Beauty in Ordinary Things

On Thursday I went to Hadrian’s Wall with 32 year 7 and 8’s, three members of staff and a lot of caffeine. This was the first overnight school trip I’ve taken part in as a teacher and our itinerary included drilling the students into the Roman Army at Housesteads Roman Fort; a trip to Vindolanda, a working archaeological dig just a short way behind the wall and location of a Roman settlement; a trip to Beamish, an open-air museum documenting life during the 1800’s and early 1900’s; a trip to Metrocentre to allow them to do a bit of shopping, and finally a tour of St James’ Park in Newcastle before we came home. Our residence was an English Heritage country house built next to a Roman Fort, right on the wall.

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You can see a couple of the students walking along the old fort walls on the left. The surroundings were spectacular, and it was the sort of experience that a few kids from the rural coast wouldn’t ordinarily have. The chance to move around 2000 year old ruins, to visit an archaeological site, to move amongst the bones of Roman citizens, to go down a coal mine and breathe the air – these things stick.

On the trip I had the chance to talk to students and find out more about them, beyond their school life. The different backgrounds and expectations of what awaited gave us a truly diverse group – boys who wanted to shop in metrocentre, girls who wanted to swordfight in the Roman ruins, kids who had no idea what to expect and despite the frequent showers, powered through with enthusiasm and no little awe.

For me, I was exhausted. Early starts, late nights, trying to get 32 students to shut up and sleep, managing injuries, timings, meals, bus trips – it’s all encompassing. At no point can you switch off, and I didn’t have the worst of it – that honour goes to the trip organiser who was permanently on edge. Going away with other people’s kids will do that.

What stuck with me was just the little snapshots of life on the verge of teenager-dom. Some 11 year olds bouncing around the Roman fort, waving wooden swords and letting their imaginations do the rest. A girl wondering whether to spend the last of her money on a present for her mum, or make-up. She chose her mum. An incredibly bright and sweet year seven girl, and Muslim, who panicked on one coach trip because she forgot to pray that morning. A year eight noticing a student had come on the trip despite none of her friends coming and acting like a big sister for four days. A boys room engaging in a farting competition after light-out and trying not to laugh so much that we would find out, unaware that we were in the corridor trying not to laugh hard enough that they would find out. Flashes of generosity and kindness and humour.

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Frontier life for the new recruits

Our return was delayed, much to the frustration of parents, and I finally made it home by half-nine on Sunday night. Ten hours later I was back in school and running on fumes, and the students on the trip dragged themselves in, bleary eyed. I have just three weeks left at school, a school I have found difficult to fit in at times, but a school I will sorely miss due to my rapport and relationships with these students. This was no more clear than when I saw my Year 10 historians after break.

They have been particularly vocal about my departure – less than complimentary about the school I am going to, ribbing me about leaving them, and generally being sweet. They are a fantastic class – eager to do well, bright and teachable. I didn’t always find them this way – the first half-term was hard. The class has 6 or 7 vocal boys who are all friends, and it took me a few weeks to get the dynamic right, and to recognise the fact there was no trouble in there. Just teenagers. Fun, sometimes gormless, occasionally moody but generally happy and wanting to enjoy themselves. When things settled, they flew, and they are a class I will sorely miss when I leave.

When I entered the class they all started singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and replaced Birthday with the name of my new school. They gave me a card, signed by all, and 3 gifts. A Norwich City mug with my name on, as they know I’m a big fan. A little portable fan, because I spend most of my lesson in our hot classroom stood by a big fan. And a new tie, because they give me stick about the ones I wear, which are apparently too floral, and don’t match. It was incredibly kind and completely took me aback, not least because we still have three more lessons, but they wanted to give me the things early as one of them was going to miss our final lessons and didn’t want to miss out.

I have to admit to needing to compose myself before speaking, and the lesson never quite got to where it should, but frankly, who cares. It was a kind gesture and I was happy to let them derail a lesson because they have worked their butts off for me this year.

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The aftermath of a monsoon – during which students carried on outside regardless. 

After getting into school at half 7, the morning after a four day trip to the north, we stayed around this evening to watch the school summer concert. I have watched every musical event this year and this was to be my last as a member of staff at the school. I have always enjoyed them – I like to see the extra things that my students do, be it sport or music or art. I like to see the whole of them – not just the person who sits in my class, then has to leave to go to a flute lesson. It gives me a chance to meet parents and congratulate them for their performances. For me, getting to know many students outside of the classroom has led to the rapport that I value so much inside the classroom.

And there is just something a bit special about it. Parents do their part, sitting through each students little section, waiting for the moment their own son or daughter goes up and the whole 2 hours is suddenly worth it. And I see it a little differently. With no children up there, I remember what they’re like in class. The student who has terrible literacy but has a place in the keyboard ensemble and can play like everyone else. The boy who never makes a fuss and never gets much attention but can play three instruments and is vital to a range of groups. The girl who finds academic work easy but struggles to do music and just wants to show her parents how far she’s come.

These events give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Parents seeing their children on stage, showing off their talents and their hard work, each with hopes and dreams and ideas of what they want to do in the future, each with possibility. Tonight, after four days on a trip with students, and the kindness shown by my Year 10’s during the day, that feeling was especially warm, and during our singers’ performance of Amazing Grace it especially hit me. It is bittersweet to leave such a place. But what I’ve found in my brief teaching experience so far is the kids are great everywhere. They’re funny and kind and maddening and generous and inquisitive and hopeful and not cynical. Why on earth would you ever want to work with anyone else?

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