My Summer in Review

Cowley Road

Note – The Blog is back from the summer hiatus. New posts every Monday

I’ve heard from some semi-reputable sources that a key ingredient of success and personal growth™ is to periodically review your life. There are several purported benefits; you can check to see that you are matching the goals you set for yourself, you can evaluate the quality of your inputs and the desirability of the outputs, you can maximize efficiency and cut unnecessary wastage,  and you increase your contribution to growth, national GDP, worldwide development, the sum of human happiness, and the entropic dissipation of the universe. 

To these ends, I’ve decided to evaluate my time as a teacher in an Oxford summer school. I’ve substituted any mention of my employer’s name, and, in the interests of their privacy, will not mention directly anything said to me by my students. And if any of my former students are reading this; I told you not to look me up online, don’t be a wee so-and-so now.

And apologies for the saccharine quality of the last section, but I had some emotions I wanted to share. 

Accepting the Job and Company review


My year long quest to find any sort of gainful employment bore fruit in March, as I was offered 6 whole weeks’ worth of work, provided that I was willing to move to Oxford over summer and spend a sizable portion of the wage on paying rent. The company was reputable and I do love Oxford, so I accepted. 

If ‘the company’ (you know who you are) want some honest feedback from me it would be that I actually really loved working for you, that the staff and support team were universally excellent, and that I genuinely believe in the quality of the history course that I was asked to teach. 

Sadly, this was all blighted by the scandalous decision to not pay for teachers’ lunches. I spent many long hours in the staff room, nibbling on my home prepared salads, as my envious eyes watched the counsellors and admin team eat their complementary lunch in front of me. It shall be some time before I recover from the audacity of this injustice.

Verdict – Worthwhile job and agreeable company, must improve its dejeuner policy. 

Location and lifestyle

I’ve lived in Oxford before, so moving didn’t really feel like leaving home. I’ve spent more time in Oxford than I have anywhere outside of the north of Ireland. It was nice to be able to visit my favourite cafes and shops again (Blackwells bookshop benefited economically from my return). The city exists in a lovely sort of Goldilocks zone; it is big enough and lively enough to be interesting without being so big that it is difficult to get around. 

Oxford is easy to enjoy, the English summers is less  so. My issue is not that it rained a lot or was sometimes cold, rather it is the variation of the weather. One week during the course, the temperatures averaged the low to mid-thirties, and I had to teach my classes outside. The following week, it rained three of the five days, and felt more like a chilly April. What the hell England; I just want you to commit to one type of unbearable weather.

Verdict – Lovely city, undermined by England’s metrological mood swings. 

The Job

I’ve spent the vast majority of my life in education systems, so I felt reasonably prepared for the classroom environment. Of course, instead of being one face among the crowd of watching students, I’d be the guy at the front, chattering away about history. I can speak in public and I love talking about history, so I felt I could do the job. 

I had a setback early on when I learnt that I had no formal clothes. I wasn’t told this before I set off from Ireland, but I was expected to manage at least a smart casual level of dress. My standard, indeed only, style could be better summed up as looking like a man sleepwalked through topman and is wearing whatever clothes stuck to his stumbling form. Teachers always worry about credibility; about gaining the respect of their students. I promise you that this is even more of a concern when you are dressed more casually than they are. 

I had a good few preconceived notions as to what it’d be like, and in many ways the experience of teaching matched up to them. It does become easy to listen to your own voice. It is terrifying when you first stand up and face a room of fifteen expectant teenagers. Essay marking and report writing do suck as much as your schoolteachers said they did. 

The people who really surprised me were the students. They all tried hard, listened well, and even if I had to force answers out of them at times, they all contributed to class and group discussions. Many of the kids were frighteningly smart, displaying a depth of knowledge and speed of thought that made my status as their teacher seem farcical; they didn’t need me to tell them this stuff. The kids were also quite funny. Any specific anecdotes would suffer from the , ‘you had to be there’ syndrome, but suffice to say I genuinely creased up laughing at least once a day.

Teaching is the best job I’ve ever done, and in many ways the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.  Getting good grades, getting writing accepted to places, graduating from uni; these are all great moments in my life, but all are very focused on me. When a kid thanked me for my teaching, or I could watch them progress as a student, I had a very different, and much better type of satisfaction. The sense of reward in teaching is based on actually helping someone’s life, on aiding their development and learning. 

It’s my job to study and then write about history, and I love doing it. It’s encouraging to learn that an even more rewarding job is found in sharing that love with other people. 

Verdict – A good use of six weeks, if occasionally a terrifying one. 

My Coworkers

(This is the cheesy bit, so check out now if you can’t stomach it)

Before I started my job, I spent very little time thinking about my future co-workers. I assumed they would be a reasonable mix of other young(ish) people, and maybe we’d go to the pub a few times, or maybe we’d just be work friends.

I have to say that my co-workers were the highlight of the summer. They were, to a woman and man, lovely, kind, and funny people. We did indeed go to the pub a fair few times, and all became friends. The staff genuinely liked one another, and I feel this helped us do our jobs better. It’s much easier to co-ordinate and help the kids when you trust and like the people who you work with. Communication and problem solving is a doddle with nice folks. 

On a personal level, my friends  were an honest-to-god blessing. This year has been challenging for me professionally and personally. The task of finding work, and PhD places was quite wearing, as were some upheavals in my private life. By the time I left Belfast in early July I was more than a little bit jaded. I wasn’t having nearly as much fun, or feeling nearly as engaged, as I normally do. 

Being around a new group of people, folks who made me laugh every day and who were just easy to get on with, totally changed my mood. I feel so much more like myself again, much happier and much more energetic. So I want to say a very personal thank you to the, extremely flagship-level, staff at our undisclosed location. You all made a huge positive impact on my life, and I hope that you know that I love you all. 

Verdict – An alright bunch, all things considered.

Look at these beautiful people

Conclusion – Not a bad summer really. As far as ways to spend the bright months of a northern hemisphere life, teaching at a summer school isn’t too bad.


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