Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Inspire me, I dare you.

It has become the opium of the masses for those who gaze with longing eyes on the pay packet of the Senior Leader. It's perfect little form must fit, must be the right size for the pre-formatted box, or as I am seeing increasingly, it must fit between the windows of the corridor, to be read once by a proud director and then forgotten to the slowly abrasing elbows and shoulder of a thousand rushing, barging, ignoring students. It is that haven of soundbite; the inspirational quotation. It is the Quote of the Week. The appropriated gobbet that holds within its words some pervasive message of peace, of hope, of hard work paid off, but it really just sits still, bathing in the blissful ignorance of one long dead. I told you I was ill, he said.

But alas, If the opium of the masses is the (in)famous quotation, then I am on harder stuff. I am the smoker with the hand-rolled cigar, the craft bear drinker, and I wear a tweed cap. Ironically, of course. I love a quotation, but I can't stand the humdrumery (definitely a real word) of so many of them. They are chosen and presented without thought, without care and without any student consideration. I apologise if this next statement pulls tears into the eyes of some aspiring Ministers for Education, but painting quotations on walls and putting them on boards during form time to sit with little to no acknowledgement doesn't make students cleverer. It doesn't make them more conscientious or aspiring because for the most part the quotations that swill around the hi-tops of students on their diurnal passage look as if they have been saved up from Christmas crackers.

I like quotations that come from unlikely places. I love those that are challenging to preconceptions. I adore those that are unique. Anyone can find a quotation that talks about how hard you have to work to be a great success, or how every child is a unique little butterfly. So how about showing your students a different angle? Perhaps the gravitas of:

  Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. – Arthur C Clark

Or maybe, to counteract "It'll be okay" syndrome:

This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time. – Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club)

 Why not use these moments of un-curriculumed freedom to have a look at events from a alternative perspectives:

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. – Robert Oppenheimer, Inventor of the Atomic Bomb

But these are perhaps too conventional still. How about any of these:

Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely he can only have been a thief. – David Graeber

You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been. – Ursula Le Guin

If you want to watch telly, go watch Scooby Doo. That programme was so cool; every time there was a church with a ghoul, or a ghost in a school, they looked beneath the mask. And what was inside? The janitor, or the dude who ran the water slide. Because throughout history, every mystery, ever solved, has turned out to be not magic. - Tim Minchin

When I went to the Yellow Cab Company I passed the Cancer Building and I remembered that there were worse things than looking for a job you didn't want. – Charles Buckowski

If they give you lined paper, write the other way. – Juan Jimenez (also the preface to Fahrenheit 451)

I think of writing as a sculptural medium. You are not building things. You are removing things, chipping away at language to reveal a living form. – Will Self

Being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you, and if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch. Like a safecracker, or a pickpocket. – Futurama
My advice is stand firm for what you believe in, until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember, when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. The truth and the lie are not "sort of" the same thing. And there's no aspect, no facet, no moment in life that can't be improved with pizza. Thank you. – Daria Morgendorffer
I had to look in the dictionary
To find out the meaning of unrequited
While she was giving herself for free
At a party to which I was never invited
- Billy Bragg

1. You can't win. 2. You can't break even. 3. You can't even get out of the game. – Ginsberg’s Theorum

I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don't have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination.) It is a pretty wild country. There are, of course, roads. Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain't no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction — you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart. – Ursula Le Guin

Most of the wind happens where there are trees. - Paul Muldoon

Look at all those things. Lovely ain't they. But my greatest advice? Find some of your own, from people you respect, and then you can talk about their words to your students. All of the aforementioned will be used from September, along with trucks and trucks of others; an ever changing cloud of words that turn black and rain and snow and then open up to the sun but never fail to have an impact because they are part of a dynamic conversation.I think that the current teaching ethic is one that rewards stasis. Despite its outspoken chagrin of coasting, it rewards systems that stay the same. But ideas that put things in place. Hmmm. Putting things in place. That is a vile little goblin in itself. Stop putting things in place, because that just means that they are to be left. If you paint something on a wall it will be ignored because that is its inevitable function. Talk, change, EXIST AS A CONVERSATION.

Just, in all this quoting and quothing, remember:

A witty saying proves nothing. - Voltaire

Oh, shit. I think that's just formed a paradox. 


Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Out of order

I've been hearing this phrase a lot recently:

That's well out of order

and it's been grating on me. I hear it a lot from students, and very occasionally from staff about students who say it a lot in some kind of reflective ironic joke. The staff will grow out of it, but I'm not sure that the students will, because they seem to be indulged again and again, not just in my school but nationally. Perhaps internationally, in the Anglo-centric forum at least.

What grates me, as if I am the most sweatily warm of own-brand cheddars, is that students appear to be confusing truth with unfairness. Or, perhaps not truth, but honesty. An example, I hear you cry from the orchestra pit, well: I was wondering through a school recently, when two teachers walked along the bottom of a stairwell of whose stairs I was, well, walking down, behind two unbeknowing students, chewing. One teacher said to the other

'I'm so frustrated with him. I've put on revision classes after school every day and he always says that he is coming and never turns up.'

to which the other, their line manager, replied:

'You've done everything you can. If they want to fail, then let them fail.'

The students in front of me, bedawdelling their way down the stairs, piped up at this point.

'Did you hear that? That's peak that is.'
'Yeah, well out of order.'

I stopped, then, on the stairs, and waited for the students to go. It was lunchtime, and I had no need to enter a convoluted defence of an ethic that the students clearly didn't care for. I was, however, galled. Disbelieving.

Perhaps it is just me who sees the fundamental issue at the core of this little anecdote, perhaps it is not. I believe, firmly, that teachers have a duty to provide as much as is possible for their students, but I also believe that students need to learn that, for most of their lives, very few people will go out of their way to help them. Life is a tough old place, and people lose jobs and go bankrupt on 'That's out of order' attitudes.

I feel like this entitlement to a teacher's daily misery is propagated by the unrealistic standards set by government on achievement and that this in some way reflects upon teachers. To illustrate, there is that old idiom: You can't do the exam for them. Unfortunately, it would seem, teachers are being forced into a scenario where they feel like they have to and students are beginning to get wind of this, and it is creating a cancerous, damaging attitude of entitlement, as if many students know that their teachers will be judged on their progress and so assume that teachers simply will not let them fail. The adage of failure not being an option has been inverted from an expectation into a student-led tacit threat. You can't do that, you're not allowed to let me fail, is becoming a rousing chant of an increasing number of lacklustre students.

To finish: A friend of mine rang me recently. (Yes that's right, I have a friend)He is a sports coach at a very big and successful club. I asked him how his team were going to do this year and he said, quite nonchalantly, we'll do okay, but we just don't have the personnel. I was awestruck; what a refreshing attitude. Sometimes you don't get the students, and it's not your fault as a teacher that all their parents seemed to have only drunk Lead-Based Sunny Delight while pregnant. (unless it was, of course, and then you should be rightfully ashamed.)

If they really want to fail, who are we to stop them? All we can do is explain the consequences, teach as best we can, and afford the opportunities. It is their life to live.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

You Can Be Anything You Want To Be

I would like you all, as a class, to imagine that you are all grown adults and, as we have told you that you all can, you have achieved all of your dreams. So, close your eyes now, and think. You are waking up on a wonderful day in perfect town, where you all live. You have got up and dressed and you are now on your way to work. Now, remember, each of you will be different in your goals, but you are all on your way to work. Some of you will walk. Some of you might ride a fancy road bike. Others will have an expensive car. Maybe you'll drive it, maybe you won't, but your on your way to work. You've left your lovely house, perhaps it's in the suburbs, maybe it contains a wife, or a husband, or two cats and a dog. Maybe it's up a private track behind a set of ornate gates or maybe it is high up at the penthouse of a skyscraper. Sorry. I sidetrack. So, you are on your way to work. You have a smile on your face and it is a wonderful day for you to be alive and so you think; what better way to get to work than with a nice fresh coffee, or tea, or maybe a hot breakfast and so you check your watch but you know that work won't mind because, I imagine, most of you own your own companies, or work for yourselves, or maybe you don't work but, hey, you're going out for a coffee anyway. So you, living your perfect life, amongst other people living out the dreams we've told you that you can all work hard and have, walk up to the till to buy a coffee and my question to you is:

Who is serving you that coffee?

Which of the other students, other dreamers in this room doesn't get to live out their dreams because they have to serve you your latte? Who stands there, and smiles and secretly hates you and themselves and looks, jealously, upon your perfection and serves you your coffee? Whose dream is in the dust amongst the floor?

But you don't worry about this, because you got your dream. Someone didn't, but that wasn't you. You're doing fine. So you get to work, and you turn in your projects, and everyone loves you and you're doing just cracking. So you say to everyone that you're just popping out to grab some lunch, and so you pop into the supermarket to grab a few things and maybe one of those nice sandwiches as a treat. And you pick up your things, and put them in a basket, and you go up to the till and there is another person, sat there, passing things she can't afford in front of a scanner, because she didn't get her dream. But don't worry: your teacher said that you were going to get your dream, so you did. But. Wait. Her teacher told that to her as well. And she worked, didn't she? Or did she just think she was working? Did she just want her dream a bit, whereas you wanted yours a lot. You wanted yours more than anything else.

But there's, perhaps, another story behind this. Maybe that Coffee guy is living his dream, just not yet. Maybe he's at night school, or he's writing a book. Maybe that till girl is working so she can pay for uni. They are doing this because they value their education. They value their dreams. Their dreams change things. They fulfill their operators and they make the world different. Maybe Coffee guy is a volunteer lifeboat man, and checkout girl is a thesbian in the evenings, or she's researching something minute and underfunded but fulfilling.

So is your dream really your dream or is it just a bit of a concession? And, and here is a dangerous thought, does your dream actually matter? Does your lovely dream job contribute to anything? Does it make things better? does it make you better? What has happened in this wonderful dream day that has changed the world?

Your teachers are increasingly preparing students for lives where you either fail to live up to your own expectations, or live up to expectations that are, frankly, useless. You will graduate school to get jobs that allow you to do exactly the same things that you are doing at school; performing the minimum in tasks in order to spend the rest of your hours browsing the internet and documenting your humdrum lives for others to browse. You will participate in a great amorphous mass of perpetuating nothingness. You will be happy, sort of, but you will be doing jobs that have been created, essentially, so that people have jobs. Our economy is the preserve of the service industry. Most people don't really do anything except move things around so that other people can move them back.

Most of you will be perfectly content with this. You will stop doing arts, and sciences, and humanities and you will lose interest in pursuing anything. There is an interesting term: Pursuing. Pursuit of learning, of fulfillment through personal improvement is, surely, the point of life (in lieu of having any concrete theological solution (If God in any form suddenly appears and tells us the point of humanity was achieved in 1981, with the invention of the potato waffle, then I will gladly rescind this post*)). It doesn't need a label, it doesn't need anyone to qualify it with an EBACC or a sticker or a sew-on badge. Your dreams are consistently pigeon-holed into sensible twenty-first century friendly boxes: I want to be an accountant when I grow up. I really want to work in sales. No-one wants these things. Not really. These things barely exist. Every one of should want to change the world. Content is a dirty word. Content is a word sold to you by people who can profit from your quiet obedience. You should want to live without dead time. You should aspire not to be cogs. The problem, of course, is alluded to in the start of this little talk. Not everyone gets everything they want or, what they want is useless. So, what is there to do? To do, is to remind you that life isn't a desk. Life is in your heart. Life is in your head. Life is your own fulfillment, not your teacher's or your boss's. But please, for your own sakes, be ambitious. Care. Give a shit how your insignificant spark of life on this tiny planet in some backwater of the galaxy is spent. You probably only get this, and your dying every single second. To quote Fight Club, This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time. Go out and be a revolutionary. Go and, to quote Whip It, be your own hero.

Here endeth the assembly.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Teaching With Epilepsy

One day, about three years ago, someone said something very strange to me. It was quite a simple statement and, oddly, I cannot quite remember it verbatim. I can tell you where it happened; on the steps leading onto the Mall at the bottom of Regent Street. I also can’t tell you who it was that said it. I know it was a man, and I know second hand that they were an off-duty paramedic. What they asked me, pretty much, was how long I’d been epileptic. This was strange for two reasons. Firstly, because I didn’t have a clue where I was, or what was going on and secondly, because the only thing I did know was that I’m not epileptic. Well. I wasn’t epileptic. Or at least I didn’t think that I was.

I was diagnosed with epilepsy soon after I developed it at age 23. I had a couple of seizures; it would appear, before the above mentioned one had me taken by pure chance to St Thomas’ hospital in central London. It was quite a worrying time, especially when my neurologist told me what it was that had caused those seizures; Reading. I am allergic to reading. Not Reading (the large Berkshire town (which wouldn’t, actually, be a terrible thing to be allergic to. (Although it does have a sizeable HMV and a really good Waterstones)) But reading. Books. I am allergic to books. I was told this mere months before starting my PGCE in Secondary English. Oh doesn’t life hand us the greatest of ironies?

