Transfixed

The first time I tangled with death I was struck by the way the world continued to turn. People worked, played, and laughed while I stood immobile, transfixed with horror and loss. My stomach churning. My heart stopped. My life irrevocably shattered – its reconstruction would take years. Yet my neighbours went to work and tended their gardens. The weather was beautiful, heedless of my pain. My friends gathered around me, but they still had lives to live. Things to do. Practicalities to attend to. For me, time had stopped.

Today is no surprise. Her loss has been imminent for weeks. Relief rises in waves because her suffering is finally over. But it hurts. Oh god, how it hurts. Less than 24 hours from her last breath I miss her humour, her bluntness, and her love. Above all she wanted to make sure she wasn’t a nuisance. Surrounded by tales of people having to force their elderly relatives into a nursing home she chose to go, when she was ready – not because she wanted to, but because she wanted to spare her loved ones the trauma, and she knew the time was coming when she would not be able to manage at home.

She did everything on her own terms, but death was not kind to her. It took too long to come, and made her suffer in the waiting. I don’t know what she would have chosen, if she had a choice, but with all my heart I do believe the choice should have been hers. She was dying. She was suffering. Why could she not choose to go gentle into that good night, with the kindness of morphine, instead of suffering night after night, dragging herself and her loved ones through hell with every struggling breath? This is no slippery slope, this is the deliberate withholding of compassionate treatment. This is calculated cruelty for ideological ends.

hey there’s not a cloud in sight
it’s as blue as your blue goodbye
and I thought that it would rain
the day you went away

Wendy Matthews, The Day You Went Away

She was a troublemaker, Marg. One knows another, and we fired a spark in each other that burns brightly in me now. She told me wild tales of growing up with my Dad and his brothers. Through her I saw a side to my Dad that he never chose to show me. I learnt more about my family, and my background, from Marg than I sometimes think my Dad ever really knew.

Marg was always part of her community, even as she spent more and more time in hospital with a failing heart. Her neighbours all adored her. Whenever I visited there would be people popping over the fence to see how she was doing. She used to introduce me as her niece – which technically I wasn’t, as she was Dad’s first cousin, but I took some pride in it. She was certainly an aunt to me, and much, much more.

We talked often, Marg and I. She raved about her grandchildren and great grandchildren. She loved them to bits, and delighted in their spirit and will. Never one to sit quietly and do what she was told, Marg connected best with independent spirits, and she related tales of her spirited descendants with glee.

I always knew I could trust Marg to tell me exactly what she thought, even if it was hard to hear. But even when she disagreed with me, she was in my corner come hell or high water. Marg did what she thought was right, and damn the torpedoes. She loved with her whole heart, even as it failed her.

We’re a funny old family. Widely scattered and curiously distant, Marg was a crucial link between my past and my future. She is a piece of my heart, now and forever. I’m glad she’s at peace – for the last week I was begging fate to let her die, to release her from suffering – but I am gutted that she’s gone. I can hear her saying “I’m not special!” but she is incredibly special to many.

The way I see it I was lucky to have Marg in my life. She was a huge and loving support to me. If grief is the price of love, I pay it willingly. But it hurts.

 

Teaching CS without a CS background

(this post was actually meant for my computeitsimple blog. If you’re interested, head there and comment!)

Teaching Computer Science without a Computer Science background is harder than teaching anything else I can think of, even if that something else is also outside your area of expertise. It really is. And here’s why.

If you talk to anyone in Computing Education Research (CER), you will find that they understand how difficult, and indeed traumatic, it can be for teachers without a Computer Science background to be told they have to teach CS. Because they are supporting those teachers, and researching ways to help them. I’ve just spent the weekend at the most amazing conference, ICER2016. It’s a Computing Education Research conference, with a community of people who are passionate about computing education. I was struck by how well the problem was understood, because I can’t seem to get people outside the field to understand.

For example, one teacher I talked to commiserated and then said “I know what you mean, it’s like when non-Geography teachers teach Geography.” But it’s really not, and I think it’s time to articulate the reasons why.

First, some background for those of you who don’t work in schools. Teachers are almost inevitably going to have to teach things they are not trained in. It’s taken for granted in schools and happens everywhere. The simple reason for that is budget. If your budget is stretched thin, which it always, ALWAYS is (at least in government schools), then you need your teachers to be teaching at capacity 100% of the time. You can’t have a teacher who is teaching fewer classes than they have time for, because then you have to hire more teachers than you physically need. And there’s just no money for that. It’s rare that the precise number of classes to be taught in a particular discipline adds up to the precise number of teaching hours available from experts in that discipline. Life’s just not that neat. So teachers teach outside their expertise and qualifications all the time, and don’t generally get a chance to say “No, I can’t do that.”

Added to that is the huge government push to teach programming and computational thinking, which seems to be happening all over the world, and the severe lack of teachers with experience in those things. All of which means that it is becoming increasingly common for programming and computational thinking to be taught by teachers that have no qualifications or prior experience in them.

Why is that so traumatic? How can I substantiate this claim that it’s worse than, say, teaching Geography without a qualification?  For me there are three fundamental points.

The first is that no-one I know is scared of Geography. They may not be competent in it, but the idea of it does not terrify them. Whereas people without coding experience are frequently literally terrified of it. And why should we expect otherwise? When you know that it’s possible to lose hours of work with an unfortunate keystroke just using a computer, how much more catastrophic could it be to make a mistake programming it?

Years of poor design decisions and bugs in code have taught us that using computers can be a frustrating, distressing, and flawed process. It has also taught many people that they are not good with computers. When I teach usability that’s the first thing we look at. Where does that narrative come from? It actually comes from computers not being good with people. (But that’s probably another blog… or 50)

So we are taking people who know that they struggle to use computers. Who know that they aren’t always going to be able to work out how to do the things they want, and that they will sometimes lose work due to unexpected (and incomprehensible) errors, and now we’re asking them to program them. More than that, we’re asking them to teach kids to program them.

The second major issue is one I hadn’t thought much about until Sunday, when Katrina Falkner raised it on the way to dinner. Everyone has studied geography at some point. They’ve seen it before. And this is true of most school subjects. Even if they drop maths at the first available opportunity, they’ve still had plenty of exposure to it. But most adults have never programmed at all. It’s entirely foreign to them. They don’t have even the beginnings of the right frames of reference to place these new skills into. They’ve never had the slightest introduction to this stuff. So it’s not like taking something you met at school and wrapping your head around it. It’s not taking something you feel vaguely familiar with and trying to become expert.

It’s taking something wholly unfamiliar and deeply daunting and trying to teach it to others.

In some cases the fear is so strong it’s like taking an arachnophobe and asking them to teach spider handling with live huntsman spiders. You can tell them all you like that huntsman spiders are not dangerous. That won’t convince them that this is something they can do.

14225534_10154539813804837_4656035410939957953_n
Huntsman spider. Photo credit: Elaine Hogan Hanley

Just as getting over arachnophobia takes time and exposure, so, too, does dealing with a fear of code. You need time, safe, accessible challenges, and plenty of support. And sure, teachers get PD time, but not a whole lot. In general teachers are learning just a little ahead of their students. Which doesn’t give them any space to get comfortable and lose their fear before they have to stand up in front of classes and teach them that this is a fun thing to do.

I worry about this a lot. Because I do believe that it’s great to introduce everyone to programming, and computational thinking. If everyone tries it, some people who have never thought of trying it will actually discover that they love it. But if what we’re doing is putting people who are terrified of it up as teachers, what message is that going to send to their students?

“We’re forcing you to do this, and you’re quite right to fear it!” is not an ideal foundation for a lifelong love of CS.

The third issue some may discount as trivial, but I can tell you first hand that it is a crucial factor in burnout: there is often only one teacher in a school in this situation. To be the only one of your kind is a terrible burden. For emotional survival in high stress situations (like, say, teaching way outside of your expertise), having someone you can turn to and ask “hey, how did you handle it when this happened?” or “I can’t find a good way to teach that, what do you do?” is utterly fundamental. Without that support teachers can spend a lot of time feel alone, inadequate, and overwhelmed.

I keep seeing publications about cs teachers leaving the profession, and I am just not surprised.

These issues all raise possible “treatments” – access to more pd, ongoing support, creating networks of cs teachers – but we need the powers that be – governments, school leadership, etc – to recognise the issues in order to put resources into these support systems. I know of some fabulous organisations already doing this kind of work – Adelaide CSER,  Georgia Tech, and others – but we need so much more.

Teaching CS without a CS background is tough. And until we really acknowledge that and support it properly, we’ll continue to struggle to make it work. And in the process we will continue to turn kids off CS, and burn teachers out trying.

 

 

 

Breathing

My 13 year old has thus far avoided the Facebook trap, but she has been utterly hooked on Instagram for some months now. Like an obedient parent, when she got Instagram I did too, so that I knew what she was dealing with. One thing regular readers may have noticed about me is that I am not a visual person. I was given a beautiful illustrated copy of the Da Vinci code once and I barely looked at the pictures. I am obsessed with text. I compulsively read text when it is in front of me. I can’t help myself. And while I can objectively appreciate a beautiful image, I’ve never thought of myself as being able to create them.

I was going to say “I can’t draw” but that’s a lie, much like people saying “I can’t code”. It would be more accurate to say “I never learnt to draw”. The visual medium is never going to be my way of reaching people.

But somehow Instagram began to draw me in and influence the way I see the world. When I see a Spring flower, or a beautiful sunrise, I want to capture it and share it. With a decent camera on my smartphone, I’ve got the means in my pocket all the time, so stopping to take a photo is easier than it ever was before. And it turns out that people like to see these snapshots of life.

IMG_4175

But what has been really interesting about this newfound passion for pictures is that it draws me outside in the mornings.

Whether it’s the sunshine causing the fence to steam after a wet nightDSCF2931

Or a beautiful fungus on a treeIMG_4176(1)

the world is drawing me outside in the mornings. And that’s having an unexpected impact on my mental health.

I’ve always felt that outside has some indefinable quality that inside, however attractive and comfortable, can’t possibly match. There’s a feeling to the air. There’s a sense of peace, of freedom. It feels as though the cleaner, fresher air of the outside is bringing energy into my lungs and washing the stress out. I walk out hunched and crumpled by the stresses of life, and I am suddenly able to stretch and straighten in the light.

I don’t know why this should be. Perhaps there’s a scientific explanation involving quality of light and components of the air, or perhaps it’s entirely psychological. But either way, being outside watching the birds and breathing the air is good for me in a way that nothing else can match. And there’s a particular bliss to be found in the early morning air that transcends all else.

I struggle to manage mindful meditation. I just can’t seem to commit to sitting still and focusing on a regular basis, even though I know that it helps. But outside in the early morning I am mindful in an entirely new way. I am thinking only of the things I can see, smell, and feel. Although my phone is in my pocket in case there’s something to photograph, I’m not on Facebook or checking my email. I’m in the moment. Breathing the air. Inhaling the peace.

People are always saying that social media is not real life. That the internet stands between us and the real world. But social media has drawn me outside and grounded me firmly in the real world. It has reminded me to breathe, to watch, and to be still. So now that I’ve shared that thought, I’m going back outside to breathe.

 

 

How much health can you afford?

Australians tend to be rather contemptuous of the US health system. We brag about universal healthcare, and deride a system that only provides care to those who can afford it. But our universal healthcare is being steadily eroded, as people are pushed into private healthcare.

