Definitely Drowning

It turns out teaching is a bit like parenting, once you make your announcement, people can’t wait to tell you how dreadful it will be.

Only whereas, as a not-yet-parent, I could dismiss all the scaremongering and doomsaying, now I know better. Parenting has taken me to edges I didn’t know were there and left me drained, frightened and unsure of everything.

Not a great position from which to make a great leap forward.

Yesterday I had my compulsory ‘Safeguarding Children’ training that I need as an invigilator. Only this time I listened with increasing horror as teachers swapped stories about neglect and abuse. One or two ‘examples’ of neglect – such as letting a child watch videos late at night – made me question my own parenting.

And then the lovely teacher delivering the training explained that, as adults working with children, we can be held personally liable for a failure to report or disclose a concern. Suddenly I felt like I was standing on a sea wall facing a tsunami.

But I know my anxious brain magnifies worries and turns everything into the monster under the bed. So I went to talk to the charismatic teacher, who clearly loved his job, despite everything he’d been sharing. Tell me about teaching, I pleaded, everything I’ve read and heard makes it sound terrifying. And he said it was rewarding, and gruelling and disheartening and very hard work.

And then he said, ‘As long as you can engage with the students, you’re fine.’

I’m screwed.

I’m the least-engaging person I know. People confuse me, and I spend most of my time trying to second-guess what they’re thinking and feeling. Which I don’t even get right with my family most of the time, so goodness knows how I’ll manage with hormonal teenagers.

My husband’s very pragmatic – take it one day at a time, it’ll be fine. But so far I dipped my toe in the idea of teaching and got swept out to sea. And you have to ask, if they’re so desperate to drag you in with mentors and bursaries and personal plans, what are they not telling you?

Working as a train driver is starting to sound appealing.

Waving Not Drowning

Hellooo! I can’t believe another month has blustered by in a swirl of dead leaves, and still I haven’t blogged. Rubbish. I feel like I’m strapped to a dinghy and I’m travelling down a grade five river, out of control with too much sensory input and not enough breath to scream.

Well, actually that’s all a bit melodramatic, but I’ve been gorging on Sky Arts painting programmes as better for my mental health than murder-mysteries, and the language is quite hyperbolic and addictive. They’re always looking for the bold and innovative and brave (the opposite of little guinea pig me, darting at shadows).

That said, I’m making decisions that will shape mine and my family’s future, so hyperbole is perhaps not misplaced. And actually it started with the art programmes. Having decided that my 42-year-old brain couldn’t handle learning C and Python, I was back to square one. I decided to brush up my Microsoft skills, since I find excel fun to use, and needed a backdrop to drown out noisy neighbours. So Sky Arts.

I watched Portrait Artist of the Year, Landscape Artist of the Year, and The Big Painting Challenge. And remembered how much I love art and how I should have done that instead of History. To cut a long story short I investigated all possibilities of doing A Level or Foundation Art, with a view to teaching, and realised it was too expensive.

But teaching has floated as an idea since forever. Dismissed because I don’t do people, and fifty-hour weeks trigger my anxiety. But so did the idea of going back into an office environment. What to do?

Suddenly I’d applied to observe lessons in a school (next week!), with a view to teaching English (obvious really), and now I’m on a crazy train of potentially starting Teacher Training next September. How did that happen? No idea.

Which is all good, except I’m still typing, invigilating, have an author event this Saturday, and a karate exam the following weekend. And Christmas, which any mum with school kids knows, is a full-time job for the next four weeks of carols, fetes and fun stuff (for them!)

Cue panic city.

So I had this crazy idea of increasing the dose of my marvellous anti-anxiety meds. Except I forgot the first week of change is hell. I feel sick, woozy, jittery and basically a little surreal. Idiot. I’m working on Friday and right now it’s a challenge to get out of bed at 5am to let the pup out. But I recently read this quote from the artist O’Keeffe (one of the class names at my kids’ school which are all named after artists) and I try to keep it in mind.

I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.

Bravery is my watchword right now. I entered the karate championships two weeks ago and not only did I win two trophies, I discovered I rather enjoy sparring, even if it means getting bopped in the face. For someone who can’t stand physical contact much of the time that’s a little bizarre, or maybe that’s what gives me the edge to defend myself. Who knew!

And the author event gives me the heebees but what is there to lose? And I might sell a few books. So teacher training could just be the next big adventure. As long as I get through the psychedelic weirdness of upping the meds. I’ll let you know!

If It Aint Broke…

Happy at school

Happy at school

We had my daughter’s parents evening this week, just to add some extra fuel to the fire of my schools dilemma. Oh my goodness.

We knew she was doing well, that she has considerably more merits than the other children, and that she enjoys reading and numbers. What we didn’t realise is how well she’s doing in every area, including social. I took the fact that she doesn’t have a close friend, and is clingy at drop off, to mean she hung out with the teacher all day. Apparently she did in the beginning but now she’s off playing with this group and that.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion if it aint broke don’t fix it. We have the same issue on a wider scale (with a similar division of opinion between me and hubbie) with regards to the local schools generally. Our local council currently operate a 3-tier system, with kids going to primary school ages 4-8 years, middle school aged 9-12 and upper school from 13 to 18 years old.

I went through the same system, albeit a different primary and middle school to the ones my daughter will attend, and I like the system. I like that those tricky pre-teen years are experienced separated from the young children and the almost-adults. But there is no doubt some of my school concerns involve not wanting to send my daughter to the upper school I went to. There is also some difficulty, if we do decide to go private, at moving her at 11 when she’ll be half way through a school rather than at a natural transition point.

When news of the consultation came in, therefore, I was supportive. Then I started reading the anti-change literature and felt the arguments had merit. Hubbie went to the consultation meeting and he’s all for it. He thinks the academy status and cash injection will be brilliant, and moving to a bigger, newer building will only be beneficial for our primary-aged children. On the other hand, I see more congestion at two already-busy sites and terrible upheaval, particularly for our son who will start school in the year of the change.

Then today I watched a promotional video for the middle school and was blown away. The eloquence of the head of site and the headmistress (pilfered from our primary school to sort out a dodgy Ofsted rating), the passion and humour of the children, the lovely middle school building (which I’ve never been inside) were all much better than I could have anticipated for a school currently struggling to achieve a ‘good’ rating. It just shows the power of video (although in general I never watch them because I prefer to read stuff on the internet).

So now we have a division in the family: one for, one against a move to private, one for, one against a shift to a two-tier system. It’s all pretty good humoured, because most of it is out of our hands and the rest is irrelevant while our daughter continues to thrive in her current school. What does it matter if she doesn’t have access to a wider range of subjects, a posh new building or gourmet lunchtime food? She’s happy, she’s learning, she’s doing well. That’s good enough for now. And all the rest? Time will tell who is right. 🙂

The Perfect School?

Sudbury Valley School

Sudbury Valley School

Almost as soon as my nephew was born, my sister began to speak about sending him to a particular school in America. A free school, a democratic school – run by the children for the children. A place where a child could ride their bike or play video games all day, everyday, if they chose.

I scoffed. My parents rolled their eyes. I’m an academic at heart, with straights As and a first class degree and a Masters (we won’t mention the B in A Level General Studies – after all it wasn’t a ‘real’ qualification – it was only about life and that’s not important to a student who wants to succeed.)

Over the years, my brave, courageous, determined sister never let go of her American dream. Her husband’s sister’s children went to the school and her desire grew. I never got it. Three years ago, after untold hours of effort, my sister and her family emigrated to America to live near my brother-in-law’s family, with a view to my nephew and now niece going to the school.

The school run for my sister

The school run for my sister

I still didn’t get it. School is about learning and classes and exams and school uniform and all that, and my children were going to love it. There were going to be reading and counting to a hundred by the time they were five, they were going to be top of the class. After all, I was, and that made me happy, didn’t it?

My daughter started school six months ago, and my confidence began to waver. School seemed so regimented, especially for these tiny four-year-olds looking so serious and adorable in their smart uniform. The school run was chaotic and emotional and full of stressed parents snapping and snarling (particularly me).

To begin with, my daughter loved it. As suspected, she thrived on learning and was reading and counting to a hundred by her fifth birthday. She loves the community of school, idolises her teacher, and adores singing, reading and PE. But, here’s the thing: after spending a whole year desperate to go to school, my bright, academic, sponge-like learning child doesn’t want to go anymore.

“Mummy why do we only do PE once a week, I love PE.”

“Mummy, I love singing, is it singing assembly today? Is it?”

“Mummy, we didn’t get to do reading today.”

Drumming with his sister (click for video)

Drumming with his sister (click for video)

Then, yesterday, I watched this video on the Sudbury Valley school my sister has set her heart on. And I cried. Oh my. I want that for my children. I want them to be able to play piano for three hours straight if they choose. I want the calm, majestic, green surroundings, the rocks and the lakes and the books and the teachers there to facilitate enthusiastic learning. I want my children, my artistic children who often spend hours playing in their band, to have that.

Who cares if they meet some government-decided tick box of success. I want them to know what makes them passionate by the time they’re fifteen, not fifty.

Already, in six months, I’ve seen my daughter lose her edge. Become less able to find things to do without direction, become more concerned about breaking rules than having fun. She gets some of that from me, but where did I get it from?

I read a post yesterday written by the talented and successful writer, Kim Bongiorno, who wondered if the fact that she didn’t finish college would affect her own children’s desire and ability to go to college. She wondered whether she was a good enough role model for them. This was my reply (before watching the Sudbury Valley video!)

“I think you are being a better role model by not having finished your college degree. I don’t think university is for everyone. I went to university because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. For people with vocations, like doctors or teachers, of course university is essential. However, if you’re not academic then it’s a way to run up huge debt and be no nearer to a job at the end. Certainly that’s true in the UK.

Fifteen years ago I graduated with a first class degree and it marginally improved my chances of getting a good job. Which I did. But I hated it and had a breakdown after three years. The next job was no better except I lasted five years before realising I don’t handle office stress well and I need to be creative.

And I AM academic, I loved studying. What about the people who don’t learn through lectures and essays? My sister struggled for four years to get a 2:2 in a language she hated, and graduated with massive debt, great pool playing skills and a love of Jack Daniels. Since then she’s started from scratch, building up her own businesses and finding what she loves and is good at.

In fifteen years time, when my daughter would graduate, I suspect a degree won’t be enough to compete. She’ll need a Masters, maybe a PhD. Years more of study and debt, for what? She wants to be a writer like her mummy, my son wants to be a racing driver (he’s three). I truly hope I’ll be strong enough to encourage them in those desires because happy is as important as well paid.

There is a great lecture I watched http://new.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity all about academic inflation and how university is really only good if you want to be a professor. I have long debates and worries about education and making sure it’s right for my children and this lecture consolidated some of them.

If your children want to go to college, the fact that circumstances outside your control prevented you completing your course shouldn’t stop them. And if they don’t want to go, you’ll be the best person to show them that – with hard work and determination – they can be a success without it.”

Daughter drumming - stuff she can't do at school

Daughter drumming – stuff she can’t do at school

This all sounds like I’m upping sticks and moving my family to Boston, doesn’t it? Oh I wish. But I don’t want to live in America, not even for an amazing school. For all my angst and depression, I’ve travelled the world and found myself home. But it does mean I can now say,

“Sister, you are the bravest, smartest, strongest, kick-ass person I know, and well done. Sorry I didn’t always understand.”

And I can keep looking for a better school for my children, and give them space at home to be children. To be themselves and to be happy with that. It’s taken me nearly four decades to achieve it, and I’m only partly there. In the meantime, I hope more schools look to the Sudbury Valley model and at least take some parts of it away. Watch the video and tell me you aren’t just a teeny bit impressed.