Category Archives: Teaching

Blood, Sweat and Tears

I sent out a tweet the other day.  It was a little, innocuous retweet of a picture of a little girl, trying on her school uniform for the first time.  In it, she is clapping her hands, as pleased as punch to be wearing a blue checked dress, her hair in a ponytail, shiny black shoes as neat as a pin.  Clearly, her parents were pleased as punch too because they sent it out to some big hitters in the Down’s syndrome tweeterverse.  I saw it and I was glad to share it with the many teachers with whom I am connected in a virtual sense.

It had a surprisingly large effect.  To date, it has had 32 retweets (which is a lot for me), 90 people have saved it with little love-heart likes, there have been 8,672 impressions and 148 total engagements (whatever they are).  I’m pleased, because I thought at the time, and I still think it this morning, that it is an important little tweet for people to see – and to notice the three, innocent sounding hashtags that follow. #inclusion #acceptance #school

You see, I too have been in the place of this mother.  When my son was standing there, all togged up in his little school uniform, ready to take his first big steps away from my side (I don’t count the little ones at nursery, it was only two and a half hours anyway, hardly enough time to get there and back again and make a cup of tea in between) (if I was the sort to drink tea), I, too, was filled up with a sense of importance of what his entrance into mainstream school would mean.

You see, what I don’t think that many people understand, and why should they after all, is quite what it is like to be told that your child, the baby you hold in your arms, the one you have waited for, anticipated with such joy, is somehow less; a cause for concern.  It’s a shock, I can tell you, and not a pleasant one, either.  People who have not had this experience don’t know how it knocks you sideways, how long it takes to recover, to rebuild the life you thought you had lost.

And, again, what I think many people, many teachers, don’t understand is what an important role they play in regaining, reclaiming that stolen joy, in denying the less than and turning it on its head; the way that they can turn the role of the state from destroyer of dreams to healer and hope.  They don’t understand, and there is no reason that they should, the importance of their symbolic role in the life of another.

But, and here’s the thing; what will happen when inclusion turns out to be less warm and fuzzy and more blood, sweat and tears?  Will we blame the parents, for not telling the truth about their children, for carrying on in an irresponsible manner? Will we blame the children, for being too disabled, too needy, too naughty, dangerous, even?  Will we, instead of examining a system that fails to put in place proper and adequate support, for teachers, for families, for children, blame everyone but ourselves and throw inclusion out of the window?

I do not wish to peddle a kind of warm and fuzzy inspiration that has little effect and no lasting value, for, while the smiling faces of cute little children with Down’s syndrome and tales of inclusion might make us feel good in the moment, will they help when the going gets tough?  It might be enough for me, because I am driven by more than a moral imperative, but will it be enough for you?

 

Sats Hell

Next week will be first time in a while that I haven’t been involved with end of key stage two assessments in a professional capacity. I don’t miss it, I’ll be frank. I don’t miss creeping through the school, shushing younger children, or sitting with the anxious ones, reading questions and watching them squirm in their seats and yet still plump for the wrong answer.

I don’t miss hour after hour of practice papers. (And hour after hour of subsequent marking.) I don’t miss sending home homework involving page after page of sums in those shiny brown revision books (also to be marked). I don’t miss spelling tests and mental maths tests, explaining how it will be on a CD just the same so get used to the funny voice and no, there will be no second chances, no opportunities to go back over a question you missed.

I suppose the quizzes and games were quite fun, and visiting schools with the LA badge was endlessly fascinating, even if I used to come away with a frowny sense of perplexion that our schools should be materially so different, and yet so similar; so full of hot and cold writes and purple polishing pens (it’s probably something different now, fashions change quickly in edu-land), so many guides to keeping miptors to assess. But I don’t miss the sight of science books with one date in September followed by pristine empty pages, the heavy knowledge that the Borderliners spent a dry year doing two subjects in the morning – and the same two subjects again in the afternoon. I don’t miss the negative, waste of time answer to the question: where is the poetry? Did you study any poetry?

