If I’d thought, 10 years into teaching, I’d be camping in the back of a van during the week, parking up under darkened coastal coverts, surviving on my wits at the front of class by day and my wife’s tasty pack-ups by night, would I have taken the plunge?
I have two sleeping bags (four-season), two duvets (goose-down), a blanket and a woolly hat, and I’m happy. Happy to be in work at 7.30 in the morning till 8.30 at night, relying on the school showers and kitchen, and happy with my established routine. I’m the first person in school after the caretaker and the last to leave. It works because it has to.
My family home is 80 miles from my school. It’s a 90-minute commute with a sizeable national park in between. The long drive was never realistic and we can’t move house, so the van became a tin knight in rusted armour. At first it was only for a term – I thought I’d find a job somewhere closer to home – but by Christmas, without a viable long-term alternative, I signed up for two more terms.
This isn’t the only school I’ve worked at, but it’s the only one I would live this way for; away from my wife, family and homely comforts.
My school is a “coastal coaster”. It’s doing great work despite the government label, and it’s where I began my career. For six years I enjoyed “good” and “outstanding” teaching observations and results. For six years I made a meaningful and lasting impact on the children under my wing. I joke that we save lives. But we do.
When I married, I left for dizzier heights: a new school nearer to home. It was a disaster. My teaching observations plummeted from “outstanding” to “requires improvement”. I was burned out from stress. My last observation was the final straw. I felt it was an exceptional lesson, children opening up layer after layer of meaning. But I went beyond the allotted 10 minutes before telling students the lesson objective, which is not allowed. Pupils were eager to know more; proud of their learning. The lesson was a success, but “improvement” was the epitaph. It felt as if discovery wasn’t relevant, it was dead.
Teaching there was not for me. My confidence and love of teaching were no more. My parting gift, a prescription of pills.
So, after a year, back I came, to the school I loved, to friendly faces, warm hearts and pupils poised for banter and exploration: the cornerstones of a good school, the cornerstones of longevity and success.
‘I crave the not-so-comfortable comforts of the van, the solitude and adventure.’ Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian
Here, we can discover and explore. Lessons give way to real-world reflections. Period three, the boys see that Shakespeare derides the views young men have of women, that Mercutio is a sad creature not a happy one, that Romeo is a blunderer. Pupils see themselves, and their follies, shining back at them, and talk about the wisdom of Rosaline removing herself from the authority of man.
There have been challenges in my roving solitary hotel. As nights became colder, each harbour was increasingly lonely, aside from random night-time encounters. Occasionally, lights would flash: dog walkers or lovers in the night disturbed my peace.
I have thwarted one man’s churchyard defecation, rescued a camper’s flat battery with a jumpstart, and spent many nights standing beneath the stars watching tawny owls dive in the moonlight.
Recently, there was an unfortunate incident. Usually, I prepare my porridge in the school kitchen the night before and leave it for the morning. But this time I had forgotten and instead used the kitchen to warm it up. No sooner had I turned my back than black smoke billowed. I quickly thrust the pan out of an open window. Not quick enough. At 7.50am staff and pupils stood in reception as the caretaker fixed the blaring alarm. My hand went up; I confessed. But instead of sighs and looks of scorn, kind smiles were abundant, and someone was quick to offer a yoghurt.
Colleagues check in on me, old friends offer beds for the night and a hot meal – and, occasionally, I take them up on it.
But, really, I crave the not-so-comfortable comforts of the van, the solitude and adventure.
Now halfway through my contract, which is due to end by the summer, I hope to continue this strange existence. At Christmas, when I again signed on the dotted line, promising to serve out another two terms, I didn’t imagine I could perpetuate the tin can adventure beyond the summer, and, foolishly, passed up a permanent contract. Now the job has come up again. This time the cold has been conquered. Though local openings arise, nothing can outdo the environment I now thrive in, and I don’t want to let go. Education can be a cruel playground, but I seem to have found a safe and sunny corner.
The children ask: “Will we have you next year, sir?”
I’ve got an interview. We’ll see.
• The writer is an English teacher. Read more about his life on his Tin Can Teacher blog.