Category Archives: Rants

A Poisonous Atmosphere of Fear

One of the things I miss most about teaching children is the way they take you into their confidence.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been called ‘mummy’ (although never yet ‘grandma’, thank the Lord), I’ve been asked if I’d be allowed out to play, and I have had to fill in many, many, many child protection forms in my time.  This last is partly a consequence of working in small groups.  In the intimacy of small spaces and with smaller numbers of children, the barriers are reduced, and the tales come tumbling out.  Standing at the front, doing the teaching thing, isn’t exactly what you might call conducive to confidences.

Even as their mother, the stories come out in dribs and drabs, a little bit here, a little bit there; a slowly growing testimony to their ability to understand the world.  Sometimes it is relatively easy to make sense of it all, the day Sam was incensed that a game of ‘throw the shoes about at playtime’ ended up with a lost arch support (it was lying at the bottom of the shed and had to be retrieved by the caretaker) was a simple mystery to solve (although, in the heat of the moment, at school, he couldn’t make himself understood), making sense of the slippery world of social relationships is altogether another.

As a young person, I remember wondering why I was so unpopular.  I’d look in the mirror and think I was nice enough, not unkind, and wonder what it was I was doing wrong.  I couldn’t seem to figure it out at all, and I gloomily concluded, as I tried in vain to fit in, straighten my hair, mould my accent into something more acceptable and change my behaviour into something more traditional, that it must, somehow, be my fault.

I never told my parents.  It didn’t seem worth it.  Not that I wouldn’t be believed, but that it wasn’t important enough, somehow, to make a fuss over.  Something that happened to everyone, nothing special about me.  I did take it up with one of my teachers, though, I remember that.  I sat in his office, after a lesson gone wrong, one I refused to return to, explaining what had happened.  He told me that the other girl had a hard life, the implication being that her behaviour to me was somehow understandable, acceptable.  Inevitable.

But there is nothing inevitable about bullying.  It is only when we, as a community of adults stand aside, when we fail to call it out when we see it, or don’t bother to take the time to understand what is really going on, that we allow bullying and belittling to flourish.  A poisonous atmosphere of fear is entirely within our control.

 

Powerless

I remember once trying to explain to my dad what it was like to be a teacher.  It was around the time of the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, they had maybe been in full swing for a year or two, and I was young and tired. “It’s like being a hamster on a wheel,” I said, “only it goes faster and faster and faster; it never stops and I can’t get off.”  It wasn’t long before I had thrown in the towel, sinking into years of motherhood and domesticity with the determination (much to R’s despair) never to wear a watch again.  I suppose what I was trying to say, with my clumsy description of a job I enjoyed, but which was wearing me out at the same time, was the strange sense of powerless you experience when you are a classroom teacher.

I’ve found myself caught in the teaching trap many times, before and since that moment.  For all the appearance of consultation, I have been subject to new curricula, testing regimes, changes to school structure, pay and conditions, all of them without my consent.  And, then there are the school-, rather than nation-wide policies. The marking, the planning, the behaviour, the way we do things here, all policed by observations, pop-ins, book and planning scrutinies, the subtle and not so subtle undermining of professional autonomy.  Unless you are higher up the management (sorry Leadership) rungs you have very little chance of influence.

And, of course, the power that the Management holds over you extends even when you leave.  Find yourself on the receiving end of a boss who doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, and, given that they have to write you a reference before you’re even asked to interview, the chances of you walking into a new job if you found yourself in the wrong job are depressing.  You can find yourself in the position of starting from scratch, working your way through the supply list (if it still exists) to give yourself a new start, or calculating just how long it will be before you can hand in your notice, for fear of being trapped til Christmas.  You could, when you think about it, quite easily persuade yourself that you were a victim, as powerless as a fly caught in a spider’s web.

But. And here’s the thing.  I think about the children I have taught over the years. Children who sat, spellbound, as they listened to a story.  Children who gave me leaving cards and cuddles, little notes and gifts, a bookmark, a pen I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere (the countless mugs with ‘World’s Best Teacher’ and adorned with kittens are presumably in a number of staffrooms I have frequented over the years). Notes from parents, the reply slip for the school report, filled in and resting in the far reaches of my memory. Those moments when I realised that I was the one who stood between joy and tears.

I look on my years of motherhood, the ups and downs the road to school, in and out of favour with the teachers who hold that same old power over my own children.  I think about the power we hold even though we no longer serve our time at the front of class, flowing from our fingertips into the digital world.  I remember the echoes of the power teachers held over me, over my child, their disbelief or belief in him – or me –  making the year – or not.

And I think about how lucky I am that I have friends and colleagues who will tell me the truth.  That when I said what I said, or did what I did, or the way I acted or wrote and indulged myself in my weakness for hyperbole and long, fine sounding words, that I forgot my power. That as well as having the power to help, to heal, to teach, I also have the power to hurt and harm.  That despite my self-perceived helplessness I have a voice – and my voice is heard.

Recipe for Success

There’s nothing quite like the successful student in the successful school to give all the adults associated with them the satisfied glow of a job well done.  Follow these simple steps, and you, too, could be bathing in the reflected glory of your progeny.

Ingredients

One ten-to-eleven year old child
One teacher
One set of end of key stage tests
One set of standards (variable)
Advice/guidance (to taste)
One league table
One performance management tool, named, ‘performance related’

 

Method

  1. First you must persuade the ten-to-eleven year old child that the end of key stage tests are important, the culmination of everything they have worked towards for the last seven years, and will have long-reaching ramifications on their lives. You can do this by mentioning it at every given opportunity, together with reminders about behaviour and admonitions to work harder*.
  2. Next, you must impress upon the teacher the importance of the end of key stage tests by engaging them through the skillful mixing of league tables and performance management.
  3. Finally, season with standards (variable) and advice/guidance (to taste) until you have your preferred mixture.
  4. Set the temperature to early summer, place all ten-to-eleven year olds in the same room at different tables and make them work in silence all morning and all afternoon.
  5. You will know when you have achieved success when the ten-to-eleven year old child has a dead-eyed expression, a sulky mouth, displays no enthusiasm for reading or writing at all, and cries at the mention of fractions. If you are particularly successful, they may even have the slow, tired demeanour of one who is not sleeping due to worry.
  6. If your ten-to-eleven year old child is not quite ready for success by the second week in May, you can try holiday and/or Saturday school/catch up sessions. Make sure you do these in advance of Easter for best results.

 

Remember, we all want the best for our children, and nothing quite beats the experience of success.

 

*see compliance recipe

First Class

I went to That London yesterday. Now that I am no longer working in school, but as a consultant teacher, I get to go there once a week, on the train. This would not usually be a thing I would remark upon, after all, thousands of people go to London on the train every day of the week; except that yesterday, it was a little bit different.  For some reason, the coach in which my seat was booked was a first class one.  I double checked my ticket, I checked that it matched the one sticking out of the top of the chair, and yes, indeed, there I was, entitled to share the rarified atmosphere of the Preserve of the Posh People.

I wasn’t alone in my surprise. Opposite me was an equally excited traveller.  We chatted all the way, expressing first our astonishment at our good fortune, and then discovering a shared interest in things educational, him having lived and worked in Singapore for five years, and me being an SEN parent/teacher years further down the line (he took notes on what to write about in the parental statement part of the EHCP).  It was really rather nice.

First class seats are so much more comfortable. They cushion your frame as you whizz through the countryside; there is room to stretch your legs, should you so desire. If the sun comes out (it did) and makes you squint (it did), there is a little curtain you can pull across the window to shade your eyes. If your computing devices need a charge – or anything needs a USB, there is a plug AND a USB socket (with a handy blue light to show you where they are). The table is big enough to fit your things on. If you are tired and need a little rest, the carriage is quiet in a superior kind of way. It is, I am convinced, an excellent way to travel.

I arrived at Paddington feeling refreshed (which is remarkable in itself, since I had been awake since 4 – you know, that strange sense of alert wakefulness that attacks you in the small hours when you know you have enough time to get back to sleep, but you are convinced your alarm is going to go off any moment now), and strode off to start a very productive day thinking how nice it would be to get a First Class ticket for every journey.

There must be people around who never go any other way, and sometimes, I can’t help wondering if those who make public policy aren’t those who, in a sense, travel First Class everywhere.

They are wealthy, so they never know what it is like to count every penny to make sure you can pay the mortgage, or budget for the next pair of shoes, crossing your fingers that they won’t grow out of them til the end of the month.  Their children are always super-bright, like they are, so they never have to worry about what happens to them if they fail the test, or if they can’t get into Top Set because they used up their compliance quota just sitting quietly and they haven’t any energy left for any learning. They don’t worry about the impact on their children of being told by trusted teachers that they never quite measure up, of always finding themselves always in second class; it never occurs to them, because, well, it just doesn’t happen and if it does they are wealthy enough to buy them a place in a private institution that will repair their self-esteem with a good dollop of privilege.

