Breaking new playground

Tom Bennett

They say you should leave your comfort zone now and again. This month I got a ticket out of mine and parachuted into a parallel dimension. I have started a new job and after 10 years teaching in the same spot, the experience is surreal. It's not unlike jumping on to a moving train; you spend all your energy simply getting your shoulders through the door only to find that everyone else is calmly sitting down wondering who the sweaty man with his shirt tail hanging out is.

Anyone who has made the move will know what I mean. You walk into classrooms similar to the ones you remember but subtly different. It's like waking up in an alternate universe where monkeys, not humans, drive cars and flip burgers. Suddenly I remember how it felt to be a newly qualified teacher; to know what a staffroom is for and what to do with a coffee, but not where it is or which spoon I can use. Is it free? Pay-per-cup? Honour code?

And the pupils are like the ones I have just left but also unlike them. They include the same archetypes but each is unique. As similar as fingerprints at arm's length, and as distinct as DNA under the microscope. The same ambitions and doubts. Each one an engine of possibility and chance.

If you, like me, have moonlighted as an adviser in any capacity, it's sobering to have your craft tested - sobering and necessary. I've advised countless teachers, new and old, on how to run the gauntlet of being a stranger in a strange land. I usually say three things to them: it will always be hard at first; children won't automatically defer to your imagined authority; and constancy will establish loving boundaries given time. I've lost count of the experienced teachers who have written to me, confused by the helplessness of moving schools. "They used to listen to me," they say. "I was popular."

But status is built, not carried in a sack. All you can take with you is what you can pack inside your heart and your head: what you know about your subject, what you love about it and different ways of telling that to people. Those who move from one school to another generally find that behaviour becomes a problem again. And why shouldn't it? They've gone from known unknowns to unknown unknowns. It takes time to build up relationships with classes and deference is far from the default. When any veteran moves to another school, they should expect to be treated like a rookie. The only difference is, they should know what to do next in order to move things back to an equilibrium as fast as possible. But the same mountains need climbing.

It's as sobering as falling backwards into a bath of ice water while listening to Edith Piaf. It's unnerving and always challenging. It's also, fortunately, a joyous rush to grind against the millstone again. It can be rasping at first, but the point is to come back sharper. It doesn't hurt that the new school - my school, now - is run on clean, clear lines. There's a herd immunity in the staff body that supports and looks after old rookies like me. Challenge accepted.

Tom Bennett teaches at the Jo Richardson Community School in Essex and is director of the ResearchED conference

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Tom Bennett

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