Saturday, 29 December 2012


I think I chose this blog title because metamorphosis is what the education system is currently going through.  It refers back to an analogy I used in my very first, rather ropey, blog post about my interaction with Twitter as a teacher.  This is where I likened my initial interaction with Twitter to a caterpillar, which then metamorphosed into a butterfly once I waded into a #UKedchat.  

My dear friend and Twitter buddy @kevbartle articulates the beauty of Twitter here. He does it so well that I dare not repeat the exercise in this post.  Recently, there have been a few posts discussing what the current Crucible- like Ofsted regime is doing to schools and teachers.  One of the best is by @headguruteacher, which you can find here and another equally marvellous one by @Edutronic_Net does here. (Get me being all clever adding hyperlinks to my blog.)  This is how I came to the idea of metamorphosis.

What on earth am I wittering on about?

When you teach, you are institutionalised and this happens relatively quickly, often without you noticing.  This can only become apparent when you change schools for a new job and it feels like the world has shifted on its axis.  You are faced with many unknown unknowns (I've pinched that from an American politician I'm sure) which become known unknowns, and with some hard graft then become known knowns. (#ironyklaxon) and lo, the process of institutionalisation is complete: we are cocooned. Cocooned to the extent we can forget what has gone before, and more worryingly, not consider what might be.

To the potentially mangled metaphor.  

We are all, either happily or unhappily, ensconced in our own cocoons (classrooms),  taking the required nutrients from our host plant (school) but often we are too afraid to complete the metamorphosis into our desired butterfly (or in some cases, mentioning no names, moths) of the teacher we really WANT to be and have the POTENTIAL to be.  At the moment, the cocoon offers refuge from a storm we could not predict and from forces that seem too powerful for us to fight against; although we would just LOVE to be given the room to unfurl our wings and admire the pattern we and nature have created. 

Twitter can provide us with the nutrients for us to complete our metamorphosis; to create the pattern on our newly created wings; have the courage to break the seal of the cocoon and majestically unfurl our delicate wings and fly amongst a supportive rabble of butterflies. I Googled 'Collective nouns for butterflies': I could have had 'swarm' or 'rabble'. Rabble was the superior collective noun by far, given the people that I normally Tweet with. 

Teach Meets provide even further nutrition, and get this, we can flit to other plants, and use our proboscis to try out and taste different nectar. OK, in some cases, we may spit it out like a cheap bottle of plonk, but at least we got to taste it. 

Last night, on Twitter an extension of Teach Meets was bandied about between myself (@Gwenelope); @Edutronic_Net, @Ieshasmall, @kevbartle, @hgaldinoshea and @Benniekara about a 'classroom crawl'. Now, the 'day' part of this teacher interchange will not involve pub based CPD, however, if we plan things well enough, the evening period may well do.   The 'classroom crawl' involves travelling about to spend a day or an afternoon in each other's schools, to drink a little more deeply from this pedagogical nectar; to leave our cocoons well and truly behind and learn how other plants feed teaching and learning; how they enable their butterflies (teachers and pupils) to unfurl their wings and flit with confidence.

This Tweacher needs you! 

This directly relates to my new Performance Management targets.  The most crucial of these targets being the developing of Teaching and Learning in my department in the following ways:

1. Set up a department blog to share good practice; encourage collaboration; and offer peer critique and help that is 'kind, specific, helpful' (Think that's a @Totallywired77 -ism, *correction that is a Ron Berger-ism, thanks Tait!).
2. To undertake developmental lesson observations  (not judgemental) of the department and other teachers in our school to firstly, recognise what we ARE good at, and then use these observations to steer our teaching and learning needs.
3. Continue to use Twitter for my own CPD purposes then to share what I find and use with the department.
4. Share the best of pedagogical blogs with the department so as to encourage risk taking (and then record and reflect on our own blog). 
5. To attend Teach Meets and share the ideas gleaned from them with the department (maybe even present one day!).
6. To visit schools that are Good or Outstanding and find out why this is so; and work out how we can be 'Even Better If'. (Thanks to that Twitter conversation last night, well on its way. If you can offer me a 'placement' for a visit, please let me know via commenting on my blog or Tweeting.)

The power of a rabble of butterflies - unfurl the wings.

Having read my aims, I'd very much like your input and advice about how best to achieve these; record the outcomes and flag up any pit falls that I really ought to be aware of.  If you can and want to help, please leave a comment on the blog rather than Twitter, so that I can dip into your great ideas, when necessary. 

Who'd a thunk it? Twitter, blogging, Teach Meets and 'classroom crawls' as part of Performance Management. THAT would not have happened when I started teaching 10 years ago. THAT is PROGRESS Mr. Gove. Stick that in your education pipe and choke, I mean smoke it, Goveanasaurus-Rex. 

Let us continue breaking out of our cocoons and using Twitter, Teach Meets and 'classroom crawls' so that we avoid being the bloody annoying moth that is drawn to the one big luminescence that they think is the saviour of teaching, and instead be a rabble of curious butterflies.  

As ever, thank you for reading, and any comments, advice and help you will offer in response to this post and the marvellous @Xris32 for his editing prowess. 

A rabble of butterflies in action - agents of our own metamorphosis

I published and Tweeted this blog yesterday and as a result was awash with Tweets inviting me to visit various schools - number 6 on my Teaching and Learning Performance Management summary. So, for my own records and for you, reader to view the butterfly rabble in action, here are those Tweets:

I can't find the Tweets but the loveliness that is: @Ieshasmall and @kevbartle have also invited me down to Canons High - at least I hope they have and that's not a figment of my overactive imagination. 

  Vindication often most important part English dept at my school v good and would love to host you HoD my friend (Birmingham)

  wow gwen, mega stuff there. Would love to be I the loop will have to speak to  to see if we can help. (Devon)

 That's true. Let's not rule it out : ) I'd love to have you visit us. 

