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?

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.

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.