The talking watch

My dad loves to give gifts. When he was a boy, family tradition says that one of his uncles (he had many uncles, but no cousins) used to have everyone over for Christmas dinner and enjoy himself, as host, by, every so often, appearing with another gift, much to everyone’s delight (in particular, my dad). Today, he likes to carry on the tradition, not at Christmas, but when he visits, and my children greet his appearance with great joy and anticipation, as they swarm around him like cats, winding their bodies around his legs (or at least they did when they were younger), waiting for the inevitable to appear out of one of his many pockets (my dad is a man of many pockets, which is or is not an advantage, depending on whether you are looking for your glasses or your keys or not).

Having a family of grandsons has clearly been a source of purchasing pleasure for him, the father of two daughters. In some ways he has revisited his youth, with candle steam boats that float in the bath, microscopes (complete with accidental sample of grandfatherly blood) and all manner of funny games and build-it kits heavy with meaning for him (and none at all for me, except that I just know he is itching to buy my daughter a lurid make-up set so that h he can declare in sonorous tones laced with laughter, ‘let their make-up be like clowns’ – I began experimenting with make-up around 1985; I’ll let you draw your own conclusions).

Recently though, his gift buying has hit new heights (or depths, depending on your perspective); last Christmas, he bought Sam a talking watch. Now, Sam has been hedged about by timepieces for some time. I bought him a digital watch one year, a great big chunky orange one which he wore with great pride until he lost it (it turned up again when I swapped handbags). There is a teaching clock on his bedroom wall, and for many years, day and night were marked by a light up bunny that slept at night and trotted off into the big, wide world, knapsack on its back to the tune of early morning birdsong and a cock-a-doodle-do as soon as it was day. For all his difficulties in learning, Sam is getting along well with telling the time.

He doesn’t have an obsession with punctuality. Unlike his father, his default setting is generally later, rather than early. If it were up to him, I’m sure he would be perfectly happy listening to his internal rhythms and following them, note by note. No, Sam’s familiarity with the mechanical underpinnings of the daily timetable spring from our efforts to effect change. Sam is, you see, an early riser and we are, as I am sure you understand, heartily sick of being woken up.

It’s pointless trying to change Sam. He wakes up with the sun and who can blame him? During the summer months (I never thought I’d be glad of the dark mornings), with an Easterly facing bedroom, the sun gets up – and so does he.

I’m not sure that the bunny clock ever really worked (despite my jabbing finger and hissed instruction to OBEY THE BUNNY). Asking him nicely to keep the noise down and let the rest of us sleep works up the point when he decides that he is bored, all on his lonesome, and it’s time he had some company, or some breakfast. Sam is, for his sins, a single-minded person with, understandably in the young, a personalised set of priorities.

But the talking watch. This has been a genius gift. After all those years, Sam knows that 7am is the time for getting up, even though he chooses to ignore it and either get up and crash about or stay in bed and crash about until the rest of us, red-eyed and gritty-tempered are forced up. You see, there is no arguing with the watch. It’s time is set remotely, radio controlled from Far Away, and it always tells the truth; it never changes its mind, or its tune. We finally, after all these years, have found the thing that has changed the game.

Because it’s true, you know, that you can’t change the person. Sam is not a mistake that needs to be fixed. He is not someone who can be forced to fit in, no matter how much we might want him to just do as he is told. Bawling at him might provide a temporary respite, but it never works long term. It’s never easy, figuring out what it is that needs to change – and even if you do, it might not be possible; after all, we live in a family and we have two other, younger children. Like teachers in a classroom, needs must be balanced, weighed up, and the best course measured.

Finding the thing that he understands, making subtle changes to the things that surround him, removing barriers, works.  Because it is then, and only then, that he is able to make the change, for himself.

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I hate the way

I hate the way I walk in the footsteps of fatigue.
I hate the way of winter.
I hate the way life is magnified.
I hate the way that the setting is slow motion.

 

I hate the way I am no longer independent.
I hate the way I am rarely alone, but constantly lonely.
I hate the way it draws me to conflict.
I hate the way it feels so endless.

 

I hate the way I fear the future.
I hate the way the past is lost.
I hate the way it makes me cry.
I hate the way that I am not supposed to hate.

 

Social mobility, IQ and education

I’m getting very bored of the link up between social mobility, IQ and education, but, alongside my boredom there is disquiet and I am still trying to work out why that is (apart from the obvious). So, I’m going to take the three things, one at a time.

Social mobility

So, I’ve written about this concept before, (you can read last week’s post here) but maybe I haven’t been clear enough. I don’t think, when people talk or write about social mobility today that they actually mean what either I think the term means, or the term says.

To me, when I conjure up an image of social mobility, I think of Hyacinth Bucket or Margot Leadbetter. Caricatures of women climbing the social ladder, and being made fun of in the process. A male equivalent? Harold Steptoe, maybe. Men and women pretending to be better than they are, gardening in their yellow marigolds, playing snooker with a cue poking out of the window, ‘aping their betters’ and branding themselves as Lord and Lady Muck. No class, and certainly no breeding.

OK, so those characters are fictional, but they represent an image of social mobility that I think many of us hold in our collective imaginations, and many of us have experienced; the slow sloughing off of working class roots (although, if my own experience is anything to go by, they run deep, and they are not easily dismissed).

I don’t think that public commentators and organisations mean social mobility. I think they mean an economic ‘mobility’ whereby the individual, by dint of hard work, ‘makes good’. Instead of relying on the apparatus of the state for things such as housing, healthcare and education, they are able to earn enough to own their own homes, buy private health insurance and education for their children.

I think these are two different things.

IQ

I’m not going to spend much time writing or thinking about IQ. I’m not an expert in it but I do know this: it has been used in Western society since the day it was invented and its history is troubling and sad. People have been forcibly sterilised because of it. People have been discriminated against because of it. Lives have been undervalued and lost. To be honest, the thing I mostly think about it is when people boast about their own, or their genius child’s and, if there is anything that having a child with Down’s syndrome has taught me it is this: IQ is no guarantee of anything that matters in life. A high IQ is no guarantee of health (although I do understand the arguments about odds – to which I reply, when you have a 1 in 7000 chance of having a baby with Down’s you still could), it is no guarantee of being a decent person and it is certainly not the benchmark for love.

You can read a post about loving your disabled child here.

To me, IQ is just another one of those labels that gets in the way. As a teacher I firmly believe that we have a duty to meet the needs of the children in our classes without prejudice, and that includes notions of IQ.

Education

Which brings me to education. The marrying of notions of social (economic) mobility to education is, to me, troubling. As a young person, I marched around the streets of Exeter (in the rain, no less) chanting ‘Education is a right, not a privilege’, in the first of the student protests about student loans. I believe that education should be free at the point of delivery, and that we have an equal right to it. I support ideas of a lifetime education; not everyone wants to go to university at 18, and that’s OK.

What I don’t support, however, is the close tying of education to economics. The getting of a good education is not directly related to the getting of a well-paid and fulfilling job. The role of teachers is not to turn out compliant, hard working citizens (who will never need public housing, healthcare or education for their children). I reject the notion of a utilitarian schooling.

Troubled

This is why I feel so troubled by the current arguments that are swirling in my field. It’s difficult to disagree with declarations that every child is entitled to access ‘the best that has been thought and said’ and made. I add made because I take my children to museums, art galleries and places of cultural and historical significance regularly as I consider it their right to participate in the cultural and intellectual life of this world regardless of their age or abilities. I did so as a teacher and I do so as a parent.

And that’s it, I suppose. An education isn’t about fitting a person out to be a good little worker, and only accessible to those who conform. It’s something else entirely.

 

 

Teaching: a socially mobile career?

Or: winding the web

I don’t know if you know, but I moved house about three months ago (I am trying not to go on about it too much). Due to the demands of a punishing commute on the part of the hubs, we have uprooted ourselves from the town that was our home for almost seventeen years and plonked ourselves thirty miles away and into the next county. It has not been easy.

As well as leaving behind family and friends, and going to a place where we know no-one (or I don’t, so that effectively adds up to the same thing), we have remortgaged and found ourselves in the unenviable position of living in a smaller, more expensive house. We have had to chuck out a whole load of stuff (one of the side effects of living in a big old lady of a house is that there is no need to throw anything away, ever), buy a whole load of new, smaller stuff, and committed ourselves to paying off such a large debt that we will never be able to help out our rapidly growing children, should they decide to do what we did and take up the offer of a higher education.

On the face of it, R and I could be the poster children of social mobility. Born out of the Second World War, our parents were all the first in their families to go to college. Most of them, from working class roots, made it up the ladder to teaching positions, home ownership and a different kind of life altogether to the one that their own parents experienced. My parents moved away too, adding a geographical distance to the mix.

As a good friend of mine explained to me, on her return from a three year stint in the States, they had the opportunity to reinvent themselves, to become persons unfettered by other people’s expectations of their backgrounds, wiping away accents and enjoying the opportunity to be a new self. If you don’t have roots, if there aren’t people around who remember the day you were born, your awkward teenage years and that terrible cough you had the Christmas you were the narrator of the school play, it’s easy.

But here’s the thing. Roots, community, family, friendship; these things are important. Without them, we are a little lost unit, making our way in an uncertain, lonely fashion. Without the patriarchal model, where one person goes out to work and the other stays at home to run the kids about to their various bits and pieces, to spend the time not only running the household, but weaving the social web, the one that stands in for you when your family cannot, it’s, truth be told, a struggle. Politicians and the like, who like to talk about social mobility do so only in economic terms, as if ‘lifting yourself out of poverty’ is the only thing that matters.

Maybe that’s why so many people from working class backgrounds, when they graduate, turn to teaching. You don’t have to rip your family apart in order to get on. If you’re lucky you can enjoy the long holidays and the artificial sense of gentility they bring, so long as you don’t rub it in the noses of your wider family (in which case, it probably is better to move away, in an absence making the heart grow fonder kind of sense). You can tell children that if they work hard and they pass all their exams then they too will reap the rewards, based on merit, because that’s what happened to them.

Until, that is, you move away, and you become a creature of suspicion, even in teaching circles; the person with no connections, starting all over again, proving yourself, all over again, winding the web, all over again.

 

 

 

 

In Search of Perfection

It took me a while to get the hang of teaching, it has to be said. At twenty-two, I hadn’t really done anything work-wise, apart from the odd Saturday and summer job, selling ice-creams and working behind the bar. I wasn’t exactly ready for the demands of the workplace, no matter how intense the training course (I did a nine-month PGCE).

I’d gone from school to college to uni and back to school again, and through a stage of getting the sack (or at least, not being asked back to temporary office work or shop jobs – and the less said about my waitressing the better). Even getting my first permanent job as a teacher was a bit of a trial (if you live in a pleasant place where there is a teacher training college, there is LOTS of competition), after figuring out that a job with a bit of creativity and autonomy suited me better. It took me the whole of my PGCE to turn myself away from being a student, and I reckon another two years on top of that to get the hang of working as a teacher.

Apart from one horrible experience, it was OK, though. I may not have walked into a permanent position straight out of college, but along the way I had the opportunity to work alongside a series of older and more experienced teachers who took me under their wings. They supported me through my various Seemed Like Good Idea at the Times – and told me when I needed to go home and not come back in until I was feeling better too.

It helped (and kept me working, no doubt) to know that I was on an extraordinarily steep learning curve. I wasn’t supposed to be fantastic at all times. I’d never heard of Outstanding; instead, I used to wonder if I would ever turn into a Swan Teacher (probably not). I was allowed to be young and make mistakes. It was OK not to know it all (apart from at the Bad Experience School), to ask for help and advice. Seventeen years later, I still write to Rose at Christmas, my colleague who retired and then kept on teaching into her 70s, whose good ideas I used to steal shamelessly and whose brain I regularly picked.

Sometimes, when I read the discourse around new teachers (I like to call them baby teachers, especially as, at twenty-two, they could easily have been my baby), I feel sorry for them. Labelled on a scale of 1-4, graded from the moment they entered the school system as a child themselves, I am sad that there seems to be an element of resentment towards their educators; that they didn’t pop out the other end of the education system fully formed.

It seems to me to be one thing to ‘hit the ground running’, but altogether another to expect either yourself or someone else to be perfect. Maybe, if we stopped expecting new teachers, or even more experienced ones – or parents, come to that – to know it all at all times, that there should be more, somehow, than being on a journey to good enough, then those moments when we are forced to eat a slice of humble pie wouldn’t be so difficult.

I wrote a book about how to be a great, inclusive teacher, a part of which is learning from our mistakes – because we all make them.

You can buy it here: SEN Books   and here Amazon