Over the years I’ve become accustomed to teacher moans and gripes, groans and rants. I raise my hand and guiltily admit that at times I have been the moaner, ranter, groaner. It’s a full on job. We all need a breather, to vent, at times.
Gaps in data entry, missed data drops, quick turn arounds on the marking of mock exam papers, impromptu work scrutiny, a weekend spent marking or the kid who forgets his book on the day of an observation.
The interactive whiteboard that won’t align, the covering colleague who writes on the flipping thing with marker, the strip light that constantly flickers like a strobe, the speaker that reliably omits a gentle but irritating buzz. The leaky ceiling that drips into the bucket below. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
The child who just ‘doesn’t do’ homework, the unsupportive parent, the colleague who won’t mark their students’ exercise books for love nor money, the student we fail, or even worse, the one we lose. Ofsted.
The glittering snowflakes that dance through the air but destroy the brilliant lesson plan, and most likely the journey to school too. The tractor merrily mowing the field, drowning out your carefully planned and crafted questions. The angry thunder that crashes and roars and makes even the bravest of 16 year old lads squeal and nervously giggle a little. The beaming, joyful sun that distracts the class with the promises of lazy lunchtimes, lying on Blazers, chatting, laughing, carefree- or, better, of a water fight, banned but exhilarating none the less.
The computer that crashes, the mobile phone that rings and violates the silent test conditions. The fire alarm accidentally set off by some burnt toast in a Food Tech lesson.
I actually miss those problems, disruptions, grievances, now. They aren’t really problems at all. I look back at each now through rose tinted glasses and wrote that list with real nostalgia. I smiled at each as I added it. Remembering the different schools and countless students that I carry in my memory, and deep in my heart. They are all part of my life long love affair with education. Part of the rich tapestry.
In the refugee camps I encounter a different set of teacher problems. It puts it all into perspective.
The bitterly cold air that fills the school tent. My toes curled up and numbed with the cold, even inside my double socked wellies. My nose won’t stop running, I think, it’s too cold to tell for sure. My legs shake with involuntary spasms. I regularly rub the small hands of my students. We sit on wooden pews, on sleeping bags or put them over our knees as an extra layer. Occasionally a student will be too cold to learn, they’ll take them self home to their tent, if we haven’t already sent them home first.
As teachers we know, if the bitter winter frost is still perching, glistening on the tents of our students at 11.30, it means they’ll most likely be late for school today. It will have been a long night. Once you get cold it’s just hard to warm back up.
2. The mud.
Wellies, sleeping bags and leftover food are discarded in it. Big muddy refuse piles punctuate the muddy camp. It’s not just regular mud either. I’m not being precious when I mention mud over and over. You need to see it to believe it. It’s deep, up to my calf muscles at times, and it is sticky, like wet clay. It is squelchy and treacherously slippery. It gets everywhere. Even when my coat is washed down each week it still remains, ingrained deep in the fibres. My wellies will never be the same either. It is an inevitability, an ongoing joke between me and my colleagues, that at some point one of us will go over in it, fall, completely. It will probably be me! We are all weebles wobbling, but all deviously ready to get the photographic evidence the day the first of us goes down. Most days now my hands go in it. Stabilisers. Saving me, just. Thank goodness for the generously donated babywipes.
The mud doesn’t just cause problems on the walk to, and from, the school tent- but inside it too. Our uneven pallet floor is slippery, we often slide and some do fall. Everything gets muddy.
Yesterday I spent time with a very bright 13 year old boy. His new exercise book was immaculately presented, titles underlined albeit with the edge of a mini white board. Then I dropped it; his exercise book. I did. Me. And then it was smeared with ugly mud. He said it was okay and still called me ‘teacher friend’, but we both knew he was a bit upset and that it was entirely my fault. I was guilty, albeit helpless.
Once, maybe 10 years ago, I taught a year 6 taster lesson. One of the year 6 students had an accident, she hadn’t asked to go and use the bathroom, was too overwhelmed and nervous. Her teacher, a bright eyed primary colleague, dealt with the mishap so professionally and quickly, without word nor judgement, that I was a little amazed. It’s not a problem I have come across often in the secondary sector.
School toilets are often grim, a hot topic for any school council, but they aren’t a problem in the same way out here. I wish we had the problem of cracked mirrors, graffiti decorated doors, loo roll that’s a bit scratchy.
There are a limited number of toilets in Grand Synthe camp, you see, and they are often a 5 or 10 minute walk from family tents. These are lined up toilet cubicles that I’ve never dared step inside. Think of Glastonbury’s portaloos at the end of the festival, then times that by some, multiply the mess, before subtracting the grass, music and fun of the festival. I’ve seen the plastic doors swing open and the cubicles actually blown over by strong winds. I try not to look inside. You smell them though.
