Category Archives: Teaching

The Mirror

I have a mirror hanging on my bedroom wall. R doesn’t like it. He says it’s a heavy, old-fashioned thing. It is one of those mirrors that hangs from a square-linked chain; the glass is framed in wooden gold, the edges rubbed from precious metal to dull grey-bown. It belonged to my great grandmother, I inherited it when she died, so it stays.

Wherever we have lived, upon whichever wall it has hung, it has never been at the correct height. At the moment, the hanging chain is twisted into a knot; if you want to see your feet, you have to stand, on tiptoe, in the bin in order to get the angle right.

These last nine years it hasn’t mattered much. I don’t have to make a great deal of wardrobe decisions. I tend to wear the same few things, day in day out; one lot for work (mildly traditional teacher clothes, smart enough to be smart, but not so smart that you either put the kids off or annoy the boss), one lot for home (jeans). I haven’t been to a wedding for seven years. My last job interview was a good long while ago (and I wore my trusty interview outfit).

And then there is the speed at which I get up and dress these days. I look back to my teen years and wonder what it was I used to do, spending all those hours and hours getting ready. These days, with three reluctant children to winkle out of their night-time cocoons, I have been known to leave the house without properly checking whether I resembled Yummy Mummy or the Wild Woman of Borneo. The mirror hangs, silent and unloved.

Most of the time, as I charge about, rushing from one place to another, our interactions are brief; gone is the self-indulgent gaze of my younger years. Today, I am more likely to experience a sense of shock, rather than of satisfaction. Where did those grey hairs spring from? Those lines on my forehead, when did they appear? What happened to my middle when I wasn’t looking?

It’s easy, when you are the queen of the cursory glance, keen to persuade yourself, despite your years and the size of your children, of your youth and immortality, if you stand always at your best angle to the wall, shoulders back, stomach in. It’s easy to persuade yourself that you are, in fact, the filtered, airbrushed image you have on your social media feeds, even though it’s hard to dismiss that same sense of dislocation you feel when you meet someone from off the telly and find they are nothing like you imagined, when you catch sight of yourself in shop windows, a chubbier-than-she-thought-she-was, older-than-she-imagines-she-is, tired looking woman.

The thing is, though, I don’t think it’s only me. Oh, I don’t mean that the whole entire world is populated by busy women who forget to take care of themselves (although it probably is). I mean that we, culturally speaking, have forgotten what we look like.

We have forgotten that we are not, as we would like to think of ourselves, somehow superhuman. We have forgotten to look in the mirror and see who we really are, instead of how we wish to be.

I suppose if there never were a child or person with Down’s syndrome, if there never were a child or young person with extra requirements in our schools, it wouldn’t matter.

But there is, and there are.  And it does.

Find out more about Through The Looking Glass, a report from the Driver Youth Trust here.

Trench Warfare

Did you ever read the books about the First World War by Pat Barker?  (Yes, I know one of them is missing – someone, not looking at any of my relatives, must have pinched the first one.) I did, some time ago now.  I bought them when I was the kind of person who had the time to hang around in bookshops on a Saturday afternoon, browsing those big tables, piled with not-quite-skyscrapers of paperbacks, looking for something to spend my disposable income on.  I haven’t read them in a while, but I remember them vividly.  Whenever I have a clearout of my bookshelves (which I do on an infrequent, but regular basis, contrary to public opinion) I hold them in my hand, weighing up whether or not I wish to pass them on, and so far, the answer has been, ‘no’.

A couple of things stand out in my memory of them.  A couple of things that struck me, and have continued to strike me, over the years since I first sat dreaming, transported to a world gone by, by a skilled writer. The first is the enforced femininity of trench warfare. The endless waiting. The powerlessness of the men over their own fate. The obedience to orders they had no power to challenge. The care and concern by the officers for the men, over their wellbeing, their health, whether they had enough food, shelter or clothing. The difficulties that some men had in bending themselves to an unfamiliar state.

But the thing that echoes, the thing that haunts me, was the look in the eye, the shared experience, in this case of the horror of war, that asked, ‘Have you been there? Do you understand?’

In many ways it’s a bit like childbirth. Or traumatic childbirth, anyway. Or the bringing to life of a disabled child, of Down’s syndrome, come to that. In a sense, unless you’ve been there, you don’t understand. In many ways, no matter how many of us write or speak in our attempt to make the experience about the universal, you can’t. Unless you’ve been there, you don’t know what it is like; the forced femininity of powerlessness.

We think we might understand, because we have children of our own, or we hope to one day; we think it is enough, but we betray our assumptions with the questions we ask. So busy to show we understand, we forget to listen.

It’s the same with teaching.  Like nursing, or the law, it’s a profession with an illusion of transparency because we’ve all been in that classroom (pretty much), we all (pretty much) send our own children there. But it is an enclosed world. Even within the sector, our differences make only some of our experiences transferrable. Our own experience overlays understanding. Unless you’d been there, you wouldn’t know.

And how easily we forget. I forgot, when I went on my ten year maternity leave, what it was like. It’s so easy to know your own child, in the early days, anyway. You watch them so closely – you have to or you fear they might die – and you forget that it’s impossible for a teacher to know them like that, to be able to adapt like that. You have your home set up to accommodate their needs, a nearby toilet, quiet spaces, freedom of choice – and you forget that when you teach, you just can’t do that.

You forget, when you know them so well, that it takes time to get to know a child, and that that knowing comes from spending time with them, in context, and not on a piece of paper, for yourself, and not through someone else’s eyes.  When you have a child, the responsibility can feel overwhelming. When you have a disabled child, even more so. You will be accountable to them for the rest of your life. But you forget that other form of accountability, when you work as a teacher, the one you have towards multiple children, all equally deserving, towards government, parents, inspectors, the boss.

How easily you forget the never ending pile of things to do – the stack that grows by 30 every time you teach a lesson. You can see it in school leaders who merrily state in staff meetings, ‘it should only take a minute’, while the classroom staff quietly look at each other under their eyelashes and wonder who will point out that what seems so reasonable when you times it by one, is not a simple matter, when multiplied up. What seems so simple, from a distance, from the computer screen or from the office – from the home, even, when it is played out in the classroom, is, indeed, complex, and that the description of the complexity leads us into ethical dimensions that take time to work through, time to understand.

When I went back to work after my long absence it was a was a wake-up call. It was a reminder that I wasn’t perfect – and neither should I, could I be, that entrenched positions of enmity never help the child.  It was a reminder that, while I held responsibilities, I didn’t hold them all. I could not hold them all.  Being something and nothing, a split person,  a balancer along the tightrope, one of them and one of us, helps. Because when you walk in someone else’s shoes – or you put your old ones back on – you remember.

Have you been there? Do you understand?


On diagnosis, parents, teachers and clinicians

A couple of summer holidays ago I wrote a book. I enjoyed writing it a great deal, it was a strangely cathartic process, and it was published last May.

You can find details of it here, and buy it if you like.

Over the course of that summer I found myself asking a question – should I include the bit about specific labels, or would doing so blind readers (labels can be a bit dazzling), and get in the way of them finding out about the child?  Or, should I leave it in, as information about the sort of diagnoses that teachers are likely to come across is useful in that it demystifies them? I debated with a number of my teacher friends, and in the end I compromised. I left them in, along with a largeish section on the problem with labels, the different kinds of meaning they hold for different people (adult and child) and how a teacher needs to be aware of this and bear it all in mind when teaching.

The other thing I thought was important to put into the book, bearing in mind that being the expert in the classroom can give a person the impression that they are the expert in everything (or at least, that’s how it can be perceived from the outside – there is also a section on saying sorry and how to manage mistakes), was clear and unequivocal guidance on what a teacher is able to diagnose – or not.

Here is a quick taster:

Autism Spectrum Disorder : a teacher cannot diagnose

Attachment Disorder : a teacher cannot diagnose

ADHD/ADD : a teacher cannot diagnose

Down’s syndrome : a teacher cannot diagnose

I’m sure you get the picture. These things are diagnosable, not by teachers, but by clinicians, that is, medical doctors and psychologists (who may also be doctors).

