Teach your Children Well

Years ago, when I was a proper working person and not a layabout pensioner, I was a teacher. I worked in primary schools, beginning with the oldest children, in a tenement style school in Stockwell, London and finishing with the tiny tots in the reception class in a seaside village.

During the first, pre-career break time there was room for some experimentation in the classroom. There was the freedom to implement such ideas as ‘bay-working’, where the room was split into areas or ‘bays’, each bay being set up for some independent work in a specific curriculum subject.

When I returned to reaching after a ten year career break [having my own children] there was still a culture of freedom and the school where I taught implemented a system called ‘integrated day’, the idea being that a topic was chosen and the learning arose from delving into curriculum areas around that topic.

During the years I worked in the integrated day system I can never remember any of us, children included, feeling stressed, bored or exhausted [although, to be fair I was still relatively young]. The children, no matter what age, were responsible for their own day’s achievements and became independent from not being ‘spoon-fed’ every skill and piece of knowledge. We considered ourselves providers or facilitators and all of us attended school each day with a buzzy feeling of enthusiasm for what the day would bring.

Within the system we used ‘real’ books for reading. We’d quietly withdraw a specific ability group to teach a skill in Maths or English or hear individuals read then filter them back in to practise what they’d learned. Art, science, story writing, technology or play would all be going on simultaneously.

There were many opportunities for children to help each other and enjoy roles and responsibilities. Everyone could say what they were doing and why. The behaviour was mature and sensible, even though sixty or seventy children would be sharing a [large] area.

Within three or four years of this halcyon period the ‘national curriculum’ was introduced. Nine curriculum subjects were identified and separated. There was no more linking up areas into topics. The concept of targets crept in. Appraisal and the beginning of scrutiny began. Some bright, government ambition-seeker invented OFSTED. Fear became a feature of every day teaching life.

There was no more opportunity for integrated day, for children to feel empowered by their independence. The parents no longer trusted us. Testing, in the form of SATS was thought up, a system the parents fixated on and became obsessed with, their children’s ‘level’ being the only thing that mattered-more than motivation, achievement, self-esteem or happiness.

I believe that parents, teachers and anyone who is involved with children’s development should aim to foster a spirit of independence in thought and action, maintain the natural desire to learn and encourage kindness, respect and support of each other, just as we used to. That way we may have a hope of growing and nurturing a kind, caring and intelligent society and not the grasping, selfish and ignorant culture we are stuck with today.

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A Retrospective Indulgence

So Long Marianne

[Part 2]

            When, in the second year I was forced out into a depressing bed-sit with a repressive landlady I missed her so much I spent regular nights propped up at the end of her bed eating cheese and pickles, envying her for having the foresight to claim ill health and keep her room at the halls of residence.

            Once it was clear I’d have to undertake some work if I was to gain a qualification that would lead to employment I began to knuckle down, completing mediocre essays, attending lacklustre lectures, keeping appointments with disapproving tutors and applying myself to placements. As the lucky recipient of a modest income from some shares, Marianne did not feel the pressure to strive for academic success and continued to maintain a hectic social life, made all the more pleasurable by the acquisition of a small car. She continued to live in her tiny room, spend her days shopping in ‘Chelsea Girl’ or ‘Top Shop’, date hapless men and leave a string of lovelorn boyfriends in her wake. Her health issues, a useful weapon in the defence against obligation or duty, morphed slowly into hypochondria and each time we met she regaled me with some new symptoms she’d noticed, or tests or treatment she’d been undergoing, difficulties that prevented her from completing the course.

            With no other option than to join the grown up world, at the end of the three years I became a career woman with a flat and a boyfriend I’d picked up along the way. I still met up with Marianne, though less often. She’d found another tiny room, a bedsit in a shared house that eked out the modest income she still had. She spent her days attending hospital appointments, researching alternative therapies and taking courses in obscure, esoteric fields. Our lives began to diverge. I was promoted to a new and better job, split with the boyfriend, moved to a different, leafier part of town. She took a course as a ‘holistic’ healer and did freelance astrology readings in between courses of treatment for various ailments. She moved to a small flat, subsisting on benefits to augment her income, inconsistent now that the shares had crashed.

            In another ten years I’d married, moved away to the coast, taken a career break and had two children. We corresponded, letters documenting lives that seemed to be led on separate planets. I was mired in the minutiae of domestic triviality; she was taking to the stage in her debut as an exotic dancer whilst continuing in her quest to find the perfect man, though available men were becoming scarcer and more selective.

            I resumed my career, became single again and sought to rekindle friendships that had foundered in the wake of my marriage. When I began a long distance relationship with a London man I contacted her and arranged to visit her at her Streatham flat during one of my metropolis weekends.

 

I got to her road. I stood on the pavement opposite her house and gazed up at her window; but I didn’t cross over, didn’t ring the bell. I turned back and made the long trek back to Hampstead. She rang me, later.

            “Where were you?” she said.

            “I rang the bell and no one answered” I lied. She was angry. I felt tearful. There would never be another chance.

            I continued to send letters and cards for a couple more years with no response. I look at the photos she sent me of herself posing in a leopard print bikini against a background of tropical plants on a night club stage and I wonder what she is doing now, but the clock is set firm in the present; no going back. Here’s to you, Marianne. So Long!

