Wednesday 24 December 2014

Annus Horribilis, Annus Mirabilis

Although December is less than halfway through the academic year, our cultural reference points draw us still to reminisce at the end of the calendar year and to make resolutions for the next one. Before teaching, my husband and I used to send out annual newsletters talking about all the wonderful things we had done that year. As it is, the wonderful things are increasingly the awesome achievements of my students, which fill my heart with joy but which don't lend themselves very easily to being read about by relatives at the breakfast table. So that tradition has rather died, but I have a need to do some kind of stock-taking.

2014 was split down the middle. Up to August I remained at the college I had worked at for five years. The academic year 2013-2014 was the worst of my life, with no exceptions. We had an Ofsted inspection in the spring term, the outcome of which, and the decisions then made in our department, broke my heart. Worst of all, it finally impacted on my teaching. Throughout my teaching career, I had been able to avoid stress, bureaucracy and bullying affecting the quality of my teaching, but some of my students could tell I wasn't on top of my game. I still performed very well - my graded observation (oh yes, FE still has them...) was good, I successfully got the department through the BTEC external verification and HND external examination for the second year running, and my students got the best pass rate in AS and A2. But I was losing the spark, and I was dangerously close to burnout. My husband and I sometimes wondered if we were just being over-sensitive, but everyone we spoke to in the education field responded with a variation on "Damn, that's terrible."

So it was time to move on. I probably should have moved on a year earlier, but the 2012-2013 year was so awesome that I was lulled into a false sense of security. I interviewed for a job in July and was offered it the same day (which is actually pretty unusual for FE, though not schools). It is pure A Level teaching and a tutor group. I work in a department where people are genuinely friends, where it is always possible to find someone willing to help, and where my managers encourage us to minimise our workloads and leave the office promptly. There is a lot less paperwork, and a lot more time for teaching. I have survived my first term at the new college, and have thrived. I have amazing students, brilliant colleagues and nurturing managers. Some of the edited highlights:
  • My manager offered to buy me a skeleton for my classroom (duly bought and named Silent Bob), and agreed to buy me a microscope with USB camera, which is used nearly daily.
  • My classroom is so welcoming that, even though it's the coldest room in the department, my students still like hanging out there between classes.
  • Every time my manager walks past my classroom I seem to be talking about something utterly random and possibly inappropriate to the lesson (e.g. David Nutt and "Nuttsack", colorectal cancer, how a rolled Ammophila leaf resembles a roach), and because she teaches biology too, she laughs - she gets it.
  • During a game of biology-themed Pictionary, one group of students got the word "turgid" in under two seconds because their artist drew a penis.
  • My efforts to educate my students on intersectionality are starting to pay off, even if they're not quite there - on a hexagons revision table I saw the Bundle of His renamed to the "Bundle of Sexism".
I have no regrets about changing jobs. I earn more for having less responsibility, and I am able to devote the bulk of my time to my students and their learning. This time last year I was broken, and wondering what on Earth I could do if I didn't teach. But there is life after teaching in an awful, awful college. It just took me a while to feel alive again.

Season's greetings to all, and a happy new year.

Tuesday 19 August 2014


When it seemed that, without intervention, the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) would become extinct due to a chytrid fungus infection, conservation scientists removed as many of the remaining population as they could, to give the species the best chance of survival in a controlled, fungus-free environment.

Seeds of the world's smallest water lily (Nymphaea thermarum) were collected before the plant's habitat was destroyed forever, to preserve genetic diversity and grow new plants with a view to repopulating similar habitats in the future.

In both these cases, the organisms were saved from their environment before it killed them. It seems rather brutal to gather up all the surviving members of a species and take them away to a terrarium or greenhouse, leaving the ecosystem without a significant component. Some may think this is an interference too far.

These came to mind today, because several of my students from my previous workplace have come to enrol at my new college. I've done the calculations, and this does not leave a lot of students for A-levels at the old place. With declining numbers and support over the years for this qualification in this organisation, the localised extinction of A-levels is imminent. So my students, with my blessing, have moved to a nurturing and supportive habitat, and assured their survival.

At least that's what I keep telling myself when I worry that, in trying to do the best for the students, I have been the one to kill off the qualification I fought so hard to keep going at that place.

Friday 8 August 2014

Mind The Gap

Given that I have a policy of removing blogs from my RSS reader after six months of inactivity, I suspect that a gap between posts of 11 months might have lost a few readers, but I shall attempt to restart the old blogging machine.

People close to me will know this year has not been particularly easy on a professional level. When you play the Game Of Thrones you win or you die, and it was very nearly the latter. With A-level, Access and HND - all very intensive, high-level courses - plus the "professional challenges" faced on a daily basis (which I do not intend to discuss, but oh boy are you going to find out about them), there was nothing left of me at the end of the day to fulfil even my basic physiological needs. My weight and mental health both took a dive, and I'm sure colleagues got as sick of my sarcastic responses as I did of their constant questions as to what my weight-loss secret was!

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I interviewed for and was offered a position at another college. With a stronger A-level provision, an established sixth form, and a good track record of Oxbridge applicants, it's in a different league altogether. I will predominantly be teaching A-level, and you have no idea how good that feels. Nearly four years ago I interviewed for a position that was exclusively A-level, and I turned it down because I felt I'd get bored. Now I don't think that's possible. To be able to focus on one subject and one specification and really strive for brilliance in me and my students could be the most fascinating role of my career yet.

The academic year 2003-2004 was absolutely awful. The academic year 2013-2014 has matched it, but for (mostly) different reasons. Ten years ago, I felt broken. Now, I can use the painful memories to help me be a better teacher, friend, wife, daughter and sister. Maybe I'll be able to put this year to similarly good use. To those of you still here, thank you for not getting round to sorting out your RSS feeds!
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