A week in the life of a teacher

A teacher still relying on short-term contracts and substitute work seven years after qualifying kept a diary of a typical week working with classes full of teens.

MONDAY

7am, Ian Dempsey wakes me. Wash, dress, grab my stuff and I’m ready for the half-hour drive to work. At eight I arrive and am met by a straggle of tired, grumpy teenagers who have hauled themselves out of bed to start their school week. They obviously don’t have the 11pm curfew that I’ve adopted. Most, however, give me a smile and hello and I continue on up the stairs to the staff room to enjoy a cup of tea and chat with co-workers about their weekend.

Having only four classes a day, my first class doesn’t start until ten, but I’ve made sure to be in early in case someone had rang in sick and needs to be covered. When I see that they haven’t, I make a second cup of tea and start on photocopying resource material. I see some of my colleagues buzz around anxiously and let myself be grateful, for a change, that I have so much spare time on my hands.

At ten I arrive at the door of the third-year room. At a nice size of 17 students, I sigh contently at the low noise level and take the roll before delving into the common techniques used in advertising and their effects. The students enjoy making up headlines about themselves using puns and alliteration as I praise them on their creativity. It’s one of those classes that reminds me why I do this.

The next class is not so heart-warmingly rewarding. Twenty-eight fifth years are crammed into a room built for 20, and as I raise my voice for attention, it is abundantly clear how outnumbered I am. I wait 30 seconds for silence to take the roll, give out handouts on writing a diary entry (in case they may ever find themselves writing “a week in the life of a fifth year”) and remind them again to keep down the noise. The class proceeds with the four or five top students at the front rolling their eyes at the boys in the back who’d rather perfect their animal noises than learn anything.

In between classes I correct copies, prepare classes, help catalogue books in the library, and check for non-existent permanent jobs on the internet. Then it’s down to the sixth years. Thirty minutes of teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets and ten trying to convince them that he’s not a stalker, and explaining that ‘gay’ is not an adjective for things that are uninteresting. This is followed by the second years who teach me rhyming slang like ‘Tom Hanks’. It takes me ten minutes to figure this out, which I defuse by asking them if they would be willing to explain this to their mothers.

At twenty to four the last bell rings and I’m tired. I wonder how I can be so tired when I only work half the hours of a full-time teacher, but it’s been a long day and I’ve been on my feet. I start the journey home for a well-deserved rest before another day begins.

TUESDAY

Today is the day that’s become fondly known in my school as “Top Yourself Tuesday”. I’m not sure who coined the term, but there has always been a sort of underlying sense of doom on a Tuesday morning that nobody can explain. It’s too late for fresh starts but too early to wind down for the weekend. It’s the day when even the DJ on the radio has lost his lustre on the way to work. It’s Tuesday.

I enter the staffroom in the middle of a discussion about the impending suspension of a sixth year and my ears perk up as I recognise the student’s name. Yet again, this guy has decided to say “f**K you” in response to a general query as to where his homework was. I already know it’s going to be one of the days. I can smell it in the cold, damp air. I take a deep breath and put on my ‘teacher’ face before heading to class. I get wolf-whistled as I walk down the corridor. This is a normal occurrence for any female teacher under the age of 30, but it bugs me every time. I ignore it and move on with my day going from class to class, free class to free class until lunch. At one o’clock I return to base camp where the other 40-odd teachers reconvene to discuss the day so far. We share our concerns, swap blood boiling stories, and vent our frustrations until all our tension and burdens have been released. This hour of adult discourse is a vital time in the day for those of us who have spent the morning amid teenage angst and rebellion. As awful as the day may have been we always manage to laugh through the travesties — reboot, rejuvenate, and face the afternoon in a new light.

At two, the second years welcome me with a question — “Hey Miss, what’s a paedophile?” I am never surprised by their curious minds. The girl who has been presumably voted as the class representative looks at me wide-eyed and innocent while the more worldly students snigger into their sleeves. I answer the question with as much tact as I can, then brush it off as irrelevant before starting the lesson. We continue on our quest to write the perfect short story by creating whimsical fictional characters and undiscovered, magical lands. I give constructive criticism and feedback on the fruit of their imagination and answer their questions on formation and grammar. I wonder as I leave if the answer to that first question is the only information they will have retained that day.

WEDNESDAY

It’s midweek and it’s one of those elusive half-days that has not been devoured by the Croke Park agreement. The well planned midweek half-day is the day we can catch up with ourselves; correct copies, fill out the paperwork that is spilling out of our pigeonholes, and get our breath back. Having only had one in this school year so far I look forward to the chance of getting my ducks in a row.

My positive spirit is dampened as I stop to get petrol on the way to work and have to use my credit card knowing that my first pay day is another five weeks away. Working a month in advance is starting to take its toll, and to add to my worries my maternity leave contract is coming to an end. I have to shake off this blanket of self-pity before getting to work and trying to inspire and motivate the youth of today.

I get to the school just after eight where I encounter an obstacle course of buckets in the hallway. It’s been raining heavily for two days and the roof is leaking profusely. The kids use this as an opportunity to weave in and out in a race and I smile. Oh to be young and full of energy! This is a stark contrast to the adults upstairs, slumped over coffee and yawning into their paper. By half-eight the caffeine has kicked in and we’re perked up and ready to go.