 

A few weeks after I finished the story a spooky thing happened. She sent me a card-the first communication for some years. She’d penned some brief, ambiguous notes: ‘the flat is falling down around me’, ‘I must get my act together’. In a fever of excited enthusiasm I wrote back, careful to use longhand, careful not to say too much about my life now. There has been no reply.

Any Openings?

Life is arranged all wrong. You can blame God, if you’re so inclined [I’m not]. The first nine or ten years or so are alright. You get born. You are looked after [hopefully] while you are helpless. You might even be doted on. You may be fortunate enough to learn some useful stuff that will prepare you for adulthood, like walking, talking-even reading. Then it goes pear-shaped. Just when you are thirsting for knowledge, eager, full of enthusiasm, you lose it; snuffed out like a candle. Because as adolescence, teens and hormonal tempests begin to boil up, an interest in medieval history, Pythagoras theorem, netball practise, past participles and piano lessons flies totally out of the patio doors to be replaced by a fascination for one thing only.

         Unfortunately this is the time when you begin to be tested on your skills, ability and knowledge in order to prepare you for independence, the severance of the umbilical, the supporting of yourself. Striving to achieve academic goals becomes torture. Many of us [I include myself] acquire a disappointing, average, just-about-satisfactory set of results that equips us for some kind of career or job. Many of us don’t. A few manage to transcend their base instincts and shine-a source of pride for their parents [see previous post-‘It’s not that we’re not interested, but…’].

         You then embark upon whatever source of living your qualifications have led you to, because by now, in adulthood, you are on your own. Perhaps you will fall madly in love with your chosen occupation, perhaps not. Maybe you will find success beyond your wildest dreams; maybe you will rub along, earning enough of a crust.

         Other bits of life crowd in, like partners, children, housing, transport, holidays. These demands mean that swapping what you do for any other occupation becomes impossible.

         Then before you know it, the years you’ve spent earning enough to live have somehow vanished in a vaporous puff and you are free! Hooray! You are without obligations, dependents and if you are a little bit lucky, without too much financial pressure. You find you are interested in everything. You want to be a student of history, to learn about exotic places, find out how the universe was made. You want to run marathons, become a piano maestro or Australia’s next top model, win the Nobel prize, ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘Masterchef’ and get knighted.

         But wait; just as these lofty aspirations buzz into your excited, eager, animated little bonse the bell is called for ‘time’. The doors begin to close. Those violin, mandarin or judo lessons, that  symphony you were going to compose, the Michelin-starred restaurant you always meant to open-they should all have been started years ago…when you were young, when your mind was…elsewhere.

         But hang on-not all options are finished. What about becoming pope? There is clearly no age barrier there. There may be some slight opposition in terms of gender, of course [for me], but… nothing ventured…Oh, old Argy Frank has beaten me to it. There’s always next time. Perhaps there is a God, after all?

 

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late…

                Aside from pop stars, sports stars, film stars, artists and so on, I wonder how many people could say they are honestly doing the job of which they always dreamt? Indeed, did all the people in the aforementioned categories dream of being what they ended up as? I expect a great many people could say they ‘love’ what they do, but is it what they’d have all selected, given the chance? Achieving a successful career in a chosen field must be becoming more difficult as economic constraints tighten and job seekers must take whatever they can find. Little wonder so many queue for competitions like ‘X Factor’, when there are situations like 1,700 applicants for 8 jobs in ‘Costa’! Costa may well be the most wonderful employer in the world [I wouldn’t know], but I’m guessing it would hardly be the pinnacle of achievement for most to be serving behind the counter in one.

                I know I certainly didn’t follow the career path I really wanted, even forty five years ago. What I’d have loved to do at that time was to go to Art School and study graphic design. At my conservative girls’ grammar school this was considered far too alternative and risqué, resulting in careers guidance to the effect that I was ‘not good enough’ and should go into teaching! No one considered that I might not be ‘good enough’ for teaching [and looking back at my lacklustre teaching years this was probably the case].

                In the event I did quite enjoy a substantial portion of the teaching years, although this enjoyable time was mostly before governments began meddling seriously with what and how we taught. But I was never so besotted with education that I rushed headlong up the ladder into an elevated position, preferring to footle along as an ‘Indian’.

                Now, though, at a time when it is undoubtedly too late for great financial success or even much in the way of acknowledgement, I wish I’d been in a position to support myself while I learned how to write; because those writers who have achieved success began at a younger age. Many came via the journalism route, or through a degree in creative writing, but some managed to get published from writing a debut novel whilst holding down a day job. I don’t know, but I have a hunch that few of these dedicated, talented and [to a certain extent lucky] people can have been teachers. Why? Because teaching, along with a number of similar careers allows for very little time, energy or creativity left over to do anything much else.

                It isn’t helping that the likes of Michael Gove are pushing only subjects that lead to productive employment in manufacturing and allowing creative areas such as drama and music to fall by the wayside.

                There is a saying that goes, ‘Those that can, do. Those that can’t, teach’. It is a harsh adage, but one that, in my case held a grain of truth. But I prefer to put it another way. ‘Those that teach, can’t’. I’m looking forward to a time when the young can follow their instincts and pursue subjects that they love, whether it makes their fortune or not, but I’m not holding my breath…