I have a minor heart condition. For the most part it’s not an issue, but it has escalated over the past week or so and I felt pretty ordinary this morning. I called the Nurse on Call advice line, described my history and my symptoms and she calmly told me that I needed to get myself to an Emergency department. Now. She said if I couldn’t get there within 45 minutes I should call an ambulance. She was quite forceful about it. Unnervingly so.

So I told my husband and we scuttled off to the nearest public hospital. Where I stood in a queue around 6 people deep and waited for 20 minutes before even telling anyone why I was there. They took my history, checked the oxygenation of my blood, and then told me to talk to the clerk and give my details, and then sit down and someone would come and get me to do an ECG.

So I did all that. And I sat. And I waited. And I looked at all the people who had been there before me, who weren’t being taken in. And I reminded myself that clearly the oxygenation of my blood must have been ok, or they’d have rushed, right? (Although they hadn’t actually told me what it was…)

So I sat.

And I waited.

After one and a half hours I asked them if they had any idea how long it would be. They said “hopefully not long, now that we’ve got some more staff on. But we don’t know how long it will be before you actually see a doctor.” They looked harassed.

So I sat.

And I waited.

Meanwhile I was getting dizzy, and nauseous, as well as very aware that my heart was doing funky things. My heart.

So I bailed. I called the two nearest private hospitals with emergency departments and asked about their queues. One had a queue of 2 (there’d been a “bit of a rush in the last half an hour” apparently). One had no queue at all. So we went there.

Two hours later I had been tested, treated, fed, and sent home. Not two hours of sitting in the waiting room. Two hours of active treatment, compassionate care, and several interactions with nurses and a doctor.

Had I not been able to afford the private hospital, I have no doubt I would still be waiting in that public hospital 8 hours later. Likely in a bed in the emergency ward by now, but maybe not even having seen a doctor.

I was lucky. I am fine. But that whole scenario could have ended very badly.

My bank account determined my level of care.

Apparently being financially secure means I am worth looking after.

No.

My bank account does not determine my intrinsic worth as a human being.

The quality of my healthcare should NEVER be determined by my ability to pay.

People are worthy of compassion. Quality healthcare. Timely healthcare. And dignity. All people. Bank account status just should never appear in this context. We already have an education system that allocates opportunity and resources based on wealth. And it is so many levels of wrong I can’t even begin to cover it. But we are now moving faster and faster towards a health system that does the same.

We have to stop. Now. Malcolm Turnbull with his millions is worth no more as a human being then a homeless woman without a penny to her name.

Money should not determine the worth of a human life. Not now. Not ever.

 

The expectation trap

I have come to realise that there are two types of people in the world. There are those who expect far more of others than they expect of themselves. And then there are the ones at risk of burnout: those who set a higher bar for themselves than they would ever dream of setting for someone else.

I’ve got nothing but contempt for the former, to be honest. I would never ask anything of anyone that I’m not willing to do myself. (Except for spider management, ok? I do expect somebody to deal with spiders, and it ain’t gonna be me. We all have our rubicons. Spiders are mine.)  But apart from spiders, I can’t see how you can reasonably expect anything that you’re not willing to give.

Going to expect students to do something? Learn it yourself. Going to demand punctuality? Be on time. Expect people to treat you with respect? That’s a two way street, sunshine.

I’ve worked with people who like to make themselves look good by trashing others. It’s catastrophically bad for an organisation, both in terms of morale and overall work quality.

I’ve also worked with people who focus quite deliberately on raising others up: building their self esteem, publicly acknowledging good work, and generally making a much bigger fuss about the achievements of everyone else than about their own work.

They are louder about success than about failure. They will help you learn from mistakes, but they will never, ever, make a big deal out of them.

These people are society’s anti-depressants. I count some as dear friends, and some as work colleagues, and they would probably never recognise themselves here, because they also tend to be breathtakingly humble.

