Meet our Cohort 2020-21Back
Oliver Seadon: English Graduate
What would you say to yourself a year ago?
I would say, “Teaching is hard. It’s really hard.”
That probably isn’t the most constructive advice I could give myself, though, so, as I’ve learnt to say to the kids in my class, “Elaborate…”.
Ok, so, basically… [I would at this point remind myself that “so, basically” is on the banned phrases list on the wall in my classroom]
So, I would say to myself that… “You have never experienced the consistent levels of tiredness that you are going to experience over the course of the next eleven months”.
I would say, “You know the production week of a show where everyone wants your attention and you’re pulled in several different directions all at once and it’s high intensity work building towards a very hard deadline of curtain up on opening night? Yeah, well, teaching is like that, every hour of every day of every week of every month that you’re in school.”
I would say, “Don’t go in expecting that you’re going to be brilliant at this straight away because that’s not going to happen. Teaching is a skill, you’ve got to learn it. You’ll get it wrong quite a bit, then you’ll start to get it right, then you’ll get it wrong again, then you’ll get to a point that you think you’ve got it nailed, then shortly after that you’ll think you’ve not learnt anything at all, but you’ll definitely be wrong.”
I would say, “The kids aren’t going to respect you immediately, even if you get lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that on your first day in school one twelve year-old asks you if you’re the new principal. Your grey hair and career experience ultimately means nothing to them; you’ve got to show them why they should respect you and earn their trust.”
I would say, “You’re going to get really annoyed by a lot of the bureaucracy and box-ticking that exists within the education system. Realistically, though, there’s very little you can do to change it as a trainee teacher. Therefore, you can waste your time and energy getting frustrated by things which you think are thoroughly pointless but have to do anyway, or you can tick them off as fast and good-naturedly as you’re able to so that you can get back to what you enjoy about teaching: being in the classroom with children.”
I would say, “At points you are going to hate this year, at points you’re going to want to walk away, at points you’re going to question why on earth you took out another student loan to do this having just paid off your first one. However, you will learn an incredibly useful skill that you can use in whatever you do. You will learn countless things about yourself and you will become a better, more open, more understanding, more empathetic, more emotionally intelligent, kind and useful person as a result.”
I would say, “It is without question one of the hardest but one of the best things you will ever do in your life and it is absolutely worth the effort you’ll put in.”
So, basically, here are a few reasons why I reckon that’s true.
When a tough kid you’ve been doggedly trying to get through to and persuade you want them to do well for three whole terms offers you their chair on school sports day after your team won the staff 4 x 100m relay, it is worth the effort.
When a challenging thirteen-year old fist bumps you in your penultimate week of teacher training for risking being run over by a lorry to collect a ball he accidentally headed over the fence onto a very busy main road whilst you were hoping for a quiet lunch duty on the astroturf, it is worth the effort. (Would I prefer the fist bump was for something revelatory I said about Of Mice and Men? Sure, but I’ll take what I can get.)
When you read the exam paper for the quiet, diligent, polite, hard-working boy who always studiously ignores disruptions, getting on with what you’ve asked him to do, and you realise you can give him twenty-nine marks out of thirty and write down that you’re really proud of him, it is worth the effort.
When you read the exam paper for the disruptive, lethargic, defiant, work-shy boy who always creates the disruptions, rarely doing anything you’ve asked him to do, and you realise you can give him sixteen marks out of thirty and write down that you’re really impressed with the progress he’s made, it is worth the effort.
When one of the delightful girls in your year seven class cries openly in the lesson where you tell them you’re leaving their school at the end of term, it makes you realise just how much you’re going to miss them too.
Whilst I’m not staying in teaching – at least, not for now, because the circus has invited me to run away with it again – I will never regret that I spent the year of coronavirus training to teach.
I hope I’ll always think of it as one of the hardest and one of the best years of my life.
May 2021What have have your students taught you through your training year?
There’s a funny impression I once had that teachers were only meant for teaching, never for learning.
Strangely enough, that’s proved untrue in what’s been a fairly tumultuous teacher training year through which children have been welcomed back to school, sent home in close-contact groups, ejected from school entirely, forced to endure weeks glued to their screens in virtual learning, then welcomed back to school but muzzled, thus undermining the benefit of socialisation with their friends and teachers – for some of them their form tutor being one of the only emotionally available adults in their life.
The previous paragraph might give away my personal frustration and discontent with certain aspects of pandemic-handling, but one thought that’s kept me going is that, ‘if I find this experience so uncomfortable, how would it feel if I was twelve?’
This perspective has been the main gift of this year for me, I think. I’ve been able – if and when I’ve chosen to, which admittedly I occasionally haven’t – to take the opportunity, consistently, to view the world through the eyes of an eleven-to-fourteen-year-old child because I see them, talk to them, teach them, try to wrangle, manage the behaviour of and understand them every working day of the week.