You can find a reflection on a medical diagnosis and what it looks like in practice here.

What this means is that the problems a child is facing in the classroom are problems that they face everywhere – down the shops, in the swimming pool, in the home, all the time. Aside from Attachment Disorder – and even then, when a child is adopted, this is not the case – these diagnoses, or labels, have nothing to do with parenting, style or anything else.

But to get back to my list, next up:

Dyslexia – can be diagnosed by specialist teachers (the specialist bit is important –  you need to complete further, demanding qualifications in order to be a specialist dyslexia teacher with the ability to diagnose), parents/schools (does a school ever do this?) have to pay around £500 for a full assessment of dyslexia

And then we come to yesterday. Yesterday there was a report published (you can read it here), based on a survey commissioned by an assessment company, GL Assessment, that claimed (in a nutshell) that teachers think that labels of SEN are obtained by the pushiest of parents (and by default, the wealthiest and most middle class), and that this means that some children, who need and deserve support (presumably the children of the poor, or JAMs), aren’t getting it. Sounds like truth, doesn’t it? The squeaky wheel and all that. Except when you contrast it with the statements above, and the fact that we have (for now) a National Health Service.

Are we teachers really saying that we don’t believe in clinical diagnoses? (see press release here)

Now personally, I don’t think anything of the sort, but I do think, because I am a teacher and I know how difficult it is to balance a class and to understand the sort of SEN that doesn’t come with a diagnosis (the sort that is most common in classrooms), that questions about teacher perceptions of labels of SEND need to be very carefully framed. Firstly, because SEND does not mean some sort of group of children where each one is the same, facing the same kind of difficulties: homogeonised. And secondly, because, if you are not careful, what you actually get in answer to your question is something completely different.

If you look at the survey (link here) I think what you find are two things:

  1. A lack of understanding of the reality of SEND by the questioner.
  2. A neat exposition of teacher attitudes towards a certain set of parents (mothers, let’s face it) who are exhibiting anxiety about the educational progress (or not) of their child/children.

I’m not going to go into the reporting of the results of the survey (although the Guardian – what were you thinking??), I’ll  save that for another day, except for one thing – a press release is an important document.  Read an excellent exposition of the dangers here.  You can see two contrasting reports on it here, from TES and here, from the Guardian, and draw your own conclusions.

Needless to say, if I was writing it up, I’d have written it very differently, because guess which SEND assessments (among others) GL Assessment sell? Dyslexia.

Know nothing, Know-all

This isn't the original.
This isn’t the original.

I remember the first National Curriculum, or I should say, the first primary national curriculum (secondary remains a ‘here be dragons’ kind of place to me, a mystery full of grey corridors and children wearing blazers).  Introduced following the Education Reform Act of 1988, the year of the GCSE, it was rolled out in primary schools in 1989.  By the time I started my PGCE in 1993, teachers were getting the hang of it, even if it was an extraordinarily cumbersome document.  I remember the day I took my copy home from college, so that I could read and inwardly digest; I struggled down the road with two carrier bags and a couple of folders tucked under each arm.

Now, I have to admit to a certain weakness for stationery.  I used to spend hours, as a teenager, choosing my new pencil case and the ring binder I would hug to my chest in the way of teenage girls before the start of the school year.  I was secretly envious of my sister’s collection of smelly rubbers in the shape of fruit, even thought I had a collection of my own (mine were from National Trust properties and museum shops, the only thing, bar the bookmarks, that I could ever afford to buy).  I stacked the brightly coloured folders (one colour for each subject, English was yellow, maths blue, music pink, geography brown) (actually, now I come to think about it, this is probably the reason why I am always disconcerted if maths and English exercise booked aren’t blue and yellow respectively) on my student desk and sighed a deep sigh of satisfaction.

