Category Archives: 3 Good Things

A Teacher’s Silver Anniversary or ‘I did it my Way’!

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I am celebrating my silver anniversary as a teacher – 25 years since I qualified on my PGCE at Sussex University back in 1988, when hair was huge and lips were painted darkest red, and that was not necessarily just the females. My student ID card makes me look like the 5th member of the Cure – they were from Crawley where I did my teaching practice so I suppose I thought I was just accommodating in fashion-terms!
But so busy have these first weeks of the new academic year been that it only dawned on me recently that it really has been this long! That I have been teaching for the majority of my life, longer than I’ve been married, longer than I’ve known most of my friends – it is the adult that I am, and the person that I am, there’s no denying.
And because that last point is true, this year has seen a pretty radical stripping back in my current post, which had become like an unpruned tree, with branches sagging with apples – increasingly fly-blown and rotting, because nobody had had the time or the care to pick them. My enthusiasm and reasonable competence when I started the job was met with one request, then another, then another to take on this little role, then that slightly bigger role, until I’d become a multi- headed monster, leading a team, the teaching and learning Lead for Equality and Diversity, an Advanced Practitioner involved in staff development and mentoring across a college of 600+ staff – while still maintaining the teaching and tutoring role that I’d always had. Out there in the ‘real’ world, several people would have been doing my job (rather tellingly, they now are) but last year it finally broke me.
Six weeks off with stress left me fearing that I could not teach, that I could not even step back into a classroom. The place that was my sanctuary, my creative hub, my other ‘home’ , had become part of a place of torture and only a crazy person would return willingly to that – many of us in the staffroom would joke about Stockholm syndrome, but there is something in that with teaching, I fear.
Whatever it was that got me back – a desire not to leave with a sense of failure, the need to prove to myself that I could still teach but could also choose not to, the money to pay the bills, I don’t know – I am glad I did. It didn’t take long for me to realise that of course, after 25 years, I could still teach but, more importantly, that I could enjoy my job. The best bit for me has always been being with the students in the classroom, doing sometimes slightly eccentric activities to encourage their creativity and a leftfield way of thinking, while sharing with them my deep love of literature and all its cultural cousins in the arts and humanities. I may be a’grandee’ of the Faculty now but while my fate publicly displayed the dangers of a job where you can never do enough, I hope now that I am showing that it is possible to keep your experience where it is most enjoyed – in the classroom – and feel valued for that, instead of believing that you have to take the alternative management route which most young teachers I meet today see as all that is on offer. Granted, you don’t get the pay rise or perhaps the status, but then I get to spend the majority of time with the people that matter most, not with the ‘suits’ who use spreadsheets where I still use conversation and laughter.
To mark this moment in my life, I am going to start the blog I have been planning to start for the last couple of years and use it to keep a ( no doubt erratic and irregular) journal of the teaching and learning, the thinking and conversations that will go on in my classroom with students studying A’Level English Literature, and it may yet become the space I’ve imagined new and old students may come to to share their ideas and meanderings. It will be called BeMused – watch this space!

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Teachers can’t…

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Being the parent of a child going through GCSEs is stressful; being a teacher in charge of a GCSE course ain’t easy; combining the two? Yeah, quite a challenge! The last 2 years, in particular, have found me trying to navigate those treacherous waters that lie between a teacher-parent and their child on the exam treadmill, aiming to offer all the support, encouragement and wise words required of a parent without staining them with ‘professional’ judgements or insider knowledge that may (but occasionally may not) contradict that doled out by his teachers.
What IS the role of a teacher-parent? I suspect I’ve veered too much away from the teacher bit, boxing it up out of some kind of deference to the sacrosanct mother-son relationship, but would other parents do that? If you’re a translator or an artist or an IT bod, wouldn’t you pass on your knowledge and skills to your child? Doctors would help with science revision; curators would help with history. Why do I feel that, as a teacher, I am giving my child some kind of unfair advantage when I help him construct an essay, or guide him to use academic language? Is it unfair that he’s got a live-in personal tutor when his friends have to rely on their more limited resources? And when he gets great results, does he really get the credit for it or do his friends just shrug and say, ‘Well, what do you expect? His Mum’s a teacher’?
There lies the rub. I want my son to get all the credit for his achievements, to be seen to get good results on his own merit, but of course that pretends that all kids pass exams in a vacuum and of course that’s far from true. It’s a scary, and rarely-stated truth, but teachers can make or break a child’s success in their subject, and supportive, engaged parents can make all the difference. Flip that sentence around and that would be true, too!
No man – or woman – is an island, and at any one moment we are all playing out several different roles. I think I need to release the teacher from her box more often and share her more confidently with my son. She’s actually OK, not too much of a dragon, and I think my son might quite like her! He may even pick up a few helpful tips!

