Monthly Archives: October 2016

The teacher and the doctor

It’s been a funny old half term.  I decided a while ago that, as the children were off school and, for as long as they can remember, I have always been off too, to book some annual leave.  I have never done this before; the idea that I now have the ability to decide when I want to take a holiday is mind blowing.  I don’t quite understand it.

We had all sorts of plans.  I was going to take them to all sorts of places, do all sorts of things together, hardly any of which have happened.  The daughter has been poorly, and, instead of museums and long walks admiring the spleandours of autumn, instead we have had doctors and hospitals and scans.  Thanksfully, me and the kids are used to things not going to plan.  Rolling with it has been the plan for a while round here.

It’s been a challenge though,partly because there hasn’t been time to get organised.  We got things wrong and ended up stuck in waiting rooms and wards with nothing to do (not even any trashy magazines), except for the trusty smart phone.  It has come into its own this week.  The final of the Great Bristish Bake Off was a fine distraction from chewing our nails while waiting for results, Facebook saved me from shouting at hapless pharmacists while we waited for new meds that are taking their own sweet time to work and Twitter gave me something else to think about.  And while we hung around, I thought.

I thought what a distinct thing it is, to be a teacher.  Unlike the doctor, we work with the workings of the mind, not the problems of the body.  We are dealers in hope, not trained to be dispensers of despair.  The worst news we ever have to give, perhaps, is that someone might not make the grade.  We rarely have to wait while grown adults compose themselves and rapidly readjust to a new reality.

It is strange, for a teacher, to find herself in the position of not knowing the answers.  Answering the constant questions of our charges is what we do, after all.  We are the purveyors of knowledge and it is disconcerting when we don’t have it.  It makes you realise what a privileged thing it is; knowledge.  And, when it comes to people, how it is nuanced and unpredictable, slippery and subject to individual circumstance.

You might think, in terms of the profession, how dedicated, overworked, clever and decisive we are, that we might be similar, alike.  But, after this week, after a continuing brush with people confident in who they are, who hold power and responsibility gently, not just towards the child, but the parent too, I am struck by difference.

Oh, doctors get it wrong.  The day they stood at the end of my bed and effectively told me my baby was a monster, a mistake, was not a good one.  But please don’t tell me that we, the layers of foundations, the backstage boys, the holders of hands and the takers of no credit are like them.   We might romanticise and tell the tale that we build the future, we hold it in our hands, that without us there would be no doctors, no lawyers, no pilots, no anything or anyone, but we do not hold life in our hands.  We do not deal with death.

I do wonder sometimes, if we haven’t got it all a bit out of proportion.



Happily Ever After

When we were little, my sister and I used to squabble.  A lot.  As teens, there was a lot of shouting and flouncing.  As younger children we occasionally came to blows.  Most of the time we got on well; it was perhaps, those moments of shared interests combined with deep-seated competition that set us off.

One of the things we used to like to do, for instance, was to turn the entire house into a hospital, when friends came to play.  There would always be someone groaning to dramatic effect behind a door, and another child, leg slowly going blue, in traction via a skipping rope slung over the low beams in the sitting room.  One year, we became obsessed with weddings (we lived opposite the church), and paraded up and down the garden, taking it in turns to wear the maxi-dress and carry the net curtain train.  We used to race up to the church tree to collect up bits of confetti with which, mixed with the gravel we found there, we showered each other and our friends.

I think it was something to do with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or The Slipper and The Rose, because one April, we decided to make a play, involving sellotaping apple blossom to the ropes of my swing.  It was disappointing the next day, when, ready and excited to perform in front of our mother, we found the pink-and-white blooms wilted and brown.  It didn’t stop us finding a use for them though, when we gave a passing bride, glowing in her horse and trap, a shock by throwing them at her, twigs and all, from the end of our garden, where it met the sunken lane.

