The Greatest Gift.

Part one.

The blog has mostly been a diary of disaster and misery, it has been the
place to scream about injustice and illness but that ends here. Whilst not
always completely well, I am happier than I can remember and now live
the corruption and incompetence on a national not institutional setting; it
is removed to distance. From now, the posts will be about life and health
starting with #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.

Teaching gave me many gifts. The greatest of these were the connections I made, the most wonderful of which were with pupils. Sadly, the ineffective safeguarding rules that pervade since the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (by the creature I shall not name) crippled some until I was close to leaving but some connections endure. I am going to tell the story of one unlikely, glorious connection that has healed wounds in me and the ex-pupil and brought us both joy and satisfaction. It has been the greatest gift of my career.

As the first decade of the new millennium closed, I was told (as Head of Science) that a new pupil would join my lower set Year 10 class in September. Although irritated that I had not been asked which group to assign, I accepted that my group would be best when told they had little English. The following Monday, a nervous young blond girl arrived, and we started to try to converse. It was awful. I wanted to welcome and relax her but could not pronounce her name and she couldn’t understand much of my speech. She is called Emese, but this is pronounced Emesha in Hungarian, her native language. Her second name included letter combinations and accents to letters I had never seen, and I couldn’t catch the sounds when she spoke them. The other children had already met her and referred to her as Mesi (pronounced Meshy) and she was content that I adopted that. I now understand that she would find this extraordinarily familiar from a teacher but serendipitously it matched my style: In my classroom formality came in the culture not the form of address to pupils. Mesi was quiet, friendly and interested. She concentrated hard but understood little. I asked for language support, there would be none. I tried google translate, it was a risible failure. I tried sitting our technician with her to help, but it did not help at all despite the best efforts of both. The class were ‘lively’, every time I paused to try to help Mesi, they would begin to chatter and lose focus. I was frustrated and guilty. This girl had been dropped into my class and was barely getting any education at all. Quickly, Mesi started to make an impression with her determination and sheer hard work. Her English rapidly improved (I later found she spent every night in the local library studying) and she began to learn the science. In weeks she had caught up and was leading the class, a phenomenal performance. All homework was perfectly done and she concentrated for every second of the lessons. I began to be a little worried though because she would arrive early for lessons, clearly not socialising at breaks and she looked so sad until I arrived and she could go into the lab ready to start. My safeguarding ‘spidey-sense’ started to tingle: why was she sad? Why was she isolated? Was there a cause for concern? On one day, clearly upset she angrily shouted, “I hate my stepfather!”, she would not elaborate embarrassed at the attention. Although I looked for non-accidental injury and acute distress she always cheered up in the lesson and did well. She never crossed my threshold for intervention. I was wrong. Although not physically abused, she had a difficult home life.

(I shared this with Mesi to check she was content with the story being shared; she kindly gave permission but did not agree with my description of her performance. She pointed out that she always felt underconfident in English, spent most time studying her Hungarian subjects and did not get top-of-the-class results. This last point is certainly true but in my opinion was a function of her understanding of the question paper. Her classroom performance was outstanding. We agreed to leave the comments whilst acknowledging her different opinion.)

Mesi continued to do well, clearly now top of the class, she was the perfect pupil. I moved her to the back corner to bring chattery Sean to the front, away from his peers confident she would continue to do well. When it came to the first exams in November, I asked for translation. The Exam Board said no. I was told it was an English Science Examination and translation is not allowed. I asked for extra time, again not allowed. Other children who had weak reading had readers and one a scribe, the Hungarian got nothing. I was livid. She told me she did not understand some of the questions but had done her best. In December, she arrived excited; she told me she was going home to see her real Dad for Christmas. She was so happy, it was glorious to see, I said farewell and I would look forward to her stories from Hungary when she returned. She didn’t. I did not see Mesi for a decade.

In January, I was given a letter and three bars of chocolate that had been brought to school. The chocolate was delicious, the letter so sweet. Mesi was not coming back, she would live with her Dad in Hungary instead. I was happy for her, it was the right place for happiness and attainment, I was touched by her thoughtfulness.

Of course, I wanted to reply and thank her for the chocolate and wish her well. I should have. I did a stupid thing and went to clear it with the Head as we had been told “no private communication with pupils”, he read the letter, agreed it was a lovely gesture and said the policy was clear: no contact, no reply. I was stunned. How rude would that be? I explained she was no longer a pupil, he reminded me that she was still officially on-roll and could return. He got my clamped-jaw silent about turn and exit. For a few weeks I considered ignoring this instruction but then had an opportunity for permission again. We had Level 1 Safeguarding training led by a Council safeguarding lead and a Child Protection Officer. I would explain and ask them at questions. After the session on sexual exploitation, it was questions, and I made my pitch. It backfired horribly, the Council Officer said no: “not advisable”. Checkmate. I did not have the moral courage to do the right thing and ignore these instructions (I would now) and I would carry a burning guilt that I had let this pupil down after her wonderful thoughtfulness. The guilt would fester and build for almost 10 years. I had got her results, they did not match her ability, I had a photo taken of her class, hoping that I could send them soon. They stayed in my desk as the strictures became stricter: no links on Social Media (why I have always been anonymous), emails, letters or contact of any kind outside school. The problem became buried by the swamp of institutional failure previously documented in previous posts, the Head pushing for a rebuild under PFI. I told him it “would screw the school for six years”, it is still ‘flatlining’ (SM) after nine. The guilt still burned deep in my ‘soul’ feeding the damaging dark saboteur of my mind that I was a vile and cruel human. As I reviewed my career following a breakdown and the decision to take early retirement after a further year of work, that guilt nagged. I searched Facebook and found her name on the profile of a young woman who was a paramedic in Hungary, surely not a coincidence. I sent a message saying who I was and thanking her for the letter and chocolate if she was indeed the ex-pupil of a decade ago. I got an immediate answer.

In Part two, I will bring this story up to date with the most remarkable
friendship and events that flowed form that answer.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Bottom is back.

I haven’t posted for more than a year. I haven’t felt the need. This blog started as a means to scream into the www my frustrations and sometimes my joys of teaching. It evolved into part rage part confessional about my job and my deteriorating mental health. I retired early: that took care of the job! (Subsequent events at my school demonstrated that I was right about almost everything. They are still in ‘Special Measures’, still shrinking, still subject to a MAT that are demonstrably clueless about improving or even administering this type of school, still having ‘re-organisations’ and redundancies; not SLT of course, and still wrecking lives. But not mine!) It still matters to me, but not very much any more. I did my best for 33 years there, I share only a tiny part of the responsibility for this failure.

I was going to broadcast my ‘pearls of wisdom’ from 35 years of teaching. Fortunately, I realised quickly that such an exercise was self-indulgent and pointless. Who am I? Just a broken, old ex-teacher with experience of just three schools and in-depth insight into one. I claim no especial wisdom and know that virtually no-one is listening anyhow. Even if they were, teaching is particularly prone to ‘re-inventing the wheel’ endlessly and making the same old mistakes. It is the epitome of a Sisyphean enterprise. Within weeks, I chose to shut up about education. I rarely tweet on the subject anymore, I just watch the same old ‘debates’ reworked and the snake-oil peddlers carry on squeezing their grift from a deliberately chaotic system. Education and health have been skillfully transformed from a guaranteed public service to a fragmented, part-privatised, semi-market opportunity for syphoning tax revenues into the pockets of the rich and maintaining the privilege of the Establishment. I think they are probably past saving from the slide to emulation of the US influence and often, ownership.

I was going to blog about my journey of recovery from depressive illness. I didn’t recover. I am only now learning to live with it in a positive and safer way. It has been a dangerous, unhappy but ultimately rewarding and possibly life-enhancing journey. I will detail a brief update here.

TW suicidal content follows:

After the UK’s last General Election result, I became very depressed. Several factors worked synergistically to accentuate the episode to a near fatal intensity. Firstly, it was December: I am always affected by winter and the Christmas/New Year period; it is a struggle to avoid sadness and hopelessness. This sometimes encourages depressive episodes. Secondly, I immediately understood what this meant for us. I expected 100,000 extra deaths, increased poverty, continued erosion of healthcare standards, continued removal of civil liberties and citizen’s rights and no action on the Climate and Ecological Crisis. Sadly, 16 months later events have shown I was wildly overoptimistic: it is much, much worse than I imagined. I could not face my Tory/Brexit acquaintances, their attitudes, beliefs and complacency made me upset and their casual racism and victim-blaming enraged me. I cut them off. I left my lifelong hobby of sailplane soaring (I was already on a pause after getting too fat!) which was also my social circle. It left me less angry and offended but even more isolated. The depression got worse. When moderately depressed, I have suicidal thoughts. The more depressed I get, the more they dominate my mind. Eventually, I will simply lie in bed planning ways to kill myself; I have many detailed plans, fully resourced at home. I got very depressed. By now, feeling that I was losing my mind again – losing the primacy of my conscious and rational self, I made a huge effort to bathe, dress and go for a walk. Walks have always helped; they are powerful medicine for the mind. I drove to town and went to a central (multi-storey) car park, to leave the car and walk through the shops and to the beach. Unconsciously, I drove to the top instead of the usual 1st floor. I got out and instead of buying a ticket went to ‘look at the view’. I felt a sudden rush of an overwhelming urge to throw myself from the top. I held on to the parapet and looked down: people! I would hurt someone! I backed away but had the urge to look from the other sides. Fortunately, there were bystanders on each side. I had been observed and an attendant had appeared from the stairs and was standing watching me. Rationality returned and I returned to the car and left (it now has tall fencing on the top, some have not survived these urges). Shaken and shocked by how powerful this urge was and how it had ‘ambushed’ my consciousness, I carefully drove to the beach at a town a few miles North. Leaving the car, I subconsciously noted it was a strong ebb tide (I used to sail there) enhanced with a powerful flow of the estuary from the winter rain. Probably 4-6 kts. I knew the beach shelved rapidly there, scoured by the emerging estuary, I think in hindsight, my subconscious had guided me here for these reasons because once again, I had an all-consuming urge to run into the sea. I knew that in a few seconds it would be irrecoverably fatal: I would be swept out faster than I could swim, I would never regain the shore. The cold would numb muscles in less than 5 minutes and I would float out to sea until drowning as a result of the ensuing hypothermia. My rational self struggled to find reasons to defer. It was daylight. There were bystanders. They would summon the lifeboat. I might be rescued with the attendant horror of a survived “attempt”. I returned to the car completely terrified. I was out of control and in severe danger. In shock, I drove to my local health centre for an emergency meeting with my doctor. I don’t remember the drive at all, it was entirely automatic. My mind was ‘frozen’ in fear. I arrived to an empty car park and went to the door. It was locked. Confused, I finally worked out that it was Saturday and they were shut. I drove home and went back to bed.

When they opened, I made an appointment having remained in bed for the interval. Immediately I felt better: help was on its way. By the time of the consultation (I declined an emergency appointment with a locum and waited for the doctor I had consulted when first ill) I was recovered. I recounted the problem and was prescribed a higher dose of SSSI and referred to MHT. I was reminded that I could have an emergency appointment anytime. 4 months later and increasingly well with the drugs, the springtime, the psychic shock of how dangerously ill I had been and a fatalism that the suffering and death was inevitable (and now rapidly accelerated as the long-awaited airborne viral pandemic emerged), I finally had a phone consultation with a Mental Health Nurse for triage. Of course, I was discharged back to GP and recommended to self-refer to talking therapies. I didn’t. The sad point here is that MHS are so overburdened and under-resourced that they are fairly pointless unless you actually attempt self-harm and fail to succeed. The real MHS emergency services are Primary care and the Police.

Anyway, I continued to improve. I have had some mild depressive episodes and one moderate one but 15 months later I am still well, often happy and the whole episode has proven remarkably protective of the tragedy of a mismanaged Pandemic, the prohibition on visiting my demented Mother, the isolation and the Tsunami of avoidable suffering and death.

I have completed the transition to “Yesterday’s Man”, contentedly useless and filling my days with ways to maintain joy and peace of mind whilst waiting for (a hopefully long postponed) death. I have begun to be creative and am quite brutal in ensuring that I don’t retain toxic friendships. I try to do ‘good deeds’ each day to convince the “Dark saboteur” of my subconscious that I am not a cunt (which is how he/me refers to me) and life is fairly good.

I have chosen to update because I now have some other things to say. Another view from the bottom is coming…..

0

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

View from the dark side.

Trigger warning: I wrote this when my mental self-monitor diagnosed that I was moderately unwell. It includes description of my depressive episodes. It also includes monumental pomposity.

I am an old, white, straight, ‘normal’ male.

Sometimes.

Sometimes I am a dark, bleak, inward-facing entity, immobile for safety of self and society in a tiny hole that encompasses my small and smaller life. Sometimes I lie in a semi-doze idly evaluating the likely effect of the coefficient of friction and the architecture of knots on the efficiency of a noose. Sometimes the bare routines of hygiene and nutrition are olympic tasks. The effort of existing overwhelming. The only resonance of my ‘soul’ echoes Kipling’s famous inscription of neo-Victorian clichéd masculinity (and misogyny):

“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone.

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the will which says to them, ‘Hold on!'”

Mostly, I am a chameleon. Adapting to my social setting to blend in as the expected jovial, mildly ascerbic pseudo-intellectual old parent and ex-teacher. I use the ‘auto-pilot’ in varying degrees to meet expectation whilst viewing my performance with commensurate degrees of detachment; sometimes with that sabotaging internal monologue that becomes strong enough at times as to feel schitzophrenic. I automaton my way through existence, successfully making a perfect portrait of ‘normal’ life. I am a real-life virtual impressionist in the minds of those I meet. They can’t see the velvet-black curtains that are drawn a crack for their benefit: they see the show on the stage of their perception. It keeps us all comfortable.

Mostly, they don’t see me at all. Solitude holds no fears for me. It is less tiring, freer, safer, calmer. Nature is my medicine (alongside SSRI), evolutionary artistry my inspiration for awe. I used to experience it through hillwalking and soaring, now through walking and bird-watching. I have been withdrawing from society through enforced and voluntary change, an evolution which is curiously beautiful and bleak, lovely and lethal: the “sweet and sour” of the soul. I am not busy. The reward of retirement comes with the bill of semi-isolation to be exploited by the introvert to relinquish the exhibition of gregariousness.

More rarely, I relax. I bask in the glow of joy. I feel the rush of motivation of projects to progress, immerse myself in the intricacies of their completion and make plans for my future. Plans. Big plans. New plans. Ephemeral plans, whispy, gossamer-threaded twists of possibility that will not survive the day. Fantasy plans. The episodes of impermanent serenity merely serve to illustrate their absence in the monotony of life’s passage; the mental metronome unbalanced in its swinging.

As I have developed this variety of realities my mind becomes more distrustful of any. What *is* my reality? Is it illness or perspicacity? My self monitor grows slowly more independent: less trustful of its mental host. We are all me, but we watches we closely, to estimate the degree of warp in perspectives that influence my reality. Am I mad? sad? bad? Reality becomes difficult to grasp when it writhes fluidly among its clones.

I function. Invisibly wrestling with my own mind whilst exercising the privileges and responsibilities of a home owner, a neighbour, an Attorney for a vulnerable Mother, a driver, a taxpayer, a voter, a campaigner, a father, a friend. I hide the conflict and camouflage the distress. No-one knows. Nearly no-one. My best friend and ex-partner guesses. Usually accurately. She has saved me in the past. A new friend far away also sometimes guesses. I admit when I am ill if these friends ask. I would admit the same if most aquaintancies asked. They don’t. I fool them. All the time. They are too busy to look closely, too separate to comfortably enquire as to my sanity. They should.

So what is the point of this pretentious, florid confessional, liberally seasoned with alliteration and polysyllabic words to give a parody of intellectual insight? To ostentatiously proclaim my wisdom? To seek sympathy for an invisible torment? To manipulate my image for some obscure design?

No.

The urge to write here has always had the same origins: clarifying my thoughts through inscription, raging at my frustrations (the fatigue of being ‘normal’ is the worst frustration) and pompously offering ‘advice’ or ‘information’ as if I ever had some special insight. (Patently ridiculous). It is also a product of emotional turmoil, sometimes darkly venting the inky blackness onto an imaginary page.

But there is always a message. This message is about the complete futility of sharing those numbers, of saying “its ok not to be ok”, its fucking not I assure you. The pointlessness of saying “its good to talk” to someone engaging in mental maskirovka. The pure redundancy of platitudes. I used to think “tired of living” was an amusing cliché, not a condition of life. But it is. The overwhelming effort of ‘being normal’ really wears one down. So how can you save a ‘tortured soul’? The answer is above.

Look for your friends. Where are they? What are they like? Are they fading away? Are they angry and irrationally irritable? Are they unaccountably emotional? Silent? Strained? Watch them in the unguarded moment when the mask is eased, is it them or a familiar role play? Know them, feel them, watch them. Call them and ask them.

If they are “fine”, they’re not. If they are “Ok”, they may be close to ‘Ko’. Ask again. Then see them.

Ask twice. And listen. Carefully.

You can catch them.

I hope you do. At least once.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The gift of Dementia.

My Mother is contentedly demented. Bedbound, near blind and doubly incontinent. She must be fed, cleaned and changed by others. She is no longer capable of rational communication and has no understanding of her situation, no power to decide her fate. No ability for liberty.

This has been a generous gift.

She was a fiercely independent woman. An ex-teacher, single Mother and bloody-minded, domineering, violent, loving, generous, funny, talented, self-centered, bullying, loyal, manipulative, clever, creative, caring enigma. Only animals proved capable of permanently living with her but she had a very wide circle of devoted friends, until she reminded them of mortality and incapacity at least.

I respected her, liked her sometimes, felt a filial duty to her. But I didn’t love her. I do now. I see her almost every day, often with my best friend, and I laugh. My Mum and I laugh. A lot. We sing. She can remember the words and tune to so many songs but can not assemble a sentence or retain a thought on her own. At Christmas, I feed her. I used to take her out in the wheelchair sometimes but the dementia robbed her of positional awareness that made her motion-sick. She howls in distress when she is moved partly owing to the falling feeling from this and partly because of fear through lack of understanding.

The carers in her Nursing Home are heroic. Young men and women on minimum wage, cleaning shit off old people all day. Being grabbed, scratched, pinched, sworn at and sometimes treated as servants, they maintain a calm, compassionate, careful treatment of the human wreckage they look after. I am humbled by their devotion. Examples of their amazing care include: two girls singing to my Mum when they change her because she will automatically join in instead of wailing in distress. Endless patience and the ability to see a human when answering the buzzer for the 144th time in an exhausting 12 hour shift. Calling in as they go past to say hello, repairing her stuffed toy when she damages it, never losing patience when she pulls out her soiled pad in confusion and compassionately guiding us, the relatives through ‘the process’ of final care. They make relationships with life-limited men and women, see them die, clean their corpse and attend their funerals.

To see this demonstration of the very best of humanity in these acid times is a gift of perspective.

The gargantuan gift of Mum’s dementia is the manner of her dying. She aggressively maintained that she would never be “put in a home”, she would “walk into the sea first”. I unkindly reminded her that she couldn’t walk that far and couldn’t find the sea anyway. When she lost her mind, she lost an awareness of her situation. To begin with, we had distressing conversations when she asked if I had “come to take her home” but she soon lost the concept of home as her mind melted away. The ability to render her to professional nursing and domestic care lifted the burden I had been under balancing her mounting incapacity with her ill-tempered refusal to accept carers since her Doctor contacted me at work as she kept trying to make appointments for her dog at his surgery. The subsequent diagnosis of mixed dementia (vascular and Alzheimer’s disease) was unsurprising but unhelpful. I had already cleaned the dog biscuits out of the washing machine, been to find her car that she lost in a car park, been called in the night to ‘fix’ the broken central heating by turning it on, placed reminder notes everywhere, bought a calendar clock (“when are you taking me to the Doctors?””Tomorrow Mum, Tuesday””What day is it today?””Monday Mum, its on your clock!””Yes, but I don’t really know what that means”). Endless worry, trouble, guilt, resentment and mourning. Finally, she had a ‘stroke’ and became completely infirm. The Hospital insisted on discharge to 24 hour nursing care, surprised when I was relieved and grateful.

My Mums dementia has allowed her to slowly slip away, to enter oblivion in minute stages, unaware. It has ensured professional care and safety. It had allowed me to come to terms with her death and given me time to prepare.

Most of all, it has given me time to fall in love with the best parts of my Mum, to have happy times, to learn about her life anew (by clearing her effects and going through every drawer, letter and object). To understand some of her contradictions, to gain a new respect for her achievements.

She is still with us, just. More in (ravaged) body than soul, but still here, still slowly leaving.

For us, dementia has been a gift that keeps giving.

For others it may be a cruel torment, but that is not automatic. Do not fear dementia. As with all diseases, especially life-limiting ones, it is the management that is the main determinant of its experience.

And thank a carer of the old and infirm, they are amazing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Chaos, Corruption and Lies of so-called School Improvement.

It finally happened. Ofsted turned up to inspect my old school and published the report today. “Special Measures” again. I wont link to the report directly; you can find it if you dig. There are lovely pupils I taught last year and fine ex-colleagues that are still struggling to conduct learning amid the sea of incompetence. They don’t need my drop of excreta labelled to add to the shower of sewage that now descends upon them.