 Gwen, great blog! You are more than welcome to come and visit little old me!  (N. London)

 If you ever want a tartan perspective, you're verra welcome :)  

 loved reading this! Agreed with your points wholeheartedly! If Cardiff is closer come visit!

  mines a 6th form but you're welcome

 Lovely blog and you'd be welcome to visit us any time you fancy an Island holiday :-)
  I'll second that ;-)

Great post  and would be delighted if you could make it over to sunny Herts for a visit - can get you into some great depts

 Ooh love your butterfly blog! If you fancy a primary visit come this way! (Bristol) 

 Been tracking back the thread from the blog. Happy for you to visit us-pupil referral unit in Bristol 

A lovely Tweet re. my point 1 on performance management - collaborative metamorphosis! 

 Great blog! Need the optimism. I've an idea for an online collaborative blog. Will share early new year if interested.

Plus the wonderful @Edutronic_Net has offered his wealth of expertise - and he really does know far more about educational blogging than I.

@HuntingEnglish has Tweeted these words of widom re. a depaprtment blog:

 the initial hurdle is the issue. Get someone receptive & get them doing one & cheer leading! Seeing the audience of the posts is a great spur. Also, finding some time for people to do it is essential early on. Could there training time/dept meeting slot? it is the 'extra work' resistance which is the stopper. People need to see the value: reflection; shared knowledge; audience &  (well that's most of the Tweets I favourited!)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Way out of my comfort zone

Taking a leaf out of many other Tweeter's books, OK blogs, I'm having a crack at the #Nurture1213 trend for blog posts.  Here, many have reflected on 12 things that went well in 2012 and a set of goals to achieve in 2013.  (As I type this, the penny has only really just dropped about the significance of the numbers 12 and 13.  I really HAS been the most epic of terms).

Now, as someone who has very high, if not unrealistic, expectations of myself and whose default setting of 'self-critical' is often set to 11, this is not going to be easy for me, at least the first part of '12 things that went well' in 2012.

So, with that in mind, I begin scratching my head and have a crack at things that have gone well for 2012.

1. I really began to master the art of the long distance swim, going from alternate lengths of breast stroke and crawl in order to swim my mile (64 lengths), to being able to swim continuous front crawl in double figures to being able to swim 2 miles, continuously, using front crawl.  It is what keeps me, mostly, on the right side of sane.

2. I've maintained my commitment to my circuit class, twice a week, come hell or high water.  It is a mental win because it means, if I continue to go, school has not 'won'.

3. Over the past year, good friendships have been forged and maintained despite work being all consuming at times.

4. I'm better at recognising when the symptoms of 'The Black Dog' (Churchill's nickname for depression) present themselves and can take some steps to stave it off. There are things 'to do' still with this which I'll have to refer to in the '13' section,

5. I have managed to decrease, rather than increase, my personal debts in spite of the governments epic failiure with the economy; my pay being frozen and an increase in pension deductions from my salary.  On the surface, not such a massive achievement maybe, but being the only bill payer in my teeny, tiny terraced house, it is not as easy as it sounds.

6. With a little help from my neighbours, a hideous damp patch has been treated and plastered.  It's only been there for nearly 10 years. I put it off as I was terrified of the cost. In the end it only cost my some money for materials and a bottle of wine to say, 'Thank you.' to my neighbour.

7. Going back to South Pembrokeshire for the first time in about a decade as I attended a wedding reception of two old school friends who had both married other people, divorced and re-ignited their teenage relationship via me, via Facebook (I didn't know this until I saw them again).  

I fell in love with it all over again.  As I drove back through old, familiar places I was awash with all sorts of emotions that had been boxed up for many years.  My first port of call was Freshwater West beach (if you've seen the last Harry Potters, it's used as the location for Shell Cottage.)  It was a gloriously sunny spring day, so my shoes were whipped off, and I strolled along the beach bare foot, tears in my eyes as more memories crept up on me and I remembered just how much I loved it. Beautiful. I then went to Stack Rocks and Broad Haven beach, places I know well and with huge fondness.  Oh how I miss and crave the salty air, and the calming soothing sound of the sea. 

8. I went white water rafting (at the centre near Bala) with friends from work and just loved it.  I re-discovered my inner child and lapped up every moment. This was the me I recognised from my youth, it was good to be reacquainted with that version of myself.  In the photos of the day I am beaming. 

9.  I revived my Twitter account, initially following the celebs and then I stumbled across @UKedchat and this an altogether different kind of online journey has taken place. It has given me autonomy over my CPD and so much more besides. 

10. I began blogging, initially a personal, rather than a professional one, for a few months and then I took the plunge and began writing about my teaching.  I was nervous to say the least. Terrified even, but received nothing but support and positivity. Seven months later, I am open to even more possibilities about how Blogs can be used for developing teaching and learning in my department and across the whole school. As Del Boy would say, 'the world's my lobster'. Huge thanks to @Xris32 for being a most excellent editor. 

11. a) Through Twitter I have forged many personal and profession relationships which have been enlightening, challenging and uplifting in equal measure.  I have begun attending Teach Meets, and because of this, I have met some truly exceptional people.  To name but a few: @kevbartle who gave me a lovely cuddle on meeting; @ieshasmall for Puckish fun at #TM London; @danielharvey9 who cajoled me into my first Teach Meet at #TMBrum and chauffeur extraordinaire for #TMLondon; @headguruteacher who was just wonderful and inspiring; @hgaldinoshea the very epitome of Gallic glamour and loveliness; @LizSaddler, who only lives 3 miles from me but we meet in person at #TMLondon, and @benniekara who was warm and friendly and most recently @LGolton who popped round for a cuppa today (23/12/12) who was as lovely in person as she is online. 

11 b) (cheat) Being included on @Pekabelo's glorious Tweachers Tube Map as Euston Station no less AND receiving my own A1 copy in the post as a present.

12. I'm going to cheat now and do 2 for 1 here:  I started wearing dresses to work for the first time in 10 years of teaching, it is perhaps a good indicator to my change of mindset.  In the last week of term I planned and delivered my first ever assembly to our not so easy Year 11s. Never mind shaking, I was vibrating with nerves before delivering it.  It was a success! Our head teacher was present and told me it was 'excellent' straight away and I found a lovely 'Thank you card' from her in my pigeon hole the next day.  I faced off my demon of speaking to large groups of people with some level of success!

Some cheeky additions:

Now, not wishing to mess up the numerical beauty of this idea, I won't add more numbers, but I have thought up some more positives: 
My start to the school year was catastrophic due to an epic Twitter faux pas on my part. My HoF spent weeks (for understandable reasons) looking at me with hate and contempt in her eyes.  We finish the term on a very positive footing where she has recommended me for UPS2 and included development of the faculty's teaching and learning using Twitter, Teach Meets, blogging and doing developmental lesson observations for the faculty. 
   I've also coached my HT on how I use Twitter, reading blogs and blogging for CPD purposes; given our Teaching & Learning AHT a pedagogical book list to purchase and introduced to Teach Meets - watch out Finham Park #TMCoventry.  
  A more self-indulgent positive is going to Stand-Up comedy gigs on a fairly regular basis; sometimes getting one over on the compere when targetted.  My sister suggested I have a crack at it myself. Interesting idea! 
  Last night this post provoked a warm, friendly and frank conversation about The Black Dog and how different forms of therapy have helped many of us.  We even have a hashtag to use #BD, much like the Batman searchlight, should we need to discuss it in future.  It was one of the best kind of surprises. 

Now, for my 13 things to do in 2013. 

1. Find, what is 'The Holy Grail' for me, which is a better work/life balance.  I have been teaching 10 years and never really got the balance right, as a consequence, my mental and physical health has suffered. 

2. Read more pedagogical literature and, more importantly, act upon the advice that speaks to me.  

3. Establish a Teaching and Learning blog for my department which will have a positive effect on the department's teaching and learning as well as my own. Eventually, I'd like to do the same for the whole school. (Suggestions for names for our Dept' blog very welcome, I am currently stumped.  Advice about how to run it, also welcome).
Update 31/12/12 - @HuntingEnglish and @Eductronic_Net have proffered good advice and offered more for help for this aim.

4. To be able to recognise when I am responsible and accountable for my own success, rather than attribute it to luck or other people. Here I need to practice what I preach to my pupils and accept that to 'Fail again. Fail better.' (Beckett) is what leads to success and break the 'mind-forged manacles' (Blake) of my fear of failure. This is one of the many things that will help me see off The Black Dog. 

5. To learn something entirely new and for utterly selfish and not work related reasons. This will feed my soul much better than I am doing at the moment. I am currently into my 'overdraft' as far as my inner health goes.  This can and must change. I've always like the idea of learning to dance, thank you Strictly Come Dancing.
Update 31/12/12 - Via Joel Hicks' (male model and fundraiser extraordinaire) Facebook page I have got in contact with people who run dance classes. They start the second week of the new year and I don't need a partner to go with me (a big thing that has stopped me before). 

6. To always make time for my friends. I don't always get this right.  I have chosen my friends well and they are wonderful people. Time with them is time very well spent. 
Update 31/12/12 - off to a better start here too. I had a meal with my local friends on Saturday 29th December. Good food, great company and lots of laughter. More of the same needed!

7. To phone my mum more often and be able to tell her how I feel, and to be able to talk about how she feels too.  I contain my feelings and bury them to the extent I can't retrieve them or discuss them with other people, which is to avoid what I think may burden them.  Mum always offers, I'm rubbish at taking her up on it.  

8.  Have the courage to make some small, and then big changes in my life.  This may involve getting a shower installed or throwing in the towel of house ownership; meeting new people; buying some more dresses, or even a change of job - by that I mean some form of promotion. This may even involve, with some courage, good luck and a following wind, include my de-singlification (made-up word). 
Update 31/12/12 - Here I have made several marginal gains!

  • Bought and worn dresses to work, for first time in a decade (mentioned above), so come pay day, another dress was ordered!
  • Bought and worn a pair of skinny jeans for the first time. As long as the top is long enough, and heels are worn, they look quite good!
  • I tried scallops, anchovies and fillet steak for the first time when out with my friends (mentioned above).
  • I have had the same hair cut for a good few years. Today I was brave and had a new one. The picture was posted on Facebook on Twitter and I had so many lovely comments!
9. Play my part in helping our new and fabulous Head Teacher in helping to turn our tanker (school) around and onto a better course.  I think she is exceptional and easily the best Head I have ever worked for.  I want to stick around to see how and where she takes us. 

10. To be able to use my dolphin like swimming capabilities to good use, in some sort of sponsored, long distance, open water swim or do the swimming leg in a some kind of team triathlon.
Update 31/12/12 @Edutronic-Net and @_MrsThatcher_ have suggested I found out about open water swims on - brilliant, thank you! Now, to get a wetsuit!

11.  Make sure I go back to Pembrokeshire, to visit my friends and bask in what is clearly a jewel of the British Isles.  It was much like going back to Middle Earth's Hobbiton; brim full of the same quirks and charms.

12. Keep up my girlie days out in Birmingham with my friend Lisa and hopefully come with her down to Cornwall again. It was a heavenly patch in our last Summer holiday. Cornwall was magical and her family were just awesome. 
Update 31/12/12 - Our first one of the year is set for 5th January 2013 before we lurch back to school. Long may they continue!

13. To maintain all these many Twitter tweacher relationships I've established so far; continue to share and collaborate with these wonderful people; meet many more and perhaps, just perhaps, find the chutzpah to actually present at a Teach Meet. 
Update 31/12/12 The subsequent blog post documents all the lovely, warm and welcoming invitations I've had from many Tweachers to visit their schools. As Jean-Luc Picard would say - make it so!

(Another, personal cheeky addition. To hit the mythical and magical savings target of the equivalent of 3 months salary in the bank. I'm not so far off!). 

Saturday, 24 November 2012


This is not a post about teaching per se, but it does relate to how being a teacher, or something as simple as even being me, feels like wading through treacle. This is a post about my dad.

