Category Archives: Teaching

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?’

 

 

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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 Attitude of Gratitude

When I was a young, wet behind the ears, first time mum, I dashed to the book shop, upon realising that my beloved first born was going to need a bit more sustenance than breast milk, and bought an infant-to-pre-school cook book. Filled with gorgeous photographs of little children happily tucking in to carrot sticks and hummus, wholemeal muffins and interesting looking purees, I there and then decided that my children would follow suit. Organic, wholemeal and home-made. Water, not juice. Sweeties? Never. I was determined.

I have a dear friend (who I haven’t seen for a while) with whom I used to cackle over these sort of decisions, years down the line, when we had realised that the best laid plans are great…until the children show you that they have developed a mind of their own and refuse to cooperate. These days, we are more knowledgeable in our food based decision making; it is fairly predictable, what they will or won’t eat (and it won’t be wholemeal and it won’t be hummus and it will have little to do with my will). Milk is preferred to water (and water only under extreme duress). One of us will not eat breakfast cereal. Another, nothing with visible onion or anything green. Yet another turns their nose up at pizza. Meal planning can be a complicated affair, if you don’t want to be cooking individual meals, that is.

I have discovered the ‘outside food’ factors that limit the menu. You can pretty well guarantee that they won’t eat whatever it is you have lovingly prepared for them if you’ve left it too long and they are too tired (this is especially pronounced in young children, I found). They go past the point of hunger and all they are capable of being is bad tempered and screechy, no matter how hungry they are, good for nothing except a bath and a bedtime story. Unexpected (and exciting) visitor turns up at tea time? Appetite gone. Birthday party? Same.

I have found that the amount that they will refuse to eat is directly inversely proportional to the amount of time and effort you have gone to in the cooking process too. I gave up cooking fish pie for them years ago. Curry, similar.

I also gave up feeling aggrieved at this ungrateful behaviour at around the same time I made this discovery. I want them to eat, after all, and they being young, had no idea how much effort I had gone to in putting their tea at the table. The hubs, however, not having gone through the fire of early motherhood, and escaping the vast majority of screaming tea-times through the virtue of being at work, feels differently. He feels that he should be thanked, not by a letter or a card, a round of applause (although he would probably like one, and one for doing the bins, too) and definitely not with a hug (especially if the end of the hugging arm is adorned with a fork), but by clean plates and a willing attitude towards the washing up. I remind him, when the heat of the moment has past that they are children, after all, they are still, despite their size, young, and they have no idea that the all-powerful adults might have had to make an effort rather than wave a magic wand (especially if they are not involved in the process). The provision of a meal at a regular time, for them, is something to be expected, their right, if you like.

Of course, I remind them, as we sit down at the table, that someone did work hard to put the food there, as I perform a kind of grace, involving thanks for the cook, which, as they grow, they join, with smiles and verbal good wishes (although not always with that thing that we really want – the eating with gusto and the smacking of lips, but, you know, it’s a journey). I take no offence at the lack because I know that they will pay it forward when their turn comes.

Christmas is coming and I, along with many (not all), parents will be ensuring that my children send a letter of thanks to relatives who live far away and who have gone to the trouble of sending them a gift, of thinking about it, buying it, wrapping it and standing in a post office queue to get it to us in time for the Big Day – none of which they were required or contractually obliged to do. But, when I think about it, it is not the letters that matter, although I know that recipients enjoy receiving them. An attitude of gratitude is about more than good manners because they, however nice on the surface, can hide an insincere heart. It is, instead, that understanding of something beyond the self, the growing realisation of someone else that I am looking for.

The giving of a gift and the sending and receiving of formal thanks at this time of year may seem a social obligation, but it’s not. With any luck both are freely given, no conditions attached.  They are acts, if you like, of love.

