My September issue? The rules of 'engagement'

10th September 2010 at 01:00

So, it's September again, pitching up with tragic inevitability like Banquo's ghost to spoil the party. But, like the ghost, it's just going to sit there, shaking its gory locks, so we might as well make the best of it.

But how? It's so hard to get going again after the holidays. It's not just kids who forget what they know; teachers do, too. I don't mean subject knowledge - ask me anything about Charles Dickenson and I'll tell you. No, I mean how to teach: how to manage classes, how to help them progress and, argh, how to keep them engaged. Every September I panic, and my dreams are full of chaotic Year 11s to whom I'm expected to teach geography, not English, in classrooms with no desks or chairs.

It's that word "engaged" that worries me. It's horribly near "entertained". After all, you only have to examine the shiny, adoring faces of pupils on teacher recruitment ads to see what's expected. If they're not thinking, "Isn't she fabulous? Learning is amazing!" you're sunk.

It plays on my worst nightmares. I already have a pathological fear of being boring or unfunny. And please don't write in. I've already had one letter telling me I'm not funny enough, from a radio producer to whom I sent a sitcom proposal. After that, I spent a desperate hour Googling "Short Breaks at Beachy Head", but we'd already booked three days in Derbyshire and my husband said he'd rather cycle the Tissington Trail than arrange my funeral.

I'm neurotic about pupils yawning. Once, while I was mid-flow, one pupil who wouldn't normally dare transgress stretched, yawned like a canyon and said, "God! I'm so bored!" The class erupted, amused at his uncharacteristic behaviour. But the pupil went beetroot and, hand over his mouth, stuttered, "Did I really say that out loud?" He couldn't apologise enough, but the damage was done, and I wallowed in the slough of pedagogic despond for days.

Why torture myself with these high expectations? Has it always been thus for teachers? Was there, a century ago, this same pressure to teach in a way which would have children leaping from their wooden benches and waving their flat caps in appreciation?

Maybe there's a range of factors producing the annual angst. There's obviously my own disturbing need to be Michael McIntyre, Victoria Wood and a circus troupe combined, leading to disappointment all round. But there are also external pressures and, perhaps, more of them now than in 1910. We race through a packed curriculum with tightly planned lessons from which we daren't deviate unless there's an earthquake or the child being sick at the front does so more than twice. There's the fear that the Wii and fast-paced TV shows have reduced concentration levels. And there's the increasing presentation of children as "consumers" and teachers as "deliverers of learning", producing guilt if we feel we could be accused of supplying an inferior product.

Whatever the reasons, September always brings on the collywobbles, even though, like Macbeth, I say, "What, you? Again? I thought I'd seen you off!" Performance anxiety is the teacher's lot. You can Banquo on it.

Fran Hill is an English teacher at an independent girls' school in Warwickshire.

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