Tag Archives: Teaching

Happy Birthday Darling

The day I was 18 it was overcast. I’d like to say I remembered the day vividly, but I don’t. Snatches jump into my memory; cards and presents at the start of English, my tutor, Roger, smiling and rolling his eyes, a pizza lunch with my mum and my friend Liz. Alcohol was probably involved somewhere, but I really don’t recall. Right before my A levels, I was in a frenzy of excitement and anticipation. This week, my firstborn, my S, was 18 too. Equally frenzied, like me, he went out with friends, not interested in staying home.

I feel chuffed when I look at the young man he is become. When he was that tiny baby and we were so worried the fact that he would one day be 18 was inconceivable. Toddler, small boy, stroppy teen, stages he has passed through (OK, so he might still be in the stroppy teen phase), the inevitable passing of time, the fascinating transformation through the ages – none of them have prepared me for my amazement at this birthday. It feels strange to have an adult child.

It hasn’t been easy, getting him to this point, and neither do I think my job is over. (I am currently huffing and puffing at the idea that I will have to apply to the courts for permission to assist my own child, but that is a story for another day.) There is plenty to be getting on with, but in some ways I think I can cautiously congratulate myself on a job well done.

This is not to say that it has been easy. Much of parenting, and you can multiply this for any sort of disability parenting I reckon, is hard work, from the almost mindless drudgery of wiping noses and arses to the withstanding of tears at bedtime and the constant turning things off. The ‘no’ word can become the hardest word, and sometimes it feels as if you, the parent, the adult, must have nerves of steel and a heart of stone.

To be honest, the disability thing doesn’t help. As a little one, S was the supreme example of cuddliness. His low muscle tone and a winning personality made him irresistible to many. His eyelashes have never had a problem working, and neither has his smile. Small in stature, especially when he was young, it was easy to kid yourself that, somehow, he would defy time and stay a child forever.

Like motherhood, there is an aspect of disability that is played out in public and Other People, every one of them with a different understanding of your child and most of them with the best of intentions, get involved (lots of them professionally). If you’re not careful, before you know where you are, your hard work is undermined by an ugly combination of opinion and pity.

But here’s the thing. Heartstrings are all very well but in the end there is a job to be done. In the end there is a challenge to be laid down and lived up to. That tiny baby, that little boy, he didn’t stay that way. He grew and grew and I am grateful for all the adults who did not give in, for all the grown ups who gently but firmly said, ‘no’ and, ‘hands to yourself’ and, when he said, ‘I can’t’ replied, ‘you can.’

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Welcome back, the weekend wash

It’s the start of September and I, like my teaching colleagues, am gearing up for the new year by having recurring anxiety dreams (mine involve no one listening to me) and wondering how, after a summer of baguettes, I am going to fit into my work trousers. I have browsed my favourite clothing websites (lovely) and completed as much planning as I can before the starting gate opens (mummy, you have worked for FAR too long today). I have bought the shoes, checked the bags, lunchboxes, pencil cases and stationery supplies, looked at the forms (they are under the fruit bowl, their clamour for attention getting louder by the day), attended all the appointments, fetched the prescriptions (but not visited the hairdresser, haven’t had time for that) and, luxury of luxuries, read five books (didn’t really like The Time Traveller’s Wife, to be honest).

And now, the Saturday before it all starts again, before we put our collective family feet on the treadmill to Christmas, all of us fit and healthy all at the same time for the time being, in that moment of pause while we who are about to go back to school take in and seem to hold a simultaneous breath, I have depressed myself with a reflection upon the state of my household laundry.

Unlike many others of my ilk, I have to admit that I don’t overly mind doing the washing. Leaving aside the anxiety and angst it causes me when my beloved puts my best things in on a hot wash, I am really relatively happy to be in (mostly) sole charge. It’s quite therapeutic, especially the clean bedding bit, and it means that I always have a good idea of who needs new socks and pants, and who has grown out of what. I even know which bits of clothing belongs to which person. I don’t particularly mind the ironing – although I prefer it when my mum does it. She’s so much better at it than me, but more, the act of chatting while she does it brings back echoes of my younger self when I used to hang around for hours while she transformed seemingly endless stacks of shirts from crumpled rags to pristine uniform.

The only part of the process I actively don’t like is the putting away. By the time I’ve got to sorting out six piles and putting them on the bed (one for each of us and one for the airing cupboard) I’m bored. As a consequence, the washing can stay in suspended animation for days, sitting in silent tower blocks in my bedroom or accusingly in the kitchen, waiting for someone to complain that they have NOTHING to wear, not even a sock.

One of the (many) nice things about the long summer holiday is the sudden ability I have to space it all out. Apart from those moments when you return from a week away and you have everything in the entire world to wash, you can take your time, do it in dribs and drabs, set your own timetable. Nothing needs to build up, or wait for the Sunday evening session of sorting out and putting away, the sweaty race against the clock to get everything done before Monday morning comes around again. And that’s what I thought, as I pegged it out (usually a cause for celebration, especially when you can get all the towels on the line as well as the bedding and everything is clean and nice and fresh) this morning.