One or two of the more ‘troublesome’ second years are absent today and the class is quiet and productive. I thank heavens for small mercies and hope that the rest of the day will be as pleasant. It’s the fifth years that put the fly into the ointment. Six have neglected to do last night’s homework, resulting in 8am detention tomorrow and two refuse to stop talking for 40 minutes to the point where I think my blood will boil. As I hand out the punishment work I wonder if I’m wasting my time, but I’m following discipline procedure and who am I to question that?

As planned, I spend the afternoon on paperwork and planning and by four I take comfort in the couch and a cup of tea. Before I know it, I wake up and it’s six o’ clock. It’s certainly not the first time I’ve unintentionally fallen asleep after work but it’s not something I would like to make a habit of. At the age of 28, I’m hoping it’s not a physical tiredness but more a mental shut down. Maybe there’s a little stress involved too. I hope that I can get back to sleep tonight to be in full swing for school assembly tomorrow morning.

THURSDAY

“MISS!!! John is breastfeeding Ryan!!!” Yet another situation for which I have not been prepared for in college during Classroom Management 101. I have arrived to work earlier than usual to supervise detention and can only imagine what I will find as I turn around in response to that comment. Fortunately, John has stopped breastfeeding Ryan by the time I look in their direction and I am free to move on with my morning. I grab a cup of tea and the punishment work for the six on detention and head to the room for those who dare to break the rules, and get caught. I take my seat at the top of the room and once again realise that to detain students is also to self-detain, and I sigh at the prospect of sitting silently for 30 minutes to feel that I too am being punished, but for a crime I didn’t commit.

The first three classes today are being taken up by a whole school assembly. The students are marched from their base classes to the large hall after registration and I can feel the atmosphere in the air as the kids (and teachers) delight in having three free lessons. As designated photographer for all school events, I set up my camera and tripod at the back of the room and swivel back and forth in the hopes of catching priceless moments. I catch a student’s glowing smile, the principal nervously shuffling her speech in her hands, and a teacher asleep upright in his chair; an authentic glimpse of our day.

The assembly is a wonderful outlet to praise our kids on their successes, showcase musical talent, and for the principal to address each pupil with an inspiring and motivational speech. Unfortunately, two students have to be escorted from the room as they are unable to behave appropriately but it in no way hinders the celebration. It’s an occasion to feel proud of the place we work and the efforts we all put in. I leave, as I’m sure many others do, with a heightened spirit and drive to make this year a great one.

Lunch time is spent reflecting on the morning’s success and complimenting the students’ behaviour. This is quite a rare occurrence and we savour it, along with the free cake and cookies — compliments of the social committee. As I munch, I think how lucky I am to work with such a remarkable group of people and how I would choose working with the teenagers I do, than deal with a random sample of the general public every day. Days like today make me feel like we are making a difference. I may not be able to convince 16-year-olds that Shakespeare is a genius, but seeing them discover, share, and believe in their talents makes it all worthwhile.

FRIDAY

It’s raining, cold, and exhaustion has kicked in, but nothing can beat that Friday feeling. There’s a busy day ahead with nine teachers absent due to school trips, meetings, and illness, but we pull together and make it work. Covering a class for another teacher can be stressful, I must admit, especially for a subject that I have long forgotten since my time at school.

I have two such classes today, Science and French. I must locate the room, marshal students who try to make a break for it and then spend 40 minutes encountering questions to which I have no clue of the answers. I try to remember when it is that teenagers learn that adults don’t know everything, and whether it’s appropriate to admit this now.

At ten I have some free time and decide to ring the parents of some students from fifth year who have been less than diligent lately. Following the detention of six students yesterday I feel it is important for the parents to understand that their children’s poor behaviour will not be tolerated. I am met with a mixture of responses, which is to be expected. Most of the mothers or fathers are sympathetic to my situation, apologise on behalf of their offspring, and pledge to tackle my concerns in the home.

For the other parents I am an unwanted burden who is adding to their already over-stressed lives and I am met with a “not my problem” attitude. I must respect this and thank them for their time, but inside I am filled with regret for this lack of family support.

The bell rings before I finish my phone calls and I must run to second year English. The usual commotion is in play when I arrive and I have to raise my voice to bring the class to order. I get them doing a written assignment and walk around the room to supervise their work. I am still disheartened by the response I got from the fifth year’s parents earlier and I find myself looking at each of the students in front of me and thinking about their home lives and what support and encouragement they are getting.

Some of my second years have lost a parent in the last two years and I wonder how they deal with it at all. Some have fathers or brothers in jail and I question how getting homework done can be any kind of priority in their lives.

One or two have come to Ireland from war-torn countries and I can’t even imagine what horrendous things they must have seen.

How do they sleep at night, let alone get up to come to school in the morning? I try to evaluate my role in their lives and how, if at all, I can make it even a little easier.

I know as a teacher I can’t submerge myself in all of their problems and my job is to cover the English curriculum, but these thoughts sometimes envelop me and I hope in some way that my existence, in some way, has improved the lives of this small group of people, if only a little.


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