A Letter of Thanks

It is my pleasure to publish this letter of thanks to a teacher, and a special school, who has made all the difference to not only a young man, but his father too.  Special education has its critics, but, like this writer, it has changed all of our lives for the better. To be included, it’s more than the mainstream. It’s being part of the school community, whatever shape that school takes, too.

Dear Mrs K,

I just wanted to say thanks for all of the work you’ve done with my son in GCSE History over the last two years.

I’ve helped him a fair bit with his revision over the last few months. Every single day I’ve come away amazed with the depth of his understanding – not just his recall of facts, but the abstract concepts and beliefs that lie behind them too. There’s been loads of times when he’s been teaching me or reminding me about particular topics – it’s been good for him, to be the teacher for once!

Best of all, I think he’s really enjoyed his History revision – there are plenty of reasons why History is a very challenging subject for him, but it’s definitely become one of his favourites. So thank you for helping him!

But I also wanted to say thank you for what you have done for me too – that might sound a bit odd, so let me explain…

I did history at university – a BA, and also a master’s in Cold War international history. I still love the subject even now. Before kids came along, I didn’t have too many expectations about how my kids would turn out, but one thing that I was really looking forward to was talking to them about history as they were growing up.

We were pretty shocked when we first found out that our son was disabled. We were told he would always have deep problems communicating and learning, and it might sound a bit strange, but one of the things that made me deeply, deeply sad when we first got his diagnosis was the prospect of losing the things I hoped I’d do with him. I couldn’t imagine how I would ever be able to share & communicate a love of history with the tiny boy on my lap who would have so much trouble communicating.

The feeling got worse as we went through the school system, as professional after professional told us what outcomes we should realistically expect for a child like him. And they didn’t include GCSE History. Or GCSEs of any kind, for that matter.

You have to learn and unlearn loads bringing up a child with special needs, but one of the most pleasurable things I’ve had to unlearn over the last few years has been this – despite all his immense difficulties communicating, he gets it.

He understands so much about history. He grasps details about things I thought he’d never be able to understand. Even with his disordered language, he can explain things, he can point out strengths and weaknesses of evidence in a way that I never thought he’d be able to do. And he loves it – he loves talking about history and arguing about it with me and his brother.

I can’t really get it across very well, but it makes my soul sing when I see him like this. I know how hard the written and spoken word is for him. I know how hard he has had to work to get on top of this subject, and yet he manages it, and he enjoys it too. It’s something I never dreamed would be possible.

All of this is down to the work you and your colleagues have done for him. I know he appreciates it greatly – but me, I’ll never be able to repay you all.

I hope he’ll do well at GCSE, and I know how much you’ve done to help him get a good grade. But I wanted to get across that we value what you’ve done for him in a way that goes beyond any exam grade.

Doing history GCSE has given my son knowledge and skills that will help him through life – but it’s been more than a curriculum for us as a family. It’s brought us closer, given us ways of sharing things we love, of communicating against the odds.

This school is a wonderful, life-changing place – a special school in every sense of that phrase. I think sometimes though, something that gets forgotten is the positive effect that the school has on the whole family.

My son is a better person for going to this school – but we as a family are also all better for it. The things you do here help our family to flourish and grow closer – and we’ll never, ever forget it. Thank you so much.

Anyway, I’ve gone on for ages now, so I’ll stop there. Hope you have a great summer, and see you next term 😊

 

The growth chart

There are three little red books sitting in a row in a cubby hole in my desk.  At one point they took up far more of my attention than was probably healthy, and now they sit, gathering dust, rarely seen and rarely remembered.  Inside, they contain all sorts of useful information pertaining to the health of infants, including records of health visitor visits, immunisations and growth charts.  When you are at home with baby you can pore over them and obsess to your heart’s content.

They aren’t all the same, though, and I freely admit that I had a problem with it at the time, and to a certain extent, I still do. Inside Sam’s book there is a plastic packet containing the growth charts for Down’s syndrome.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that he should be measured by a different yardstick.  At the time, as now, I couldn’t accept that different yardstick as symboliaing a different standard, of expectation or of care.

