Suffer the little children

I am haunted by a photo. It’s a very ordinary photo: the sort many excited, loving parents might take on their baby’s first holiday. It shows a ten month old baby – just becoming a toddler – standing with her chubby baby hands leaning on a window as she looks at the aeroplanes. She is waiting with her loving and, almost certainly, hard-working parents for the flight home. Her name is Darina.

Her body was found, alone, in the desolation of the Sinai desert.

She is the latest in a long line of innocent victims – those who have done nothing to bring trouble on themselves, have never lifted a weapon or sought to obliterate anyone or anything else.

And I wonder: how long must this world be besmirched, made less than it is, by the men – for it is predominantly men – in their uniforms – combat fatigues (real or faux), jeans and sweatshirts, suits and ties – with their weapons – rifles, guns, knives, bombs, backpacks, words, ideologies, beliefs and, most deadly of all, hatred – who believe anyone and anything is fair game?

And I wonder which god would sanction this? Which god would require this? Which god  needs to be appeased like this? What bit of land is worth this? What belief is worth this? What ideology is worth this?

And I think of that baby: all that promise and hope and possibility. Extinguished. And my heart weeps.

No god, no land, no belief, no ideology …nothing…nothing… is worth the loss of, her single, tiny life.

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85% Floor Targets

My laptop has been away being fettled or I would have written this sooner. I stumbled across a tweet by @farrowmister asking how the Dfe might respond to the fact that some primary schools can never reach the 85% floor targets. One response dismissed this as “excuses” and this made me just a little bit cross.

Let me explain why. I am a Governor at just such a school and have been since its creation 10 years ago from the merger of two existing schools. I am a community Governor and have no connection with any staff or pupils and I’m not a political appointee – so no vested interest. I found myself on the Governors, fell in love with the school and watched it grow. It will be a miracle if it reaches the 85% floor target despite the hard work and dedication of every member of staff from the Head to the site manager and all points in between. And I’m not about to make any excuses for this because there aren’t any.

Our Context

  • Our town is in the bottom 10% of all the indices you can think of and our school is in one of the two most challenged areas in that town.
  • Many of the children arrive at the nursery in nappies and some can barely speak.
  • We celebrate an increasingly diverse population  which brings both rewards and further challenges to address
  • Around 60 of the children are known to live with domestic violence.
  • Many of the families have no, or limited, wage earner.
  • Drugs and mental health issues are significant in our catchment.
  • Many of the children live in chaotic, difficult situations.
  • They have limited experiences because their families have no money for trips to the theatre and cinema and, often, no tradition within their families.

Despite that, the school’s results are fantastic and increasing year on year. They don’t match national – nor would they reach the 85% floor target – but they’re not that far off. Two Ofsted inspections recognised that the school can do no more. Behaviour is impeccable – Ofsted says so and so do we. When we started out 10 years ago behaviour reports to Governors ran to a couple of sides of A4. Now, we don’t even mention it. We have permanently excluded one child in all that time because he was a desperate soul who needed more than we could give him.

In addition to focussed, dedicated, good or better teaching, this is what we (and by that I mean they) do:

  • They all – at every level and in every area – work like dogs. At the last Ofsted we had part timers in on their non-working days without being asked.
  • They plan, teach like demons, assess, and analyse constantly. They have high aspirations for the children and never, ever settle for second best.
  • We invest in the staff and have high standards when it comes to appointments because only the best will do.
  • We have an extra teacher in each group to enable support, intervention, small group work…
  • Every class has at least one TA.
  • We have a dedicated mentor for punctuality and attendance who is out on the front and the estate every single day ensuring the kids are in school.
  • Our inclusion is second to none with a variety of groups to address the deficits in the children’s experiences and understandings including a nurture group.
  • We invest massively in providing experiences for the children. We have just invested in a beautiful music hub that looks like a Scandinavian holiday lodge and an additional music teacher to work in it. Every year our Year 5 works with Manchester Arts on a project that has reduced me to tears when I turn up for the final exhibition and performance – subjects covered so far: The Titanic, Elizabethan England and World War 1. Our children are also involved with a Shakespeare project at a local theatre every year.
  • Every year they are taken to the panto and the local cinema.
  • We have dedicated PE teachers who make good use of the outdoor provision which is, again, second to none.
  • We have after school and holiday activities which are well attended.

In short, we take every chance we can and cram our kids with experiences and opportunities. The school does its level best to make up for what the children are missing but, like all schools, it cannot overcome all of society’s ills.

We never say never but, in short, the challenges the children and the school face every single day make it difficult, if not impossible, to reach the 85% floor target despite their efforts and hard work because not all children are equal. They do not have equally prosperous or knowledgeable families with equal incomes and access to experiences and opportunities. And that is an issue for society not schools…but schools like ours are likely to be punished for it.

I feel humbled every time I walk through the school door and if I had a child of primary age that is the school they would attend.

You can still have #teacher5aday even when you’re not teaching!

My #teacher5aday

When Martyn asked me to update my #teacher5aday, my response was “I will but really it’s cheating”.  Regular readers will know that I retired this summer and therefore I’m not a practising teacher any more – although I will always be a teacher. Lovely Martyn was having none of that! So, here it is.

#Connect

While I was still working this was mainly about connecting with colleagues. Well, guess, what, I’m still doing that. I’ve had tea with a couple of them and tonight I am taking my tecchies for tea and a catch up. In fact, this term so far has been one long round of catching up and having lunch out with former colleagues and friends. It’s a trial but someone has to do it. I’m still following and commenting on education stuff on Twitter and have even been asked for help and advice which I am more than happy to give. I think it’s important to use my experience for the benefit of others whenever it is asked for and can be helpful.

I’ve also been able to spend more time with the family without feeling under pressure or wishing I could just go on and get on with whatever happens to be pre-occupying me or squeezing time in between school obligations. I have been having my lovely grand-daughter for a day a week while her mum feels he way back in to work. It’s a joy – far better than when I was doing it for real with my children. Now I get to have fun and bask in the reflected glory of people’s admiration for my little blue-eyed beauty.

Soon I’ll be spending more time with the husband as he finishes his job as D&T technician at a local school at half term. I’m guessing that will be a good thing. Right?

 #Exercise

Flipping heck, I’ve done well with this. I’m quite the runner now in the sense that it is now my first choice of exercise. I would never claim to be a runner runner! The swimming has taken a bit of a back seat – all that lunching makes it hard to fit in! More than that running is much easier as I just step out the door and off I go. Here, I live on a common with a park just at the end of it so I have a lovely running track or I can go to the local lake or the canal which give me some variety and interest. I’m lucky enough to have a little place in Spain and I have devised a little track across the top of the village where I “live” and where there are not many people – who al think I am crackers anyway! I run across from side to side to avoid too many inclines and have views of the Sierra Nevada Mountains all around me. Running in the fresh air in picturesque surroundings – what could be better? And it does make me think about how important it is for colleagues still at the chalk face (so to speak) to find time for some kind of exercise however limited. I know only too well how hard it can be to get motivated after a tough day or week – believe it or not that happens to me when something downs me as it did on Sunday – but it is always worth the effort as I realise when Monday morning came around and I got my trainers. I felt instantly better and regretted not hoofing it on Sunday!

#Notice

I have time now – in theory – to notice all sorts of things but, flipping heck, I don’t know where that time is going to! I was lucky enough to be able to spend nine weeks in Spain this summer – I know, I know! – and I spent some  time with visiting friends taking them to see places I love and seeing them through their eyes.

We’re planning some work on our house in the New Year – mainly decorating and refreshing – so I’m suddenly taking notice of colour charts and room designs – all things I’m really rubbish at! Will that colour go there? Will that go with that? Who knows? Certainly not me! And the husband is no help. His mantra is “You’ll do what you want so there’s no point me saying anything.”  And, he’s right!

I still plan to take in galleries and exhibitions and whatever I can, actually, but it’s early days yet. I’m still getting used to the idea of not working and of having every day at my disposal – or that’s the theory!

#Learn

I’m always up for learning new things or generally having a go…well, as long as it doesn’t involve heights or whizzing through the air on zip wires which my brave (foolhardy) English colleagues did this summer. In those situations, I’m more of an I’ll-hold-the-coats sort of girl!

However, my focus remains Spanish – going well – and front crawl – going not so well!!

When I’m in Spain, I have to spend a lot of the day talking in Spanish and listening, of course, which is where I pick up a lot of new vocabulary and structures. My two friends who came out this summer were hugely impressed with my linguistic skills, but to some extent that’s a version of “in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king” state of affairs. I am very lucky that I have a young friend and neighbour, Javi, who has adopted me and helps me with all sorts of things. He talks slowly to me and finds different ways to say things if I don’t understand. He doesn’t hesitate to chide me when he thinks my Spanish is feo (ugly) as he did when my friend returned to England. He was trying to explain something and I was unable to get the full drift whereupon he declared my Spanish was feo because I had been talking English all week! And he was right, of course! In truth he thinks my Spanish is good so I’m pleased.

The front crawl is proving rather more intractable! I did a bit of practising while I was in Spain and felt on some days that I made progress but it was patchy. The breathing still poses problems for me and I don’t really understand why! I can breathe perfectly well when doing breast stroke – head under the water and everything – but the front crawl has me panicking! I plan to give it a bit more of a go – if I can veer drag myself to the pool – and if it’s still defeating me, well, I’ll be happy with breast stroke.

#Volunteer

I’m sort of trying to avoid this one a bit because – and this will sound dreadful – I’m reluctant to let myself get pinned down too much as then I won’t have the time to do the things I fancy doing when I fancy doing them – even if that’s doing nothing!!

I’m still involved with my rugby team and recently spent a day helping to appoint our new coach – that was exciting and interesting. And I’m still involved with the primary school where I continue as Vice-Chair of Governors. That’s getting interesting as we are being asked to expand and have a Head retiring and a new one starting.

And I seem to have got myself a bit of a tutoring job! Last night my neighbour rang the doorbell and asked – with a lovely smile – if I would help his grandson with his English. Trust me, it was the sort of unassuming smile that meant I had nowhere to go! The boy and his mother arrived in the country last year following a marriage break down and his grandfather thinks he is struggling with English – which is not his first language. However, there might be something for me to gain in this as the boy arrived from Spain! He speaks Spanish and Catalan so English will be his third language in addition to Arabic which he reads. Apparently, his mum would love to be able to speak to someone in Spanish! Lucky me.

And my former Head of Faculty is mooching around looking for me to go and help out with Year 11 – not volunteering as such since I would be paid but volunteering to help and support her and my colleagues.

So, I’m busy -maybe too busy – but loving every minute. And what I have realised is that a balance in life is important whether you are working or not. It’s important not to get over-loaded and to have time to watch the stars.

Let’s Get Behind Jeremy

I have supported Labour all my life and in every election. I have not done this because I believe the party always mirrored exactly my own thoughts and beliefs but because it most closely matched my concerns. I am essentially a socialist but accept there is a place for capitalism, but it is not in education, health, social housing utilities, buses and trains. I believe these are basic for a decent life and that these things should not be subject to markets or shareholders. I also believe that a humane, decent society should look after the weakest through support and challenge to enable them to look after themselves.

I have seen at first hand through members of my family the quiet despair of living in poverty and with little hope as the lifelines they need are slowly wrenched away. They are lucky that I have been able to fill the temporary gap but that is not how society should work. I have seen their quiet resignation at never being able to improve themselves or their situation because it takes all their resources to simply exist from day to day.

I have listened with increasing frustration to the mealy-mouthed pronouncements of politicians of all hues failing to understand the lives and experiences of many of our citizens because they are more interested in maintaining their own position or looking after their mates or getting re-elected or not upsetting the right wing press that holds such sway in this country. I listened with anger as the Tories trashed the last Labour Government and blamed them for the economic crisis engulfing the western world without response from Labour.

I have listened to what goes on in Parliament and PMQs and am revolted by what I hear. It’s the sound of point scoring, sneering, slick, glib word play, arrogant bully boy drollery, personal attacks and nastiness and little, very little, to do with the lives of ordinary people striving to raise their families and do their best every day.

Make no mistake, every day we have a Tory government that is what we will be treated to. It was the same in the 80/90s – that’s where it started – with malice and sneering nastiness such as Peter Lilley and his “little list”. I was a single mother back then – a form of feckless scrounger as far as the Tories were concerned despite the fact I was working and paying my taxes. I was also a teacher, reviled on a daily basis. It was wearing and debilitating.

So, I have become increasingly world weary with politics and politicians but now, I am awake.

This August I joined the Labour Party so that I could vote in the Leadership election. I have been electrified by the Jeremy Corbyn factor. I started listening to someone who spoke calmly and plainly without dissembling. Someone who declared that he would not be making personal attacks on rivals or others and urged his supporters to follow his lead. Not only that, he stuck to it despite immense provocation. How very refreshing.

Reader, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn not because I agree with everything he says or believe that he will be able to achieve all he aspires to – could I or you or anyone say this of any potential or actual leader? I think not. I did it because he has made politics interesting again, because PMQs will, hopefully, never be the same again. It’s hard to maintain a posture of sneering and vilification in the face of someone who won’t rise to the bait. I did it because I generally like his direction of travel. He has injected some humanity into politics and I can stop feeling ashamed of the way we are behaving toward s the poor, the dispossessed and the desperate.

I thought I might be able to relax and bask in these new possibilities. But no.

I am horrified to hear of talk of splits in the party – haven’t we learnt anything? Of course there are different views and beliefs in the party – that should make for lively discussion and the development of policies that are carefully arrived at having considered all views. Of course some will be disappointed that their view doesn’t prevail. But isn’t that democracy? Have we forgotten that the minute there’s a split there’s a point of exploitation for the enemy.

I am outraged to hear that moderate Labour MPs are planning informal talks about a vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn. How dare they? Since when did the Labour Party belong to the MPs? Jeremy Corbyn won across all sections of the electorate. All of them. I’m a paid up member and part of the more than a quarter of a million who voted for Jeremy Corbyn – are our views worth nothing? Worth less than MPs’ views? They should remember they are our elected representatives not our superiors.

I am exasperated that Labour MPs are publically declaring that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will be a disaster before we are at the end of day one. It might be, it might be brilliant. I wouldn’t presume to say and I certainly wouldn’t be saying it in the public domain if I were an MP. In my profession, if I had done that it would be a disciplinary issue and I would have been lucky to stay in my job.

Let’s not help the right wing media and the Tories. Let’s get behind the leadership and the party and do all we can to show the Tories up for what they are.

I won’t be there…

They caught me unawares: large soft, silent tears – the sort that soon turn to great gulping, gasping sobs – sliding quietly down my cheeks. I blame @HeyMissSmith for it was she who posted the Des Moines back to work staff meeting with the Les Mis Flash mob. It was wonderful: funny, clever, heart-warming. What larks! What clever, creative people who had taken the time and trouble to come up with this bit of whimsy to ease the back to work trauma.

I’ve sat through countless back to work, state of the nation type days and none of them have been as much fun as the Des Moines one. And that’s what provoked the tears. I won’t be sitting through one this year. Tomorrow when my colleagues gather on the bleachers to hear the new Head talk about her plans and the deputy outlining the school’s performance in the summer series. I won’t be there.

I’ve been reading lots of blogs about back to school: advice for new teachers, new senior leaders, ideas about what to do on the first day, sharing ideas and resources for new curricula, encouraging, exhorting and soothing. I’ve seen the start of worry Tweets: back to work tomorrow, the summer has gone fast, the days spent planning and it can’t be long before the poor sleep and bad dreams Tweets follow tomorrow. And I’m not part of it.

Soon the kids will start trundling through the doors: wild-eyed, excited Year 7s in their too-big blazers, their ties tied by their mum and their shiny new shoes, Year 8s thinking they’ve made it now they’re not the bottom of the pile, Years 9 and 10 cynical and wary and Year 11 world-weary and braced for the exhortations to work harder, the assessing and weighing and worrying and fretting as their teachers labour to hit targets. And I won’t be greeting them.

While all these things are going on I will be hiding in the Spanish sunshine having what we always want at the end of the summer holiday – more time not working. Well, I will have that now as I retired this summer and I am living the dream. Only it looks a bit scary from here. It’s like a precipice into nothing with me teetering on the edge. My working life has been structured and controlled with something different happening every hour or so, people always around, noise, laughter, fun and sometimes tears, triumph and tragedy. Now, I am in control of my days: there are no fixed events, no obligations and no calls on my time or expertise.

I feel sad and a little lost but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit relieved as well. Teaching is a tough gig these days and getting tougher. I’ve already managed to carry on for longer than the norm – 42 years (gulp)- and it’s time to move on and do new things. I need to use this quiet time to think about what I want to do and then, when I stop hiding, to get out and get on with it.

I miss my lovely colleagues and I will miss the kids – the best part of it all – and that pain is physical and visceral but it will mend eventually. Now I have time to concentrate on my other people – the ones we see too little of when we are in the full throttle of hectic working days: my husband, sons, step-sons and grandchildren.

What’s not to like about that?

What’s not to like about that?

So, here we are.

How did I get to here, this, my final moments in school as a working teacher? I can vividly remember my first days at Redbrook sitting in the staff room, marking my first set of exercise books with an air of excitement and feeling quite grown up.

Now 43 years later I am wondering where all that time went.

It’s been a rollercoaster with good times and bad along the way. Perhaps the worst was the end of my time at my previous school which was truly terrible and almost saw me forced out of teaching. It was a period of great worry both professionally and personally and blighted my life for more than two years. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone – it was unfair, unnecessary and dishonest. I was saved by Robin and I want to pay tribute to his kindness and humanity because he agreed to shelter me for a couple of terms on a secondment and I know that must have been hard for him to sell to the people around him. Luckily, it lead to a post I was able to secure through a robust recruitment process and a stay of more than eight years. It not only saved me and my career but breathed new life in to both and I will always be grateful for that. I hope I have repaid him and the school with my work and contribution since then.

And so…

Lots of people over the last few weeks have asked variations on “Are you on the countdown/” “Are you counting down the days?” And my answer was always no…because I haven’t been.

I haven’t been yearning to get away from here or education. I haven’t printed T-shirts with the number of days left or had a counter on my computer. I haven’t darkly muttered about not being able to wait to get out of here…I’m going kicking and screaming!

Because for me it has been a joy and a privilege to work for as long as I have in education in this most battered and beleaguered, but beautiful and historically important little town.

I like the thought that I have been here to make a difference because surely that is what we are here for…making a difference to the lives of the young people we teach.

 For many of them we – and the education we provide – are the only hope they have of improving their lives and those of their families.

I wish I was continuing that work but I am confident I am leaving it in safe hands.

Today I have keys, a swipe name badge – or proximity reader as it’s called! – log-ins, passwords and a zapper to get me through the gate. I have students, colleagues, things to do, people to help, mentor and guide. Tomorrow I will have none of that.

It is hard to let go but exciting to look to new horizons and challenges. I have no idea how it will all work out and I don’t know how I will cope with days I can call my own and which have no structure. But I have seen others do it so I must suppose I will manage.

I am bereft and my grief for my lost life and profession is immense.

My #teacher5aday – the Final Update

 

The time has come to update my #teacher5aday because from 1st September, this will no longer apply to me – although I will continue to support the initiative in any way I can. You see, Dear Reader, I retire on 31st August. *Gulp* – I’m still having trouble with that word and concept.

#Connect

Here’s what I wrote in my update:

This was about working hard for the staff I lead in my last two terms of teaching – well, it’s one now! I think I’m doing well with this as I work to ensure that the new Headteacher knows about all the good work they do *creeps*!