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A Bureau of My Own

“It is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people…Think of things in themselves.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I blame it all on Kirsty Allsop dominating the TV at dinner time, but last week I found myself elbow-deep in an upcycling project, to bring beauty to a writing bureau hidden at the back of a furniture warehouse. £45 of birthday money, and it was mine!
For ages I have craved a space I can call my own. Somewhere to write, read, make, think. Here it was. But the dour brown oak was heavy and outdated, and I’ve seen enough fix it programmes and read enough vintage craft books to know that a lick of paint could transform it into something spectacular.

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Usually, I dither and fret about colour combinations and cost to the point where nothing is done. Knowing myself too well, I decided to take inspiration from Google images, search ‘upcycled writing bureaus’ and see which colour combos worked best. I’d already imagined a French grey and, sure enough, there it was with the pen holder in cream. Huzzah! I had my colours.
After some more research on how to paint old furniture, I sugarsoaped it clean, then primed and undercoated the pen holder – this was to be painted in ecru eggshell that I had left over from painting the skirting boards in our house, and I just diluted it one part water to 4 parts paint to make it more like a wash.

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Quite by chance, I’d discovered chalk paint by Annie Sloan in a shop in Totnes. It looked perfect, and – again, after researching the net – it seemed too good to be true! No priming or undercoating; one coat and an hour to dry. As a woman who likes speedy results, I decided to see if it really did do what it says on the tin.

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It isn’t cheap, this paint, and clearly has a bit of a cult following with blog after blog dedicated to Annie Sloan products (and, usefully, cheaper substitutes!). I coughed up, knowing that I’ve got a LOT of boring pine in the house that needs freshening up so it wouldn’t go to waste.
At first, I felt a bit sick as the paint ‘chalked’ up with the brushstrokes and I began to regret covering over the beautiful markings of the oak. But I’d read that it’s best to paint with longer-than-usual brushstrokes in one direction, and with a paintbrush whose tips are just ‘kissed’ with water. Great advice and the paint began to glide on.
What I hadn’t really noticed until I started painting the bureau was that the wood was differently-textured in different places, and this affected how the paint covered the different surfaces. Depending on how ‘distressed’ a look I wanted determined whether I went with a second coat or not. I enjoyed getting to know my bureau like this. How often do we pore over such detail, and make such responsive decisions? It was an incredibly absorbing process, almost like a form of meditation.

I hummed and haa-ed over whether to spend another mini-fortune on Annie Sloan wax but by this point I felt I was in for a penny, in for a pound. I did experiment on a small area of the desk with an alternative – Luberon’s clear wax paste – but the Annie Sloan does bring out both the paint and the wood markings quite noticeably, and I do think it was worth it.

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I still want to cover the desk surface with more attractive material, but I already have a beautiful bureau I can now call my own.

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www.anniesloan.co.uk
www.thelilypadcottage.com
Great tips for using chalk paint

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On not being perfect

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If ever there was proof that teachers need their 6 week holiday in the summer, this must be it. We spend the rest of the year encouraging and convincing our students to try new things, learn new skills, just have a go, never say ‘I can’t.’ But how often do we put this into practice ourselves?
So far this summer, I have crocheted and lined a little bag, crafted a birthday card, made a cool necklace using pages from an old book –

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I have even started writing a novel, and now I have managed to upcycle an old oak writing bureau that I bought for £45 in a secondhand furniture shop.
I have this terrible condition which I think must be a symptom of a warped kind of perfectionism where I am so fearful of making a hash of anything I try to do that I just don’t do it. I come up with the idea, I research it for hours, I may even then embark on it, but the house just ends up full of unfinished projects. I think it’s because I know that they won’t live up to my expectations so it’s a way of delaying failure. The best thing that has happened to me this year is my acceptance that things don’t have to be perfect. That there is pleasure just in the doing, but I need to acknowledge that concluding and signing off are also critical. Applying that to the novel will be interesting!

A post on how I went about upcycling the writing bureau will follow soon with links to sites that I gleaned helpful information as well as inspiration from!
This is how it started – check in in a couple of days to see how it has ended up!

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Boot sale bonanza

That’s the real beauty of a bank holiday weekend. Not the extra lie in, per se, but the sense of freedom it creates to allow you to wake up with the birds on the Sunday, sun streaming through the curtains. Rather than hurl yourself face first into a pillow, insistent on getting those extra couple of hours, your body finds itself welcoming the possibilities of the day…Boot sale!