And, after going on seventeen years of tangling with doctors and nurses of his behalf, I know that I am right to be cautious.  Too many people seem to accept a lower standard of health and a higher threshold for pain for him for me to be entirely trusting of the protocols.  When a young person (or an old person, come to that) cannot advocate for themselves, be that because they are too young, or because they have some form of learning disability or difficulties in communication, you, as their parent or carer, have to learn to step in and make sure that things happen – sadly things like food and drink and getting the right medicine at the right time (and I’m not talking about the NHS in recent years, either).

But, and here’s the thing, he is different.  His physiology is expressed in a different way to the typical population, and, along with that, comes an understanding that in all sorts of ways he needs something different.  At first I understood it in the acceptance that, as his mother, I was allowed – and I was – to be more anxious than the average parent.  As he has grown, I see that he needs different, earlier, bed times at home, different, adapted texts at school.

In many ways, that growth chart represents both the blessing and the curse that is a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.  While perhaps not so obvious to the untrained eye when he was tiny, it is there, now, for all to see.  Unless you are asking for help from someone official, like a government or local authority department or something, people can see, they can hear that he is different, and that adjustments will need to be made for him wherever he goes.  If only it didn’t mean that, at the same time, people who had less of an understanding, if not of Down’s syndrome, but of him as an individual, that expectations would be simultaneously lowered.  The application of a medical diagnosis to a social context isn’t always helpful.

I’ve never taught anyone with Down’s syndrome (if you don’t count Sam).  The children who have been through my classes have been the kinds with an invisible disability, like Autism, ADHD or dyslexia – and the vast majority of them haven’t had a diagnosis at all.  And, as their teacher, I have made all sorts of adjustments in order to make my classroom the kind of place where they can learn, from special places to sit to requiring the rest of the class (and myself) to change our behaviour or printing out the words in a larger format.

Which is why I am confused by the assertion that it is only those children who have a legally protected characteristic who I must make adjustments for.  If you want learning to happen in your room (or your corridor) then adjust you will, in a hundred million little ways, from creating a calm and purposeful atmosphere of mutual respect (and no, children don’t mind when they are asked to stop teasing/winding up certain individuals, in fact, quite the opposite, and no, they don’t mind when some children need more stickers than they do, again, quite the opposite, unless we bang on about it not being fair and make out that it is the stickers or the ‘special treatment’ that is the important thing, rather than the learning) to adapting materials and resources so that they can be universally accessed, or finding a different way for a child to show me what it is they really know rather than tying themselves in knots over spelling in a science lesson.  To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that teaching is (or should be) easy, and that special educational needs isn’t complicated.

And no, I don’t see that as a lowering of standards.  What it is, is an understanding that an education is a process and that you will never, especially in a child, be presented with the finished article. Because, in the end, learning is fundamentally unlike that one dimensional, linear, medical growth chart.

 

See also:

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/the-teacher-and-the-doctor/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/clickbait/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/removing-the-rose-tinted-spectacles/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/05/23/the-secret-teacher/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/reality-check/

I’m trying desperately to keep on saying the same thing, but in a different way so you don’t get bored.

 

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I sent out a tweet the other day.  It was a little, innocuous retweet of a picture of a little girl, trying on her school uniform for the first time.  In it, she is clapping her hands, as pleased as punch to be wearing a blue checked dress, her hair in a ponytail, shiny black shoes as neat as a pin.  Clearly, her parents were pleased as punch too because they sent it out to some big hitters in the Down’s syndrome tweeterverse.  I saw it and I was glad to share it with the many teachers with whom I am connected in a virtual sense.

It had a surprisingly large effect.  To date, it has had 32 retweets (which is a lot for me), 90 people have saved it with little love-heart likes, there have been 8,672 impressions and 148 total engagements (whatever they are).  I’m pleased, because I thought at the time, and I still think it this morning, that it is an important little tweet for people to see – and to notice the three, innocent sounding hashtags that follow. #inclusion #acceptance #school

You see, I too have been in the place of this mother.  When my son was standing there, all togged up in his little school uniform, ready to take his first big steps away from my side (I don’t count the little ones at nursery, it was only two and a half hours anyway, hardly enough time to get there and back again and make a cup of tea in between) (if I was the sort to drink tea), I, too, was filled up with a sense of importance of what his entrance into mainstream school would mean.

You see, what I don’t think that many people understand, and why should they after all, is quite what it is like to be told that your child, the baby you hold in your arms, the one you have waited for, anticipated with such joy, is somehow less; a cause for concern.  It’s a shock, I can tell you, and not a pleasant one, either.  People who have not had this experience don’t know how it knocks you sideways, how long it takes to recover, to rebuild the life you thought you had lost.

And, again, what I think many people, many teachers, don’t understand is what an important role they play in regaining, reclaiming that stolen joy, in denying the less than and turning it on its head; the way that they can turn the role of the state from destroyer of dreams to healer and hope.  They don’t understand, and there is no reason that they should, the importance of their symbolic role in the life of another.

But, and here’s the thing; what will happen when inclusion turns out to be less warm and fuzzy and more blood, sweat and tears?  Will we blame the parents, for not telling the truth about their children, for carrying on in an irresponsible manner? Will we blame the children, for being too disabled, too needy, too naughty, dangerous, even?  Will we, instead of examining a system that fails to put in place proper and adequate support, for teachers, for families, for children, blame everyone but ourselves and throw inclusion out of the window?

I do not wish to peddle a kind of warm and fuzzy inspiration that has little effect and no lasting value, for, while the smiling faces of cute little children with Down’s syndrome and tales of inclusion might make us feel good in the moment, will they help when the going gets tough?  It might be enough for me, because I am driven by more than a moral imperative, but will it be enough for you?

 

A Poisonous Atmosphere of Fear

One of the things I miss most about teaching children is the way they take you into their confidence.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been called ‘mummy’ (although never yet ‘grandma’, thank the Lord), I’ve been asked if I’d be allowed out to play, and I have had to fill in many, many, many child protection forms in my time.  This last is partly a consequence of working in small groups.  In the intimacy of small spaces and with smaller numbers of children, the barriers are reduced, and the tales come tumbling out.  Standing at the front, doing the teaching thing, isn’t exactly what you might call conducive to confidences.

Even as their mother, the stories come out in dribs and drabs, a little bit here, a little bit there; a slowly growing testimony to their ability to understand the world.  Sometimes it is relatively easy to make sense of it all, the day Sam was incensed that a game of ‘throw the shoes about at playtime’ ended up with a lost arch support (it was lying at the bottom of the shed and had to be retrieved by the caretaker) was a simple mystery to solve (although, in the heat of the moment, at school, he couldn’t make himself understood), making sense of the slippery world of social relationships is altogether another.

As a young person, I remember wondering why I was so unpopular.  I’d look in the mirror and think I was nice enough, not unkind, and wonder what it was I was doing wrong.  I couldn’t seem to figure it out at all, and I gloomily concluded, as I tried in vain to fit in, straighten my hair, mould my accent into something more acceptable and change my behaviour into something more traditional, that it must, somehow, be my fault.

I never told my parents.  It didn’t seem worth it.  Not that I wouldn’t be believed, but that it wasn’t important enough, somehow, to make a fuss over.  Something that happened to everyone, nothing special about me.  I did take it up with one of my teachers, though, I remember that.  I sat in his office, after a lesson gone wrong, one I refused to return to, explaining what had happened.  He told me that the other girl had a hard life, the implication being that her behaviour to me was somehow understandable, acceptable.  Inevitable.

But there is nothing inevitable about bullying.  It is only when we, as a community of adults stand aside, when we fail to call it out when we see it, or don’t bother to take the time to understand what is really going on, that we allow bullying and belittling to flourish.  A poisonous atmosphere of fear is entirely within our control.