Please can you help contribute to my book? Surviving and thriving at secondary school


I’m writing a book for young people aged 11-18 in UK schools. It’s about the frustrations and struggles – as well as about the triumphs and inspirations – of school life. If you’d like to help and support others who’ve experienced struggles or triumphs similar to your own, I would be hugely grateful for ten minutes of your time to fill in my survey by clicking on the link here.

If you can get 10 other people to fill it in (and write your name in response to the final ‘anything to add?’ question), I will send you a £10 Amazon voucher.

It’s my ambition that this survey will represent the biggest sample of young people in the UK of its type so far. I want other teachers, parents and education policy-makers to hear YOUR voices, because they’re the most important ones of all.

There’s a survey for parents here too, so please share this.

A bit about me:

I’ve been teaching for 21 years and have written a book to help teachers survive and thrive in their careers. At my book launch, I looked out at the faces of more than 20 of my student who’d come along to support me, wildly excited by the fact that I’d published an actual book. Yes, teenagers do get excited by books.

At that moment, I decided I wanted to write a book for them – for you – the most important people in my life apart from my closest family. I suspect that I love my job because deep down, I’m still a bit of a teenager myself. I laugh at inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times (sorry, Year 11), I am impulsive, intense and sometimes overly sensitive.

I also have a daughter just about to start secondary school, and this book will also provide support for her – and for us – with the daunting and exciting journey ahead.

I do honestly believe that teenagers are human beings in their purest and most raw form. Everything is so intense, so significant and the journey to identity and self-definition is sometimes terrifying, often frustrating and it’s so easy to feel alone. But you’re not. Alone, that is. You’re not alone if you just don’t GET Maths, if that teacher just makes you see red every time you walk into her classroom, if you’ve felt let-down or betrayed by friends. You’re not alone if you’re a young carer, if your parents are overly protective or indeed not protective enough. You’re not alone if you’ve had mental health problems or suffered from depression or eating disorders or self-harm or if you’re the sibling of someone with special needs who takes up SO much of your parents’ time and energy.

Likewise, you’re not alone if you hold a fierce ambition to be a surgeon, a writer or an inventor; if you know you’re best friend will remain just that for life; if you’ve had a teacher notice a spark in you that has inspired you to believe in yourself more than you thought was possible.

I have a small team of student writers working alongside me on this book. If this is something you would be interested in being involved in (you would be writing anonymously – your real name, the name of your school and any other identifying features would NOT be used) please send me 100-200 words on the subject of ‘My top tip for surviving and thriving at secondary school’ to

Logo Thrive@SeondarySchool

Serendipity, audacity… and bloody hard work. Becoming a published writer.

Every time I think I’ve responded to all the messages about the book launch, I blink and there are 15 more. I’m realising that, like the messages, the memories of the event warrant a lot more time. Time to linger, to reflect, and to express gratitude, appreciation and sympathies for the broken down cars, the locking out of the house, the horrible germs, the wrong date, the flight to Beirut, and the wounded children. I could quite happily write a book about all the things that prevented people from being at the book launch on Friday – people who I know really wanted to be there, but over whom the gremlins of fate asserted their authority. I could also quite happily write a book about the numerous precious moments during the launch itself. I could also do with a thesaurus with synonyms for ‘thank you’.

So there will be many more blogs to come to reflect on the triumphs celebrated and the tragedies remembers, and the young people I was lucky enough to show off. But for today, I’d like to address one question: ‘How did you do it? And why?’

A while ago, I wrote about what I did – and didn’t –  do to complete my doctorate. Exactly the same rules apply. A patient, generous and long-suffering army of friends and family. An absolute dedication to getting plenty of sleep. An inability to do anything productive after 7.30 p.m.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to celebrate the 30th birthday party of Nel Hedayat, one of the former students I’m still proud to be in touch with. ‘This is Emma,’ she said to a colleague of hers. ‘She’s got a PhD!’

‘Oh no,’ said I. ‘It’s not a PhD – not a proper doctorate. It’s a Doctorate in Education, a bit like the BTEC equivalent of a GCSE.’ She gave me the biggest rollicking I’ve had in a long time. ‘Don’t you dare say that!’ she said. ‘How can you not be proud of what you’ve achieved?’

This particular rollicking is not the first of its kind, but coming from someone who I saw through the turmoils of adolescence, it had an ice-bucket effect. I thought about the book as well. I generally don’t talk about it at work – and this is as it should be. When I’m at work, my entire energies are focused on the job in hand. So, having the launch there involved some quite tricky merging of boundaries.

Q: Will my colleagues imagine I’m profiting from selling the book in their midst?

A: Bloomsbury and I funded and organised the launch and all preparations were done outside school time. I was meticulous in ensuring that my day job was done to the best of my ability throughout

Q: Will my colleagues imagine I’m not committed, with an eye on fame and glamour and an innate sense of superiority?

A: Hang on a second. I don’t need to justify myself. Watch me do my job. Watch me apologise when I mess up, resolve issues as they arise, and commit myself to our young people.

And then there’s the question of working hours. If teachers are already snowed under, what on earth am I doing spending precious weekend marking time indulging myself with writing a book?

Here’s the why:

It’s been about giving voice, something I read a lot about for my doctorate. Giving voice to the wounded, the disaffected and those who have turned their back on teaching because they Just Couldn’t Cope Any More.

Giving voice to the visionaries, the optimists, the teach-meet organisers, the champions of women and minority group, the researchers who seek the very best for our young people.

If almost 4,000 had given their time up to share their stories with you, would you not have felt a duty to make them heard?

The words privilege and responsibility feature heavily in the introduction of the book, and I still rate these very highly.

And here’s the how:


When I joined Twitter, I wanted something out of it. Namely, parent-teachers to complete my survey for my doctorate. Guided by my journalist husband, I was wildly cheeky and audacious, seeking retweets and support from anyone high profile who I imagined might support my cause: Stephen Fry, Ken Robinson, Gordon Brown, and Vic Goddard, who I am proud to say has since become a valued friend. It worked. I ended up with a really exciting range of responses.


This one’s up there with moments I’ll never forget. I was in the car park of the surgery after a check up at the doctor’s when this message popped into my inbox:


Like any sensible human being, I assumed it was a wind-up and immediately forwarded it to Rav to find out who was getting a rise out of my gullibility this time… And then I said YES.


This is a bit like when someone says they like your dress and you tell them it was only five quid from Asda. It’s one of my Mum’s pet hates (sorry, Mum – I still do it).

You see, I have a confession to make. I worked VERY, VERY hard on How to Survive in Teaching. I organised holidays with military precision, blocking out chunks of time in which to distance myself from all distractions and write for a few hours. In 2016, I gave myself Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve off and worked most other days. I drafted and redrafted, cut and shaped, reviewed and rewrote. I experienced frustration, was frequently overwhelmed and more than a dozen times concluded that I wasn’t up to the task. I was lucky: my editor, Holly, was wise and emotionally intelligent – she knew when the best times were to get me on the phone (usually mid-holiday or around 11 on a Sunday); when to be strict with me and when I needed a boost. But there were many, many hours of very hard work – of rejected social events, of time away from the family or locked behind a door, of 8 a.m alarms on a Sunday.

‘Was it worth it, Miss?’ asked one of my students on Thursday. We’d talked about my 20 years in teaching and the book, and I wasn’t sure quite which one he was referring to. Either way: the answer was, and remains:

‘Without a doubt. Every second of it.’

The practical bit: you can buy the book here:

If you like it or want to discuss the issues (healthy debate welcome) you can write a review on Amazon:

Alternatively, join us on Twitter, @thosethatcan.

Thanks for all the support.

Gender, identity and the other end of the telescope

Let me begin with a caveat. I’m not an expert on PSHE or sex education. I’ve taught it for many years, but have never played a leadership role in the area, nor am I fully up-to-date with the latest research and thinking.

I am, however, I hope, an expert in teenagers. And I’m also insatiably curious about other human beings: their motivations, their fears, their hopes and their self-esteem. I’m also pretty wordy. If a child (or indeed an adult) comes to me all clammed-up with a problem that is clearly tying them in knots, I will frequently reassure them that I am not easily shocked or surprised, and this usually turns out to be true. I hope that, with a bit of age and experience, I know how to listen, how not to judge, how to tell when someone needs a coach more than they need a mentor. Or when they just want somebody to listen and pass no judgement at all.

To be honest, I thought I’d pretty much seen and heard it all. I know many people who have struggled with depression, questioned their sexuality, experienced bereavement or abuse or betrayal. I have friends who have gone from happy heterosexual marriages to happy homosexual relationships.  Friends who think it’s none of anybody’s god-damned business who, if anyone, they sleep with, and friends who are happy to share and share.

This holiday, I have had to look in the mirror and acknowledge that there’s a whole group of people for whom, up to now, I’ve had no proper experience or understanding. If travellers represent the last bastion of acceptable racism, I wonder if transexuals, people with gender dysphoria, people who don’t wish to be known as he OR she, nor who are keen to joke about the contents of their underwear… I do wonder if this group represents  one of the the last bastions of intolerance amongst those of us who consider ourselves liberal, accepting, tolerant…

And I am looking in the mirror and I am slightly dismayed. I have, of course, taught students whose gender was obviously not all it appeared to be. I have tried to to group in ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ or make stereotypical teacher comments like, ‘boys like competition’; ‘girls are less likely to be kinaesthetic learners’.

Have I, up to now, really taken the time or sought the opportunity to speak to these students about their preferred pronouns, their relationships with others, the name they really wish to be known as? I’m afraid to admit I haven’t.

And then, this summer, I met someone who made me think differently. Someone very close to one of my closest friends. Someone who was willing to talk about his experiences  as a homosexual female, a transgender male, a teaching assistant, a daughter then a son. Someone who has plumbed his very soul – and that of those who love him – to examine what matters, how he wishes to be perceived, what surgeries and hormones might be involved and how he wishes to present himself to the world.

Someone who speaks frankly about his struggles with depression, self-harm and marginalisation but admits to wanting to stick with his bubble of people he trusts rather than stand up publicly to tell his story, after he saw his friends humiliated and belittled – and their cause trampled into the ground – by Piers Morgan on breakfast television.


This is omeone who, frankly, has every right in the world to feel furious, bitter and twisted, who spoke to me so frankly and honestly and did what I thought was pretty much impossible at the ripe old age of 43.

So I asked him about young people. I talked to him about how we teach students about identity, alcohol, drugs, and self-esteem in our compulsory PHSE lessons. I thought about the wide variety of quality of these lessons – I’ve always quite enjoyed teaching them, but have seen many teachers shrivel or leave the room completely when we have the sex education training that means we get to think of as many words for genitalia as we can think of as a starter…

I described to him how we lay out a smorgasbord of drugs, political preferences, philosophical approaches and options for gender and sexuality with he ostensible aim of making them feel they have a choice – making them feel that anything is acceptable as long as it’s not dangerous to them or those around them.

And my head hurt. There is so much apparent choice – in every element of their lives, and yet we know, quite honestly, that teenagers can be as cruel and judgemental as they have always been. We know that they will speak before thinking and we know, if we remember being one, how deep marginalisation can cut.

And then my new friend (I hope I can be so presumptuous as to call him that) said, ‘start with them’ – don’t start with all the choices. Start with them. Their values, their self-esteem, their fluid and flexible identities and values. Don’t tell them, but give them the tools to recognise what’s right and what’s wrong. Help them find their moral compass, but don’t tell them what it should be. Teach them about kindness and tolerance and the sheer pace of intensity of change – and help them build the tools to cope with it. Teach them how to truly believe that what other people think really is ‘none of their business’. That being kind, and good, and tolerant is far more important.

I’ve learned this summer that there is a community of people about whom I, as a teacher of 20 years and someone who prides myself on acceptance and knowing others, know almost nothing. I plan to do something about this. Because being a good teacher (and being a good person) is about learning – always learning.

There’s a long way to go. But I do know my current, past and future students whose gender is non-binary, non-typical, non-cliched, have some wonderful role models out there.

For more information on gender diversity, please see this excellent website:

On respecting and learning from children

Not so many moons ago, I was setting up a peer assessment activity. with a class of fifteen year olds. ‘Abbie, could you do Kris, please?’ ‘Isiaah, you do Henry.’ Shayla, you can choose whether you want to do Mike or Bethany – or both’

Like any reasonable adult, I began snorting at my own inadvertent piece of genius witticism about halfway into the second instruction.

‘You’re such a child, Miss,’ chasisted one, eyes heavenward, which served only to open the floodgates for more cackling before I could re-compose myself enough to get on with the business at hand.

More recently, at home, we lost our dear old rickety cat. My ten year old was there when the vet made the kindest possible decision to end her suffering. My daughter held her paw as Java passed away. There is, I was saying to a colleague yesterday, something so honest, pure and quite inspirational about her grief. It comes in waves – spying a brand of coffee with the same name as the cat; the moment before bed when the cat would curl up. My inexplicably stylish child even does grief with panache. The cat has a grave covered in scatter-crystals and festooned with yellow roses and coloured windmills.

Children have a way of opening my eyes and making me see the world from different angles.

On a less positive note, in schools here is a phenomenon which I myself frequently discuss with an air of wistfulness. Forgive me if this is overly simplistic, but I have noticed a pattern which points to a uniquely challenging reality for teachers in the UK: teachers have to earn students’ respect before quality learning can happen. Teachers from Canada, Australia, German, Spain and France have regularly commented on this – where they come from, if a child fails an exam, the responsibility lies firmly with the child. I’ve met several versions of the teenager in Germany who is re-sitting the school year for the second time, who looks somewhat ashamed at his lack of commitment.

As teachers country-wide steel themselves for possibly the scariest set of exam results in recent history (so many unknowns!), they will already be drafting, at least in their heads, their exams analysis, their interventions and their actions. ‘What can WE do better or differently?’ will be the theme sung by teachers around many departmental tables in September, to the tune of beaten chests and vows to commit hari kari if Standards Don’t Rise.

Students autonomy, independence, ownership of learning – the valuing of academic success in its own right, without the stickers and bells – is a bloody tough nut to crack, and I’d be bold enough to suggest that there isn’t an action plan in the country that doesn’t include this somewhere near the top.

But there’s something else at work here. Like any phenomenon, when held up the light, there is something positive to be drawn from it – and it’s a question of balance.

Children should automatically respect adults – of course they should. They should stand in awe of our life’s experience, our wisdom and the sheer gravitas which propelled us to the greatness that is teaching Year 9 quadratic equations. Children should know, through sheer instinct, that the consequences of failure to try in school could be catastrophic.

The thing is, it doesn’t quite work like that at the chalkface. Learning is a risky, scary business and children learn best when they feel safe enough to take risks – but not so safe that they become complacent or lazy. It’s about balance, again.

In all the schools where I’ve ever worked, respect has to be earned – and respect has to go both ways. Learning is the same – acknowledging, as a teacher, that we learn something new about ourselves, our proteges and the world ever time we interact with a child is actually quite a joyous thing, I find. I learn something new every time I step into a classroom or converse with a child about the world, and I am all the richer for it.

A colleague recently told me that, after establishing expectations of the students in her classroom, she flipped the question: ‘what do you expect from me?’ Students are remarkably incisive when talking about their learning experience. Having asked this question myself, the answers range from, ‘to mark my book regularly’ to ‘to tell my Mum if I’m doing well’ to ‘to treat us in a way that is fair’.

I love the fact that Ofsted now places such a weight on student voice. Students will tell you exactly as it is. These are a few gems from speaking to teenagers of friends of mine. ‘I know Sir won’t laugh at me if I find it difficult’, ‘I like it when Miss asks me to read allowed’ ‘I like strict teachers – it shows they care.’ Or, ‘My teachers doesn’t plan his lessons,’ ‘I’m scared to say I don’t understand’ and ‘it’s clear that she doesn’t like children – why is she a teacher?’

Through my research, teachers have cited numerous examples of how they’ve ‘exposed’ themselves as learners in the classroom: from offering rewards to students who can teach me new words to taking careful note of the essay in which one of the students said he was struggling to copy with exam stress.

Saying sorry is also important – from making a joke of putting the wrong year on the board (my ‘deliberate’ mistake) to overlooking a child’s distress or eagerness to contribute to spilling dinner on their exercise book – saying sorry doesn’t cost anything. And when they help you do something better – ‘I listened to what you said and so I’ve planned this activity to help you’ can be great practice.

To be clear: I am no advocate of over-matiness with students – they need us to be adults; not their friends. As Mr Drew points out in the always-brilliant Educating Essex, it’s in the job description of young people to get it wrong – to make mistakes – and it’s our job to steer them in the right direction and help them locate their moral compass.

Nor do I advocate a situation where the students feel they ‘rule the roost’ – amidst the humour and the warmth of the classroom, clear boundaries are essential – as they’ve told us, students need them and appreciate them. So the student who takes it upon him- or her-self to mess with the seating plan or the one who refuses to spit out their gum can expect VERY short shrift. There are occasions when listening to what a student has to say isn’t appropriate – when they simple need to admit that they’re in the wrong. And the line ‘you’re not in charge!’ gets plenty of use both in my classroom and my house.

And, when I reflect on my earlier years of teaching, when I gave and gave to my students, I have had some difficult conversations with myself – did being ‘there’ so much lead to an over-dependence on teachers which put some of those young people on a difficult track when the realities of adulthood hit? And do we, in some of the best schools, risk a ‘culture of personality’ where students will actively select the teachers they ‘will behave with’ – and those with whom they simply ‘won’t’…

I’m also acutely aware, like all teachers, that the new era of 100% terminal exam means that real student independence is more important than ever; no longer can we hold their hands through the intensity of assessment in any way.  Nobody will ask us for references about the students, or about their finest hour in the classroom. In fact, we teachers aren’t even allowed in the exam hall, because we might have developed a complex blinking cheat-system or something.

Nevertheless, education is about more than exams, and, in our quest to give children the best possible futures, relationships are key. As teachers, we must represent authority  and model the patience and courtesy we expect from our student. But we must also model humility, fallibility and a desire to be better than we are. As well as supporting pupil-teacher relationships, we need to help students to trust one another and support one another: ‘we succeed or fail together’ is one mantra I’ve heard used.

Meaningful and productive teacher-pupil relationships aren’t born overnight. They take weeks of training and re-iteration and dog-with-a-bone stubbornness. But, for their richness, they are worth it for all concerned. At best, they will form the blueprints for future relationships at home and at work, and where trust is built, we stand a greater chance of helping them overcome life’s obstacles.

Ultimately, perhaps it’s about empathy – I do wonder (and I’m sure there’s a clever philosopher somewhere who will know more) if we are our purest and most raw ‘selves’ at 13. There has always been something about Year 9 that has both driven me to sleepless nights with frustration and stolen my heart. These are the students who will tell you where exactly to stick your carousel activity then cry when you leave the school.

I do suspect that those of us who can’t imagine doing any other job have our own inner adolescent. I know that the fear, frustration and rage of my students is something that is quite visceral. I can relate their brooding blackness, their searing sense of injustice and their toilet humour

I know one thing for sure – as a wise friend once said, children ‘act out’ for a reason – because they have a message for the world and it is usually a request for help. It is extremely rare that a child acts out of malice. But they do have high standards and high expectations of their teachers – they expect integrity, commitment and respect, and a laugh goes a long way too.

Rest in peace, old cat, and in the assurance that you are being mourned beautifully.


A special thank you: parent to teacher

I haven’t blogged for a while. Most of my energy is going into my book on teacher recruitment and retention, juggled with my no. 1 priority, family and my fabulous new(ish) job. But tonight has given me a fresh – and much needed – dose of optimism.

In a moment, I’m simply going to copy, below, the email I have just written to my daughters’ school after a parents’ evening that has left me with the warmest glow I’ve had in a very long time when thinking about education. Not because my children are wonderful (though I’m biased, and of course they are). Certainly not because they don’t both have things they really need to work on, because they really, really do. But because their teachers are remarkable, wonderful people and they make a phenomenal difference – every single day. And sometimes, it’s worth saying so.

And also partly because, for all the disorganised mess that is the contact with my school and the lurking worry that, as two career-parents, we might be causing permanent damage (career parents, wipe your brows now – based on my small – and slightly unwashed – sample, we’re not).

Here is is. And #thankateacher. You know you want to. It’s a jungle out there, and I’d bet they could do with the boost.

Dear *****,

This isn’t the first email like this – and I very much doubt it will be the last. But I was brought up to to ensure I give credit where it’s due, and old habits die hard.

This evening’s parents’ evening has been an injection of positive energy on so many levels.

As a teacher, with the research I’ve been doing, there has been so much doom and gloom, and it is truly heartening to spend time speaking to people who (for all the challenges I know exist) ooze passion for the job. It’s getting increasingly challenging for so many teachers, but your school as the kind of ethos which means it IS possible for students to excel academically and be happy.

Most importantly, though, as parents, tonight has meant the world to us. I can’t help but worry before every parents’ evening. Who knows whether working full time and doing all sorts of ridiculous study might cause long-term scars. Who knows whether having a Dad who disappears to conflict zones at short notice might be damaging. To say nothing of all those late lunch money payments, delayed requests for parents’ evening slots, last minute requests for clubs and missed emails!  All the mornings of wondering whether that jumper would do a third day and the child coming home with falling-apart indoor shoes. 

S put it in a nutshell when I got home (and we did the usual, ‘explain yourself….’ mock disappointed faces – that one never gets tired!): ‘Mr F knows me so well!’

So, thank you:

For the hours you put in to tailoring the learning for every individual; for the pictures you designed to go with the complicated sums; for the river monster ideas you spent your evenings thinking up; for teaching children who seem entirely unaware that they are being tested; for replying to the late-night anxious emails about sudden insecurities and tactfully pointing out the possibility of nits; for staying beside her for the seven attempts to use a protractor properly; for knowing their friendships and associated crises; for greeting us with such warmth us at 7 in the evening on a Tuesday when any reasonable person would be craving their sofa; for the strides you have made in genuine inclusion of all students (the Christmas play remains a highlight of my year); for the child who sobs on the second day of the 48 hour vomiting bug because she really, really wants to go to school; for the walks in the wood, the chances to shine on stage, the merits and the endless energy.

Above all, thank you for doing it not for yourselves, not for Ofsted, not for the data, not even for us – but for them. You are giving them the best possible grounding we could possibly hope for. A special thank you also to your teams who work alongside you.

They are happy and they love learning. What more could a parent ask for?

Put that in the Ofsted handbook – it’s worth a thousand multi-coloured marking codes.

Thank you,


P.S. Slightly less of a thank you for the triumphant thunking dance coming from the floor above from our very un-sleepy, confident and victorious children.

The long game

I found myself in the streets of Bloomsbury on a frosty late-Sunday afternoon, wondering, if I’m honest, what on earth I was doing. Increasingly, with a full-time job and other high-octane commitments, Sundays have been for family and for the essential recharging of batteries.

I struggled not to feel old and frumpy as I tried to work out which bloody bit of RADA I was supposed to be at for a show organised by a student with whom I parted ways ten years ago. It was a fund-raising event. The flyer said something about a play he’d written. A few other former students said they were going. I said yes, left a tantrumming 7 year-old declaring, ‘we never see  you!’ (oh, the children and the buttons they press).

