Tag Archives: Teaching

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.

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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.

Selection and Choice

One of the things you get used to, when one of your children has Down’s syndrome, is being asked a lot of questions.  They can be anything from the sort that come from officials and questionnaires about his ‘needs’ (like, how am I supposed to know when it is a new situation and I’m not there?) to the most common of all, accompanied by the sympathetic head-tilt and sing-song intonation of, ‘did you know?’

The did you know question became so ubiquitous when Sam was younger, a soundbite comment on the public nature of motherhood, that I became sorely tempted, in the faintly hectic way of the sleep deprived, to answer through dramatically bared teeth, ‘No, I ordered him from the baby shop especially because I fancied a more complicated and difficult life, thanks for asking.’  I never did, but my friend Meg and I used to laugh about it.  We’d decided that laughing at the world and its judgements and opinions was a better option than the alternative, which was to drown in a sea of self-blame and fear for the future. So laugh we did, imagining all the shocked faces at our reply.

The thing that always gets to me though, the poisoned dart hidden deep within that question, is the underlying assumption of choice.  We like to think, in our 21st Century Western way, that we have a lot of choice, as if we could indeed go into a shop and point at the baby we wanted, the one that satisfied our list of demands, as easily as that.  But, of course, there is no such shop, and no such easy choice. The best we can do is offer some sort of selected screening.  We set the criteria, genetic trisomies, duplications, serious diseases and disablements, and we screen; a blood test, quick and easy, but hardly painless.

Again and again I find myself questioned, this time upon my position (because, it seems to question why a woman might choose to act as she does, to make a smothered request for the kind of surrounding circumstances that enable women to make an informed choice, is not the sort of question I should be asking) and I think it comes down to one idea, one fundamental notion; to serve.

Which brings me to my point about selection.  In edu-land this year there has been a lot of handwringing and wailing (these are technical terms, you know) about the possibility of a re-introduction of grammar schools.  ‘We are giving parents more choice!’ declared the politicians.  ‘You can’t choose a school that works on the basis of selection!’ replied the critics.  The argument went back and forth for the best part of the last year, and, when it turned out that after the General Election the government would not be able to carry out its plans, there was a collective sigh of relief.

However, and here is the thing, selection, whether we like it or not, is already present in our education system (and I’m not talking about those areas of the country where we have grammar schools surviving).  It’s not necessarily an explicit thing, not by any means, but it is there.  You only have to step through the school door with your disabled child and you run slap-bang into it. ‘You have to think about what They take away from the others’, ‘They do special needs much better than we do’, ‘We can’t meet his needs because of *insert safeguarding/stairs/toilets/staff/whatever reason here’; the comments fall on your ears and enter your heart thick and fast.  Putting it simply, when schools set conditions on the kind of children – or the kind of parents, even – they welcome, formally or informally, selection is in action, just as when you set criteria on what kind of baby is an acceptable one to join your family.

Some schools are better at hiding it than others.  Some schools are honest and up front.  Whatever it is, it means that while we might say that on the surface that we have an inclusive education system, in practice I am not so sure.To me, there is an aspect of taking life as it comes versus the desire to control.  Our humanity ensures that life is not some sort of perfect set of events; there are frailty, mistakes, unhappiness and joy along the way.

There are great schools around the country whose head teachers subscribe to the premise that the local school serves the local community, who take life as it comes (we sent our children to such a school), but I am tired of the pretense that this somehow means that everyone works to the same high standards.  I am tired of the educational rejection, formal or informal, through the setting of selection criteria dressed up in the language of choice, of disabled kids with imperfect parents and fallible families. I am tired of the way that great inclusive schools act as magnets in their area, because families know that at least there, they will be welcomed; of the way that it is not acceptable for bakers shops or hotels to choose their customers, but somehow OK  for schools.

It makes me wonder, when all is said and done, just who we are serving.

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.