Note: ‘Sarah’ does not exist. She is, however, a composite of true stories and experiences shared with me by colleagues through my research over the years.
Meet Sarah. Sarah is 39-years-old and an assistant head in a rural school. She originally trained as a history teacher.
Sarah is awoken in the middle of her recurring anxiety dream, which involves scrabbling through carpet fibres for a broken contacts lens. Her head is foggy. It seemed like such a good idea to catch up with old friends for tapas last night, but she wonders if she’s getting a bit too old for more than a couple of glasses of vino these days…
She presses her snooze button four times, earning grunts of irritation from her partner, Karl.
Her marking spent the weekend in the car. She hopes the damp hasn’t done too much damage to Year 11's history mocks.
There’s a strange smell when Sarah starts her car. She doesn’t have time to worry about it, puts up the windows and keeps going. Halfway to work, the fumes become difficult to ignore, so she opens the window. Eventually, she stops for a half-hearted inspection and decides that she’s likely to make it to school in one piece. She has a "free" today and will have time to call the garage. The three-minute pause in her journey is just enough for the traffic to build up in the local hotspot and adds 12 extra minutes to her journey, making her 4 minutes late for her morning senior leadership team meeting. This earns her a distinct huff of disapproval from her deputy line manager. "Thanks," she thinks.
She realises she hasn’t been paying attention to the timings for today’s exams and makes a mental note to find the document on the shared drive when she gets to her office.
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Sarah’s trying a new "things to do" strategy, which is supposed to involve writing key things on just one Post-it note. She’s on her third when the phone starts to ring. In addition to the colleague on long-term stress-related absence, this is the second person to call in sick. They can’t set cover because they’ve forgotten what lessons they have. The head of department isn’t in yet. Sarah doesn’t teach Year 9 and has no idea what module they’re on so she scrabbles for something generic to set them. As she’s about to press "print", there’s a knock. One of her most dedicated and delightful students asks whether she’s had time to have a look at the extra practice questions he submitted to her last Thursday. She hasn’t. She assures him she’ll have feedback for him by lunchtime.
Two minutes late for morning duty. The head’s PA does a regular prowl and, if Sarah isn’t there, it will incur an officious email. She takes the back way around to the playground so she won’t be seen skulking to her duty spot late. Two groups of high-profile Year 10 girls eye one another – how can they master such perfect mascara at just 14 when she struggles not to look like a one-eyed panda? Her teacher-sense tells her there is something afoot, but they reassure her with a “Morning, Miss! Love your shoes”, and she shelves her concern and moves on.
Nobody has come to register 8M. She should do it herself but she’s got a meeting with someone from the trust in four minutes and needs to download her documents. She hovers, makes a call to the cover officer, which goes unanswered, and grabs an unsuspecting colleague, begs for help and leaves feeling guilty and shouting, “I owe you chocolate!”
So far, the day has involved four meetings, one crying child, two crying colleagues, a broken pair of Year 7 glasses (the culprit for which is yet to be identified), a data-drop, an amateur attempt to diagnose what is causing the god-awful stink in the boys’ toilets, two disgruntled parents and three failed attempts to use the toilet.
Sarah forgot to print the cover work. She alternately apologises to and thanks the colleague who she reckons will make a fine job of an off-the-cuff lesson on the French Revolution. Sarah could murder a coffee. She unearths an open packet containing half a cereal bar. She can’t quite remember when she started it, but it will do.
With a sigh of relief, Sarah closes her classroom door to teach Year 11. "I’m teaching" is the best way of keeping extra issues from finding her. Sarah loves teaching. She only wishes she had time to do her planning and marking justice. She briefly contemplates the absurdity of this thought, having recently completed a full marking and planning audit across the school, then focuses on the task in hand.
Suhel makes a startlingly astute comparison between Trump’s "protective" Mexican wall and German reunification. Nope, Lydia, the Russian dictator’s name is not spelled like the small brown bird. Lucas’ bag has something on it. Chocolate? She hopes so. Sarah puts last week’s senior leadership team agenda item about the mouse infestation out of her head, smiles brightly, and carries on with her differentiated questioning.
Sarah really needs a wee now.
A knock. It’s her colleague Marcus. He asks her how her weekend was. Marcus has always been considerate and she quells the urge to hug him gratefully. He’s apologetic, knows how busy she is, but has some news. He’s flushing slightly. “The thing is,” he says, “I wanted you to hear it from me: my wife is pregnant.”
A deep breath, a few minutes of hiding in a cubicle and a splash of cold water should do it. At least she managed to get to the toilet at last. Sarah’s last round of IVF didn’t work out. She’s kept it very quiet. Last time, the side effects kept her away from work and she received a gentle reprimand from her line manager: “We have to model the behaviours we wish to see.” She’ll be 40 in a couple of months. The possibility of becoming a parent is looking all the more remote. She’s not sure the pressure of the job helps, but she does love the job. Really, she does.
The issue with the Year 10 girls has kicked off. There have been threats via WhatsApp and parents have been contacted. Sarah walks one of the girls to the end of her road. The girl’s mum has expressed her gratitude repeatedly.
Sarah is late for her department meeting. The head of humanities was relying on her support when introducing a particularly tricky new assessment schedule. Karl’s mum is coming over for dinner. There’s nothing in the fridge except some mouldy cheese and a bit of lime pickle. She’s promised she’ll cook. And she’s forgotten to phone the garage.
Sarah’s just remembered she needs to update her part of the school improvement plan for tomorrow. She’s just made the connection between her throbbing head and her failure to eat lunch.
Just about enough time to decant the "simply the best" supermarket ratatouille and chuck it in the oven before removing this morning’s discarded PJs from the bathroom floor.
She wasn’t going to drink tonight, but it’s so hard to switch off sometimes.
She meant to get an early night. Really she did. But at least it’s Friday tomorrow. It must be. Surely?
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching