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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.