I struggled against a self-consciousness I thought I’d left behind years ago as I entered a place full of beautiful and stylish people, most of them, I thought, at least 20 years my junior. I styled it out –  thank goodness for mobile phones and their ability to make us look busy – for all of two minutes, before the mother of the playwright himself appeared. She had I had bonded over crazy school trips and children with such muddled-up, exciting and bewildering potential. She told me it was all my fault – that I’d told him he could be anything. She told me how nervous she was – every time he took to the stage. Now I’d love to sit back and take the plaudits for this, but I have to admit that I don’t have a dramatically creative bone in my body (unless Year 11 write ‘it makes the reader want to read on,’ in which case I turn into an impressive Basil Fawlty), and that I taught him French, by which he was really rather uninspired.

I was his form tutor, though. He did once convince me he was a secret pyromanic, after which he cackled hysterically at having wound me up (time will tell, young man). He also came on the trips to Europe – the annual ones, before I had children, when children from Camden fell of banana boats, ordered French ice creams, wandered wide-eyed around concentration camps, asked the most hilariously, brilliantly unexpected questions, interviewed disconcerted strangers in market places, and broke boundary after boundary, in the best possible way.

And then I was surrounded a load of you – I’d done the maths on the way, so managed not to collapse in a greying heap when you reminded me you were 26 and 27. and I remembered you all; your names, your idiosyncrasies, your fears and foibles, your numerous hilarious,  kind, brilliant and glorious moments. Of course, with some, my memory has been regularly refreshed, with references for jobs (and- ahem – court cases) and a particularly spectacular surprise appearance at my 40th birthday party three years ago.

And, to me, you are still twelve. Which is handy, because my instinct when two of you asked me, ‘Miss, can we use the toilet?’ in the middle of the performance, I didn’t hesitate to ask you to leave quietly and return as quickly as you could. And yet, you’re not – you are engineers and project managers and editors and musicians and actors. Some of you are too together for words, with mortgages and engagements, whilst others will never, I suspect, stop being twelve.

And then the absent friends – the ones with new babies and new countries to live in. The ones who got lost – either literally or metaphorically. You were there too. In our thoughts and in our conversations.

And then we went in. My most recent memories were dominated by endearing and occasionally excruciating stage-appearances at school, with dramas behind the curtain to easily upstage anything happening in front of it. And yet I was gobsmacked – by the poise and elegance and sheer bloody talent of Igor, who opened the show (I’ve been practising the East-European man gesture, but suspect you’ll have to film it for me to have any chance of doing it justice). I heard mind-blowing operatic voices, heard shocking and searing spoken word poetry and monologues, and actually cried with laughter at the improv. brigade at the end. The best possible come-back for the cocky 12-year old who honed his heckling skills in Year 7 French.

You have confirmed something I wrote recently: some people truly are indelible. To the mind-blowingly successful to the terminally immature, to the fiercely ambitious and those who caught the travel bug and did more with it than I have ever managed to do. To the quietly humble and hard-working, to the still-finding-their-way. I’m so proud of you, I am here for you, and I consider myself very lucky to be part of your lives, until you have as many grey hairs as I do now, and more.

Nurture 16/17

In terms of world events, it’s been crazy, as we all know. Bowie and Joanna Cox both had me pulling the car over to gather myself. I woke up twice to ‘pull up the duvet and pretend it’s not happening’ texts from my journalist husband. I learned the hard way that the world isn’t – and probably never will be – run by my Twitter feed, though I continue to hope.


On a personal level, though, it’s been a Good Year, and I have many blessings to count and breakthroughs to celebrate. Nelson gets to sum up the key theme from this year, for me.

1. Becoming Dr Kell

This time last year, I experienced a bout of determination previously unknown to me and comparable only to the survival of labour. There are many other childbirth comparisons that can be (and have been) been made. (Now officially an English teacher, I revel happily and shamelessly in a hotch-potch of metaphors.) Writing over 80 pages in the course of the Christmas holidays, I managed to get a full draft of my EdD thesis in by the end of January and, four months later, to survive my viva, with my final version being declared as ‘pass’ at the end of the summer holidays. I effectively ‘wrote my life’ of the previous five years as I explored the joys and challenges of balancing being a teacher and being a parent.

Many kind people said many lovely things, but I confess that most of them were way off-track. I’m still a slattern who loves my sleep and I still almost never do work (of any kind) on a Saturday. I wrote a bit about how I did (and didn’t’) do it here.

For those interested in knowing more about it, I wrote a summary for BERA here and one for Relational Schools here.

It offered to open some doors and I explored options in academic and teacher training, speaking to some really inspirational people. I then pinched myself and realised that I want to stay in the classroom and the corridors of an actual school with as much, if not more, passion than I have every had before. I wrote about this decision here.

2. Finding a match

Those who nagged me when I was down, challenged me when I was negative or absent and urged me to keep driving forward, keep looking, and not lose hope of finding a match get the biggest ever ‘I told you so’. That’s you, Jill Berry, Julie Clarke, Iesha Small and the many wonderful folk of WomenEd. I met a bunch of you the day I got this job and felt a little frisson of certainty when I told you I had a very good feeling about this one. I’m very happy in my current role, in which I get to straddle my first specialism (MFL) and my new one (English), to lead a wonderful team and to be trusted and valued. And, this time, I’ve no intention of saying goodbye any time soon.

3. Writing a book

This is still one of those things that doesn’t seem quite real, but you’d have to have been living on planet Zog not to be aware of this one. My PLN has come together in its thousands to share their stories of their lives in teaching, from the triumphant to the tragic, the bitter to the sublime. More importantly, you continue to share your ideas – practical, meaningful and almost always positive – as to how we as a profession can – and will – move beyond this teaching crisis. It is a huge privilege to represent your voices. It’s a bit scary when I think about it too much. But I am diligently taking myself off to the cafe where I wrote my thesis five days a week during the holiday and every Sunday between 10 and 2 to get it written. And it’s getting there

4. Having a break

I had a proper summer holiday. Same friends and famlies as usual, but this time, I completely forgot to remove my laptop from my suitcase. It was marvelous. We’ve just booked similar for this year.


4. My family

Even those of us who’ve spent five years writing about how being a parent and a teacher is not just possible but thrivable (I am claiming copyright on this made-up word) worry sometimes. Actually, we worry quite a lot. ‘Mummy, you were the only one who didn’t come to our assembly’. That one never fails to hurt. But my husband and children seem to quite like the fact that I’m happy, and that I have funny and positive stories to tell before being able to switch off a bit of an evening. They’ve even visited, so when I describe my day, they can picture where I was and who I was with.

As they get older, their own school experiences get closer to the ones I’m dealing with daily. I must admit to a dose of cynicism when we moved to a small village. How could they possibly experience anything close to the quality education and the richness and diversity of a London school? Full-time for the first time in three years, I went to parents’ evening with some trepidation. Before any allusion to their progress or their grades, both of their teachers talked about them. The growing resilience of our hitherto somewhat-sensitive eldest and her 8 attempts to use a protractor before she got it right. Her increasing ability to cope with being the butt of a joke and her close friendships. Her activities as playground monitor and how she looks out for those who might be struggling. Her increased proficiency at Makaton, which the school has brought in so that students can communicate with two of their younger students with more profound learning needs. And our youngest? Well, all three teachers simultaneously agreed that she had to be cast as ‘excited angel’. She goes about everything with such energy and such glee, said the teacher. I left feeling like a million dollars.

One of the warning bells from my research was that having two of your with demanding careers is very difficult – and quite uncommon. This year, we seem to have found a balance. He’s great at his job and has done brilliantly – we’re used to the travelling and I know him well enough to urge him to the latest breaking news because, if he doesn’t, he’ll be pacing all night in front of the TV like a caged thing. Despite the writing schedule, there has been much sofa-surfing and board-game playing and giggling with this crazy lot.


Other members of my close family have experienced some health scares, and this has highlighted the value of the simple act of spending time with them – something I plan to do more of.

5. I stopped biting my nails. Completely! For the first time in 30 years. See, some wonders never cease. I don’t have a clue about nail varnish, but my nine-year-old takes care of that department, scolding me sternly when I attempt to go it alone and end up with lumpy bits.

So, onto 2017. This is less about change and newness and more about carrying on with some of the more positive things that have begun. From Nelson to a rather less impressive duck for this bit.


I don’t have many enemies in life, but I made one on an online talkboard in the early days of parenting. She took right against me. I’m still not entirely sure why (and she was very mean), but I suppose I can be quite full-on. Not in my head – in my head, I’m still a slightly retiring thirteen year old, but I fear, in real life. With age comes self-awareness, I suppose. My tantrums about housework and sleep deprivation annoyed the hell out of her. She didn’t want to hear about my struggles with breastfeeding or my loathing of wiping another rejected meal off the floor. I re-joined the talkboard a few years later to do some research for my doctorate. When I explained why I was there, she wrote: ‘no less high-octane, I see’.

So perhaps my intentions for 2017 are about being a little less OTT. I don’t want anything new or dramatic.

1. I want to bed in at my current school – keep learning the names of the students and teachers and become part of the furniture. I haven’t given up on ambitions for new things, but I don’t necessarily have to do them this year. For once, I’m not in a crazy rush for something different.

2. I want (need) to finish the book. This is going to involve some real hard graft. As Sue Cowley reminded me, writing a book isn’t nearly as glamorous as it may sound. For every creative lightbulb moments, there are hours and hours of honing and proofreading to be done. I’d like to do more writing afterwards – maybe make my thesis into something a little more accessible so that it doesn’t gather dust.

3. In recent months, I haven’t been as ‘present’ online or at conferences than previously, and this is quite likely to continue for a while at least. Lovely as it is to be asked to present, I’ve consciously limited the number of Saturdays I’m away from home – Saturdays are my non-work, non-study day and are important, especially now I’m full-time again.

4. I’ve learned a lot about humility and confidentiality. Not everything has to be shared or said out loud. Sometimes staying quiet is the best way forward. The way I feel about my profession and my research will remain an open book, but the details of my current job are something separate – and, after my family, are my priority.

5. Similarly, lovely as it is to have sociable friends, I’ve started to say ‘no’ a bit more often. If an evening on the sofa in pyjamas is preferable to the local karaoke (which I’m assured will be ‘a laugh’), then I’m less shy of saying so. Just because I can go out, doesn’t mean I have to. I love London, but it doesn’t mean I have to travel down the M1 every weekend as well as every weekday.

6. It galls me to say it, as I pride of myself on my active non-conformity, but the one new thing I have to do is start looking after my diet a bit. In jobs where I’ve been rushed off my feet, there’s been little time to eat, but the regular treats in my current lifestyle have started to take their toll and I can no longer ignore the stretching waist bands. I may even allow myself to be inspired by the new runners amongst you. So, I will start to get excited about white fish and fizzy mineral water.

So, from my sofa, and in my once-baggy PJs, I raise a glass or three to you (my last in a while…) and thank you for your inspiration, your courage, your kindness and your support. Happy New Year.


Berlin: Nie wieder

NOTE: I’ve strayed from my comfort zones of the classroom and staffroom for this post. I’m no historian (my GCSE History grade was something of an embarrassment) or world affairs expert (though being married to one means I have a fair degree of saturation in the news). I feel a twinge of wrongness that this news story should have moved me as it has, simply because I know the place, love the place, know the language and the people. It is perhaps petty-minded to focus on tragedy within the familiar and the known. Nevertheless, my words are authentic and from the heart and I hope they will resonate with others too.

I’ve always said that if it all got too much and I disappeared, I’d probably find myself back in Berlin.

I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert on Berlin, though in reality, the decades have passed and my knowledge and understanding of the city is really over 20 years old – from the years just after the fall of the Wall, where the East-Germans in the town where I lived, 60k outside the city, were still rejoicing in bananas on the shelves and painting their flats in the brightest colours, because they could. When most people still spoke Russian and English teachers were in the minority.

Berlin was a great coming-of-age kind of a place as experienced by the uniquely know-it-all 21-year-old whose beliefs and values are pure and passionate and founded upon many books, many beer-fuelled pontifications and limited real experience. A city where every corner brought another symbol of history, or a more blatant reminder of its ‘nie wieder’ [never again] mantra – the smashed up Jewish cemetery left as was when the Nazis finished their iron-bar rampage; Sachsenhausen, with evidence of layers of tragedy and retribution – first the Nazis, then the Russians. The cafes with the metal remains of planes for us to climb upon to preen and polish our truisms and feel edgy and at one with a proud, battered, smashed-up city,  always proud, never pretentious, wearing its honesty like an unconcealed scar. The warehouses where, for the one and only time in life, I experienced the sheer exhilaration of ear-drum-busting techno music and came away with a guttural Berlin accent that made my German assistant giggle. ‘Ick weyss nickt…’

It was a time of naivety and a time of real learning. A time of isolation as the Engländerin living alone at the edge the town, and a time of true bravery – I have never before or since been braver than when I packed my belongings into the back of my Vauxhall Nova and set off across Europe (with my Dad to follow for some of the way, of course) to live with people unknown to me in a language that, despite my studies, continued to baffle me.

During my teaching life, I have taken groups of children there, partly to share in my sentimental journey and partly to expose their senses to the foreign, the scary, the unknown – the vital and the all-too-familiar. ‘No,’ I explained to Ashraf in Year 7. ‘They aren’t still using the concentration camps’. The students blew me away with their maturity – silent in the concentration camp (like the birds) and some overcome by emotion at the metal slabs in the medical rooms. In the Jewish Museum, they were bewildered and entranced, baffled and curious in a way that Liebeskind, I like to believe, would be happy to see. As a relief from history, they tore around the Tiergarten, whilst we teachers surreptitiously on the lookout for naturist sunbathers (one gave my Mum quite a turn a year earlier) and discovered the inimitable joys of Currywurst.

In 2006, my students and I sat just where the lorry collided into the Christmas Market by the Gedächtniskirche eating ice cream. Some had noted a gay bar across the road and, after a temporary struggle from one student with the concept, he concluded that, ‘yeah, I suppose people can do what they like, as long as they’re happy’ before wandering off in search of souvenirs. It was a silly, frivolous kind of a day – we were having a break from History.

Or maybe we weren’t. Several of those students have gone on to make links with Germany and I can think of two from one class whose German is now far superior to mine. I know a number of people living in the city and feel a pull if I haven’t visited for a couple of years.

For all the sentimentality and nostalgia of the 20-year-old me, through that year I became aware of a real grit – a stubborn strength – at the heart of the Berlin spirit. Hitler hated the Berliners and resistance in the city was greater than anywhere. The Berliners I have known don’t like to be told what to do or how to think. They wear their history on their streets and their walls and their street-signs. The Gedächtniskirche itself has been left in half stained-glass as a reminder of the destruction of World War 2 and as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.

Berlin has seen horrors that our generation in Western Europe could not begin to comprehend and has come out strong, eclectic and inclusive (if at times a little shinier than my nostalgic self would prefer). Berlin is the sometimes-forgotten gem I urge anyone who hasn’t been to to visit.

2016 has twisted the knife once more and there will be hand-wringing and rage and deepest despair. But if the attack was planned, if it was intended to manipulate and intimidate and corrupt and fracture and divide, I’m quite confident this bully (if that is what it is) has underestimated its intended victim.

The Berliners I know are made of strong stuff; they will not be cowed or brainwashed into black-and-white hatreds and cycles of rage and retribution. Berlin knows better than most how these can end. Say it again, and know we stand with you. To hate and intolerance: ‘nie wieder’.


Doctor Who?

I was the last of our triumvirate to get to the end of the EdD. Jill Berry and Tim Jefferies were my support, my challenge, my competition, my trailblazers and my ultimate heroes. There was lengthy, heady discussion about the day when we could call ourselves Doctor.

I have Dr Kell on my office door and my email signature. I haven’t yet gone through the hassle of changing the bank card. I am extremely proud of what I’ve achieved.

Around 18 times a week, I explain to young people that, no, I don’t know the cure for acne or athletes’ foot, but I DID work really hard on a very big essay all about teachers for five years and it was tough, and when my teachers marked my work, there was often lots of upsetting red all over it, and I regularly nearly gave in. I tell them how I revised – using coloured cards and treasury tags, and how I got my family to test me on key concepts. I tell them how I struggled to find quiet places to work and how my computer crashed and I lost several thousand words. I tell them about the days when I sat down with the best intentions and achieved nothing and about the days when I had to stop the car on to way to see a friend to write down all the ideas that had come in a rush. I tell them about my scary two hour speaking exam.

I like these conversations. Teenagers don’t do awe or pretension – it is what it is, just like their own studies – and they’re quite proud of my for getting it handed in on time, but, all in all, it doesn’t much change their views of me.

I gave my Year 10s the choice as to whether to call me ‘Dr’ or ‘Ms’ on their English books – they went about 50:50 with no discernible pattern.

I’ve been Doctor Pepper, Doctor Know and simply The Doctor.

Now, I know impostor syndrome and holding back on celebrating achievements are all terribly common and, dare I say it, something women tend towards, but I must admit that I’ve had a few moments recently when it’s grated a little.

When a colleague refers to me as Dr Kell in front of another colleague I don’t yet know. When someone shouts ‘Dr Kell!’ along the corridor when I’m on duty. Or at parents’ evening – an intimidating enough event for so many parents, when I wasn’t sure the great big DR added anything to what I knew of their children or how much I invest in their progress. If anything, I feared it might make me less approachable. My Doctorate has been regarded with wariness and suspicion. Does it suggest my priorities are a bit wrong? Does it suggest I think I’m better than others?

And yes, when a Twitter contact refers to me as Dr Emma or a close friend boasts to another of my achievement, I glow a little inside.

I suppose it’s a little like the effort to wear make-up. I bother around twice a week – if I’m feeling a bit too tired and need to cover it up, if I’m in the mood for colour, or if I want to make an impression. I’d quite like to use my new title selectively and assert my right to use the title selectively – because it’s a huge achievement, but it’s not remotely all of who I am.

Does that sound like self-indulgent false-modesty? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being my slightly restless self and the novelty’s worn off a bit. But when I consciously made the decision to stay in the classroom rather than pursue an academic route, when I made the decision to find a job which allows me to be a decent mother and a good friend too, I asserted my right to be Miss and my right to be Mum and my right to be Emma too.

On (not) saying goodbye

Scenario. It’s 11.10 and you’re on your way to an important meeting or training session. You pass members of The Class That Keeps You Awake in the corridor. ‘Where are you going, Miss? Where are you GOING?’ Subtext – you have left us to perish in the deserts. How very DARE you? What better reason do you have to be here than US? They have driven you nuts and yet their attitude makes complete sense. This.

On 28 April, 2006, I mustered up the courage to tell a group of Year 11 students in my tutor group, whom I’d known since they were scuttling under tables in Year 7, that I was leaving. The moment is indelibly stamped on my memory.

The reasons for the momentousness of this moment go against so much of what I’ve thought, advised and written since – I felt searing guilt combined with a need to justify to them why I was moving on. I still talk about this in interviews – I was standing up for my subject. MFL should never have been consigned to the option blocks (N.B. I stand by this!). But, but… I didn’t actually expect to have to really say goodbye.

‘Nobody is indispensable’, ‘you’re part of something much bigger’, ‘true leadership is what happens when you’re not around’… I’ve used each of these lines at least once in the last month and a dozen times a year. I’ve written about humility here.

Those young people of 2001-2006 almost certainly got more of me – or possibly something different of me – in the years before I had children. There were late evenings spent mulling over French verbs and confidence crises and a late night detective work to find errant parents to wish them a happy birthday. Nights on coaches all over Europe spent philosophising and speculating on the horrors and joys and challenges that lay ahead.

My last minutes at that school were spent, not saying tearful goodbyes to colleagues, but with my tutor group, playing crazy table-tennis and sealing a time capsule of god-only-knows-what (I think there was a set of German verbs and a table tennis ball in there) behind the boards which concealed the computer desks. (I wonder if they’re still there…) In the days when such things were acceptable, I spontaneously met with them and their families for  a farewell picnic on Hampstead Heath. A group of us went on to meet regularly and, ten years down the line, there’s a hard core who still make sure a lunch happen, to debate whether N. really did call me a bad word that day (it never gets tired) and to speculate on how the student who told me exactly where to stick French ended up a successful businessman based in Paris with French better than mine could ever be.

My next eight years were spent seeing students and their siblings through my own blur of my early parenthood. The group to whom I’d said goodbye 12 months before negotiated their way across London to welcome my first-born to the world with fluffy toys they still play with. A similar group somehow managed to negotiated the M1 three years later to surprise me at my 40th birthday party.

In my new post, I experienced the leadership of a huge and talented and feisty and challenging department, and the wonderful contradictions of teaching the Year 9 set that once caused you sleepless nights. There were wonderful exam results and appalling ones. Inspirations and huge challenges.

I left because it was time to do so, but remember the day itself, like many momentous events, with a distinct sense of disproportion and unreality. My colleagues said kind things I couldn’t take in. The most unexpected of students ran to me with roses. There were some awkward farewells in between, which feigned the emotions we were ‘supposed’ to feel. I ended the Year 13 assembly with a quote from a letter from Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville West (shamelessly stolen from a close friend):

‘Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before.’

I’d known the audience since they were in Year 7. I was busting with pride, rumbling with anxiety and entirely disconnected from the reality.

Our Headteacher died not long afterwards, by which time my context had changed dramatically. I was  part of things – but not. Emotionally involved but diverted elsewhere. This was, if I am honest, both a relief and a kind of torture.

The following three years saw, for a number of reasons (few of them sinister) me jump from school to school. I finished my Doctorate – hoorah – but had to say goodbye to three sets of students in three years.

Here’s one of my – stroppy, wonderful – GCSE students. I was permitted to tell them only in my last week. She was going to her home country on the Sunday before.  I waited until the very last moment of Friday afternoon before seeking her out. She thought she was in trouble. I started to speak. She realised. The look of sheer…. what? There is no word for this. Something which combines resignation with disappointment with rage. This is a look that will stay with me always.

Another one year temporary contract with children in a great school who will get the very best. It should have been easier. But I still catch myself imagining I see one of them in the canteen queue. Or about to ask another whether they like the Philip Pullman book I lent them, or whether their Mum’s recovering or how they feel about what’s happening about events in Syria… before realising they have an almost-but-not-quite Doppelgaenger.

And now? There will be few specific details about my current school – it is not my place to share them. What I will share is that I have very recently had it confirmed, officially, that I’m STAYING. I’m staying to watch them grown and dip and rise again. I’m staying for the tears and the tantrums (from the students too….). I’m staying for the moments of confidence and the moments of crisis and the moments of rage. I’m staying for the data-crunches and the monitoring exercises and the appraisal meetings. I’m staying for the births and bereavements. I’m going to be part of the furniture, part of the rough-and-tumble, part of the crises and part of the triumphs. I’m staying until the grey hairs outnumber the brown ones and the great food has taken its justified toll. I have no illusions about the challenges and googlies and downright opposition that will come my way or the apologies and reviews I will have to undertake, but I’m STAYING. And I’m delighted and privileged to be doing so.

When I told my daughters this news, the youngest (just 7) said, ‘you’ve won! When can we go there again?’

Nobody in a profession is indispensable. But some are indelible. And, for all the crises and disasters and the (entirely understandable) ‘had enough’ moments, let’s take a moment to acknowledge what a difference our students make to us – and us to them.