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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It was sleep he feared the most

It was sleep he feared the most. Those last few moments in the twilight between consciousness and slumber were dreadful. The dying embers of his thoughts tried desperately to glow brighter, to inflame his mind with the horrors of what was to come, to warn him. But of what?

The terror he felt had no cause he could think of, the horror no obvious source. Only that sleep would once again prove no respite. Come the morning, he would again be listless and wracked with pain.

The doctors spoke of insomnia, yet he slept. Indeed, his mind fought hard to elude sleep, but sleep would not be deterred. He slept, deeply (he presumed), but sleep did not bring rest.

The psychiatrists asked about his dreams, but there were no dreams. When he thought of this (when the terror of sleep and the agonies of the morning allowed) it troubled him. Surely he must dream? He had no recollection of any dream. He could remember drifting off to sleep, remember the inexorable surge of fear as sleep approached – but morning would be his next memory. The time from falling asleep to waking up was no more than an instant to him; no sensation of the passage of time, no dreams to punctuate his nocturnal woe.

In the morning his legs would be hot and sore. The soles of his feet, tender and swollen. Sleepwalking the doctors declared, they were sure of it. A careful watch of his chamber each night was swiftly arranged, and just as swiftly proved useless. The watchmen saw nothing, heard nothing. And in the morning? Pain. Exhaustion. The lingering feelings of terror, and foreboding that tonight would bring more of the same.

He slept in different rooms, different homes, but with no different results. Once he was strapped to the bed, as though living in Bedlam. Still, the morning was welcomed with agonies.

“Restless legs” the finest minds declared, “and I’m afraid there is no more we can do for you.”

“I must live then” he thought, “with this curse. To be a stranger to restful slumber, and in the morning to be drained of life and weak in limb.”

He still fears sleep. In the penumbra of sleep, in those vanishing moments of lucidity, the terror still rises in him. An icy dread fills his heart, for tonight he will sleep, without benefit or memory. The morning will bring no relief.

The last of his conscious thoughts begin to fade, just as the soft tinkling of bells begin, aethereal music envelopes him, and his legs begin to twitch and jig.

Once again he would dance with Mab by the banks of the Lethe.

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…

What the muddy hell?

MarathonWaaaay back at the start of 2014 I revealed I had signed up for a Tough Mudder, a half-marathon length obstacle course from hell. Unfortunately, that got postponed, initially due to knee, hip and neck problems which turned out to be early onset osteoarthritis (fun!), which threw rather a large spanner in the whole idea.

Undeterred, I postponed it to October 2014, failed to train due to unemployment, re-employment and laziness, postponed it again to May 2015, switched jobs and failed to train, and postponed it yet again to 26 September 2015.

I really can’t postpone it again, so here we go; I am actually training, you’ll be pleased to know. Started running with a group of colleagues at the College, and have started some weight training to get my strength up. My friend Aamir has (finally) joined, meaning my League of Ordinary Gentlemen now has more than one member.

But since we’re not going to get any more members at this point, our team is now called Paul & Aamir must die! which is both inspirational and accurate.

Go check out our team page and if you’re feeling particularly generous you can make a donation to my fundraising page.

After all, when else are you going to get a chance to see me dive through fire and electrocute myself for no damn good reason?

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