I used to know it well.  Every half term and holiday, I would consult it, just to check that I was teaching what I was supposed to; I would enter in, on the planning form we used, exactly which points I was covering, down to the a,. b. and c.  I filled in Modbury books, and highlighted handwritten objectives, to show what was covered.  When I (hand) wrote reports, I would pore over the level descriptors, to make sure I knew where the children were at in terms of their progress, and what I could usefully tell their parents.

That said, I was glad when it was slimmed down a bit.  It took up a rather large amount of space in my teacher cupboard (along with all the things that everyone else was looking for and that I had forgotten I had stashed in there).  Doing my planning became a lot less complicated (especially maths, I recall, with its pull out diagram of what went where), although every little tweak and change made you feel like you had to work from scratch all the time.  They kept the colours though.  That was nice.

These days, the National Curriculum is a very different document indeed.  Gone are the colours (it’s serious knowledge, after all, none of this playfulness associated with children, please), and in their place are lots of important sounding words, like narratives, summaries, linguistic knowledge, transcription, morphology, geometry and algebra.  It feels aspirational and…muscular.  There’s a lot of Knowledge in it, dressed up in those important sounding words.  So much, in fact, that spelling, vocabulary, grammar and punctuation have two statutory appendices of their own.

Now, I know it feels a bit like having a moan a long time after the event, in the manner of shutting the door after the horse has bolted, but still; and I’ve got nothing against knowledge – there are lots of interesting things in the world, and I am interested in lots of them.  But it seems to me that in our quest for knowledge, and the kind of National Curriculum Knowledge we statutorily strive for, in the seriousness of the document (despite the odd ‘joy’, ‘treasure house of wonder’, ‘imagination’ and ‘curiosity’ here and there) that we have forgotten something really important.

Maybe it’s the layout.  I’ve been reading it again this afternoon (as you do on your day off), checking it out and comparing it with curricla (curriculums?) that have gone before, and there is something about it that troubles me.  It’s not so much the hierarchical nature of it, the way that English and maths are prioritised, which is entirely appropriate in the primary school, as the way it is presented, almost as if it is a list of Things To Learn, and you start at the top and you carry on working away until you get to the bottom.  And that knowledge about writing, and words to describe words, are somehow more important than the things we ask children to write about.  (When you read the document like that, what other conclusion can you come to?  The foundation subjects are lucky if they get a couple of double spaced pages per key stage.)

Maybe primary teachers feel like second class citizens, constantly constructed in the popular imagination with glitter and glue, as if all we do is play at teaching, and we leave the hard stuff, the stuff of subject domains, the treasure trove of facts and knowledge to our secondary colleagues.  Maybe it’s that we wanted a bit of the seriousness of the endeavour to be placed upon our shoulders too, I don’t know.  No pictures or colours here.  This is Serious Knowledge that needs Serious Learning.

The thing is, though, that I know that many primary teachers are not happy with the Way Things Are in their classrooms.   They aren’t happy at being forced, by overly prescriptive assessment criteria that drives what ends up being taught, to teach things they know are wrong, or silly (exclamatory sentences, anyone?).  I’m not happy with the things I’ve seen, when I’ve been driving round the county, reading the books, full of what the children wrote.

But maybe the solution lies with us.  Maybe we ought to have a bit more professional confidence.  Maybe we ought to say a bit louder that if children are going to be asked to write, then they need something to write about.  Maybe we ought to point out that the primary curriculum has art and music and science and technology and computing and foreign languages and RE and all sorts of other lovely things in it that would do that very job.  If only we had the time to teach it.  Or the time to think about how we would do it in a meaningful and joined up way that makes sense to the developing child.

It strikes me that if we don’t, if we do the compliant thing that answers the order, ‘jump1’ with ‘how high?’, if we can’t find a better answer to the accusation that we are against knowledge and against learning than treating children to a narrower and narrower curriculum – for everyone, not just those with SEND – in order to justify ourselves, to prove that we are Serious Creatures, not frivolous ones in love with fun, then we are in danger, by forgetting that you don’t have to learn ‘this’ before you can learn ‘this’ (i.e. the ‘treasure trove of wonder’ is to be found in the primary school too), of creating children who appear to know it all, but actually know nothing.

