'For teachers, September means a clean slate'

It doesn't matter what classroom disasters took place last term. September is a fresh start, says Kate Townshend

Kate Townshend

For teachers, September means that the slate is wiped clean, says Kate Townshend

What are the best things about being a teacher?

There are some obvious answers. And, let’s face it, anyone who doesn’t mention the six-week summer holiday is probably fibbing. 

But more CV-appropriate responses might include the chance to do work that is meaningful or to make a difference in the lives of children and young people.

If you love your subject, the chance to spend time sharing it might feature. Or, for primary school teachers, the sheer exhilarating variety that comes when you’re making spaceships out of glitter and kitchen roll one minute and participating in mock parliamentary elections the next.

Teaching: starting again with a clean slate

But one of my very favourite things about being a teacher – and an underrated pleasure of the job – is particularly pertinent at this time of year. It's that September clean-slate phenomenon. 

In many ways, it's a hangover from my own school days. I have potent memories of the small but abiding joy of buying new stationery every autumn: pristine notepads, dazzling white rubbers and sharp pencils. There was always the possibility with each new academic year that I might use all three to achieve great things. Or, at the very least, to become a bit more organised or harder-working or cleverer with my time.

And, while I’m somewhat less likely to ravage the stationery section in WH Smith these days, the feeling of a fresh start is as heady now I’m a teacher myself as it was when I was a student.

I love the fact that no matter what last year's challenges and successes were, every September offers a chance to improve. It doesn’t matter that in the summer term I failed to remember to record our weekly handwriting practice, or that five of my class routinely wrote with their English books upside-down. My current class have blank and perfect new books. And I have a plan for improving presentation.

It doesn’t matter that last year my classroom became a tangle of paperwork and blunt pencil crayons. Right now, it’s spacious and smart. And I have a new filing system to help keep it that way.

It doesn’t even matter (or at least the feeling of frustration or inadequacy is blunted a little) that there was that one child whose behaviour, or problem-solving, or organisation I just didn’t quite manage to sort out. Because now I can take what I learned through trying, and use it to help my new class.

An intense sort of job

Let’s face it, teaching is an intense sort of job. Most teachers, no matter how much they do, always wonder if they could have done more. I often think that the way we section the job into these yearly portions is pretty much essential – otherwise we’d all be carrying 10 years’ worth of teaching baggage around with us at any one time, instead of just the one.

We’d have a whole careers’ worth of lessons gone wrong – whereas, as it stands, each new year means the chance to try something new and better to correct those times when things just don’t work.

The other thing, of course, is the change itself. Obviously, there’s some potential stress involved in having dozens of new colleagues to get to know on an annual basis (particularly when those colleagues are small and needy and prone to crying when their shoelace comes undone), but it’s an effective antidote to boredom, too. It’s hard to get too comfortable or to rest on your laurels in this state of constant flux, and I find September brings excitement as well as nerves, no matter how long I’ve taught.

But the real bonus is that, when you still live your life according to the academic calendar, this sense of hopefulness and renewal doesn’t necessarily stop with your job. I’m way more likely to spring clean at home in September, or to consider new hobbies, or to over-commit to mad projects. I get to be a brand-new teacher, yes. But that shows me that I can change the person I am too, and the life I lead.

Even when the teaching and personal changes are more likely to be tweaks than anything more radical, there’s a real comfort in knowing such things are possible. 

In short, all of those platitudes about every day being a fresh beginning are made true when you’re a teacher in September. And, this September, I’m stopping to appreciate the joy of a blank slate.

Kate Townshend is a teacher in Gloucestershire. She tweets as @_KateTownshend

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