I really missed my students over the summer!

I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is for apologising after a six-month absence from your own blog, but here goes: sorry, everyone. A special sorry to those of you who posted asking for materials, since I was away from my computer for May and June (exam season), and then away from work for all of July and August (backpacking in far-flung and much warmer climes).

You see, I take my work-life balance as seriously as I take the separation of church and state, and after an unrelenting and intense year at work, I threw myself into the summer holidays just as I’d promised myself I would. Thoughts of lesson plans and homework and marking and materials were so far from my mind that even as I told new acquaintances that I was a teacher, I almost felt as though I was describing someone else, a third person neither of us in the conversation would ever meet, or a version of myself lost to the past.

And I enjoyed it: the free time, the complete break with the realities of school, day in, day out, where every day was different and yet somehow the same in so many ways. For the first time in four years of teaching, I had a whole summer off, both on paper and in mind, and it was ridiculously fun to rediscover all the aspects of myself that had been slowly but systematically drowned out by that innocuous label ‘teacher’.

But somewhere around mid-August, the matrix started to glitch. I was listening to a song, and before I knew it I’d made a playlist with one of my super-talented FCE classes in mind. It was full of awesome songs just perfect for decoding practice! They’d all been released in the previous twelve months! The lyrics contained exactly the kind of inspiring, upbeat messages that teen students generally seem to appreciate!

It definitely didn’t count as work though. Did it? I mean, technically I wasn’t at work, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to accidentally get a bit of work done … So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if an ELT teacher plans and doesn’t get paid for it, does she need to take her job a little less seriously?

Anyway, I went back to work on September 12th, mainly writing exams and doing other assorted admin in preparation for the new school year. On the weekend of September 15th and 16th, I saw some of my students out at a festival, and I wondered how their summers had gone, and if they’d had fun on their trip to England, and had they passed their FCE exams? And on September 25th I walked back into my classroom, that one with the same kids I’ve been teaching since I first moved to Calabria in 2016, to a round of applause and lots of hellos and general merriment.

What an amazing vocation we have. What amazing people my students have become over the last couple of years. What a surprise that I actually missed school over the summer! But I’m back now, and I’m ready for another year of academic and professional excellence. On your marks …

I learned a lot in 2017!

Are you even a blogger if you don’t publish some sort of year-in-review post? In any case, the holidays are a time for following traditions, not rocking the boat, so here’s the closest thing to a listicle I hope I’ll ever write:

A few things that I’ve learned this year at work …

  • A school is only as happy as its staff room.
  • I work in one of the precious few industries where strong female role models abound.
  • One of the most effective ways of empathising with my students is to keep putting myself in that uncomfortable position of being a language learner myself.
  • ELT is mostly about who you know, and not necessarily what you know.
  • Outstanding schools are the ones where teachers go above and beyond for their students, and are recognised and rewarded for it.
  • It’s better to be well-rested, healthy and a little under-prepared for class than sleep-deprived, ill and over-prepared.
  • One of the best things a teacher can do for their students is to keep a low profile in the classroom.
  • Every single piece of new language must go on the whiteboard, however unimportant it may seem to you at the time.
  • I am much more resilient than I think.
  • There is no amount of money I can earn that is worth more than my free time in my twenties.

… and a few things that I have yet to learn.

  • It’s really hard to be what you can’t see.
  • Spending 50 hours a week at school and only getting paid for 35 of those does not constitute a healthy work-life balance.
  • People will rarely think you’re worth more than you think you are.
  • Sometimes it’s OK to say no.
  • Professional things should not be taken personally.

I hope 2017 has been similarly enlightening for you too, wherever in the world you are. I’ll see you all in 2018!

I am very, very tired!

Picture the scene: a chilly December afternoon in southern Italy. The sun is beginning its slow descent over the snow-capped peak of Mount Etna. The school is a mere five hours from closing for the Christmas holidays. I am writing this blog post while sitting on the floor of our school computer room, invigilating as a final handful of students finish off their mid-course exams.

Today is the first day in a very, very long time that I am not going to go home to my boyfriend and start deconstructing, in unnecessarily minute detail, every little thing that happened in my classroom. I’m not going to tell him about the funny things my students said, or the annoying changes to school policy that have been implemented, or the stupid mistakes I made and how I should have known better. I do not have the mental or emotional capacity left to do any of these things.

I am very, very tired.

My boyfriend tells me that I work too much. He says I need to learn how to switch off when I come home from school. He says that in a way, I’m always working, and there are very few moments in a day, term or year when I am not thinking about school.

These things are all true. Here’s the problem: I don’t care.

I love my job. My students are everything to me. When I’m in a classroom, and I can see learning happening around me, I know that there’s nothing else I’d rather spend my life doing. I work double the time I get paid for under the conviction that the impact we have as teachers, however slow or small, is significant for our students. And then I go home and obsess about it, because that is how I show that I care.

Don’t get me wrong; my deconstruction of the day’s events is never empty criticism. It is true that I didn’t focus enough on writing micro-skills with my advanced students this year, it is true that our teacher development programme doesn’t cater for the needs of all of our teachers, and it is true that we should be paid proportionally for the extra time we spend marking exams and writing reports. However, I am not capable of pretending that I am OK with the current state of all of these things. I want to be better. I want my school to be better. One day, I want to look back on the work I have done here, and the changes I have made here, and the overall impact of my being here, and say, “Yes, this was all worth it.”

So, I am very, very tired, but that’s OK. Here’s to the relaxing, rejuvenating Christmas we’ve all been working so hard for since September.

I’ve forgotten how to do my job!

The first lesson back after the summer break is generally a peculiar beast. Despite teaching several adult classes over the summer, I still came back to school last week feeling like I’d forgotten how to do my job. Apparently I’m not alone, because I walked into the staffroom a full three hours before my first lesson to find that all the other teachers had gotten there before me, to “get stuff sorted”. Even colleagues with several years’ teaching experience reported the same phenomenon: sitting down to plan the first lesson and experiencing that mild panic when ideas don’t seem to come quite as easily as you’d remembered.

Maybe it’s a practical thing. Things just take longer after the summer break. You’ve forgotten the photocopier code, the young learner coursebooks have been moved upstairs, and the speakers in your classroom just refuse to work so you have to get someone up to fix them, or else rewrite that bottom-up listening lesson you were planning to do. Your three-hour jumpstart on that first lesson has somehow dwindled into thirty minutes, and now you’ve finally remembered your photocopier code but where did you leave your pencil case? Has anyone seen it? Guys?

It’s easy to blame those first-day-back nerves on logistical hiccups, but I suspect that at least part of it is emotional. We’ve had a long summer break, with far too much time to analyse and, more often than not, deconstruct our teaching from the previous year. How did my PET classes get on in their June exam session? Should I be doing more bottom-up listening practice with my teens? How can I move towards using more student-generated materials this year? Underlying all those questions is a genuine desire to develop, combined with the insidious whisperings of Imposter Syndrome. You don’t know how to do your job. Last year was a fluke, and in fact, so was all of your prior teaching experience – look, it’s taken you forty minutes just to plan this first lesson …

It’s funny that even after doing Delta M2 and receiving extensive feedback stating quite the opposite, I still feel like a fraud in teacher’s clothing to a certain extent. Does Imposter Syndrome ever go away? Or does it just mean I still care (too much) about my job? Answers on the back of postcard, please, especially if you’re an experienced teacher reading this blog post!

Luckily for me, past-Sanchia had anticipated future-Sanchia having teacher’s block in September, and had left future-Sanchia all seven of past-Sanchia’s lesson-planning books from the year before, safe in her locker, ready to copy from should future-Sanchia need them. Future-Sanchia did, of course, need them, and found herself repeating quite a few of last year’s tried-and-tested first lesson ideas, which present-Sanchia is currently writing up for a future blog post.

And if you’ve made it this far, leave me a comment and let me know how your first lessons are going!