If my bottom set Y10s can tackle iambic pentameter...

To avoid putting on weight in the coronavirus lockdown, this English teacher is trying to teach her knees to work again

Sarah Ledger

Coronavirus: English teacher Sarah Ledger explains her battle to get fit by cycling in the lockdown

It’s a dilemma. This column is intended to be an amusing piece of education-based froth; a wry take on the matters of the day with a pedagogical twist. The trouble is the current matters of the day are – on the whole - very far from funny. And four weeks into lockdown, the bits that are funny have already occurred to everyone else. Hilarious attempts at banana bread and the middle-aged mamas’ passion for Joe Wicks are yesterday’s worn-out memes. Meanwhile, there are thousands of tips for survival while confined to barracks with two toddlers, or an eight-year-old who wants to do anything but maths, or an elderly in-law – or no one at all – and the wistful pieces on how we can make a utopia out of this dystopia.

But I can’t not mention Covid-19 (Ha! See what I did there?). It’s the angry stomping elephant in the room. You’d reach the end of my side-splitting account of finding – mid-Year 9 lesson – that I had a baby mouse asleep in the toe of my boot (true story, but for another day) and wonder, "Is this an extended metaphor for the insidious nature of coronavirus?" You may even become angry and write a series of impassioned posts on the Tes Facebook page about my obtuseness and tell me, in no uncertain terms, that you’re in the process of drafting a letter to the Department for Education to request the instant termination of my professional status.

I’m striking a balance and today, I’ll tell you my lockdown story – the education bit will be clumsily shoehorned in, but bear with me: times are hard.

Teacher wellbeing: Trying to keep fit in the coronavirus lockdown

I’m lucky. There are no toddlers under my roof or bored kids or ancient relatives. Only two lively dogs and my adult son, Tom, an ex-teacher and amateur linebacker whose daily two-hour gym sessions have been curtailed, leaving him pacing the house like a disgruntled silverback. 

When this started, I realised that by summer the whole world will be fat with crazy hair. Unfortunately, I’m leading the field in both areas and in real danger of having to be winched from my own front room unless I address my health and fitness. Ten years ago, I lost 10 stone, going from absolutely enormous to very large. I started running (slowly) but a series of comedy fat bird injuries (snapping my hamstring on a wet floor during a thunderstorm, twisting my knee on the marsh and having to be dragged through quicksand to safety, spraining my ankle slipping in a mud bank and leaving the impression of my bosoms in the mud like twin reservoirs …) put a stop to that. Inevitably, some of the weight crept back on again. With it, my poor joints packed in by way of protest and for the past year or so, I’ve been hirpling round like a tubby pirate with inflexible knees.

Walking the dogs is great but not enough. I’m not ready to run again, so why not – I thought –  use the enforced hiatus to buy a bike? Thanks to the magic of internet shopping, the new bike arrived almost as soon as I’d processed the thought. All good. Five years ago, I cycled up Hartside. In no time, I could be whizzing through the streets, into the park, up to the Solway maybe … fresh air, exercise: I’ll be a goddess. What – and you’re ahead of me here – could possibly go wrong?

Turns out, a very basic requirement of riding a bike is two knees that bend and unbend in rapid succession. Mine don't.  My son – and indeed a couple of inquisitive neighbours – stood watching my tearful attempts to get going. "Those people who say it’s just like getting back on a bike!" shouted Tom with a chuckle, "… They’re going to feel like proper fools now!" The thing is, I can remember how to ride a bike: my knees can’t. They haven’t been used for two years and now they don’t work.

The answer is rehab. What better person than Tom – veteran of American football-inflicted knee injury – to assist? We’re starting with standing up unaided x 400. He’s strict. "Don’t favour your good knee; don’t rock as you rise. I know it’s stiff, stop being a bitch about it."

I pointed out that I’m his mother not his sweaty defence and I’d prefer not to be called a bitch. "It’s a legit coaching style, Sarah … take it or leave it," came the terse reply.

I never thought I’d have to teach my own knees to do my bidding. Yet here I am. My most stubborn students ever, whining about the simplest exercises, giving up halfway through; although they’re yet to fashion a worksheet into a paper plane and throw it across the room, they’re being a pain in their own way. However, the hallmark of an excellent teacher is never to give up; persist, adapt, celebrate progress – even the smallest steps – and keep an eye on the goal. If I can get an all-boy bottom set Year 10 to untangle the mysteries of iambic pentameter, surely I can get my knees to pedal again – can’t I? I’ll let you know.

Sarah Ledger has been teaching English for 33 years. She tweets as @sezl

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