Tag Archives: SEND

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?

 

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.

Reading to Babies

I do my best, these days, to persuade people that I am not completely mad. Occasionally the mask slips (I sang a snatch of Everything Is Awesone in a staff meeting the other day – I tried not to, but it sort of slipped out), but most of the time I reckon I get away with it alright.  I have to admit, though, that I struggle to hide it from those who know me well.

My mum, for instance, thought I was bonkers to make almost the first thing I did post-baby, a visit to the local bookshop, and then to the library to get Baby Sam his membership.  At the time, we were a little strapped for cash, having gone down one wage and up a new house, so, given my behaviour in bookshops up to that point (never leave without a straining carrier bag), I decided that the library card was a safer bet.

That said, I still thought it was important to own a few classics, so off to the bookshop I did trot and into my eager hands fell several board books, a fabric one with squeaky and crinkly bits and lots of different textures and little bits of string and ribbon to grasp and a plastic squashy one that went in the bath.

Down’s syndrome aside, I could tell that she thought that me buying books for a baby was an act of severe bonkersness.  What did babies need with books?  Shouldn’t they have a rattle, or stacking cups (he had these too, and an excellent little triangular wedge with a plastic mirror velcroed to it – I used to prop him up on his eblows and watch him gaze and coo to himself for ages) or something else more accessible, more suitable? Why was I wasting my time and money at such an early age, when there was no way on this earth that he would be able to read them? Thankfully she loves me, and she adores Sam, so she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

I think it had something to do with Teacher Me. Learning to read, leaving aside the decoding print bit, is partly about knowing what to do with a book;  which way is up, the way the pages work and how to turn them, that sort of thing. Seeing as reading has always been a joy to me (although not, it has to be said, to R, who mainly reads to find out how to make things), and seeing as I knew Sam had a learning difficulty, I reasoned that he may as well start young.  (Nothing to do with me wanting to buy books, not at all.) I didn’t want him missing out.

Over the years, with the addition of two more babies to the family, the collection of stories grew. We had our favourites; Peepo (a good strong board book with a hole for loose little fingers to grasp, a baby who looked remarkably like Sam and a natural rhythm to the poem that encouraged us to drop out words for him to fill in), We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (where little three-year-old Sam, still unable to call me ‘mummy’, would manage to ‘woo woo’ as we struggled through the blizzard), The Blue Balloon (fantastic for mouth control), Brown Bear, Brown Bear (the book I used to persuade his Reception teacher that it was worth while teaching him to read) and The Elephant and the Bad Baby (we liked the Tweeny Clock Cake). As I continue on my mission to sort out the house, I look at them all, their covers and pages dog eared and tatty now, and I cannot bear to throw them out.

Was it to teach them to decode that I shared these stories? To be honest, no. They were for me (or daddy, or grandma) to read to them.  Like Shakespeare’s plays performed in an age when, despite England’s relatively literate population, proportionally, not that many people could read – and fewer could write – it was never about literacy.  It was about access to story and rhyme, to an experience; an opportunity to enter in to a shared imaginative world, if you like.

I suppose I could have bought them more audio books (they are really rather fond of Pants, and used to have a very jolly time jumping on the beds to Lenny Henry’s various different versions, the ones that go too fast for you to turn the pages in time and still appreciate the humour in the pictures, or discuss which pants they like the best); I could have bought more films (although, I hate that feeling you get when the actors don’t look the way you had imagined the characters, and I can see, by the way A and L dismiss the Percy Jackson films as Not Right At All, that they feel the same way too).  I suppose I could insist that L reads Anne of Green Gables by herself, even though our copy was old when I first had it, the print is small and it is falling apart. But to me, that would be missing the point.

You don’t need to be able to read it yourself to enjoy a good story, well told, pictures and everything.  It’s about literature, not literacy, and access to it, and that, it seems to me, is an entirely different thing.

 

Baby Sam playing the piano before he could read music too.

Doublespeak

It’s been a long time since I read Orwell’s 1984.  My friend Allie, who used to have room 101 at college, had a quote from it photocopied and stuck to her door (I had a Jacky Fleming one and a the obligatory sheet of paper for my friends to leave the obligatory ‘I came to see you and you were out’ message on) and, at the time, I smiled, but I didn’t really know what she was talking about.  I had had Animal Farm read to me as a class story when I was in Year 6, but that was about as far as my knowledge of Orwell went at the time.  I was more of a Jane Austen kind of girl.

I did read it though, a while after I met her, accompanied by its feminist partner, The Handmaid’s Tale, one rainy summer when I had a job selling ice-creams (there wasn’t much to do), chuckling to myself at the snatched memory of my parents, in the real 1984, saying that they never thought they would ever reach the year, that now that they were 41 it didn’t seem so old.  When I read it (them), the dystopian image of a life controlled by Big Brother (which wasn’t a TV show), or by your membership of the female sex, it seemed to me to describe a fantastical world; an impossibility.  I was young.

Today, though, it is doublespeak, rather than Big Brother or Room 101, that I find most striking. The news is no longer the news (it is fake). The truth is no longer the truth (it’s not even relative). Social mobility doesn’t mean to be socially mobile (as personified by that much derided character, Hyacinth Bouquet/Bucket), but to be a certain kind of poor (the deserving). And, of most interest to me; inclusion doesn’t mean inclusion, quite the opposite in fact.

I can see why people want to use the term. It makes us feel nice, especially when we apply it to ourselves, or stick it up on a sign or a flyer, illustrated by smiling, cartoon children.  We are morally in the right, in a right on kind of way.  It is not quite the opposite of exclusive, which somehow means special and desirable, an honour bestowed upon the few (like advance notice of a discount or a new season, something that pops into your inbox, glistening with the temptation to part from your hard-earned cash and be the first from the starting blocks in the fashion stakes), a strange sort of justification of yourself as a shopper, or a parent. Instead, to be inclusive speaks to us of welcome.  There are no bouncers here, checking that you are on The List.

And, of course, inclusion is intertwined with notions of disability. To run an inclusive activity, or to be an inclusive school or church, it means that you welcome (or you say you do) disabled children and young people and their families, whether they are in a wheelchair or not; everyone, in fact.

Except, somehow, it doesn’t.  Somehow, an inclusive activity has come to mean one for disabled people (but only if you are the right kind).  An inclusive school is the one where all the disabled children go. An inclusion unit, a space within a mainstream school, has become the place where you send someone (those pesky disabled kids, the undeserving ones who have slippery labels they just won’t obey), not to keep them in, but to get them out.

We say all the right things, but somehow, it feels empty. It all feels a bit too much like doublespeak to me.

 

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.