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.

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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?

Family

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!

A pause to reflect

I’ve often said that by the time you finish a PhD, having spent at least 3 years immersed in a single, intense, drawn out project, all you can see is the flaws in that work. It doesn’t matter if you get glowing examiners’ reports and win awards for your work: all you know about by the end of that time is the hundreds of little ways you could have done better if you started it all again. The kind of obsessive personality who can actually finish a PhD (I’m pretty sure obsessiveness is the primary requirement for graduation) generally has a perfectionist streak approximately as wide as the infinitely expanding universe.

I’ve found that I have a similar tendency in real life. I’ve just finished a marathon year, and I’m both exhausted and a little nauseous at the thought of everything I want to achieve next year. The majority of my brain is sitting in the corner, rocking, and gibbering quietly at the thought of another year like the one just past.

Facebook puts together naff little photostreams of “the year that was” for you, collecting a moderately random set of your posts from the year into a summary of 2014. Mine seems to consist largely of animals and photos from the far distant past, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It’s a bit pointless, except that it has prompted me to consider what my 2014 really looked like. Rather than hyperventilating at the thought of the progress I still want to make, maybe there’s something to be said for stopping to consider how far I’ve come.

For a teacher it can be hard to quantify your year, especially if you don’t have year 12s. Year 12 students provide some kind of objective measure of your teaching, because their assessment is primarily external, but even then you can say “Oh, well the students were amazing, they’d have done well whoever taught them.” Which is what I tend to do when my students achieve extraordinary things – because they are invariably extraordinary kids, and it is exceptionally difficult to measure your own impact on a class full of kids with any kind of objectivity.

So you get to the end of the year having given your job everything you’ve got, and with nothing concrete to show for it. Sure, there are the amazing things your students have done, but how much of that was your doing, and how much was theirs? It’s no wonder it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much you still need to do, and feel ill at the thought of starting it all again next year.

But research shows that spending time writing down and contemplating the things you have to be grateful for can dramatically improve your emotional well being and resilience, and my suspicion is that writing down your achievements could be even more powerful.

So this evening we spent some time writing our own “year in review”. Rather than leave it to Facebook to pick a random selection of images from our 2014, we went through the year, month by month, and listed the things we remembered. It was very powerful doing this as a family, because we each remembered and prioritized different things, and we came up with a very full list of things to be grateful for, as well as things, like my heart problems, that we have survived and often learnt from.

I’m going to write that list in to our little book of thankful things, and maybe in the future we will look back at 2014 and smile, remembering the events and the people who made it remarkable. But even if we never look at it again, the act of pausing and reflecting on how far we have come this year is a potent and positive reminder of what we have achieved.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful message on Facebook this afternoon about how today is the solstice (winter for him in New York, summer for us in Melbourne), and that this is “the moment of stillness and change,” which I found a very powerful thought. We tend to rush through life without a moment to pause and reflect, and the solstice, together with the approach of Christmas and the New Year, provides a trigger to stop and think about where we are and how far we have come.

It was a hugely positive thing to do as a family. When was the last time you paused to reflect on your life?

Why I WILL accelerate my daughter, but won’t tell you what to do with yours

Recently I read an article by Kerri Sackville entitled “Why you shouldn’t accelerate your child“. Now, to be fair, Kerri may not have chosen the headline for the article. But the article basically followed the headline pretty closely. And it was an anecdotal “It didn’t work for us, so you shouldn’t do it” style of piece. Which is fine, as far as it goes. But it disappointed me intensely, as a teacher of many gifted students, and the parent of two gifted kids, that it did not examine the research, nor consider the reasons why acceleration might be crucial in some cases.

Because here’s the thing: Bright kids, such as Kerri describes, may indeed not be well served by acceleration. But there is a world of difference between bright and gifted. And the consequences for gifted kids of never receiving the level of work they need in order to be truly challenged and extended can be dire. Truly. Dire. Not just “a bit bored”, but clinically depressed, even suicidal level of dire.

They’re not always dire. Some gifted kids will seek out their own challenges, and possess their own miraculous internal resilience such that they will cheerfully survive being bored to bits in class. I’ve taught these kids.

But other kids will find that they can’t talk to the kids around them – in fact they are frequently bullied for being weird. And they never learn what it is to try and fail to master some challenging topic, so they learn that everything comes easily to them. This makes the eventual appearance of challenge desperately threatening and unmanageable. I’ve taught these kids, too. And I’ve parented them.

The literature is full of stories of kids who went on to be miserable, and even delinquent, because they learnt that to be them, and to achieve praise, was to do things effortlessly. That became their defining characteristic. They learnt what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset”, and never learnt how to tackle things that they didn’t yet know how to do.

Sooner or later we all meet something that we don’t understand (yet). For under-extended gifted kids, this can be a huge threat, and trigger a massive panic reaction. The research shows very clearly that gifted kids have high rates of anxiety, depression, and even suicide. This doesn’t surprise me, because the other thing I know about gifted kids is that their unchallenged brains have to find something else to do. And for a highly analytical child, this can quickly turn into a spiral of “Nobody understands me, nobody gets me, I am a failure, I am worthless” that can fast become catastrophic.

This may sound extreme to those of you who have not had close contact with gifted kids, but the research clearly shows that gifted kids are emotionally intense, and consequently prone to depression. Kerri Sackville tosses off the casual comment that a good teacher will be able to extend every child in her class, and “they will no doubt achieve academically no matter what year they are in” so acceleration should not be necessary. But this is garbage. I have seen that from the teacher side. I have 25 kids in my year 11 class, and knowing exactly what every one of them needs at any point in time is a constant struggle.

When you are dealing with a huge spread of abilities at primary school level, or even at high school not every child is going to get what they need. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about a highly resourced, well funded private school or the local state school desperately struggling for enough money to buy a computer that actually works, there are going to be lots of times when the whole class is doing the same worksheet – because there is a physical limit to how much effort a teacher can put in, and in my experience most teachers, especially the good ones, are at the edge of that limit every single day, and still not doing things the way they think they should be done.

The point of acceleration for a gifted child is that it narrows the gap between the average classroom activity, and the work that child needs in order to be challenged. A gifted education conference I attended last year made what, for me, was a profoundly compelling point: Every child deserves to make a year’s progress for a year’s schooling.

All too often gifted kids are making progress in becoming depressed, but not much else.

Sackville also claims that teenage kids are so different socially that a 14 year old going to parties with 16 year olds is a world of horror, and here I have to argue that EVERY CHILD IS DIFFERENT. I’d tattoo that on my forehead if I thought it would help. Some 14 year olds will be fine at 16 year old parties. Some 16 year olds won’t. And 16 year old parties might be slumber parties with harmless videos or wild drunken sex fests. Every child, and every party, is different. But what I do know is that gifted kids frequently relate much better, and more easily, to older children, than they do to their chronological peer group. Place a gifted kid in his or her own year level and it quickly becomes clear that nobody gets them, which can lead to a demoralizing isolation. But if you shift them up a little, you narrow the gap between them and their peers. They are more likely to be reading the same books, playing the same games, and speaking the same language.

I’ve had my students tell me they spent their first few years of high school playing games, reading the following years’ textbook in the back of the classroom, or wreaking havoc, because they simply couldn’t see the point of school. These kids are beyond bright. They are gifted, and they have particular needs.

So I won’t place myself in opposition to Sackville’s article and say “You MUST accelerate bright kids.” Some kids need acceleration, some don’t. But I will declare that what you must do, beyond all doubt, is what you believe is right for your child. Not what a random, unqualified writer says didn’t work for her and therefore will not work for you. Not what a teacher, or a psychologist says is right, when you believe it’s wrong for your child. And certainly not what I believe is right for my kids. But what you, after careful research and deep consideration of all the available options, believe is right for your child.

(Interesting further reading, including reports on outcomes for gifted kids who were accelerated vs those who weren’t: http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2014/04/what-do-we-risk-losing-by-not-challenging-gifted-kids/)

Are we afraid of connecting?

As my year 12s finished school this year, they gradually found me on Facebook. I’m loving this different way to connect, and the confidence that we will keep in touch. These people have a special place in my heart, as all my students do. Once you’re one of “my kids” it lasts a lifetime.

