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.

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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?

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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.

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Dressing right

It used to be said that beauty was only skin deep, but now I reckon beauty isn’t allowed to involve skin. At least not your real skin. Nor hair, for the most part. (Although it’s ok on your head as long as it is not your natural hair – coloured, straightened, curled, shampooed to take the oil out then conditioned to put the oil back in, blow dried until it looks nothing like itself – that’s the way your hair should be.)

No hair on your legs or armpits. Shaving probably isn’t enough because it grows back and people might see that you are not strictly hairless for a minute or two. Waxing is best. I know it hurts on the armpits and bikini line, and the stubble when it grows back is a nightmare, but it’s really not optional. Grit your teeth and bear it. There’s no way to be beautiful otherwise. Meanwhile let’s look at your eyebrows. Minimal and strictly formed is the rule here – you can get it professionally shaped or wax it at home, but heaven forbid your eyebrows should contain much in the way of actual hair.

Now let’s look at your skin. Cover that stuff up, for goodness’ sake. If it’s pale, you’d better use some fake tan so you look darker. Or go to a tanning salon – who cares about skin cancer when your appearance is at stake? Now if you’re naturally dark skinned make haste to lighten it, seriously, no-one needs to see your real skin colour. Then slather it with a thick layer of goo to make sure your skin isn’t showing anyway. Oh, but don’t let it look like you’ve used makeup. Natural, that’s the look we’re going for.

Now to clothes. Firstly your shoes. There are two rules here: if you’re short, the higher the heel the better. There’s nothing worse than a woman displaying her real height and able to walk without discomfort.  Taller than average? Only flats for you. We mustn’t ever be taller than the boys, eh? That would never do. And since you are not allowed under any circumstances to date anyone shorter than you, if you’re really tall you might want to consider surgery. What’s the risk of death and a lifetime of pain compared with betraying a social norm? And then you’ll be able to wear heels, because heaven knows your legs don’t look at all attractive when they’re in their natural shape and you’re walking easily.

Ok, so let’s look at your legs. Now that you have made them thoroughly hairless and a colour as unlike your own as possible, best to hide them under tights or leggings.  And make sure they are the shaped variety. You don’t want to show your actual shape anywhere, if you can possibly avoid it. Make sure they enhance (or create, if necessary) that all important thigh gap. Which brings me to underwear – naturally you want boned, tummy tucking, uplifting, downtrimming, tightly shaped underwear here, too. Don’t worry about being able to breathe. It’s overrated. Remember, the natural look is what we’re going for.

Ok, we’re ready to choose a top – it had better be something flattering for your shape. You can only wear stripes if you’re tall. Tight body shaped tops are best unless you’re a little curvy, in which case you want to hide those shameful curves under as much material as possible. Nobody needs to see your actual body shape. How gross would that be? Now if you’re thin you’ll want some judicious padding to pretend you’re not. Curves where you don’t have them, flat where you do is the general rule.

We’ve already talked about makeup, but now that we’re up to the face, remember that glasses are a no-no. Don’t worry, reading isn’t sexy, so you won’t want to do any of that, and you’re not going to be able to walk far anyway, so distance vision is optional. Wear contacts if you must, but make them coloured so that you can make the most of your eyes. Remember, they’re the window into your soul, so let’s disguise those suckers. Sunglasses are ok as long as they are up to the minute style. A new pair once a month is a must, otherwise you risk being dangerously behind the trends.

Ok, we’re almost ready to go out, but don’t forget your accessories. Handbag absolutely must match the shoes perfectly, and jewellery must be a full set. You’ll never be able to hold your head up high unless your accessories are both expensive and perfectly matched. Of course, your hairstyle might be so painful you can’t hold your head up anyway, but that’s the price of fashion, right?

If you’re not too exhausted by all of that, you’re ready to go out. But don’t eat or drink in case you smudge your makeup. And remember to spend at least 20 minutes out of every hour in the ladies reapplying makeup, fixing your hair, and adjusting your clothing. Make it look easy, that’s the key.

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That’s Dr Thingy to you

Saturday’s appointment with YAS (Yet Another Specialist) sparked a small and unexpected revolution in my head. It was a teeny, tiny spark, but I am beginning to think it was more significant than I realised. Let me explain. This particular specialist had earned my undying gratitude by coming in on a Saturday to give me an appointment two months earlier than his waiting list would otherwise allow. I was disposed to adore him before we met.

Nonetheless, when he opened the door, he greeted me with “Linda, is it? I’m Dr Thingy*.” I introduced my husband and we sat down in the waiting room to fill out the obligatory forms. I carefully filled in “Dr” where it asked for my title. I worked hard for that PhD, and I like to have it recognized, but it’s particularly useful in medical situations. Even though I don’t have a medical degree (and never pretend that I do), I like to establish that I am a trained scientist and I can handle technical terms. I like to be taken seriously. I shouldn’t need a PhD to be taken seriously, of course, but the truth is that it does tip the scales sometimes.

I’ve always called doctors by their titles. Well trained by my doctor father, and also of a respectful and somewhat conservative bent by nature (20 years on I still find it hard to call my school teachers by their first names), it comes more easily to me to call a doctor “Dr Thingy” than “Jess”, even though many doctors now introduce themselves by their first names.

But even the doctors who hide behind their titles and surnames like battle armour always, always call me by my first name. And it suddenly dawned on me that using surnames and titles reinforces a psychological distance and a power relationship that might not be in my best interests. As a patient I have always had an irritating tendency to want to understand my diagnosis and make decisions about my own treatment. It drove my dad nuts, but I stuck with it. It took me a while to get to this point, but now when I encounter a doctor who isn’t comfortable with me making the decisions, I dump them post haste. This is my body. This is my health. This is my responsibility. My doctor is a partner in my quest for better health, but she can never, ever be in control.

Astute regular readers may have detected a touch of the control freak in my approach to the world, but I think this attitude transcends a mere personal tendency. For too long, some health professionals have treated their patients as devices to be fixed at worst, as naive children too young and ignorant to know what’s best for them at best. Either way, patients taking charge of their own health are not a welcome development in such cases. Here the battle armour is crucial to reinforce their supremacy and control. “I’m Dr Thingy. You’re just Linda. I’m the expert. You do what I tell you.”

To be sure, sometimes there’s a fine line between making your own decisions and ignoring expert advice in favour of quackery. I’m well aware that many anti-vaxxers believe they are making informed decisions. But it is rare that any condition has only one possible treatment, and extremely rare that treatments are without complex consequences. There are always choices to be made. There is quite a lot of medical literature documenting the fact that patients who inform themselves and take equal roles in their own treatment have by far the best outcomes.

Recently while in hospital I was told I needed a test I had already had – even though I had mentioned the results of this test to 3 separate doctors during this visit. I told them again, and repeated the date of the test, and they agreed it was unnecessary. This test was going to cost me around $400, but it was harmless (if rather unpleasant). No harm would have been done if I had allowed it to proceed, except to my bank account. A few weeks later I got a letter telling me when my appointment for the test had been scheduled! Now imagine it was a drug I was on that had not made it onto my file. Or a life threatening condition. These mistakes happen. Imagine, then, if I was put onto a drug that would interact with something I was already taking, and I didn’t question it, because my godlike Dr Thingy is the expert. He knows what he’s doing. He’d be offended if I questioned him!

It happens. It nearly killed a friend of mine a few years ago, in fact. After that he got kind of stroppy and started to push his doctors to explain and justify themselves, and his healthcare improved immeasurably.

I can’t help feeling that the best and most productive doctor-patient relationship is one of mutual respect. So if my doctor calls me Dr McIver, I will happily call him Dr Thingy. But if he’s going to go with first names from the start, then I think it might be important to put myself on an equal footing, both in his head and in mine, and just call him Fred. After all, we’re in this together.

*Not Whatsit’s real name. I should also add that the real Dr Thingy’s attitude has been fabulous, and he has not exhibited any of the issues discussed in this article. :)


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Slipping away

I’m not sure whether my Mum is losing me, or whether I am losing my Mum. We’ve never been close. We’ve always been complicated. But in some ways I defined myself as much by that complication as anything else. I became a set of “I will never”s as much as a set of “I will be”s.

Now dementia is rewriting that fraught relationship every day. There are upsides. Screaming paranoias that would have lasted weeks or even years now only last a few minutes. Memory loss has its charms, as it turns out.

Sadly there are hidden razor blades, too. My Mum no longer knows how many kids I have, or whether they are boys or girls. That’s not particularly new, but on Monday she went from one sentence berating me for working too hard to asking how the job hunting was going. When I told her I was happy in my job she was puzzled – how long had I been out of work? When I gently suggested she was confusing me with somebody else, she agreed that this might be so, and then, in a small voice, asked me “What do you do, again?”

That small question hit me like an out of control freight train. Being a teacher is a fundamental cornerstone of my soul. It’s who I am. So I am forced to face the fact that my Mum doesn’t know me anymore.

Whoa-oh-oh slipping away from me
Whoa-oh-oh slipping away from me
And it’s breaking me in two
Watching you slipping away
Slipping Away. Max Merritt and the Meteors.

It feels like a short step from here to her not recognising me at all, but the heartbreaking part is that we still know her. We still possess within us all the complexities, the hurts, and the misunderstandings of our lives together. For her they are washed mercifully clean, but for us they churn away in our every response to her. We remain angry and confused about things she has no memory of doing. We are still frustrated and hurt by a history she can’t even imagine.

You may argue that it’s time to let go. To dispense with emotions that are years out of date. But those experiences made us who we are, and they are not lightly or easily discarded.

My grandfather forgot us all, in the end. My personal version of that history is that he remembered me long after he forgot everyone else, but I suspect that’s a story my 13 year old self desperately wanted to believe. It’s far more likely that we all disappeared for him, much the way we are disappearing for Mum, now.

Sometimes Mum calls 6 times an hour, asking the same question, accepting the answer, and forgetting it within moments. Sometimes she doesn’t call for days. She doesn’t remember this afternoon that I saw her this morning, but she can hold onto strange things – like wondering what I have done with her bathroom mirror? (I never had it.) We’re used to the conversation repeating. We’re used to things being forgotten, and her getting muddled. But this loss of identity: this is a fresh shock.

Mum’s young for dementia. At 76 it’s unusual to be this far from your former self. At 43 it seems unusual to be facing the slow, shattering demise of the very essence of your Mum. But this is our world now. This is the future that looms, the grief that stalks us.


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Mothers day is always a little fraught for me. My relationship with my Mum was complicated, long before dementia kicked in and kicked over the furniture. So today I have been watching all the heartfelt declarations of love and support on Facebook and feeling a little bruised. A little battered. A little lost.

But then I started thinking about some of the extraordinary relationships in my life. My beautiful girls brought me breakfast in bed. Their handmade cards made me teary. Their hugs were heartfelt, and inevitably followed by a certain amount of coffee-endangering wrestling – don’t tell me girls don’t wrestle. They just do it at a much higher pitch. It all made me smile (once my coffee was safely out of the way).

I reflected on the wonderful people that my work has brought into my life. The amazing support staff. The fabulous teachers who have become dear friends. The researchers and activists I and my students have collaborated with. And the students themselves. That’s when it hit me. I have two children by any normal calculation. But in the 5 years since I became a high school teacher I have suddenly become Mum to every student I have ever taught.

They all have a piece of my heart, and a claim on my time, for as long as they want it (and beyond). They teach me incredible things and give me amazing gifts every time they bounce into the classroom. Every time they email me for help. Every time they find me on Facebook after they leave school. Every time they come back to help in my classroom, or just to sit up the back because they have a study period and they like the atmosphere. Every time they send me interesting snippets they think I’ll enjoy or be able to use in class.

Every time they tease me with while(True) loops and emoji variables (sorry, programming joke).

Every time we meet for coffee. Every time they ask me for career advice. Every time we stay connected. Every time we interact. Every single time. I’m so lucky to be connected to these amazing people. In a very real sense they are part of my family forever. Family is where your heart is. Happy Mothers Day!

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