Just a teacher

I have a PhD. I used to be an academic, doing research and lecturing at tertiary level. I am a published writer. I have done pro bono communications work with Oxfam Australia. I have worked with the Australian Breastfeeding Association. I enjoyed all of those things.

Now I am a teacher, and it fills me with a passion and joy I can barely describe. Like any job it can also take me to the edge of exhaustion (oh, on a daily basis!) and the pit of despair, but overall I am more proud of what I do now than I have ever been of any work I’ve done in my whole life.

When I was interviewed for this job I was asked what a great day at work looks like for me. A great day at work is when I see a student suddenly get a concept that has been eluding them, and I know I have helped them get there. It’s when I feel as though I have helped. Whether it’s with a difficult programming bug, or thinking about tricky life choices, when a student asks me for help that’s when I know I have a purpose. It’s when I know I can make a difference.

Yesterday someone said to me that saying I was a teacher was running myself down. She saw it as the lesser of my abilities. Yet this is the most challenging, diverse and rewarding job I have ever encountered. I have the power to inspire, to challenge, to motivate and to build up a student’s self esteem. Of course, I don’t always hit the mark. Sometimes I leave a lesson walking on air, feeling as though I have done everything I set out to do, but more often I walk out thinking of a hundred ways I could do better.

And then I get an email, as I did last week, from a parent who tells me that her son describes me as “one of the most amazing teachers he has ever had”. Or a student tells me that even though she’s no longer in my class, she views me as her “go to” person when she does not know what to do. That’s when I know that whatever goes wrong, whatever I am not quite doing right yet, I am in the right place. I am making a difference.

It puzzles me that anyone would say I am “just a teacher”. I don’t understand the origin of the contempt with which teachers are often viewed. Even before I became a teacher I knew that teaching was an incredibly difficult job, worthy of respect.

I work harder than I have ever worked before. But I am also happier than I have ever been before.

I am privileged to work among an amazingly talented, dedicated and passionate group of teachers. I know that not all teachers reach those heights – like any profession, it has its highs and lows. But I am so proud to be counted among them – to be one of them. I am a teacher, and I still get a thrill every time I say that.

Cry me a river

Recently I have taken to posting a “thankful thing” to facebook every day. I’ve found my tendency is to use facebook for whingeing about whatever is bugging me that instant, and the thankful thing is  a welcome antidote to that. It provides an avenue for humour, and for publicly appreciating people. It also provides a focus for thinking about the positives, even on days when the positives are especially difficult to see.

Yesterday I posted a thankful thing about how my 5 year old had heard me crying, and come to find me so that she could cuddle me, and then (on the advice of her father) tickle me to cheer me up. I hesitated to post it – I didn’t want to be melodramatic and let everyone know that I had been crying. I worried that people would think I was attention seeking, or not coping, or that it would be somehow awkward. And then I pulled myself together, thought of everything I’ve coped with this year, and decided that a few tears were perfectly reasonable under the circumstances, so I hit “publish” before I could change my mind.

But I still felt a little odd about it.

Public crying. We don’t do that. We’re not supposed to do that. My instinct those times when I am caught out in public, unable to stem the tears, is to run and hide, or pretend it’s hay fever, or mutter about something in my eye. Unless there is a close friend nearby into whom I can collapse in safety, I will do everything in my power to suppress those tears and pretend I am ok.

Which, if you think about it, is crazy.

Crying is a normal, healthy psychological and physiological response. It’s nothing shameful. Yet we have so many pejorative terms. Crying in public is bawling or blubbering. It makes you a cry baby, or worse – a girl! (and why that should be pejorative is a whole ‘nother post) Big girls don’t cry. Boys certainly don’t cry.

Now you say you love me
Well, just to prove that you do
Come on and cry me a river
Cry me a river
I cried a river over you

Cry me a river – Arthur Hamilton

Yet the rather soggy truth is that I often feel better after a good cry. It’s an emotional and physiological cleansing of impressive proportions. I remember freaking out a male friend I was traveling with, many years ago, when we encountered a fairly dramatic setback and I burst into tears. He was panicking and finding ways to get me home while even through my tears I was looking at him as though he was crazy, because I knew that once I had got it out of my system I’d be fine. I could deal with it and move on. Tears were effective therapy, a way of handling shock and getting past it.