Much like @kevbartle, I am mindful or being mawkish or overly sentimental, so the aim is to just tell the story of my dad, and more specifically, his loss on the 5th November 2005 and how the ripples of that moment return, to a greater or lesser extent each year. 

The loss of a loved one is not something that is unique to me, but how we experience that loss is as unique as the DNA that codes our physical and mental being.  

A little bit of hope

My dad had had liver cancer for 5 years in 2005 and we were all hoping, come the next hospital visit, that the doctors would pronounce that he was in remission.  Instead, they informed him that it had returned.  Dad was given the normal treatments of chemotherapy and anti-sickness drugs, warfarin etc - the main purpose of which is to buy him more time.  

In March of that year, the doctors told us that this medication was having little or no effect.  He was offered a 'last chance saloon' round of treatment which involved him participating in a drugs trial, which of course he did.   

In April of that year, I ran the London Marathon. Well, I say 'ran'. I ran for 18 miles, then my heavily fatigued legs jogged and walked that last 8 miles and I finished in the, ahem, time of 5 hrs and 27 minutes.  Dad, my mum and sister all came down to watch.  I never saw dad en route, which is probably a good thing, as when I saw him at the end, his face was covered in painful red lumps and he was barely recognisable.  I was pale from fatigue.  We had a picture taken together which looks like a competition for, 'Who looks the most wretched?'.  

Despite the fact I could not walk properly for a week afterwards, I was so glad my dad got to see me do it.  He was a keen athlete himself when younger; it is, I think, something he would have liked to have done.  I admit, just going by the look of him, I was scared of thinking that this new 'wonder drug' was not really working. 

Hope takes a hit

As the May Bank Holiday approached, and as we were in the bad old days of SATS, I was grateful of the extended weekend after preparing a less than co-operative mixed ability Year 9 class for those irritating tests.  

Then the phone rang.  It was mum. She told me to sit down.  This was not going to be, by any stretch of the imagination, a good phone call.  In a calm, and in as gentle a way that she could, mum told me that there was nothing else the doctors were able to do for dad.  I crumpled in a heap on the floor; sobs enveloping me while my poor mum tried to find the words to make me feel better, or at least stop crying. I spoke to dad, but I was tongue tied.  What do you say to your loved one when you both know, but do not want to comprehend, that death is around the corner? HOW do you speak to them? I think, although this is hard to remember, that I asked if him if he was OK.  Seeing it in black and white looks absurd, but it was all I could think of to say. 

May half term came around and we spent time doing things that dad enjoyed. Steam trains seemed to feature heavily.  When I was very little, dad was a model train enthusiast.  He had a room in which he had built and made a train set, which he took great joy in.  Fortunately, as dad and mum had moved back to his childhood village of Penrhyndeudraeth (easier to say than it looks, honestly) there is an abundance of real, big, beautifully restored steam trains. We did our best to be 'normal', to keep calm and carry on, but underneath there was the question of, "How long have we got together?"

Never have I been so grateful for the six week summer holiday. That time was well spent, going to North Wales to visit mum and dad; dad coming and staying with me and putting up picture rails in my tiny terraced house; dad returning to come and fix my immersion heater (my only source of hot water, yes really) when it yet again, conked out. Travelling to mum and dad's with my friend Jo and her beautiful Staffordshire Bull Terrier Molly which, on reflection, was a stroke of genius.  Dad loved Molly, cuddled her, spoiled her rotten, and busily snapped photographs on his digital camera.  He smiled; he laughed. Little Molly the Staffy bought him some joy.  Ironically, for those few days, he seemed to come to life again, and that in turn bought us a slice of hope. 

My dad and I had never had a great relationship.  From my teenage years onward into much of my adult life it, was often distant, and sometimes strained. At this point, we both knew that there was no rhyme or reason for this to continue; it served no purpose.  Time spent together helped us heal the rift. 

September came around all too quickly and as is the way with schools and teaching, time cantered by at speed.  Before I knew it we were into October.  My sister was teaching in a school in Leicester at the time, so her half term was a week earlier than mine.  In this week, dad was taken to hospital to have an operation to drain fluids from his abdomen. His organs were really beginning to fail. I remember speaking to my sister on the phone, her voice reedy and quiet, a little wobbly.  Whatever she had seen of dad that week, she had been really shaken.  She was supposed to come out for my birthday meal (12th October) but she just couldn't.  I still had a week of work to get through, thus the brave face was firmly entrenched and I got through the week and went out for my birthday meal anyway. What else was I supposed to do?

The true meaning of caring

My half term came around and after the Saturday sleeping, cleaning and generally faffing I travelled up to Penrhyndeudraeth on the Sunday morning to see dad and was fairly clueless, maybe even in denial, as to what I was about to see. I arrived at mum and dad's house, 'Penfro' and received a warm hug from mum, but the house already seemed that little bit emptier without dad there.  Dad was in the hospice in Llandudno, and they were letting him come home today.  A cup of tea and a muted chat later, mum and I made the journey to the hospice to bring him home.  

Mum parked up and we walked gingerly into the hospice.  I followed mum to dad's ward and then I saw him on the bed.  He was thin and gaunt and an un-natural shade of yellow, another sign that his organs - his liver especially, were really failing.  I knew, this was 'it'.  That realisation was overwhelming.  I remember managing to chat for a little while and while mum was talking to the doctors, I slipped away, found a quiet corner and crouched down breathless, sobbing. Somehow, I re-gained some composure and returned to dad's bedside and we got him ready to come home. The doctors and nurses spoke in euphemism, not saying in front of us or him, that he was going home to die, but that is what the sub-text was.  In reality, it did not need to be said. 

The next day mum, stoic as ever, went to do her shift in the charity shop, while I was at home to look after dad.  Later on that morning, the doorbell rang and it was the Macmillan nurse who was here to check on dad, and check his range of medication was suitable.  I let her go into dad's bedroom while I sat, or rather squirmed in a state of worry in the living room. After she had spoken to dad, she came to speak to me about his medication and what the situation really was.  She told me in a matter of fact, but kind way, that dad had about two weeks left, that she would return with more suitable morphine related painkillers for him and then she went. I sat there, both believing and unbelieving of what she had just said.  

I waited a little while, with those uncontrollable sobs enveloping me once more.  Pulling myself together (How, I mean HOW did I do that?) I went into dad's room, laid down next him, put my head on his shoulder and my arm over his now distended belly. He wrapped his arm around me as I snuggled up to him.  Next follows the most difficult conversation I have ever had:

Dad, "So, what did she say? Do we know how much time?"
I adjusted myself to look him in the eyes, and asked him, "Do you want me to be honest, or is it better to lie to you?"
"Be honest." he said.
There was a very pregnant pause, as I struggled to formulate the words, I began with a bit of a stutter I'm sure, 'She....she said about two weeks dad."
Silence. We just remained in our cuddle.  When I thought I could speak without crying, I said, "I love you dad."
"Love you too Gwennie." he said. 
After that he was quite tired and needed to sleep.  I think I gave him some morphine and left him to rest. I have no recollection what I did the rest of that afternoon until Mum came home. 

For weeks, months and years afterwards I tormented myself with the question, was I right to be so honest with dad? Would it have been better if I had lied to him? I have even used this moment while teaching, 'An Inspector Calls', discussing issues of morality and how we find our moral compass. Was it morally, the right thing to do?

When mum eventually came home, we spoke, we cried, we cuddled and worked out what to do next.  Dad's GP was brilliant and said she'd sign both me and my sister off work for as long as we needed it.  Dad, desperate not to be any bother, said, "Don't get in trouble with work on my behalf." At that particular time, I couldn't give a stuff about work.  

Making preparations

Tuesday of that half term I travelled back home, feeling guilty for even leaving him in the first place. But I had to come home, and in all my conscientious diligence, wanted to make things OK with school too. I contacted my Head of English, who told me not to worry about work and get back to dad. He'd been through exactly the same thing with his own mother some years ago. I contacted the person who was Head of Media, explaining my rather awful situation who then told me to set cover work for my Yr 12 and 13 Media classes.  Now, being the fairly new green teacher I was and being in a generally vulnerable state, I did exactly that. That Wednesday I spent a good 4 or 5 hours sorting work for those classes.  If there was anything I bitterly regret, and feel angry about, it is that. WHY was I so compliant? WHY didn't I say, 'No'? WHY did she even ask me to do it? My dad was dying, and there was precious little time left to spend with him. WHY? However, I did it. Fool. 

I went home to re-pack, knowing I would have to pack clothes for my dad's funeral. I also brought my laptop so we could download the pictures dad took of Molly the beautiful Staffy.  I began the 3 1/2 hour journey back to dad, finding the occasional lay-by to stop and cry. My sister had already returned to dad at that point so we were to all be re-united soon. 

During the next 10 days, my role as a person had changed fundamentally. Mum, my sister and I became dad's carers, his nurses, each playing to our stoical strengths. I made a table on Excel for dad's medication, and what he should take and when. My sister, who had worked as a carer in an old people's home in a previous life, put all these skills to good use, taking him to the bathroom for a flannel wash, while mum and I changed his bed sheets.  My sister was an early riser so she took the morning medication shift; I was the night-owl so I did the late shift while mum did what mum's do best and took care of us all.  One day, when he was fed up and aching, I massaged his feet hands and back, trying to ignore the flecks of cancer rising to the surface, mottling his skin.

Time is running out

Everyday we woke up and went into see dad first of all. All of us both grateful for another day but utterly helpless that we could not make him better.  

In the second week, there were more noticeable and less and less subtle signs of his dying.  He was eating less and less and what he did eat often came back up, therefore he was getting noticeably thinner and weaker. He rarely got out of bed, hardly able to hold himself up.  He could sometimes hold a conversation but not for very long. 

The last few days were far more telling. His motor-skills were in a real decline. He was less and less able to use his hands, which became heavy weights on the end of his arm, dangling, unusable. He could just about shuffle into the living room while we changed his bed and his speech was also becoming odd, stilted and a bit slurred. This was most noticeable on his last day (not that we knew it was his last day).  That night, while mum was getting him ready for bed, he said, "My body is taking its revenge."  That moment, I think, dad finally accepted what was happening and what was about to happen. 

Saturday Morning, 5th November 2005

I awoke to the sound of my sister yelling for help. I say awoke, but I had not slept properly for days.  I dashed to dad's room to find my sister trying to manoeuvre dad on the bed.  His face was contorted in pain, gaunt, haunted and his lips were pulled back over his teeth like a snarling dog.  I barely recognised him.  My sister explained what she was trying to do, get him (and this is ironic, no doubt) in the recovery position so he could be more comfortable.  
Eventually, we managed it.  His breathing was erratic, laboured, getting more and more shallow.  Today was the day.  Mum got on the phone to the doctors while my sister and I remained with dad.  I lay myself behind him, one arm around his abdomen, both to cuddle him and to feel his breathing; the other stroking his still  thick mop of white hair.  My sister kept talking to him, both of us telling him, in our own way, it was time to go. Moments later his breathing slowed, became shallower and he squeezed out his last breath, and this is so typical of my dad and his bodily functions, the very last thing he did was fart. 

He was gone and my heart splintered and fractured. 

I felt so many things, but most immediately was the sense of relief; it was over.  He was no longer suffering. This was tempered with waves of incomprehension, bewilderment and grief.  

I was off work for the next few weeks so we could arrange his funeral (I won't tell you about that too) and begin trying to patch ourselves up.  Dad's doctor signed us off work when we asked for it. 

The aftermath and some reference to school and teaching. 

I returned to work 2 weeks after dad died. I know now this was way too soon.  I remember that week at school, at least the emotions of it, as clear as a bell.  It took a Herculean effort of all my best acting technique, and believe me, I'm no Kenneth Branagh, in order to put on that brave face, to be 'normal' in front of classes and colleagues when for me, nothing was in the least bit normal. Nothing.  

