Blogging for the Common Good

On finding a voice and learning by doing

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I’ve lived through an educational revolution in England and I didn’t experience it as a good one.

I trained as a teacher in 1973, and my dissertation then was on Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.  I also referred a lot to Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman & Weingartner and Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Try doing that nowadays in UK teacher education. Nothing to do with delivering the National Curriculum? Forget it! We can’t waste time encouraging our teachers to think, or worse still, dream! Why, it might rub off on the pupils, and what mischief might that lead to!

Whatever and whoever I taught, I wanted them to think. I wanted them to question. I wanted them to experience places and people outside their own limited surroundings. I didn’t want them to be trapped by fear of the unfamiliar, or intimidated by dogma or deceived by marketing and spin. I wanted them to be the best they could be. To be ready to take on the world. To know they mattered. To have their own confident voice.

I still want that.

I can’t change my ways. I’m obviously a bad old person. I won’t accept that I should just bow out of active life, shut up and wait for kindly euthanasia. I still value the sheer enjoyment and frustration of learning by doing, of jumping into new experiences, of finding out with the help of enthusiastic mentors and the company of others along the way.

While I may not be going out into the forest any more to plodge around in muddy streams and discover strange living things, I’m exploring the online world of blogging and social media, and encountering all its weird life forms, its good angels and its monsters.

And, by so doing, still playing my little part in fighting the grim Mr Gradgrinds in their dingy classrooms and their endless “Facts! Facts! Facts!”. Fighting for creativity and joy in learning and in valuing others for their unique humanity, not for what they can deliver to the economy of an all consuming state.

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Simple Pleasures – A Winter’s Tale

Advent 3  Playtime BH&S (Before Health & Safety)

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This was my best primary school. I attended there after we yet again moved house.  There were fifty six in my classroom, I do not tell a lie, and one poor teacher sitting at her high desk in front of our straight rows of single desks. On Friday afternoons she used to open her desk lid and, hiding behind it, have a silent cry.

To ensure discipline when she was really stressed she would issue stern warnings that anybody who talked would get the belt. On bad days she could collect a small queue. I was only caught once. It was mostly the boys who suffered.

The great advantage of the playground was that it sloped. The building was at the bottom of a hill. This ensured that winter playtimes held the promise of unlimited joy.

As soon as the weather turned bitter and the ground icy, we would make a series of slides. At the steepest end of the playground was the most demanding of daring and skill, then there were five or six others in descending levels of difficulty. You queued up at the one matching your ability and took turns. With practice you could improve your standard and progress to a more prestigious level.

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I can’t remember any adult supervision. It was much too cold for any sensible person to leave the staffroom until the bell needed to be rung.

At secondary school we only had one outdoor area that sloped.  This was an enclosed square yard fortuitously created when a new building had been added. It was bounded by the girls toilet block, a window fronted corridor where the men’s and women’s (separate) staff rooms were situated, and the rear wall of the gym.

This was a hazard when it came to winter slides, as there was very little run-off space between the ends of the slides and the brick wall. However we had seven years of sliding practice behind us by this stage. It was just an added challenge.

Nevertheless one particularly icy winter, somebody fell more awkwardly than normal and even we could see that adult help needed to be summoned. This was a problem. There were notices on the staffroom doors threatening dire consequences for any disturbance.

Two brave messengers were deputed to knock at the men’s staff room. We watched anxiously through the windows.

A gowned figure, cigarette in hand, threw the door open. Billows of smoke issued from behind his impressive outline. The messengers pointed towards the injured figure on the freezing ground and stuttered apologies.

“How many times have you been told to be careful?” was the bellowed response. We were in no doubt at whose door the fault lay.

Nevertheless medical help was summoned and the careless culprit removed to have his leg set at the cottage hospital.

After that sliding was banned.

It posed too great a hazard to the comfortable sanctuary of the staffroom.

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Lesson 105 Everybody Needs A Good Checklist

Lesson 105 on Drills for everything

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When I think about best practice in the places where I worked, it almost always had to do with basic organisation and culture. There was an attitude that certain things were expected of all staff and that particular key things must be done to a specific pattern.

As a result these things just became second nature.  However inconvenient or awkward it might be, you followed the drill.

In Mandy’s school we had a non-accidental injury checklist which was treated as holy writ, but we also had an attempted suicide drill.  In a school full of adolescent girls from difficult home situations, attempted suicides were not uncommon.

It was usually somebody’s best friend who alerted a teacher or Mrs Nurse, and the moment the alarm was raised, the drill was followed to the letter.  Not a minute was lost.  Medical assistance was obtained with the least hold-up possible. 

The worst time was Friday afternoon, when Mrs Nurse went home early, and the designated First Aiders were busy teaching. Normally one or other of these would accompany the pupil to A&E, while a senior teacher contacted the parent or guardian and also tried to glean any helpful details from the informant.

There was no panic or rushing about.  Everybody knew what to do. No energy was wasted on dramatics.

But on a Friday afternoon it would end up being me who went to A&E.  On one such occasion it was Kirsty who said she had taken “some pills”.  Quite honestly I didn’t believe her.  She couldn’t give any details of what she had taken or where she had got them or what sort of container they had been in or what she had done with it. But the drill had to be followed.

Halfway to the hospital, she told me she was lying.

“It doesn’t make any difference, once you’ve said it, we’ve got to go!” I wasn’t feeling overly sympathetic. 

“But I don’t want to go to the hospital.  They might pump my stomach!”. Kirsty had heard tales of this from others.

“Saying that just makes it worse! You might be lying now, because you’re scared of what might happen at A&E!  It’s too late – I’m afraid we’re both stuck with it now!”

Kirsty looked miserable.  I was fed up too. Together we were a gloomy pair.  We sat in A&E waiting for her mother to arrive. She wouldn’t be best pleased either.

Kirsty sat close to me and sniffled.  “I’m sorry Miss!”  I began to stop feeling bad tempered and gave her a friendly nudge instead.

“Well, next time just come and tell one of us what’s upsetting you. Then we can try and do something about it, without having to spend hours in A&E first! OK?”. Kirsty nodded, and we resigned ourselves to whatever action the medical personnel might decide take.

The following Monday morning my group were sorting themselves out and chatting.  Balvinder had had a bad weekend.  She sympathised with Kirsty.

“I was so fed up of things on Sunday” she said matter of factly, “I decided I would kill myself!”

“That sounds a bit drastic!” I exclaimed.

“Well, they drive me up the wall!  You don’t know my family! I can’t get away from them!  Weekends are worst, all the aunties and their horrible children come round.”

“So how come you’re still here?” asked one of her friends with interest.

“I went to the bathroom to find some pills, and I was going through the bathroom cupboard, but it took a while because the names on the labels were hard to read.”

So?” prompted her friend.

“People kept knocking on the door and asking what on earth I was doing in there and when was I going to come out, because they needed to use the toilet.”

She tossed her head in disgust as she gathered up her things for the next lesson.

“See, Miss, you can’t even get enough peace and quiet in my house to commit suicide!”

Lesson 102 Recognising Guardian Angels

Lesson 102 on People who make a difference

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After I retired for the final time, somebody asked me how I felt to have reached this point in life. 

“I just feel relieved to have made it through this far!” I replied

But there were a lot of people who had helped along the way, people who had no particular reason to go the extra mile for me, but had done it just the same.

There was the school secretary at my first school who turned up on my doorstep one lunchtime when I was off sick and miserable.

“I’ve just come to make you a cup of tea,” she said cheerily, “Because I know you’ve got nobody here to make one for you!”

There was the Lollipop Lady at the crossing by my daughter’s school, who brought her all the way back up to the school where I was working one morning. The note to inform parents that the Juniors was to be shut that day had been lost on the way home.

A next door neighbour, when I moved to a new area, took me on the bus to her doctor’s surgery and insisted I was seen straightaway, because she could see I was in no state to be able to speak up for myself. She had just come round to introduce herself!

Out of the kindness of their hearts, two children in my teaching practice school, who had a view of the carpark, used to give me advance warning of when my supervisor was coming.

In fact, whenever I was under pressure or having hard times, people would just turn up, like personal guardian angels in all sorts of unexpected guises.

I remember a friend, who had been forced to return to her parents after a violent marriage, telling me what had turned her life around.  She was in her early twenties with two small children and one day when she was making her weary way back home on the bus she overheard two women in front talking about her.

“Poor soul,” one was saying. “Have you seen her? She looks dreadful, trailing around with those bairns. Of course, her life’s over now. She’ll never be able to work with those two to bring up on her own!”

She was so furious that she went straight to the chemist and bought some hair dye.  That very night she went blonde.  Then she looked for a job and a childminder.  She never set foot outside the door again, without first checking that she didn’t look like a “poor soul”! 

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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