All posts by nancy

About nancy

mother, teacher, writer, ranter Writes for TES, Teach Primary, Bloomsbury.

An Angel in Disguise

Some years ago, I did a stint in direct sales. It was around the time when I was starting to want to do a bit more with myself than shuttle between the school gates, nursery and playgroup. I’d been running a parent and toddler music group for some years, but had come to the point where I knew that I would have to expend considerable amounts of time and effort (and money) in order to keep it going, and I was ready to do something different. I was surprised at how good I was at it (selling things is not so different to teaching, to be fair, so I shouldn’t have been); for a little while, when I realised I had had enough of going out in the evening to work, I wondered whether I should pursue a more conventional job in sales.

I didn’t think about it for too long though. When it came down to it, I knew that one of the reasons the sales job was beginning to pall was not just the timetable, but the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to care about what I was selling. Yes, they were great products, but in the end…it was all a bit empty.

Motivation is a funny thing. For me, it was, and still is, the idea of making a difference that got me into education. That, and not being bored. I don’t do boredom very well.  Being only really interested in my own decisions, back when I was deciding what to do with my life, I never really considered anyone else; today though, after some years at this adulting thing, I’ve come to realise that, as in the cat-skinning business, there is more than one reason why people do the work they do.

Creativity. Many people want to be creative in the job they have. Or autonomy. Lots of people want to be in charge of themselves. Simplicity. Some people want to do a job that simplifies their life; they can fit it round the kids, or it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t take too much effort. Some people like chaos, others, order.

Then there are issues around how you are perceived by the outside. Some people like to be admired, because of the car they drive. Others, because of the physical strength they must exert in order to carry out their role. Still others, by the congratulatory things that people say to them, aren’t they wonderful for being able to do that. Some like the limelight, however that reaches them, others prefer to be backstage.

I was reminded of this the other night. I was at the TES Independent Schools Awards ceremony. As the TES SEND columnist and one of the judges, I was giving the award for Special Educational Needs Initiative of the Year (and a very good initiative it is, too). As I waited nervously for my turn to speak (I was reading out the name, hidden inside the gold envelope) (the nerves are something to do with being on show, having my photograph taken – I’ll have to write about that at some point), I was treated to a very good reminder of that fact.

It seems that teachers of SEN are somehow tarred with the angelic brush, just like the mothers of disabled children, who must sacrifice so much for their offspring. Leaving aside the role that the disabled child must necessarily play in this image making,  I was disturbed, enough that instead of simply reading out the name of the school, I took a moment to remind the assembled throng, in my best teacher tones, that EVERY teacher is a teacher of special educational needs. It’s not an aspiration, cockle warming call to action, it really isn’t; it’s a statement of fact. It’s there in the law. The vast majority of children with SEND are in mainstream schools too.

But it’s not just that. It’s how the notion of charity, of how working for a charity, such as the charity at the centre of the latest learning disability home scandal, or working in the field of SEND in general, somehow automatically means that you are a good person. The abuse and cruelty that hides behind closed doors, or the indifference that causes young adults to lose their lives prematurely, is hidden, glossed over by a false public perception of what you don’t do.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across one or two people in my time who have inadvertently shown themselves to be the opposite of who they pretend to be. I’ve come to recognise them for all of the things that they accuse me – or S – of. (Click the link to find out about that.) Liar. Unreasonable. Demanding. Malicious, selfish rule breaker. Incompetent. Dangerous. In a sad kind of way, it reminds me of the constant rhetoric of inclusion in schools; rhetoric that covers up the reality of a failure to do our jobs properly. Yes, people respond to the systems and management they find themselves working in, but, when it comes down to it, if we can’t accept that systems reflect the people who make them, then how will we ever change anything for the better?

But I’ll tell you the thing that makes me really cross, the thing that disappoints me, such that I can feel the bitterness rise up and taste it on my tongue; it’s that if these people, these ‘do gooders’, these angels, spent as much time and energy actually doing their job as much as they do protecting their reputations or producing pretty paperwork that shows how hard they are working, and you can look at schools as workplaces just as much as you can look at the work of charities, or homes for disabled people, then those we are actually supposed to be working for, the people whose lives we are supposed to be changing for the better, wouldn’t be so tragically let down.

I know we’re all trying our best. I know we get things wrong – I do as much as anyone else. The thing is, though, is it’s not supposed to be about us and our reputations. It’s supposed to be about them.

Advertisements

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

When I was about 19, I went out for a night of karaoke with friends at a local nightclub. Although I’ve done a lot of singing in public in my time, karaoke was new to me, but, ever the performer (I hesitate to write ‘show off’ – I really do try not to get too up myself), I chose a song from the catalogue and signed up to the list without a second thought (I’ve always been a bit overconfident on the singing side of things, comes from my early childhood experiences when I was constantly being called upon to Do The Singing bit in school shows, church and amateur dramatics). For my turn, I chose Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and, I remember, I sang it to much applause (afterwards, when I went to the loo, I was accosted by another young lady who, rather aggressively I thought, asked me if I was the one who had been singing earlier; when I rather nervously admitted it was me, she told me I had been fookin’ ace – I’m taking that as rapturous). I remembered the experience when I was out in the car earlier today and it came on the radio (an expedition into the cold and rain in search of Forgotten Items From the Supermarket). It made me smile.

My friends and I, when we were at College (we were 17 and we thought we were the bees knees) used to request this song regularly when we went out to discos (a regular occurrence); we’d jump on to the dance floor in our Doctor Martens and bellow the words to each other, bouncing with the joy of being young and brave and having the world at our feet. We’d sing the lines ‘Some guys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/ I wanna be the one to walk in the sun/ cos girls just wanna have fun’ and vow that we would never put up with the sort of nonsense from our chosen partners that would have us stuck in the house being subservient. We were feisty, and determined.

As I drove along the slick streets, brown with the slightly thickened ending to raindrops, I turned the volume up and sang along, happy to be diverted down memory lane for as long as it lasted (I had taken the precaution of writing myself an actual list before I set off from the house, I thought I would be safe), remembering the days when I was younger and thinner and much, much fuller of energy. The younger me isn’t so different to the older me I thought; I’m still determined never to be shut away, an adjunct or an add on to someone else. It’s just that back then, I thought it was personal. I thought it came down to the person you chose as your life partner.

Now, though, I know different. I can see that this shutting away, this turning of a woman into some sort of silent trophy, or idealised image of supportive womanhood, or motherhood, or whatever else it is that women are supposed to represent or do, is not so much, not in my life anyway, personal and private, as systemic.

R thought I was going on a bit, but when he found that he was the one who had to curtail his working day in order to meet the kids from school and damage his career prospects (and I don’t mean extras, school events such as assemblies or school shows or sports days or anything like that).  Not that schools are in any way the same as places of child care, but dropping everything at half-past two in order to make it to the school gates for three does kind of cut in to your day. And, when you add in the magnifying effect of caring for a disabled young person – right at the point when you’d think things would be getting easier in the school run department you find out that it is actually worse, what with the even shorter educating day at college and the difficulties in finding the sort of care support you actually need; not for S the wander round the shops with friends that I used to do, while I was waiting for the bus. Holding down a part-time job, or even working at all, becomes increasingly challenging the longer I am in this game, and I haven’t even begun to write about health or social care. I’m lucky to be able to work the way that I do; I don’t for one minute think that my working arrangements are the norm. Employers pay you to do a job, and if you aren’t there, because you have to share the caring load, they will look for someone else who can. Part-time leaders? I’ll believe it when I see it.

I don’t know about you, but today, as I consider the opportunities I might have had, the chances I’ve missed to make a wider contribution, to effect a bigger, direct change in my chosen field of education, Cyndi Lauper, and her bouncy, buoyant, rebellious song doesn’t really do it for me any more. Yes, the personal is political, but now, it’s more. It’s bigger than me and my choices. Now, today, I might have a reminiscent singalong in the car, and smile at my youthful innocence, but tonight, when I do the washing up, next week, when I sit on the train, hurtling though the early morning chill to London, now, when I sit here, editing this post and considering what it is I am trying, so clumsily, to say, I will be, I am, choosing a different song. In so many ways, I’ll be singing, ‘what about us?’

 

 

Demand, Support, Control

I have to admit that it was with a supressed sense of reluctance that I set off for the third Research SEND conference on Saturday morning. It was drizzling. It was cold. The hubs was stripping wallpaper and the kids were full of snot. It was one of those times when I had to force myself out of the house, mindful that I had said that I would contribute and safe in the knowledge that, joy of joys, it was only half an hour away.

Of course, I was late. Of course, when I got there the hillside upon which the campus was built was cold, windswept and deserted. I found the café (eventually), but of course, there was no one there to ask. When I finally found the lecture theatre, the keynote was just finishing. Everyone was very interested in what was said – but I have to admit that I was more relieved that I had made my way in without drawing too much attention to myself by falling over the chairs with a clatter and a stage whispered ‘sorry, sorry’.

I thought, after I’d managed to miss the keynotes so spectacularly, that I’d better get into the swing of things, so, with a focus on mental health as the theme of the day, I went to see what the boss had to say about staff wellbeing at work.

I don’t suppose that I am unusual in having had a difficult time at work, at one point or another, over the years. I’ve never endured a toxic workplace for very long, but they have certainly touched my life, and I was taken aback to find, instead of hints and tips on how to balance your work life with your home life and not lose yourself somewhere in the middle of it all, an almost perfect description of workplace bullying. (Demand, support, control model, Karasek, 1979.)

I read an article in TES the other week, and I had a similar reaction; I knew that I had been bullied at work before, but I could never quite put my finger on it. How were these people making me feel so bad? And why was I so powerless? It was strange to see it represented so well in diagrammatic form.