In doing this I’ve realised that, as an adult, I haven’t ‘got this’. This, y’know, being life.
There are many things around the way we think, the issues we face, the ways we learn, the ways we forget, the relationships we have and how we develop as a person that I still haven’t the faintest idea how to handle. This is simply because I’ve not had to confront certain things until I’ve had to teach small-but-rapidly-growing people how to navigate it all.
As one example, we had an excellent training session delivered by the vice principal at my academy around restorative conversations with children: you’ve had to sanction a child for poor behaviour, they’ve probably decided that they hate you so much right now, so you try to repair their trust in and relationship with you.
In this conversation, they might well be angry, sullen, petulant, defiant, aggressive or in floods of tears. They probably, so the vice principal said, don’t really understand how they’re feeling so it would help if you named it for them and showed them empathy, for example, ‘I can see that you’re angry at the moment and I understand why, but…’. Of course, the word ‘but’ leads them to an explanation of how their behaviour was unacceptable, then a reassurance that you know they can do better and a commitment that you really care about them doing well.
The primary insight I took from this training session was that children don’t really understand their emotions. A good insight, right? Yes, I know, I thought so – thanks. However, the absolute revelation for me is the fact that quite often I don’t either. Sometimes, as an adult, I’ve been told off and I might well have been angry, sullen, petulant, defiant, aggressive or even, on occasion, in floods of tears. Actually, sometimes I might need an emotionally available adult to help me work out how I’m feeling, name it and help me work out how to deal with it.
Funny that, eh?
It certainly isn’t just the art of emotional regulation that these children have helped me work on, but a whole manner of other issues, questions and concerns.
Do I think the Black Live Matter protestors should have committed an act of criminal damage by tearing down the statue of Edward Colston? I dunno, haven’t really thought about it, but I’d better work out what I think ‘cos I’m teaching a lesson about it in an hour. Do I think John Steinbeck was racist for repeatedly using a racially pejorative term that’s now rightly considered intensely offensive? As it turns out, no, I don’t, I think he was intending for the reader to sympathise with the recipient of this maltreatment, but I’d better work out how to explain that to thirty twelve-year-olds who are going to read that word in thirty minutes. Can I draw out any parallels between George Orwell’s Animal Farm and the current political climate? Well, yes, I suppose I can but I’d better be careful to articulate them in a politically neutral way so that I don’t imprint my own views onto these malleable young minds.
What’s my view on our progress in gender equality? Should sixteen-year-olds be able to vote? When is consent somehow coerced? Do I think all protest should be peaceful and never militant? At what point, if any, does freedom of speech become unhelpful? If a celebrated someone commits one villainous act, are they irredeemable?
In order to teach anything my impression is that you should probably understand it a little yourself, so my own experience is that teachers ain’t just for teaching, but also for learning.
Quite often it’s the kids that teach them. They’ve certainly taught me.
Click here for an excellent reflection entitled: "Nine lessons and carols for a trainee schoolteacher."
A week in the life
Monday tends to be the first day of the week and, with it, I usually find a new reserve of energy. I’m using it today to build relationships with some of the more challenging students in a year eight class I team-teach, sitting with one per lesson to focus my attention on them. Today, our first task is to define gender assumptions we make and annotate them on outlines of a man and a woman before analysing a speech made by the actor Emma Watson. The twelve-year old I’m sat next to writes ‘savage’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘army’ on the outline of the man. I gently probe, “Is that about a specific man you know, or just men in general?” With impeccable comic timing he pauses for effect, looks me directly in the eye, points his finger towards me and mouths “You” before writing ‘Mr Seadon’ across the chest of this savage military outline of a man. I say, “That’s pretty funny”, and give him an effort stamp.
Tuesday often follows and, today, I’m starting a new project by having one-to-one sessions with every child in the tutor group I’m attached to. It’ll help me get to know them so that I can support them better, but will also help me address the behaviour of a small handful of students who I find it difficult to teach. After each session, they’ll write me a letter to introduce themselves and I’ll write one back to identify with their experience and share a bit of my own. I’ve a few set questions to ask. “What do you find challenging about school?” is one of the first ones, to which one thirteen year-old replies, “I don’t like it when teachers talk to me too much early in the morning. I’m tired and I want them to leave me alone”. I ask, already knowing the answer, “Am I talking too much for you this morning?” A pause, to consider the implications of their answer, then, slowly and deliberately, “Yeah, you have said a lot of words”. It won’t surprise you to hear that we kept talking.
