They start in August, the recurring back-to-school dreams.
This year, I find myself at the top of a class, somewhat impressively dressed as the Mad Hatter. I am bellowing red-faced demands beneath my whiskers; my students are ignoring me, laughing uproariously in small groups.
There’s an inspector behind them – of course, there is – scribbling furiously with her head down. She seems frustrated as she fills out her forms, scrambling to catalogue my countless failings as an educator.
Teachers are beyond lucky to have such amazing holidays. No question. But freedom comes at a price, and the weeks leading up to the big day are excruciating. In all honesty, I would gladly shorten my holidays to lessen this back-to-school-dread.
We’re usually eased in with an inset day. Ironically though, there are few places creepier and more nerve-wracking than a school without children. We get hopped up on tea and coffee, sharing shrill accounts of our summers in the staff room.
But each one of us is nervously eyeing the empty classrooms along the corridors.
You see, these classrooms are mini-theatres that will soon house rotating audiences, expecting us to do and say something purposeful.
For a whole summer, we’ve been our own people. Now, we must become actors on an entirely unpredictable stage. We can vaguely rehearse but we have no way of knowing what tomorrow holds.
It is improv theatre, a solo performance, and to even the most seasoned teacher, it is terrifying.
From the moment that first bell rings you are no longer you – you are your teacher persona. You are immediately uncool, past it, presumably embarrassing. These are teenagers after all and if you are anywhere near thirty, you’re just old.
But this can’t rattle you. The persona must react consistently and calmly to innumerable personalities and scenarios on a daily basis: the principal introducing a new initiative; the parent wanting to discuss a low grade; the SNA coming in and out of lessons; the thirty kids at any one time, in any one room.
That’s thirty sets of lives, needs, expectations and preferences in one room with a single shared requirement: to learn.
Sometimes, it can produce the most rewarding experience imaginable; I am not looking for sympathy here. Who else gets to collaborate on projects with individuals who are learning about love and life for the first time?
Who else gets paid to discuss books and films or to sit and listen to unique stories and viewpoints?
But we do need holidays. After a full academic year, we’re tired. It’s not because of the marking, the assessments and the hours we’ve worked during and after school.
It’s that we need smaller numbers of people to deal with for a while. We need to walk into a room and not have to perform, not have to control it.
That’s why our performance in the first week back is crucial. It is our relationship-building week. The setting-out-our-stall week. It is the litmus test for how an entire year is going to go. It’s the opening act.
I recognise that I am hugely privileged. I am in a profession that impacts the future, impacts individual lives and is bursting at the seams with meaning and fulfillment.
And yet… the word ‘bursting’ recalls another significant challenge for teachers in September. You see, the first week back at school resembles having to potty train a toddler.
Only the toddler is you and you’re about twenty years beyond being ‘cute’. Teachers have zero flexibility in their day, and this includes the functioning of their bladders.
They are slaves to the school bell, more than any student in the history of the world ever.
A teacher can’t ask to go to the toilet in the middle of a lesson. It can only happen during break or lunch. By October, you’re all over it.
You have trained yourself and fallen into the rhythm of the week. But September can be hairy. And you must also develop ninja-style lunch-packing skills.
Teachers don’t get to take an hour and it is a matter of health and safety that you are always on duty where you’re meant to be.
At lunch, you will find the most human of us stuffing dry crackers into our mouths over the photocopier, because we forgot to photocopy a resource for the next lesson, and we forgot to plan our lunch.
And then we realise we must pee. These are not small things I assure you. And of course, if you are on yard duty, you are not getting to eat, photocopy or pee, so you better be even more organised.
Our summers may be marathons, but our days are sprints. I once had to whistle at a colleague down a corridor because heavily pregnant, it seemed likely that I was about to wet myself in front of twenty unsuspecting adolescents.
Imagine walking back into that classroom the next day, owning and controlling that room again? As you might be aware, whatever mistake you make, whatever embarrassment you’ve endured, teenagers never forget.
Oh, and have I mentioned the bad dreams?