You see, place someone in a circumstance where they have high demands placed on them (particular groups to teach, perhaps), give them no support at all (they always behave for me OR ‘I’m going to come and give you some support) and take away any control that they thought they had (curriculum, timetabling, environment for teaching, scripts) and there you have it. It was almost enough to make me wonder whether it wasn’t the ‘how to get someone to leave’ part of the leadership course. It’s supposed to be about how to keep your staff, but as I started to get cross, I started to wonder whether or not we have the toxic version of the model at play across the entire education system.

You see, I spent part of this afternoon looking through the latest in the rash of consultations from the DfE and thinking about improving life for teachers, ensuring that members of the profession stay, thus keeping their expertise in the system and saving the nation shed loads of money in sick pay and training costs and I thought to myself, I wonder if they know? I wonder if they know what giving teachers some control would do towards solving the retention crisis? I wonder if they know how teachers would feel about being supported rather than constantly criticised? I wonder, if they reduced their demands, just a little bit, what the effect would be? Would we stay? Or would we go?

You can find the first post I wrote about the way that teachers are treated by the DfE here: http://www.notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/an-open-letter-to-mr-tristram-hunt/

Because, mark my words, it is impossible to work your way out of a toxic workplace. If someone has you in their sights, there is nothing you can do, in terms of your own performance, to make the situation better. Nine times out of ten, the only solution, the only thing you can do, to give yourself back the control, support you need and reduce the demands you feel, is leave.

What difference will it make?

The first time I remember realising that I had some life or death decisions to make about health care was in the middle of antenatal class. It was a dark, November night and there was a sense of barely concealed panic in the room that came out in the form of inappropriate joke and gales of laughter about Dairylea cartons. I’m sure that there was some sort of acronym involved, but after all this time, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Something must have stuck though, or, maybe it was because I’d been in hospitals before and I was used to the drill, because when push came to shove, in the heat of the moment, I asked all sorts of questions, mostly:

What else could it be?

Will knowing for sure change your treatment?

Of course, the answer isn’t always ‘no’. When I nearly died from a post-partum haemorrhage (that’s when you bleed so much and so quickly that your heart goes all racy and you feel all breathless and you have this undeniable urge to lie down and you know you have to keep telling them, someone, anyone, that something isn’t right and you know what you are talking about), when Sam broke his leg. It was important to know exactly what was the matter. An investigation was a necessary, life-saving step.

But there have been times when an investigation, especially the sort that clauses pain and distress, has been…paused; when the answer to the question, ‘what difference will it make?’ has been entirely different, and, in the interests of the patient, the decision has been made to stop digging around in order to satisfy a curiosity and to wait and to observe.

When I think about it, we make these sorts of decisions, certainly medically speaking, all the time. Will the benefit of having that little piece of the jigsaw, of satisfying the urge to know what exactly is going on, outweigh the cost of the painful process of investigation? Will the process itself form a barrier in the future, as fear born of the experiences of the past stands in the way? Will that test, taken now, change anything, now? Will it help me with the problem I am experiencing, now?

You know, when I was younger I used to read a lot of women’s magazines. I started out with old copies of Jackie, moved on to Miz and 19, fetching up with the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan; it was the company I kept on long train journeys, regularly swapped with my male travelling companions (I wasn’t so keen on their copies of Loaded as they were on my copies of Cosmo, it has to be said). For a while, during my early twenties, I was interested in female body image, and the connection to eating disorders. At the time, no doubt the same as today, there was a lot of discussion in said magazines of the state of super-thin models and whether they were good role models for young women. I even had a book about it: ‘Woman Size’. It still sits on my shelf, dated and dog eared; I can’t quite bring myself to throw it away. I’ve not read it for years, but, even after the passing of years, certain passages have stuck in my mind.

There is the description of the shared space of the changing rooms in a fashion store (do they still have those?) where women, young and old, check each other out in underneath glances. Am I as fat as her? Am I as thin as her? The way that women seem to hate their bodies, they grab the bits they don’t like, the wobbly middle sections, the rounded thighs, and shake and push them away, as if they are somehow separate from themselves (after having three children, I know the feeling). And, bits and pieces about anorexia. About the desire to bring about control, the fear of female adulthood and bodily change, and how, for some women, young ones especially, food becomes the focus, the arena for the fight against it.

And that snippet, when discussing treatment. Maybe I saw it on the telly, you know how things get wound up together, connected in your mind, of how, when you might think that finding out what was at the root of it all might help, what actually makes the difference, what actually saves lives, is learning not so much how it all started (although that is always interesting, as various TV shows today testify) but how to cope today, now, and plan to live tomorrow.

So, to the question of genetics, and more specifically IQ in education. Now, I’m not saying that doctors should not seek a definitive answer, that would be a misinterpretation of the point of this post, but I do think that there is a question or two that those who seek to apply that growing body of knowledge about the fundamental make-up of the human species need to ask, and take a leaf out of the book of doctors who deal with the messy reality of making a diagnosis (you can read a post about that here https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/the-teacher-and-the-doctor/ ).

What else could it be that is causing this effect?

What difference will it make?

An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.