How I survived my first Summer School

I’m coming to the end of my very first Summer School . . . and I have survived. I even managed to do this on my own, without the help of the ‘Survival Skills’ camp that is sharing the school facilities!

In case you are unfamiliar with the format of SS (Summer School), kids from 6-18 come from all over the world to stay for a couple of weeks, experience British culture and improve their English. The courses are normally based at residential private schools with the students having a mix of English classes and high energy activities and excursions to tire them out.

Information overload, 70 hour weeks and feeling institutionalised come with the territory, so five weeks has been a long stretch, but overall it’s been very rewarding. If you have ever considered working in a summer program, or you are just plain nosey, read on.


1. Irksome Induction:

The induction was made up of ten hours of presentations and talks for all of the new staff. Talk about too much information. This was in addition to several interviews and hours and hours of paperwork, just to get the job. All of this for a job that might only last two weeks!

We suffered through the first few hours of Principle's Market Statistics and 'Don't get drunk' talks and guzzled coffee after coffee in the breaks. It seemed like everyone I met was going to work at a different centre so I wouldn't see them again anyway.

A terse Welsh woman gave a disturbing presentation on child abuse and fired a series of questions at us that we had no way of knowing the answers. "Do you know who my hero is? George Alagiah. Why? Because he starts the news on time. On time at 6pm. 6pm Everyday, OK? SO DON'T BE LATE!"

We were introduced to school dinners and I quickly realised that eating what you want might be a bad idea - fish and chips, burgers, beans, bread, potatoes, and custard puddings are the staple diet.

After a day of head spinning, I was transferred to my centre, and told that I would be sleeping in a classroom on camp beds with four other staff members. At least I arrived just in time to catch the crowd headed to the village pub.


Varied visitors:

I arrived during the peak weak at a smaller centre, so although it was easy enough to get to know everyone, it was all hands to the pump. Every space, mealtime and second was occupied with students and staff bustling about.

The majority of students stay for two weeks, although some stay longer. Different centres cater for different age groups, ours were 10-14 year olds. We had kids from all over Europe, some from China, Japan and even someone from Uzbekistan.

A two week stay costs thousands including flights, excursions and that all important pocket money, so it can be no surprise that the kids come from very rich families. They are the wealthy elite, the pampered Princes and Princesses of their countries, and are used to getting their own way. I had one particularly awkward car journey with a Russian dad who booked a weekend in London just to see his child safely to the centre and insisted on showing me pictures of his collection of BMWs. "Oh . . . great," I cooed, feigning interest.

While some of the kids had their quirks (obsessions with blobfish, and incubating chicken eggs),
we didn't have any that were really badly behaved. Even the moody teenagers came around in the end. It was nice to see that through tireless enthusiasm and input from the staff, those that arrived with a face like thunder, didn't want to leave at the end.

Everything is done to empower the kids and boost their self confidence. Fun classes, tons of games and activities, excursions to cool places, and a Friday night award ceremony where the majority of them win certificates and prizes. I'm sure that many of the certificates fell into the ‘please don’t complain to your parents’ category.

Some of my highlights with the kids were the Friday class projects where we re-enacted the Battle of Hastings (my class conquered the Saxons), created Olympic presentations (gold medals for my lot) and made paper maché volcanoes for a Science Fair (where my class was robbed of first prize).


The staff:

SS staff fall into three categories: Activity Leaders (graduate P.E. teachers), English Teachers (returning for the summer payday), and Managers (experienced SS pros) - in a nutshell, the jocks, the nerds and the parents.

Whilst people come from different backgrounds, everybody is shoved in together from the start so you get to know the family pretty quickly. Living, eating and working on site means that you might spend the majority of the day in the company of another staff member.

With all of that time on the clock, talking to the kids and about the kids, it is no wonder that things can get a little weird down the pub. In a tiny Sussex town, the pub locals are overrun by thirsty Summer School staff who have just clocked off and ordered a triple round because it is closing time already. There are plenty of issues and hormones flying around between staff members too.  I've played an inordinate amount of drinking games, and even practiced a beat boxing version of Billie Jean for an hour. At least it stopped us talking about work.

I have to say I think I was pretty lucky at my centre as the my colleagues were fun and easy to get on with, but also good at their jobs.


The job:

Four classes a day doesn't sound like much, but add in the reports, the paperwork, the lesson planning, and all of the supervision duties, and it is a loooong week. Teachers also work one day of the weekend to help with airport transfers.

Lesson plans have to be signed off and lessons are observed every week, so you have to bring your A game. The benefit is that you give the most fun interactive classes you can and the kids enjoy it. All that prep and idea sharing is good for your professional development too. Yet of course, the nature of SS is that everything is done on the fly, so what you are supposed to teach is often unclear and resources scarce. This means that it can take hours just to prep one class.

We had to give three different types of lesson and taught different students in the afternoons so there wasn't much chance to repeat classes (without dramatically adjusting them).

We did some bigger project style classes which involved extra prep and work on our part, (hours spent making medals and paper maché volcanoes). I also became well acquainted with Kahoot, mafia and other new classroom games. Books, flashcards ready made games weren't readily available, but the kids could use Chromebooks in class which was a useful tool.

My other duties included break rota (pouring endless cups of water), dinner duty (no running, get back in line!) and my personal favourite - taking their mobile phones away.

One little oddity was referred to as 'Mr. Phil' at all times. The children had to call all staff Mr. or Miss “first name”. This took a while to get used to but to be honest I never got tired of the joke of referring to other staff members by their ‘SS title’ even when off site.

Tips for survival:

Ask don't assume: On arrival, gather all the information you can. Ask questions about everything . You will be expected to know about what is and isn't permitted, what everyone is supposed to be doing, and how to work effectively within days. I arrived one week after the start of school and thankfully everything was set up and running smoothly.

Daily grind: Getting into a routine isn't the problem. Meal times were 8, 12:30 and 6 on the dot. However, managing what you eat is important to keep your energy levels up. I tried to stay away from stodgy options to avoid the post meal slump. It took me a week or so to figure out how much I needed to eat though. It certainly is strange not being in control of when you eat, so you have to get it right at lunch. If you are a coffee drinker, bring your own. Sometimes 12 hour stewed Nescafe does not do the job. Exercise was another difficulty because of our limited facilities and shower times. Early morning exercise has never been too popular with me, so I ran on days off and went swimming in the time allotted for teachers.

Bring the kitchen sink: Without much control of your schedule, location, diet and clothing choice, it can feel a bit like working in an open prison. Commissary and contraband can make a huge difference! When you pack for SS, bring fewer clothes and more personal items like books, toiletries and snacks. They can make you feel a little less like a number and more like a person.

Get out of Dodge: Getting off site whenever possible is a must. Taking a trip to the shop for a drink, or going for a pint in the local pub help you to appreciate that there is a world outside of the school walls. The schools are often situated in small villages with little or no public transport. It might be tempting to stick around on your day off, but if you do you will just feel like you had a lazy day at work. I managed to grab a ride on the excursion busses headed to London and went off on my own.

Take the positives: There are many great things about Summer School. You'll have great fun and see amazing changes with the kids, you'll become a better teacher, and the money is good too (you don't need to spend anything whilst your there). You'll also make a lot of contacts and friends, always useful for the future.

Go all in: You only get out what you put in. Everyone needs time alone and personal space, but I think the more you get involved with activities and hanging out with the kids, the more you'll get back. Try to be visible and approachable at meal times and even when you are 'off duty'. This is your life for a month, so just deal with it.


Well that's it for the summer, I'll bring you more news about my move to Pamplona in the next few weeks.