I’ve returned to teaching after a 13-year absence. Here’s what I noticed

Yard duty offers a fascinating window into pupil dynamics and school life

As a middle-aged woman wandering around this explosion of activity, it was as if the cycle of life was playing out in front of me. Photograph: iStock

As a middle-aged woman wandering around this explosion of activity, it was as if the cycle of life was playing out in front of me. Photograph: iStock

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I returned to school this year after 13 years on a career break/secondment combination. It’s been a bit of an adjustment, getting back into the swing of things. I had been working in education but very much removed from the day-to-day workings of a school.

I’m a primary teacher and my school, located within walking distance of Dublin city centre, is well on the way to being double-streamed. So, as primary schools go, it’s veering towards the larger end of the spectrum, and what struck me on September 1st in a very obvious and dumb kind of way was how many children there were.

So many children.

And the thing is, hundreds of children moving around a building, chatting, laughing and larking about, can make an awful lot of noise. For someone used to sitting at a kitchen table for the past year and a half, all those acoustics bouncing off your standard school walls has been quite the revelation.

Yard duty offers a window into pupil dynamics as well as an occasional insight into school life from the pupils’ perspective

And of course there’s the energy. So much energy. I was on duty in the junior, surfaced yard at one stage and watched in awe as the kids ran and leapt and bounced and rolled and performed the most joyous cartwheels right there on the astroturf.

As a middle-aged woman wandering around this explosion of activity, it was as if the cycle of life was playing out in front of me. I couldn’t help thinking that if the school could somehow harness this energy, electricity bills would be a thing of the past.

Of course, yard duty offers a window into pupil dynamics as well as an occasional insight into school life from the pupils’ perspective.

Pragmatism

In my previous incarnation all those years ago, I would marvel at the pragmatism of individuals who would approach the supervising teacher with a specific endeavour in mind: to take out a football and wallop it from one end of the yard to another; to initiate a hanging-upside-down competition from a nearby fence; to scale the perimeter wall.

Something.

Anything.

And when they failed to receive the hoped-for response, I’d watch as they’d scan the yard for adult number two and, undeterred, head over in that direction, determined to inveigle someone into giving the go-ahead.

Photograph: iStock
'I’d forgotten how much a school resembles that swan or duck calmly and nonchalantly negotiating the water with no outward sign of the manoeuvrings underneath.' Photograph: iStock

An interaction that made a real impression at the time was when two boys from first or second got involved in some kind of altercation. The perceived victim was very much aggrieved. He wanted retribution. As far as he was concerned, the powers of the institution needed to be brought to bear.

The junior infants who bravely set foot in the classroom in the first week of term were very much aware that this was a big deal

But the perpetrator wasn’t for budging. Nothing untoward had happened in his mind. It was all a big misunderstanding. His brother from an older class materialised on the scene. “Just say sorry,” I heard him advise matter-of-factly, when my back was turned. “Just say sorry and then it’s all over. They forget about it.”

I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped because of course – of course – he was right. I didn’t want the hassle of relaying the whole, convoluted incident to the class teacher and I absolutely wanted to avoid any kind of paperwork.

He had us sussed.

Brilliant

But then children can be brilliant at reading a situation. And this kicks in from day one.

The junior infants who bravely set foot in the classroom in the first week of term were very much aware that this was a big deal. They mightn’t have been quite au fait with the fact that they had just entered a system that would entail another 13-14 years of their lives, but at some level they knew that a rite of passage had taken place.

And as for the staff?

I’d forgotten how much a school resembles that swan or duck calmly and nonchalantly negotiating the water with no outward sign of the manoeuvrings underneath.

There were meetings and more meetings with much to discuss: policies; processes; planning; templates; budgets; assessments; books; supplies. With the spectre of Covid present, ever present: doors and windows open; distinctions made between medical and cloth masks; X marking the seating areas in the staff room; cloths and sanitisers and staggered breaks.

It’s a lot to take in, with reports of confirmed cases in other schools already beginning to filter through.

It’s the most boring and cliched of mantras, but taking it one day at a time is probably the only way to go. And from my point of view, that has to apply to everything else as well.