I cry fairly easily and it sometimes bothers me, because I know it’s not socially acceptable except under extreme circumstances. Yet who is to judge which circumstance is extreme? Who can count the burdens currently weighing anyone else down? Who is to say whether crying right now is justified or not?

We hush our kids when they cry. We praise them for being brave when they don’t cry. And I wonder about teaching them that not crying is something to be proud of. Are we setting them up for trouble in later life?

So go on – cry me a river. It might just be good for you.

On the spectrum

The concept of being normal has always fascinated me. Rather like viewing an alien being under a microscope, I understood from an early age that normal was something I would never be. (My ringtone says it all – “Whoa-oh, I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien.”)

I remember my dad, a doctor, coming to talk to my grade 6 class about being normal. “Who thinks they’re normal?” he asked. Lots of hands went up, including my own. “You’re certainly not normal,” he said to me. I thought it was funny (telling in itself – some kids would have been mortified). Dad went on to say how the “typical” Australian drank this much beer, smoked this many cigarettes, etc, etc. Normal wasn’t necessarily desirable, under that lens.

Always one of the tallest in my class, I got taller and taller – topping out at around 185cm, or nearly 6’1″. I’ve always quite enjoyed being tall, but many people, especially guys, were quite threatened by it. When I was 16, during some banter about not being able to reach the top shelf, I joked that I didn’t have that problem. A male acquaintance blurted out “Yes, but you’re not normal, are you? I mean, how many guys can you go out with??” Oddly enough, he was quite a lot shorter than me.

As I got more and more comfortable with the idea that blending into the background was not among my available life choices, I branched out in other ways. Ever more flamboyant earrings. Odd socks. Shaved head. Non-standard choices of all sorts. This was kind of a reach for me, because I grew up quite square and conservative, but it began to fascinate me how freaky people seemed to find it. Especially the socks. Many people find the socks quite alarming. Good heavens. They’re just socks, people!

These days being seen as normal seems to be increasingly important. Autistic kids, for example, are “abnormal”, even though any reading of the characteristics of those diagnosed as “on the spectrum” must surely prompt the more honest among us to go “hmmm… I do that. And that. And that.” It’s a spectrum. A range. Rather than seeing the spectrum as going from normal to abnormal, why don’t we see it as going from common to rare?


If “Manners maketh man” as someone said
Then he’s the hero of the day
It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile
Be yourself no matter what they say
Whoa-oh, I’m an alien
I’m a legal alien
I’m an Englishman in New York

Sting – Englishman In New York

Similarly, lists of attributes of almost any mental illness prompt at least small amounts of recognition. We are quick to label the abnormal as threatening and scary, yet none of us are truly normal (after all, how many families do have 2.4 children?). Normal just means we sit in the middle of any statistical distribution. By definition there must be many people outside any normal range. We don’t make clothes that fit them (ooh, trust me on that). We don’t make schools that fit them (although there are some amazing exceptions). We don’t make a culture that fits them.

We find them alarming and disturbing. We don’t really want to be around them. We’d quite like it if they’d just disappear, and if they choose not to we’ll give them a really hard time for all the things they do that don’t fit the norm.

The interesting thing is that biologically diversity is a source of strength. A species under threat needs diverse skills, abilities and attributes if it is to survive. A genetically homogeneous crop can be wiped out by a single virus, but a diverse crop will almost always survive.

Intellectually, diversity is also a strength. Diverse ideas can provoke conflict, sure, but they also provide a range of solutions. They are much more likely to find new solutions to old problems, because there will be more thinking out of the box – more creativity, more variation.

Ultimately wherever we are on the spectrum – autistic or not, tall or thin, short or fat, gay or straight, kinky or vanilla, black or white – we all have a lot to offer. So why draw boundaries around normal?

Don’t fail me now

Picture the scene: a 5 year old girl loses a game with her family. She flings herself, sobbing, to the floor wailing “I never win!”

Her family responds with mild sympathy, before explaining that you can’t win every time. That it’s only fair for everyone to get a turn, and that the important thing is to have fun playing the game. It doesn’t matter who wins.

