Don’t Abuse Our Staff: Teachers Excepted

February 13, 2016

Have you noticed the signs all over the place, asking the public not to abuse the staff, not to take out their frustration on the people dealing with them? There was one on the bus the other day; I’ve seen them in council offices and hospitals. But they’re not in schools. Think about that. And consider now the recent findings about the most abused professions – those jobs where people are verbally or physically assaulted during the course of their working day. It’s not the police, or nurses, or even those who work in jails. It’s teachers.

A recent survey found that over 40% of teachers have been abused during the course of their working day and many have witnessed abuse of colleagues – verbal and physical. Teachers routinely have chairs thrown at them, are barged, pushed, sworn at, shouted at; each day brings low level contempt, rudeness, aggression, sneering and refusal to follow simple instructions.

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Recently in London a teaching assistant was attacked by a father outside a school because the TA had the temerity to admonish the child for poor behaviour. The father was having none of this, so he followed her and beat her up, knocking her unconscious, resulting in horrifying facial injuries and long-term damage to her neck. This violent man was given a 12 month suspended sentence, to wit, he was let off. What sort of message does this send the public and the profession?

It doesn’t really matter what the causes, what plethora of excuses exist in the world for poor behaviour, the fact is the behaviour of children and young people in schools has dramatically deteriorated over the last thirty years. Blame the parents, blame the teachers, blame food additives and electronic gadgets, blame the governments – it matters not, teachers are not safe at work and most people don’t really give a shit.

It works like this. All schools have behaviour policies. All schools have the right to exclude/expel on limited or definitive bases. All schools have a shit-load of paper-work to jump through for this to happen. Ofsted judges schools on their expulsion rates and if there are too many you get black marks – because excluding students is a mark of failure. The paper-work trail is a nightmare. For a student to be permanently excluded you need a file as thick as your arm. Unless they’ve brought a knife into school in which case it’s all over. But violence or aggression towards a teacher, well that may or may not result in some form of exclusion, it may or may not mean that child returns to your class, you may or may not have to deal with them again. You have to provide all sorts of witness statements because your word is not good enough. I understand there are untrustworthy teachers out there who do things they should not, but most of us do the right thing, yet we are treated with suspicion.

I had an incident recently with an aggressive boy who barged me in my room. I wrote my statement but his version was that I had attacked him. Fortunately for me there was another adult in the room, a TA, who clearly saw what happened and verified my version of events. But really, why would I lie about such a thing? I’m in a position of responsibility, the incident occurred in front of the whole class and had to be reported. In fact, this boy had been increasingly aggressive and defiant over weeks, had been removed, counselled, but his poor behaviour kept on escalating. He was not interested in behaving appropriately on any terms. In the past this boy has committed similar physical ‘attacks’ on other members of staff. Yet he is still in school. His parents support him. He is their angel. So here is an example of what happens to entitled pampered children – they don’t behave, they are ‘consequenced’ as much as the school can, the family does not support (or often is the cause of the behaviour) and so the child returns from their exclusion, is removed to another class and will undoubtedly offend again.

While my current school is pretty good on serious offenders, the truth is these children return to school, very rarely having learnt any sort of lesson. Teachers tread a dangerous path. We have to maintain our cool and calm under extreme duress: we have to remain the adult at all times. Often behaviour management comes down to some sort of mystical dynamic on behalf of the class who decide whether they will or won’t co-operate with you. Rules and procedures only go so far, some students simply don’t care: their purpose is to disrupt, defy and destroy. If you are lucky as a teacher it will be only one student and you will be able to manage them. But if the whole class goes along with the one, or there are many, you’re sunk and you can’t have half of your class removed because they won’t behave. Because if that’s happening then it must be something you’re doing, mustn’t it? If only you’d follow the behaviour management guidelines, you’d be fine…

 

This is what happens. A classroom is a bit like a pack of wolves. If you can establish yourself as the Alpha-wolf, or if you have the Alpha-wolf of the kid-pack on side then you can manage your class, teach your lessons and be safe. If you struggle for authority and the pack smell your vulnerabilities (you’re new to the job or the school, you’re supply, they know the hierarchy don’t support you) then you become fair game. You will face defiance, aggression and abuse. You will not be able to do your job. There won’t be any learning. The students will not make progress and you will be blamed. There is no win here for anyone.

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Teaching is in crisis. Young people are not staying in the profession, older teachers are retiring as soon as they can, or moving to other professions. More and more of those of us who remain wonder what will happen. We are blamed for the ills of the modern world, we are berated by students, parents and Ofsted; tricked and wrong footed by exam boards; dictated to by government ministers who really don’t know the first thing about education; expected to do more with less time and less money, and somehow, somehow remain sane and devoted to the job.

Students take less and less responsibility for their learning and their behaviour. Teachers are expected to bear it all. If a student fails to make progress the teacher is asked why. If a student won’t behave the teacher is asked what they have done to make the child behave. Successive governments have created this situation.

Once upon a time the poorly behaved child was a rarity, now they are common-place. Once upon a time the failing child was held to account for his own failures. Now it is the teacher who hasn’t taught or managed well enough – it is not the child who has failed to learn or own their behaviour.

Perhaps it’s time to switch things back again – to place higher expectations on students for all aspects of their life in school? Learn, behave, bring a pen, become a decent citizen. And let teachers be safe at work, like most other professions. Before there are no teachers left… (Pictures from Private Collection)

Guilty pleasures: Top Gear

January 30, 2016

I have a confession: I love Top Gear. I know I shouldn’t, I know they’re reconstructed dinosaurs, who manage to offend all and sundry, and front such an unapologetically blokes’ show but I love it. I do. Let me count the ways.

I have come to the show late – so late it no longer exists in the Clarkson-Hammond-May format on the BBC. But, as you will know, that means nothing in the new era of TV where shows are endlessly repeated and on some days they run end on end on end. So Christmas was a boon period for anyone wanting to watch Top Gear for hours.

Top Gear, is as we all know, about cars. And I love cars. Have done ever since my second car, a 2.5 PI Triumph that caused all sorts of woes and troubles and expense but could drag off a motor bike at the lights. Then there were the Jags. Yes, dear reader, 3 of them. I am Three-Jag-Jac. The blue V8 saloon was the most beautiful car in the world but my favourite was the maroon V12 5.3 XJS. Which had more traumatic days than happy days, who cost a fortune but went like a rocket and dragged off the odd policeman. It also only started for me and even my mechanic was awestruck by the engine, if nothing else about the car.

Jag Front close up

So, it’s easy to see why I would appreciate a show that worships cars, their beauty, their style and doesn’t just give me a ‘guide to’ made mainly to soothe the manufacturers or sponsors. I’ll never own 95% of the cars on the show but I like to watch them being driven hard in differing conditions and I like that the boys are honest in their appraisals. Personal and quirky but honest and that actually matters these days.

The dynamic between Clarkson, Hammond and May is magic and it is why the show works and it is why Hammond and May jumped ship after Clarkson was fired. Okay, Jeremy should not have punched the producer, he should not have caused so much offence and so many complaints but surely that was/is part of the attraction of the show. It is the biggest money earner for the BBC, licensed all over the world. It’s impossible to think that Chris Evans can manage to make it work. But the world is a funny place.

The three men play off each other, tease other, bait each other, but the banter is what we love. They are horrid to each other, they fall out during their challenges and have a plethora of not-so-nice names for each other. James is Captain Slow, Richard is the Hamster and the Rural Simpleton/Idiot, Jeremy is the gorilla, the dinosaur and Jennifer. Hammond and Clarkson are Pinky and Perky. They revel in this and we love it too. The show works because they know each other inside out, have different knowledge banks, different approaches to motoring and somehow, just somehow they work together brilliantly.

Top Gear

I love the challenges. They are ridiculous and can’t possibly pass Health and Safety regulations. How on earth was Hammond allowed to be winched up the side of a damn in an old Land Rover? My favourite was the polar challenge. Clarkson and May living the life of Riley in the Toyota Ute (for those of us in Oz) with their meals of wine and foie gras while Hammond was on the dog sled and freezing in his tent. The differences are extreme but fun and of course Jeremy drove too fast and nearly killed the car and James nearly killed him too. I love that they genuinely fall out. But they forgive too.

So, they are offensive. Jeremy regularly says things he shouldn’t. I’m not sure that that’s such a bad thing. Increasingly we are being curtailed by the speak-police, the PC Nazis gone mad. Say something someone disagrees with on any sort of media and you will be trolled. Speak out about an issue and you will be vilified in the media, possibly receive death threats, be banned from speaking at universities (Germaine). So, in many ways, Top Gear is refreshingly unreconstructed in these terms and it is a shame there will be no more of this freedom of speech on free TV.

I have to mention the cinematography too. This is an amazingly shot show. You see the cars from every conceivable angle, but the close ups and angles and all of it actually are works of art. The camera guys, who are regularly mocked for their inability to shoot any wild animal effectively, are masters of their craft and clearly love cars as much as the hosts. If for no other reason you should watch for how beautifully filmed this show is.

But the main reason I love Top Gear is because these guys are literate, verbal acrobats, not always mangling a metaphor but speaking lovingly about the cars, about what they do. I love Jeremy most for this. I could listen to him for hours, with his poetic language, his historical and literary references, his inspired metaphors. These are not ignorant idiots on our screens, these are quite clever men, doing what they love, having the time of their lives. Perhaps that’s what the world-wide audience of men and women love.

Mum and Car

Finally in the spirit of the show, where we decide which of these three cars are the best, we need to decide which of these three presenters are the best. Or, to take it down a level, which one would you sleep with? Many years ago when I was the only female member of senior staff I would, during the more boring moments, consider each of my colleagues and wonder what they might be like in the sack.

Who would you choose? Jeremy, lanky, expanding gut, thinning on top, but with words to woo and long artistic fingers: James, with his gentle smile and kind eyes, his tousled mop and gentlemanly ways: or Richard, with his impish smile, his sparkling eyes, his fit body, his joy in what he does, his vigour and cheerful disposition? (Top Gear picture from the Guardian, other pictures from private collection).

Finding Joy in the Small Things

January 23, 2016

Because a colleague noted this week that there was no longer any joy in teaching I was contemplating exploring this issue – in the wake of OFSTED many of us feel this way. But instead I’ve reached into the archives and found an old post about finding the joy in our lives. Methinks it’s a timely reminder for us all – OFSTED survivors and the rest of us making our way in this increasingly dark world of ours.

Joy is there, just make sure you look hard and make it so, yourself.

Happiness can be hard to find at the best of times, so in hard times it can be harder still! But look around, notice the minutiae of your life and you will find there is joy. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him,” says Nick Carraway of Jay Gatsby. Thus, a series of small moments of joys can lead us to happiness.

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Try these on for size

A warm smile from someone you love

The smell of fresh coffee

A meal cooked by someone else

Cooking something for others – a cake, dinner

Chocolate

Sleeping in of a weekend

Walking your dog – doing anything with your dog!

Zanz

Having chickens (for you Phu)

Watching a silly movie

Laughing out loud

Listening to your favourite song

Singing out loud

Fresh flowers

The sun in the morning

Rain, when you’re inside and snug, looking out

Snow – especially snow days

A beautifully cleaned kitchen – or bathroom, etc

Putting the laundry away

Kindness of strangers

A good book

Writing your blog!

The Sunday papers

QI

Top Gear (I confess I love it)

Being with your friends, your family, your beloved daughters & son

An unexpected email from afar

Skyping with the far flung kinder

Someone ‘liking’ you on FB or your blog

Friday evening, with the weekend ahead…

Summer evenings

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I’m sure you can add many, many more. But it’s a start and a good idea, don’t you think – look for the small joys and the big happiness will find you. Joy is still there, it’s up to you to find it again! (Pictures from Private Collection)

 

Celebrity Death: David Bowie, still a hero

January 16, 2016

I was gutted to hear of the death of David Bowie. I loved him growing up. On my wall was a decent sized poster of him in his Aladdin Sane regalia, alongside equally large pictures of Queen, plus a few of Mark Spitz – even then, eclectic heroes. Like many others I’ve loved Bowie all of my life – loved him before others in my crowd knew who he was, so he was special to me, almost like he was mine. His songs form the backing track to my life, from buying records, (vinyl!) to play in the solitude of my room and escape to his strange and wonderful worlds, to a computer full of tunes from up-loaded CDs and Youtube clips.

Bowie

Bowie, along with the likes of Freddie Mercury, Roxy Music and many other musicians in the 1970s changed the way we dressed, the way we behaved, the way we described and considered ourselves. Men wore make-up and satin and velvet and looked more beautiful than women. Women became wild animals, sinuous and strong – remember Jerry Hall in various Roxy Music video clips? Sexuality became fluid and free and fun. And the music was stunning – it became operatic (Bohemian Rhapsody), transformative, quirky, mesmerising (Avalon) – all things were possible. Even Punk would not have been possible without Bowie et al to rage against, appearing like a puss-filled pimple on the backside of a pierced and tattooed youth with outrageous hair.

Punk faded into history but Bowie survived, he changed and mutated. He created new characters and somewhere in there he became himself, stopped being Ziggy, Aladdin, the Thin White Duke and became finally but not absolutely human. Some comments are noting that he was never really one of us anyway and has finally gone home to the stars – he was our Starman, all those years ago when we only had Five Years, experiencing all our Changes, about the time he was The Man who Sold the World.

Consistent creative people, like Bowie, who push barriers, define moments, change them and keep on growing, are heroes. He struggled to break through, he was not an over-night success, certainly not spawned from the monstrous talent shows that infest our television channels. Remember the Laughing Gnome – how could that lead us to Space Oddity? But it did and then we inhabited all sorts of worlds and experiences through his musical journey. We went with him into film- The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, and of course, Labyrinth. My girls, especially my eldest girl is devoted to all things Bowie, because of listening to him all her life and because of that amazing, wonderful ageless film. Like the Princess Bride it is and will always be a classic – great stories, well told, great acting, suitable for children and adults alike.

Bowie was a chameleon, always changing, evolving, suiting his landscape, the ultimate survivor: the greatest performer. Yes he had dark periods, he was promiscuous and drug addled, but why not? Rock n roll is about hedonism and the 1970s with Queen, Led Zeppelin, The Stones and Bowie, et al was all about excess.

In the end his final act was a tour de force: the final album, with the prophetic title: Dark Star and the amazingly beautiful poignant picture taken on his birthday only a few days before he died. The words on Lazarus, his farewell single, ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven’… He knew he was going and he went in style, as he had lived his life for so many years. He also died with dignity. Did we know he was ill, did we know he had cancer, was it splashed across the media? No, it was not. No it was kept private, as it was with Alan Rickman.

This is what we learn from David Bowie and Alan Rickman, men who were beyond the cult of celebrity. Both were immensely talented men, both are being mourned on all the social media sites of the planet. They were not really celebrities – vacuous no talent creatures who have infected our souls and screens with their unmitigated crap (shall I mention Angie Bowie’s disgraceful carry on on Celebrity Big Brother- she is the epitome of a sad wannabe – once she was famous by association but that was many-many years ago). Bowie and Rickman were stars, men with talent. Rickman was a fine actor much loved by many of us for his brilliance as the nasty man, the evil one, the cheating husband. Bowie was the consummate artist – writer, musician, singer, actor – performer.

Roses

We will not see his like again. And so the tributes roll on – Brixton had its night of song, Beckenham High Street has its floral tribute outside Zizzi – the former Three Tuns Pub where Bowie first performed. Sydney Festival held a tribute evening. Tributes flow, events are planned but thankfully the funeral will be a private affair. Bowie was not a celebrity – he was a star, he was from the stars and he has gone back.

David Bowie was important to me, as he was to many others, he was a hero for so much more than one day – how could you not love a man who wrote

Under the moonlight

The serious moonlight … from Let’s Dance

6 Reasons Why Reading Literature Matters More than Ever

January 9, 2016

Obviously as a writer and English teacher I would believe and promote this statement: that reading books matters. But why more than ever you may ask?

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Well, as we also know the world has turned very dark – threats, lies, rampant untruths, offence, dissent, violence and death abound. We are bombarded with a litany of disasters every day on the news – wherever we get it – and while some might argue it is no worse than it has ever been it simply does seem to be worse. Our senses are assaulted almost minute by minute by the latest disaster, the latest atrocity.

Indeed, Ted Turner (winner of the Sydney-Hobart Yacht race and the America’s Cup, but significantly here, the man who brought us CNN) has a lot to answer for in making the news a 24 hour event – giving us trash and trivia as well as doom and disaster on a never-ending loop.

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There are six compelling reasons why reading literature is more important than ever:

1.Escapism. Have you noted the rise of thrillers, fantasy, erotica and romance? They are all escapist fiction, allowing us to enter a world nothing like ours, where we can forget the rest of the world, its ugly big problems and our own worrying smaller problems. Other fiction has the same effect – we like to immerse ourselves in different worlds, escaping to the problems of others, which invariably make us feel a bit better about our own life. Series fiction is so popular because of this – we get caught up in the characters’ lives and we want to stay with them for as long as possible. (Yes, films too, and Peter Jackson understands this better than almost anyone else on the planet!)

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2.Truth. There is, to be clichéd, more truth in fiction than anywhere else. Writers of fiction are freer to tell their truth through stories and characters, than reporters and journalists. Through stories we learn the truth of relationships, of how the world works, how things don’t tie up in neat bows – think of Jay Gatsby, Gone Girl, Madame Bovary. Great Expectations tells us how foolish it is to hold onto bitterness all your life – that it kills you.

3.Knowledge. We can learn about things in fiction – how the world was – history and bits of it, how different cultures operate, how people behaved in certain eras and that some behaviours were okay then but not now. Think of Of Mice and Men, where Crooks is called the n* word repeatedly which leads to a discussion of how racism works and how language shifts and changes. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas tells us about the idiocy of the Holocaust. Xavier Herbert tells of the challenges and problems of life in early northern Australia in Capricornia. Hilary Mantel gave us a whole new insight into Tudor times and Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.

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4.Thinking intelligently. Reading good literature that explores ideas and issues – like The Life of Pi, The Slap, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Kite Runner, The Satanic Verses, 1984, Lord of the Flies, etc – challenges our views of the world. Reading makes us think and consider ideas that make us feel uncomfortable, enable us to accept different views of the world – which is vitally important at the moment. Discussing ideas and searching for the evidence in the text to support our ideas enables us to think at a deeper level, it takes us from the emotional response to the considered intellectual response – which we really need at the moment. Which is why literature in schools cannot be under-rated.

5.Reading makes us better people. You may laugh, but there are several studies that show that people who read fiction – especially literary fiction, where the writing and ideas are more complex – are more empathetic, more attuned to others, and more successful in their careers and relationships.

6.Reading is a simple pleasure. Reading is one of life’s best bits. You can do it anywhere, anytime. It pleases me to travel on the trains and see the amount of people reading – novels, kindles and the papers. Reading is cheap and easy – it needs nothing special for it to work – just you and the book and a comfy space. Do it now!

Life Happens

Reading teaches us how to think, how to move beyond our own experience, how to engage with the world in a considered, thoughtful way. People who don’t read really are missing out on so many things. Parents who do not encourage – no, parents who do not MAKE their children read should be put in jail. Reading fiction – picture books as kidlets, then the various age appropriate books (see previous blogs for books for various ages) on the way to bone fide adult fiction – is not something to be brushed over or given up at the end of primary school. It is a vital experience, an essential skill for life.

Let me make this crystal clear: reading makes you a better, more rounded, educated and thoughtful person. And we desperately need more thinking people in the world today.

What are you reading these days? Are you reading or have you stopped too? (Images from Private Collection)

Habits Maketh the Person

January 2, 2016

Indeed the New Year is upon us, and felicitations to all. Have you begun with a list of resolutions or sensibly just accepted that really it’s a list that is moot within a very short period of time?

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I gave up lists and resolutions so long ago I can hardly remember the moment. I also gave up sitting up til midnight some time ago too. My excessive New Years were many years ago, many miles away around Constitution Dock with millions of dollars worth of gorgeous yachts and a generous sprinkling of handsome yachties. Ah, me, youth…

But a New Year is a time to take stock and consider our recent past and where we want to go. It is the idea of a new beginning that attracts us, a chance to start again, to make amends. Each new week has a similar cache, as does the new month. But the New Year is that much bigger, isn’t it? Thus we are tempted to all sorts of extravagant gestures about improving our lives.

