Get off the radiator, it’s not a toy!

As we move into another academic year, Jonny Walker reflects on the one piece of advice he’d give to new trainees this September.

In case you hadn’t got the message from every single advert in your local shopping centre, we are edging into back to school territory. Whether this fills you with a sense of dread or relief, both are valid and understandable responses. I’ve had summers where I would have traded almost anything for just another week, and I’ve had summers where I’ve felt secretly ready to go back from about three weeks in.

One thing is true though: it’s happening.

However disoriented we may be as our lives kick back into their habitual rhythms, it’s worth remembering that it is likely just as tumultuous and disorienting for the pupils. Some will have been pining to come back, whether out of a desire for stability, consistency, time with friends or a thirst to just live and do stuff. Some will be dragging themselves out of 3:00am Netflix habits in much the same way as some of us.

Everything could be noticed

The first few weeks back in September ferment some of the most commonly heard utterances in our teacherly lives, and with them, the debates, the backlash and the dialectics. ‘Don’t frown til Christmas’ winks the veteran to the trainee, ironically. ‘Don’t frown til Christmas’ stares the NQT to the trainee, unironically. For what it’s worth, I’ve frowned for eight years, but it’s just the way nature made my brow, and it betrays little about my personality or teaching approach. No. I don’t go in for this piece of advice. For what it’s worth, I believe the opposite. If I were to give a piece of advice to a trainee/NQT/early career teacher/literally anyone who will interact with me, it would be this: everything could be noticed.

This sounds cryptic and thoroughly unhelpful to you, I know. Menacing, even. Everything we do could be noticed. Our pupils are particularly adept at extracting details about us that we may not necessarily give much consideration to; after all, they’re expected to look at us and hear our words for quite a large part of their working day.

Pupils notice things 

They will notice things we don’t want them to notice. The girl in Year 4 quietly judged my choice of footwear, literally turning her nose up at them whilst I was delivering an assembly. The Year 1 boy walked up to me when I was on playground duty, told me my eyes look sad, in the enigmatic voice of the spoon-bending kid in ‘The Matrix’, then walked away. The boy in Year 6 spotted the Greggs wrapper in the bin, and asked “How’s your healthy eating going then Sir?” They murmur the word ‘bus’ to themselves in my South Yorkshire accent, like a mildly mocking echo, several times after I say it.

They also notice good things too. One of the sweetest little happenings recently was bumping into a student in the street who is now in Year 11, but was in my Year 4 class back in the day. Standing in the street, with both of us on our way to our schools, we threw around some fragments of past conversations and memories. The time that boy projectile-vomited during the clay lesson was obviously memorable. We both had memories of all the William and Kate masks we terrifyingly wore for the Jubilee Party. But she’d remembered other things too, much smaller and seemingly less significant. “I remember you said you liked my confident reading voice.”

“Get off the radiator, it’s not a toy!” 

Everything can be noticed. Any sentence we utter could become the one which represents us for one or all of our students. If we choose our words particularly poorly, it could be the making of a legend, such as the fabled time in the late 1990s when a woodwork teacher in my secondary school in Doncaster said to a pupil: “Get off the radiator, son, it’s not a toy.”

This phrase was quoted back to him by pupils who didn’t even join the school until years after the phrase was uttered. I cannot remember his face or anything he taught me. I can’t put up a shelf. But I remember him as a thoroughly unwilling comedy god.

What we say and do matters

What we say and what we do matters – just by being teachers, we are meaningful in the lives of our pupils. What can you do with this knowledge?

It certainly doesn’t mean we need to robotise ourselves to try to be at our permanent best each week, teaching 30 hours of relentlessly flawless lessons, always perfectly presentable and being ready to inspire: we are human, so are our pupils, and it’s not wrong to expect each other to have better days and worse days. But it is important for us to remember that any single moment we are in a classroom, or having a mentoring conversation, or consoling a pupil, or talking about a poor behavioural choice… any one of these moments could be the thing we are remembered for by them and by others.

Our pupils are generous archivists when it comes to them creating our symbolic showreels. They aren’t there to catch us out, and they know the difference between a teacher who cares and one who doesn’t. They discern between a frustrated teacher and a foul-tempered one. Between someone who knows their stuff and someone pretending. They spot the difference between a teacher who cares deeply and one who is trying to just find the right words. They know the difference between strictness and disrespect. All we need to do is ensure we try to be the kind of teacher we want to be, not the teacher we end up as at our most tired, absent-minded and beleaguered moments.

So start going to bed earlier in the next week, so you’ll be ready for that alarm clock. Drink more water, so you don’t die. Enjoy easing back into things when September comes, help your pupils to steady themselves back into term time and choose your words carefully. And remember not to sit on the radiator – it’s not a toy.

By Jonny Walker, Teach First Ambassador. This article originally appeared on the Teach First blog here.

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