Well, it seems to have worked. They were genuinely sorry to see me go and gave me a lovely little leaving “do” with a bespoke cake made by our cleaner. It was lovely.

Now, it’s time for me to connect with the family and help out to lighten the load of those still working wherever I can. I have two sons and two step-sons and they need support to various degrees. I also have a lovely, young colleague who struggles for support as she has little in the way of family. I’m signed up for Monday pick-ups when she has school meetings.

 

#Exercise

My update:

This one was about maintaining my new found ability to run for 30 minutes three times a week and to fit in some swimming. Well, I’m doing alright with the running – I’m very pleased with it, in fact and now have The Race for Life 5k in my sights. Foolishly, I’ve signed up to do it as part of a school group which includes students – who will certainly put me to shame…and so they should. I’m still working on the swimming, though. Running has proved to be quick and easy to do as I literally step outside my front door on to the common and I’m off: swimming requires a ten minute drive. *sighs*

Now, this is something I’m really proud of. I have maintained the running – even in the heat of Spain during my holiday! – and find I really enjoy it. I’m pretty sure it has reduced my blood pressure and am ever more convinced I don’t really need the medication! Not only that but I did the 5k in what I thought was a very respectable time – 38 minutes 47 seconds (ish). The Race for Life doesn’t do individual times but I reckoned it from the clock and how long it took me to start. I continue to be impressed with my own perseverance and stickability- must be all that growth mindset!

I’ve also done a bit more swimming – a mile yesterday!

#Notice

Here’s my update:

This one was about noticing when others need support. I’ve done well with this as I like to try and help where I can. I’ve been through most of the things that ail people and I know how hard it can be. Friends and colleagues do ask for support and accept what I offer.

I was very humbled when my English colleagues described me as having a heart of gold and always being there to help and support. I plan to continue to help and support them where I can – even if it’s just providing an ear and a space to unburden and offer them different perspectives.

I’m hoping that I will also have time now to notice the world around me by visiting galleries, exhibitions and events as well as places now that I am not tied to employment any more.

#Learn

The update:

This one was about improving my Spanish and learning front crawl. The Spanish is going well thanks to my young friend and neighbour in the village where I now own a holiday apartment – who’d ever have thought it! I can hold quite long conversations with him and exchange texts on an almost daily basis – all with only a little help from Google Translate. The front crawl is proving trickier – see above – so I think this might be one for when the R word has begun. *whispers – retirement*

I am happy to report some progress here. My aforementioned lovely young colleague heard me wittering about wanting to learn the front crawl and maybe taking a couple of lessons. She certainly noticed because she bought me the lessons for my birthday! Turns out I’m alright at front crawl – I just need to get over my bogey about breathing and practice. I’m lucky enough to have been able to do that over the last few weeks and I am definitely making progress. I can’t do a length yet but it’s getting easier.

The Spanish is going really well but I’m determined to get to grips with the verbs so I’m speaking more often in the correct tense. I think this will be easier now I am more confident and know that I can hold conversations and make myself understood with my neighbours and friends in Spain. I’m starting with common verbs, ser, estar, it, hacer, poder. I reckon I can get a long way with them.

#Volunteer

The last update:

This was about helping friends once the R word has happened so it’s really a future one. I do turn up and help where I can at school. I am a Director of my local rugby league team and do the P.A on match days and I’m still a Governor at a primary school where I now have the exciting prospect of being involved in appointing the next headteacher. Scary but exciting and interesting.

There’s not much change here as I am still in summer holiday mode. I’m involved in all the things mentioned above and I’m thinking about what I want to do next. I’m wary of tying myself down too soon before I’ve had a chance to experience doing not much!

So, there we are. I’ve enjoyed the #teacher5aday and applaud Martyn for getting it off the ground. I hope you all make time in your lives for the important stuff. To be honest, I think we often do more than is needed or expected because we feel under pressure, because we don’t want to be seen as slacking or doing less than others, because we fear things will fall apart if we don’t. Ease off a bit. It’ll be alright.