Living through the school terms, whether as a parent or a teacher (and a parent) has that quality about it that wears us all out – careful about workload or not. If you’ve got a private life (and who hasn’t) you will need a survival routine there too and preferably one that’s shared.

(One day I will write a blog about modern parenting which seems to require double the economic contribution while at the same time demanding one partner stays at home to service the needs of the rest and make a comment about how constant homework and clubs and running around after your kids encourages the idea that they need a support team of their own.)

The Roman Bath

The first time we visited the Roman Bath, it was snowing. Newly married, we had booked a City Break; it snowed, R had the flu and I…well, I convinced him (through some sort of Early Marriage Force) to ignore both the weather and his internal temperature. It was not the most successful weekend away there has ever been. We squashed ourselves against an 18th Century window, I failed to convince him of the exciting ness of Jane Austen and it was some years before we attempted to take the waters again.

The next time we visited, taking a young S and an even younger A, it wasn’t so much an Austen influence as Arthurian. As we explored the complex, instead of ladies in their dampened muslin gowns, I imagined the soaring roof and the steady decline and fading out of a Roman era, the smoke of tallow torches drifting upwards into the gloom, mingling with the faintly sulphurous steam rising from the green water. I’m not sure it was the start of my mission to take my children to sites of historical and cultural significance (I’ve always been a bit of a visitor to such places), but, wherever it sits in the chronology, it was certainly one of the earliest.

Over the years, I have taken them (not dragged, I hasten to point out, despite L’s latest protestation – half term is coming up and she is fighting a rear guard against being forced away from the computer game) to castle, cathedral, ruin; anywhere, in fact, that looks like it has an interesting story to tell (or features in one or other of the novels which form a part of my internal world). Our local church, an abbey saved by the townsfolk from the dissolution of Henry VIII, was always good for a wander about should we feel the need to get out of the house. I enjoyed the appearance of historical characters, firmly lodged in my imagination, they the quirks of architecture: angels playing harps and drums and weird pipes with, no doubt, even stranger names, chests with unimaginable locks, or the size of grand pianos. Or even grand pianos. The odd rehearsal of a visiting orchestra or choral society.

Museums are always tempting, but I don’t know…apart from the entrance fee, there is something ‘managed’ about them that I just don’t like. Someone else’s interpretation. Someone else’s idea of what we should know. So little left to the imagination. Millions may have been spent on a visitor’s centre, but give me real over plastic reconstruction any day. And definitely don’t give me one of those hand held, silence inducing guides either, you know, the ones that force you to stop and crowd around the same points as everyone else, while you listen to the prescribed story and haven’t got any time to look around you and ask, I wonder?

I did it once. I hired the handsets at the Roman Bath, convinced, for once, to give the conventional a try. They didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I was carrying them all, chatting our way round, seemingly inconsequential, quirky questions flowing from my knowledge of my children and the place we were exploring. They couldn’t access someone else’s explanation, someone else’s idea of what a child should know. They were too young; they didn’t know enough about yesterday – they didn’t have enough yesterdays – let alone two thousand years worth of them to make sense of it all. They needed to experience the place, to follow their interest (channels and watercourses and throwing coins into water, bubbles and steam and funny smells, lions in the rock and golden treasure), to be given the opportunity to return, again and again if need be, at their own level, at their own pace, until they were ready to meet me at mine.

The Mirror and the Window

One day I am going to write a book. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already written one; what I mean is that one day I am going to write a work of fiction. I’ve had the idea batting around my mind for a while now. It keeps knocking on the door of my subconscious and this week, after designing a workshop on representations of disability in fiction and why this matters (or critical literacy aka asking awkward questions) I have re-decided that I’m going to write a book with a ‘real’ disabled character in it; one who is, just like S. I read this book, you see. It’s not about disability in a broad fashion; it’s about the narratives of intellectual disability, and how they influence stories more than you might think.

I’m not a literary theorist. I’m not even a critic. I found large parts of the book a difficult read (partly because I didn’t know the stories he used as case studies) and I’ve got a long way to go in understanding how understanding the role of disability in fiction can unlock insights into what we think of ourselves as human, but I made a start.

The obvious immediately sprang to mind. Auggie, star of Wonder, Will, from Me Before You (aka the disability snuff movie), Long John Silver and Richard III (the Shakespeare one). As I continued to read, and to mull it over, I remembered Albus Dumbledore’s sister (and other squibs); even Harry Potter himself could audition for the role. Look:

The Dursleys often spoke about Harry like this, as though he wasn’t there – or rather, as though he was something very nasty that couldn’t understand them, like a slug. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bloomsbury, 1997

There are a host of characters and once you start looking,  you notice how writers use animal references to signify disability. Look:

[Lennie] flung himself down and drank […] with long gulps snorting into the water like a horse. J Steinback, Of Mice and Men, 1937

Or make out that they are seriously scary. Look:

Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom […] people said he went out at night when the moon was high and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Or:

In the midst of them, the blackest and largest in that dark setting, reclined James Hook, or, as he wrote himself, Jas. Hook, of whom it is said he was the only man that the Sea-Cook feared. He lay at his ease in rough chariot drawn and propelled by his men, and instead of a right hand he had an iron hook which ever and anon he encouraged them to increase their pace. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy, 1911

It’s all a bit depressing.

On the other hand, some disabled characters are really quite saintly. Look:

He lived with his mother on the farm. Never was there […] a creature more popular with the young or old, a blither or more happy soul than Barnaby. C. Dickens, Barnaby Rudge,1841

Or you might want to use Tiny Tim as an illustration instead, or Beth from Little Women. Or even, as the ultimate in ‘positive about being different’: Elmer. Look:

It was Elmer who kept the elephants happy. Sometimes he joked with the other elephants. Sometimes they joked with him. But if there was even a smile, it was usually Elmer who started it. D McKee, Elmer, 1989

Mind you, you wouldn’t want to use Colin from The Secret Garden as an illustration of the saintly. If ever there’s a character who was a pain in the ass, it’s Colin. But look:

So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness …he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it. When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones…strength poured into him like a flood. Frances Hodgeson Burnett, The Secret Garden, 1911

Seeing as I know and love someone who is disabled, and he is neither a demon or an angel, someone or something that has to be explained or cured with a dose of positive thinking and fresh air, he doesn’t exist to highlight how lucky we who are not intellectually disabled are and he most certainly is fully human, it all starts to feel a bit problematic. Given that most people don’t know and love someone disabled (or they think they don’t anyway) and how children, just like adults, use books to help them make sense of the world, it struck me that we might like to start asking some of those awkward questions and encourage children to do the same.

And this is why;

“the interpretive stakes are always high when the subject is intellectual disability, because the stakes are ultimately about who is and who is not determined to be ‘fully human,’ and what is to be done with those who (purportedly) fail to meet the prevailing performance criteria.” Michael Berube, The Secret Life of Stories, 2016

And this is why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAXBOcv6AS4

And this is why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6i97xnZCfU

“We read to know we are not alone” C.S. Lewis

The stories we read and tell are both a mirror and a window.

 

 

 

Read a book review of Wonder here.

You can find a useful booklist with ideas for primary aged children here.

 

Demand, Support, Control

I have to admit that it was with a supressed sense of reluctance that I set off for the third Research SEND conference on Saturday morning. It was drizzling. It was cold. The hubs was stripping wallpaper and the kids were full of snot. It was one of those times when I had to force myself out of the house, mindful that I had said that I would contribute and safe in the knowledge that, joy of joys, it was only half an hour away.

Of course, I was late. Of course, when I got there the hillside upon which the campus was built was cold, windswept and deserted. I found the café (eventually), but of course, there was no one there to ask. When I finally found the lecture theatre, the keynote was just finishing. Everyone was very interested in what was said – but I have to admit that I was more relieved that I had made my way in without drawing too much attention to myself by falling over the chairs with a clatter and a stage whispered ‘sorry, sorry’.

I thought, after I’d managed to miss the keynotes so spectacularly, that I’d better get into the swing of things, so, with a focus on mental health as the theme of the day, I went to see what the boss had to say about staff wellbeing at work.

I don’t suppose that I am unusual in having had a difficult time at work, at one point or another, over the years. I’ve never endured a toxic workplace for very long, but they have certainly touched my life, and I was taken aback to find, instead of hints and tips on how to balance your work life with your home life and not lose yourself somewhere in the middle of it all, an almost perfect description of workplace bullying. (Demand, support, control model, Karasek, 1979.)

I read an article in TES the other week, and I had a similar reaction; I knew that I had been bullied at work before, but I could never quite put my finger on it. How were these people making me feel so bad? And why was I so powerless? It was strange to see it represented so well in diagrammatic form.

You see, place someone in a circumstance where they have high demands placed on them (particular groups to teach, perhaps), give them no support at all (they always behave for me OR ‘I’m going to come and give you some support) and take away any control that they thought they had (curriculum, timetabling, environment for teaching, scripts) and there you have it. It was almost enough to make me wonder whether it wasn’t the ‘how to get someone to leave’ part of the leadership course. It’s supposed to be about how to keep your staff, but as I started to get cross, I started to wonder whether or not we have the toxic version of the model at play across the entire education system.

You see, I spent part of this afternoon looking through the latest in the rash of consultations from the DfE and thinking about improving life for teachers, ensuring that members of the profession stay, thus keeping their expertise in the system and saving the nation shed loads of money in sick pay and training costs and I thought to myself, I wonder if they know? I wonder if they know what giving teachers some control would do towards solving the retention crisis? I wonder if they know how teachers would feel about being supported rather than constantly criticised? I wonder, if they reduced their demands, just a little bit, what the effect would be? Would we stay? Or would we go?

You can find the first post I wrote about the way that teachers are treated by the DfE here: http://www.notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/an-open-letter-to-mr-tristram-hunt/

Because, mark my words, it is impossible to work your way out of a toxic workplace. If someone has you in their sights, there is nothing you can do, in terms of your own performance, to make the situation better. Nine times out of ten, the only solution, the only thing you can do, to give yourself back the control, support you need and reduce the demands you feel, is leave.