At Work #1: ‘I Still Can’t Sleep’ by The Sleepless Teacher

A German-language version of this article is available here.

At Work is a new irregular series recording experiences of the workplace, moments of self-reflection and other processes of self-enquiry within contemporary capitalism.

Any names referred to in the article have been changed to protect identities.

I still can’t sleep.

It’s 4am and I have to get up for work in two hours. This is the third time I’ve looked at the clock. 2am, 2:30am, 3:00am. Soon it will be getting light. The hours painfully grind by as I lie awake thinking about the challenges of the day ahead. Occasionally I slip into a dozey haze in between the next jolt into full consciousness. But it isn’t sleep. Not proper sleep. Not the kind of sleep that makes you feel well rested.

When you’re this tired you can’t really do anything with any degree of competency. The experts tell you to just get up and try something different for a while. Try again to get to sleep in a while when you feel a bit more tired. But everything is pretty pointless and half-assed when you are like this. That’s at least until the alarm at 6am rings. Then you’ve got no choice and a heady combination of nerves and caffeine are going to have to carry you through the day.

I still can’t sleep.

I currently work as a teacher in an inner city school. Teaching is my third or fourth job since leaving university and I’m relatively new to the profession. The school I work in has a reputation for being challenging. It was my main reason for applying for a job there. The area it serves is one of the most deprived areas in the city with over two thirds living below the poverty line, significantly high levels of crime and very poor levels of education. Most of the students entering our school will leave, with a bit of luck, with a higher reading age than their parents. I remember the looks on the faces of some of my teacher friends when I said I was applying for a job at this school; “I’ve heard it’s rough there” “The kids are all inbred” “Are you sure!?”. “Yes”, I told myself, “because if being a teacher and a socialist means anything it means being here.”

I still can’t sleep.

I recall a piece of advice from a more seasoned colleague, “Sunday jitters never go away” he reassures me “Sunday nights I just go out and get pissed now”. In a moment of particularly poor judgement I force myself to down a quarter bottle of dark rum leftover from the holidays. Now I’m just slightly tipsy as well as being sleep deprived. That’s not going to help me in the morning. The booze only adds the feelings of melancholy, of a lack of control. Why can’t I just. Drop. Off. It’s just sleep. Everybody manages it, every day, all over the world. It seems so silly. I start to go through student names in my seating plan in an effort to distract myself. To fool myself into sleeping. One by one I try and recall their full names, spelling them out as I move around my classroom in my minds eye. C-A-L-L-U-M S-H-A-W. Remember that you do it for them.

It doesn’t work. Still can’t sleep.

Going back to school after a break is akin to passing through a storm to reach the eye of a hurricane. Work is a whirlwind of bureaucratic and managerial pressures on an almost daily basis. Paperwork, supervisions, performance management, observations, learning walks, marking schedules that spiral out of control, missed deadlines, to do lists that go on and on. And all this alongside the actual job we are paid to do – to provide engaging and high quality education.

Can’t sleep.

Savvy staff will resort to a bit of covert intelligence gathering to try and suss out what the next big managerial push will be ahead of time. Will it be a year 9 or a year 7 work scrutiny next term? Valuable info like this is surreptitiously traded in free periods between trusted colleagues. “Look at this email” my Head of Department says – it’s the date and time of my next surprise observation – “that never happened” he reassures me with a smile and a wink. Work smart, not hard. This is the mantra of the veterans of the game who have perfected the dark arts of creative rule bending. Get a couple of your more responsible students to mark some outstanding exam scripts during a dud lesson, delegate your lesson prep to your form in the morning , carefully select your books and classes for the next scrutiny. No one can keep up with the ever-growing workload but as long as certain boxes are ticked then senior leadership remain happy. It’s a necessary valve against burn out in a profession where sickness from stress are at endemic levels and around 4,000 teachers will leave the profession every month due to overwork and stress.

Still can’t sleep.

And then those moments that keep you going – the kids. Yes I’ve seen chairs and tables thrown, been called every name under the sun, probably dealt with more challenging behaviour in a year than a teacher in a leafy, middle class suburb will deal with in a decade, if not a career. I have had to keep a year 7 class distracted while police remove a student from a class opposite mine, I’ve broken up too many fights and almost weekly I have a conversation with a child who hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday. But I also love every second of it. Because it’s not just about “raising aspirations”- as the school mantra has it -, it’s about hope. You can be better and you should be better. Not because of the floor targets or exam results tables or even because of Ofsted but because in the 21st century in one of the most affluent societies on this planet it is a pure and simple moral outrage that where you are born and who your parents are should define who you are and what you can be in life. It’s also about the sheer joy of teaching and learning with free and open minds not quite hit by the cynicism of this world. Honest little people who are honest enough to tell you when you are getting it wrong but also honest enough to say when you’ve got it right. It’s because when you get it right and you start hitting your stride you both feel the power of education – to enlighten, to liberate and to empower.

Can’t sleep.

These are the stories you tell yourself anyway. Because deep down you know that the system has to change. That in spite of everything you do for them these kids are still going to have to work three times as hard and probably fail a few more times over for the kind of opportunities a child just a few miles away will probably take anyway. That the only way these families are really going to get a fair shake out of life is by changing the rules of the game. And this change has to be huge, it has to be massive. It has to be bigger than a school and certainly bigger than your classroom. It has to be social. But what kind of reality is that for a teenager? I’m not sure most adults can handle it. But we keep on battling anyway. What else can you do?

Meanwhile I still can’t sleep.

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