Lesson 101 Life, The Universe and Everything

Lesson 101 on Paying attention

“Pay attention!” is the traditional teachers’ catch phrase, but it is commonly used by the instructor to the instructee, rather than the other way round. 

However, I found it saved a lot of trouble if it worked both ways.  After all, there is always the outside possibility that what your captive audience is feeding back to you is actually true.

I learnt that listening to what people were telling me, whether by fretting, fidgetting, whinging, shouting or generally making a nuisance of themselves, was a reliable signpost to where I was going wrong, or to some other aspect of the situation that was less than satisfactory to those on the receiving end. It was a helpful indicator of what needed to change.

Very, very occasionally, when I stopped rushing and paid attention to what was going on around me, I even had a sudden insight into what I wanted from life, the universe and everything.

The first time this happened was when I was in the Isle of Wight with Mandy’s school and I went to check on one of the bedrooms while everyone was downstairs.  The window looked down the road to the beach, everything was still and the early summer evening was just slipping into twilight. Suddenly I just knew that this was all I wanted. It was quite simply a view of the sea. Not a stratospheric career or untold riches, but just a comfortable, peaceful seat by a window that looked out on the sea and the sky.

Life sometimes tells us what we need if we are able to stop and listen.  We may still have to work out the practicalities of getting there, but at least it clarifies the way we have to direct our steps.

I sit in my open window now, with a book by my side, and the sea breeze cooling the heat of the late afternoon and I am grateful, oh so grateful, that I stopped to pay attention on that evening long ago.

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Lesson 97 Perfect Day – Sort Of

Lesson 97 on Facing up to fears (or not! )

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Wheelchair Boy soon got very fed up of being pushed around. We trailed along behind the rest of the group struggling over stony paths, grassy banks and pebbles. On the second day we were halfway to the picnic spot at Carisbrooke Castle, battling our way across a longish lawned area, when he decided it would be easier and quicker to hop. It was!

After lunch it was time for the Castle itself.  Wheelchair Boy could be manouvred around most parts, but of course everybody wanted to go on the walls.  He agreed without complaint that it was beyond him, but if I accompanied some of the others, then there would be enough adults to let everybody else go on the ramparts.

I have no head for heights, but when we climbed up the first set of stairs it didn’t look too bad, though the ramparts were very narrow. I hadn’t expected that. You could see over both sides.  They also went dramatically up and down. To me they seemed alarmingly exposed.

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My group leapt on ahead like mountain goats, as I noted with alarm that the drop on the outer side of the wall was getting greater and greater. I was definitely well out of my comfort zone. And I was trapped. There was no way I could chicken out. I was duty bound to stick with my mountain goats and there was no way they were giving up until they had gone all the way round! 

By the time I made it round, trembling and clutching the frighteningly open safety railings, I was the one needing the wheelchair!

Next day it was Alum Bay. Wheelchair Boy was happy, because not much wheeling or hopping was required. There was a chairlift down to the beach, then a boat trip. Nightmare on two counts for me!

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But I was saved from both terrors.  Sergeant CoachDriver got lost again and so many people felt sick by the time we arrived, that Mrs FirstAider and I had our very own Walking Wounded group who couldn’t be trusted not to throw up on the chairlift. We walked down the many, many stairs to the beach.

By the time we got there, most of them had perked up and, unbelievably, were looking forward to a boat trip. To my relief, one little person was still rather green about the gills.  She and I sat comfortably on the sand in the sun, admiring the multicoloured cliffs, gratefully watching everybody else bobbing off over the choppy waves.

Sometimes life can feel really good.

Lesson 96. Frankie Goes To Sandown Isle of Wight

Lesson 96 on Self-confidence and leadership qualities.

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It was not the best organised school journey in the world.  Miss Deputy took the oldest class to the same guest house every year with the same local coach company.  It seemed to be assumed that each year’s trip would simply follow the same pattern as the last.

The problem with our year was that the friendly old driver, who usually accompanied the journey and knew the route and the routine backwards, was in hospital having fallen off a ladder, a victim of home DIY.

The replacement was a short, sturdy woman, who had just joined the company payroll. I think she had gained her Public Service Licence during her previous career in the army. She smoked a lot. She had never been to the Isle of Wight. (Remember, this was in the days before satellite navigation.)

I didn’t notice Frankie until we reached our lunch break spot, rather late. It was a stretch of heathland populated by grazing sheep, with a couple of picnic tables. I was waiting by the bus door to help people out.  Frankie was preparing to alight when he suddenly froze. He was immaculately dressed in the latest designer gear and his hair was perfectly corn-rowed in a complicated pattern. He pointed accusingly at the ground by my feet.

“There is poo everywhere!” he announced with disapproval.

“It’s only sheep droppings,” I explained.

” Poo!” said Frankie firmly. The country side was something he seldom came across and it didn’t fit his lifestyle. “I’ll stay in the bus!”

So while everybody else ate their sandwiches in the teeth of a stiff breeze and had a bit of a run around, Frankie sat in solitary splendour with a pristine napkin and a Tupperware box of goodies. He was totally unphased by being the exception.  Let others do as they pleased. His trainers would remain unsullied! 

When we reached the guest house, my room was next to Frankie’s. There were six boys sleeping there in bunk beds. It was my job to keep an eye on them. When I checked on them just before lights out, Frankie was sitting on the best top bunk in matching pyjamas and dressing gown. He had a hairnet over his elaborate corn rows. He was getting everyone organised.  He liked his living space orderly. He might be the smallest and youngest, but there was no question that it was his room.

The following morning I was awoken at 5am by talking and movement next door. Going to investigate I found Frankie and his gang fully dressed, sitting on their beds.

“What are you doing?” I asked sleepily.

“Waiting for breakfast!” replied Frankie brightly.

“Didn’t you check the time? It’s hours yet!” But only Frankie had a watch and that was purely for personal adornment. It hadn’t occurred to them to use it for practical purposes. I gave them my alarm clock and sent them back to bed.

We all needed our sleep, because the next day was a nightmare.  Sergeant Coachdriver took the wrong turning. Now taking a wrong turning in Greater London isn’t a problem. You just rectify matters at the next crossroads. It’s not so easy in winding lanes on a little island.

The longer the coach rocked and rolled its way along the country roads, the more people felt sick. And there was nowhere to stop.  Mrs FirstAider and I feared we would soon run out of bags. Frankie was one of the sufferers, but he insisted on remaining on the extra bumpy back seat with his followers. He was confident he would cope.

When we finally reached our destination, Frankie was one of the last to climb down from the coach. Smiling happily he presented me with neatly fastened plastic carrier bag.

“See Miss!” he announced proudly, “I caught it all!”

Lesson 95 Oh We Do Love To Be Beside the Seaside

Lesson 95 on The dangers of volunteering

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There was one last school trip. Really it was nothing to do with me and I should never have been on it, but life can be surprising.

I was sitting in the office one lunchtime, peacefully eating my sandwiches and idly looking through holiday rentals on the internet. (I was on my third post-early-retirement job, this time with a local education authority.) One of the senior managers came in with an urgent query regarding school journeys.

She had a distressed head teacher on the line. Their school journey to the Isle of Wight was due to leave in the morning, but they had a problem. One of the pupils was temporarily in need of a wheelchair.  He had a serious long term medical condition, but this was known and all the risk assessments had been approved. The wheelchair was nothing to do with that. He had had his verruca “done” and it hadn’t healed properly. He couldn’t put one foot to the ground, though his doctor was pretty sure it was on the mend and he was fit to travel.

“Can you check if there’s any way they can take him, Mrs Wise? He’s been looking forward to it so much and he’s come through a dreadful couple of years. I’d really like to be able to help them!”

“I can’t see any way round the regulations,” I shook my head sadly. “They need another teacher to take charge of the child in the chair.  What a shame!” Then I uttered the fateful words that had just flitted unbidden across my mind. “I’ve always liked the Isle of Wight!”

That was how I came to be standing outside The Blessed John Henry Newman Primary School at 8.30am the following morning.

My charge was hopping around. His poorly foot was in a slipper. He was not keen on the wheelchair and he didn’t like the look of me much either.  We reached an understanding though – it was either put up with Mrs Wise or stay at home. He grudgingly got into his conveyance.  His parents shed tears of gratitude. Then we were off!

There were three teachers and a classroom assistant with a first aid certificate accompanying the group.  As newly appointed Wheelchair Assistant I was put under the wing of Mrs FirstAider.  She had been at the school for many years and knew all the pupils well. The lead teacher was Miss Deputy, a youngish woman with a dreamy, distant smile. The other two were recent graduates in their probationary year and this was their first school journey. None of them were mothers, nor did they seem to have had much experience of dealing with children in a purely caring, rather than a formal teaching capacity.

The relevance of this soon became evident on the coach journey down to the coast.  Mrs FirstAider and I were speedily allocated our role by an unspoken agreement amongst the children. We were in charge of sick bags, toilets, lost property, fears and tears!

To be continued…….

Lesson 88 Sticks and Carrots

Lesson 88 on More ways and means

At Owen’s school everybody had been battered and bruised by their shaming in the national media, on account of their lowly position in the league tables. Despite the local press being extremely supportive and pointing out all the school had done for its catchment area, the pupils had been very discouraged by the notice they had attracted. 

Naming and shaming might have been intended as a stick to beat the teaching profession, but the impact on the children concerned was hurtful.  The least successful schools in the first rounds of national testing came from the most disadvantaged areas.  Pupils already bearing the practical drawbacks of living in poor areas were now doubly stigmatised by attending the “worst” schools.

The staff at Owen’s school, however, had a strategy to rebuild confidence and enthusiasm.  

They took every opportunity to praise good work and effort. They particularly praised any attempt at a subject or task found difficult. Not giving up earned you the biggest accolade.

They devised a system of rewards ranging from Mrs Reception’s biscuits right up to elaborately printed certificates, formally presented at assemblies, that could be taken home and displayed.

There were also class trips and treats to reward group achievement.

One of the difficulties in improving the school’s SATs scores was the the problem of ensuring everybody turned up on the day of the test. The pupils were very unsettled by examination conditions. Despite trial runs to make them feel at ease, they hated them.  The temptation not to attend was great.

One hundred percent attendance necessitated more than just encouragement and support. It required a considerable carrot.  This took the form of the SATs trip.

There was to be a day out for the whole class. The local coach company had agreed to sponsor it by providing the transport, so it would be free.  The pupils could decide where they wanted to go. The only constraints were that it had to be somewhere that was fairly close and didn’t require a big entrance fee. Suggestions would be put to a democratic vote.

The choices were debated. A secret ballot was held.  The votes were counted.  Anticipation ran high.  There was a clear winner. 

Peer pressure and group loyalty operated to ensure perfect attendance throughout SATs week.  The reward was won.

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In the oldest, scruffiest coach you can imagine, we were off to the UK’s biggest shopping mall – MetroCentre!