could write a whole book about this first six years, and I have learned so much. Again, I am aware of how twee this sounds, but I am grateful. I have been happy for almost all of the five and a half years, and for someone who lists The Smiths as his favourite band, this is a huge statement. It hasn’t always been glorious moments of joy and success (though there have been plenty), it hasn’t always been spectacular and subversive (though it was great when Professor Elemental came to school) and it hasn’t always been ‘I am basically Miss Honey, isn’t life great, children?’

I have had the utmost pleasure of a situation whereby my mundane life is, itself, enjoyable. I walk down the corridors and know the kids’ names. I can have a chat with any one of the 100 or so people who work in my school. I share food with the parents and pop around for tea. I teach lessons that are interesting, and enjoy marking their work to see their responses.

My next role will in some ways take me away from this, but the way I view it, I am building on what has gone well so far. From Easter I will be an Assistant Headteacher, which will bring new challenges itself, and I will be working in another Newham school not so far away.

I started 2017 by saying that I wanted it to be a ‘Year of Doing’ and this has proven to be the case. I have got an emotionally turbulent few weeks ahead now as I prepare to leave a school that has shaped my abilities and identity as a teacher, that has given me a thoroughly riveting stock of anecdotes and which I have been pleased to contribute to. It is also going to be turbulent because I am soppy.

Change a’coming!

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6 thoughts on “Leaving my first school

  1. Good luck! Left my school if 10 years to become a Head and it felt like a bereavement, however once I realised it was ok to be sad but to capitalise on all of my learning I began to enjoy my new post and build positive relationships. I’ll always, always look back fondly but change and moving forward are key and of course brave! Congratulations

  2. Many congratulations, and the best of luck.
    You’ll probably want to re-read this some time next term or in the autumn and wonder why you ever left.
    Then in a few years time you’ll find yourself writing something similar all over again. I think in some ways the second school is the hardest if you’ve loved the first. But like with teenage romance, in time you’ll realise it’s possible to love again.
    Enjoy the rollercoaster!

  3. Powerful and moving, Jonny. I worked in six schools and found each one hard to leave, but at the same time I was excited by the prospect of a fresh challenge in a new place. It is an ending AND a beginning. You will be a stronger professional for having worked in different places, but because teaching is a lot about who we are and not just about what we do, leaving is inevitably an emotional experience. Don’t be afraid of showing emotion on the day you leave (I think everyone would be disappointed if you didn’t) but work to control it, too, so you can say what you want to say in a coherent way.

    Hope to see you again soon.

  4. Brilliant, inspirational writing. I have stumbled across your blog whilst surfing educational everything today having decided to apply for teacher training as a 40 year old fed up with being a lawyer. You’ve reinforced my desire to go for it. Thank you Jonny! All the very best in your new post 🙂

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