My advice for the year is about habits – the things that you do every day. Habits can be small, from the way you get going in the morning to how you study or achieve your goals. Habits have the potential to empower you as well as destroy you. Smoking is a habit gone wild, drinking every day a habit gone feral. But cleaning your teeth every day, walking to work, reading the papers with your morning coffee – well, they are good and useful habits that make your life that bit better.

Farm dec1 2015

I have my own habits that need to be re-instated. Since the completion of my PhD (submitted in May, finalisation in September, awarded this January) I have not been able to write or read anything of note or length. I have lost the habit of writing. It is something of a worry to me and I must get it back before it is gone for good. There is an argument that I have been drained of words and drowned in reading for the last seven and half years of study and I need a rest, need time for the field of imagination to lie fallow and regenerate. But I am becoming afeared that if I do not make some effort to change back to my habits of reading and writing everyday that my ability to write will be gone forever. And if I do not write then who am I?

Yes, our habits define us. Some habits do lead us down the OCD path – always parking in the same spot, only drinking your coffee if it is made in a certain way, only using the one special spoon for your morning yoghurt. Some are damaging us – sugar in your tea, sugary drinks at break, a pastry at lunch – you’re on the way to diabetes and no teeth by 35.

Habits begin small and grow and define us. Resolutions on the other hand tend to be large grandiose things that cannot be achieved, even by the most determined individuals.

So, to make a change, begin small. Look at what you want to change. How achievable are your goals?

Habits are changed through small steps.

Let’s start with health. Sugar is a good example and a popular choice given the catastrophic explosion of Type2 Diabetes and the obesity epidemic. Sugar needs to be reduced or eliminated from your diet. But if you try it all at once you will fail and after a few weeks you will be back where you were. This is the classic diet trap – shoot for the moon, not even hit the stars and crash and burn on the earth.

Small steps to better health

1.Identify how much sugar you actually consume – it will most likely be more than you realise

2.Read food labels – become aware of how much sugar there is in ALL foods

3.Choose one point of attack at a time – say one teaspoon of sugar instead of two in your tea, or none instead of one

4.Once that is conquered move onto the next area – sugary drinks, etc

5.Repeat and proceed.

*Once you no longer need to think about putting sugar in your tea and you lose the taste for sweet things your habit is broken.

 

This principal can be applied to other matters. The increasingly popular event NaNoWriMo event – where people write a novel in November expects people to write every day and complete a novel of 50,000 words in thirty days. It is an interesting project in kick starting regular writing habits in people. Attending classes once a week can also enable the creative habits – other people can help here, inspire and support you (yes, Weight Watchers runs on this idea too).

 

Apply the small steps principal to creative endeavours

1.Identify the activity you want to pursue/improve

2.Find a regular time to create – be it every day or once a week (no less)

3.Create a dedicated space where you can be quiet/alone

4.Don’t let anyone interfere with your time or space

5.Allow yourself to do little things at a time, allow yourself time to get moving

6.Make sure you are in that space dedicating your thoughts to that pursuit during your designated time.

*Once you are no longer forcing yourself to sit and create but are doing it because it makes you feel good then your new habit is established.

Pal art

 

We all want changes in our lives, in ourselves. It can be hard to find the time, the will to do this but small steps to a better you are eminently possible. You can be healthier, more mindful, stronger, more relaxed, more creative, more the person you want to be.

Changing habits does mean effort and it does take time but the rewards are worth it. Try a small step change in one habit and see how you go. I’m doing it right now – blogging again to get my writer’s groove back on.

Out there in the wider world of the web are a range of people have more advice on changing habits. You might like to have a read of their ideas too:

http://jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change

http://www.sparringmind.com/changing-habits/

http://charlesduhigg.com/flowchart-for-changing-habits/

Happy New Year, dear friends and readers. J

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(Images from Private Collection – thanks P-AA Bewsher & PAM Bewsher xx)

Students – love them, hate them, they keep you going…

July 18, 2015

Students – love them, hate them, they keep you going…

Last week was about the destruction of the profession of teaching, why it has become almost impossible to see a future as part of it. This week, reminded by comments on my blog and the joy that is the student beast, I must write about them, the students: the creatures that frustrate, annoy, winge and complain eternally but ultimately are the centre of joy in the world of education.

Yesterday was the final day at my latest school. It was one of those happy-sad occasions. I am pleased to be moving away from a senior management team for whom I have absolutely no respect, but sad to leave behind some colleagues and my students. The students are where the tears and sadness really reside. As always, it will be the students I miss, the students I remember.

Goodbye

This year’s highlights:

*Liam, in year 10, who has all sorts of social, emotional issues – think Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – spoke for the first time in years, and then offered to read and responded when called upon.

*Georgia, in year 9, who was permanently in trouble, every lesson really, and struggled with the basics, but a bit of bribery, a letter home (of praise), a chocolate and the tide turned and after Christmas – one day I noticed she hadn’t been in trouble since the term began and she was now making progress. Once the change was in it stuck.

*Jack, in another year 9 class, who was an absolute shit elsewhere but good as gold with me.

*Erin, in year 10, a silent sweet thing suddenly came to life with a stunning speech about art and her love of it.

*Lauren’s version of Lennie (from Of Mice & Men) in our court-room drama – one of the best I’ve seen.

*Shennay, of the ‘your an asshole’ who moaned and whined her way through the beginning of every lesson who managed to end the year with a C in course-work and her mock exam, despite very shaky beginnings.

Shennay

*Ryan, from year 12, was openly homo-phobic, said he would reject any of his children if they came out to him. Another student, George and I embarked on a furious discussion denigrating his position, completely ignoring whatever essential bit of English we were meant to be focusing on. George and I were concerned about Ryan’s ethical and moral soul and so the discussion raged for the lesson. A few days later Ryan confessed that he had gone home and thought long and hard about what we had said and had changed his mind – George and I were right. His homophobia, if not cured, had been smacked about and permanently dented.

*Lauren, Sarah and Kaitlin presented a dramatic re-enactment of key moments from the year in 0-6 with Lauren’s appalling Australian accent – she had the phrases right, though!

*Year 9C lining up to hug me good-bye with gifts of flowers and balloons – even my bad boys – and trying not to cry.

*My 6th form tutor group for their intelligence, humour, recalcitrance, confessions, need for advice, trust and love. It was lovely to spend the first 20 minutes of the day with calm (not really awake) teenagers who don’t have to be shouted at, who can engage on matters in curious and interesting ways. I love them – Y-06, probably my all time favourite tutor group – although my St Pat’s lot were pretty wonderful too. And, you get a whole different level of gifts from older students!!

Yr12 prez

What I am reminded of is that young people matter. That literature and books and writing and spelling are important but it’s the other stuff, the bit about life about becoming a decent human being, one with confidence and a belief in themself that matters. My cards are full of those ideas: thanks for the help, thanks for listening, for being there, for believing, for making me a better person, for liking me even though I’ve been a shit most of the year.

I will miss my collection of Jacks (all cheeky lads), Ruby, Ella, Erin, Shennay, Georgia, Paige, my Liams, Dylan, Harriet, Katie, Kirsty, Paige, the Katelyns, Emily, Lauren & Sarah, Connie, Issy, Beccy, Shaun, George & Ryan and the others who have passed through my door this year. Some will remain large in my memory, others will fade but my memory of this particular school will be based on them, and it will be a good memory.

Flowers & balloons

My students remind me why I do this, why I continue to do this and why I rail against the machine – there is so much more to education than a C in English, or good GCSEs. We must remember that education is about the child, who will become a person, hopefully a decent citizen, one who will make a difference too. Happy holidays all. xx (Images from Private Collection)

 

End of Term Blues: Why am I still teaching?

July 11, 2015

Why Am I Still Teaching?

It’s nearly the end of another teaching year – too many to count now! But I end this year sad and uncertain: what is my purpose, what am I actually doing as an English teacher in this country, under the latest changes?

Up until recently I have been confident about the importance and purpose of my subject and my job. English is central to the life opportunities of the young, as is Maths (yes, and other subjects are important too!). English is about the basics: reading and writing, but it is so much more than that – it is about communicating, thinking, creating, exploring, arguing; using the imagination. Well, it was, and maybe it still is at home, in Oz. But in the UK, with every change that is implemented English becomes an impoverished subject; ironically like most of the students whose life chances it purports to support.

In the reaction to the endemic cheating or gaming of the system through Course Work and then Controlled Assessments, key questions were not asked. No-one scratched their head and said: Hey, why are all these schools and teachers cheating to get better results? Why is this happening? Dots were not joined and so we have a subject that should be about nuance and thought, time and consideration, about planning and editing and drafting that is being wholly externally examined. My subject has been bastardised by people who have no idea about English and certainly not the first idea about young people. My subject has been hijacked by people who did not struggle at school, who have not listened to teachers or parents, who reside in some sort of alternative universe where education is stuck in the 1950s.

bookshevles2

Here are some questions that should have been asked before the latest changes were made.

1. What is the point of English in schools?

2. How can we make this subject relevant to non-readers, to those who don’t write, or see much of a future for themselves?

3. What skills and knowledge do we want them to have?

 

I used to think the point of English was to foster a love of reading, to encourage students to read for information, for pleasure, to develop their own language and ability to extract meaning from a text, to think about ideas and meaning and come to their own considered opinions. Fiction’s purpose was to start a dialogue, to tap into their experiences and move them beyond that, to consider other views, other world’s, other ways of being and seeing.

Reading lead to discussion, exploration, arguing, justifying an opinion. It led to accepting there were other points of view, other ways of seeing and understanding things; it also showed you were not alone, not the only one feeling the way you did. Reading lead to writing – personal responses, essays, critical analysis and creative responses, a story, a letter to a character, an extra chapter, and alternative ending, something original using an element from the text. Writing meant thinking, planning, writing, experimenting, crafting, drafting and editing before producing a final product worthy of ‘publication’ or assessment. Not a tick box exercise about triplets and wow words and as much punctuation as you can shove in to get an extra mark.

How many skills can you identify from that paragraph?

There is a large body of evidence that shows that reading fiction, especially good quality well written fiction, is good for us. It enhances empathy, our ability to connect to others, to understand people and how to work with them. Reading also develops our ability to concentrate, to sustain activities, as well as develop our vocabulary and understanding of how language works – the nuts and bolts of punctuation, sentence structure, vocabulary choices and effects. We learn how to be good writers from being good readers.

books

But the new curriculum is not about love of anything – certainly not books or kids. There is nothing modern or particularly accessible on the new list for GCSE – a raft of Shakespeare, as to be expected, 19th century texts that many will never access – Great Expectations is a great story but too long; Pride and Prejudice a bit too much romance and marriage; Jekyll and Hyde may be short but its language is impenetrable. Most of the 20th century texts stop short of the 1960s. I’m not sure what these texts bring to a modern child, how they will find reading less of a chore, a king-size bore from the xenophobic list created by Michael Gove, the master educationalist.

I’m not sure what future the politicians see for young people, I’m not sure what they think they will achieve by a retro Sabre-tooth Tiger curriculum that takes no account of the modern world, of the impact of technology on language, on the way we create and receive information. I wonder what world these students are being ‘prepared’ for.

dead angel

I wonder how I will connect texts and tasks to their experiences, to make them see the relevance of what we do for 5 hours a week. I wonder how I can resist the pressure to make everything we do about exam skills and preparation, because that will be the push, the fear from above about exams now that we have nothing else to tell us how students are progressing.

I wonder how much longer I can do this job, dictated to by idiots and fools who have no idea what it’s like to be a teenager, to be at school, to be constantly tested, to prepare for a future from within an education system that is not fit for purpose. (Images from Private Collection)

10 Ways to be Professional

July 4, 2015

How to be Professional

While we’re on the theme of work, let me ruminate on this idea of professionalism. You’re being unprofessional is one of those phrases managers and workers like to throw around, it most definitely intended as an insult, and it is taken as one. But what do we really mean by professional, by professionalism?

When I was oodles younger I remember coming across professional in the context of sport – amateur sportsman could compete in the Olympics, professionals couldn’t – so American basketballers because they earned money, were out and most athletes were strictly amateur, in it for love and glory not money, like most people I knew who played sport religiously and devotedly Summer and Winter. Oh, yes, the world of sport has changed massively since the innocence of my youth.

fencing

So professional is about being paid for what you do. Hence a number of us who potter about in the artistic community – artists, performers and writers – don’t tend to call ourselves by those names until we have been paid. Professional is linked to money, to profession – to doing something.

My beloved Collins Compact Dictionary says: Professionn, a type of work that requires special training, such as law or medicine; the people employed in such an occupation. Professionaladj, of a profession; taking part in an activity, such as sport or music, as a means of livelihood; displaying a high level of competence or skill.

It is the latter definition, about high levels of competence and skill, or lack thereof, that links to being unprofessional. But it is too loosely applied and has come to refer essentially to actions or behaviours at work that other people simply don’t like. Accuse someone of being unprofessional and prepare to call the troops for reinforcement – yes, it is a red rag to a bull, most especially if the accusation comes from some incompetent up the food-chain.

professional

So, lets look at how to be professional, to avoid the accusation of unprofessionalism, so we can self-monitor our own performance better

1.Know what your job is – there will be a description somewhere, read it, make sure you understand what the various expectations mean. Make sure you are very clear about your rights and responsibilities and discharge them to the best of your ability.

2.Be adequately and appropriately trained – basic training is one thing but all professions are constantly changing, so go on courses, read in your area, get involved in PD. Aim to be highly skilled, an expert in your area.

3.Do your job. You’re being paid for a specific purpose and you need to do your job – so meet deadlines, chair meetings that have agendas and clear purposes, circulate memos and minutes – yes, inform and advice your team, write reports, complete all your tasks to the highest possible standard within the time frame.

4.Learn from those around you – watch your managers, how do they act, what do they do when things go wrong, how do they treat their staff, how do they interact with their managers? Note: this only works if you have good people to model from!!

oxford

5.Accept criticism and learn from it. Being professional doesn’t mean being perfect. We all fuck up from time to time, take the feedback, consider it and learn from it.

6.Apologise. Same idea – you’ll get it wrong with those you work with, be the bigger person and apologise. It helps keep relationships on an even keel, gets things done, gives you credibility and a human side.

7.Respect – for yourself, for the work you do and for your colleagues. This means simple things like saying good morning, informing people of matters that concern them. It means treating people as if they matter, as if they are important to the enterprise. They’ll work better if they feel respected and valued. It also means avoiding gossip and back-stabbing and keeping clear of office politics.

8.Manage things – budgets, clients, teams, children, your environment. Being professional is about keeping things under control, making sure things don’t go pear-shaped and when they do getting them calm and back on track as soon as you can. Often your level of professionalism is judged on your ability to manage such crises, as well as doing the basics of your job.

