…And the wisdom to know the difference

Having undoubtedly stumbled upon the barren wastelands of middle age, it would be far too easy to look back upon past events and pay gratuitous homage to regret. The dreams and aspirations of youth seem strangely unattainable now, and life has acquired an almost brutal propensity for galloping inexorably onwards, whether we like it or not.

And yet, if one can just look beyond the aging reflection in the mirror (and embrace with gratitude the many blessings that life has bestowed upon us) there’s a chance that something of the indomitable adolescent spirit of yesteryear, just might endure.

Without a doubt, the last twelve months have afforded plenty of opportunity for reflection and a great many people have found themselves looking at ways in which they might alter certain aspects of their lives – either through necessity, choice, or a combination of the two. 

Only a matter of days ago, I was reading an article entitled ‘Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and it was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) to learn of the many and varied emotional reactions that are likely to have been triggered by such a virus. Mercifully for many, resilience will have come to the fore and indeed, some people will have found new strengths and developed fresh coping mechanisms. However, for those who have been exposed to significant trauma, depression and anxiety are likely to have either surfaced or intensified and will no doubt have been exacerbated by the need to shield or self-isolate.     

For me personally, the aspect I struggled most with was having my freedom (coupled with the ability to make any plans whatsoever) suspended indefinitely. Without the prospect of a family holiday on the horizon (and feeling utterly starved of any external form of social interaction) I’ll happily admit that the working week seemed significantly less alluring! However, having two young sons to take care of gave me the purpose that I so desperately needed – and we often talk about the endless bike rides and home baking sessions that carried us all through.

And so, being mindful of the fact that 2020 taught us that we can never be entirely in control of our own destiny, the sentiments of the ‘Serenity Prayer’ seem as pertinent now, as ever they were:

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Preparing to be unlocked

Having recently entered the next stage of the government’s plan to ease restrictions, there’s a sense of cautious optimism in the air. We’ve been here before, of course, but with the roll-out of 30 million+ COVID vaccines, there is every reason to feel quietly confident that we are taking back some of the control that was so ruthlessly snatched from us 12 months ago. Here’s hoping that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ is not simply a train coming the other way, ready to knock us off our feet once more…

‘Daring to hope’ by Gaynor Hall

Tell me it’s over, the incarceration
That stifled the freedom of many a nation,
Prevented the sharing of happiness or grief,
And threw up behaviour that ‘beggared belief’.

Playgrounds fell silent, parks were left bare,
Homes and gardens deemed unsafe to share,
Bus stops deserted, restaurants too,
Roads less congested; used by so few.

Hospitals quite literally bursting their seams,
Struggling to cope with a virus so extreme
That people were dying – regardless of age,
With figures quite simply impossible to gauge.

But slowly the tide has started to turn,
Children are back in their classrooms to learn,
Businesses fighting so hard for survival
Preparing to open, to start their revival.

And so, there is only one question to ask,
(Although it might seem an onerous task)
What will you cherish, and what will you change –
Having lived through an era unparalleled and strange?

Crowd pleaser or individual?

I remember coming out of my A’ level English Literature exam feeling reasonably confident about my performance, and hopeful of a good result. There were just twelve of us who had taken the exam and we all met up for the customary post-exam analysis, sprawled out on the grass and basking in the knowledge that the long summer holidays were almost upon us.

Our teacher happened to be in the vicinity and came over to see what we had all made of the final paper – and that is when I experienced that utterly sickening feeling, deep in the pit of my stomach. It seemed that literally everyone else had interpreted the final essay question differently from me, and I was more than prepared, therefore, to accept that I had simply got the ‘wrong end of the stick’. I decided not to draw attention to my obvious faux pas, choosing instead to listen good naturedly for a while and then slip away quietly, just as soon as an opportunity presented itself.

As results day loomed, I felt certain that my error of judgement would prove costly and so the elation (and if I’m honest, surprise) of being awarded the top-grade all those weeks later felt all the more precious. Indeed, the whole experience taught me a valuable lesson – that just because you are in the minority, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong.

The notion of having the confidence to ‘plough one’s own furrow’ is no less pertinent all these years later and yet parents up and down the country will almost certainly (like me) have found themselves in something of a quandary. On the one hand, we try to teach our children that standing up for what is right is vital to our integrity and self-esteem and that individuality is to be encouraged, even celebrated. But on the other hand, most parents secretly want their child to fit in, to be accepted, and we go to significant lengths to make sure that the way in which they behave (right down to the clothes that they choose to wear) doesn’t attract the unwanted attention of a would-be aggressor.     

Hans F. Hansen once stated that “It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.” My younger (more forthright) self would no doubt have embraced this statement wholeheartedly. Today though, I would possibly champion a slightly modified version. Yes, I would acknowledge the pitfalls of ‘blindly following the crowd’ (whilst urging my children to ‘be true to themselves’) but I would also remind them that ‘no man is an island’ and that there is something to be said for maintaining ‘safety in numbers’.

Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it!

Youth v Experience

Many years ago, I had the great privilege of working with an exceptional teacher. She was one of those extraordinary people for whom plucking some obscure fact or figure out of thin air was practically a daily occurrence. She was definitely one to have on your pub quiz team!

Of course, exceptional intelligence can sometimes be coupled with a degree of social awkwardness, and I can’t say that I ever felt particularly relaxed in her company… That being said, her pupils adored her. Her lessons were full of energy, quirkiness and cynicism and every class that crossed the threshold of room C3 was mesmerised by the passion (and skill) with which she brought her subject to life.

‘In praise of middle age’ is intended as a light-hearted reminder that there will always be a younger, more attractive NQT hot on your heels, but that experience certainly has its strengths too. And in working together with the next generation of teachers (rather than feeling threatened by them) it is possible to enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’, where ideas are shared, and skills are honed.

In praise of middle age

“The years have not been kind!” they say, in whispers low and furtive,
“There are bangers with less wear and tear,” their judgement harsh, assertive.
Her sight is slowly fading, and she’s gained a couple of chins –
It’ll not be long before the ‘journey south’ of certain bits begins!

Her hair is slowly greying and there are crow’s feet around her eyes,
And wrinkles upon wrinkles which foundation can’t disguise!
Her walk is a little less purposeful, her stride somewhat lacklustre –
Her voice is unassuming; excitement hard to muster.

She quietly walks the corridors, she’s seen it all before:
Messy shoe racks, dirty socks, coats strewn across the floor.
She sidles into the classroom and softly shuts the door,
Greeted by rows of eager eyes, and faces full of awe.

The show begins, the theme unfolds, she places them under her spell,
With passion, guile, and anecdotes – the tools she knows so well.
She piques their curiosity, and tends their burgeoning knowledge,
She cultivates their interest, whilst for hidden depths she’ll forage.

The lesson ends, the pupils leave; her impact monumental –
Taking pride in her work is reward enough, she’ll not be sentimental.
But for those who mourn the passage of time, on retirement placing a bet,
She’s far from ready to hang up her hat – there’s life in the old dog yet!

Like it or not, life’s a competition!

When I think back to my school days, a multitude of memories come flooding back. From uniform quirks to school trips, inspirational teachers to lasting friendships, special events to unforgettable sporting fixtures. And I consider myself extremely fortunate that most of these memories are happy ones.  After all, ‘school days are (meant to be) the best days of your life’, right?

Anyone who knows me can probably guess that my behaviour (whilst at school) was not always entirely exemplary… However, I’d like to think that I managed to strike a balance between hard work and harmless mischief, and that I didn’t over-step the boundaries too often. (Being able to change one’s name as a result of being ‘joined in holy matrimony’ definitely has its advantages though!)

Have you ever noticed how certain subject teachers tend to follow a particular stereotype though? Being a teacher myself, I feel qualified to say this – and I apologise unreservedly to colleagues both past and present, for the heinous generalisations that are about to follow…

You’ve obviously got your ‘arty’ types, for whom a ‘grip on reality’ has been unwittingly traded for a ‘vivid imagination’ and vast quantities of creative flair. Then there are the IT and Mathematical experts for whom a sense of humour is not (unlike the world of teaching in general) seemingly a pre-requisite. And finally, you have your PE / Sports teachers who, it seems to me, take a slightly sadistic pleasure in ‘pushing you to your physical limit’ whilst casually observing your many anatomical shortcomings. (I mean, who doesn’t try to take a short cut during the termly cross-country run? It’s just a pity that my attempt was so poorly timed as to make me look momentarily like an Olympic prospect.) However, it is the words of one such PE teacher that have remained with me all these years later, and for whom I now have a (grudging) respect.

I remember the incident well. My friend had just come last in the house cross-country competition and she was bemoaning the fact that the effort expended was hardly worth the paltry house point that she had been awarded. The teacher looked rather disparagingly at her puce complexion and, noting her laboured breathing, declared that “Life is a competition. The sooner you get used to that fact, the better.” Of course (at that precise moment) my friend was in no fit state to be receptive to such advice, but I remember thinking (even then) that this ‘Nike-clad, no-nonsense nutter’ possibly had a point!

In all honesty, my feelings on the subject haven’t really changed. After all, there can be only one winner in a competition, and only one candidate will ultimately ‘get the job’ at an interview. So, why do we have such a problem with celebrating supremacy? Shouldn’t we be preparing our children for failure as well as success? Isn’t that how we become more resilient, and learn to work that little bit harder to reach our goals?

I am, of course, frequently outvoted on this particular issue and have (regrettably) had to succumb to the ‘sticker for all’ mentality on more than one occasion. It will come as no real surprise then, to hear how secretly delighted I was to discover that my youngest seems to share my (seemingly antiquated) view on the matter. He recently refused to display a certificate that proudly stated that he ‘had taken part’, on the grounds that another one declared him the ‘winner’.

Sportsmanship (and learning to be gracious in defeat) is evidently still a ‘work in progress’!

Temet nosce

‘Temet nosce’ (or ‘know thyself’) might be the briefest of phrases, and yet these two small words convey such an important message.

However, before I go on, I feel duty bound to set the record straight. I am not (by any stretch of the imagination) a Latin scholar, and the irony of having chosen a Latin phrase as the heading for my latest blog will not have been lost on those who remember me from my school days…

As a nervous pupil starting Year 7 at secondary school, being placed in the top set meant that the (rather dubious) honour of learning Latin had been ‘bestowed’ (or rather thrust) upon me. And so, my (not so) illustrious relationship with the language of the Roman Empire began.

It ended just 12 months later when the teacher gratefully washed her hands of me, noting on my end of year report that I had “spent a good deal less time inside the classroom, than out in the corridor” – a fitting punishment for my “poor application and lack of reverence” apparently!

Anyway, in spite of all of this, I am often fascinated by the extent to which Latin words still dominate our language. After all, the notion of working on an ‘ad hoc’ basis, perhaps for a ‘bona fide’ company, in an attempt to ‘carpe diem’, makes a good deal of sense when trying to take control of one’s own destiny.

‘Temet nosce’ then, will possibly resonate with many of us, as we strive to overcome the many challenges associated with living through a global pandemic. Bereavement, loss of income, a sense of isolation and the sheer anxiety of trying to juggle work with home schooling / childcare are factors that have put untold strain on people. However, there have been countless stories of human resilience too, and so it strikes me that to ‘know oneself’ is probably currently more important than ever. Because, in understanding our own psyche (and dare I say it, ‘limitations’) we are enabling ourselves to set realistic targets (through tailor-made strategies) that will propel us forwards – hopefully with our mental health intact!

Sandwiches with a pinch of Friendship thrown in!

Many friends have told me that they have acquired new skills during the course of one national lockdown or another, and Facebook has borne witness to a veritable deluge of posts about the success (or otherwise) of home baking projects, ingeniously crafted ‘Fakeaways’ or the cultivation of fresh produce.   

I have to admit that (pre-2020) I had staunchly shied away from baking of any kind, believing that my efforts would almost certainly fall woefully short of my mum’s delectable creations. However, with lockdown 1 came the desire not only to rekindle precious childhood memories with my boys, but also to lay that particular ghost to rest. And by choosing a homemade chocolate cake (over a shop bought Harry Potter one for his birthday earlier this week), my youngest son unwittingly gave my baking skills the resounding endorsement that I so desperately craved! However, as I sat basking in the glory of my new-found culinary success, I found myself taking a somewhat reluctant trip down memory lane to a week’s work experience, carried out shortly after sitting my GCSE examinations. 

It was the summer of 1991 and my parents had kindly arranged for me to go and help out at the local primary school. My mum dropped me off at the school office and I waited nervously for my instructions. The Headteacher (a terrifyingly exuberant character) cantered towards me, welcomed me to his school and promptly dispatched me to Class One. I was immediately put to work cleaning up the painting corner (surely that was a job for a Friday afternoon, not a Monday morning?) and sorting the Lego from the Duplo – which I dutifully did. Later that day, I was entrusted with delivering ‘Storytime’ to twenty-four rather fidgety four- and five-year-olds but I relished that particular challenge, and I have to admit that (before long) I had them all captivated.

By lunchtime, I was beginning to feel much more relaxed and had already warmed to several of the children in that class. It was evident that many of them viewed me as a sort of ‘big sister’ and, rather like the Pied Piper, I seemed to have quite a following by the time I accompanied the TA out onto the playground! When I returned to the classroom, the teacher presented me with a large canvas shopping bag and quickly informed me of her plans for the next session.

The children had been growing their own cress and so they were going to make egg and cress sandwiches for their afternoon snack. I glanced into the bag and saw a loaf of bread, some low-fat spread, some hard-boiled eggs, and a plastic container filled with a thick creamy substance that looked like a cross between mayonnaise and salad cream. The cress, of course, was on the windowsill on a bed of cotton wool. All very straightforward, I thought.

The children were sent to me in batches of six where we swiftly found our rhythm (in true production line fashion) buttering bread, removing the shell from the eggs, and combining the ingredients before plating up the sandwiches and allowing the children to tuck in.

Well, they were thrilled with their efforts and utterly effusive in their verbal feedback. I beamed at them, rejoicing in the notion of a job well done. The teacher seemed pleased with our efforts too and it was soon time to tidy everything away and send the children home.

Once the last child had been safely handed over to his parent, I went to collect my things from the staffroom. As I was leaving, Miss B called after me to ask where I had put the canvas bag etc. I proudly informed her that I had placed it under her desk with the plastic container (meticulously washed and dried) inside. She looked at me aghast:

“But what have you done with the contents of the container?” she enquired.

“Most of it got used,” I replied. “So, I didn’t think that there was much point in keeping the rest.”

“Used?” she asked, “On what?”

(I began to wonder why Miss B was being quite so slow on the uptake!)

“In the sandwiches,” I stated rather incredulously, “to bind the egg together.”

“Oh, no!” she cried. “That wasn’t mayonnaise, it was Friendship Cake mixture!”

She went on to explain that she had been given the recipe by a parent and that it was one that had taken quite some time to ‘cultivate’.

Taken from an Amish tradition, the idea was to keep adding ingredients over a ten-day period and then to give portions of the ‘starter batter’ away to friends, so that they could bake (and enjoy) a cake for themselves.

I remember thinking that this was quite a long and drawn-out process. That it might have been considerably more ‘friendly’ simply to have given someone a cake that could be enjoyed immediately, with a nice cup of coffee perhaps? I resisted the urge to voice these thoughts, however!

And with that, my first day euphoria instantly evaporated and I beat (what can only be described as) a hasty retreat. I had absolutely no idea how Miss B might go about telling the parent in question that her well-intentioned gift had just been ingested (uncooked) by each and every child in Class One. Looking on the bright side though, the week could only get better!    

In pursuit of the happy medium

People constantly talk about ‘striking a happy medium’ and I’ve often wondered if this is, in fact, possible? So many factors would have to be finely balanced in order for this to be achievable and human nature is so inherently fallible (certainly in my case, anyway!) that somewhere along the lines the potential for error must arguably be too great!

I’m always utterly fascinated by family dynamics and I derive huge comfort from seeing that my parental struggles are by no means unique! The notion that the ‘second child’ is always something of a handful certainly rang true in our case, but then I’m the fourth out of six – so I’m not entirely sure how that should have affected my own personality or emotional development… Perhaps being ‘somewhere in the middle’ has left me ‘floundering’ (in hierarchical terms at least) and unable to voice my wishes / feelings with any degree of conviction? I suspect, though, that my colleagues might (ever so politely) disagree! 

I’ve written before about the sibling rivalry that pervades our home-life and (by association) my largely unremitting role as judge and jury. However, as the boys get that little bit older, I’m beginning to catch glimpses of certain (almost desirable) traits coming to the fore, and I find myself daring to hope that they will, eventually, manage to reach an ‘uneasy peace’.

The fact of the matter is that my boys couldn’t be more different. My eldest is shy, relatively sensible (he is a prepubescent boy, after all!) and prefers to observe first, then join in later. My youngest is self-assured, quick-witted, and impetuous – and causes us far more heartache as a result. In this regard then, I must confess that I am utterly guilty of wanting my boys to ‘strike a happy medium’. After all, being polite and unassuming doesn’t tend to fare all that well in a Saturday morning league match but then again, neither does one want to be the parent of a child for whom a red card might almost become a ‘badge of honour’!     

With the return of a third UK lockdown, I’m fairly confident that parents far and wide have been desperately striving for a healthy balance between ensuring that their children continue to make some sort of academic progress, whilst trying to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing too. For those parents also trying to hold down a job, it can feel like something akin to being a trapeze artist, where the margin for error is depressingly slim. It seems to me then, that the quest for a better work-life balance, the holy grail of parenting or indeed the happy medium, is something that is destined to haunt us all for many more years to come. If, on the other hand, you are fortunate enough to stumble upon it, please don’t be shy in coming forward; my liver and /or sanity might depend upon it!

The digital abyss

Is it really only a month since Christmas? Just four meagre weeks of ‘blended learning’ are starting to feel like a lifetime, and the extra workload is beginning to take its toll on teachers up and down the country. But before you cast your phone aside (consigning the self-pitying words of yet another ‘whinging education professional’ to the ignominy of your trash folder) I don’t mind conceding that this much eulogised, ‘blended learning utopia’, is not exactly a barrel of laughs for parents either.

Courtesy of the snow, I had the grave misfortune of spending a (mere) day and a half ‘overseeing’ my children’s home learning. Quite apart from achieving absolutely nothing myself, the sheer logistics of accessing resources, supplying the necessary stationery, finding additional reference material, and sharing the bandwidth amicably (amongst a family of four) left ‘Team Hall’ feeling more than a little jaded! The very notion that children (of primary school age) will be able to seamlessly access hours of online lessons whilst other members of their household calmly hold down a job would be highly amusing, if it weren’t for the fact that this gargantuan struggle is now a daily reality for many. And there are definitely no winners, as far as I can see!

‘Living the Dream’ was inspired by the stories of countless colleagues, desperately trying to navigate their way through the trials and tribulations of online teaching. Do let me know if it strikes a chord!   

Living the Dream

Hi everybody, I hope you’re all well.
As we enter week 4 of this virtual hell…
Did you finish your work from yesterday’s session?
Wait for it, cue a whole host of confessions!

“I couldn’t find any paper to write on”.
“My printer’s broken; there’s simply no light on”.
“I didn’t hear what you asked us to do”.
“Miss, I’ve got COVID, well that or the flu”.

Ok, not to worry, I think we’ll move on.
This is clearly a battle they think that they’ve won…
Today we’ll consider the use of apostrophes,
No doubt the signal for some new catastrophe.

Can you name both types; explain how to use them?
Contraction, possession – one mustn’t confuse them!
“Miss, my screen’s frozen, I can’t hear a word”
That’s the fourth time this week, Jimmy, don’t be absurd!

Try leaving the meeting, then joining again,
I’ll send you the PowerPoint, questions and then
You can finish the work just as soon as you’re able,
Return it via TEAMS when your broadband’s more stable.

Jimmy doesn’t answer, he’s eating his lunch –
Or playing on his Xbox, just call it a hunch!
But Edie’s on fire, answering question after question,
Completely oblivious of my hands-up ‘suggestion’.

Remember to use your virtual hands,
I’ll be with you shortly, or as soon as I can.
I do need to help all the pupils in school,
They cause far less grief, as a general rule!

Anne, can you tell me what you have just written?
It’s blatantly obvious you simply don’t listen.
We’re on question four, the one with the plurals…
Which you’d know full well if you’d viewed my tutorials!

James, please stop eating and sit on your chair.
He’s sprawled on his bed again, legs in the air…
How far have you got? Have you reached question six?
“Not yet, Miss, I thought I’d just stop for a Twix!”

Please do remember to check through your work,
The sheer lack of accuracy, drives me berserk!
I’ll mark it this evening and upload your score,
No rest for the wicked no, not anymore!

I’ll ‘see’ you all later, be ready for Science,
I’m hoping for something resembling compliance…
We’ll be looking at some foods which can cause tooth decay,
Not a moment too soon from what I’ve seen today!

“Miss, are you coming? I think you’re on duty”.
“Ben’s fallen over; his cut is a beauty!”
“I’m coming”, I call – through teeth tightly gritted,
If only I’d been just a bit more quick-witted…

I head to the playground, in search of poor Ben,
Only to discover it’s raining again.
The wound, now self-cleaning, is far from severe,
In no time at all, he’s been given the ‘all clear’.

The afternoon passes without too much trauma,
As numerous facts are presented with humour.
Jimmy returns, fresh from battles Royale,
There’s clearly ‘nowt wrong’ with his internet now!

Homework is issued, the kids have all left,
Teachers pack up, feeling strangely bereft.
Time to reflect on this changing profession,
Fuelled by drinks sipped in rapid succession!