Tag Archives: Children

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

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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?

 

A Christmas Carol

img_4865I’ve been to my first carol service already.  It was last week, in fact; an evening service of medieval simplicity on the first Sunday of advent.  I wasn’t in the choir, I didn’t play the piano.  I sang no parts.  I sat somewhere towards the back, slightly to one side, concealed by semi-darkness, shadowed as the candles and the brightly lit choir passed by.  It was peaceful.  I came away refreshed; my mind calmed and my spirit eased.

Carol services and concerts haven’t always been this way.  For years, I was a participant, someone with a part to learn, to perform.  When I was a little child, at primary school, we spent hours (or at least it felt like hours) learning words off by heart.  Mrs Puddicombe played the piano (I never got used to calling her Ruth, even when I grew up and I understood that she was a friend of my mum’s) and the rest of us, the children and the other two teachers, sang the words from the pungent purple typescript, a banda-ed copy of the traditional and modern, until we could do without.  There was always ‘Little Donkey’ (plus coconut shells) and ‘The Calypso Carol’ (wood blocks, tambourines).  (For some strange reason there were also always crepe paper hats; we used to design our own and wear them for the Christmas Dinner and the Christmas Party.  There was a competition, and I never won it, not once.)

When I went to secondary school, I left the hats behind and joined the choir.  The carols were no longer a simple affair, in the village hall or Top Class with the tables pushed back to one end and the sliding doors opened.  Now they were much more complicated, with parts (alto, followed by various descants, I was a confused chorister, I admit) and an orchestra.  There was a sale of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ at the back of the church, and my dad bought one.  When I was older still, I gave up the choir and concentrated on the orchestra.  I learned the bass, and how to fake it when you lost your place.  There was a cathedral and mulled wine; no uniform, we were far too cool for that, but a similarity in dress brought on by arran jumpers and Doctor Marten.

And then there was teaching.  As one of the pianists in Key Stage Two, it fell to me, and my colleague Rose, to take it in turns to play or lead the singing.  More parts, this time for recorders and triangles; no coconuts, but ‘The Calypso Carol’ too.  I used to enjoy it when it was my turn to play.  We used to borrow a Clavinova and set it up, just to one side of the rood screen.  There I would sit, tucked away, filling the church with my choice of the empty melodies of waiting while the pews filled and the cold air warmed with the steam of subdued conversation.  It was far better than conducting the singing, standing in the front, waving your arms about for all to see.

Of course, the advantage of conducting is that you can hide your own mistakes in a way that you can’t when you are accompanying singers on an instrument.  One time, our choir were taking part in a competition, and I got so nervous that I made them sing without (we didn’t win, we didn’t get anywhere near winning); often I would get out the guitar and convert every song to sing-along-a-G-C-and-D.  Rose and I had a running competition going over who could do the best Les Dawson impression, and we had trained the children well to JUST CARRY ON REGARDLESS.

I reckon it made them more aware of the imperfections inherent in any performance anyway.  And, like I said to one young lady, curiously seeking me out on a cold January afternoon when I was stamping my feet on the playground and wishing that I had brought a hat, I didn’t ever feel embarrassed, because, when it came to it, the assembled throng hadn’t come to see me.

That’s the thing I often think about teaching.  For all our loud, strident, in charge voices, we are a quiet profession.  The stage is not ours.  The prizes and medals and stickers and certificates are given, not taken.  The hours of practice, the preparation and planning, are not to show how clever we are, but to showcase them. 

Craving

Sometimes I crave chocolate.  I long for the sweet melting, the instant hit.  I don’t drink coffee.  I don’t drink tea.  I never craved for coal, or cabbages.  But sometimes: chocolate.

More often, I crave sleep. Long, unbroken stretches of peaceful  slumber, the sort that carry on into the later hours of the morning.  The sort where I can lie, comfortable, without having to go to the loo, or put anyone back to bed, check anyone’s temperature, mop up sick or change wet beds, the way I used to when I was young.

When I was young there was no need for craving. The life free from responsibility, from care, where sleep comes when you wish, when sugary snacks are yours, no consequences asked. No eyebrows twitched with anxiety because everything was open to opportunity and everyone was invincible.

Now that I am older I distrust those who forge into the future with certainty, throwing caution to the wind.  I crave a time when the well of anxiety runs dry, when the weight you carry for one child means that the concern you have for another doesn’t drown you, helpless, in its depths. I quietly long for the days I remember, when vulnerability was a faraway concept.

Counting the Cost

One of the first things I ever wrote for publication was a piece on miscarriage.  It was a long time ago, L was still a tiny baby, and in order to write it, I talked to a number of women, all of whom had had one, me included.  It’s strange, but it is one of those things that it shrouded in mystery, a silent mourning, until the moment you step over the threshold of birth.

Maybe it has something to do with work.  At work, no one has the time (nor the inclination) to go into the details of your reproductive woes.  It isn’t the place (you are supposed to be working, after all), and, well, it just isn’t obvious.  Everyone can tell when you are having a baby (at least when you pass the Too Many Cakes Stage), once that bump is on show, your status is one of public scrutiny and comment, but before, that is the time of shadows, of half-admitted hopes and dreams.

There is so much about the female condition that is both shrouded in mystery and guarded by thresholds.  It makes me wonder whether there is ever such a thing as an essential self, the bit that never changes, when you are female.  I look back at the child, the teenager, the young woman, mother, and I wonder if I actually, when it comes down to it, have anything much in common with them.  The years, and the crossing of thresholds, have changed me in a way that the male condition does not.

In a way, thanks to Sam’s very public disability, I had a passport into the shared pain of loss at an early stage.  Nobody looked at me, when we ventured out into the public/private world of the coffee morning and the toddler group, the informal and cathartic glue that holds us together in the early years of motherhood, and thought, ‘well, what would she know?’  That’s the problem with miscarriage, you see, or difficulties in conceiving; their invisibility.  If you didn’t know, you’d never know.

But the stories of loss that I have been privy to, of repeated mourning, of joy snatched for only a short time, together with my own, and others’ experience of difference, of disability, and my doctor’s muttered comfort that it was a wonder that the human race managed to reproduce at all, given the statistics, have conspired to teach me a salutary lesson about life, and humanity.

We think we have control.  We think we have choices.  We think we are beyond our animal bones.  And I suppose, to a certain extent, we are.  We may be able to select our embryos, choose the pettiest, or the most intelligent, test the genes (and not just for Trisomy 21), screen for all manner of things we just don’t fancy, be it a lack of happiness or health.  We might like to persuade ourselves that our ideas are just that; ideas devoid of morals, or ethics.  But those choices, those hard, physical choices touted as ease, they come at a cost; the price of which is loss and it is paid in tears.