Category: teaching

What I did(n’t) on my half-term holiday…

Ah, half-term. An opportunity for reflection and relaxation in a busy teacher’s life. A short week where you can catch up on all those little tasks, socialise, chill out, and prepare yourself for the second half of term.
This half-term I had planned to do the following:

  • Correct the homework I set my classes (a short story about Malvolio’s revenge for the Y1 Lit students, a model answer on the Anthology for the Y1 Lang & Lit students);
  • Write two model answers to the Y1 Lang & Lit homework so that students could compare their work against mine;
  • Plan the first few weeks of lessons with resources so I’m ahead of myself for the next half of term;
  • Catch up on some reading I had wanted to finish over the summer (I need to read the relevant parts of Cupcakes & Kalashnikovs before my A2 Lang & Lit students start on it);
  • Start a running training program in preparation for winter running;
  • Relax, catch up on some TV shows, go to the cinema, see friends, sleep in, read for pleasure.

Life, however, had other plans… What I actually did over my half-term was:

  • Spent Friday night to Wednesday morning howling in pain, screaming into pillows, stamping my feet and hitting my head all to distract myself from toothache. Emergency visits to both an emergency dentist and my own resulted in x-rays which showed nothing obvious, a prescription for Amoxicillin in case it was sinusitis, and a prescription for dihydrocodeine since ibuprofen, paracetamol, codeine and topical benzocaine gel were doing nothing;
  • Spent Wednesday morning to now, gingerly avoiding chewing on the left side of my mouth as while the toothache has gone, there is clearly something wrong, and biting food causes sharp pains;
  • Spent Wednesday morning to now, cursing the fact that my lower back and legs have started to develop sciatic pain.

I’m seriously wondering whether extreme pain everyday during half-term is enough to qualify you for a second week off, since I really didn’t get to enjoy this week…

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It was good while it lasted…

And so Scotland exit the Rugby World Cup at the quarter-final stages. The home nation that lasted the longest (due to scheduling of matches) and the last Northern Hemisphere team in the contest. Despite previous performances, this was a Scotland team that showed up and played 80 minutes of rugby, and largely avoided silly basic errors that have punished them in the past. Australia entered the tournament as one of the favourites, and to lose by 1 point due to a penalty in the dying seconds is no shame.

The Scotland squad, like the fans, were gutted. In his post-match interview Scotland captain Greg Laidlaw couldn’t keep eye contact with the interviewer and looked like he wanted to be any place on earth other than in front of the camera. Meanwhile Scotland coach Vern Cotter sounded as if he was about to break down at any second.

Whatever your opinion of the refereeing decisions—and former England international Matt Dawson is leaving no-one in doubt about his opinion—


it was an exciting, hard-fought match and Scotland need to pick themselves back up, and get back out there playing, improving, and winning.

It’s about resilience. Scotland were not fancied to do much, especially in light of the way Australia beat teams like England and Wales, both of whom are above Scotland in the world rankings. They certainly weren’t expected to take the lead, keep hold of the lead and almost win, let alone only lose by 1 point! Resilience is heading out there in the face of everyone telling you, “you can’t”, and showing them “you can”. And it’s taking a loss, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and not wallowing in what may have been, but focusing on what will come in the future.

In Kipling’s poem If… he writes

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

It’s a Stoic attitude to loss that will serve many well. Resilience in the face of adversity. Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations said

Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.

In other words—this too shall pass.

I am now a personal tutor at college as well as an English lecturer. This thrusts me into a day-to-day pastoral role for more than just those I teach, and more than I meet as a Safeguarding officer. As part of the tutorial scheme of work we are spending 5 sessions on mental health, an increasing problem for young people in these troubled times. I have had my own issues with mental health, and have found some things that have helped, and one of these is the concept of a taught resilience. For a long time I believe, in all honesty, that resilience could not be taught. You either had it, or you didn’t.

As I have encountered, then explored, Stoicism, I’ve come to realise that this is simply not true. Resilience can be taught, and Stoicism is a possible means to doing so. After all, it is through Stoicism and mindfulness meditation that I have managed to come off my own antidepressants and come through a trying few months without ill-effect.

The week of November 2-8 is Stoic Week which I am participating in for the first time this year. As part of it, I shall be attending Stoicon 2015 at Queen Mary University in London. I’m hoping that there will be a range of sessions which I can adapt for use in tutorial and classes, or at the very least opportunity to meet others in education and discuss our ideas for (re)introducing a Stoic element to education.

And as for the rugby? Well I guess I’m an Argentina fan for a week…

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A random post of random thoughts

It’s late at night, or early in the morning depending on your point of view, at any rate 1am is not the best of times to be writing blog posts. Still, at least it is something I am writing, and feel an actual compulsion to write, and given the paucity of my output in terms of both blogging and writing of late, any writing is better than none.

Term is over, I’m on the summer vacation, and I have a stack of books to read for my classes next year. As I still don’t know yet whether I’m teaching GCSE English Literature, GCSE English Language, new specification A Level English Literature, legacy A2 English Literature, new specification A Level English Language and Literature, legacy A2 English Language and Literature, and in what combination, I need to basically read ALL THE BOOKS in order to plan. You can see my reading list on the right there (current reads and what I’ve read this year), and as it stands right now below (since the list on the right gets updated frequently).

(l-r) Frankenstein, The Four Chinese Classics, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Road Less Travelled, Mindfulness
(l-r) Frankenstein, The Four Chinese Classics, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Road Less Travelled, Mindfulness

Frankenstein (which I’ve read before) is for teaching, the other four are (annoyingly) all personal development.

As to the books I’ve read already this year…
Books I've read

…well over one-third (14 of them!) are for work. And I’ve got another six books to get through for work by the time teaching starts again.

What, if anything, has this to do with writing? Well, as well as teaching them literature, we are being asked to put on enrichment classes, and I’ve asked to do a creative writing class, since the odds of us ever doing A Level Creative Writing seem slim to none.

So in and around all this reading, I guess I need to remember how to write again. And it’s not like I don’t have ideas. I have folders of ideas. What I lack is the time/motivation/focus/will to work on them (delete as applicable, depending on the mood you’re in…). I can teach language and literature because I understand them. Can I say the same about writing? If I’m not doing writing, can I claim to be able to teach it?

I’m not sure, but I’m indebted to a paper I read recently (Mc Dermott, K. (2015). Towards a Pedagogy of Short Story Writing. English in Education, 49(2), pp.130-149, DOI: 10.1111/eie.12062) which has informed my approach to it, and how I plan to run the class (assuming, that is, that it gets the go ahead!).

In the meantime, I need to get back into the habit of writing. As with my training for the Tough Mudder, best to start small and build from there. H.P Lovecraft used to keep a “Commonplace book” where he kept short notes of ideas for possible future stories. Inspired by that, I started to do the same. Perhaps it’s time to raid some of those and see where the muse takes me…

“Sir, what’s that on your arm?”

[TW: Suicide, self-harm]
On Friday, I got a new tattoo. It was a spur of the moment decision, made on Tuesday morning and booked in on Tuesday afternoon. The design for the tattoo was similarly put together over the course of an hour around Tuesday lunchtime.

After roughly 45 minutes work, by 6pm I had this on my right forearm:

Semicolon TatAlthough the decision to get it done on Friday was quick, I have wanted to get this type of tattoo done for a while now.

This will be my most visible tattoo. My other three are (largely) covered up day-to-day. But unless I start to wear long sleeves all the time (and even when I wear shirts these days, I tend to have the cuffs rolled back a few times), eventually students will see this tattoo, and inevitably one will ask me what it means.

The design is a semicolon, with a taijitu in place of the tittle. The taijitu represents my interest in Taoist philosophy, something I first discovered when I was 17.

Why a semicolon? Well, this is the part that requires the trigger warning at the start of the post. I first saw semicolons drawn or tattooed onto wrists a few months ago, associated with The Semicolon Project. A semicolon is where an author could have ended a sentence, but chose not to. So it has been adopted as a symbol by those who at one time came face to face with a moment when they could have ended their own sentences, but chose to let them continue.

The semicolon is a reminder to, and “My story is not finished” is a promise by, those who have self-harmed or attempted suicide in the past, that it is ok to reach out and seek help.

I first discovered Taoist philosophy when I was 17. 17 is also the age at which I can identify I had begun to suffer mental health problems. The two aren’t connected (although the philosophy has helped me to cope at times), but the coincidence is quite nice.

17 is when I first remember struggling with suicidal ideation. From that age, I have regularly struggled with it and there have been times when I have felt like succumbing to it. I have also recently come to realise that I also self-harm. When I am unhappy, when I feel I have done something bad, I punish myself to feel pain in a bid to atone for what I feel I have done wrong. It’s not healthy by any means, and the fact that it has taken me so long to recognise and name it as self-harm is frightening. But I recognise it now; saying it publicly, acknowledging this is something I do and have done, isn’t so that I can boast, or ask for sympathy and congratulations for my “bravery”.

I’m doing it because being open about my mental health problems is important to me as a teacher. In all the time I have worked in education, I have met scores of children with serious mental health problems. Maybe this was kept hidden when we were children, but I don’t recall mental health being an issue on the scale it is now. I have taught and counselled children with anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar, and students who self-harm or are suicidal.

Being open about the problems, saying “I have this too” is enormously liberating to students who would otherwise suffer in silence. I know students who come forward to members of staff and have said that they only reason they came forward was because that member of staff was open about mental health issues. Otherwise, these issues may remain hidden, ignored, slowly eroding a student’s potential to succeed, and potentially only becoming known in tragic circumstances.

It was one of the reasons I undertook ASIST training in 2013. Within three days of completing my training, I had to put it into use, helping a young person in Canada who reached out via Twitter. And I’ve had to use it since, with children and adults.

Suicide doesn’t go away if we keep quiet about it. Talking about it doesn’t “put the idea in someone’s head” or encourage people to attempt suicide, in fact, the opposite is the case. When someone is feeling suicidal, talking is the best thing for them. It takes the smallest thing to turn someone away from suicide, and in most cases that is all they will ever need.

Now I have a visible tattoo which marks me as someone who has faced suicide and self-harm. It is in a place that students will see. I hope that they will ask “Sir, what is that on your arm?”, so that I can tell them. I can explain to them what it means, and more importantly what it means to me. And I hope that if any student is struggling with these issues, they’ll be able to see that they don’t have to struggle alone; there are people they can talk to.

As long as we are talking, no story is truly finished.

Back to the chalkface

When last our hero blogged he was attending a teaching conference in darkest East London, in a decidedly non-teaching capacity. Now, read on…

Change comes so rapidly at times that it hardly seems you’ve got used to one situation when things turn completely around and you are once again plunging into “interesting times”. For once though it is an uncertainty of my choosing. Even more unusually, it isn’t a Very Bad Thing but a Very Exciting Thing…

After taking voluntary redundancy from Murder College I found myself without work and a track record of ultimately unsuccessful interviews. Thankfully, on the same day that I returned to the Hell Mouth that is the Hounslow Job Centre to sign on, I received a phone call from my former manager at Murder College. She too had escaped to Better Things, and wanted to know if I was still looking for work, because she was still looking for a Head of Student Services.

A meeting was swiftly arranged for the next day at her new employer, Surrey Hogwarts. I had a half hour chat with the Principal, and in no time agreed to start the next day as their new Head of Student Services. A three-month interim contract swiftly became a one-year contract, and that is what I’ve done since August up until last Friday.

In December I had applied and interviewed for a position as Team Leader for English at the College Julia works at. On the last Wednesday of term before Christmas they called me to tell me I had not been successful. I had the management experience, but not the teaching experience, and the successful candidate had both.

However, they had been very impressed with my interview, so much so that they created a position for me and wanted to know if I would accept it! The position is part teaching (GCSE, A Level & Functional Skills), part pastoral (tutorials) and part safeguarding. I accepted, and handed in my notice to Surrey Hogwarts.

So on Monday I am back at the chalkface, and a little nervous. It has been over a year since I taught regularly, and I have never taught A Level before. But I’m also excited at the opportunity to take on new areas in a subject I love, and by all accounts the students and my managers are excited to have me. I fear I have been very heavily trailed, so have some expectations to live up to!

Friday was a very odd day. Usually when I leave a job it’s because I’m tired of doing it, or tired of the place I do it at. In the case of Murder College, it was soured by my experiences there. But Friday was different. I left Surrey Hogwarts with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Joy because I was leaving the department in a better place than I had come into it. I had done the job I was brought in to do. And sorrow because I will genuinely miss working there. My team and department are great. My manager was more than just a manager but a real mentor to me. The SLT are the nicest and most supportive managers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for. So although I am moving to a job that I really want to do, it was a bit of a wrench to leave.

I’ve spent the past couple of months reading texts, looking at specifications and gathering up essential supplies (the joy of stationery!). Ready or not, here I go…

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