After the gentle breaking-in that is the September Inset day (“So lovely without the kids,” we quip), term is properly underway now. School corridors have been taken over by streams of timetable-clasping new pupils, all anxiously trying to find the way to their next lessons.
Somewhere hidden amid the passionate throng we might occasionally spot a new teacher looking equally lost and bewildered, as if playing the title role in a real-life version of Where’s Wally?
“Wally” is both harsh and unfair, though. I have been that lost teacher. If some of our new staff occasionally walk into cupboards instead of classrooms, we only have ourselves to blame.
Yes, the school gave them an “induction day” back in July, but no one ever thinks to train them in the basic essentials, such as which direction to point in to find each lesson.
For some of us, this training needs to be bordering on the Pavlovian: "That's the third bell today, therefore I now need to point myself to the left and walk 83 paces.” Knowing the geography of a place may come easy to those with a half-decent sense of memory and direction, but some of us are far less blessed on that front.
New teachers are like headless chickens
When I began at my present school, my needs were neglected and so I just resorted to walking quickly and confidently everywhere, even if it turned out to be in the wrong direction. That way, I discovered I was going the wrong way more rapidly and still got to lessons in good time, while also perhaps exuding an impressive, fast-paced, going-places aura. Few seemed to notice the headless-chicken nature of the journeys I used to take.
Talking of chickens, I teach at a split-site school and, on my first-ever drive across town to teach a period 3 lesson at lower school, I took a couple of wrong turns at the outset and ended up in a farmyard of startled hens.
While an anxious new class of Year 7s patiently awaited their new history teacher, I was slamming my gears into reverse before the farm’s snarling wolf-dog could break free from its leash and maul me and my old Ford Fiesta into bite-size pieces.
It had been all very well my head of department reminding me that lower school was “just at the other end of town”, but this advice assumed that I knew which end I was starting from.
The 'Bev Bevan' phenomenon
Even after new teachers have worked out where they are and where they are going, there is also the associated problem of finding out who and what everyone is.
No one on that induction day warns the newcomer to a big school that certain significant figures on the staff are likely to remain a mystery for weeks, maybe months, possibly years. It’s no one’s fault.
We might call it the “Bev Bevan phenomenon”, as these busy and elusive human powerhouses in a school always seem to have alliterative names. The new recruit will regularly hear things like “Bev Bevan will get on to it” or “Maybe I’ll run that one past Rob Ricketts first” or “Don’t worry, Liz Latcham’s going to talk to mum” without ever knowing who these people are.
At some point, perhaps in November, the new teacher then has a Dr Livingstone moment. They finally twig that Bev Bevan is the woman they have been greeting in the corridor three or four times a day. Works in the office opposite. If only they had known.
Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire