The promise of Spring

This morning, towards the end of a long, cold, and immeasurably gloomy winter, I dragged myself out for a run. Well, I say a run. It was more of a stumble, really. But it was pre-dawn, I was outside, and the sting of frost had finally faded, to leave a cold but bearable morning.

There was a wispy layer of thin cloud, with pink and gold highlights shyly appearing and disappearing as the sun struggled out of its metaphorical bed. The morning air was still and, while not precisely warm, it hinted at warmth to come. Frostbite, it promised, was a thing of the past.

I run to throw off the shackles of another restless night. To escape the lead weights of insecurity that threaten sink me on many an otherwise unremarkable day. To leave behind the gnawing doubts – am I fit to be a parent? Could I have handled that better? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? Am I giving them what they need? Am I a good teacher? Was that class a complete train wreck, and can I salvage something from the wreckage? Have I lost it? Did I, in fact, ever have it?

I run towards a future where I sleep, and I am confident. Where I am fitter, stronger, and more patient. Where I spring out of bed in the morning feeling rested and energetic. I don’t even know if that future exists, but I have to keep running towards it, or like a shark who stops swimming, I fear I will drown.

I don’t run far – yet. But I get the blood pumping and the breath rasping. I run far enough to fog up my glasses when I arrive home.

And I run far enough to see the clouds turn silvery gold in the morning sun. To smell the Daphne and Pittosporum as they promise me Spring in all its glory. To see the blossom trees unfurling in eager beauty, believing in a season we can’t yet see or feel.

I run far enough to find hope in the daffodils and narcissus that force their own way through winter’s dark depression like small, localized sunrises. To feel the warmth on a breeze that doesn’t yet exist. And to know that Spring is coming, both inside and out.

Sharing the hate

Look, I loathe killing for sport with a white hot passion. Loving killing is bizarre to me. I do eat meat, but I don’t revel in killing, and I can’t imagine doing so. Guns are abhorrent.

And yet, I am deeply uneasy about the hate storm that surrounds the killing of Cecil the lion. Not because I don’t believe that what the dentist did was foul and disgusting. I believe that with my whole heart. But I worry about these hate storms. They are so easily triggered on the net. We leap into them with such vigour. Whether it’s a horrible sexist comment by a scientist, a racist comment by a PR person, or a photo of a killing, we are really keen to stick the boot in to people who we believe have transgressed.

I can understand the temptation – and I have tweeted and facebooked myself about things I believe are wrong and abhorrent (I’m looking at YOU Tony Abbott). It feels good to serve up some righteous indignation from time to time. But a while ago I began a conscious effort to comment less on the bad stuff (“Dear motorist, the bike lane is for BIKES, not for cars who wish to undertake the traffic. You nearly undertook me!”) and more on the positive, because I was concerned that my online presence was beginning to tarnish the world. To be a drain on our collective psyche, rather than an upwards force.

And hate storms are not just a small tarnish, they are eating away at our collective character like the most toxic of corrosive substances. They whip us up into a frenzy of negativity, of hatred, and of anger, and they achieve… what? Will this online frenzy stop people hunting and killing? I doubt it. Will it, in fact, polarise the two camps even further into hate-fuelled, vitriol spitting opposing lines with nothing but contempt for each other? Quite possibly.

And in the end, all that negative energy has to come out somewhere. The more we focus on our rage, the angrier our every day behaviour becomes, the less tolerant we are, and the less inclined to look behind the headline and find out whether there is actually any depth to the story.

We have got so keen to leap into the hateful fray that we rarely pause to find out the full story, to listen to the opposing view, and to consider whether the headlines might be wrong. The media loves a good hate storm, and feeds on it with gleeful abandon. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine them firing one up just to beef up a slow news day. And once it’s going, and hate storm is impossible to stop. The fallout remains as a glowing, radioactive footprint that will haunt that person for the rest of their lives. And while some may seem to deserve it, many don’t, and we are neither judge nor jury, and rarely in possession of all of the facts.

Of course we need to continue to call our politicians to account, and fight injustice wherever it occurs, but hate storms don’t seem to be about that. They seem to me to be more lynch mob than force for change. By all means campaign for an end to hunting. But there’s rarely a positive outcome from a public lynching.

So next time you are tempted to join the feeding frenzy, why not post a question instead? Try to clarify the issues rather than nuking from orbit and asking questions never. Or better still, don’t feed it at all. Take a deep breath and focus on the positive. You’ll be happier for it, I promise.

PS Since I wrote this I’ve been seeing a lot of calls for “justice for Cecil”. It’s too late for justice for Cecil. But we can stop it happening again, by campaigning for change. Which is different to campaigning for vengeance.

State of Emergency

I hate running late. I feel dreadful showing up later than I said I would, even if I am meeting someone who I know for sure will be half an hour late. I get super stressed about it. For years I built so much contingency time into every timetable that I would show up half an hour early for everything and had to carry a book with me to fill in all that wait time. Even if I am running to time and expecting to arrive precisely on time it stresses me out, because there’s no wiggle room. What if there’s a train cancellation? Or a traffic problem? Or I forget something and have to go back? I like to have plenty of time to spare to cover not just one of these contingencies, but all of them.

Something seems to have changed, though, over the last few years. Now I leave at the last possible moment. I still hate to run late, but I also don’t want to risk hanging around waiting. I want to do everything hit and run style. In and out before the dust settles. The ideal child pickup or drop off involves barely slowing down (kidding! I do stop, but I wish I didn’t have to!). The last thing I want is to waste time waiting. Which is odd, because busy teacher, mother, and researcher that I am, a little time to breathe should be a precious and treasured thing.

I could rationalise it away saying “of course I like time to breathe, but I want it on my terms, in my comfy chair in the sun” – which would sound all very plausible, until you take into account that I never build that breathing space into my day. Instead I build several days into each day, and spend time hurtling from one double booking to the next, constantly churning over in my head all of the things I need to remember before the next crisis hits.

There’s been quite a lot written about over-scheduling our children, but I don’t have time to over-schedule my kids. I’m too busy rushing to my next meeting (on my day off). We rarely seem to stop and consider the idea that we may be over-scheduling ourselves. It might not even be a case of over-scheduling. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say “over-optimising”, and it’s rooted in the belief that we don’t have time. We don’t have time to waste. We have to be productive. We are too busy to waste time doing nothing.

In the first half of this year I stopped walking across to the local cafe for coffee while at work, because I felt I didn’t have the time. I stopped going to the staffroom at lunchtime because I always have students to see or meetings to run. My friends outside of work didn’t get a look in, and my friends at work and I became ships that pass at recess, shouting brief dopplering greetings as we fly by.

And guess what? I’m burning out. Melting down. Stretched beyond breaking point. And all because I’m regularly pushing everything to the limit, and limiting nothing.

So now I’m trying to build the slack back into my day. Leaving early for meetings and appointments, and staying off the smartphone when I get there early. Instead I take the time to breathe, look around me, maybe even chat to passers by. I’m riding to work when driving would save me 10 minutes, so that I get both exercise and breathing space. I’m still going to meetings on my days off, and helping students at lunchtime, but I’m also trying to schedule coffees and call friends. Some days don’t quite work out, but hey – I’m a work in progress. And I’m making some progress. On a good day. When I remember to breathe.

How do you carve out your own breathing space?

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

Death once famously said* to his apprentice: “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

Granny Weatherwax had a similar position, when Tiffany Aching cried out “It shouldn’t be this way!” Her response was simple and to the point: “There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.”

We human beings are very fond of the concept of justice. We are quick to say “it’s not fair” (which often means “I’m not getting what I want.”). We are eager to believe that our legal system actually dispenses justice, despite its manifest flaws.

And we still cherish the deep, although increasingly insupportable belief that a democratic government makes decisions based on facts and the good of the country as a whole, rather than on lobbying, donations, pressure from mining magnates and the country as a hole. We have the Minister for the Environment, who frequently makes decisions that put the environment at risk. We have the Minister for Education, who says we have a very particular responsibility for wealthy private schools – presumably believing that public schools are tougher and more able to fend for themselves. We have the Minister for Health who presides over deep cuts to our public health system. Yet we find it hard to name these ministers accurately and replace the “for” with “against”. It would explain so much. Minister Against the Environment. Minister Against Women. Minister Against Health.

Lately I keep coming back to Death’s quote. There’s no justice. There’s just us. We can’t rely on the government to govern in our best interests. We can’t rely on them to take decisive action on climate change. We can’t rely on them to fund research, to build up our health and education systems, to feed the hungry or protect the vulnerable. We can’t rely on them to be just, or fair, or even sensible.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that we can only rely on our politicians to seek power at all costs, and to misuse it once they have it.

And it’s easy to say there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s easy to complain about it, and believe we are powerless to act.

But we do have power. We have power at the ballot box and beyond. We have the power to vote for independents and parties that are not the big two, we have the power to STAND as independents, or as representatives of progressive parties whose policies are evidence based and in line with our own idea of justice. We have the power to speak out, to sign petitions, to attend rallies. To spell out the facts when we hear someone say climate change is rubbish. To explain reality when we hear someone say that refugees are queue jumpers. To stand up for our health system, and to rally for the education reforms we so badly need.

We have the power to tell our politicians that their behaviour is unacceptable. To make it clear that we do not accept this as an inevitable feature of our public officials, but as an unpalatable deviation from the ethical and moral government that we demand as our country’s right. Politicians are more poll driven now than ever before, so it’s up to us to drive the polls.

There is no fundamental balance that will pull our governments back into line. There is no moral compass on the floor of our parliamentary chambers. We are the government’s moral compass. There is no justice. There’s just us.

*Famous to Terry Pratchett readers. If it’s not famous to you, go read “Mort“. And then the rest of the Pratchett books. You’ll thank me later. :)

On the bright side

Term 2 is a brutal, ferocious term. This year it was 11 weeks long, but it doesn’t matter how long it is – it always feels at least two weeks longer than I can possibly manage. It is the term where people tend to lose perspective and say and do things they quickly regret. It’s a long, wintry term that gets darker and darker, both inside and out. It feels as though it should end with exams and reports, but No! There’s a whole two weeks of semester 2 to get through before we make it out the other side to collapse into a bed that it will take us at least two weeks to scrape ourselves out of again. If we’re lucky.

Every so often, as I hit the rock bottom of term 2, a student will say something so generously uplifting that it feels like the sun coming out after a week of drizzly Melbourne rain. So encouraging that I bask in their warmth. A line in an email, a bit of heartfelt praise during a yard duty chat, or an unexpectedly positive response on a feedback survey can be the difference between ending term 2 in pieces, or stumbling over the line intact. There’s no knowing when these bonus rainbows will appear. They can’t be conjured at will, or produced on demand. A couple of years ago it dawned on me that these comments were so precious I should frame them. So I began to hug them to myself in my “Positive Feedback File.”

Not for sharing, this file is my personal anti-depressant. It’s my bad day ambulance. My fire truck when my world is going down in flames. My “always available” hug when real hugs are few and far between.

Everything goes in there. From the email saying “You are amazing by the way,” To the parent who said “I just had to come and meet the person who inspires my daughter so much.” From the buoyant comments about my subject at the end of the year, to the heartfelt statement,”Your subject was the best thing I ever did,” years later during a Facebook chat.

There’s something incredibly powerful about being able to re-read this stuff on the really tough days. I can’t rely on receiving feedback like that right when I need it, so keeping a record of it for my own private pick-me-up makes a lot of sense. Yet recently I was chatting with a psychologist friend, and he was surprised to hear about my feedback file. “You’re the only other person I’ve ever heard of who does that!” he exclaimed. It turns out he has a feedback file too. Being a counsellor, his tough days can be extraordinarily tough. We all have moments when we doubt ourselves, or wonder if we’re really making a difference. Or when organisational politics becomes overwhelming, and we can’t help but ask whether it’s really worth it. Lifting ourselves out of these slumps can be a real challenge.

My feedback file is like a photo album of my best efforts. An abiding memory bank full of the moments when I knew it was all worthwhile. A reminder that, whatever today looks like, tomorrow has real potential, and yesterday really rocked. Even if you can only paraphrase the comment or roughly describe the moment, storing it away can make it a powerfully life-affirming treasure, instead of a transient source of warmth. I can’t help thinking it should be the number 1 tip in any teaching degree, and perhaps for life in general. Save those moments. They will save you.

A teacher by any other name

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about formality, professional relationships, and the distance created by using titles rather than first names. I even started a facebook conversation about first names in the teaching profession, but I went down under the tsunami of marking, report writing, and semester 2 preparation that characterizes the end of term 2 before I could pitch in with what I was thinking. So it’s been bubbling away under the surface until now.

I got some really good responses to that post. Some very thoughtful and considered reactions. Some said that titles were important to create that professional distance – to ensure that we remain teachers rather than friends. Others feel that titles are an important means of creating a respectful relationship, and that it was possible to create a good working relationship without using first names.

I vividly remember starting out in teaching, crossing the surprisingly large gulf between academic, tertiary teaching and teaching in a high school (it’s a long, long way, and I didn’t really appreciate that until I leapt across the void and smacked into the edge of the opposite cliff), when a more experienced teacher friend said to me that the relationship was all important. Create a good relationship with a student and anything is possible. Conversely, across a poor relationship the gulf is so wide you’ve got no hope of making progress. If you can’t connect with a student, you’re useless to them.

I have to say that 5 years later this still makes a lot of sense to me. If I look back over the relationships formed in my classes, those kids I connected with were not necessarily the ones with heaps of experience and amazing skills, but the stronger the connection, the greater the progress from the start to the end of the year. It’s not possible to connect brilliantly with every student in a class, and there are some kids I have never reached. At all. I can’t help but feel I have failed those kids, even when they pass the subject. And there are some kids I really struggle to reach, but eventually connect with – and often that connection happens due to something outside the core curriculum. It might happen when they find out that I ride to work and we connect over le Tour. Sometimes it happens when they notice my quirky earrings, or find out that I have five sugar gliders as pets. Sometimes it happens at choir, or over conversations on yard duty about books or Dr Who. Sometimes it’s politics, or something I wrote on my blog. Often it’s chocolate, or noticing a food allergy and providing them with a treat they can actually eat.

Connections can be hard to form, and unpredictable in their triggers, and while I recognise the need to maintain a certain professional distance, I do feel that placing an extra barrier in the way by insisting on titles sometimes puts those connections irrevocably out of reach. In my first year of teaching I was working with a group of students who had met me when I was an academic liaison, and automatically introduced myself as Linda, rather than Dr McIver. When I started teaching those kids I didn’t think it was fair to insist they changed the way they addressed me, so I told them they had special dispensation to keep using my first name. We had an awesome relationship, and even though it was my first year in the classroom I had no behaviour management issues with that class. In fact sometimes behaviour was more of an issue in those classes where I was strictly Dr McIver.

Respect is a two way street, and it is only given where it’s earned. I don’t believe that insisting my students call me by my title gets me respect. I’ll get respect from my students by earning it, and by treating them with respect. Sometimes kids are amazed to find out that teachers are human beings with lives outside the school. Maybe if we emphasized our common humanity by sharing our first names with them, we’d have a better chance of reaching those kids who see us as nothing more than distant ogres.

So what do you think? Should teachers be known by first names or titles? Does it make a difference?

Not so much a rules girl

A friend who read my last post interpreted it in a way that I didn’t intend – as a judgement against people who wear makeup, and fashionable clothes and things. The post was never meant to be judgemental of people, but I can see how it may have felt that way, because I was angry when I wrote it. But let me be clear. I wasn’t angry with people who wear makeup, or with makeup, or even with fashion. It was not a post against makeup, or clothes, or shoes, or anyone who chooses to glam up and feels good about it.

It was a post against the idea that I MUST shave my legs in order to be seen in public.

A post against the idea that I MUST shave my armpits in order to be. Just be.

A post against the idea that my skin or hair isn’t good enough the way it is, that I must slather it in a million “beauty” products, merely to go to work.

A post against the rules. The rules that say whoever I am, I must avoid being myself at all costs.

Above all, I am angry with myself, for believing I had to buy into all that. I am angry that when, earlier this year, I decided to stop shaving my legs, it took me months to stop flinching at the sight of them. Flinching at the sight of my own natural legs, with their own natural hair.

Which is nothing to how ashamed I felt when I stopped shaving my armpits. How embarrassed I was by my own armpits. I’m sorry, but in a world that contains the Abbott government, there is so much shame and horror to go around that there should be none left for my armpits.

As it turns out, the square, conservative, front row dwelling child who compulsively did as she was told throughout her school days is downright rebellious at heart. There were signs of it even before I allowed my body hair to run wild. I wear odd socks. I sometimes wear odd earrings – I like the whimsy of a bird chasing a cat around my head all day. It seems somehow appropriate.

I started the sock thing as a way to add a little more colour to an often drab winter wardrobe, but in truth there’s a part of me that continues to do it so that I can say “Why not?” to people who call me on it. So that I can say “they’re just socks, people – why do they matter?” and to explore the idea that they seem to matter to some people with an alarming intensity. Why is that? It’s provocative, and I’m ok with that.

My rebellious side looks at rules and says “oh really? Why should I?” (This sometimes gives me some trouble as a teacher, I must admit.)

My scientific side wants to understand.

My teaching side wants everything to be fair and just and, let’s face it, many of our rules are not. Men can go topless in public, women can’t. Men are strange if they shave their legs and armpits, women are strange if they don’t. I could go on indefinitely, but I think you take the point.

I say: to hell with the rules.

Be who you are. Wear what you want. Shave what you want. Make your own rules. I won’t judge you, you won’t judge me, and we’ll try like hell not to judge ourselves.