Tag Archives: Teaching

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.

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An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.

 

The things you don’t say

I’ve been a very busy girl lately (no change there, then, I hear you cry), much to the detriment of this blog and, no doubt, my family life, as much of my activity has been to do with work (a girl has to live, after all) rather than running around after the kids (something I fully intend to do this weekend, starting tomorrow). I’ve been busy, not at the computer, but out and about, in schools, training events and, yesterday, at the Academies Show at the Birmingham NEC.

I’ve been speaking about inclusion, and what it means on a personal and societal level, for children and the adults they will become. What I’ve said has, in the main, been well received.

You wouldn’t think it, after all, I am used to presenting things and talking before an audience, but, seeing as I tell my personal story, I’ve found it a nerve wracking experience, and yesterday was no exception. The last time I was in the NEC it was for a birthday visit to the Gadget Show; I felt disoriented and anxious and worried that I would take up too much time from the person following me. So I rushed.

Sometimes when I speak I don’t bother with many notes. I’ve thought about and internalised my stories so often that a picture prompt is all I need to get me going. Yesterday, though, was different. Mindful that not only was I representing myself, but Sam, and my employer, I prepared carefully. I planned my talk and wrote it down. I even timed it. A fact which I promptly forgot when faced with a real, live audience.

So I did what I have often done in the classroom; I chopped and changed, moved things around to suit the circumstance (or at least the situation as I perceived it) and, when I stepped from the stage, and looked down at my notes, I realised that, as in so much of my life, there was vast chunks of stuff that I didn’t say, and that I wished, as I drove home and cautiously negotiated the traffic in the darkening gloom, I had.

I wished that, when I talked about friendship, and the importance of making friends with the young people with whom you go to school, I’d told them that although the same set of children came to all of his parties, he didn’t go to theirs. 

I wish that I’d reminded them that the point of a mainstream education for a disabled boy like mine was not that he could be best friends with a woman older than his mum. 

I wish that I’d followed up with my assertion that those of us with disabled children have just as much right to be happy as anyone else – and that this meant living without the conflict with professionals that you are forced into when the state takes an interest in your family life. 

I wish I’d told them how hard it is to ask for help – and the difficulty of having to ask again, and again, and again, because someone’s policy is to save money and keeping quiet about what you are obliged to pay for is one of the ways you do that.

I wish I’d told them about the fear. Of the future. Of change. Of not knowing what is happening or what is going on. Of the difficulty in trusting someone else with your precious child because experience tells you that not everyone sees the world in the same way as you do, and how that makes you appear from the outside.

I wish I’d told them that I don’t care about the process, or even about the policy. That I just want to work to find a way forward for someone I love, and that I am sick to the back teeth of being told I am wrong, that I am doing all the things the wrong way or asking for the wrong things. That somehow, everything is actually my fault.

But these are all things I didn’t say. There are always things you don’t say.

In Search of Perfection

It took me a while to get the hang of teaching, it has to be said. At twenty-two, I hadn’t really done anything work-wise, apart from the odd Saturday and summer job, selling ice-creams and working behind the bar. I wasn’t exactly ready for the demands of the workplace, no matter how intense the training course (I did a nine-month PGCE).

I’d gone from school to college to uni and back to school again, and through a stage of getting the sack (or at least, not being asked back to temporary office work or shop jobs – and the less said about my waitressing the better). Even getting my first permanent job as a teacher was a bit of a trial (if you live in a pleasant place where there is a teacher training college, there is LOTS of competition), after figuring out that a job with a bit of creativity and autonomy suited me better. It took me the whole of my PGCE to turn myself away from being a student, and I reckon another two years on top of that to get the hang of working as a teacher.

Apart from one horrible experience, it was OK, though. I may not have walked into a permanent position straight out of college, but along the way I had the opportunity to work alongside a series of older and more experienced teachers who took me under their wings. They supported me through my various Seemed Like Good Idea at the Times – and told me when I needed to go home and not come back in until I was feeling better too.

It helped (and kept me working, no doubt) to know that I was on an extraordinarily steep learning curve. I wasn’t supposed to be fantastic at all times. I’d never heard of Outstanding; instead, I used to wonder if I would ever turn into a Swan Teacher (probably not). I was allowed to be young and make mistakes. It was OK not to know it all (apart from at the Bad Experience School), to ask for help and advice. Seventeen years later, I still write to Rose at Christmas, my colleague who retired and then kept on teaching into her 70s, whose good ideas I used to steal shamelessly and whose brain I regularly picked.

Sometimes, when I read the discourse around new teachers (I like to call them baby teachers, especially as, at twenty-two, they could easily have been my baby), I feel sorry for them. Labelled on a scale of 1-4, graded from the moment they entered the school system as a child themselves, I am sad that there seems to be an element of resentment towards their educators; that they didn’t pop out the other end of the education system fully formed.

It seems to me to be one thing to ‘hit the ground running’, but altogether another to expect either yourself or someone else to be perfect. Maybe, if we stopped expecting new teachers, or even more experienced ones – or parents, come to that – to know it all at all times, that there should be more, somehow, than being on a journey to good enough, then those moments when we are forced to eat a slice of humble pie wouldn’t be so difficult.

I wrote a book about how to be a great, inclusive teacher, a part of which is learning from our mistakes – because we all make them.

You can buy it here: SEN Books   and here Amazon

 

 

School Accountability and the entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum

I’ve been a teacher a long time, since 1994 in fact, and over the years, I have been witness to the things that Amanda Spielman, new Ofsted chief, spoke of yesterday – you can read her speech here – a speech which I finally found time to read in the evening, while I was supposed to be watching the telly (I still have no idea, really, what the whole Terminator Mark Million was supposed to be about, and how old is John Connor supposed to be these days, anyway?), and, such is my irritation that I find myself cranking up the laptop on the train, as I whoosh through the early morning countryside on my way to work.

You see, what annoys me is not that the Chief Inspector has noticed that the curriculum (you know, the one that has cost so much money over the years), for a lot of children, is not that thing that we all hoped it would be. It is not a ‘treasure house of riches’ (that’s a quote from the foreword of the latest iteration), but a narrow, dry diet that in my view, and I am sure I am not alone in this, instead of opening up new opportunities and new ideas, widening horizons and just being interesting and, dare I say it, fun, for its own sake, puts children off education and makes school the very last place that they want to be.

For seven years, ever since I stepped away from domesticity and back into my professional life, I have been aware that my expertise in music, in history, in DT, in curriculum planning (yes, I am one of those who are increasingly rare in the system), is not valued. It might help you get a job in the first place, if you happen to get an old-fashioned head teacher reading your application, but in the end, in a today when the ability to play the piano in assembly isn’t valued, because you may as well use the CD so that you can use your assembly time for something much more valuable, I don’t know, like marking, or interventions, or catching up on your emails or whatever other job that teachers find to do in their precious non-contact time and after all, what we mostly teach is maths and English, and what do you know about that?

We know this; this story of narrowing and dryness and maths and English in the morning and again in the afternoon, the lack of access to the arts, to PE, to DT and all the other interesting things there are to learn in school, and which I notice children, my own included, enjoying so much, to such a degree that they chatter about what they have been doing in the evening, over tea, and skip off to school in the morning because looking at their timetable, today is their favourite day, is no longer one that belongs only to teachers (and you can concentrate and multiply this effect for children with SEND – the ‘lower attaining – let’s call it what it is). Parents, politicians, journalists and now inspectors have got wind of it.

I’ve written about it lots of times before, such is my consternation. Here’s a description of my daughter’s recent experience.

But this is not why I am irritated, annoyed enough to sit typing here, worried that my fellow travellers might spill their coffee on my new computer. Working as I do, for an educational charity with a national voice, I have the opportunity, unlike many of my former colleagues, to escape the powerless trap and feel, at least, as if I am doing something about it.

I am cross because of blame. In her speech, the Chief Inspector doesn’t just draw a picture and reassure the profession that she is going to do something about it – that would be a welcome pronouncement. She refuses to take, for the organisation she heads, one jot of responsibility, but instead points the finger of blame at teachers and schools.

Now, I know that schools aren’t perfect. They are human institutions made up of human people who make mistakes, just like me. But I do know this. The actions they take on curriculum, and ensuring that children have access to the things we, as a society, deem important, are driven, not by the curriculum itself, but by fear. The fear of our punitive inspection system, all in the name of accountability.

And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing that hurts: when, as the parent of a disabled child, you really need your school to be accountable, to you, in the interests of your child, they aren’t.