On reflection: September approaches

Like some kind of Game of Thrones season finale, four weeks of the summer holiday have passed: it is coming. Together with teaching colleagues across the world currently on a summer break, I am filled with the usual mix of anxiety, foreboding and excitement. What will the new school year bring? Will it be as horrendous as my worst nightmares predict? What opportunities could the year entail?

Again, as like so many colleagues, I have a to-do list so long and labour-intensive that only a demob happy teacher in July, dragging themselves to the end of year and simply relieved to have survived another 39-weeker, would ever consider realistic. I have two schemes of work to review as, for a third year running, we try to get a grasp on curriculum change and really try to hit the high standards we’re aspiring to but haven’t yet had the amount of time we’d like to really nail all the right notes. Sitting in a friend’s porch whilst I stay for a summer break, I have a new KS3 textbook in my suitcase, waiting to inspire me. So far I have preferred to read the hardbacks I brought with me – The World As It Is, about the Obama White House from the perspective of his staffer Ben Rhodes, and Smoke and Ashes, the third book by Abir Mukherjee set in Colonial India. I have just started Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, having picked it up following his talk at the Hay Festival back in June. I’m just on the first chapter where he’s defining the concept of a bullshit job and, at the particular section I’m at, distinguishing between a ‘bullshit job’ and just a ‘shit job’. I’ve yet to meaningfully use his typology with reference to the teaching profession; although from what little I’ve read so far it appears it would not be considered a bullshit job, but maybe at times a shit one.

Whilst not necessarily a deliberate act of procrastination, I seem to be finding many  more links via Facebook, Twitter and the web in general which are proving interesting reads. In particular, Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli seem to be doing their level best to distract me and make me think about all manner of educational topics, whilst I should be getting on with some planning for September. I appreciate that their incredibly wise words and visuals are designed to help me at this very time of planning and preparing for the new school year. Yet I am sure I’m not alone in feeling that I’d need to delay the start of term for another six weeks off (err, turkey voting for Christmas?) in order to digest the sheer volume of useful information which is now out there for teachers.

A few items in particular stand out from these two gentlemen’s venerable arsenals of educational know-how:

  • 10 essential discussions to have in any teacher team (Tom Sherrington) This is amazing. As a middle leader with time to plan with my department on INSET day, let alone throughout the year, this was such a good summary of the key discussions to be had and decisions which need to be reached through those discussions. I’ve already clipped it to my Evernote and will be plotting how to get through the different aspects over the first days and weeks of the new year.
  • Oliver Caviglioli’s posters Wow, I know I’m not the only one impressed by this growing collection of visually captivating and content-rich posters which summarise an expanding range of all the best thinking in education, but what a great resource.
  • Evidence-Informed Ideas Every Teacher Should Know About  (Tom Sherrington) I guess as a response to the problem that I (and many other teachers) set out about having time, Tom has produced a masterful summary of educational ideas, presented clearly and succinctly but with more references and links than you could shake a stick at. All the documents he references, and more, are gathered here for your convenience, just to add to your guilt for watching another episode of The Crown on Netflix whilst you could be reading Rosenshine.

So this is my ‘relaxing’ (with a little work) holiday, having done my ‘doing’ holiday. Spending a week touring some of the landmarks and memorials from the First and Second World Wars was at once humbling, harrowing and thought-provoking. Yet the trip came as a reaction to a school trip to France earlier in the year when we visited Bayeux, even the Tapestry museum’s gift shop, but I didn’t have the chance to see the historic artefact. What started as a joke that I’d go back to France to see it was combined with an interest I’ve had, for a number of years now, to revisit some of the WW1 battlefields that I’d first seen as a student on a school trip back in 2001.

This time, we’d do some of the same things – attending the Menin Gate ceremony or visiting Thiepval are things which never cease to register – whilst also taking in some new places, not least the D-Day beaches of Normandy which would be completely new to me. Arriving in Dunkirk, it was chilling to put some sense of dimensions and scale to the famous evacuation. Then within the next five days we visited Ypres, Tyne Cot, Langemarck, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Notre Dame de Lorette, Arras, Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval and Peronne. All of these places – some new and some revisited, a mixture of cemeteries, museums and battlefield memorials – collectively gave a sense of the scale of the loss and the tragedy. They spoke of the futility facing the soldiers in the trenches and of a military and political hierarchy that was out of kilter with technological and social progress; 19th century tactics were trying to direct 20th century technology. It was little wonder that the war contributed to so much economic, political and social change around the world, including votes for women, a revolution in Russia and a rebalancing of the international order with the USA moving to its apex. Yet for the resultant changes, some of which were undeniably positive, walking along kilometres of lines of graves makes you question how on earth so much could be lost for so little.

In contrast to the death and unnecessary loss of the First World War, the story told along the D-Day beaches struck a different note. What in Flanders’ fields had been needless loss was now more noble sacrifice. The American Cemetery above Omaha Beach is both spectacular and sad. The loss of life was terrible, especially at Omaha compared to the other beaches, but at least there was some clarity about why so many young men gave their lives on the beaches and throughout the Second World War. What is remarkable is that the full extent of the Nazi regime’s evil was unknown at that time to the men who approached Normandy, by boat or by plane, as was the horror that awaited them on the beaches. Still they fought with bravery, often with little regard for their own safety, their only thought being to their comrades and their mission. Alongside the bravery of the men, the scale of the operation and the planning and technological innovation which underpinned it is astonishing. Visiting Arromanche, seeing the remains of the Mulberry harbour which would supply the Battle of Normandy is staggering. Also staggering was a speech by General Eisenhower, the text displayed in the museum at the American Cemetery, which he wrote on the eve of D-Day. It outlined that despite detailed planning and immense bravery, the landings had failed and the troops withdrawn. Eisenhower praised all those involved and took full and sole responsibility. Thankfully he never had to give that speech; the fact that he wrote it offers some insight into his exceptional leadership and character.

Amidst the stories of sacrifice and sorrow, I did get my chance to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Walking its length, having the story and context explained to me via audioguide, it was in some ways fitting to set this artefact alongside the memorials we’d be visiting from more recent wars. Like those memorials of stone, this tapestry was marking an historic moment. Like those memorials, it told a certain version of the events and yet, like those memorials, it still did something to capture the brutality of war and did not gloss over that for the pursuit of power and the practice of politics, ordinary people are caught up with their lives inexorably changed or even ended, for reasons which they may not know, at the time or forever. When I visit museums or historic sites, I always try to do two things – establish the wider context, to place this particular exhibit or site, and then appreciate the individual stories involved. So in my trip, which covered episodes across 1,000 years of European and global history, it was interesting to see that that interplay between power and ordinary people has been consistently recorded and that some things – the brutality of war, the maelstrom which ordinary people are thrown into by decisions taken far away from them, both geographically and socially, and the human desire to record our stories, our history – do not change.

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