A 9 year old performs a variation on the same scene. She gets rather less sympathy, and a terse description of how life works. After all, she is 9. She should know better.

An adult does it, and you quietly decide never to play with her again. It’s no fun.

When a whole country does it, what can you do?

The Australian media has been screaming since roughly day one of the Olympic games about how we have failed. We have received our “worst result in 20 years.” Shock! Horror! Betrayal! Who can we blame?

Armchair experts around the country bemoan Liesl’s weight and James’s nerves. They whine about the obvious inadequacy of the coaches. About not receiving the medals we thought we had bought. Woe is us, alas, alack.

I know I am danger of harping on about this, but Nobel Prize Winner Peter Doherty’s instruction to students that they should not be afraid to fail keeps coming back to me. It’s not only true in science, but in life. Anything you can achieve first time is not terribly difficult, and most likely not terribly interesting.  The only way to achieve success is to pick yourself up each time you get knocked down. To dust yourself off, learn from your mistakes and do better next time. And to do it over and over again.

You’ve been keeping to yourself these days
Cause you’re thinking everything’s gone wrong
Sometimes you just want to lay down and die
But that emotion can be so strong
But hold on ’till that old second wind comes along

This is resilience. Many of the world’s most momentous scientific discoveries were accidents. (The most well known is penicillin.) If you know how every experiment is going to turn out, then you’re not going to discover anything new. Scientists not only expect the unexpected, they seek it, and must be open to it in order to make discoveries. That’s not failure. That’s progress. Learning what doesn’t work is as important as knowing what does – even if it’s not as newsworthy.

You better believe there will be times in your life
When you’ll be feeling like a stumbling fool
So take it from me you’ll learn more from your accidents
Than anything that you could ever learn at school

Second Wind (You’re Only Human) – Billy Joel

One of the most important life skills we can teach our kids is how to be resilient. How to learn more, become stronger, and reach higher after every mistake. How to bounce back, get back on that horse, and keep going in the face of adversity.  Yet what are we teaching our kids with our response to the Olympics?

That only gold counts. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser – end of story. The papers are screaming about how our athletes have failed us. How each medal cost us over 10 million dollars. They want to cut spending to sport – and don’t get me wrong. I am not against a rational redistribution of funds. I’d love to see Australians as excited about science as they are about football, and funding it with equal enthusiasm.

But this is not a rational conversation about finance. This is a tantrum we are throwing because the medals we counted failed to hatch. Never mind personal bests, amazing achievements that came in fourth, and the work that went into actually making it to the olympics at all. None of that counts if you don’t bring home a gold medal. Never mind sportsmanship. Forget what you actually achieved. We don’t want to know you unless you won a medal.

Sorry kids. Do as we say, not as we do.

You talking to me?

Sometimes I get a little down, a little too stuck inside my own head, and I start to believe my own negative publicity. At these times I tend to view everything through grey-tinted glasses. Every negative thing that happens is directed at me. Every grumpy face is my fault. Some days even  The Thankful Thing can’t pull me out of it, because there is a little voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough, and I am paying it way too much attention.

I’ve been lucky, though, because I have learnt to recognise that little voice for what it is: a lying little toad, bent on my destruction. Ok, maybe that’s a bit strong, but the one thing you can say for sure about that little voice is that it is not accurate. Reality is a matter of perspective, and when your perspective is skewed, you can lose contact pretty easily.

Psychologists dealing with the chronically depressed often advocate challenging that voice – asking yourself how realistic it is. Is it true that nothing ever goes right for me? Can I find a single example of someone who doesn’t hate me? Was that earthquake really my fault? That sort of thing.

Of course, when you are miserable and making yourself more so, finding the space to draw breath and ask yourself those questions can be tough. It’s much easier to keep spiralling downwards than to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. That’s where meditation comes in. Even if you don’t practice it regularly, it can provide that breathing space and allow you room to ask those questions. Even if the closest you get to meditation is staring at the trees waving in the wind from time to time, it can be surprisingly strengthening, and allow you to take a positive perspective.

It’s all about self-talk. Self-talk can quickly drag you to rock bottom:

“I’ll never get a job,” “I’m just a fat slob”, “nobody likes me”, “It’s all too hard,”

but used consciously it can also drag you back up:

“I will get a job”, “I look great”, “I am loved”, “I am strong and I can do this.”

In trying to persuade my daughter to be more positive, I have started to become more aware of my own self-talk. Unsurprisingly it is strongly correlated with my state of health, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside my control.  If I can become aware of my self-talk, then I can change it.

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full say “this glass is half full.” And then there are those who say “this glass is half empty.”

The world belongs however, to those who can look at the glass and say “What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full. And it was a bigger glass!”

Terry Pratchett. The Truth.

One of the worst things about negative self-talk is its impact on our relationships with others. If you are constantly talking yourself down, then any negative sentiment (real or imagined) coming from someone else receives an enthusiastic cheer squad inside your own head. “When will you have that report done?” becomes “He’s mad at me for being so slow. God I’m hopeless!” “I don’t think that’s a good idea” becomes “She thinks I’m stupid. Of course she does, I’m such a loser!”

These are extreme examples, but we talk to ourselves this way a lot. Maybe it’s just me, and none of my readers will identify with any of this – but I suspect that’s the little toad talking.

I’m going to go out and get myself a bigger glass. What are you saying to yourself?

The Thankful Thing

Some time ago, in a bid to counter our 9 year old’s belief that it was all too hard, life was against her, and nothing was going right, we started a family tradition we call The Thankful Thing. One of the things we lack, as a family without religion, is the affirming rituals and traditions that often go along with religious faith, so it seemed sensible to try to create one of our own, consistent with our own beliefs and values.

The Thankful Thing is very simple, and the kids have taken to it with a passion, squabbling over who gets to go first. However difficult or distressing the day is, at dinner time we all say at least one thing we are thankful for. Oddly enough, the worst days tend to produce the most heartfelt thankful things – like the person who helped us pick up the pieces when things went horribly wrong, or the friendly hug that turned the day around.

A few weeks ago, inspired by a friend, we started to write our thankful things down and toss them into The Thankful Pot.  These days the kids love scrabbling in the Thankful Pot for past thankful things. They take turns to go for a lucky dip to find out what we have been thankful for before. It’s an eclectic mix. Everything from “That books were invented” (from Miss 9, although in truth it could have been any of us, we are a house full of inveterate bookworms), to “lots of hugs today”, “that I love my job”, “that we do science at school”, “that we hung out with friends today”, “that I came home to a really yummy dinner”, “that the girls helped clean up”, “yoga”, “that I went for a ride in the sun today” or “that we have awesome friends”.

And I want to thank you for giving me
The best day of my life
Ohh, just to be with you is having
The best day of my life

Some friends appear regularly in our thankful things. Some activities appear a lot too, like reading, cycling, and hugging. Early on we had to make a rule that we weren’t allowed to mention “not thankful things” at Thankful Thing time (such as “I’m not thankful that mummy wouldn’t let me…”, but we don’t have to enforce that rule now. The kids clamour to find and list thankful things, and to put their own entries into the pot.

It’s a very simple thing to do, but it’s amazingly powerful. It concentrates our minds on the good bits of the day – on the things that went right, and the people who looked after us. There has never been a day when we couldn’t find something to be thankful for, although sometimes one of us gets into a mood and we have to wait patiently for the good stuff to bubble to the surface, past the cranky demons of a bad day. So far it always has.

My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why
I got out of bed at all
The morning rain clouds up my window
And I can’t see at all
And even if I could it’ d all be grey
But your picture on my wall it reminds me
That it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad

Dido – Thank you

Whether you’re 9 or 79, some days are too hard. Sometimes life is too much, nothing seems easy, and there is trauma and stress everywhere you look. Sometimes everyone needs a reminder that even the darkest time have light spots, and even on the worst day there are things to be thankful for. I’m having one of those days today, which is why I decided to write about the thankful thing. Just like the magic way that thinking about being hugged brings almost as much of an oxytocin boost as actually being hugged, thinking about being thankful reminds me just how much I have that I am truly, deeply thankful for.

And you know what? I’m really very thankful for that!