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Two hours foraging and I returned with my loot: a 1960s picnic hamper with the Tupperware sandwich box still wrapped in crackly cellophane; a Chinese green tea set that snuggles in a basket; beautiful craft and art books; expanding files for the stacks of paperwork that are amassing on the kitchen table again; a Le Creuset-style casserole for a fiver; exquisite pieces of jewellery intended as presents, but those bracelets are rather lovely…
The sun was shining and it was still only 9.30am. Returning with bags of bread and croissants for breakfast, I was reminded of mornings spent wandering around French markets. The pleasure of stumbling upon things you’ve never seen, smelled or heard before, and the icing on the cake? Coming home with new objects that help to tip your own surroundings just a little bit closer to the dream!

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Never too old to play in the sand

All teenagers need family holidays. Cut through the verbal jousting, the strong-arm tactics, the sheer bloody-mindedness, they’re still really just big kids.
Yesterday was the most beautiful day. After a typically circuitous drive, crisscrossing the Pembrokeshire countryside to get there ‘as the crow flies’, the journey straining to the sounds of ‘I’m bored’, ‘How long IS this journey?’, ‘What are we even going to DO?’, we spent three delicious hours walking the coastal path from Manorbier to the beautifully-named Swanlake Bay. Well, most of those 3 hours, to be fair, were spent picnicking and playing on the beach after the bracing walk along the clifftops to get there. Number 1 boy threw sticks for the pup; Number 2 boy insisted we buried him in the sand. Finished off with a 99 icecream in the car park.
Just as term-time habits and routines build up, so can holiday ones that put everything back into balance. We’ve had this day many times before. It’s never planned as such, it just seems to happen, connecting us to each other, to our shared history. I smile as I recall them so much smaller, one striking out across rock pools, the other inventing games in the sand. Treasure these days.

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Handwriting, chatting and yoga

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Good thing no. 1: Handwriting

 

I’m using Notes on the iPad to write this so the font looks vaguely handwriting-y, and, as such, is quite pleasing to look at. But nothing compares to the pleasure of a pen scrawling across paper, a felt tip scratching out a letter to a close friend, a soft nib of a pencil listing milk, bread and beans in a notebook. I’ve been writing a lot this year, kicked off by morning pages – an attempt to give shape to the chaos of an overwired brain which would leap into action at unsavoury pre-dawn hours. This transmuted into a journal of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown before returning to something more calm and expansive.

Writing has saved me. The once carefully-curved letters and sweet swoops of ‘ys’ and gs’ have been rescued from the jagged, hard-edged lines they descended into. Sentences are considered, sedate once more, after a few weeks in an unpunctuated whirlpool. After the storm, calm.

That’s not to say I don’t still rage. ‘The Missing Ink’ by Philip Hensher* has had me slamming the book down hard on the bed, but I suspect he wanted these reactions. He really is a smug, arrogant sod, but – credit where credit is due – the topic of his book is an engaging and a timely one. How many of us actually put pen to paper these days? I’d even started using a shopping list app, for Heaven’s sake. Messages to the kids or husband texted through, even when we were all in the house. Emails or Facebook messages to friends instead of birthday cards, telling myself I was being environmentally-friendly and saving trees, meanwhile closing my eyes to the horrors that go on in the production of mobile phones, tablets, laptops etc. Perhaps because for me writing had become so associated with marking my students’ work, doling out praise and ‘constructive criticism’ (as well as circling in increasingly firm, hard, tight circles the missing apostrophes and full stops), a pen in my hand signalled WORK, and tedium, and pointlessness. To have resurrected the joy of handwriting – messages on a chalkboard; post-it notes to the dogsitter; even a 3 page letter to a close friend and a poem scribbled in a cafe – that really is a ‘good thing’.

* A review of Hensher’s book is in the pipeline – just let me finish reading it first!

 

Good Thing No.2: Chatting

I’m beginning to spot an unintended theme emerging here – it’s all about communication this, isn’t it? The rediscovery of the pleasure of just ‘chatting’ for the sheer camaraderie engendered. Not the ‘hometime’ talk which  is marked by rushed enquiries and checks about school/work, with responses only half-listened to; the duty phone calls to relatives with one eye on email or the web; and certainly not online talk. This is chatting, with all participants able to see, hear, smell and touch each other – I’ll stop there, but you get the drift. How much do we lose when we don’t see that cast-down glance accompanying ‘I’m fine’? Hear the sucked in breath as a child says he’s OK? Silence itself is a language which all too often we’re just too busy to hear.

 

Good Thing No. 3: Yoga

Slowing your breath, feeling all those aches in your body loosen, and giggling as you tumble out of a balancing posture.

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