This humility is endearing, but it’s also dangerous. It comes back to those expectations – those who accept fallibility in others are often brutally hard on it in themselves.

I find myself drawn these days to anything that contains compassion. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, art, work, or science, I look for the love, the compassion, and the beauty. Life has enough trauma, enough harshness, enough brutality. I have a massive nerd crush on Brian Cox because he speaks so passionately about the beauty and wondrous variation of all life, including mankind. In episode 1 of Forces of Nature, for example, he said, “we’re all made out of the same building blocks, but we’re all slightly & magnificently different because of the history of our construction.” In his extraordinary lyricality there is a huge amount of compassion. I can’t get enough of it.

It’s odd, though, that despite being irresistibly drawn to compassion, I am singularly challenged to apply it to myself. My class goes badly? I excoriate myself. Someone else’s class goes badly? I’ll empathise, point out mitigating factors, think about how the same problem could be avoided another time, and help them move on. For myself, there can’t be mitigating factors. Everything is my fault. I expect myself to be perfect, even though I would never ask it of anyone else.

“Do unto others as you would have done unto you” doesn’t go quite far enough, does it? For some the message “do unto yourself as you would do unto others” has a lot more significance. Compassion is a powerful and healing thing.

The really compelling argument for me is that the less compassionate I am to myself, the less compassion I have to spare for others. If I have spent the day brutalising myself for some perceived failing, when I get home to my kids I am likely to be impatient and grumpy with them. It also makes me a lot less resilient. When I’m being hard on myself I can’t cope with life being hard on me as well.

So I have decided to look up to my role models. To those awesome people who lift me up on the low days. The generous souls who are kind and compassionate to those around them. I’m going to ask myself what they would tell me. And I’m going to try to treat myself as I treat others. Maybe if I do that, I might just avoid burnout.

Judgement Day

Human beings are really good at making fast judgements, but not very good at making them accurate. Let’s face it, in an evolutionary sense running away from a potential sabre toothed tiger is almost always a good idea. Better to run away when it turns out not to be a tiger, than not to run away if it actually does have teeth, claws, and a big appetite.

But sometimes those snap judgements can land you in hot water. Like when you decide you can trust someone and turn out to be horribly wrong. Or when you assume the worst of someone based on a chance meeting on a bad day.

Most of us take the judgements of others to heart too, even when we know they’re not based on fact. When somebody talks you down endlessly, it’s pretty hard not to believe it. That can be countered by some positive feedback, but positive feedback isn’t always around right when you need it. We’re more inclined to complain, as a species, I think, than we are to praise. And the bad stuff is also much, much easier to believe. It has been suggested that the ideal ratio is 6 positive comments to 1 negative, and how often do we deliver that kind of ratio ourselves, much less hear it come back to us?

What fascinates me is the power that unfair judgements have to get under my skin. Even if they’re not public – say, sent in a grumpy email or made face to face – they sting. I feel a visceral need to correct them. To fight back. To find a way to somehow wipe my life free of this corrosive attack.

But lately I’ve been thinking about that. Because fighting back invariably leads to a whole new level of toxic interaction, so even if it is temporarily satisfying to lash out, it’s really not going to improve my life. And arguing, however calmly and carefully, with someone’s judgement of you is incredibly unlikely to produce a change in their opinion.

So what on earth can you do? Turning the other cheek may be the biblical solution, but having one cheek stinging and even bleeding already, I really don’t feel like offering the other up for the same treatment. There’s not much incentive to say “Oh yeah? YEAH? Well tell that to my other cheek!”

Maybe there’s a different way. Maybe what I need to think about is the sting itself.

One of the reasons I write is to form connections. When I wrote about Mum last week I got a lot of beautiful support from both friends and strangers. At work I was heading down to the tea room when a colleague called out to me. I stopped, and she caught up and gave me a huge hug. She knew something about me, from what I wrote, that she hadn’t known before, and it prompted her to reach out. It was a moment of beauty in a really tough week.

The interesting thing about those connections is that they can become support structures in the face of those unwanted judgements. I am my own harshest critic, so when others tear me down my first instinct is to agree, and to collapse into a pit of self-loathing. Now I take those moments of beauty and hold them up against the bad stuff.

I save any positive feedback I get at work. The lovely emails from students and their parents. The off-the-cuff comments that give me a lovely warm glow. They all go into my positive feedback file, which I then go and read when I need an antidote to negativity. And the moments of beauty like the responses to my blog – the hug on the stairs, the email from a friend, the comments on facebook – they are also things I can turn to, like a balm that relieves an insect bite, to take the sting out of judgements I know to be unjust.

It turns out that I don’t have to collapse under attack. If I can’t trust my own self-judgement, I can turn to the judgement of people I love, respect, and trust. I can ask myself “Is that what my loved ones would say?”

It’s not easy . When judgements are hurled at you like a knife, they do cut. But there are salves for those cuts. At those moments when we’re bleeding, it turns out we have a choice. We can keep opening the wounds, or we can choose to help them heal. After we stomp around a bit, shouting and swearing. Sometimes you have to scream and throw things before you can act like an adult.

Surrealism, dementia style

You know what they don’t tell you about dementia?

Well, actually, nearly everything. But chief among them is how incredibly surreal it can be. I was at a cafe with Mum today. And it was fine. I was showing her photos from our holiday. She seemed to recognise my daughter, who was hanging out with me today. And as we chatted she turned to me and said “You can do the maths. How long have we known each other?”

It doesn’t matter how often this kind of thing happens, it’s impossible to get used to it. I stared at her for a moment and she said “I mean, I know we’ve known each other for a long time. When did we meet? And where?”

All the dementia literature says not to burst the bubble. Just play along with their reality. So I said “Well, it was 44 years ago,” hoping she would let it go at that. She exclaimed over how long we had been friends and then said “So where did we meet?”

I wasn’t sure whether to burst out laughing or put my head on the table and howl, so I said “we met at the hospital,” thinking that perhaps she would twig. She looked puzzled and said “did I come to see you did I? That was nice of me.”

I agreed it was indeed nice of her, while my heart quietly shattered. But she hadn’t finished with me yet. “Well hang on, you were in hospital, how did we actually meet?” oh yes. Nice time to use logic, Mum.

“We were in hospital at the same time.”

“Wow. That’s amazing”

“Yes, yes, it certainly is. I am amazed.”

It’s hilarious, really. Except it punched out my heart. That’s surrealism for you, I guess.

Half an hour after I got home she called me to ask when she would see me, it’s been so long.

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

Demons, Imagine Dragons

It’s not like this is new. She has forgotten me before. But the human brain, pre-dementia, is surprisingly resilient. It bounces back to its base state whenever possible. And regardless of how fractured, how flawed my relationship with my Mum has been, the base state of my brain is heavily influenced by that most primal of relationships: parent to child.

And that relationship was like two ropes. One from her to me, one from me to her. God knows those ropes were sometimes more like barbed wire. Sometimes they were so tight it was painful, while at others they were so thin and loose as to be almost undetectable. Ultimately, though, they were always there. But now her rope to me is unraveling. In fact that’s probably a lie I’m telling myself even now. Face it, it has unraveled. Evaporated. Gone.

I don’t know why that hurts so much. Her remembering me was usually pretty traumatic. When Dad was still alive their “remembering” moments usually involved threats of legal action, or screaming down the phone. But I still feel shocked and sick every time.

She still knows she knows me. But she doesn’t know who I am. There is no doubt a day coming when even that last flash of recognition will be gone.

I spent the rest of the day doing what had to be done. I drove home. Did the shopping. And halfway back from the shops I suddenly sobbed hot, desperate tears. It will only get worse from here. And I’m not sure I can do this anymore.