It’s been interesting connecting with them and flicking back through their timelines, because I have learnt a lot about them that I didn’t know before. I suspect some of them have learnt a lot about me the same way.

For example I now know that one of them plays the piano alarmingly well – and although I had a great relationship with this student, somehow I’d never found that out.

I also know that another is a lot more politically aware than I ever realized – and that our politics are very closely aligned. Think of the conversations we could have had!

I know that still another came from a school just around the corner from my house, and that we have friends in common. Also that he is a loyal and loving friend (which, to be honest, did not come as a surprise).

I know that another is an amazing athlete, has a part time job, and stayed up all night to finish one of my assignments (sorry!).

And one has the most incredible artistic talent – how did I miss that??

I know which ones are in long term relationships, which ones have strong ties with friends from their previous schools, and which ones have pets. I know what music they like, what issues they are passionate about, and what they believe in.

Of course, not everybody posts much on facebook, but for the most part being connected this way has enhanced my understanding of them – and no doubt their understanding of me.

Yet there is an unofficial, unwritten rule that teachers don’t friend students on Facebook. And I can understand why – kids don’t need to see pictures of their teachers getting blind drunk on Saturday night (although really, if that’s what’s going on your Facebook feed then you’ve got some serious questions to ask yourself, teacher or not). But in this increasingly public and online world, not much is private anymore. The chances are that students can find those pics of you if the pics are online, especially if someone else put them there and they’re not careful with their privacy settings.

I also understand that there is concern about blurring the boundaries between teachers and students. That some people feel the more formal, distant relationship maintained by using teacher’s surnames and never seeing them outside the school grounds is an important ingredient in maintaining discipline and avoiding “inappropriate” relationships forming, especially between young teachers and students who may be only a handful of years younger. Yet going on camps inevitably blurs these boundaries anyway – sometimes first names are allowed on camp, casual clothes are worn, and interaction is inevitably more casual and less constrained.

The truth is that we are all going to have to be professional and draw the line at times, whether we are connected on facebook or not. And it’s true that sometimes knowing where the line should be is tricky.

But I do wonder if we are losing opportunities to reach our students, to build meaningful connections and understand them better. Of course I know that sometimes teachers and students cross the boundaries, but I am becoming more and more convinced that in trying to avoid that we have swung far too far in the other direction. We have all but banned touch between teachers and students, and if you are never allowed to pat them on the shoulder, hug them in times of stress, or hold their hands when they are scared, surely touch becomes far more highly charged and problematic when it does happen?

And, as teachers, our duty is to support and nurture our students as much as to educate them, and as social mammals, touch is a crucial part of that.

One of my students was once so overwhelmed by having passed an assignment that she cried out “oh! Can I have a hug???” and I gave her one. Telling this story in the staffroom later got a whole lot of horrified looks. “oh, you took such a risk! I’d never do that!” they said. How tragic it is, and how impoverished our interactions, that this is where we have arrived. In a place where we can’t touch, mustn’t acknowledge each other as human beings with lives outside the classroom, and draw careful boxes around our private lives. We are more concerned with not putting ourselves “at risk” of an accusation than with the emotional needs of our students.

Similarly never interacting outside school, never recognising that we are multi-dimensional human beings, not simply students and teachers, might actually create an unrealistic portrait-style image of each other that intensifies the risk of unrealistic and inappropriate relationships.

I think these nice safe lines that we are drawing are far outside the range of what’s reasonable. I think that in protecting ourselves we might just be leaving our teaching impoverished.  As one of my former students said to me last night (on facebook, as it happens): “But to be honest, I reckon I’d be way more likely to pay more attention in class and have a better attitude to learning if I had a better relationship with my teachers.”

I’m really not sure. Social media is a whole new minefield that we, as a society, have yet to really understand, for all we have dived into it headfirst. We don’t actually know which way these connections might lead us, so maybe it’s sensible to plump for the most conservative option.

So what do you think? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater here? Are we protecting our kids, or are we actually depriving them of meaningful connections with their teachers?