A charity recently gave the children small black bags, the sort a thoughtful dog owner carries in their pocket, so that they could go closer to their tents, avoiding the cold, or the walk in the pitch black of night. The thought of it breaks my heart. It is a kind and practical gesture- and in many ways is better- but it gets me, it just seems so terribly symbolic. These are children. Not dogs. But the portaloos are too big, too high, for a 6 or 7 year old to use easily. They aren’t clean. They are no place for a child.
Children are in our school every day, in the tent, learning. If they need to go to the toilet, during the school day, they increasingly try to do so right outside the tent. Going outside is becoming unsettlingly normal for them. We, as teachers, stay alert, catching them early whenever possible, before they have chance to squat. We walk them to the portaloos or home to their tent and then feel guilt for making them use the ‘facilities’. The worry of disease and the appalling lack of sanitation is constant here. The children don’t moan though. They go, without fuss, then come back to school.
All good resources in schools have the tendency to walk. Our English/Kurdish dictionaries, mini whiteboards and level 1 and 2 Early years readers are like golddust. Our school is ultimately a rucksack. All valuables, the resources of the day, fit inside and come to and from school with us. But still little hands will find things, and little raiders will grab and run. One of our much needed dictionaries was snatched by a student who wanted it for himself but when caught and told to ‘stop’ it ended up thrown into the icy, nappy strewn stream, that runs by the side of the school tent. Nothing remains in perfect condition for very long.
If it rains then the chances are that our students won’t leave their tents. School will be silent, or quiet at least. Once wet it’s so hard to dry off. Caring parents understand that keeping dry comes above all else. Especially because the loud chesty rattling coughs, heard in so many of the little ones, are getting worse.
Our tent leaks. Everything gets wet. Often we sit on damp benches, reading damp books. The students don’t mind though, they are more concerned with learning than worrying about the soggy pages.
6. Attendance and tracking.
Sometimes our students just vanish. We might see them every day for a month, two months, and then nothing. Overnight they literally vanish. It could be that they have gone to a local hotel, to consider seeking asylum in France. Or maybe they’ve moved to another camp scared by tent checks in the dark of the night. Or maybe they tried to make it to the UK, to England. Maybe they have gone with the people smugglers, whose gun fire occasionally echoes around he camp. We have no means of knowing where they have gone, no way of tracking, no number to contact them on. No social services to inform. Emotionally it can be hard on us, the absolute uncertainty. It’s tough when you invest time and work on a rapport and then in the blink of an eye it is simply gone. We see rapid improvement, progress, and then have nothing to show for it. Yet for every child who leaves us, 2 or 3 new faces fill their space, in camp. New families, new opportunities to make a difference, appear each day.
It’s hard to effectively track or monitor students in such a fluid society, with transient, aspirational, hope filled families who dream of a better, warmer, safer, more permanent life. I hope that wherever the children go after us that they have access to education. It’s hard not to emotionally engage, to feel the pangs of loss.
7. Lack of electricity.
We teach while it is light. The sun is our strip light. We educate with things that don’t need charging or power. Expensive resources risk being damaged by mud. It’s back to basics, old school pedagogy, the 3 Rs.
8. Missing lunch and teaching until 5pm.
On Tuesday this week, we packed up for lunch at 2pm and were about to leave when some more, new, students arrived. We weren’t that hungry and the sun was out, so we taught straight through. It was worth it, both my colleague and I managed to get a good understanding of these new pupils’ abilities. They were clearly well educated, bright, diligent children. They will come back.
Some days as we pack up, and the sun begins to dip low in the sky and the air gets cold and unfriendly, another class arrive. One day it’s small children and parents, another day we could have the older boys, 15 and 16 year olds, free now, after a day of socialising or bonding with the men. It’s difficult when you want to leave, but your students are keen to learn, when they beg you to stay. When you have to cajole them out of the tent and send them home against their will.
9. Things that can take precedence over learning.
Log deliveries, babysitting a younger sibling, a family lunch, keeping small children warm or dry in sleet, snow, rain. A ticket and allocated time slot for a shower, fruit deliveries, the local carnival practising in the camp, a passing aeroplane, a circling helicopter, a sledge to play with your friends, in the mud, with. Aid arriving. A chance to upgrade their wellies or a coat.
10. Trying to keep your distance or walk through camp without being noticed.
It’s impossible. It’s impossible to walk to the school without smiles, waves, and calls of ‘my teacher’ ‘teacher teacher’ ‘mamosta’ ‘teacher friend’ ‘school school’ ‘dibistan’.
It’s unlikely and rare that we will finish our journey to the school without small cold hands slipping into ours, students see us and latch on. There’s often no chance for us to set up for the day, to prepare the learning space, as the students arrive with us. Holding our hands. We are here for them. We are a team.
11. Half term doesn’t exist in a refugee camp.
School still opens.
Natalie Scott is a qualified English teacher, currently teaching in a school in Hertfordshire. To read more from her reflections on teaching and education go to https://nataliehscott.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @nataliehscott