A note, A little deviation: I do not suffer from a particularly bad variety of Epilepsy. I average about a seizure every few months. Effectively, I have the Epilepsy version of a badly sprained ankle. Many people don’t really have the first idea what entails epilepsy. They think that if you stare into a flashing light you have a little twitch on the floor. I stare into flashing lights all the time. I’ve even done the doctor’s test for photosensitive epilepsy (it’s horrible) and I am most definitely not floored by flashing lights. A decent book on a long railway journey however, and the entirety of the First Great Western railway network is all kinds of flashing delayed signs.

However infrequent, I have pretty bad seizures; the kind that cause you to be unconscious and twitch and bite the sides of your tongue off. The kind where, when you come to and try and phone someone, you can’t unlock the screen despite the code being your date of birth. (This, I’m afraid, actually happens. I am now banned from having phone pincodes). I read somewhere that having a seizure causes the same fatigue as running a marathon, but I am always pretty sceptical of this sort of arbitrary comparison.

I was diagnosed just before the beginning of my PGCE and my offer had well and truly been accepted. Theoretically, I guess, I could have just rung up the university and explained to them and gone back to the very average receptionist job that I was temping in until the course started and then just lived out a life of being wholeheartedly boring and regretful. I don’t really go in for that sort of avoidance of adversity so I just got on with it without thinking and then, suddenly, on my first placement, people starting making a fuss of me, asking if I was alright and if there was anything they could do and suchlike and I had difficulty in (and even as writing this I can’t quite find the verb.) achieving the humility required to actually admit that I was different in my needs. We tailor so much to our students because of so many things but we are often too proud to admit that we need help. Or maybe sometimes we are just a little surprised that people actually ask if we need help.

I used to talk to my students about my condition. I think that it is important to be an ambassador for epilepsy. There is this great fear of revealing anything to students about ourselves but I don’t see the point in avoiding a situation where students can be holistically educated. I didn’t walk into a classroom and say ‘Hi, I’m your new English Teacher and I’m an epileptic.’ But if a student follows me along the conversational road of why I get the train to school and not drive I don’t see a reason not to explain why the DVLA took my licence away.

It is a central responsibility as teachers to be carers. One of my students asked me once to adopt her and I’m not entirely sure she was kidding. But how can I care for others when I can’t guarantee that I can care for myself? That is the fear. That I should never really have been doing this profession and so, when the post-seizure sadness comes across me and I spend a few days staring into the middle distance because I can’t trust myself to read then I tell myself that what I can do is use my experience to teach my students something. I can teach them what epilepsy is. And what it means to live with it, even in my diluted form. And what is most important is that I can teach them what it taught me: That sometimes life is annoying enough to seem cruel and it’s not personal or, even if it is personal, if you think of it in that way it will ruin you. So all you can do is quote Vonnegut with ‘So It Goes’ and get on with what you wanted to do anyway. And I’ll wear purple trousers on national epilepsy day and I’ll give an assembly or two and I won’t be afraid. Because having an illness is just a thing that happens. And I won’t let it stop me doing anything.

As regular readers will know, I have taken a little sabbatical from teaching to go back to university and study for a masters under the false assumption that I look just about young enough not to be a creepy mature student. I have to read a lot but I know that it is what I want to do. I have to run the risks because if I just coup up and cry about it then I won’t get the chances again. I won’t lie, things are tough. I spend a lot of time worrying. Seizures aren’t nice. When I’m about to have one I lose control of my internal monologue and it just spews words out at random. I can’t speak so I can’t warn anyone what is about to happen. Then I black out. When I come to I’ve normally bitten off both sides of my tongue and I don’t really know what’s going on. I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy. I also don’t expect sympathy for it. I can’t change it, but I have had to change me a bit. I still get fed up with people telling me to be careful though. It gets annoying, but I know that they care.

I will go back to teaching, I am sure of it. And I hope that I am surrounded by staff as accepting and kind as those were at my last school. They gave a shit, regularly and compassionately. They gave me lifts, helped me with marking and made sure I was okay. When I did have seizures they covered me the next day and forced me to stay at home. They were probably a good chunk of the reason I never had a seizure in front of children. I never wanted students to suffer because of me.

It’s taken me quite a long time to write this article and I still don’t really know why it exists. It’s part motivational speech to myself, part plea for wider awareness and, I hope, a little bit of inspiration for others in similar situations. It’s amazing how helpful your friends and colleagues can be, and what you can get through if you really want to. Right now I am sat in a university library surrounded by books that I am allergic to, and I couldn’t be happier.