Our special educational needs and disability coordinator put some large pieces of paper on the tables and gestured towards the felt tips.
“What I’d like you to do for the next five minutes is to write down every behaviour in the classroom that gets in the way of learning,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how small. Anything that interrupts the lesson or distracts you or the other children in any way.”
We didn’t need telling twice. “Tilting on chairs”, “looking out the window”, “muttering”, “humming”, “fiddling with stationery”, “turning around in your chair”: within less than a minute we were already having to write smaller to get it all on.
“Using water bottles as a dummy”, wrote the Year 3 teacher. “Always needing a poo in the middle of phonics,” wrote the Year 1 teacher. “Responding to polite requests to continue writing by putting your head on the desk and shouting ‘I hate my life’,” I added (it hadn’t been the easiest of afternoons).
After eight minutes, the Sendco was begging us to stop. After 15, she confiscated the paper. Weirdly, we all felt more cheerful. The languor that pervades the start of a summer-term staff meeting in a hot classroom had dissipated and we happily talked through strategies and techniques to support children with disruptive behaviours.
The chance to moan
It’s becoming increasingly rare in schools that you’re given an opportunity for a quick moan. Teachers are now so regularly blamed for talking down the profession that we are strongly encouraged to instead talk up the shiny side of the job – celebrating our successes and trumpeting our many triumphs.
“Bring me solutions, not problems” is the mantra of many a school leader – which, depending on the leader, is either a vote of confidence in their staff or a clear reminder that they don’t want to know about/solve any of your problems.
They say we should never focus on the negative, but is this always good advice? When I spent my holidays at university working in a coach company’s complaints department, our golden rule was: “let the customer vent”. It worked almost every time. After a few minutes, most ran out of steam (unless they were particularly aggressive, in which case we’d put them on speakerphone and hand around the biscuits).
The same applies to teachers. Blanket positivity doesn’t always help. I love teaching but it’s a rollercoaster of a job. The highs are immense but so are the lows, and venting is cathartic. When done properly (and with the right people) it’s a useful sanity-preserving experience that reminds you you’re not alone. I don’t always want to Pollyanna away my failures. I want to hear from other teachers that they have failed, too – and survived to teach another day.
I’d take sincerity over platitudes any day. The best professional advice I ever received was from the class teacher on my final placement. Just before each lesson observation, with the tutor’s arrival imminent, he’d look me in the eye and say, “Whatever you do, don’t fuck it up.”
So, if you’re a powerful edu-someone desperate to accentuate the positive, please don’t take away our right to rant. Every class teacher needs a time and a place to have a rejuvenating moan about something. Mine just happens to be this column.
Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym of a primary school teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse