How do ‘Back to School’ signs make you feel? By Dr. Bethany Kelly

One thing you can be certain of is that, within seconds of schools breaking up, shops will be taken over by huge advertising campaigns proclaiming that we should all be thinking about going ‘Back to School’. What this means in reality is piles of neat white socks, Teflon coated indestructible trousers and pinafores, endless rows of new highlighter configurations and, of course, new ranges of pencil cases, my bet for this year – clear cases, unicorns and a smattering still of Harry Potter. But how does it all make you feel?

Perhaps you are a parent and have managed to switch roles smoothly, thinking only now about the needs of your own offspring for the next impending year. Perhaps you wave an angry fist at the advertising hoardings berating them for stealing the joy of those early days of summer with tired teachers crying out, ‘just let me have my five minutes of freedom!’ Perhaps you are one of those creatures who has already put the stresses of a frantic summer term behind you, a distant memory and you already have a heady sense of anticipation about all the wondrous possibilities of the new academic year. Maybe you have had enough of bubbles, online delivery, testing and distancing and so have hopes for a calmer future.

Maybe the signs cause a sense of queasiness thinking about the big hurdles between now and the start of September – results days this week! Will you achieve your goals, will the students get where they want to go? ‘Back to School’ signs and results days often prompt the teaching equivalent of resolutions, whilst thinking about the academic year ahead. What do I want to do to improve; what changes do I intend to make? This is particularly true if the prospect of another year at the chalk-face causes butterflies in the stomach – good or bad ones. These are some of the ‘Back to School’ intentions I have had over the years.

  1. I will not get behind on marking. Interesting one this, in the past we have had various political directive about this. Some of you will remember that we were told not do it after 5pm, but to focus on teaching more. Although, if marking has nothing to do with your teaching, surely you know you’re in trouble!  Personally, I have found that a teacher must respond to their own body clock about this. If you are late-into-the-night person, then that can work for you. I haven’t been, hence I often had early starts & other strategies to try not to fall behind. This is an area where teachers can get their own kind of ‘teacher’s block’. Marking becomes harder to do the longer you leave it. Eventually it becomes a giant monster blocking your path, the black cloud that lingers and impossible to ignore. Along with picking the right time, making sure you don’t do the – I’ll do this first because I like this set and it’s easier – route. Personally, I think that’s a big mistake, because you have to face the hard stuff sooner or later. I found that if I imposed the discipline of chronology on it, it at least began to chip at the teacher’s block before it took hold. Of course, there will be many that will say marking doesn’t matter, doesn’t help and isn’t necessary.  There are certainly good arguments for different assessment methods and for making sure this take the age of the pupil into account. However, I think it is important, just often the concept is separated from the fundamentals of good feedback.
  1. I will not have an untidy desk/pigeonhole/inbox/classroom. This is an area which often reflects the teacher’s character. I’m sure we’ve all heard people say, ‘My desk is untidy, because I’m generally an untidy person!’ There is undoubtedly truth in this, but I found it often just became my excuse. I tend to ‘nest’ – I will happily build piles of paper/debris/rubbish around me, claiming I might need it shortly. I’m not a neat person, but because of that I found that I had to keep a clean desk. I knew if I gave that notion even a moment to take hold, I would have piles of rubbish permanently covering my desk. So, every night I would temporarily clear my workspace/desk, because coming into a clean desk is far less depressing. The same went for pigeonholes – clogging up with endless bulk mailings. So, I forced myself to clear it once a week, if possible, on a Friday so that coming in on Monday morning was that little bit easier. Didn’t always happen but was great when it did. Classrooms are notoriously difficult to keep organised if they don’t start that way.  I think I had a cupboard I needed to clean out for about ten years as a Head of Department. The good news was that when I did venture in, I discovered ancient resources that I ended up using as they provided a different kind of challenge. Cleaning your inbox is a whole other blog post!
  1. My lessons will be amazing. We tend to review the year and reflect on the highs and the lows, the real achievements we have made and those frustrating brick walls we have faced. The reality is that some of our lessons will be amazing, lots we hope, but it’s worth remembering it takes two, or in a teacher’s case about 30 to tango. An amazing lesson is about synchronicity. Sometimes everything clicks into place and our amazing planning, activities, resources and assessment works. Other times it doesn’t and that’s not always down to us – let’s face it, it could be something as simple as the weather being a bit blustery. Intention and planning can be amazing, and hopefully it will work, but we can still learn a lot about our classes and ourselves when it doesn’t, so we should cut ourselves some slack.
  1. I will keep up to date with what’s happening in education. Well, if you’re reading this then you are probably already doing one of the best ways to make this happen – using Twitter perhaps. Edutwitter as it is sometimes called is an interesting place to visit. There are always so many interesting accounts to follow, from the headliners to many teachers sharing their resources and displays. Keeping up with the headlines is fairly easy to do via Twitter but look out for the people who don’t appear on every #ff list, because there are some amazing accounts, blogs, pictures, experiences out there.  If you are a leader and want to dip your toe in the whole research stuff that is going on then I whole heartedly recommend joining BELMAS (British Educational Leadership, Management & Administration Society). You get two different research journals sent to you during the year (10 a year!), you get book discounts and you can attend one of the warmest, friendliest conferences I know. During past conferences I have heard about female leadership in Cyprus, becoming a Headteacher in Chile, the perils of Social Media for leaders, Ethics in leadership, teaching materials provided by the Taliban and many in-school research projects. Someone recommended it to me when I first took on a leadership post and it’s the real deal, genuine collaboration between research and schools.
  1. I will have a life outside school. This is something I’ve always been passionate about. We know people who sign up to a lot, not just the classroom stuff, but it’s so important to protect the non-teaching bit of your life. I’ve admired the whole #teacher5aday trend on Twitter as teachers at all levels share their time off with others. Our emotional wellbeing is so important for us to function well in the classroom and with colleagues. If things are not right, talk to someone. As a deputy I took the care of staff as a major part of my role and would like to think they knew they could come and talk whenever. Sometimes I think the phrase work/life balance has been hijacked to mean being a parent to your children. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that’s essential, but I think we sometimes reduce the word ‘life’ in that phrase. It’s about our lives, whatever path we have taken, our identities and it is that I believe needs looking after, because our school communities can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of that.

My list isn’t comprehensive and it most definitely isn’t true for everyone, I’m certainly not telling people what to do! I love the good intentions of September, even if it gets hard as Autumn slips into Winter. However, it is worth noting that reaction to the next ‘Back to School’ ad you see. How do they make you feel and perhaps more importantly, why? Do they make you think over your resolutions? Butterflies are always a good thing when September approaches, so if you are about to start a PGCE, or have just qualified and are about to engage with the Early Career Framework, and you have a tummy full of pesky butterflies do not fear, because I think it is a good sign. I have them still after nearly thirty years teaching. What is on your list of good intentions for the next academic year?

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