After Tuesday, Wednesday usually happens and I’m on duty in the Year 7 playground before 8am, unlike in my prior career where I’d be having a leisurely breakfast and listening to the world falling apart on the Today programme around now. A cabal of girls approaches me to tell me that one of the boys has been “really rude” to them. I make an approach to the boy in question, who I’ve never met, say his name and gently suggest he “come here for a chat”. Not gently enough, perhaps, as he shouts, “This school is rubbish!” and runs the entire length of the playground – a solid 200 metres – before heading out of the school gate and down the road. He’s faster than me so I don’t make chase and slowly walk after him, eventually catching him up. He’s mistaken me for one of the vice-principals (by virtue only of me being male and over thirty), thought I was going to give him an hour detention, is in floods of tears and is completely distraught. We agree that the top priority for both of us, for now, is for him not to be upset and that we’ll then go and find Mr Rutter, his house tutor, who can get to the bottom of what actually happened. Days at school rarely, if ever, start as I intend them to so it’s easiest and least painful to just accept that this will always be the case.
The penultimate day of the school week is Thursday, I’m told, and as trainees we get a brief breather from school for our core-training day. This year, the vast majority are in webinar form but we’ve had numerous inspiring keynote speakers and everyone’s doing their best to deliver the training we need. A day of webinars can be more mentally tiring than school, I’m finding, and that’s a useful lesson for any remote teaching we have to do. I always miss being in school by the end of the day and am keen to get back there to try out the new ideas Thursday’s brought.
Friday’s an inevitability, but it’s always my favourite day of the week and not because it’s the last, though I’m always pretty shattered by now. I’m an English trainee and Friday begins with a solid half-hour of DEAR Time where teachers read aloud to their tutor groups. I’m reading ‘Terror Kid’ by Benjamin Zephaniah, picked strategically to entice the kids to read more for themselves. They engage so fully; they genuinely appear to love being read to. The story’s set in Birmingham and I give my best Brummie accent, which is regularly critiqued – ‘Is that character from Liverpool, sir?’, asks one, whilst another kindly suggests it’s better than some might think. One of the characters is Spanish, but I don’t risk unveiling my accent to the class as I think it’s probably reminiscent of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It’s a brilliant start to Friday (the reading aloud to attentive kids, not my accent work) and the day ends wonderfully as well because I get to spend an hour with ten students, after school, on a Friday, who have made the choice to spend a whole hour with me playing drama games and looking at scripts for year eight drama club. Most lessons of the week having included at least a few students who’d rather not be there, it’s the perfect way to head into the weekend – before we start it all again next week.
Earlier this year the industry I worked in for fifteen years closed for the foreseeable future, so I’ve decided to do something I first applied to do three times in 2005, 2006 and 2007 but never quite had the courage to follow through: train to be a teacher.
All it took was a global pandemic.
Most recently, I was a tour director for Cirque du Soleil and, so, having run off to join the circus once before it feels in many ways like I’ve done so again by stepping foot into a secondary school. There’s certainly a circuslike quality to it: clowns; acrobats; each class has a ringmaster, which sometimes isn’t me; and I’ll stop the circus analogy before mentioning wild animals. It can be pretty entertaining; gasp-inducing spectacles can be achieved, ‘cos I’ve seen them.
I am going to teach English rather than drama. I love English literature, I had the most wonderful A-Level English teacher, Sue Dawson, and this summer I completed an eight-week preliminary course to enhance my subject knowledge. It all feels a great fit for a new challenge and, for the last five months or so, has been an exciting theoretical prospect looming in the distant-albeit-increasingly-closer future.
Now, though, I actually have to do it.
I now have to set foot in a classroom and teach teenagers why Shakespeare was the greatest British playwright and why exactly George Orwell’s Animal Farm, written in 1943 as an attack on a decades-dead dictator, still speaks to us today. Thankfully, though, for these teenagers, I first have the opportunity to watch many other experienced teachers teach their lessons before I do it myself.
I’m nervous. My nerves exist on a variety of levels, but I’m mostly nervous about getting it right. I’m reminding myself every day, though, that the sooner I get comfortable with getting it wrong, the better. Because I am likely to get it wrong – every day, and fairly publicly. As much as I annoy even myself by writing this, practise does make perfect. Although, as perfection is pretty unattainable, I am entirely happy that, for now, practice instead just makes me pretty good.
The fantastic thing is that I don’t have to do this on my own. I’m one of a team of around 200 new teachers training with Harris. Within that team, around 20 of us are training to teach English and a solid few handfuls of us are career changers, so there’s a lovely breadth of experience and support to draw on as we go through this training year together. As much as leading teams is what I’ve got used to in my career, it feels really good instead to just be part of one.
Whilst nervous, I’m excited to get started. I also figure that if we can learn to teach in the times of coronavirus, it can only get easier after this.