On the Friday of that first week back, I got through my last lesson of the day, made my way straight to our little work room and sobbed, big heaving, snotty, loud, uncontrollable sobs. It was a mixture of both relief that I'd made it though the week and guilt at having to put dad to the back of my mind in order to do so. 

People at work were kind and supportive, with some telling me that I was brave. I always put them straight. I was not not brave. My dad was the brave one. We did what we did out of love, nothing more, nothing less. 

The ripples

Every October and November since has felt like wading through treacle.  As the years have gone by I have coped with it better, or at least, found a way to compartmentalise the range of emotions I feel over those months. I still feel guilty if work leaves me little or no time to reflect or remember. It feels like a terrible act of betrayal.  

Once I told a very truncated version of this story to my lovely Year 10 girls group as the topic of cancer once came up in a speaking and listening assessment.  The girl who was discussing the topic struggled to articulate her anger and frustration about it. So I told them about dad and looking after him while he was dying.  Before I knew it, I was faced with a class full of tearful, snot nosed, mascara running all over the place, teenage girls. It was a thoroughly unexpected response to his story.  I could not help but think of my dad, my curmudgeonly, stubborn, some times grumpy and insensitive, cuddly daft thing of a dad, who would have been utterly bemused by their response, baffled even. 

Being at work, during this time, still sometimes takes Herculean effort to be 'normal' for the benefit of all those that I interact with on a daily basis. It takes much of my mental capacity to appear 'together' when all I still want, miss, and crave is a big bear hug of a cuddle from my dad and to listen to his throaty Welsh laugh. 

I taught Hamlet, for the first time in my teaching life, to a simply wonderful class of Year 13 last year.  I was also lucky enough to see the David Tennant production, and I remember seeing Hamlet on stage for the first time in Act 1 Scene 2 and being able to 'get' Hamlet almost immediately, especially when he speaks of his 'inky cloak' and shows his petulance and anger at the loss of his father.  Now, how could we expect a 17 year old to grasp the fundamentals of this kind of profound grief? We hope they have yet to experience it. I did understand it, I know it, I lived it, it was my job to pass this onto them. 

For those of you who wish to know, 'cariad' is the Welsh word for love or sweetheart. I learned many, big, huge, fundamental things in those last two weeks with dad, but the most important was finding out, and knowing deeply and truly what that word really means. 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Surf's up

There are numerous analogies to describe teaching, one of them, as these anecdotes may well demonstrate, is like surfing. When it goes well it is like the moment the surfer stands on the board, feet planted firmly and steadily on his steed; his balance is assured and he catches the wave. Whilst the surfer must literally think on his feet, adjust his balance to keep riding the wave and maintain momentum it is a sensation that cannot be bettered.

At other times, it is like a surfer having a bad day at the office.  You paddle like fury, trying to catch the wave, you leap onto the board, your balance is never quite right and you just cannot catch the wave.  But just when you're about to give up, you have one last try and you catch the last wave before the sea returns to calm.  It is a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. 

A potential custard pie moment turns into a victory or the peaks and troughs of being brave. 

Often what teaching feels like

On a Monday morning, lessons 1 -3, I have my Year 12 Media Studies class: I cannot tell a lie, it's a pleasant way to start the week. I have twelve students in total.  Ten from my school and two girls from a neighbouring Academy who don't offer the subject. They are an amiable bunch and seem to have taken to me like ducks to water.  

We have been studying and analysing Chris Morris' rather excellent 'Four Lions', focusing on the representation of Muslims. We had already looked at the predominantly negative representation of Muslims in the British Press (using the Daily Mail; it wasn't hard to find evidence of that, I can tell you). 

Sunday night, I planned their lesson, and feeling a little brave, I decided to use @LearningSpy's 'ultimate teaching method' of 'Home' and 'Expert' groups. I am always honest with the pupils if I am trying something new with them. I tell them I've not done it before and that it could all go horribly wrong. Again, taking a leaf out of @LearningSpy's Samuel Beckett quote, I tell them, 'This might go horribly wrong, if it does, we'll work out how to do it better next time.' 

The pupils were placed into 4 expert groups and assigned to a main character in 'Four Lions' with a structured note sheet to focus them. It had a hexagon in the middle with prompt questions in the centre and around the outside the methods of representation were noted against the side of the hexagon: Action, Reaction, Dialogue, Mise-en-scene, Camera shots and Movement, Editing. We watched the middle section of the film, pausing to discuss their findings once in a while and allowing them to discuss and make notes on their sheets. (I will try and find a picture of it to insert here).

During the last section of the lesson they were placed in their 'home' groups. Each 'home' group now contains an 'expert' on a main character of 'Four Lions' and how they are represented in the text.  They are now responsible for teaching each other how their character is represented and why?  Some groups are more comfortable with this than others, but they eventually warm up to it and busily teach each other what they have learned, whilst I move around the group playing devil's advocate to extend their thinking. I confess, this was also because I seemed and felt largely redundant and needed to 'do' something. 

At the end of the lesson, one of the boys, who only joined the group a couple of weeks ago, walked out and thanked me for the lesson. I enthusiastically respond with, "Thank you for the ''Thank you"; we don't get it that often." 

Wrestling hatchlings or catching and riding the wave

I am lucky enough to have a top set Year 7 on my timetable; I say that but the class contains what can best be described as the three naughtiest and most difficult boys in the year group. However, according to their Schonnell and GLA reading test, they are able, so should be there. 

One of them comes from a local clan who has a history of producing problematic children to teach. You see the surname on your register, remember the sibling you attempted to teach a few years ago and grimace. This boy is also, from what I can gather, the shortest pupil in the year group. He makes up for his small stature with his personality in large spadefuls.  You can translate that to demanding and attention seeking behaviour patterns in class. I often have to send him out of the lesson so I can at least deliver instructions, without being interrupted, and get the rest of the class on task. 

It was their last lesson of the week, Thursday Period 6. The class are in and settled and the pupil, again, interrupts me while I'm speaking to the whole class.