Lets recap. Six years ago a weak LA school was branded SM in an incompetent inspection. It may have been 4 as it had been 3 for some time, but the informal comments of inspectors to me, showed prejudice and their disorganisation showed incompetence. After a ridiculous episode of Consultant input largely by Education London and risibly inaccurate reports of progress by HMI the results resembled a Stuka. It was academised. The CEO lambasted the failure of the LA and promised everything. Some promises were quickly shown to be false, other falsehoods unfolded over time.

Within a year, it was starkly apparent that the Trust had no clue how to improve a school such as this. None. The CEOs pay rapidly increased, the Trust rapidly expanded. The standard of education, especially pupil behaviour remained awful, the rolls fell, the turnover increased. Vast amounts of money were thrown at SLT by a CEO searching for a magic bullet. He bought pop-guns. The redundancies (that had been promised would not happen) rolled on and an ever bigger fantasy of ‘improvement’ was writ large. It fooled no-one except the officials in LA, Trust and Ofsted who were responsible for clearing up the mess they had created.

The corruption: Vast amounts of money have been spent over years to people to improve the school. They have all done the same useless things, I can’t list them all in a short blog but start with ‘pupil’s poor behaviour is because staff don’t deconflict confrontations’ continue with disciplinary action if they intervene in assaults, extend into INSET on VAK, Dales pyramid, Blooms, endless observations and finish with 6 weekly exams, data drops and ‘interventions’. Sprinkle instructions about the colour of teachers’ pens and the design of their ppt slides and you get the idea. This has happened year after year as the failure increased. It has involved millions of pounds, it has resulted in massive pay increases for those at the ‘top’ with pay cuts and redundancy for the poor to help pay for it. To me, this is the kind of corruption we denigrate in failed states.

Chaos: The pupil conduct by a significant minority of pupils was extremely poor when I was there. It was seen mostly on the corridor, in the toilets and at breaks. The school was not a safe place. This was regularly pointed out by teachers, pupils and parents to all and sundry including, I am reliably told, Ofsted. It got worse after I left (some of my friends are still there). No-one believed the initiatives, pronouncements and proclaimations as we all knew they would vanish in a month. It was ‘groundhog day’ in something resembling St. Trinians. Most children were lovely, bright and full of potential. This is robbed from them by the damaged few and the inadequate attempts to contain and control their antisocial behaviour.

The lies: Are legion. So many, for so long. They continue today. In a news report I read a Trust representative claiming the behaviour seen by Ofsted was atypical. It was, I am told the children behaved much better during the inspection. The community, teachers and pupils were told things repeatedly that were false. I am aware of data being managed to give false impressions to Trust, LA and I would assume, Ofsted. Every time a new leader or consultant arrived google would show that their claims of effectiveness and experience were at best exaggerated. Denial is not an effective management strategy.

So what now? I don’t see the likelihood of the obvious solution arriving. The experience of GYCA with the arrival of Barry N Smith would work at this similar school. A colleague who also left last year visited GYCA recently, giving me an extensive report. If something along these lines does not occur, I see no future for the school: it is essentially bankrupt in every concievable way. A local free school will kill it off. Already a generation of pupils have been failed by this corrupt, chaotic and lying ‘school improvement’ system. I fear this will continue.

For accuracy, there was a thoroughly competent and compassionate SLT with impeccable integrity present for part of this period. They were  quickly disposed of.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

FWIW: My career-Heroic futility.

I am enjoying my first week of early retirement after 35 years of teaching, 33 at the same school. I will be writing a series of posts on what I have learned about the job in that period. They will be a series prefixed FWIW because they are. I have nothing to prove and nothing to gain, I am simply sharpening my axe.

This post is an introduction; to outline my experience which informs my perspective on the other topics.

My real name is Dean. I recently began to consider myself a Blackpudlian though not a “Sandgrownun” as I have lived and worked in Blackpool for almost 40 years. I was married to a Blackpool girl, had two Blackpool kids and had a lifelong love/hate relationship with the place. I went to school in Blackpool when we moved into a couple of rooms in my Grandparent’s house following my Mothers divorce in 1973. My ex-wife and her family went to the school I taught at before I joined the staff, her relations, my children and her further child all attended whilst I taught there. No, it wasn’t awkward, except for my kids, a bit. I wont name the school or other staff as the current pupils and teachers are still struggling to succeed and don’t need more criticism. Therefore, as much as I am burning to name and shame the guilty, I can’t. Too much collateral damage.

I first went to ‘my’ school as a PGCE student in 1983, I taught there for a term. I adored it. I believed I had found my vocation. I was yet to appreciate the difference a 60% timetable with no Tutor group makes to workload. The school were impressed and the Head of Science (yes, I am a science teacher) wanted to give me a job. In the end, the Head awarded the points to another dept. (ask an old Head) and there was no job. I still meet two colleagues from that time for lunch occasionally.

After passing the PGCE, I went to Roby Comprehensive in Huyton: a baptism of fire. I survived, just. My new wife, new son and I lived in a council flat on the St. John’s estate off Wilson road. Yes, it was Harold’s constituency. The school was merged with Page Moss to form Bowring Comprehensive; I saw masterful Headship manage this transition. A job came up at Blackpool, they remembered me. I came back.

I started at the same time as the new Head, a pivotal figure whom I enthusiastically supported in spite of my ambivalence to some of his actions and oppostion to those I believe to be corrupt. After a few years I was asked to be a Senior House Tutor (unpaid) as I believed pastoral care was my ambition and forte. A year later I was appointed Head of House (temporary 2yrs). For a term I floundered. This is the only period I felt overpaid, for the rest of my career it has been entirely the reverse. I learn quickly, I recruited a great team, focussed and trained Tutors and learned the true horror of some kids lives and sadly, very rarely, their deaths. I felt deeply fulfilled and had clearly ‘made a difference’. The first hint of futility came when the incumbent wanted his job back, the Head’s wife who he had appointed to the same role felt uncomfortable with my contrasting approach and, to the shock of my peers though not to myself my term ended at the expiry of the temp. contract. The incumbent re-took post, tried to maintain some of the improvements, ditched others and all of that effort evaporated. He tried to get me to continue some of it but understood when stung by this vote of not enough confidence I sat on my bat and ball.

What could the Head do to keep me in the hamsterwheel? He showed his exquisite negotiating skill by tempting me with Head of PSHE, he invented the post for me and pitched the pay just high enough for me to be unable to refuse. I resentfully accepted, determined to show what a mistake he had made in ‘demoting’ me, as he well knew. I also joined the Governing body. Five years of improvement in curriculum, resources, training, networking, partnerships and parental involvement ended when he needed a competent Head of Science pronto. He pitched an offer I couldn’t refuse. Again. A friend and colleague maintained the programme for a couple of years before joining me in science leadership. The job was dissolved again the development futile once more.

Just to be clear, the first promoted paid post I won in competitive interview, the second in sole interview, the last was simply a negotiation about terms.

I spent 14 years leading science. I had the best teams of teachers one could wish for. Many are now my friends. We made the department and school better and better. From a starting point of high 20% A*-C we reached 58% in 2001, higher than national (at that time). Our SAT results were consistently above national average. Together the Head and our team had made a cracking little community comprehensive. I was happy that my children chose to come to my school (it was their choice). I would reccommend the school to anyone then. It was considered among the best in Blackpool and equal to most in the County.

I left the Governing body after two terms of 4 years when I felt I had compromised myself and jeopardised the school: Rolls were rising, the Authority wanted to expand schools, the Head wanted the money (in more ways than one), I needed more labs. The deal was: expand the school, have more money, build more labs. I voted against, the only governor so to do. The Authority pleaded, the next year I made it unanimous, knowing it to be a great hazard to the continuing improvement. I felt dirty, almost bribed by a building programme and fearful.

It was the beginning of the end. You can’t expand a school by 50% in 3 years, manage a major building programme and maintain standards, far less improve them further. The school became unruly, results stayed high for a while but ominously, turnover took off. The Head took early retirement. The acting Head stupidly wasnt given an interview, an incompetent was hired.

I despairingly worked for, no longer with this individual for a further 9 years struggling to halt the slow slide in results. We hired some of the best teachers I have ever seen. I tried to persuade him of the unwisdom of so many of his ideas and flat refused to implement others. Eventually, along with a rebuilding of the school (tombstone) he designed a re-organisation of departments to ‘Learning Zones’ I quit leadership, a bit surprised when he seemed upset by this.

It was a disaster. Within a year Ofsted condemned the place, a year later he quit. The school was academised, the same failed approaches tried, the same failure, the next Head was moved, the same failed approaches tried, the results fell off a cliff, I quit. The school is no longer the place we loved. It is souless, cold, brutal. A clusterfuck of failure and failures in a pretty (useless) new building.

All of that heroic effort wasted, futile.

But not for the individual pupils at the time…..

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Good-bye to all that.

I am sitting in the Art-deco cafe, overlooking the italian gardens and fountains of my local municipal park, trying to understand how I feel on my last results day.

Like many of the best sensations it is a blend of antagonists: sweet and sour, pride and regret, bitter-sweet. For the first time I share my pupils’ joy of achievement, uncertainty of future and the chill exposure of exclusion from my former working life.

I have had a good summer. I have relaxed in the knowledge that I will no longer have to endure the stupidity of my former MAT or SLT, but there is regret. I will miss teaching, miss pupils and miss some former colleagues.

It was the best results day that I can remember, certainly since 2001. The highest attaining gained their 9s, those that deserved it and more than them, were awarded 5 or above. Few had the first life-changing horror of abject failure. This is not because the school did well, it is an artefact of assessment change  I don’t care: ths kids got what they deserved. That is what counts.

After a multitude of hugs, tears and best wishes I said good-bye to the children I have seen grow for five years. Fine young men and women, mostly equipped for life. We are proud. And sad, sad that our lives will diverge, that our schooldays are gone for good, that friends will fade and that the familiar will dissolve.

On the Graves theme: for me it is a “Good-bye to all that”, for my school sadly not; the nonsense continues. I am now apart. I am of a new future; the past has passed. I will continue to tweet and blog about education for a further year but will then stop.

People who do not teach for most of the week do not understand how the job feels, what it truly entails, demands and costs. We all work hard and bear immense responsibility but survival or success in the classroom is particular. Those not currently engaged in this endeavour should not dare to comment, still less direct. The CoT is bankrupt from inception, consultants possibly able to help with education but not teaching. My knowledge and skill will fade, my experience become less relevant. I will fade.

This is how it should be. The old make way for the young. My goodness do I trust them more than my contemporary generation.

So, its goodbye from me (Dean), and its goodbye from him (Ned Bottom)…

…In a year.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Mental weather.

