That September Feeling

Today was the first day I noticed the morning mist. It hangs, golden, over stubbled fields heavy with dew, slowly disappearing, soaked up by the still-warm, late-summer sunshine of September. We are entering the final third of the last act of summer, and I am surprised that it has taken this long. It’s usually the first week back, the shock of the first INSET morning after the long rest that has me noticing it, curled around the valley floor, but not this year.

This year, September has been, not the delicious irony of glorious settled Indian Summer, but wet. Muddy, wet and cold and an unaccustomed early start to the wearing of long trousers. Instead of sunglasses, I have shivered, donned a raincoat and sadly abandoned my summer shoes. They sit, with the t-shirt I wore only once, on the floor of my bedroom, ever hopeful that warmth will return before they must be put away, hibernating in a dusty box beneath the bed.

It’s used to be that I was invigorated by the September Snap; that first breath of chill as you step out of the front door on the way to school. After a long, boring summer, with nothing to do but read, or hang out with the young people who just happened to be there (as opposed to young people who were actually friends), or, even, reluctantly perform the homework tasks set by teachers who would no doubt forget they ever asked, I was ready for the change, the challenge of a new school year. Now, though, now I am not.

For six long weeks I have them. For six long weeks, my children are mine. Our lives, for a time relive, they ring with the echo of when they were first born, of the time before timetables and bells and detentions and punishments for lateness. For six long weeks (bar the times when I must work, the bills needs paying, after all) we please ourselves. 

You don’t realise the freedom, the release from other people’s expectations, other people’s agendas, until it ends, until the moment when the hamster wheel of packed lunches and school runs, checks for homework and the paying for trips and clubs and music lessons takes up its relentless motion. You thought you were in control – of your own life, of the way your children are brought up – until that moment, and you see again the grey hairs and the burgeoning lines upon your forehead; you feel the pinch of other people’s expectations, etched upon your skin.

Your fingers itch to reach the keyboard, to fill in the blank pages of the home-school diary, to tell the people who don’t know your children all the things, all of the things, to reassure yourself that they know the mountain you are climbing, that they will help, not hinder your progress.

That first breath of September, no longer the chill that rosed the cheeks and quickened the step, must now be held, until you learn to trust.

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SEND and the law

A very dear and very old friend of mine (as in, we have known each other since we were girls, not that we are Of Ancient Times, despite what I may be told by my middle child) is a lawyer. While I was teacher training, she was ordering up a wig and gown and hurrying around London carrying large boxes. It’s a very different life. At one time, I too was going to be a barrister; I was rather taken with the idea of wearing said wig (and gown) and arguing the case and saying ‘me lud’. A little bit of work experience, however, soon put paid to that idea. Then, as now, I find that I am unsuited to the law.

My friend A is not the only lawyer of my acquaintance, you see. These days I know several, in both a personal and a professional capacity, and they are almost as different to me as it is possible to be – all perfectly nice and lovely, but very, very different.

For a start, there is their commitment to details. They just love them. They love ferreting them out meticulously. (I’m more of a big picture, grand statement, splodge and mess making kind of person; my teachers used to sigh, as I grandly made pronouncements, and failed to back them up with evidence.) Off they go, burrowing into this, that or the other Act of Parliament, surrounding themselves with stacks of books of case law, with a sense of joyful purpose, finding out.

Then there is the letter writing. OK, so I can do a good letter, but I don’t do lawyer letters. There’s something about them that is spoiling for a fight and they just love it. Me, on the other hand, is more often to be found quaking like a jelly and wringing my hands over appearances and getting along. Lawyers, they just don’t care. Confrontation is their stock in trade. They thrive on it, that and their sense of justice.