Pupil, "Hi Miss! Did you miss me?"
Me, "Do you miss a verruca when it is not there anymore?"
Pupil, "Eh?"
Me, "Nevermind."

A few of the girls, who are fed up with his one man mission to destroy lessons, smiled at me. One in particular, whom he is often unpleasant to, looks up at me with a knowing smile. I look down; we exchange glances. I move on to explain their task. (Dead simple, a table of prefixes, roots and suffixes and they have to work in teams to produce the most compound and complex words). 

As I'm putting the class into groups, I take a gamble and let the three naughty boys work together. One of them is particularly good handing out dictionaries and he is the one to point out they can make compound words as well as complex.  I feel apprehensive but optimistic at the same time. It was a gamble, but it might just work. 

As I sit next to them to keep them on task, another lad strikes up a conversation with me.  This pupil, along with his naughty friends, often make inappropriate and mostly negative comments about girls, and women in general, in class; it would not be hyperbole to say it is verging on the misogynistic.  He also displays an arrogance I have rarely, if ever, seen in an eleven year old boy. 

Catching the last wave

Pupil, "Miss, do you have a boyfriend?"
Me, and I have to say this is pretty much my default answer since I've been teaching, "No."
Pupil, his tone being quite serious (if only he were joking), "Do you want one? Do you want to go out with me?" 
I say this as calmly and as gently as I can manage, because I am rather astonished that he should say this and mean it, "What? Go out with an eleven year old? I'm not that desperate, thank you."

His two mates chuckle and inform him he has been 'had' by a teacher.  He is somewhat quieter for the rest of the lesson. 

The rest of the lesson goes well as I take down word totals for each group and write them on the board, which makes the teams even more competitive and eager to work. The lesson, including the naughty gang, becomes a hive of enthusiastic, competitive activity. 

It has been a few weeks since that lesson has taken place.  The naughtiest boy in the class is now in our Learning Support Unit; the lad who asked me out is now trying really hard in lessons and his work is improving as a result; his friend still pushes his luck but is now able to have 'good' lessons on occasion.  

Surf's up

Teaching is one huge balancing act (imagine the analogies you can form from this metaphor!).  We are on a constantly moving waters, pulled in and out by the moon, whipped up by the wind or it is as eerily still as a glass mirror.  Often we don't know which is it is going to be on any given day (or lesson for that matter).

Sometimes the waves are huge, terrifying even, but you still leap on the board, find your balance and catch the wave.  Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot catch the wave, but it doesn't stop you trying because you remember how darn GREAT it feels when you eventually do. 

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Something what I wrote in class

Filing can be interesting...sometimes.

Here I go, off on another educational tangent.  Today I was in full work avoidance mode, filing and re-arranging teaching resources and data in readiness for the 'Death-eaters' visit at some point this academic year. The notion of being and feeling organised is only ever temporary. By and large, I think we teachers are much like swans: on the surface we show calm, grace and serenity; beneath the water ('scuse my French) we are paddling like f*** to keep afloat and to move forward. 

So, whilst trying to gain the appearance of calm grace, I stumbled across something that I wrote in the class with my Year 11 (all girls) last year as exam practice for the WJEC English Literature paper.  The final task on the paper is a comparison of two contemporary poems.  The pupils have a just an hour to read, analyse and write an essay comparing these two poems.  

I sprung this exam practice on the pupils when we had a double lesson.  I was military with the timing, dividing up the hour into: fifteen minutes for reading, annotating the poems and a plan, forty-five minutes for the writing of the essay (making sure they had time at the end to check their work). I used the timer from to make sure I, as well as them, were keeping to time.  While they worked in silence, I did precisely the same work I'd asked the pupils to do.   I had not sat and deconstructed the poems beforehand. I was precisely in the same academic, high pressure boat as the class. I had deliberately put myself in their shoes, not knowing what the outcome would be. For me, or for them. 

I have also been spurred on to write this post in response to 'Goveanasaurus-Rex's' over-use of the word 'rigour' when it comes to his blunt and brutal educational reforms.  On WHAT educational research does he base this on?  Which is the question I am constantly, indignantly asking.  To me, this exam task smacks of academic rigour.  I wonder how well Gove would do if he were put in the same position I put my Year 11s and myself in?  In the light of the GCSE English fiasco, I wonder what marks or grade an examiner (and the exam board) would give my essay? (I'm not sure I want to even know the answer to that one). 


To share this kind of writing with you is terribly exposing, if not a bit scary.  I mean, the first time I wore a bikini at the swimming pool when I was in my mid 30s.

I feel I must add it was a decidedly modest bikini, not far off the modesty of a Victorian swimsuit, where sunlight would merely glimpse, let alone touch, the exposed flesh.   Showing you 'what I wrote' feels very much like THAT moment I walked out of the changing rooms to the pool side in my first, but modest, bikini. 

The two poems were: 'Tramp' by Rupert M. Loydell and 'Decomposition' by Zulfkar Ghose.
Pupils are required to comment on:

  • The content of the poems
  • The ideas the poets may have wanted us to think about
  • The mood or atmosphere of the poems
  • How they are written
  • Your responses to the poem. 

So this is what I wrote in the same 45 minutes the Year 11s had. Before I begin properly, I confess I'd have tweaked a little and edited a tad; much like putting on a bit of fake tan to remove the snow blindness glare of my pale skin before wearing said, modest bikini. 

N.B. My chief editor @Xris32 has sat and proof read this essay, however, I am going to 'show and tell' errors and all, otherwise it's not a fair representation of what I did in those 45 minutes. 

Something what I wrote in class

The content of each poem is quite clear as both poets have chosen to write about homeless people, which on the face of it, appears quite simplistic.  However, the points of view of each narrator differs greatly. For example, 'Tramp' creates a rather unpleasant image of a homeless man because in the third stanza he narrates that, 'we fear him'.  Through using the collective pronoun 'we' the poet is not just writing about his own response to the tramp, but (middle class?) society's which can be a 'fear' born of ignorance. Interestingly, 'Decomposition' creates a far more sympathetic view of the homeless man on the streets of Bombay. The metaphor, 'cracks in the stone' indicates his fragility, therefore we fear for him rather than just fear him. The point of view here is clearly very different from 'Tramp'. Rather than narrate society's abhorrent reaction to the homeless and then questioning it, as in 'Tramp', 'Decomposition' offers a seemingly much more personal response to a homeless man, while at the same time questioning the morality of the observer's inaction. 

