The idle machine

3rd April 2015 at 01:00

Schools are strange places. When I arrive at mine, at 7.30am, it is so quiet and reflective. I love this time of day. As I walk along the corridor there's a faint hum from a bank of computers, as if they haven't quite woken up. When I enter my classroom, three rows of lights detect my presence and click into life. They're in the shape of butterfly wings and are really quite beautiful, but this is the only moment in the day when I notice them.

I drop my bag on the floor, take off my coat and switch my computer on. As I wait for it to tell me that I have 57 emails, I always, always sit back in my chair and survey my "kingdom". Because that's what our classrooms are like: here, we sort of reign. At least, until the first student or overanxious parent arrives.

For many of us, this moment before the school day starts is our only quiet time. It's the only opportunity we have to indulge in "standing and staring", as W H Davies would encourage, before the madness begins. And begin it does, in glorious technicolour, when the first of many bells screams into life. Then the Zen-like calm is gone for the next 480 minutes, as you slip your teacher mask on and begin the performance.

The only respite from your Oscar-worthy display are the two points in the day that are amusingly called "breaks".

My first is at 11.20am; I had my breakfast almost five hours ago so by now I am unspeakably hungry, not to mention dying for a wee. All those dramas written for television that feature a smoke-filled staffroom, raucous laughter and constant moaning are alarmingly true. With the notable exception of the smoke.

The second break is hilariously called a "lunch hour". I mean, seriously, when did you last have a whole hour? But I shouldn't complain. There's a steady supply of tea and coffee to keep us going throughout the day.

It's interesting that the points of the school day that I've written about don't actually include any students. I'm not sure why that is. I consider myself fortunate to have been teaching for more than a quarter of a century, and I still love what I do, so why didn't I include the children?

I think this might be a lot less worrisome than it may first appear. A great school operates like a well-oiled machine. It bursts into life when the students arrive. It seems to sense their presence and sits up a little taller, straightening its tie to welcome them with a nod and an encouraging smile. It is our students who breathe life into our schools. We, as teachers, are like custodians, waiting in the early morning stillness for the moment when the students arrive. We tend to the school, sharpening our pencils and settling our papers. When we hear the first scuffle along the corridor, we too then burst into life, often all-singing and all-dancing in an attempt to do what we love: inspire our pupils.

We enjoy complaining about them, and sometimes it is entirely reasonable. But without our students the school would merely be an empty machine humming its own tune, bereft and waiting.

Zareena Huber teaches English at a school in North London

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