Advocating is something they do so well, and so comfortably. Me, I do it all the time, but without the anonymising wig and gown, the creation of an official persona, backed up by years of history, I find myself standing on shifting sands, rather than the solid stage of the courtroom. Where lawyers win their cases through the full force of the law (when my sister and I were children, we were fond of playing the game that involved us banging on closed doors, declaring ‘open up, in the name of the law’ in loud voices), I find myself arguing for the spirit, rather than the letter. I’d much rather people just did the right thing.

The thing is, though, that they don’t. Last November I went to a conference on design for disability, and the point was made, again and again, that the laws exist to protect disabled people, and yet again and again they remain broken. Again and again, in all sorts of fields, from websites to coffee shops, we, as a society, fail to treat disabled people properly. And by that I don’t only mean people in wheelchairs, I mean people with learning differences too.

And, as I watch the debates that swirl in education, the ones that touch special educational needs and disability, about the way that we, as a community of adults, treat children, and disabled children at that, I think that we aren’t any better than the businesses who don’t provide disabled toilets, despite our claims to the moral high ground conferred by public service. Current narratives that speak of giving disadvantaged children opportunities brought through education fail to notice that they speak of disabled children too – the ones who seem so quickly excluded, thrown out, and written off as disruptive influences.

The plain fact is that those disadvantaged children we purport to save are the very same as those protected by Acts of Parliament, such as the Equality Act (2010) and the Children and Families Act (2014), not to mention the Teacher Standards and international agreements such as the UNCRC.

And I can’t help wondering just how much longer they will go on being ignored.

 

On Knowing and Knowledge – the bubble in the sky

You might not know, but I have another, more directly teaching blog ( http://www.classteachingtips.wordpress.com ) and I have toyed with the idea of writing this post for that blog, as it is about a debate on knowledge and the organisation of it, that rumbles on through the teacher summer holidays, but as I want to approach it through the lens of motherhood, I thought, what they heck, I’ll put it here.

Blogs on knowledge organisers can be found here:

The highs and lows of knowledge organisers: an end of year report

https://primaryknowledgeorganisers.wordpress.com/geuifger/

https://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/2017/01/02/on-knowledge-organisers/

https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/science-knowledge-organisers/

http://chrischiversthinks.weebly.com/blog-thinking-aloud/food-for-thought 

http://chrischiversthinks.weebly.com/blog-thinking-aloud/workload-thoughts

If you are an education blogger and you have a perspective on knowledge organisers, please add your link in the comments. 

So.

Something that took me by surprise, when my boys were babies, was their language development. I knew that it was likely that Sam was going to have some sort of language/communication difficulty as part of his disability, and, while part of me was happy to let him develop at his own pace, another, bigger part of me was not prepared to let him carry on growing up in his own sweet way without some direction. Like many mothers of babies with Down’s syndrome, I learned to sign, and I took him to bi-weekly speech therapy classes from an early age. I was fascinated and committed – I find language development interesting anyway, and therapeutic techniques easy to do – and, love his little cotton socks, Sam was signing before he was two years old. (I remember his second Christmas vividly in this regard. It was in the quiet week between the festivals of Christmas and New Year, and we were in hospital, pneumonia having paid him a visit, when we first noticed.) When baby A came along, speech therapy was in full swing, and, funnily enough, he was making meaningful utterances by the time he was about 17 months old. (I like to put it down to the signing, his adoring grandmamas like to put it down to giftedness, as is their right.)

Even now, thanks to his speech difficulties, it is difficult to tell what Sam is thinking, but, thanks to a vociferous younger brother, a precocious chatterbox, I had a burbling window into the mind of the very young thanks to my middle child. 

 Sometimes, I think that we forget how little young children actually know.  As adults – and teachers – we make huge assumptions, forgetting that, when they are young, they are like unwritten pages. Not empty vessels, the fashionable description among some teaching circles, they are full up with all sorts of things (rage, mostly), but pages, the story of which they have yet to write for themselves.

When he was around two years old, and Sam was about four, we went camping with friends. Unlike his peers, A had reached the stage of talking in sentences and, up late thanks to the camping, had never seen the early evening summer moon.

“Look mummy,” he said, his little voice piping and his little finger pointing, “there’s a bubble in the sky.”

We adults breathed a collective aww as I explained that it was, in fact, the moon – tucking away the dawning realisation that he didn’t know what the moon was either.  He’d only just noticed it, after all, and, even if he had seen the silver crescent hanging in the midnight sky, he’d hardly think that the bubble in the twilight was the same thing. He just didn’t know enough about life, the universe and everything.

It was the same the first time he fell in the sea. Not living close to the coast, as I did when I was a little girl, he had little experience to go by, in all things oceanic. Seaweed, pebbles, gravel-rough sand, waves; all these things were ideas gleaned from CBeebies (he tells me that most of his wide knowledge of wildlife is down to It’s Our Planet and Spring/Autumn Watch, the CBeebies versions) and bedtime stories. The day he was knocked over in the surf was the day he bounced up, gasping, “It tastes of salt! I didn’t think it would taste of salt!” I never thought to tell him; I assumed he knew.

Maybe, though, looking back, it wasn’t all down to the speech therapy. Maybe my habit of giving a running commentary wherever we went and whatever we did had something to do with his constant chatter (you will know if you do this if you find yourself pointing out items of interest – trains, diggers, tractors, solar farms etc – to either your empty car or your adult travelling companions).  The conversation between A and I, as we travel about our surroundings has always been a joy, as we leapfrog from subject to subject, inspired by what we see on our journeyings.

Apart from hedgehogs. Hedgehogs, to me, were an animal of great interest. Rare and shy, you’d be lucky to see one in the wild, even luckier if you had one come to stay in your garden. We’d pass a tangle of trees and brambles on the way to pick Sam up from nursery, and I’d thought aloud that it would be a great place for hedgehogs to live. When A burst into tears and begged to be rushed past, rather than stopping to look, it took me a while to realise that he, only ever encountering them close up via the television screen, had conceptualised them rather differently to reality. Not for him the quiet sniffler, instead, the spiked danger of hogs the size of bears (who also live in woods).

I don’t know, but whenever I see teachers talking of knowledge organised on pieces of paper and tested (sorry, quizzed) on a Friday morning, like a spelling or a times table, I remember the bubble in the sky and the hedgehog in the woods, and I know that there are many different ways of knowing and that, like spellings, it takes more than a sheet and a test to ensure meaningful learning.

The Year of Leaving Dangerously

OK, so I have maybe stretched a point with the title of this blog, but I couldn’t just end it with ‘leaving’, could I?

The end of the summer term is here.  The hubs is in the kitchen cooking curry, A and L are sprawled upon the sofa, still in uniform, slowly discussing the events of the day in little dribs and drabs.  Sam is upstairs, music is cascading in a torrent from his open door, and I, sitting at a little table, am steadily ignoring the domestic chaos and tippy tapping the computer keyboard instead.

Just like all the other years, I have made it to the end of July by the skin of my teeth.  Like every other year, the last three weeks have been dominated by sports days, school reports, the mad dash to buy gifts and cards of thanks, school plays and the emotion of final assemblies, albeit this year from the parental edge rather than the staff centre.  This year, my heart strings have been twanged by just three children, rather than thirty-odd of them.

This year has been significant in its leave taking.  L has reached the end of Year 6.  She has just this moment stepped over the threshold of her primary education, and I find myself wondering whether she will join the ranks of girls who insist on wearing thick black tights, whatever the weather, or whether she will carry on with socks and cool comfort.  And Sam, he has made the biggest change of all; today he left his special school, ready to take up a place at the local mainstream college.

To his credit (and possibly his teachers have had something to do with it too), he is far more prepared for the move than I.  He left with a cheery wave and a ‘see ya!’, while I was required to hurry up and tag along, wiping away the unbidden tear.  He is satisfied that College will mean exciting times and growing up (and, to be fair, I went to a college, and I had an awesome couple of years of growing up and having fun), and I, ever anxious, am worried that his timetable doesn’t seem to have much maths and English in it.  We are entering a new era indeed.

It has been a slow process, this leaving, a bit like when you finally release yourself from the clutches of a sticking plaster, pick by pick.  A house move, new schools for A and L;  it has been a long time coming. When I look back, I can trace its roots, its beginnings, to over a year ago, to the moment when I realised that I could no longer stay on at my school, that the time had come for me to go.

I haven’t really written about it, not in an open way (I wrote this with a friend – and then all my best sentences got cut!)  I haven’t known what to say.  There is a mixed-up feeling of loss and relief, and it’s hard to untangle.  Instead of trying to tease it out, to make meaning through writing, I’ve left it; an undisturbed scab.  I haven’t been in a school, except in a parental capacity in almost a year and I’ve been glad.

So now, like my children, instead of focusing on the pain of what is left behind, I’m turning my face towards the future.  It’s a new college and school for them – and me.

Afraid

I was chatting the other day,  with some mothers of children with Down’s syndrome; what was it about Down’s syndrome, we were asked, that everyone, the world and his wife, finds so scary?  It’s a question that knocked on the door of my consciousness long before it was posed.

You can find a post on the fear of disability, and Down’s syndrome here.

It doesn’t happen straight away, but once your child is no longer a baby, or a cute toddler, a little one in a too big school uniform, once your boy starts to turn into a man, people’s attitudes change.  The miasma of fear hangs around them.  A fear of male sexuality.  A discomfort with a feminised masculinity; a man who will always need to be helped.  A not-quite someone.

You can find a post about Down’s syndrome and manhood here.

And I have written about the judgement on women, on mothers who dare to have a disabled child. Framed as choice, the discourse has more than a whiff of judgement about it, there is a you made your bed now you lie in it stench.  I have read about, thought about and written about the blame that is hung around the neck of mothers of disabled children.  Too needy. Hysterical. In denial. Awkward. Liars, even.

You can read a post about the inherent sexism present in our schools here.

Mothers of disabled children are set about with rules. In a digital age, we are told we share too much. We place our children in danger; we share stories that are not ours to tell, as if the stories of women, of mothers, are somehow less important, less deserving of a hearing.  In an economic time of debt and austerity, we must both pay the bills and stay at home. We have no need of ambition; our fate is to lay ourselves down at the feet of our children, the price we must pay for bringing to birth a disabled baby.

Today, for work (although I’d have read it out of interest), I read a report into the mental health and wellbeing of children with SEND (that’s special educational needs and disabilities) in schools, and, to be honest, I wasn’t shocked.  Depressed and angered, yes. Shocked, no.  You can read it here.

You see, we know that SEND is intimately connected with poverty and economic and social disadvantage.

We know that having a disabled child puts a strain on adult relationships and many such children grow up with an absent father.

We know that teenage girls are deeply unhappy with the world around them and their place in it, and that this is especially pronounced in girls who don’t, or who feel they don’t fit in.

We know that disabled adults and children face greater levels of bullying than any other group – and disabled girls even more so.

The report paints a picture of a toxic cocktail of powerlessness centred on the experience of women and girls; of individuals caught in the feminised state of disability.  No doubt there will be calls for change, for interventions or plans, for government backed initiatives, citing the well known unhappiness of the UK’s children in justification.  We have a big problem, requiring a big solution.

Except we don’t, not really.  To be kind costs nothing.  To be alert to bullying and to help our children and put a stop to the behaviour that has blighted the lives of so many costs little; some thought, some understanding, maybe a bit of training and a heap of commitment.  Challenging workplaces and demanding societal support for families, so that caring is shared, not carried by one person, might take a bit more, but still.

Without that commitment to change, when you look at it, when you really look at it, who wouldn’t be afraid?