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.

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?

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

Strictly Come Elections

Sam and I watched Prime Ministers Questions yesterday while we were eating our lunch (or rather, I watched it, and Sam tolerated my watching it while he scoffed a hot dog; thankfully, the other two were out, playing with friends, so I was released from the bonds of ‘boring’). I haven’t watched it for a while, and I don’t suppose he ever has, him being at school on Wednesday lunchtimes, and I was curious to see how it would go, all things considered.

I find it fascinating, I have to admit. On the one hand, there are the showtime set pieces, where opposing leaders insult and try to catch each other out, and on the other, there are questions about bin collection, dog mess and charity walkers on stilts, in aid of the learning disabled. For a national stage, it is disarmingly parochial.

Yesterday, there was quite a lot of shouting (but no paper waving that I noticed, and not much laughter, despite the rather forced comedy of Mr MC Speaker), and Sam waited politely for the applause to stop, and the action, in the form of questions, to start.

I had thought that he was more interested in the application of his tomato ketchup and wasn’t really watching, until, that is, a certain woman stood up to speak and called the Prime Minister a liar. At first, I thought it was the school-marmly way she did it (clearly, she has had a lot of experience, either in the giving or the receiving of tellings off) that caught his interest, until he sat up straight, eyes a-twinkle (he has very twinkly eyes, especially when he is amused), pointed at the screen and exclaimed, ‘Ed Balls! Ed Balls from Strictly!’

I have to admit that I never thought that fan-dom of Strictly Come Dancing would mark the beginning of my son’s political education, but there you go. Unlike me, a child of the Spitting Image generation, who bewails the fact that nobody is recognisable any more, thanks to the loss of political satire via the medium of puppets, he recognised a politician thanks to her connection with a different world entirely.

Sometimes I wonder what he takes in, when we sit around the tea table, discussing events of the day. A is beginning to join in; his sense of fairness adding to a growing sense of social justice. L rolls her eyes and declares, ‘boring’, although I know, through her concern for her friends, that she is not immune to the concept, either. But Sam; he remains my dark horse, as he keeps his counsel, and concentrates on dinner (or tea).

But he reminded me of something important yesterday, as we chuckled together over Yvette Cooper and her smiling, rolling eyes at the nation cheering, spangled antics of her over enthusiastic husband last autumn. He reminded me that I needed to carry on challenging lazy assumptions, because his life, and his future, matters.

He reminds me to ask you to ask your local candidates what they will do to support disabled people and whether they have read the UN disability convention.

He reminds me to ask you to ask your local candidates what they think of segregation in schools on the grounds of academic ability, and its flip side, inclusion.

His presence, and mine, reminds me to ask you to ask your local candidates what they will do to protect our National Health Services – because without a shadow of a doubt, illness or disability, learning or otherwise, can, and will happen to us all.

Becuase, in the end, bad things do indeed happen to good people; our frailty is part of who we are as humans. And our descision is how we respond to that.

Together? Or alone?

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.’