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Caragh Little Headshot

A Muse of Fire...

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What do you do when your kingdom is burning?

It's simple. You put on your crown and go...

Teachers are under fire. The Chief Inspector of Schools in England has commented that, if teachers want to receive pay rises, they should work longer hours, staying on in school after the final bell has gone each afternoon.

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Whereas he has a point, in that good teaching is dependent on good preparation and effective marking, which need to be done outside actual teaching time, what Sir Michael Wilshaw's comment doesn't acknowledge is that so many teachers put in significant hours at home, during evenings or early mornings. This kind of dedication cannot be measured, unlike extra hours worked on site. As people say on Facebook about floundering or tenuous relationships: it's complicated.

It's easy to castigate all teachers for the shortcomings of a few: the conscientious teachers who mark essays at home feel aggrieved at being categorised alongside the staff from Channel 4's sometime comedy drama Teachers, who used to pass around the marking in the pub, marking each other's subjects as the evening wore on and rounds of drink were shared...

And with teachers under attack, the Twittersphere resounds with chirps of outrage. What about teachers' children? ask many. Are they do adopt a latchkey culture, waiting at home while their pedagogical parents carry out unpaid overtime? Or must teachers pay what amounts to an unseen tax on their unpaid overtime through having to provide childminder cover for their own absence?

Teaching unions are mustering; the talk around staff room coffee urns is growing bitter... there's a sense of emergency and a climate of fear. Generally unrelated factors are being linked like matching squares on domino tiles. GCSE results. The possibility of an EBacc. Satisfactory not being good enough. Longer hours, and longer until retirement. 'And miles to go before I sleep...' The groundswell of opinion gathers and the dominoes fall in an almost unstoppable sequence of panic and disarray...

In the school where I teach, we had a Fire Drill on a cool and sunny afternoon in early Autumn. A final year English Literature class was in my room when the repeated bells began. We were studying King Lear and the discussion had turned philosophical. 'How do we know who we are? How do we know we're really here? How do you know if you could be going mad?' On automatic pilot, the bells ringing around us, we all got to our feet and walked towards the door. A second passed before I realised that no-one had gone out: the students at the door had stopped there, poised, and one had asked 'But... how do we know this is real? It's like this fire drill. I mean: it's probably a drill, but it could be real. Maybe that's like life: we think it's real but maybe it's just pretend?' There was a pause, a silence, and then I said 'Well: I think we'd better get down to the pitches or we'll either get burned alive or get an awful telling off from the Headmaster...'

And then I noticed it. The girl who had been reading the part of Lear was still wearing the yellow foam crown, which has been part of my classroom equipment for several years. She strode off laughing in the sunlight, straightening the crown purposefully. Our afternoon discussion might have been disturbed, we all agreed afterwards, back in the classroom after our pretend emergency, but nothing was going to break the spell of Shakespeare - of wondering about things, or of an 18 year old girl's playing at being King. Besides, they told me: it could have been much worse. Two of the Lower Sixth boys had rescued the hamster in his cage from their Biology lab, hiding him under their blazers when the Deputy Head walked past...

Teachers and schools are under fire, and we have to work out what to do when it becomes impossible to stay in place. We have to plan contingencies; prepare. In the meantime, though, in my own classroom and when I leave it behind for the day to work some more at home, I'm holding fast to the things which make me want to return to school next day. The discussions. The debates. The learning. The enthusiasm of a class who keep talking about the ideas of a lesson as the fire bell goes, and convey a yellow foam crown to a fire drill with great pride, because leaving it behind would be like letting Shakespeare perish in the flames.

These are the things worth saving. These are the things which define what education is, more than any examination system ever can.

These are the things which can make the longest day in a classroom feel much more than merely satisfactory...

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