We would build ornate homes for our Sindy dolls out of a collection of books and boxes, as a prelude for elaborate Sindy shows-cum-stories involving ballerinas (imaginatively called Bally) (and always with one hand); mine was always rich, my sister’s always poor, which was much better because it was more romantic.  I never got my hands on the Sindy house with crackling fireplace, but we did create a Sindy barge out of one of those old-fashioned pencil cases (SCALE DOES NOT MATTER IN THESE THINGS) with the slidy wooden lid, complete with telephone constructed out of a dolly shoe, some blue-tac and a bit of wire curled round a pencil.

We were remarkably cooperative over these pursuits, only occasionally coming to blows over the fact that it always seemed to be me on the outside of the Room Of Groans (probably an operating theatre), except when it came to the song and dance routines.  We were OK if it involved making the Sindy dolls perform over the top of the sofa to Super Trouper (our grandma was always happy to be the audience), but the instant words were involved it all became somewhat more fraught.

The Abba albums weren’t too bad, it has to be said.  My mum and dad approved of Abba, and, luckily, there were lyrics printed on the sleeve (although I do remember getting cross about something or other, probably ownership, because ‘Arrival’ is inscribed, in the sky above the helicopter, with my name – rather annoyingly – spelled wrong); they also, however, approved of Shawaddywaddy, Blondie and Grease, and therein lay the problem.

For some reason, possibly economical, there was a time when my dad used to come home bearing singles with the middles missing.  I think he must have got them from a juke box as he delighted himself by fashioning that three armed plastic centrepiece out of card, and we kept them carefully inside plain paper sleeves.  We would play them on the hi-fidelity record player and sing and dance along.  And argue about the words.

Shawaddywaddy was never too much of a problem with all the wallawallabingbongs, I mean, that doesn’t make sense anyway, but ‘Call Me’ became something about comics, although we never got to the bottom of the designer sheets (obviously this was some sort of paper).  It kind of made sense if you suspended your disbelief (you can do a lot of that if you are prepared to have a Sindy barge made out of a pencil case and a phone from a dolly shoe).

Not having seen the film, ‘Greased Lightning’ didn’t make an awful lot of sense, but we had heard our parents discussing the content and so listened very carefully.  No, it was ‘You’re the One that I Want’ that caused all the trouble.  We listened again and again, wrinkling our brows, never thinking to connect the name of the song with the chorus and regularly coming to, if not blows, then a shouting match, over the fact that the words could not be ‘you’re the wallabawah’ (her) and failing to come up with a viable alternative (me).

I’d forgotten those childhood disagreements until just the other day.  L had been to see the dress rehearsal of ‘Grease’, performed to great acclaim by the local secondary school.  She was impressed, and then let a comment slip that made me pause.  She reminded me of my childhood, and how different it was to hers.

“I don’t get why she had to change at the end,” she said.  “She was really pretty before.”

And, as we chewed over her pronouncement, I thought what a gift we had, to sit together at tea time and share our days, to talk about the things that happen and what they might mean; to share with them the idea that if someone loves you, and if you love them, it isn’t a conditional thing, that you shouldn’t have to change in order to please them, or they you.  That if you love someone, you love them, as they are, not as you wish they would be.

It strikes me that showing your children, teaching them what a healthy relationship is, what it feels and looks like, even with EHCP meetings on my mind, isn’t something that is just for the learning disabled, important though it is.  Knowing that it is OK to be you, and that you are worthy of love – just as you are without having to make yourself into something that you aren’t – and that you can do the same for someone else, is a lesson, not just for the girls, but for us all.

The Echo Chamber

One of the nicest things, for me, of having my own blog and interacting with people over social media is that, for the first time in a long, long time I haven’t felt so alone.  It’s partly to do with being the parent of a child with a disability, in my case, Down’s syndrome, and something to do with being a part-time, non-classroom-based teacher.  Put the two together, and there you have it.  An isolated creature indeed.

It’s something I never expected, when I started this blog, that I would find myself in a community.  First of all there is the Down’s syndrome parenting community.  There is something about knowing that there are other people who have shared your journey – and who continue to share it – that is tremendously affirming.  We are a an eclectic bunch, and you can find details to some of the bloggers with whom I am in contact here.

Then there is the SEND parenting community in general.  A passionate group of people who advocate powerfully for their children and whose expertise is often collected around the giant of SEND blogging that is Special Needs Jungle.  I am immensely flattered to have been asked to blog for the website – and I appreciate the connection to the wider community.  We all have so much experience to share and so much support to give each other, from our different perspectives.  Together we truly are stronger.

And then, there is the online teaching community.  One of the things I most missed when I went on my extended maternity leave was the company of my colleagues.  I missed the particular way that they talk about things, the way they chat about the massed children we teach, and the individuals that stick in our minds (for a multitude of reasons, including eating paperclips and being sent to the local hospital for x-rays).  I missed the sense of humour, the banter and the puns (no one else seems to pun like teachers, or tweet each other jokes about punctuation marks); the shared purpose and values.

And within that the teacher writers.  People like Sue Cowley, and Hey Miss Smith, Sarah Ledger and others whose blogs I adore for the quality of their writing, the way they make me feel.  The way that there are people out there who not only understand the joy of working with young people, but also of playing with words; how a story just seems to plop out onto the page, fully formed, almost as if the writer had nothing to do with it.

And, like the skin of an onion, once you get going, you can keep on peeling the layers back and finding more and more treasures.  The Primary Rocks crew.  The SEND leaders. Teachers and researchers, writers and tweeters who make me feel part of something really rather special, and really rather important.  From my little sitting room, in front of the fire, I feel as if I am part of something; the disconnects I feel in my flesh-and-blood life are lessened.  It’s like the first time I really talked to my friend K.  We talked about creativity and art and it was like coming home.

The thing is, though, that it has become terribly easy for me to persuade myself that I am in less of a minority than I really am.  I didn’t feel it particularly much when I went to Primary Rocks Live.  The atmosphere at the Wellington Festival of Education was so thick with the shock of the EU Referendum result that none of us were capable of noticing anything else much.  But I was intensely aware of it on Saturday morning at TLT16 in Southampton.

I forget, you see, that the things I know, about special educational needs, about the Code of Practice and about the perils of labelling, the social model of disability and how you actually remove barriers to learning in the classroom so that you can get on teach and they can get on and learn, aren’t actually as common knowledge as I would like them to be.

So I suppose I’ve got a job to do.  I suppose I need to carry on making connections, telling stories and getting SEND out of the silo and into the mainstream.  It’s really nice to have people around me who understand, and with whom I share a great deal, but for me, it’s in danger of becoming an echo chamber; and if that happens I will forget that, actually, carrying on banging on about the same old things still needs to be done.


A message from Heidi

As you know, one if the things that is important to me is to listen to and amplify the voices of the unheard.  So, with that in mind, I am proud to host this blog from Heidi, who has Down’s syndrome and doesn’t have her own blog (yet!).

Hi I am Heidi and I am 21 and I have down’s syndrome which is an extra chromosome and I find that some people are very negative towards people with Down’s syndrome because they don’t understand it and think that we are not equal. 
The things people are saying are making me cry because people don’t value us like they should.
Some people are saying that people with down’s syndrome can’t have relationships but they can have friendships and relationships just like anyone else. I have lots of friends who care for me in everything. I have a better social life than my mum and am always going out with my friends.
Another misconception is that they can’t have a job.

Well that’s rubbish I have a job which I love, I work in a kids hair salon in Leamington and I am loving it! Lots of people with Down’s syndrome have jobs.
People say mean things but I do not lose heart, I also believe that all life is precious and that everyone is fearfully and wonderfully made no matter who they are and no matter what disability. 
Some people are saying that people with down’s syndrome will never be able to live independently, this one especially makes me cry because I live on my own. I have been living on my own for 9 months now and I am loving it and would never go back to my parents home in a million years (well, apart from for my Sunday roasts!).
Another thing people are saying is that people with down’s syndrome can’t learn I went to 2 mainstream schools and gained GCSES in English, french and religious studies, Asdan maths and BTECS in home cooking skills and applied science. Then I did courses in hairdressing and customer service.
Even some nurses are saying negative things about people with down’s syndrome to the mums in the ward they say they will never walk , they will never talk . Most children with DS will learn to walk and talk, they might just take a little longer.  
I started walking at 2 and a half and If you know me you know that I never stop talking till I am asleep, it’s the only time my support staff get any peace and quiet!
I think people should value everyone, we should value people for who they are not for what they achieve.
I don’t know why people are saying these horrible things but together let’s keep spreading the preciousness of life and together let’s change people’s hearts and thoughts and fight for Justice for everyone.
Thanks for listening 

Shared with permission. 

Grown Ups

Today has been a day of new experiences.  Usually (well, for the last four years, anyway), I spend Monday afternoons with Year 5, rattling between classrooms and disturbing lessons and attempting to persuade reluctant children that what they actually, really truly want to do is come out of their nice, warm classroom where they are learning something interesting, and come and sit with me, in a draughty old corridor that smells quite a lot of wee and do the thing (reading, usually) that they really hate because they find it hard.  Today, though, was different.  Today, via the Wonder of the Internet, I watched speeches at the Conservative Party Conference.  The Minister for Education, to be precise.

Now usually, you wouldn’t catch me sitting through speeches at a political conference (I’m not very good at listening to speeches anyway, even if I agree with them; I keep feeling the need to either contribute or wriggle), but, seeing as this was about education (and I am watching the car crash that is the grammar school question unfold before my fascinated gaze) and I am no longer employed to be the spoiler of children’s Monday afternoons, AND seeing as keeping up-to-date with edupolitics is part of my new job, I indulged.

One of the most interesting things, to me, anyway, when I watch Justine Greening, is what she skims over.  She couldn’t get away with making no reference to grammar schools, even though she dressed it up in terms of ‘good school places’ (I mean, who wouldn’t want one of those for their children?), but there was no dwelling.  To my ears, it’s a case of, ‘yes, yes, moving swiftly on, people, nothing to see here’.

And the other interesting thing, to me, anyway, is what she dwells on.  I noticed it the first time I watched her, answering questions before the Commons Select Committee on Education.  She does that thing that people do when they are enthusiastic about something, when there is something that they are really interested in, something that they care about.  She sits up, and she lights up like a candle and she goes all fizzy.

When she talks about FE and apprenticeships, and giving children opportunities to find out about the world of work, and doors upon which opportunity may knock, she loses the pained expression of a woman stuck defending something she can’t quite convince me she believes in; when she speaks about opportunities and learning about careers or jobs that children might not have known existed, she gets that enthusiastic little glint in her eye.  I reckon that’s the reason that straight after her speech she sat down and interviewed a lady from the CBI.

I reckon that’s why, when she talked about a country where anyone can succeed, she asked about the basic skills that young people need in order to participate in the workplace, like the ability to communicate, work with other people, to understand that when a job needs doing, that someone needs to do it and do it without being babysat through the process.  It seemed to me that what they were talking about, two women in positions of power, were the ways in which we help our children to be adults.

And that’s when I start feeling sad, and frustrated.  Because this week, with my facebook and twitter feeds flooded with discussion about Down’s syndrome, I can’t seem to separate the two.  Helping children to be adults is a mighty thing indeed – and they are right, involving employers is a good start (although I would caution against a purely utilitarian view of education – it’s that kind of thinking that makes people start asking how viable a life with an extra chromosome is because of the cost) – but why does it seem to be only some sort of jobs that are worth having?  That only some sorts of careers, like those in STEM, are worth educating for?

Work brings dignity.  It confers adulthood.  But where is the job for my son?  And who will help him get it?