 

 

 

Someone to watch over me

For some reason, I know not why, there is always some aspect of Christmas that I decide to make more difficult for myself than it needs to be. For a couple of years it was making my own Christmas puddings (yummy, but needing a large number of hours steaming and then maturing under the bed in the spare room before steaming again, on The Day). Home made pastry for home made mince pies. Gingerbread houses. (Last year, for some equally bizarre reason, we decided – or rather they decided – to have a go with boiled sweetie stained glass. Mary Berry makes it look so easy, after all. No doubt she doesn’t have to trail around the shops fetching said boiled sweet on her lonesome, along with all the other shopping.) This year, after having a word with myself at the end of November about not making a song and dance about it, it was fill your own crackers.

Now, I am, I freely admit, totally in love with crackers. A festive meal isn’t a festive meal without them, I’m afraid. When I was a very little girl, my mum used to save bits off them and put them in the useful drawer and my sister and I would pore over them, delighted by the shiny foil and scraps of tinsel, using them to create our masterpieces throughout the year. When we were older, we were instructed, by our dad, as to how to pull the snap without damaging the body of the cracker, and later, when the jokes were told and the party hats discarded, he would reconstruct them carefully, and they would come out, every year, to decorate the beams, along with the holly my mum had liberated from the local hedgerows (there were never any berries, the birds were too hungry). In 1999, when I went with friends to see in the new year in in the far north of Scotland, the crackers were my job, and I bought enough to cover the table, twice.

The thing about crackers, though, is the gifts. We all enjoy the terrible jokes, and some of us wear the party hats for the rest of the day (and some of our children hide them away in their bedrooms for some unknown reason), pulling them is fun in itself and it makes us all laugh, but the gifts are always a bit of a disappointment. When I was a little girl (again) we had some crackers that contained china figures of animals. I don’t remember the crackers, but I do remember the animals; we played with them for years, and nothing has ever lived up to them. A plastic moustache and yet another pair of nail clippers that don’t really work cannot compete, not in any way, shape or form.

So this year, thinking I’d be organised and buy my crackers while there was still a choice, as I hemmed and hawed over the options, I discovered a small, flat packet of fill your owns. There’s nothing really whizzy about the design (I usually go for something the more bling the better, if you know what I mean) and these, in their holly-printed simplicity are nothing of the sort. The designers have gone for home-spun-wisdom-stylee, no doubt. I thought that the cracker itself would be enough (why waste the the money on a useless gift you will only chuck out in a couple of weeks?), until, that is, I showed them to my daughter.

What a great idea, she declared. We can put gifts in that people would like!

So, there you are. This week, instead of sitting at home, doing something useful like wrapping all the presents while the kids are out of the way, I found myself trailing around the shops looking for gifts of no more than 5cm in diameter, and something that family members would like and appreciate, to boot. Making Christmas life more difficult than it needs to be. Again.

I kind of enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it.  Once I came up with some ideas about what to put in them, it wasn’t too much of a chore. I enjoy gift giving, and I love thinking of things that those I love will love. It gives me pleasure to bless them in a small way. But then, as I exited the last shop, no-more-than-5cm-in-diameter sized gifts in hand, I realised something that made me feel…sad.

I had spent so long, running after everyone else that I had neglected to think of myself. Who would buy a surprise gift for me? Self pity washed over me as I considered the state of Christmas, for me, and for countless other mothers. The shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the cleaning. The making sure that everyone else has a good time. The mental load I carry for my family is great, and Christmas adds to it, whether I embrace it willingly or not. It’s so easy, when you serve, both professionally and personally, to lose yourself, to ignore your needs and put yourself at the bottom of the list.

 

But then, you know, I gave myself another talking to. If I want something in my cracker – and if I want to like it – there is nothing to stop me getting it myself. My daughter and I will have just as much fun making them, no matter who buys the gift. It’s OK.

Christmas is a time for giving, but the price doesn’t have to be your mental health and wellbeing. We all need someone to watch over us, but sometimes, it can be us who does the watching. And that’s OK.

 

Mind you, if nobody notices that I have tatty holes-in-the-soles slippers, a wonkily fixed handbag and a broken iron I’m not entirely sure what I will do with the (frozen) roast potatoes. Nobody will get any, that’s for sure. They will have to make do with broccolli.