One of the things I miss most about teaching children is the way they take you into their confidence. I have lost count of the number of times I have been called ‘mummy’ (although never yet ‘grandma’, thank the Lord), I’ve been asked if I’d be allowed out to play, and I have had to fill in many, many, many child protection forms in my time. This last is partly a consequence of working in small groups. In the intimacy of small spaces and with smaller numbers of children, the barriers are reduced, and the tales come tumbling out. Standing at the front, doing the teaching thing, isn’t exactly what you might call conducive to confidences.
Even as their mother, the stories come out in dribs and drabs, a little bit here, a little bit there; a slowly growing testimony to their ability to understand the world. Sometimes it is relatively easy to make sense of it all, the day Sam was incensed that a game of ‘throw the shoes about at playtime’ ended up with a lost arch support (it was lying at the bottom of the shed and had to be retrieved by the caretaker) was a simple mystery to solve (although, in the heat of the moment, at school, he couldn’t make himself understood), making sense of the slippery world of social relationships is altogether another.
As a young person, I remember wondering why I was so unpopular. I’d look in the mirror and think I was nice enough, not unkind, and wonder what it was I was doing wrong. I couldn’t seem to figure it out at all, and I gloomily concluded, as I tried in vain to fit in, straighten my hair, mould my accent into something more acceptable and change my behaviour into something more traditional, that it must, somehow, be my fault.
I never told my parents. It didn’t seem worth it. Not that I wouldn’t be believed, but that it wasn’t important enough, somehow, to make a fuss over. Something that happened to everyone, nothing special about me. I did take it up with one of my teachers, though, I remember that. I sat in his office, after a lesson gone wrong, one I refused to return to, explaining what had happened. He told me that the other girl had a hard life, the implication being that her behaviour to me was somehow understandable, acceptable. Inevitable.
But there is nothing inevitable about bullying. It is only when we, as a community of adults stand aside, when we fail to call it out when we see it, or don’t bother to take the time to understand what is really going on, that we allow bullying and belittling to flourish. A poisonous atmosphere of fear is entirely within our control.
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.)
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.
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.
It is one of my abiding sadnesses that Sam, through no fault of his own, does not go out to play with friends. At the moment he is, like I was at a similar age, listening to terrible music far too loudly and not feeling the lack. At the beginning of the holidays he is likely to be happy in his own company, mooching around the house, generally doing what he feels like; it is next week that I will find a young person telling me that he is bored, seeking something else to do and the company of his friends.
I don’t know if it’s something specific to Down’s syndrome, but I am wary of letting him out to play on his own. I recently had a conversation with the person who is handling his Personal Independence Payments (PIP) – now that he is 16, he is entering into another era of state involvement – and we talked about how, if he was out and about on his own, how easily it could happen that he might get lost, his limited understanding of danger, both in the environment and in terms of the trust he places in other people. Maybe other parents of disabled children feel the same way, I don’t know.
I can’t help but feel that he is missing out. When he and his younger siblings were little we used to do that thing that stay-at-home mums do in order to keep themselves from going round the twist, and meet up, as a big group, all together. It was fascinating to watch the children playing. First, they would play side by side, and then slowly, they became more aware of each other, probably because they both wanted to play with the same car/train/dolly/teddy/other object of desire, until before we knew where we were they were playing with each other, chattering away and well on the way to becoming friends.
Now, partly because he attends a special school and therefore none of his friends live around the corner, partly because of the advent of the mobile phone (he doesn’t have one and I have no idea how to find out someone’s number unless they give it to you themselves), and partly down to my own sense of caution, I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to help him gain the invaluable learning experience of unsupervised play with his peers.
Because, you know, it would be foolish to assume that there is no value to children’s play; that they should be always organised, never left to get on with it, in their own way and at their own pace. Oh, I’m not saying that it should take place in classrooms – although this doesn’t mean that the classroom should not be a playful place, one full of fun, and the joy of learning interesting things (and yes, I do accept that not every child will find the same thing interesting, although, if I am their teacher, I will do my best to persuade them of the wisdom of my way of thinking) – but that children’s play, especially the unstructured sort where they learn to regulate their own behaviour, to manage their relationships, is an essential, an unmissable, part of growing up.
Maybe we are all afraid. Maybe it’s not just me. Maybe the world we live in is full of danger. Of cars. Of strangers. There is the ever present threat of failure, or of falling behind, and it affects us all. Maybe I’ve got a better reason than most to be fearful, but it strikes me, as I watch my children negotiate with each other, as I watch their kindness to the boy next door, as my role as arbiter and sorter out of fights is steadily lessened, that, if we are not careful, our fear will make us into fools.
I went to That London yesterday. Now that I am no longer working in school, but as a consultant teacher, I get to go there once a week, on the train. This would not usually be a thing I would remark upon, after all, thousands of people go to London on the train every day of the week; except that yesterday, it was a little bit different. For some reason, the coach in which my seat was booked was a first class one. I double checked my ticket, I checked that it matched the one sticking out of the top of the chair, and yes, indeed, there I was, entitled to share the rarified atmosphere of the Preserve of the Posh People.
I wasn’t alone in my surprise. Opposite me was an equally excited traveller. We chatted all the way, expressing first our astonishment at our good fortune, and then discovering a shared interest in things educational, him having lived and worked in Singapore for five years, and me being an SEN parent/teacher years further down the line (he took notes on what to write about in the parental statement part of the EHCP). It was really rather nice.
First class seats are so much more comfortable. They cushion your frame as you whizz through the countryside; there is room to stretch your legs, should you so desire. If the sun comes out (it did) and makes you squint (it did), there is a little curtain you can pull across the window to shade your eyes. If your computing devices need a charge – or anything needs a USB, there is a plug AND a USB socket (with a handy blue light to show you where they are). The table is big enough to fit your things on. If you are tired and need a little rest, the carriage is quiet in a superior kind of way. It is, I am convinced, an excellent way to travel.
I arrived at Paddington feeling refreshed (which is remarkable in itself, since I had been awake since 4 – you know, that strange sense of alert wakefulness that attacks you in the small hours when you know you have enough time to get back to sleep, but you are convinced your alarm is going to go off any moment now), and strode off to start a very productive day thinking how nice it would be to get a First Class ticket for every journey.
There must be people around who never go any other way, and sometimes, I can’t help wondering if those who make public policy aren’t those who, in a sense, travel First Class everywhere.
They are wealthy, so they never know what it is like to count every penny to make sure you can pay the mortgage, or budget for the next pair of shoes, crossing your fingers that they won’t grow out of them til the end of the month. Their children are always super-bright, like they are, so they never have to worry about what happens to them if they fail the test, or if they can’t get into Top Set because they used up their compliance quota just sitting quietly and they haven’t any energy left for any learning. They don’t worry about the impact on their children of being told by trusted teachers that they never quite measure up, of always finding themselves always in second class; it never occurs to them, because, well, it just doesn’t happen and if it does they are wealthy enough to buy them a place in a private institution that will repair their self-esteem with a good dollop of privilege.
But if you never went there, you would never know what it was like in Second Class; that there isn’t anywhere to sit, and that choice is never going to be an option because you can’t afford the ticket, or you have competing monetary priorities. You would never understand the way your body aches, from being forced to squash itself into the same position, for fear of standing on someone else’s toe, or brushing your leg against their knee. You could very easily assume that, because you also travelled on a train, that your journey took the same amount of time and your ticket was checked by the same person, that you understood. But you don’t. You have no idea.
I know I’m a better PE teacher because I didn’t like Games. I know I’m a better teacher because I have spent time outside, in the corridor, with the neediest of little ones. Am I a better parent because of Down’s syndrome? Maybe, maybe not. But I know I’m a more realistic one.
“It is a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. It’s much easier to be somebody else, or nobody at all.” Sylvia Plath
I’ve been doing quite a bit of Sorting Out lately. First, it was the Teaching Resources. When I went back to work after my long baby break, I re-started a collection that I threw out, not long after Baby Number Two. I wasn’t going back, I decided, and so, all those lovingly hand drawn worksheets, detailing various aspects of the Tudors, or the Egyptians, made their way, as it were, to the classroom in the sky. (I kept a fair amount of the books, it has to be said; you never know when you might need to rustle up a quick spelling activity or build a Saxon Hall with toilet roll inner tubes.) It didn’t take long to fill ten or so box files. I’m terrible at throwing things out (see above), and I hate waste. The last four years have seen me better at keeping things to a minimum, but still.
Our coming house move has been the catalyst for my uncharacteristic sorting. Once the worksheets were gone, I turned my attention to the filing cabinet. An annoying piece of furniture, stuffed in a difficult to reach corner, it has been easier, for the last ten years, to pile the ever-growing number of letters and other bits of Useful Paper Based Information relating to three children, on top of it, rather than attempt to wrestle with the Hanging Files That Fall Apart At The Slightest Touch. I decided, as I had about ten or so empty box files, that I would transfer the contents of the filing cabinet to said box files (we won’t have room for it when we move, anyway) and do some Sorting Out while I was at it.
It’s been a worthwhile exercise (despite R’s protestations). We have discovered the whereabouts of a fair number of important documents (along with several that were important in 2011 but are no longer), had a good discussion about pensions (confusing and depressing at the same time) and had (or rather, I have) a lovely trip down memory lane.
I didn’t feel it was necessary to keep hold of all of Sam’s old Statements, and the three or four draft EHCPs we received last winter. I haven’t kept every letter from every paediatrician or visit of the school nurse to check his hearing, although I have kept the first – the educational psychologist report and my original parental statement make interesting, and, to me anyway, somewhat heart-rending reading; one day I’ll tell you about it. I like to keep significant documents, papers that represent a turning or a starting point.
I’ve got the lovely little booklets that came from nursery, a record of a learning journey, a blast from the past that went in a flash, gobbled up by school runs and tea times and bed time and bath times. I look at them, I read the comments, and I see snatches of the people they are now; I am assailed by memory, of the time we went to Cornwall with grandad and took Macey, the class cuddly toy, the play-doh picnic and snow that came over the top of wellies. A record of the baby years, gone, but not forgotten.
And in amongst the letters and the school reports, the certificates of birth and marriage and the last will and testament of me and him, is a plastic pocket (I am a primary teacher, after all) containing passports. A and I looked at them together, marvelling at the size of the official dark blue, at his resemblance to his father, from an age before I knew him, and to me, a photographic record of change in ten year jumps. (The VERY NICE man at the Post Office told me last time how little I’d changed. I don’t think he’ll say the same next time, that’s for sure.)
There she sits, shyly giving a half-smile to the boxed camera, wondering what the future has in store, and I wonder that she is me. Or at least, she was.
Differentiation is easy, it doesn't have to be time consuming. It can even be fun! This blog contains easy ways to differentiate effectively in today's secondary classrooms. We aren't clones, so let's use our differences and those of our students to our advantage.