Running on empty

Of all the phases in the school year – back to school in stiff new uniforms in September, the exhausting long drag up to Christmas, freewheeling down to the end of term in July when all the exam groups have gone – the current one is always the toughest. In a normal year, it’s the final preparation for exams, cramming in as much practice as we can before the students go off on study leave. Teaching becomes less about genuine, mind-expanding education and more about making sure that everyone knows which boxes they’ll have to tick. Remember to quote at least three sources, cram in your buzzwords, apportion your time carefully … Nerves are frayed, minor irritations get magnified, and everyone just needs to go away and calm down.

This year, of course, it’s not a normal year at all. In the UK, grades for GCSE, A level and BTEC are being determined by teacher assessment. Last year – the first year of the pandemic – we had to forecast grades based on what we thought students would have been most likely to have achieved if the exams have gone ahead. Schools went into lockdown in March, when teaching for the exam courses was practically over: determining the grades was an administrative headache, but at least we didn’t have actual students to cope with as well. This year’s exam students have had to contend with two prolonged lockdowns plus innumerable periods of self-isolation. Individual schools and colleges have been free to determine how they’ll assess their students and what they’ll get them to cover, bearing in mind the level of disruption they’ve faced. We’ve had to put all of this in place in a relatively short space of time, and the last couple of months – in schools everywhere – have seen classrooms full of silent rows, heads down, scribbling frantically.

All this has generated a massive amount of marking, which has all had to be done by normal classroom teachers, with no extra time and for no extra pay. One English-teacher friend is a GCSE examiner: she reckons that if she’s been paid her normal examiner rates for the amount of marking she’s done over the last few weeks, she’d be pulling in at least £2500. Another friend has a colleague who is currently undergoing outpatient treatment: she’ll be spending a day marking while hooked up to a drip. A group of headteachers in England and Wales is campaigning for the exam boards to refund at least half of the £220 million charged for administering this summer’s exams, pointing out that individual schools are setting assessments, marking them, carrying out quality-assurance checks, processing results (which are being issued ten days earlier than they usually are, just to add an extra complication) and handling appeals. The exam boards promised to make assessment materials available for schools to use, but these materials were not released until just before Easter – and when they were released, they were also made available to the wider public, meaning that students could access not only question papers, but also mark schemes. It didn’t really matter, though, because none of the assessment materials were new. They were all past papers that we’d already worked with and used and discussed in class. We ended up having to produce our own.

Year Twelve, meanwhile, are currently looking at word-formation, and we’ve been talking about all the blends and compound words that can be used to describe something that’s an epic mess. Shitshow. Omnishambles. Clusterfuck. Call it what you like. What it means is that teachers everywhere are not just exhausted – sapped by that elemental tiredness that sets in at particular times of year – but battered, wanting to curl up in a corner until it all goes away.

So if you know any teachers, look after them, over the next few weeks. We’re helping students through a difficult stressy time and dealing with our own exhaustion as well. We’re good at caring – it’s why we do this job – but often we’re not good at giving ourselves a break.

I give my department chocolate every Friday, not because it changes anything but because it just gives everyone a bit of a lift. Let’s face it, who doesn’t need a Twirl at the end of the week? For the past few weeks, one of my lovely colleagues has given me chocolate in return, adorned with an appropriate sticker. One week, it was ‘Didn’t swear out loud today.’ Another, it was ‘Didn’t lose my shit.’ Because even though we’re running on empty, this is what we do: we take a deep breath, swear quietly to ourselves, and carry on.

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