This year, it is different. This year, although I am working still in education, I am not in the classroom, and, instead of guiding other people’s children, with a smile and an encouraging nod, this year I must support my daughter.

I’ve seen my sons through the experience. Sam, divorced as he was from the goings on of the class, wasn’t aware that Sats week was even a thing. A, assessed on a curriculum he had completed and supported by a teacher who made him feel special, funny boy that he is, enjoyed it. But L, my baby, born into a year, 2006, a group of children who have had their increasingly tired looking teachers attempt to squash four years of learning into three, is having a very different experience indeed.

She doesn’t say much, but she has changed this year. She still likes school. She still goes willingly into the building, obediently walking because running is forbidden. But she who has always been Little Miss Enthusiasm has started to complain. There are tests every day. Homework is met with deep reluctance and music practice and lessons with tears. Her sleep is disturbed, and I am worried about her, about her health and her mental wellbeing.

She’s only in it for the party, she says (a picnic on the school field, the food provided by home). She wonders what Sats stands for, what does it mean?

I don’t want to tell her that she is caught in an international political dance. Instead I tell her that I don’t care if she writes sausages for every answer if she likes. It won’t change how much we love her, whatever she achieves on paper, how high she comes in someone else’s measure doesn’t matter to us. I remind her that to try her best is to be kind to her teachers, because it is they who are being assessed for competence, not her.

She won’t be the only child beset by anxiety, I know that. She won’t be the only child perplexed by the overblown importance of school tests for eleven year olds.  But after another broken night, I look on next week with deep concern, and I find myself wondering what the hell we adults, with our obsession with measuring and testing, of bathing in reflected glory, think we are doing?

Conquering the Mountain

Today, I have very tired legs. I am convinced that this is a genetic flaw on my part, and not because I have been avoiding most forms of exercise for the winter, but my family remains unconvinced. They, unlike me, are tired, but able to tackle the stairs without wincing. And the reason we are tired? Earlier this week, we decided to walk up and down Snowdon.

I’ve written about this plan before. For some strange reason, it has subconsciously been one of those things that R and I felt was something our kids ought to do. I’m not sure why. I never did when I was a child. I never went anywhere near the place. And, when it’s all said and done, we aren’t really a heavily into walking kind of family.  Nothing like it, in fact. But, we had a week off and nothing on the calendar apart from ‘week off’ in it and, as going on an adventure of the far flung variety proved to be a little more expensive than we had anticipated, Snowdon it was.

I don’t know about you, but there is something tantalising about good ideas when they are far, far away.  Everything about them seems positive. Nothing troubling can possibly get in their way. Except, that is, until you are faced with the reality of your endeavour.  There we were, new boots and posh socks for the children bought, accommodation (very nice) booked, and there I was, wide awake in the darkest hours of the night, unable to sleep for worrying.

In a way, it’s a bit like giving birth. After the first time, you sort of forget what it was like. The experience is coloured, airbrushed by the aftermath, whatever form that took. The second baby seems like such a good idea, and it is only when you are stopped in your tracks by the strength of your first real contraction that you think, oh, yes, that was what it was like, and why am I doing this again? After that, it has a tendency not to fade, and, third time round you know exactly what you are doing and you develop a sort of grim-faced determination, gallows humour about coughing in public daytime, and will making in the silent privacy of the night.  Once I was faced with the reality of getting my three kids up and down a mountain, with online guide rating ‘hard’, the euphoria of success faded and the memories flooded back.

So we came up with a plan. R would walk the Little Two (not so little these days) up, Sam and I would meet them at the top, having been transported by train, and we would all walk down together. A plan which rapidly transformed itself into Sam and I would travel as far up as we could on the train (always check train timetables before booking)and then meet the others (at the bit where all the tracks join together, just before the summit), walk the rest of the way up and then back down together, hastily followed by we would all go up on the train and all walk up a bit and down a lot together (the operative word being together). The thought of me on my own with Sam, on a mountainside, and the pair of us getting an attack of the collywobbles was enough to settle the matter. (And that’s before Train Boy stuck his oar in.)

When you’re at the top, it can feel terribly lonely – and the way down terribly terrible.

The thing about plans, though, is that it is always a good idea to have a contingency one. Because, when you get up to the (nearly) top of the mountain, things change. The weather, so kind and gentle when you set out, is cold and chilling; the wind is fierce, and the clouds, so far away when you are sitting, comfortable, on the bus, transform the landscape from majesty to terror in an instant.

We didn’t do it. We didn’t make it to the top. We got to within spitting distance (if the gale that greeted us as we came onto the ridge hadn’t threatened to carry our spit over the cliff and us with it) of the summit and we changed our plan, and our minds.  We took in the frightened faces of our travelling companions, looked through the entrance to the Pyg track, obscured by wisps of cloud whipping past and turned right back round the way we had come. And, I think, for perhaps the first time, I feel no sense of disappointment, or of failure, that things did not go as we had thought.

The weather did not look like this.

You see, and this is something I have found myself thinking Justine Greening could probably do with reading as I have watched her on the news today, you don’t need to terrify everyone or force the issue and put yourselves, and your children, in danger in order to prove a point.  When I wrote my book (details on how to buy it here), at the end I put in a section on what to do if it all goes wrong. Because sometimes you find yourself at the mercy of circumstances which you cannot control, sometimes you find yourself in the wrong and you have to apologise – and there is no shame in that.

This week, we set ourselves a task, and we failed. But, and here’s the thing: we made it back down in one piece (and that in itself is a success). We went the long way round (and even that had its hair-raising moments), we chatted to the people we found ourselves journeying with and shared encouragement along the way. We might even have done a little bit of Down’s syndrome advocacy while we were at it.

We are still here, today, and the mountain, that great big grim-faced mountain we couldn’t even see, will still be there, waiting for us should we decide to play again, tomorrow.

‘I hate mountains.’

Learning Through Play

It is one of my abiding sadnesses that Sam, through no fault of his own, does not go out to play with friends. At the moment he is, like I was at a similar age, listening to terrible music far too loudly and not feeling the lack. At the beginning of the holidays he is likely to be happy in his own company, mooching around the house, generally doing what he feels like; it is next week that I will find a young person telling me that he is bored, seeking something else to do and the company of his friends.

I don’t know if it’s something specific to Down’s syndrome, but I am wary of letting him out to play on his own. I recently had a conversation with the person who is handling his Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – now that he is 16, he is entering into another era of state involvement – and we talked about how, if he was out and about on his own, how easily it could happen that he might get lost, his limited understanding of danger, both in the environment and in terms of the trust he places in other people. Maybe other parents of disabled children feel the same way, I don’t know.

I can’t help but feel that he is missing out. When he and his younger siblings were little we used to do that thing that stay-at-home mums do in order to keep themselves from going round the twist, and meet up, as a big group, all together.  It was fascinating to watch the children playing. First, they would play side by side, and then slowly, they became more aware of each other, probably because they both wanted to play with the same car/train/dolly/teddy/other object of desire, until before we knew where we were they were playing with each other, chattering away and well on the way to becoming friends.

Now, partly because he attends a special school and therefore none of his friends live around the corner, partly because of the advent of the mobile phone (he doesn’t have one and I have no idea how to find out someone’s number unless they give it to you themselves), and partly down to my own sense of caution, I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to help him gain the invaluable learning experience of unsupervised play with his peers.

Because, you know, it would be foolish to assume that there is no value to children’s play; that they should be always organised, never left to get on with it, in their own way and at their own pace. Oh, I’m not saying that it should take place in classrooms – although this doesn’t mean that the classroom should not be a playful place, one full of fun, and the joy of learning interesting things (and yes, I do accept that not every child will find the same thing interesting, although, if I am their teacher, I will do my best to persuade them of the wisdom of my way of thinking) –  but that children’s play, especially the unstructured sort where they learn to regulate their own behaviour, to manage their relationships, is an essential, an unmissable, part of growing up.

Maybe we are all afraid. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe the world we live in is full of danger. Of cars. Of strangers. There is the ever present threat of failure, or of falling behind, and it affects us all. Maybe I’ve got a better reason than most to be fearful, but it strikes me, as I watch my children negotiate with each other, as I watch their kindness to the boy next door, as my role as arbiter and sorter out of fights is steadily lessened, that, if we are not careful, our fear will make us into fools.

 

Reading to Babies

I do my best, these days, to persuade people that I am not completely mad. Occasionally the mask slips (I sang a snatch of Everything Is Awesone in a staff meeting the other day – I tried not to, but it sort of slipped out), but most of the time I reckon I get away with it alright.  I have to admit, though, that I struggle to hide it from those who know me well.

My mum, for instance, thought I was bonkers to make almost the first thing I did post-baby, a visit to the local bookshop, and then to the library to get Baby Sam his membership.  At the time, we were a little strapped for cash, having gone down one wage and up a new house, so, given my behaviour in bookshops up to that point (never leave without a straining carrier bag), I decided that the library card was a safer bet.

That said, I still thought it was important to own a few classics, so off to the bookshop I did trot and into my eager hands fell several board books, a fabric one with squeaky and crinkly bits and lots of different textures and little bits of string and ribbon to grasp and a plastic squashy one that went in the bath.

Down’s syndrome aside, I could tell that she thought that me buying books for a baby was an act of severe bonkersness.  What did babies need with books?  Shouldn’t they have a rattle, or stacking cups (he had these too, and an excellent little triangular wedge with a plastic mirror velcroed to it – I used to prop him up on his eblows and watch him gaze and coo to himself for ages) or something else more accessible, more suitable? Why was I wasting my time and money at such an early age, when there was no way on this earth that he would be able to read them? Thankfully she loves me, and she adores Sam, so she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I think it had something to do with Teacher Me. Learning to read, leaving aside the decoding print bit, is partly about knowing what to do with a book;  which way is up, the way the pages work and how to turn them, that sort of thing. Seeing as reading has always been a joy to me (although not, it has to be said, to R, who mainly reads to find out how to make things), and seeing as I knew Sam had a learning difficulty, I reasoned that he may as well start young.  (Nothing to do with me wanting to buy books, not at all.) I didn’t want him missing out.

Over the years, with the addition of two more babies to the family, the collection of stories grew. We had our favourites; Peepo (a good strong board book with a hole for loose little fingers to grasp, a baby who looked remarkably like Sam and a natural rhythm to the poem that encouraged us to drop out words for him to fill in), We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (where little three-year-old Sam, still unable to call me ‘mummy’, would manage to ‘woo woo’ as we struggled through the blizzard), The Blue Balloon (fantastic for mouth control), Brown Bear, Brown Bear (the book I used to persuade his Reception teacher that it was worth while teaching him to read) and The Elephant and the Bad Baby (we liked the Tweeny Clock Cake). As I continue on my mission to sort out the house, I look at them all, their covers and pages dog eared and tatty now, and I cannot bear to throw them out.

Was it to teach them to decode that I shared these stories? To be honest, no. They were for me (or daddy, or grandma) to read to them.  Like Shakespeare’s plays performed in an age when, despite England’s relatively literate population, proportionally, not that many people could read – and fewer could write – it was never about literacy.  It was about access to story and rhyme, to an experience; an opportunity to enter in to a shared imaginative world, if you like.

I suppose I could have bought them more audio books (they are really rather fond of Pants, and used to have a very jolly time jumping on the beds to Lenny Henry’s various different versions, the ones that go too fast for you to turn the pages in time and still appreciate the humour in the pictures, or discuss which pants they like the best); I could have bought more films (although, I hate that feeling you get when the actors don’t look the way you had imagined the characters, and I can see, by the way A and L dismiss the Percy Jackson films as Not Right At All, that they feel the same way too).  I suppose I could insist that L reads Anne of Green Gables by herself, even though our copy was old when I first had it, the print is small and it is falling apart. But to me, that would be missing the point.

You don’t need to be able to read it yourself to enjoy a good story, well told, pictures and everything.  It’s about literature, not literacy, and access to it, and that, it seems to me, is an entirely different thing.

 

Baby Sam playing the piano before he could read music too.