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.

 

Powerless

I remember once trying to explain to my dad what it was like to be a teacher.  It was around the time of the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, they had maybe been in full swing for a year or two, and I was young and tired. “It’s like being a hamster on a wheel,” I said, “only it goes faster and faster and faster; it never stops and I can’t get off.”  It wasn’t long before I had thrown in the towel, sinking into years of motherhood and domesticity with the determination (much to R’s despair) never to wear a watch again.  I suppose what I was trying to say, with my clumsy description of a job I enjoyed, but which was wearing me out at the same time, was the strange sense of powerless you experience when you are a classroom teacher.

I’ve found myself caught in the teaching trap many times, before and since that moment.  For all the appearance of consultation, I have been subject to new curricula, testing regimes, changes to school structure, pay and conditions, all of them without my consent.  And, then there are the school-, rather than nation-wide policies. The marking, the planning, the behaviour, the way we do things here, all policed by observations, pop-ins, book and planning scrutinies, the subtle and not so subtle undermining of professional autonomy.  Unless you are higher up the management (sorry Leadership) rungs you have very little chance of influence.

And, of course, the power that the Management holds over you extends even when you leave.  Find yourself on the receiving end of a boss who doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, and, given that they have to write you a reference before you’re even asked to interview, the chances of you walking into a new job if you found yourself in the wrong job are depressing.  You can find yourself in the position of starting from scratch, working your way through the supply list (if it still exists) to give yourself a new start, or calculating just how long it will be before you can hand in your notice, for fear of being trapped til Christmas.  You could, when you think about it, quite easily persuade yourself that you were a victim, as powerless as a fly caught in a spider’s web.

But. And here’s the thing.  I think about the children I have taught over the years. Children who sat, spellbound, as they listened to a story.  Children who gave me leaving cards and cuddles, little notes and gifts, a bookmark, a pen I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere (the countless mugs with ‘World’s Best Teacher’ and adorned with kittens are presumably in a number of staffrooms I have frequented over the years). Notes from parents, the reply slip for the school report, filled in and resting in the far reaches of my memory. Those moments when I realised that I was the one who stood between joy and tears.

I look on my years of motherhood, the ups and downs the road to school, in and out of favour with the teachers who hold that same old power over my own children.  I think about the power we hold even though we no longer serve our time at the front of class, flowing from our fingertips into the digital world.  I remember the echoes of the power teachers held over me, over my child, their disbelief or belief in him – or me –  making the year – or not.

And I think about how lucky I am that I have friends and colleagues who will tell me the truth.  That when I said what I said, or did what I did, or the way I acted or wrote and indulged myself in my weakness for hyperbole and long, fine sounding words, that I forgot my power. That as well as having the power to help, to heal, to teach, I also have the power to hurt and harm.  That despite my self-perceived helplessness I have a voice – and my voice is heard.

Sats Hell

Next week will be first time in a while that I haven’t been involved with end of key stage two assessments in a professional capacity. I don’t miss it, I’ll be frank. I don’t miss creeping through the school, shushing younger children, or sitting with the anxious ones, reading questions and watching them squirm in their seats and yet still plump for the wrong answer.

I don’t miss hour after hour of practice papers. (And hour after hour of subsequent marking.) I don’t miss sending home homework involving page after page of sums in those shiny brown revision books (also to be marked). I don’t miss spelling tests and mental maths tests, explaining how it will be on a CD just the same so get used to the funny voice and no, there will be no second chances, no opportunities to go back over a question you missed.

I suppose the quizzes and games were quite fun, and visiting schools with the LA badge was endlessly fascinating, even if I used to come away with a frowny sense of perplexion that our schools should be materially so different, and yet so similar; so full of hot and cold writes and purple polishing pens (it’s probably something different now, fashions change quickly in edu-land), so many guides to keeping miptors to assess. But I don’t miss the sight of science books with one date in September followed by pristine empty pages, the heavy knowledge that the Borderliners spent a dry year doing two subjects in the morning – and the same two subjects again in the afternoon. I don’t miss the negative, waste of time answer to the question: where is the poetry? Did you study any poetry?

This year, it is different. This year, although I am working still in education, I am not in the classroom, and, instead of guiding other people’s children, with a smile and an encouraging nod, this year I must support my daughter.

I’ve seen my sons through the experience. Sam, divorced as he was from the goings on of the class, wasn’t aware that Sats week was even a thing. A, assessed on a curriculum he had completed and supported by a teacher who made him feel special, funny boy that he is, enjoyed it. But L, my baby, born into a year, 2006, a group of children who have had their increasingly tired looking teachers attempt to squash four years of learning into three, is having a very different experience indeed.

She doesn’t say much, but she has changed this year. She still likes school. She still goes willingly into the building, obediently walking because running is forbidden. But she who has always been Little Miss Enthusiasm has started to complain. There are tests every day. Homework is met with deep reluctance and music practice and lessons with tears. Her sleep is disturbed, and I am worried about her, about her health and her mental wellbeing.

She’s only in it for the party, she says (a picnic on the school field, the food provided by home). She wonders what Sats stands for, what does it mean?

I don’t want to tell her that she is caught in an international political dance. Instead I tell her that I don’t care if she writes sausages for every answer if she likes. It won’t change how much we love her, whatever she achieves on paper, how high she comes in someone else’s measure doesn’t matter to us. I remind her that to try her best is to be kind to her teachers, because it is they who are being assessed for competence, not her.

She won’t be the only child beset by anxiety, I know that. She won’t be the only child perplexed by the overblown importance of school tests for eleven year olds.  But after another broken night, I look on next week with deep concern, and I find myself wondering what the hell we adults, with our obsession with measuring and testing, of bathing in reflected glory, think we are doing?

Recipe for Success

There’s nothing quite like the successful student in the successful school to give all the adults associated with them the satisfied glow of a job well done.  Follow these simple steps, and you, too, could be bathing in the reflected glory of your progeny.

Ingredients

One ten-to-eleven year old child
One teacher
One set of end of key stage tests
One set of standards (variable)
Advice/guidance (to taste)
One league table
One performance management tool, named, ‘performance related’

 

Method

  1. First you must persuade the ten-to-eleven year old child that the end of key stage tests are important, the culmination of everything they have worked towards for the last seven years, and will have long-reaching ramifications on their lives. You can do this by mentioning it at every given opportunity, together with reminders about behaviour and admonitions to work harder*.
  2. Next, you must impress upon the teacher the importance of the end of key stage tests by engaging them through the skillful mixing of league tables and performance management.
  3. Finally, season with standards (variable) and advice/guidance (to taste) until you have your preferred mixture.
  4. Set the temperature to early summer, place all ten-to-eleven year olds in the same room at different tables and make them work in silence all morning and all afternoon.
  5. You will know when you have achieved success when the ten-to-eleven year old child has a dead-eyed expression, a sulky mouth, displays no enthusiasm for reading or writing at all, and cries at the mention of fractions. If you are particularly successful, they may even have the slow, tired demeanour of one who is not sleeping due to worry.
  6. If your ten-to-eleven year old child is not quite ready for success by the second week in May, you can try holiday and/or Saturday school/catch up sessions. Make sure you do these in advance of Easter for best results.

 

Remember, we all want the best for our children, and nothing quite beats the experience of success.

 

*see compliance recipe