But if you never went there, you would never know what it was like in Second Class; that there isn’t anywhere to sit, and that choice is never going to be an option because you can’t afford the ticket, or you have competing monetary priorities. You would never understand the way your body aches, from being forced to squash itself into the same position, for fear of standing on someone else’s toe, or brushing your leg against their knee.  You could very easily assume that, because you also travelled on a train, that your journey took the same amount of time and your ticket was checked by the same person, that you understood.  But you don’t. You have no idea.

I know I’m a better PE teacher because I didn’t like Games. I know I’m a better teacher because I have spent time outside, in the corridor, with the neediest of little ones. Am I a better parent because of Down’s syndrome? Maybe, maybe not. But I know I’m a more realistic one.

 

Politicians and Conferences: A review

Yesterday I had a lovely day. I hurried around That London feeling very pleased with myself (apart from the bit when I was squashed into an underground train and there were too many people and my feet were hurting) and generally surprised that I was doing what I was doing and going where I was going and it was actually work.  My head has been full of it all day; fractured impressions I can’t quite order into jigsaw pieces. My thoughts are like broken glass, scattered, rather than collected.

It’s been a busy month. I’ve been to meetings, to conferences (well, ‘summits’ – Head Teacher’s Roundtable and WholeSchoolSend), I’ve observed not one, but two education ministers (if you don’t count December, where my young colleague took photos of Justine Greening from a distance and we lobbied Nicky Morgan up close, and I gave her a copy of my book), and that was work too. I’ve gone from the hallowed halls of Westminster, where the very buildings speak of the timeless solidity of an unchanged State, to the Crystal, a funky glass edifice, modern and futuristic, a building that transforms dereliction into…something else entirely.  It’s been a lot to process, a lot to make into some sort of meaning.

At first I felt despondent. There is so much talk around SEND (well, make that education generally), so much moaning and complaining (workload, marking, planning, Ofsted), so many arguments that circle around the same old same old (I’m not going to bother making a list; pick your own subject, I bet teachers, somewhere, have argued about it til the cows came home), and yet, despite the arguments, nothing ever changes. Or if it does, like the introduction of grammar schools, it doesn’t matter that the profession is, for once, united, it happens anyway.

It’s a topsy turvey strangely powerful yet powerless world.  One where every day we sense the change we bring about in the lives of the young people we teach and yet. Yesterday I met a headteacher who had struggled in her SENCO past with the difference between the pretty looking paperwork and the not so pretty reality it purported to describe. How many of us struggle with the overriding need to satisfy the hunger of the evidence beast, I wonder? We tick the boxes, check off the lists of Things we Must Do, too busy or too reluctant to stop and consider the second story, the one that is woven underneath, and what it means. We satisfy our powerlessness, an attempt to redress the balance, with blogs.

There were moments of disappointment. A minister who said the pretty things, reiterated the rhetoric of inclusion to a captive audience, a repetition of the same old, same old sweet nothings that do nothing, and change nothing. ‘SEND must be at the heart of education policy making,’ he said. I wondered whether he had ever met his colleague, the minister for schools, a man bent on unteachable tests so that more children can get the sort of top grades (despite an exam system that means they are norm referenced) that look good on international performance tables.

Moments of misunderstanding, where the gulf between the profession and those of us who parent children with special needs and disabilities seemed uncrossable, unbridgeable, and I wondered how many more times I would have to tell our story of diagnosis. Moments of passion and anger, when a young man declared in a strong voice that he was a man and a proud one at that, and a mild mannered ex-deputy head railed against a system that tried to pretend the disabled didn’t exist, a forgotten, disregarded kind of human.

Moments of enlightenment when a woman explained her intersectionality, how young people cannot be what they cannot see, and of hope, when a newly appointed headteacher declared her commitment because she believed it was important and the right thing to do.

But it was only when I got home, when I went out for a walk with my mum, in the cold spring air, when we told each other about our weeks (well, it was mostly me banging on; thankfully she is used to that) that the moment of joy returned, when I began to think that the shiny glass and stone didn’t merely cover up the past with an illusion of change. Because, when I watched the evidence session of the Select Committee for Education I realised something; I realised something had changed.

Despite the fact that the minster for schools clearly hasn’t a clue, the committee members have realised something quite fundamental. That ‘Children with SEND’, that homogenised group, the not-quite human children who somehow belong to Other People, are just like them. They are the children who cry at night because they can’t complete the test. They are the children, comforted by their grandmothers, because they think, at ten or eleven years old, that they have not only failed, but are failures. The sort of children who have bedtime stories and cuddly toys. The kind of children who are unconditionally loved. They could, by no small stretch of the imagination, be theirs.