Category Archives: Teaching

The Year of Leaving Dangerously

OK, so I have maybe stretched a point with the title of this blog, but I couldn’t just end it with ‘leaving’, could I?

The end of the summer term is here.  The hubs is in the kitchen cooking curry, A and L are sprawled upon the sofa, still in uniform, slowly discussing the events of the day in little dribs and drabs.  Sam is upstairs, music is cascading in a torrent from his open door, and I, sitting at a little table, am steadily ignoring the domestic chaos and tippy tapping the computer keyboard instead.

Just like all the other years, I have made it to the end of July by the skin of my teeth.  Like every other year, the last three weeks have been dominated by sports days, school reports, the mad dash to buy gifts and cards of thanks, school plays and the emotion of final assemblies, albeit this year from the parental edge rather than the staff centre.  This year, my heart strings have been twanged by just three children, rather than thirty-odd of them.

This year has been significant in its leave taking.  L has reached the end of Year 6.  She has just this moment stepped over the threshold of her primary education, and I find myself wondering whether she will join the ranks of girls who insist on wearing thick black tights, whatever the weather, or whether she will carry on with socks and cool comfort.  And Sam, he has made the biggest change of all; today he left his special school, ready to take up a place at the local mainstream college.

To his credit (and possibly his teachers have had something to do with it too), he is far more prepared for the move than I.  He left with a cheery wave and a ‘see ya!’, while I was required to hurry up and tag along, wiping away the unbidden tear.  He is satisfied that College will mean exciting times and growing up (and, to be fair, I went to a college, and I had an awesome couple of years of growing up and having fun), and I, ever anxious, am worried that his timetable doesn’t seem to have much maths and English in it.  We are entering a new era indeed.

It has been a slow process, this leaving, a bit like when you finally release yourself from the clutches of a sticking plaster, pick by pick.  A house move, new schools for A and L;  it has been a long time coming. When I look back, I can trace its roots, its beginnings, to over a year ago, to the moment when I realised that I could no longer stay on at my school, that the time had come for me to go.

I haven’t really written about it, not in an open way (I wrote this with a friend – and then all my best sentences got cut!)  I haven’t known what to say.  There is a mixed-up feeling of loss and relief, and it’s hard to untangle.  Instead of trying to tease it out, to make meaning through writing, I’ve left it; an undisturbed scab.  I haven’t been in a school, except in a parental capacity in almost a year and I’ve been glad.

So now, like my children, instead of focusing on the pain of what is left behind, I’m turning my face towards the future.  It’s a new college and school for them – and me.

Selection and Choice

One of the things you get used to, when one of your children has Down’s syndrome, is being asked a lot of questions.  They can be anything from the sort that come from officials and questionnaires about his ‘needs’ (like, how am I supposed to know when it is a new situation and I’m not there?) to the most common of all, accompanied by the sympathetic head-tilt and sing-song intonation of, ‘did you know?’

The did you know question became so ubiquitous when Sam was younger, a soundbite comment on the public nature of motherhood, that I became sorely tempted, in the faintly hectic way of the sleep deprived, to answer through dramatically bared teeth, ‘No, I ordered him from the baby shop especially because I fancied a more complicated and difficult life, thanks for asking.’  I never did, but my friend Meg and I used to laugh about it.  We’d decided that laughing at the world and its judgements and opinions was a better option than the alternative, which was to drown in a sea of self-blame and fear for the future. So laugh we did, imagining all the shocked faces at our reply.

The thing that always gets to me though, the poisoned dart hidden deep within that question, is the underlying assumption of choice.  We like to think, in our 21st Century Western way, that we have a lot of choice, as if we could indeed go into a shop and point at the baby we wanted, the one that satisfied our list of demands, as easily as that.  But, of course, there is no such shop, and no such easy choice. The best we can do is offer some sort of selected screening.  We set the criteria, genetic trisomies, duplications, serious diseases and disablements, and we screen; a blood test, quick and easy, but hardly painless.

Again and again I find myself questioned, this time upon my position (because, it seems to question why a woman might choose to act as she does, to make a smothered request for the kind of surrounding circumstances that enable women to make an informed choice, is not the sort of question I should be asking) and I think it comes down to one idea, one fundamental notion; to serve.

Which brings me to my point about selection.  In edu-land this year there has been a lot of handwringing and wailing (these are technical terms, you know) about the possibility of a re-introduction of grammar schools.  ‘We are giving parents more choice!’ declared the politicians.  ‘You can’t choose a school that works on the basis of selection!’ replied the critics.  The argument went back and forth for the best part of the last year, and, when it turned out that after the General Election the government would not be able to carry out its plans, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, and here is the thing, selection, whether we like it or not, is already present in our education system (and I’m not talking about those areas of the country where we have grammar schools surviving).  It’s not necessarily an explicit thing, not by any means, but it is there.  You only have to step through the school door with your disabled child and you run slap-bang into it. ‘You have to think about what They take away from the others’, ‘They do special needs much better than we do’, ‘We can’t meet his needs because of *insert safeguarding/stairs/toilets/staff/whatever reason here’; the comments fall on your ears and enter your heart thick and fast.  Putting it simply, when schools set conditions on the kind of children – or the kind of parents, even – they welcome, formally or informally, selection is in action, just as when you set criteria on what kind of baby is an acceptable one to join your family.

Some schools are better at hiding it than others.  Some schools are honest and up front.  Whatever it is, it means that while we might say that on the surface that we have an inclusive education system, in practice I am not so sure.To me, there is an aspect of taking life as it comes versus the desire to control.  Our humanity ensures that life is not some sort of perfect set of events; there are frailty, mistakes, unhappiness and joy along the way.

There are great schools around the country whose head teachers subscribe to the premise that the local school serves the local community, who take life as it comes (we sent our children to such a school), but I am tired of the pretense that this somehow means that everyone works to the same high standards.  I am tired of the educational rejection, formal or informal, through the setting of selection criteria dressed up in the language of choice, of disabled kids with imperfect parents and fallible families. I am tired of the way that great inclusive schools act as magnets in their area, because families know that at least there, they will be welcomed; of the way that it is not acceptable for bakers shops or hotels to choose their customers, but somehow OK  for schools.

It makes me wonder, when all is said and done, just who we are serving.

The growth chart

There are three little red books sitting in a row in a cubby hole in my desk.  At one point they took up far more of my attention than was probably healthy, and now they sit, gathering dust, rarely seen and rarely remembered.  Inside, they contain all sorts of useful information pertaining to the health of infants, including records of health visitor visits, immunisations and growth charts.  When you are at home with baby you can pore over them and obsess to your heart’s content.

They aren’t all the same, though, and I freely admit that I had a problem with it at the time, and to a certain extent, I still do. Inside Sam’s book there is a plastic packet containing the growth charts for Down’s syndrome.  At the time, I wasn’t ready to accept that he should be measured by a different yardstick.  At the time, as now, I couldn’t accept that different yardstick as symboliaing a different standard, of expectation or of care.

And, after going on seventeen years of tangling with doctors and nurses of his behalf, I know that I am right to be cautious.  Too many people seem to accept a lower standard of health and a higher threshold for pain for him for me to be entirely trusting of the protocols.  When a young person (or an old person, come to that) cannot advocate for themselves, be that because they are too young, or because they have some form of learning disability or difficulties in communication, you, as their parent or carer, have to learn to step in and make sure that things happen – sadly things like food and drink and getting the right medicine at the right time (and I’m not talking about the NHS in recent years, either).

But, and here’s the thing, he is different.  His physiology is expressed in a different way to the typical population, and, along with that, comes an understanding that in all sorts of ways he needs something different.  At first I understood it in the acceptance that, as his mother, I was allowed – and I was – to be more anxious than the average parent.  As he has grown, I see that he needs different, earlier, bed times at home, different, adapted texts at school.

In many ways, that growth chart represents both the blessing and the curse that is a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome.  While perhaps not so obvious to the untrained eye when he was tiny, it is there, now, for all to see.  Unless you are asking for help from someone official, like a government or local authority department or something, people can see, they can hear that he is different, and that adjustments will need to be made for him wherever he goes.  If only it didn’t mean that, at the same time, people who had less of an understanding, if not of Down’s syndrome, but of him as an individual, that expectations would be simultaneously lowered.  The application of a medical diagnosis to a social context isn’t always helpful.

I’ve never taught anyone with Down’s syndrome (if you don’t count Sam).  The children who have been through my classes have been the kinds with an invisible disability, like Autism, ADHD or dyslexia – and the vast majority of them haven’t had a diagnosis at all.  And, as their teacher, I have made all sorts of adjustments in order to make my classroom the kind of place where they can learn, from special places to sit to requiring the rest of the class (and myself) to change our behaviour or printing out the words in a larger format.

Which is why I am confused by the assertion that it is only those children who have a legally protected characteristic who I must make adjustments for.  If you want learning to happen in your room (or your corridor) then adjust you will, in a hundred million little ways, from creating a calm and purposeful atmosphere of mutual respect (and no, children don’t mind when they are asked to stop teasing/winding up certain individuals, in fact, quite the opposite, and no, they don’t mind when some children need more stickers than they do, again, quite the opposite, unless we bang on about it not being fair and make out that it is the stickers or the ‘special treatment’ that is the important thing, rather than the learning) to adapting materials and resources so that they can be universally accessed, or finding a different way for a child to show me what it is they really know rather than tying themselves in knots over spelling in a science lesson.  To suggest otherwise is to perpetuate the myth that teaching is (or should be) easy, and that special educational needs isn’t complicated.

And no, I don’t see that as a lowering of standards.  What it is, is an understanding that an education is a process and that you will never, especially in a child, be presented with the finished article. Because, in the end, learning is fundamentally unlike that one dimensional, linear, medical growth chart.

 

See also:

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/the-teacher-and-the-doctor/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/05/01/clickbait/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2016/01/01/removing-the-rose-tinted-spectacles/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/05/23/the-secret-teacher/

https://notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/2015/07/14/reality-check/

I’m trying desperately to keep on saying the same thing, but in a different way so you don’t get bored.

 

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

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?