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I don’t know how you do it

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One of the reasons teachers like being teachers is that we think are IT; the bee’s feckin’ knees. I mean all that hard work, those badly behaved children, the night time marking, the government policy changes and mistakes, angry parents, those people saying “I don’t know how you do it, I couldn’t do your job”, all the paperwork getting in the way of doing the job, buying resources for your lessons out of your own pocket. Heavens above! Aren’t we just the saints, martyrs and heroes of our town?

Or maybe, just maybe, teachers should stop the self love for a minute and consider the whole school, all the people working there and what they do to earn their pay and to keep the place functioning. Could teachers do these jobs? I’d wager a pound to a button we couldn’t.

Exams officer – What if you entered the wrong code or missed out one student from the list or put in the wrong mark? What is it like getting all those year 11 pupils, maybe 200+ of them, in total silence into the school hall?

Cleaner – You’ve already gone home for tea and marking, but in your absence, out of your sight your room is tidied up. Everyday all those scraps of paper are picked and hoovered up from your classroom floor. And just how do you think those squashed sandwiches from behind the bin disappear by the time you come back the next morning?

Bus Driver – Can you imagine 50 of them after a whole day at school, high on the elixir of 3:15pm and desperate to settle old scores and eat sweets, while you are tying to drive them safely home through town centre traffic?

Canteen worker – Think about that lunchtime rush, the chaos of the queue, children unhappy at their meal options, that tearful little year 7 without enough money and dealing with the snide jokes and complaints.

TA – There you are having to sit one-to-one for a whole hour with that child who hates you and then for the next 60 minutes with an only just arrived in the country , not a word of English pupil. There’s a relationship intensity there teachers at the front of the room rarely experience

Supply teacher – They have to teach the same class without the daily comforts permanent teachers have filled the nest with along the way…. Picking up pieces of lesson instruction while being uncertain of school systems and protocol. On the hoof in front of pupils who see her as less than their real teacher. Working amongst the feeling of abandonment.

Receptionist –  On the front line and exposed to angry parents, lost pupils, urgent messages and favours for disorganised teachers

Head’s PA – Probably the biggest and best secret keeper in the building. All those things to organise and organise calmly. Oh,  and running the school when the head is away for the day at a meeting.

Attendance officer – Having to suggest to parents (the ones who probably place little value on school and school workers) face to face that maybe, just maybe,  they could raise their child in a different (don’t mention better) manner.

Site manager – How do you keep the buildings upright and safe on sod all budget?

NQT – Do you remember what it was like to start teaching? Planning ALL those lessons for the first time? Teaching 14 completely new classes whom you have never met before?

Headteacher (or whatever they’re called now)  – People who on work more hours than you do. Who have to go to ALL those evening events and meetings. People who have the spotlight of all parts of the inspections and all parts of the exam results focussed brightly on them.

So why don’t we get off our high horse a for a while and appreciate or least notice that others are also doing a hard job. Maybe we could begin by not using phrases like “teachers and support staff” or defining jobs at school as teachers and non-teachers. That would be a start.

 

 

 

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My Research Ed London 2017 Takeaway

This was my first ResearchEd event. I found it fascinating. I cannot write or speak as intelligently as most of the big education hitters who were speaking or who will write about the day and you will be better off reading their thoughts and presentations and books than this if you want some in depth insight. So instead I have simply listed my impressions and half-formed thoughts below.

  • You have to set off really early for a Saturday morning to get to London.

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  • There are a LOT of teachers who are prepared to give up a day of their week end unpaid to learn how  to better at their job. This makes me feel good.
  • If the ‘no phones out in lessons’ was in force 100’s of people would have been queueing to reclaim their devices from Mr Bennett at the end of the day.
  • Ben Newmark (@bennewmark and http://www.bennewmark.wordpress.com ) speaks and writes excellently on why target grades are a great harm to pupils and teachers alike. The targets we are giving are performance targets which might work only if the person is committed to it and they already know how to achieve it. But more probably they are not effective in helping improving people’s abilities. It’s as though knowing more is not part of the process at all. Ben suggests instead subject specific learning goals. But with a generation of SLT now unable to run schools without targets and tracking of targets at the heart of what they do I worry this alteration might be hard to achieve.

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  • The room for my second session choice was jam packed without even standing room so I nipped next door instead not knowing either the title or speaker. Turns out this was a good move. I may not be teaching KS1 or 2 reading and writing but I now know about the problems of the multiple genres involved and came away wanting to know much, much more about cognitive load theory. Thank you very much Tarjinder Gill ( @teach_well and http://www.teach-well.com)

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  • SLT at my school keep mentioning Daisy Christodoulou ( @daisychristo and @www.thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com ) and a while back I read and loved 7 Myths of Education. Suggestions like “Democracy requires every citizen to have knowledge and understanding of the world beyond their immediate experience.” really excited this geography teacher. I was also taken with what she said about writing good multiple choice question and how to use them as feedback. The question on the left (photo below; please excuse the quality) is a better one than the one on the right because it contains only one possibly correct answer. We should produce questions that have “unambiguously wrong but plausible distractors” – writing the answers out by starting with the wrong ones is the trick. But, I do worry that her overall message now risks being diluted as she has left education to work for a company who sell the very product, comparative judgement) she claims helps teachers job to do their job better. Finally I must apologise to Daisy for accidentally playing the Test Match Special commentary during her talk – I was only trying to check the score and I got Henry Blofeld in error.

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  • Middle of the day break and I discovered “Standard hot lunch” means a cheese sandwich and a really delightful biscuit
  • Carl Hendrick ( @C_Hendrick ) and Robin MacPherson ( @robin_macp ) spoke on bridging the gap between research and practice. It was the most practical session I attended. They recommended that to move away from being the researched to doing the researching, the key for teachers is to start with reading research. Then in school to try to create a space where a few teachers can reflect together on what they have learnt. If I can find a space in the busy weeks this is exactly what I would like to do. Following Tarjinder Gill’s talk, I have already started with this article on Cognitive Load Theory. Thank you gentlemen! I also appreciated amongst all the ideas flying around at ResearchEd, their reassuring slide on the basics we need to get right.

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  • I next learned that you can’t expect every one of 8 sessions to be completely relevant and useful to your own situation at present. At least one is likely to leave you disappointed. But hey! onto the next one.
  • I was really interested in what Alex Quigley ( @HuntingEnglish ) said. We can make a huge mistake if we assume that a pupil who doesn’t understand a lesson is not academic, when it may just be they don’t yet have the ‘wealth of words’  necessary to stand a chance of understanding. This is definitely worth looking at in geography. We may not have the range of vocabulary science pupils have to get through, but we need to make sure we aren’t excluding pupils from learning because we overlook this problem.

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  • I gained a really clear insight into the problems pupils have learning well on their last lesson of the day. I was filled to the gills with ideas and thoughts. It was almost like my working memory (see I have read that cognitive load theory article, I wasn’t lying) was chock-a. There I was with the Head of OFSTED right in front of me and I cant remember a word (apart from the reassuring part on teacher workload) of what she said. Sorry Mrs. Spielman.
  • Finally a really big ‘Thank you’ to all my colleagues who shared the long uncomfortable school minibus journey into London and back and who I hope will also share some discussions with me in the weeks and terms to come on our excellent day out.IMG_6798


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Pressure – What pressure?

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I don’t want to be but I am worried about tomorrow. My stomach feels full and empty at the same time. But I have a strategy to deal with it.

My pupils’ exam results are published. It’s a big day for them. Two years work reduced to a few grades on a slip of paper in a small brown envelope. It’s hard for them. At 16 it is their first pointer as to how they might do as an adult in the outside world, where they might fit in. Of course at 16 they don’t know properly know the outside adult world of jobs, careers, finances and although they have a vague idea of the big picture, most 16 year olds wouldn’t see the results in that way. It’s much simpler for them. “What grade did I get? What grades did I want? What did my best friend get? Let’s hug.”

But I know the outside world significance of their grades for me. I’ve been through this before. As a teacher you are only as good as your last set of grades. Five years ago my pupils’ grades nosedived. Like an inexperienced man on the top board at the local swimming pool they made an ugly loud splash that made everyone cringe. For 15 years before I had been seen as a good teacher and then overnight I was a bad one.

Interviewed and reinterviewed by SLT, analysed, poked and questioned like a guilty criminal. “Support” was put in a place. Clipboards and nosey faces appeared in my classroom. Scrutinies happened. It was like having the KGB in my lessons. They wanted to know WHAT I WAS DOING WRONG. The latest educational ideas were given as strategies I should employ for every class; conversational feedback, differentiated starter activities, more mini plenaries, learning objectives visible everywhere and at all times. I ran faster and faster around my classroom, my evenings were a swirling gust of marking and planning. My pupils did more and more assessments so I could show to anyone who looked (and lots of people did) how they were progressing and how all those shiny new ideas were working to make me better at my job and results improve. Work became a slog, meetings a frightening strain. Every one of my judgements in the classroom was under the microscope. There was always more I could have done.

I WAS MADE TO FEEL SHIT.

Since then my pupils results have had 3-4 years of being what they were before – pretty good, thank you. On reflection it turns out I didn’t suddenly become a bad teacher. Equally, since then I haven’t been reinvented as great teacher either. I had one bad year. And all those time consuming ideas were at best an inefficient use of my time and maybe just plain pointless. There are an immeasurable amount of  immeasurables that go into making a pupil’s results. A teacher’s ability is just one of these (one of the larger ones for sure) that is all.

So, if like me you are fearful of tomorrow, take a deep breath and clearly think about how hard you worked in the last two years for your pupils. You have more than played your part. Despite how you may have been made to feel results day is for the pupils, not for you nor for the school.  But whether David or Sarah or whoever got their grade or didn’t isn’t the whole definition of whether you can teach or not and certainly isn’t the description of who you are as a person. If you allow yourself to think like that you shrink the beauty of what you do as a teacher and suck all the joy out of your classroom.

Once you have checked the results tomorrow morning; be happy or sad, miffed of delighted and then move on to all the other things that make life so worth living. There’s still more than a week left of the summer holidays for a start.


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“Clarity of mind” meditation

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Overview

This is a mix of Kathleen McDonald’s “Meditation on the Clarity of Mind” Part 3 chapter 2 in “How To Meditate” and Pema Chodron’s ‘Using Thoughts as an Object of Meditation’ in “How to Meditate” p. 70. Any benefit this meditation brings is a result of the understanding and realisations of these two experienced and revered practitioners.

The philosophy behind this meditation (you don’t have to read this, you can skip to the meditation practice itself just below)

Thoughts are not solid. They are not real. The argument you act out in your mind isn’t happening and may well not happen at all. The fine meal you are dreaming of won’t be occurring until next week and when it does it won’t be like the dream you are having about it now anyway. Seeing thoughts like this helps us to escape from the ‘catastrophisation’ that goes on in our head, where we start to believe the negative storylines we invent so they become solid and real to us. We don’t have to deny them entry or squash them deep down to try to forget they exist. Nor do we need to smash them with a hammer or fight them to the ground. Instead we can lightly touch these thoughts, say ‘thinking’ to ourselves and let them dissolve away.

If we are free ourselves of adding a sense of solidity to things that have none we can start to also start to loosen the ties of our ingrained mental habits. When someone mentions our boss we don’t have to run down that overworn path of tales we, without fail, recount of what she will do and say to us. We don’t have to get lost in dreams of “if only” and “how marvellous it would be if …” Seeing thoughts, emotions and feelings as dreamlike relieves us of so much burden. We can begin to understand how all that we create in our mind is less solid than we give it credit for and then we can see how restricted we were, how we made such a big deal about something that does not need to have a hold over us.

Consequently we begin to experience how vast our lives can be when we don’t attach or push away from all our experiences as though they were solid and real. Right there lies true freedom.

The Meditation Practice Itself 

1/ Take up the correct posture via the 6 points we have already learnt. (See previous meditation instruction here if it helps)

  • Feet/Legs
  • Seat
  • Torso/back
  • Hands
  • Eyes
  • Face

“Bring ease to your posture. It’s so important not to get into a major struggle but to simply try to be as relaxed and comfortable as you can. In each of these six points, you want to embody a sense of relaxation, openness and dignity; you want to embody an expression of being awake and confident.” Pema Chodron

2/ Become mindful of your outbreath. The instruction is “Just be aware of the normal and uncontrived outbreath. Follow it, be with it; be aware of it. “ Spend about 5-10 minutes doing this or until you are fully relaxed and aware of the outbreath.

3/ Once your awareness has become sharp turn your attention to the clarity of your consciousness. Your consciousness, or mind, is whatever you are experiencing at the moment; physical sensations, thoughts, feelings, emotions. The nature of each of these experiences is clarity (like a still glass of water). Focus your attention on this clear, pure nature of the mind.

Thoughts will still arise and when they do let them pass through. Thoughts come and thoughts go. Just observe them. Take the same approach with physical sensations, feelings and emotions. They are clear by nature and without substance.

If this is hard at first meditate on a mental image of clarity … Imagine lying on a hilltop and staring up at a sky that is completely clear and free of clouds. Concentrate on this vast unobstructed emptiness, Imagine that it flows down and embraces you and your surroundings; everything becomes empty like space. Hold this experience; feel that the nature of your mind is like this clear empty space.

 

4/ When you finish dedicate any benefit you may have gained from this practice either to all sentient beings or to people you know who themselves are struggling; let go of the result of the meditation as well.

 

Resources:

Kathleen McDonald’s book can be found here

Pema Chodron’s book can be found here

Other sellers other than amazon are of course available

how to meditate pema chodron

 


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“Set Free” by Emma Slade

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This is an excellent read. I loved it. Don’t worry if you think you will be following a  familiar plot; rich career type has road to Damascus moment and sees the error of their ways. This book is not like that at all. At first it seems being held up at gunpoint in a plush Jakarta hotel will be the driving force behind a story of moving from materialism to spiritualism. But the appeal of this story is the normality and honesty of it. It’s not a autobiography of a heroine battling against the odds, but of the author as a fallible yet determined woman learning from errors and trying to break ingrained habits. There are many false starts and choices that lead to dead ends. There are mistakes and compromises throughout. Even reflecting on the hold up Emma’s response is a mental muddle of compassion for the gunman and her own all-encompassing PTSD

Emma (or Pema – her ordained name) story moves back and forward  from quiet Kent and Bhutan to busy London and Hong Kong. Throughout it is a search to find a balance between all the competing demands and expectations of a modern life; between meditation and action, West and East, family and solitariness, physical and spiritual, success and happiness, being a mother and a nun.  Emma Slade has written a book that shows how we can keep all the plates spinning and still have a focus on compassion for ourselves and others. I highly recommend it to you.


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An Attitude to Meditation

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My favourite part of meditation is when I am not “officially meditating” and I notice that gentle and curious awareness I occasionally feel on the cushion arise during a different part of my day. Consequently I loved the chapter in Pema Chodron’s How to Meditate where she talks about are the 5 qualities to bring to your meditation that as a result you should also be able to see develop in your daily life from your meditation.

I also like them because they are a more detailed version of the three approaches she discussed in When Things Fall Apart: precision, gentleness and letting go. (I wrote about this here )

Below is merely some brief notes on what Pema Chodron said with a couple of my own small additions.

Steadfastness

  • It’s like a loyalty to ourselves or more accurately our experiences.
  • It’s an  approach “that whatever comes up, that’s ok”
  • Maybe you sit down and for 20 minutes your mind is a rage. Don’t be hard on yourself, you stayed with that for the whole session, so well done!
  • It’s a gesture of compassion to yourself

Clear seeing

  • In meditation we start to notice when we start to spin off into one of our chains of thoughts. This is clear seeing
  • By being steadfast we begin to see ourselves so much more clearly
  • This clear seeing includes our judgements, our patterns, our opinions, our defence mechanisms and our ingrained habits

Courage

  • The first two qualities lead to this one, but it grows only slowly
  • The courage to experience and not bury and deny  your emotional discomforts
  • The courage to not to cower before your emotional discomforts
  • The courage not to shift into a fantasy or a distraction before your emotional discomforts
  • If we get this courage we can get an insight into how we are or how the world is
  • We can have a minor change in our world view
  • This courage means we can ‘loosen up our conditioning

Being awake to our lives

  • Being awake to the present moment and all the surprises this will always bring
  • We say we like surprise and thrills, but …
  • This is being awake to the next (because there is always another one) embarrassing moment when we lose our composure and patience.
  • It’s about being more flexible and tolerant to the present moment.
  • And with it as a by product comes humour

No big deal

  • Just like that calmness you have when you say ‘thinking’ during a meditation session
  • Don’t make your problems so big you end up running yourself down and wallowing in them
  • Don’t make any progress feel so great that your pride gets in the way and knocks the stuffing out of your practice next time


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Everyone Hurts

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My daughter couldn’t believe it. “You cried? At a song?”

Before I had children and my parents died I had only cried once at a song. I was at Wembley watching Live Aid and was walking back to my friends having pushed my way forward to get a closer look at Queen and David Bowie. The Cars “Drive” played with images from Ethiopia on the big screen. I had my back to the stage but could see the faces of those I passed as they watched the East African horror. I knew what they were seeing and I cried quietly to myself. I was only 18 and, to be honest, uncertain what to do with this emotion. Was I upset with physical sight of suffering; the beach ball bellies and matchstick legs, the flies on babies eye lids? Was it the unfairness of the world?  I had wiped my face clean before getting back to the group. Whatever it was, the crying was genuine, but my wisdom about it was very limited.

Now I am much older I can see both the start and end of lives. I’ve been in maternity wards and talked to funeral directors about flowers and hearses. I ask friends about the health of their frail parents and the exam results of their children.

People throw around lightly the idea that as you get older your experience makes you wiser. Maybe we have seen a situation play out before many times and can ‘intuitively guess’ what will happen next. But it would be a let down if that is all that we pick up. Instead, if we tried to learn from our own experiences maybe we could then more clearly understand what other people are feeling and going through. If  we opened up to our own emotions we would be able to see that everyone else feels the same kind of things too.

In 2004 or 2005 I was in the Guildhall Portsmouth to see Neil and Tim Finn perform. They played ‘Edible Flowers’ — a song from the album they were touring. I had listened to it a couple of times before, but that night when I heard it I sat in my seat and wept. The emotions I was struggling with about my own father’s recent death came through strong in the song and as they beautifully harmonised “Everybody wants the same thing/ to see another birthday, Look at all the pretty numbers/ scattered on the calendars” the tears involuntarily and without warning flowed. It was no effort at all to weep. I had no heaving chest. I felt a terrible sadness but without any sense of unfairness. Neither did I feel bad about myself. Instead of wanting to scream at the world and push it all away, there was a sense of connection. The song was beautiful and I wanted to make every moment of it holy.

In fact The Finn brothers expressing what they felt made my own emotions not only more real but also more natural. Looking back now I see that the music had done what any good piece of art should do and brought people closer together. My situation was so far from unique that it was better described as completely typical and just an unavoidable part of life.

So the pain and hurt I felt was not mine, it wasn’t me. I was not some person you could now solidly and permanently categorise as sad or hurt. Instead the pain was just pain. It came and it peaked, it dipped and it ended, the same as it does for us all. It is not so much that I felt loss but that there is loss. Life brings dissatisfaction, awkwardness and sadness. If we take the personal out of our suffering we see the emotions for what they are; a part of life. This wisdom brings two advantages:

  1. We can see that we are not this emotion we are feeling right now. We are not a sad person a useless person, an unloved person, a forever-making-mistakes person. These feelings of hurt are not personal; they are not us, they do not define us. We can step back and watch them rise and fall and pass and not limit ourselves by labelling the emotion as “me”. This wisdom allows us to be compassionate to ourselves
  2. We can see that everyone else feels these emotions, has this pain and goes through this hurt just like we do. By de-personalising the suffering we can empathise with others and help them with their bad times. This wisdom allows us to be compassionate to everyone else.

All the trash and the treasure/ all the pain and the pleasure.”