Loydell clearly wants to create a sense of fear, rather than sympathy, for the homeless man by first concentrating on the sound that the tramp makes, he, 'gibbers'.  The tramp is heard before he is seen, which is a classic horror genre tactic.  The sound the tramp produces is unintelligible, thus giving him a sense of madness. Society does not seem to like what we can't control or understand, and it is this that creates the sense of fear. Additionally, the use of religious words such as 'prophet' and 'heaven', signs of divinity, contradict the rest of the description of the tramp, as if the narrator is telling a cruel joke at the tramp's expense. 

Ghose, however, creates a far more sympathetic and emotive figure of his homeless man through first naming his homeless man a 'beggar', a term that appear much less harsh than the word 'tramp'.  Beggar is used in the Bible as a description of homeless people, perhaps also giving the man a more sympathetic divinity. The word also suggests a sense of hopelessness for the figure but also someone that we should look charitably upon, rather than to merely judge. 

Sympathy for the beggar is increased via the use of the metaphor that describes his arms and legs as 'cracks in the stone' which suggests many images to the reader. The 'cracks' imply fragility, brittleness and vulnerability whilst the word 'stone' implies a permanence, that he has been there forever; he is immobile.  This also allows the narrator to suggest the beggar's agedness.  It is here that the title of the poem, 'Decomposition' is a pun, a play on the word, 'composition' that which a photographer does in order to structure his photograph. Therefore the narrator, through the course of the poem, is deconstructing his image in order to question the morality of his actions of merely taking a photograph of the beggar but doing nothing to aid him. In comparison, 'Tramp' is a far more simplistic title, at least on the surface, however there are many negative connotations associated with this word, which are then played out during the course of the poem. 

Loydell's language in the poem, like the structure itself, on the surface appears very simplistic. There are few complex words or images but this is clearly deliberate, because his message which is a critique of our reactions to the homeless, is so clear. In order to make us fear the tramp, Loydell paints an altogether unpleasant picture in the third stanza; the adjectives being the most poignant, 'matted', 'patched' and 'grey' all creating a sense of disgust and decay. It makes us, the reader, and (middle class) society want avoid him. Alternatively, Ghose's description creates a great deal of sympathy because his beggar appears so close to death, for he is, 'brain-washed by the sun into exhaustion.'.  The personification of the sun, ever present and all powerful, emphasises the man's weakness and vulnerability on the streets of Bombay. 

The last sections of the poem also show great contrasts, revealing the poet's intended message to the reader about homelessness very clearly.  Loydell states that there is, 'no place for him in our heaven'.  The possessive pronoun 'our' explicitly shows the reader that the tramp does not belong with 'us'. 'Us' being the salaried, comfortable, middle classes. Society, and this class in society, has rejected him. Surely it is 'us' that have failed the tramp? In contrast, Ghose's more personal and humane response is very understandable when he described the beggar so sympathetically, 'His head in the posture of the weeping/into a pillow chides me.' Here the beggar is described as serene and beautiful, like the Virgin Mary, helpless, holy and vulnerable. The final two word Ghose uses to describe the beggar and his 'composition' are 'hunger' and 'solitude' which reveals the distaste the photographer has for his own actions. His distaste for the lack of his own morals is obvious. 

Both poems are highly emotive and pose interesting moral questions about people who are homeless and how certain sections of society respond to them (Loydell) or how we personally react to them (Ghose).  Even though one poet is clearly more sympathetic than the other, both are guilty of the same crime, passive observation.  Neither narrator does anything to aid the beggar or the tramp and asks the question, is this morally wrong?  By posing this question so clearly to the reader, it makes us question our own behaviour and ask us if we too feel ashamed of our own behaviour towards someone who is homeless. Denial and ignorance are ever present. Observing is only useful if something is then done about it.

My original, scrawled essay. Contact Bletchley Park to decipher
Do feel free to add comments about my essay, but as Ron Berger and @totallywired77 state: Be kind, be helpful, be specific.  You can borrow it to use with your classes if you think it is worthy.

The de-brief

When we'd all finished I shared my work with the class.  BEFORE I did so,  I told them how hard I'd found the task, and how drained I was at the end of writing it. Not to make them feel better, because it was true.  Now, if I found it a tough task, it made me ponder the question, how hard must they find it?  To be in their shoes, to work WITH them, exposed and scared, was a revelation. 

I also confessed how NERVOUS I was reading it out to them; it was downright terrifying. I began reading fairly breathlessly.  God bless those girls; they saw my nervousness, and smiled at me to make me feel at ease. 

When I read it out to them, I critiqued the flaws in it as and when I found them; when I waffled; when I could extend an idea; when my grammar had all gone a bit Yoda like or when I'd repeated the use of a quotation.   It was (and is) by no means perfect,  in an hour, how the heck could it be?  

I learned exactly HOW demanding these tasks are.  I wondered, who decided that an hour to analyse two poems would be sufficient (after they'd already spent approximately 2 hrs analysing extracts from two different literature texts)? I learned that, contrary to common popular belief (Daily Mail), the GCSEs already display academic rigour.  I learned of the exposure and the fear present when sharing your work with a group of people.  I learned how important it is to have a sympathetic ear to your work.  I learned that sharing your writing with the class is incredibly empowering (excuse the cliche) for teacher and pupils.  I learned how good my relationship with the class was.  I learned, after marking their essays, that they were able to analyse a range of texts with some skill and confidence. I learned how relieved that made me feel.  I think I have probably learned an awful lot more than that.  I know I will definitely do it again. 

Well done ladies, well done. 

N.B. After their last exam, I bought them in individually decorated cupcakes made by a very talented friend of mine. They presented me with this: