Sunday, 26 November 2017

Musings from one month of teaching


It's just like being back at school. Though you have no option but to do the work, but at least you don't have any exams. I've realised that it would be easier to just do my GCSEs again.

I've only ever worked in offices, and working in a school is different - strange, actually. It's impossible not to feel infantilised, being given a timetable, exact timings of when you need to do this and that, and being told when you're allowed to have your lunch or go for a wee (and in my case, asking another teaching if I can go for a wee because I don't have a staff pass and therefore cannot access the toilets). A teaching timetable means that the day is weirdly divided up for you, so you can't conveniently pace your work throughout the day (as you would in a lot of jobs), instead it's hours of full-on performing, followed by a bit of peaceful printing and guillotining time. If you're lucky (if the printer hasn't run out of paper/toner, you've run out of printing credit, you're seventeenth in the queue of teachers wanting to print). You realise the end of the school day is not the end of your day, and it's worse than homework. In fact, the feeling that there's something you should, could or have forgotten to do is always there, and you just kind of get used to the fear and try not to let it become guilt. And that's only for 8 lessons a week, ask me how I feel when I'm teaching 25. 

I think everyone goes through times when they don't know what they're doing, or at least they think they don't, and they're perpetually terrified that someone's going to find out. Even though you know you've got a degree in the subject, and the kids you're teaching don't, and maybe can't identify the UK on a world map, some ask questions which require you to search for answers in the very depths of your brain...whether they're accurate answers or just made up. And then you have to praise them for asking those questions, even if and when they've made you terrified and panicked. A personal favourite is "excellent question, we're going to be touching on that in another lesson so I don't want to ruin the surprise" (i.e. I have time to Google it before next lesson). When you're starting out, you have to make assumptions about what you think your students will know; you don't want to patronise them but you don't want to ask them the impossible. What I'm starting to realise is that everything you think they'll definitely know, they won't - and the things you think might really challenge them sometimes don't. You can't prepare for all eventualities, but you hope that by preparing for some of them, you and they will find some means of cruising or crawling through that lesson, and next time you might know better. 

When I told people I was going to train as a secondary school teacher, my favourite response was "Why? You know kids have knives now..." The preconceptions about the kids you teach are far worse than the reality. The most aggressive incident I've seen in a lesson so far is someone swipe a glue stick off another student's desk in a fit of rage. Some kids are frankly a pain in the bum, but they're rarely horrible people - usually just bored or frustrated or just can't help but talk to everyone around them and do nothing you've asked them to (because they're children). On the other hand, some are wonderful. This week I had a year 7 tell me that houses should be more expensive in towns than villages, but they might not be because houses in villages are often bigger and more exclusive and people pay a premium for the peace and quiet. That's pretty impressive for an 11 year old, huh? And they love to please. They want to show you they know the answer, sometimes so much so that they can barely stay in their seat and it looks like their arm is levitating from their body because they're stretching it so high. 

After being in school for one month, I have to say that I'm enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. I love not having to spend all day, every day sitting at a desk and sending a lot of emails. I like meeting the kids, even if I do have to spend most of the hour I spend with them a week telling them to turn round, get on with their work, stop talking; and because there are some which amaze me and air grab when they find out that I'm teaching them. Although it's still fairly early days, I'm so glad I'm doing this and I've not learnt so much since being at school myself. Every week feels like another huge learning curve, but that's what I love - and that's what makes having to spend my Sunday afternoons plan lessons not entirely depressing. I'm four weeks down and I've got four weeks 'til Christmas - let's see how I'm getting on then when I'm inevitably shattered and I've probably had eight different colds. 
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Sunday, 19 November 2017

Time for Unrest

There's an illness that affects somewhere between 15 and 30 million people all over the world.
Some can lead almost normal lives, or at least visibly normal lives. 
But 75% of sufferers are unable to work, or go to school.
And 25% of those are who are homebound are bedridden.


But no one really knows anything about it. We don't know what causes it, and we don't know why it affects some people so much more severely than others. We don't know why some people get better, and why some people don't. We don't know if it's genetic, if you're born with it, if you develop it, or if you can ever get rid of it. We don't know why 85% of sufferers are women. We don't even really know how to diagnose people with it. All we really know is that it is a "neuroimmune condition characterised by post-exertional malaise (a reduction in functioning and a severe worsening of symptoms after even minimal exertion)" and that it follows and infection. 

Jennifer Brea has created an incredible documentary about the illness that robbed me of almost two years of my life, and many more years of many other people's. The documentary tells Jennifer's story, as well as those of men and women, of different ages, in different countries, with different severities of M.E., and who are being treated in fundamentally different ways. It shows the many ugly faces of the illness, of suffering, and of relative invisibility - people who have effectively lost their lives, hidden from medical research, the outside, and wondering if they'll ever live again. You cannot tell everyone's story in an hour and a half, and it would have been easy to turn the documentary into a narrative of suffering, repetition and isolation. I thought the power of Unrest was in its ability to shine a light on the things that no one knows about and no one speaks about.

My experience of living with M.E. was that, on some days, you feel like you're alive again. You have more energy than any other day that week, and you feel foggy. Naturally, you want to make the most of it because you don't know when you'll next feel like this. So what do you do if you know that by leaving the house, walking around town, popping into the shops, having coffee and cake in a cafe will mean that tomorrow you're exhausted. And the next day, and the next day. How do you balance trying to live when you can with the consequences of doing so? And how do you manage the constant complex of working out whether things are 'worth it' and figuring out the trade-off? Jennifer's husband, Omar, puts it pretty perfectly - how can you stop doing the things that make you feel alive? Especially when you don't know whether this is just for now, or whether it's forever. 

The second thing is how it affects those around you. I was lucky that I could shower (even if I had to sit down), and I could get myself a drink from the kitchen - and whilst I sometimes needed help getting up the stairs, and when I woke up in the night feeling like I couldn't breathe, I retained some sort of independence. Unrest shows the sufferers who can't walk, who can't sit up, who can't feed themselves, who can't eat at all except through a tube, who can't stand the light, who can't bear sound. And it shows the husbands, the wives, the parents and the siblings who live with M.E. as part of their life too. One of my greatest fears about coming out of remission is who will look after me, because I don't want to have to make that anyone's responsibility...or their life. 

And I think fear is what sums it all up.
Will my M.E. come back? And when will it? If it does, will it go away again or have been too lucky up until now? Will it happen to anyone around me? And if it does, what can I do about it? Will we ever understand what causes it? And will there ever be a cure? Will some long-term sufferers continue to turn to suicide as the only way to escape? Will millions continue to be missing? 
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