A year ago I went mad. 

The doctor said I had had “some sort of breakdown”, prescribed anti-depressants and signed me off work for (eventually) a few weeks. I was diagnosed as suffering depression. I vividly remember losing control of my mind, thoughts and actions for a few hours and having my outlook, thoughts and emotions warped for weeks. It is a frightening thing to be the plaything of one’s subconscious; to not be ‘in the driving seat’ of one’s mind. It permanently reduces one’s confidence in ‘reality’. In retrospect, I came to see that I had flirted with this kind of crisis a few times before through the twisting journey of my life but had never been pushed to illness.

Whilst applying mental ‘splints and sticking plaster’ my GP also offered me surgery to my circumstances to provide a cure: he suggested I think about early retirement. I had been thinking about it for a while and readily agreed that I would. In a year. This helped the pension but more importantly, let me believe that it was a choice rather than a ‘defeat’. Truly, it is really a bit of both. He left me a lifeline of more drugs, more time off, CBT and a priority of appointment if I started to ‘wobble’.

So how have I managed with my mental illness over the last year? 

That is like asking what the weather has been like since last year. The facts are: I haven’t had another day off. I am still on the pills. I asked for more at Easter but he thought I could cope (the mental weather brightened up between the appointment and consultation). I have. Just. 

I am probably in a similar state to last year except I have a new knowledge of my limits and consequences of staying out in the mental rain and sleet whilst watching the approaching hurricane. I take action to look after myself, I rely on friends, I see the signs to which I had hitherto been blind, I murder the negative thoughts, I live more in the now. All of this has helped me dance along the precipice of illness without falling. So far.

The biggest medicine was the end, the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’. I had hoped that it would co-incide with the rescue of my school by a new Head. Alas, this one proved to be another sham; the school is sinking further by the week: that is the defeat, the shame, the somber regret. The end is simply the end of my career. It provides armour against the idiocy of managerialism, stiffens my spine to say “no, I don’t think I will thank you” like I used to. (The last time I did this was when I refused to use sub-levels for tracking as they lacked any validity, when I stopped leading my department I was forced to adopt them and have ‘played the game’ for the last 5 years). It supplies ‘resilience’ for the daily doses of abusive and unruly pupils that make a couple of classes an ordeal. It shines as the reward for endurance and as a beacon for the impermanence of work inspired torture. It lets me see that all is temporary and ultimately ephemeral.

Could I have completed my service? I think so. If my leaders had made behaviour the sole priority, if they had ‘stood in the door’ against the stupidity of the MAT, if they had been institutionally compassionate and kind (as opposed to individually so), the school would be a different environment and the culture a support for staff not a threat. If I worked in a good school I would be better, maybe not wholly well but better. The weather would be calmer. There is an exodus this year: my department will have three vacancies. Since the ‘grapevine’ learned I was quitting I have had job offers at the two other local schools, one has three vacancies, one two. They are no better: it was instant refusal. The teacher shortage will now kill these schools: until MATs, leaders and managers realise that they must nurture their staff they will bleed to death.

I am not immune to further breakdown: a sudden storm could sweep me away still but there is a “red sky at night” a reason for hope of a cure. A big contributor to my stinking weather will stop: climate change is coming.

I am stoically optimistic.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Poor will pay.

Recently, my school revealed it’s plan for the third re-organisation in five years. It shared all the features of the rest: protecting SLT and imposing redundancy, pay cuts and extra duties for those who are allowed to apply for the re-hashed contracts of freshly merged departments. It and those who promote it are, in my opinion immoral. It shares the worst features of commercialism and ‘managerialism’ that has been infiltrated into our society over the last thirty years.

Over the past three years, as an Academy, the pay for the Principal role has increased by more than 25%. The school has not improved and will be found inadequate at it’s next inspection. It has a large deficit and falling rolls. This is payment for failure. It is also an indictment of the MAT’s monitoring: as with the incompetent monitoring when it was a LA school in SM which said that progress was being made with a plan ‘fit for purpose’, only recanted when the final results revealed what the teachers all knew. The MAT sends in teams of ‘ex-HMI’ to inspect progress; they report that it is on-track to gain good soon. This is risible and will be a testament to their incompetence when exposed next year.
The plan protects this pay increase as the school shrinks, it protects the swollen SLT numbers, pay and roles in spite of the deficit. It also protects the ‘lead practitioner’ appointments on leadership pay to recruit ‘the best’ (any) teachers. So who will pay for this management inflation? Who will pay for the deficit exacerbated by it? The poor. The poor will pay.

Those non-teaching support staff earning less than £20k usually on a pro-rata term time only basis (i.e. about £16k or lower) face redundancy or pay cuts of up to 25% if they apply for the new posts with the additional duties. If they don’t they are redundant without compensation (a week’s pay for each years’ service). Where there are multiple workers their numbers are halved, where there is one it seems a lottery whether they are retained on the new poverty pay. This is immoral.

What justification can be attempted for this butchery? The usual managerial mantra: the bosses need more money to attract the best, the rest need pay cuts to ‘make savings’. This is added to by the curriculum axe: cut Drama, Music, Art, PE, History, Geography, RE, ‘options’. Focus only on English, Mathematics and Science with the requisite add-ons for ‘progress 8 buckets’. 

There is a close correlation between power, pay and protection. Also between powerlessness, poverty and disposability. It is true that savings must be made to remediate the incompetent supervision, governance and management by one LA, one MAT, two Governing bodies and three Leadership teams. So prune the powerful: ‘data’ is not immediately relevant, it is unreliable in this GCSE flux. It will not improve results of final exams or inspection. It and the data directed interventions are redundant and the SLT that impose it, analyse it and prevent real improvement with unproductive work. The school is shrinking. This used to be linked to Head’s pay. Cut the principal’s pay: it is a six figure salary, they can afford it and are clearly not earning it. Delete Lead Practitioner roles, make it a place people want to work in.

How can this be allowed? Thrice? Lack of accountability. My school is a temporary stop-off for carpet bagging charlatans as they wreak their havoc across the system. I predict that this Principal will move on before the excuses run out having ‘turned around another failing school’. I predict that the highly paid will move on to another institution to enact more immoral instructions: they are “only obeying orders”. Does the plan affect me? No, I am a well paid teacher in a shortage subject with a track record of success with hard groups and a deep subject knowledge but yes, it tortures me with the injustice.

The final defeat? The staff won’t reject it, the powerful will enact it the powerless endure it.

Ultimately, the poor and powerless in my community that have no option but to send their children to my school will pay. Always the poor, the poor will pay.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

It takes one to *know* one.

I am coldly furious.

Furious at the fact that I keep meeting old friends and colleagues that have also fallen prey to mental Ill-health and are in various degrees of distress or recovery.

Furious that a trickle of damaged colleagues seems to be turning into a steady stream with every reason to believe that at some schools it will be a flood.

Furious that the Heads and SLT wring their hands whilst deploying the SS defence: “We were only obeying orders”. Heads have unprecedented power in schools; they are either honest, moral, compassionate and humane or they are not. Crocodile tears that their position is vulnerable as every teachers is, arguably more arbitrarily, are bitter to the rest of us as they leave with the large pension and/or payoff that rivals the mean salary of the staff that remain.

Furious at the lie that Special Measures improves schools and OFSTED are a neutral monitor.

Furious at the explosion of pay and positions of these illness inducing apparatchicks whilst schools wail about funding and the necessity for economy, as usual sliding the responsibility to the external entity of Government, governance or Trust. As is ever the case: workers’ pay must be restrained so that managers’ pay is inflated all in the name of competition. As the shortages bite, some are relieved of this constraint but that simply squeezes the rest, especially the semi-redundant non-“ebacc” teachers.

Most furious of all at the havoc caused to the innocents by the destruction in the health of their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons or daughters. Their world is shaken by the earthquake of uncomprehended change in their loved one. Family are hard hit by illness but when it is of the mind it is subversive, invisible and directly threatening. I am not an expert on any mental illness except my own depression but I would like to offer some general thoughts which I hope will help the spectators of distress that form the collateral damage of workplace inspired mental illness to have hope that there is a happy ending to work for and that their loved one is still there; not different, just sick.

I don’t agree with the definitions of depression that the NHS publishes; they talk about persistent low mood, most of the small circle of fellow sufferers that I try to help (and vice-versa) had no mood: they were reduced to automaticity by the corrosive long-term stress. One of them had planned his own demise in exceptional detail, but the rest had no such ideas. They were mentally sleepwalking to disaster thinking that they were coping. All of them had personality change, principally irritability and lack of enthusiasm for family life. They had fatigue and lack of concentration, an inability to plan for the future, insomnia and varying degrees of anxiety. They were glum but not sad, and distracted. Most tried to work their way out of distress, increasing their hours to try to manage the unpredictable. All of them distressed their families.

All of my colleagues are in various stages of recovery, as am I. Mental illness is common, can affect anyone (just like infection) and is treatable: recovery is very, very usual. But it takes time. Quite a lot of time and huge patience. I urge anyone with any of the issues above to see their GP, they are great and very used to seeing these conditions; they can really help: they want to help. If you feel that the change in your loved one may be permanent it almost never is, they are the same its only the behaviour that has changed due to their unusual thinking caused by their illness: they will come back to you. Eventually. If you worry that they mostly seem OK and perhaps the extra strain that they are causing the family is unwarranted please try to be patient: they are not OK and it takes treatment and time to become less fragile and able to fully feel secure. If you think they are being lazy, this sickness robs you of the concentration and motivation to function. If you think they have lost interest in you (and for partners: interest in sex), it’s not them it’s the condition. If anything they love and need you more. If you think that they are flawed, they aren’t: they are normal. I think I can design regimes that would eventually cause anyone to break, I have seen a lot of the necessary components. I may not be able to break psychopaths as empathy seems to be a requirement for the stressful measures to work. But I have seen so many diverse personalities succumb, I think few can avoid the inevitable outcome. They will not become dependent on the medication, but may need its support for an extended period. They may not feel that talking therapies are helping but eventually they usually do. Ultimately, they may even be better than before: they will have a deep and perspicacious insight into their own mind and will be more resistant to relapse.

They may not be able to continue with their career long term in they way they had formerly planned but few will feel unable to work. They will value their family and friends with a new insight. They will get better, they are ‘worth it’ and they are so so sorry that they had to put you through all of the confusion and fear; they will forever feel guilty about that. They shouldn’t: it wasn’t their fault, it was the monsters at work that brought it about.

On a personal note: if I could go back in time and stop the breakdown, I wouldn’t. I think I am far more likely to have a happy life in future than would have been the case without it. But then I saw my Doctor, had treatment and the support of good friends. My future is bright, but I am still fucking furious!

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments