Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mother

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s not often that academic research drives me to tears.  Actually, it’s not often that academic research drives me to anything, but there you are.  I have an excuse; I’m on a course.  Still, the last time I read anything in an academic journal it was about how views of femininity were expressed through medical texts about childbirth in the 16th Century.  I, a young woman, a baby, was reading about long dead women’s lives, and the connection stopped there.  It was four and a half centuries away after all.

But now, today, a fully fledged grown up woman, a mother to three children, I don’t feel the same distance.  Instead of the pleasure of interest and stimulation, a firing of the brain cells and a connection between a philosophical standpoint and evidence, I felt a sense of shock.  There, on the page, without me having contributed anything at all, were aspects of my life; my mothering life.

I don’t think of Sam as disabled.  To me, he is just Sam.  OK, so we have more appointments to attend than anyone else I know, but, to me, he’s on a journey towards adulthood the same as anyone else.  Since the day he was born and we were told that he had Trisomy 21 it’s been exactly the same.  I know that he has a learning disability – I mean I live with him and it’s pretty hard to escape, but still.  To me, he is just my boy.

But then, there is this thing about it being really difficult for me to work.  I was at home for ten years before I ventured back into the workplace.  R was stuck in a job he hated for seven of them.  Yes, we were busy creating our family, but it would be disingenuous of me to claim that Trisomy 21 had nothing to do with my long years out.  It did.  We only just managed to send him out to the office.

And now that I am back at work it’s difficult.  What am I supposed to do about blood tests, or eye checks, or orthotic appointments or hearing tests that fall on days when I am in the classroom?  How realistic is it for me to have career aspirations when I keep having to take days off to care, to be poorly myself because we have Down’s syndrome in the family?

In a way it’s easier.  I’m not so bored by the domestic duties of housewifery,  I’m no longer going slightly mad.  I’ve got something else to think about, other than obsess about my own children; I’m not so worried about money.  And strangely, I don’t feel so voiceless.

There is a funny thing that happens to you when you become a mother, especially when you become the sort of mother who stays at home.  You start off as a rational creature, your importance magnified, like your size, until that baby appears.  And then, slowly but surely, you find your voice weakens, less heard in direct proportion to your length of service.

It’s partly the increasing ability of your offspring to say ‘no’ to you that saps your confidence.  It’s partly living in a world dominated by relationships, a private existence, rather than a public one, and it’s partly what happens when other people get involved with your child.

For those of us with out of the ordinary children this happens straight away.  Did that baby really belong to me?  Was I really allowed to take him home?  If I was a good girl, and checked in regularly, maybe they’d let me keep him.  Once they’d got over the apologies for not spotting it, and the pressure to make sure it didn’t happen again, to find out who was responsible, genetically speaking, who was to blame, that is.

It starts off OK.  Your observations are welcome in the matter of health.  As a closely watching mother you can add plenty to the picture; you are an important decision maker, your word is final.  But as the years pass and you move into the realms of education there is a subtle shift.  You move from the foothills of acceptable anxiety, it’s new to you after all, to the mountain tops of pushy.  Unrealistic.  Hysterical, even.  It’s astonishing how quickly your word is dismissed.

Before you know where you are you have to insist, you who kept your own bank account for years, who kept your own name, that he takes the morning off work and comes with you to a meeting because you can’t seem to make yourself understood and you watch, amazed, as he, your softly spoken wingman, stuns a room to silence with a single word and you feel as if you have travelled back in time, back to the days when women’s voices didn’t matter.

That education you had, those years you spent in the classroom, that professional and personal knowledge you garnered, becomes as nothing because you, as well as your son, carry a value laden label.  Mother.

I thought it would be different.  I thought we had moved on.

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Words

Words are strange and wondrously tricky creatures (yes, I have been reading Lauren Child to my children).  They are what separates us from the animal kingdom, an integral part of our humanity. And yet, they are slippery so and sos.  No matter what you do, they are the very devil to pin down, almost as tricky as a moonbeam upon some sand.  And, despite their smallness, their essence forever trapped within an infinitesimally tiny moment, they hold immense power.

It’s one of those philosophical conundrums that I, in a desultorily bookish and unconnected with lived lives kind of way, like to discuss; where the meaning in words resides.  Do they have an intrinsic meaning of their own, something that they essentially are or essentially describe?  Do they hold their meaning in relation to the things that they are not, be they opposites or within interconnected webs?  Or does their meaning, and hence their power, lie somewhere else entirely?

On their own, words are just tinkles in the wind, squiggles on a page; it is only when they enter the mind, yours or mine, that they start to paint a picture.  In the imagination they take on a life of their own, endlessly displaced.

It’s so easy to make a mistake with words.  It’s so easy for something you say or write to be taken in a different way to that which you intended, taken the wrong way.  Once those words are out they gain independence, and it’s only when someone points out to you what it is that has got their hackles up that you realise what it was you said.

As teachers we seem to be constantly discussing what we mean by certain words, mastery being the latest victim of ire.  I get it, I really do.  In a female dominated workplace, and I mean dominated to a huge degree, what is this master teacher nonsense?  Only contrast it with the female form, mistress, to feel the effect of a gendered description.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not especially prudish, but the debate over some words surprises me more than others.  So, mastery-gate is a kind of geeky teachery-kind of debate, not much interesting to the rest of the non-educational obsessed world (well, the un-obsessed with the definition of teachers part of the world, anyway) but insults and expletives are another matter.  All of a sudden, the debate notches up a level.

I long ago came to the conclusion that I didn’t want parts of my anatomy being used as insults; the more internal to me, the greater the insult being insulting in itself.  The thing is, though, that I am quite able to make the point.   I can be quite strident when I choose.  In the matter of language, I can stand up for myself.  I might have to stamp my foot a bit, but I’m not backwards in coming forwards when I think it’s important.

But Sam.  My son.  Language eludes him to a great degree.  Yes, he can communicate effectively his needs and desires.  He is able to ask for a drink, or to tell me not to forget to fetch his bike.  He can tell me when he’s tired, or sad (especially fake sad, the kind that comes with a sign and a secret grin-under-the-eyelashes).  He can tell me when he was the marble winner and what he had for lunch that day.  But, you see, I know him well.  I have watched my son, I have listened hard since the day he was born and I had to try and work out what the cries meant.  Was he hungry?  Was he wet?  Did he have a tummy ache?  Was he bored?  Did I need to call the doctor?

People who don’t know him as well as I do don’t find him the easiest to understand, though.  His speech is indistinct, his hearing weak and his conceptual understanding low.  He has a self-obsessed day-dreamy mind that, rather than engaging in conversation, pops out a tale of Strictly Come Dancing, or something else equally bizarre or unconnected to what went before, leaving his friends who do not know his quirks confused (I blame his father).

So when people, adult people who should know better, use terms from the past, terms used to describe people like him, like ‘mong’ or ‘retard’, or any other number of less appealing epithets as an insult I frown, and my eyes turn squinty (if not mean).  Because, unlike me, he can’t have it out with them.  He can’t say, ‘oi! Stop using me as an insult!’  Thanks to that extra twenty-first chromosome, his words, the ones that engage in debate, the cut and thrust of verbal repartee have been stolen from him.

So I’ll say it.  Don’t use those words.  Don’t use words that used to mean my son as an insult.  Whatever he is, infuriating, tiring, lovable, he is not that.

And if you didn’t know that, if you didn’t know that in using those particular words as a weapon of hurt, that when you chanted them and laughed and thought it was all a big joke, no offence, you were hurting not just your target, but a group of vulnerable people who have no weapons of return, then man up.  Stop doing someone else down in order to make yourself look big, because that’s bullying by any other name.  Stop and say sorry.

It’s only a word, but it means much.

http://www.theguardian.com/football/2015/feb/23/kevin-kilbane-west-ham-fans-disabled

A Definition of Terms

I had a really scary lecturer at university once.  She was the sort of woman who had the sort of reputation that preceded her; I expect half of the academics in the department were frightened of her too.  One of the things that always got me was you could never quite be sure who she was looking at, who would be the next victim of her incisive questioning.

I was that person rather too often for my liking.  Then, as now, I had a tendency to make sweeping statements, to activate my mouth before my brain, and she was never prepared to let one get past her.  Her favourite comment was, ‘now, let’s unpack that statement,’ and I would have to explain myself.  In detail.  With appropriate evidence.  It was a pain in the behind.

That said, without her, I wouldn’t have done as well as I did, and I wouldn’t have learned the more important lesson of defining exactly what I meant when I spoke, or wrote.  In those days, my definitions circled mostly around the concepts of gender, race and class, but I made regular forays into justice, morals and politics – my statements about which I was regularly forced to unpack, with varying degrees of success.  It’s one of the reasons I am not one of those bloggers who seem able to bang out a post on the latest debate before the day is out.  I need time; time to process what I want to say, what I really mean.  

It is this experience that makes the the Great Education Knowledge and Skills Debate one of the most irritating things I read. We have a tendency to bang on about our own particular enthusiasms, but we make mistakes when we assume that all of us in education are the same, or worse, should be the same. We play with words like Learning, Knowledge and Skills, discuss styles of teaching, get very heated over ideas such as a the correct way to teach A, B or C (usually Maths or reading), and I find myself increasingly confused.

This whole knowledge/skills debate is a nightmare for a teacher like me.  You see, I don’t just teach one subject.  Back in the days when I was thinking about what I might do with my Life after Graduation (my main aim before graduation was to be an undergraduate, so it took me a while to  decide what I might do with myself afterwards), I discussed the possibility of teaching with a friendly careers advisor.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I love history.  I think it is possibly the best subject to study in the world, like, ever, but I am not a history teacher.  I may have spouted on about how I didn’t want to try to teach the subject I love, that I am so passionate about, to disaffected youth who really couldn’t care less, but the truth is a little more prosaic that that.  I didn’t want to be bored.  (Sorry, secondary teachers, I only thought about teaching the same subject and didn’t think about the challenges of teaching more than one age-group.  I was shallow.)

There is this marvellous variety in primary teaching, you see.  One minute it’s Maths, and Science, and the next it’s PE and Art and Drama and Music.  And with each subject, a different style, a different set of skills and knowledge, a different balance between the two is required.  I enjoy teaching primary Maths.  I’m no great mathematician, but I (hope) I do a good job with KS2.  I have a very traditional style in my lessons (although I’m not the biggest fan of sitting children in rows); where there are lots of times tables, and rulers, and pernickety numbers in squares and decimal points on lines.

But I don’t teach Music the way I teach Maths.  I don’t teach Games the way I teach Music, or History, or Writing, or Reading.  It’s different.  I need to employ a different kind of teaching for each subject, and there is a different blend of knowledge and skills for each too.  A different blend for each aspect of each subject.  And when I teach each of these different subjects, I have different groups of children, different set of skills and knowledge present in each class.  And that’s before I have taken into account the blend of personalities and possible learning difficulties present.

When I think about Sam, when I think about how hard he finds every damn thing, how hard won is his knowledge, I wonder how we can possibly try to separate the two.  He knows how to write his name, but without the skill in his soft little fingers he can’t do it.  He knows how to play football, but it’s not much fun if he hasn’t mastered the skill of kicking the ball, rather than stepping on it and bouncing, face flat, onto the playground or into the mud.

When it comes down to it, what children need is not just knowledge.  What these children need is not just skills.  Reading isn’t just phonics and it isn’t just real words.  Maths isn’t just recall of facts, but understanding how to apply them. Children need a blend of knowledge and skill and each day, each lesson, each moment in school, and beyond, is an exercise in that blend. It’s decoding and understanding.  Recall and application.

The results of all our endeavours rest there, not in a regurgitated exam paper; in the child who wants to learn, who is enthused by the prospect of discovering more about the world around them, and who has the skills and knowledge, blended, to go about doing just that.

I hope I’ve unpacked that enough to make her feel like she did a good job.

This post forms part of @Edutronic_Net ‘s excellent February #blogsync

#TeachMeetSEND

I love half term.  I don’t really care what time of year it is, I don’t even mind particularly much if it rains.  What I love is the break from the daily grind of getting three children up and dressed and ready and organised and out of the door for a day at school.  The bliss of not having to do any of that at a break-neck pace carries me through.

I’m not one of those parents who quails at the thought of the holidays.  I’m not saying it isn’t hard – I’m happy to say goodbye to the days when they were little and the change in routine and finding themselves in each other’s company was the cause of much warfare, but now, now that I too am back at school, with yet another timetable for me to coordinate, the holiday, at preferably the end of six, rather than eight weeks, comes as blessed relief.

Not that I don’t appreciate a break, though; a chance to do something on my own, just for me, without any young people, with or without pushchairs or changing bags.  Normally, it means a trip to the shops, a little look at Ladies’ Nice Things, or a lunch with an old friend, or a rare trip out in the boat with the man that gives me the space to be me, but yesterday I opted for something different.

In the glorious sunshine of a February morning, I headed out, via a hugely entertaining train journey where I met a man on his way to see a steam engine, a TA waiting to start her teacher training, her Finnish teacher boyfriend, and a fidgety man who looked like he was longing to join in our conversation and tell us all off soundly, to Oxford, to a TeachMeet for those of us working with and interested in SEND.

I take my hat off to Simon Knight.  I admit it, organisation is not my strongest point.  Sometimes I feel as if my head is full of ping pong balls and when you add one in, another one pops out, but Simon had everything down to a T.  There was coffee and cake.  There were large, comfortable sofas and a place to chat.  There was a single computer with everyone’s presentations on it, a running order and timings that stuck to times (apart from me, apologies, apologies).  There were even prizes (thank you @natedtrust_marc)(@rachelrossiter won the one for coming the furthest).

@AspieDeLaZouch told us that we need to make the new Code of Practice work for us, and gave us some pointers on how to do that (as well as organising Rachel and I and ensuring we didn’t get lost between the station and the venue and back again).  @honeybeevic reminded us of the specific needs of girls with autism, so easily overlooked.  Will Harvey spoke about praise, and how easy it is to get it wrong.  @90_maz dazzled us with a rather whizzy prezi and solid ideas around teaching children the vocabulary of science – something that is very much transferrable to the mainstream classroom.  @ASTsupportAAli, who wasn’t sure whether he could make it, spoke from the heart, and with no bells and whistles, about what he’s learned in a year and a half of being in charge of inclusion at his school.

Tom Proctor Legg explained how he is using ipads to help children with writing, and @SimonKnight100 told us about an excellent little app called MadPad, which I shall investigate as it can help children to make sentences.  After that, @BenSimmons_PhD spoke about some of his findings into the experiences of children with profound PMLD in mainstream school.  And then there was me.  I got nervous and went on far too long.  Rachel had to get out a tissue and Simon had to wave at me to get me back on track.  Ben and I had an interesting little micro-discussion about the merits of special/mainstream education afterwards.

But more than that, what he did was create a space for us to meet each other, to confirm friendships made in the artificial place that is Twitter.  I think, after yesterday, that I can safely say that @ChrisChivers2, @rachelrossiter, @AspieDeLaZouch (who doesn’t come from Ashby de la Zouche), @90_maz, @ASTsupportAAli, @natedtrust_marc, @SimonKnight100 and so many others are my friends.  I am glad to know you, and very glad to have met you.  I had a great day.

 

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The spires really are dreamy.

@90_maz has blogged herein more detail about what people spoke about, and there is also a link to her whizzy prezi.

Accountability

I don’t care about the attainment statistics of other people’s children.

I don’t want the totality of who my child is to be reduced to a number or a letter.  P4, L1A, Down’s syndrome, SEN.

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I don’t want to be held responsible for things that are beyond my control, like, whether a child I teach has had an early night, or plays on the Xbox til the early hours, or regularly goes without breakfast, you know, the things that get in the way of the book learning.

I want to remove the connection between assessment and blame – after all, that is what accountability is about, isn’t it?  Who to blame when things go wrong?  Who to hold to account?

Maybe I don’t want Making Sure That Schools Are Doing What They Are Supposed To Be Doing to be about blame at all.  Maybe it’s too blunt an instrument, the blame game, too one dimensional an understanding of what is really going on in this business of bringing up baby.  It isn’t all down to one person or one institution; motherhood or teacherhood.

I want to look through the SEN magnifying glass at when things go wrong; to examine the anomalies, to learn from them.  I’ve never worked in a school where the inspectors have walked in and jobs have been lost and knuckles have been rapped, but I’ve lived through years of observing a slow slide into problems known and hinted at in report after report, research paper after research paper, and been powerless to do anything about it.

What is the point of data that doesn’t even do what it purports to do when a barrier of fear keeps you apart, parents and teachers, and solutions remain unfound?

Accountability isn’t about graphs and verdicts and whole school judgements.  It’s about communication, and respect, and problem solving together.

And more than that, accountability, responsibility even, needs to be swift.  We need to be able to put things right when they are wrong, and do it quickly because it isn’t about today’s taxpayers, not really.

It’s about life chances.  It’s about tomorrow.

Give me transparency so that I can see what’s happening.  Give me training so that I can do my job to the best of my ability.  Give me social justice so that we can give all children a level playing field.  Give me back the community who raised the children together, not the one that is isolated from each other, afraid of each other.

Let’s get rid of the fear.