9.Lead by example. No matter where you are in your profession, you should aspire to be the best you can. Don’t expect others to do what you tell them if you aren’t doing it yourself. How can you expect anyone to meet deadlines if you consistently miss them? Be innovative, share your ideas, invite others to be involved in change, in decision making – let yourself be known by doing everything to the best of your ability – be a model for others to aspire to.

10.Keep your emotions under control. You should avoid crying and swearing at work – neither is good, so watch that (note to fucking self!). Work is a place for calm and considered behaviour. If you’re upset about something – be it work related or other (our life does spill over from time to time) – then try to find a way to avoid situations that will make it worse: focus on simple tasks, avoid people who push your buttons, go outside, take a walk, take deep breathes, have lunch with like minded colleagues, have a strong cup of coffee. Oh, and avoid work-place romances – they really do compromise your professionalism!

costa

We like to think of ourselves as professional, as taking our work seriously. We want others to think well of us – that’s a very normal human desire. But to avoid the accusation of unprofessionalism we need to be aware of how we comport ourselves at work. If we work with good people it is easy to do our jobs well. If we work with people who haven’t the first idea of what a professional does then we will struggle.

A professional person is highly aware of their skills set, their strengths and weaknesses – they strive to be better in what they do and, importantly, they want to make others better too. So, the next time someone utters those ghastly words – you’re being unprofessional – you’ll know the truth of the matter, won’t you? (Images from Private Collection)

Be Careful Who You Work For…

June 27, 2015

Be Careful Who You Work For…

We all want a decent job, some place we want to be, where we feel valued and part of the team, where we can carve out a career and move up the promotion ladder, and make a difference. Sometimes this isn’t always the way. Sometimes just having a job is enough, is all there is.

That’s not to say we should accept the constant attack on workers, on hard fought conditions, on fairness in the workplace. No, we should not bow to the rich and powerful and let them push us around. We should not accept zero hour contracts, eroding conditions and the worker-boss balance tipping ever further in the boss’ favour. And we most definitely should not, unless we end up in difficult straights, work for those who would screw us over at every opportunity.

This piece is about being careful who you work for, who you agree to spend 8-10 hours of your day with, giving your time, your labour, your energy, your ingenuity, your devotion and passion. Be careful who you give these things to. They should be worthy recipients.

GeofC

We should, where possible take as much care gathering information about prospective employers as they do about us. They want references, they want qualifications, experience and verification of our worth – which is entirely fair and right. They want interviews, tests, visits, background checks and yes, they do look at your internet presence, so be careful there!

Yet we are not as diligent with our prospective employers. I know, sometimes the euphoria of having a job overwhelms us, especially if we’ve been looking for ages. Sometimes that yes, we’ll have you when we’ve been searching for a while gets in front of our own due diligence. Often the new surface is glossy and pretty and we haven’t scratched it for ourselves, chipped away the perfect paint to see the damage underneath. Often, in the need for the job we overlook things that perhaps we should consider more thoughtfully before we sign on the dotted line.

Jac-work1

How do you avoid working for wrong people?

*Research. In this day every company, every employer has a web-site. Read it carefully. While it will be full of spin it should tell you about values, results, give a first impression. It should give you some facts to work with.

*Talk to people who work there. Get the inside view – speak to people who have been there for years, speak to those who have just arrived, what about those who used to work there? People’s stories give you a better idea of the truth of an organization. We know some places suit some better than others, so listen carefully.

*Visit before the interview. Many places offer this option and you should take it. Yes, it will be a surface inspection too but it can give you a better feel for the place, look at what’s happening as you wander around, talk to people, not just managers. Just like parents visit a range of secondary schools on open days to make decisions about their child’s school, so you should too.

*Go on instinct. Too often we ignore our intuition, we think we should be factual and logical but sometimes how we feel about something (especially people) tells us the truth. So don’t over think your response, feel it too.

*Ask questions at interview – this option is part of standard interview practice, yet all too often people skip this, or ask simple questions that don’t really gain any information for them. Think more carefully about this as you prepare for your interview, what is it you need to know to decide to work for them??

*Don’t rush your decision. Allow some time for all the information to sink in. After all, your prospective employer is thinking about you, chatting further. They aren’t making a snap decision. You shouldn’t do the same. Think about what you really want: is this the place for you – for now, forever, until the right one comes along?

 

london building

Working for the wrong people/company can be as damaging as not having a job. We need to be more wary of prospective employers, just as they are wary of us. We need to be sure that they match our values, our way of doing business, our expectations.

And when things shift, when how you want to do business (of whatever hue) changes and you no longer feel valued and/or feel compromised in your job, or you can’t make those changes yourself, when you are out of step with the mainstream, you need to move on. You need to go before things corrode to such a state that you are damaged beyond recognition. Sadly, the bosses win. They have the superior firepower and the only way to survive is to leave. But leave while you are standing, while you can take a decent reference with you, while your self-worth is strong, so they can’t reach their malicious, evil tentacles into your next job, into your chance to start again.

Jac-work2

You are at work for a very long time. You need to make good choices for yourself. Yes, your career matters, but so does your self-respect, your values and your dignity, not to mention your health. Choose your employer wisely. Change them when you need to and remember that you work to live, not live to work. (Images from Private Collection)


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