And in the meantime, while we struggle to keep up, we are distracted from commenting on the funding bubble that is about to burst and the slow but steady creep of the neoliberal trap.

Performance and Plays

This last couple of weeks have been busy, and that’s just me.  No wonder most of the teachers in the land are about to collapse into a sweaty heap, little squares of glitter stuck to their damp cheeks and foreheads, resisting a washing off for at least a week.  The end of the winter term is almost as exhausting as the end of the summer, in terms of plays and performances, but without the sport or reports.

So far this month I have been to one Christmas Fayre, one play, four carol services and one concert.  It would have been two, but I had to go to work and it was supposed to be daddy’s turn only Sam was poorly and he ended up not going after all.  I have heard all about it though.  I have baked, written cards and bought wrapping paper for mysteriously hidden parcels, stood in post office queues and done battle with the printer. So far, so Christmas.

I do not enjoy much of the preparations, I have to admit.  There is too much rushing around for my liking, followed closely by too much standing about (I am usually late to things and have to squeeze in at the back).  Too many things to get ready and fancy all at the same time.

I gave up trying to produce the Perfect Christmas some time ago.  I made my own Christmas Puddings three years in a row, and that was enough.  I don’t mind making some mince pies (my mum lends me her Festive Pastry recipe) if I’ve got friends coming round, but really, muddling through in a relaxed manner (we have already ordered the chocolate log from the supermarket – I had a go at making one once, but honestly, it wasn’t much good and the shop one is miles better anyway) suits me fine.  We decided as a collective that doing things our way (ie relaxing and generally not doing very much at all) was the way forward.

But, you know, I am a contrary beast.  There are some things about which I find myself alarmingly pedantic.  The roasting of potatoes (45 minutes), the writing of Christmas cards (fountain pen), the singing of carols at the Correct Speed (not to fast, not so slow that a person runs out of breath at the wrong moment), the proper rehearsal of children in the school performance.  Oh, OK.  This post is entirely about that.  Forgive me for amusing myself with a couple of flourishes before getting to the point.

On the whole, the Christmas performances I have been to this year have been a delight.  They have each been special, each in their own way, set against the backdrop of the splendour of a medieval abbey.  Not many children or young people get to perform in such a place – my own are truly fortunate.  It’s a pleasure to go and share the (somewhat chilly) time with them.

But the one that really impressed me this year was not my daughter’s final primary carols.  It wasn’t the secondary school, a fine celebration of the choral tradition.  It was Sam’s.  His last carols and the first ones out of his special special school and into the town.

I wondered for how many children the experience of attending a service in such a large building was the first.  I know it’s not for Sam.  He has been going there since babyhood; he helped give out 400 oranges, stabbed with sweets and raisins at last years’ Christingle.  He reduced the congregation to tears, and nearly the Bishop of Gloucester, with his-and-my prayer at harvest festival, which she had to read because we couldn’t.  For some of them, the power of the organ, the unfamiliarity of the standing up and sitting down in the winter chill (despite the listed radiator churning in the corner), was a new one, and a challenging one at that.

But what they did that day, when it ran like clockwork, when the talents of the students were showcased and celebrated, where prayers were clapped and everyone knew what to do and when and what would happen next, is they put those of us who do not give children the time to practice, who forget that while we adults do it every year and may very well be tired of the whole shebang that they are not, to shame.

Rehearsing for the Christmas show, be it infant nativity, carols or panto, is never a waste of time. Showing our children what it takes to be good at something, what a good performance, what excellence, is, is never a waste of time.  Those moments when we step off the timetable, when we come together as a community, to create the shared memory that binds us together as us are always worth the bother.  When we continue the traditions that generation after generation remembers from their own school days, remembering that the little ones are empty pages, their stories as yet unwritten, we do something that goes beyond the utilitarian value of the measurable-on-the-spreadsheet education.

And lastly, because I can’t quite get this into the narrative I want you to listen to this, from a young person who attends a special school; and the next time someone tries to tell you that SEND is all about attainment, remember.