The downsides of school visits

Event at Dollar Academy, which was a paradigm of how to do it right! My effort was acknowledged and I was fed and looked after so I could do all the sessions well.

In the wake of some pretty crushing event experiences suffered by fellow children’s authors, I started writing a guide for schools wanting to produce the worst possible visit from an author. But, having written it, I decided it had a nasty tone that didn’t recognise the fact that most school visits go really well and that most librarians or teachers organising these things are good, intelligent, empathetic people doing their best in stressful environments. It wasn’t fair, although it was true and borne of a lot of negative experience, both mine and my colleagues’.

But I still need to make the points. Partly to get it all off my chest and partly because it is genuinely difficult for people to realise just what it is like for us (even when it goes well) and because the only way to grow empathy is to listen to people talk about their experience.

So, I’ve written a more light-hearted (though I can’t stop it being heartfelt) piece, imagining an event which is an amalgamation of things that have happened to me or colleagues. Remember: this is not one event but an amalgamation. It’s rare for so much to go wrong in one day, although…

IT SHOULDN’T HAPPEN TO AN AUTHOR

It had all been going so swimmingly. The organiser seemed to have read my website, so she must know what sort of events I offer and how many sessions I do in one day. She’d said how excited everyone was about the visit. And then, two weeks before the event, comes the time-table. Instead of my speaking to Y9 and 10 together for an hour (followed by a staff INSET and then a parents’ evening) the students have been split into three and I’ll speak to them each for 40 minutes.

I respond that the time-table isn’t acceptable.

“But it’s our time-table”.

“But it’s not what we agreed. And it can’t work because I can’t fit all the info into 40 minutes and I can’t do it three times in a row.”

“But author X did three sessions last year.”

“But author X doesn’t do full-on info-dense performances from memory. I am not author X. I do events that no one else does and I have done them hundreds of times and I know what my body and brain do.”

“But teachers do it every day.”

“They don’t. I’ve been a teacher and this is not what it’s like. This is like starting a new job every day, new environment, new everything, and not being allowed to ease into the job: straight in the deep end. Over and over again. With no pension.”

And the time-table reveals that lunchtime is to be filled with “chat with the reading group”. Have you ever eaten vast salad sandwiches or crumbling flapjacks while having to make conversation with over-awed teenagers? I can’t expect the librarian to know that I have a jaw problem which means my mouth doesn’t open far, which makes me really self-conscious eating in front of people who are staring at me, especially while I’m talking. But I can expect her to realise that I need a lunch break, with emphasis on the word “break”. I can’t expect her to realise that as an introvert I desperately need time between events to re-energise. Actually, I can, because I’ve asked for it, but she’s forgotten. It happens. She has a lot to remember.

Then, still in advance, there’s a problem with book-selling, which we’d agreed to do and which I based my fee around. The school wants me to charge the same as Amazon, “Because that’s only fair on our parents” but I can’t offer more than a tiny discount because I’ve had to pay for the books myself and they cost me more than Amazon’s prices. Seriously. So the school cancels the book-selling aspect, which means that my income is lower. Or the school wants a cut of the book sales, because that’s what author X offered. I’m a bit sick of author X already.

The day of the visit arrives and I get up at 5am to leave the house at 6, drive to the station, and get the train to London, trog across London to Waterloo or wherever and get the train to Little Wareham Down, changing somewhere cold and rainy. My hair is now bedraggled and my hands are numb from carrying my suitcase up station staircases. I haven’t had any breakfast because I got up too early but I have fruit and nuts in my bag and I’m fizzing with caffeine from a station coffee, although I couldn’t finish it because I can’t carry the coffee while also carrying a suitcase and a briefcase. I’m collected by a nervous but smiling librarian who apologises for the messiness of her car, which is fine as long as I remember that she’s not exaggerating and therefore that I need to check the seat for crushed cheesy wotsits.

At reception, I’m asked for photo ID and made to read and sign the safe-guarding statement. This tells me that if I see any abuse I should report it appropriately. I am tempted to report the red-for-danger poster in reception, shouting “49 DAYS TILL GCSEs”. Interestingly, later in the day two parents will ask me what I think about these posters, which apparently litter the school, inducing quite unnecessary extra panic amongst GCSE students who know far too well how many days till their exams.

I follow the librarian through noisy corridors and at every fire-door we have a battle through jostling crowds and I try not to slip on crushed cheesy wotsits. I try to remember the way, so that later I can go to the loo on my own and not be chaperoned.

I am now, of course, in High-Functioning Introvert mode and will be for the rest of the day. This means that while I may look calm, literally 100% of the time I am critically  alert, trying to say the right thing, required to make conversation when I really want to mentally prepare for the talks. My stress chemicals, adrenaline and cortisol, are racing and my thoughts ricochet off the walls of my mind as I try to control them and do what I’m there to do: deliver the three talks we have eventually agreed –  an hour to pupils followed by two hours to staff, followed by an hour and a half to parents. (This is my normal, or has been until today, when I’ve realised it’s too demanding and I must remember not to agree to it. Ever. Again.) Followed, if I’m lucky, by discounted book-selling and if I’m unlucky just by lots more questions from parents who tell me not to worry about the books because they’ll buy from Amazon. I will have altogether over a thousand faces staring at me, judging me, challenging, questioning me. I will cope with all this because I’m a professional and used to standing on stage but I’m also aware that it’s exhausting and very possibly damaging me.

If I’m lucky, I’ll be given food and coffee and if I’m very lucky it will be at the times I need it and of the sort I can eat easily. I may have to ask for it. But luckily I’ll have brought my own emergency supplies. And I may have to decline it if I’m in about-to-speak mode and then I’ll be starving afterwards and I’ll have the pleasure of watching parents eat flapjacks and cheesy wotsits and sometimes drink wine which I won’t be offered. In the staffroom, I may rather obviously offend the person whose mug I have inadvertently used. I won’t know whether to wash this mug up but I will because I’m doing everything possible to be seen to be nice and friendly and a good person. Even nicer than author X. I will even eat cake, which I hate, just to be polite. And because I know I’ll need the energy. I might be made to pay for lunch – not a problem as my agreement is that all expenses will be covered, but just one more way to make me feel ill at ease.  Vulnerable. An outsider. On alert. Watched.

Then I’ll face 450 Year 9 and 10 students. But first, a teacher will give them a massive row full of dire warnings about how they must listen to me because that’s polite to visitors. This is not reassuring and not, in my opinion, the reason why they should listen to me. Then the teacher will introduce me, if I’m lucky, but unfortunately will say that I’m going to talk about something we haven’t agreed I’m going to talk about. He won’t mention that I’ve written loads of books or that I’m well-known and travel the world doing this stuff and that I’ve won awards for my books. He might refer to “her book”, when I’ve written 100. If I’m unlucky, the teacher will say, as one did, “Nicola Morgan will now talk to you for an hour about the brain.” Or he will say, “What would you like me to say about you?” while I try not to respond, “I’d like you to have read my website so that you will have found the biographies I’ve drafted especially for you.”

While I’m talking, teachers stand like guards around the room and every now and then summon a pupil for some offence I haven’t even seen. The teachers completely miss the genuinely annoying students and they don’t notice that 99% of the faces are avidly attentive, and one teacher will say at the end, “Sorry they were so badly behaved – they’re not normally like that.” In fact, they were great: engaged and lively, and only noisy when I became more interactive. This despite the fact that when I ask them what they know about me and my work none of them will answer because no one, it turns out, has told them.

In the 15-minute break before the staff INSET session, the head teacher says, “Don’t tell the staff your personal story – they don’t want to know that.” I had no intention of doing so. I had only told the students that I’d had a lot of stress-related illness because it was 100% relevant to what I was trying to show them about managing their wellbeing. She says she’s worried about my presentation for staff and asks to see it. “They know all that,” she says, dismissing my slides one by one with a flick of her hand and coming worryingly close to scratching the screen with her nail. “I can guarantee they don’t,” I say, appalled. Pointing to one slide, I say, “I can guarantee they don’t know this because these are my ideas and no one else talks about them.” “I want you to talk about the bit in your book – (which book?) – where you talk about empathy.” I show her the slide headed “empathy”. “They know all that,” she says. I’m dying inside.

I resort to telling her that I’ve done hundreds of these sessions and have never had anything other than great feedback and that I am 100% confident that what I’ll say will be challenging and fascinating. What I don’t know at this point is that after the session she will tell me that it was very good and that she admits she needn’t have worried. “But I was worried,” she’ll say. “I wanted it to be good and it was very good.”

But, not knowing that yet, I feel undermined and phenomenally uncomfortable throughout the session. Ironically, she tells me that she wants the staff to develop better empathy for the students. Put your own empathy in order, I think.

The staff will sit stony-faced through my INSET session, asking the fewest number of questions ever asked in the history of INSET sessions. Is this because they are cowed and stressed in this school with its shouty red-for-danger posters and its undermining behaviour or is it because I’m not doing as good a job as usual because a part of me has died inside while a spark of rage still burns? I don’t know.

In the staffroom, I am then given a huge plate of lettuce and coleslaw. And a huge lettuce and coleslaw roll just in case I didn’t have enough lettuce and coleslaw. I am allowed to make some coffee which turns out to be literally the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. But I eat/drink as much as I can because I’m going to need it to get through the rest of the evening.

There are 500 parents at this final – oh, blissful word – session. This listen greedily and laugh in all the places the staff didn’t. Nevertheless, I feel my voice sinking and my brain split into two as one half makes words come out of my mouth in the correct order and the other half daydreams of the pinot grigio I’ll be drinking in Brewer’s Fayre before too long. On My Own.

Afterwards, I struggle to get to the book-signing place because of all the questions while I’m still on the stage trying to disengage my laptop and pick up all my tech equipment. I have almost no brain energy left and I feel terrible. But I try to keep smiling and focused. At the book-selling, two members of staff kindly help with the actual money, as I can’t do that while still talking and answering questions. Lots of the questions are lengthy, personal, difficult. I desperately need to finish the day. Beam me up to Brewer’s Fayre.

But no taxi has been ordered, even though I arrived by one and am 300 miles from home and they know I have a hotel to get to. It’s now 9pm and one of the teachers finds a taxi number and calls it. We’re told it will be 20 minutes and I have to accept this. There are lots of books left over and I ask if they could be posted to me and I emphasise that I will pay the postage, but this doesn’t go down well, so I say I’ll somehow carry them (in a large box, along with my suitcase and briefcase.)

I spend 20 minutes standing in the dark and cold outside the school, with literally everyone else having gone in their cars. The last person to speak to me laughs as she sees me trying to stuff the books into my suitcase and failing to close it. I tell her that laughing is not what I’m doing and that I’ve never been so badly treated by a school and how exactly am I supposed to carry this vast box home? We end up laughing together, which I regard as the most impressive thing I’ve done that day, and she reassures me about my personal safety, pointing out that the CCTV camera above me is still working. I watch her headlights disappear and I’m left in the cold, dark silence.

I confess I am not far from tears. Pathetic, I know, but it’s worn me down. I pull myself together. Author X wouldn’t cry. I am paid well if you consider my fee as being for one day, but not when you consider that it’s also the travelling and recovery tomorrow (I’ll get home at tea-time and I won’t sleep well tonight), and the preparation day or days beforehand. And all the years of experience that have gone to enable me to do what I do and get excellent feedback.

I do get excellent feedback. Every time. It’s why I carry on. That and the events that leave me buzzing. Buzzing in Brewer’s Fayre.

As I said at the start, many school events don’t go anything like this but they are all exhausting and there’ll be an element of these emotions in all of them. It’s unavoidable – public-speaking just is hard work, but the point is that it is so much easier if someone is looking after your physical and mental needs. It is phenomenally rare for the effort and exhaustion to be acknowledged. I know teachers’ jobs are exhausting and stressful – everyone knows that – but what visiting authors do is too hard to go unrecognised. It’s too valuable to be treated like this. Many of us are introverts, even though we manage very well on stage, and that means we’re burning energy at a rate of knots. We are all differently vulnerable, brilliant at hiding our discomfort under the guise of doing a great job.

I have no doubt there are things we do that are annoying – and I apologise genuinely for any sins I’ve committed accidentally – but let me say something here: forgive me for sounding arrogant or entitled but actually we ARE the most important part of the day. The important end receivers are the audience but we are the conduit for their experience and the catalyst for it. We are what the school is paying for (and in my case paying quite decently). You wouldn’t buy an expensive piece of machinery and leave it outside in the cold and dark, or in a corner to be scuffed and damaged.

We all care most about doing one thing: providing the best possible event for our audiences. How we feel inside makes a massive difference to that. We don’t want limousines and smoked salmon sandwiches; we don’t want a dressing-room or expect ecstatic applause; we are not divas or special. We are just human beings arriving bravely in a hostile environment to do very difficult work that exposes us to stares, judgment and public approbation without the security of even our own mug of tea.

Walk a mile in our shoes. I don’t expect you to know what we need, and anyway we’re all different, so my top tip is: just ask. You could make all the difference, just with one simple question. Better for us and better for you.

Now, publicly and in advance of World Book Day 2018, I would like to thank all the many, many caring empathetic and wonderful school teachers, librarians and other staff that I and my author friends have come across in the course of our work. All the ones who have really tried their best and made it all manageable. All the ones who have listened and tried to think how to make us comfortable so we can do our job. We make great events together. Go, us!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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9 Responses

    1. It can certainly feel very tough, can’t it? Of course, hard work and feeling tired at the end of a day are what most people have, but there’s something very undermining and vulnerable about being on stage.

    1. It was easy to decide to do it but not easy to work out how. If the particular individuals who inspired the post read it and recognise themselves, no need to apologise, just never treat anyone like that again.

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