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Linda J. Graham

@drlindagraham

On Literature (with a capital ‘L’)

What makes literature great? According to Katie Ashford, Deputy Head and Director of Inclusion at *that school* in England, it’s got something to do with “aspects of the human condition that transcend time, place and personal interest”.

That, dear reader, is what is known as “motherhood statement” because it doesn’t really tell us very much. We have to deduce its meaning from clues elsewhere in the article. To me, the most telling clues are the statements indicating what is NOT great literature.

The Hunger Games, a three-part series written by Suzanne Collins, is offered as an example of teenage “pap”, which I find fascinating given that my daughter wrote about it in her final year of school.

In a speech responding to the prompt “Is Young Adult Fiction just for kids?”, she compared The Hunger Games and Orwell’s 1984 (an author who apparently does meet with Ashford’s approval). I think her points are highly relevant here:

Is Young Adult Fiction “just for kids”? *

Young Adult Fiction doesn’t have a great reputation. It isn’t considered high class literature; literature with a capital ‘L’. Great Expectations, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Macbeth: these are all considered great works of literature and each are named in the literary canon. The canon is a body of literature that is considered to be of superior or artistic merit; the type of literature that engages with deep ideas about what it means to be human. This is what gives great literature its ‘timeless’ appeal. For example, the jealousy and ambition of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is still relevant today. That’s clear from the TV series, House of Cards. Frank and Claire Underwood could have been modelled on Lord and Lady Macbeth! But, literature that entertains is often called “popular” literature, as if there is something wrong with being entertaining.
Young Adult Fiction is dismissed in much the same way. Some people make the mistake of assuming that kids’ books aren’t capable of dealing with deep ideas. For that reason, Young Adult Fiction is perceived as a waste of time. Something that is “just for kids”. YAF typically focuses on a young lead character and explores themes that are important to adolescents. Things like relationships, jealousy, love, power, betrayal, class, and loss. As a reader of well-known Young Adult Fiction novels such as Red Queen, Outlander, Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games, I am here to persuade you that YA fiction is not “just for kids”. What most people don’t understand is that some YA novels deal with the same timeless themes as the great works of literature. I will demonstrate this today by comparing George Orwell’s 1984 with The Hunger Games, a now famous example of Young Adult Fiction, written by Suzanne Collins.
1984 is a dystopian novel that was written in 1949, just after the second World War. It tells the story of Winston Smith who lives in a country called Oceania, which is in a state of perpetual war and ruled by a ruthless political party: IngSoc. The head of this party is the infamous ‘Big Brother’ who is never actually seen in person but who is on posters and statues everywhere. We’ve all heard of the TV show ‘Big Brother’ and it may surprise you to know that the concept came from this novel.
1984 was futuristic in that it tried to predict what life would be like in 35 year’s time. On the wall of virtually every room is a ‘telescreen’; a big flat-screen that can never be switched off. It is a two-way telescreen and has two functions: it can broadcast propaganda, like the outcome of trials and the number of people killed in the war, and it can also watch what everyone is doing. No one knows when they are being watched or by who. This means that people begin to police their own behaviour, as well as distrust one another. The central point is that people in fear of each other are people who are easily controlled.
There is a clear parallel here between 1984 and ‘The Hunger Games’. Also set in a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two “tributes” – one boy, one girl – are picked at random from each district to participate in the “Hunger Games”. The televised games are broadcasted throughout Panem. There is only one survivor from the 24 tributes and the districts are pitted against each other. As in ‘1984’, the footage of the games is played back to the people. This is in the form of reality TV to supposedly “entertain” but it actually increases the distrust between the districts. If the Districts fear each other, they’re hardly likely to rise up against the Capitol. Does this sound familiar?? Like I said earlier in relation to 1984, people in fear of each other are people who are easily controlled.
Every morning and afternoon on the train, I see grown adults reading Young Adult Fiction. It may not be for everyone but, as I have just demonstrated, some YA books deal with the same timeless concepts as classic adult literature. Concepts like freedom, power, and manipulation. The difference is that YA fiction engages with these concepts in ways that are more engaging and relevant to young people. It doesn’t deserve to be dismissed as juvenile, simply because it is entertaining.

Tay-Tay.gif

Anyway, if my daughter’s right and The Hunger Games, and other YAF novels like it, touch on “aspects of the human condition” like freedom, power, manipulation, love, fear, jealousy and more, what makes the works of someone like Orwell or (god forbid), Chaucer, superior?

To borrow Ashford’s metaphor, why should we force our children to chew through these literary greens?

What makes these books preferred reading material for adolescents in the first few years of high school (as Ms Ashford’s students are)?

In other words, are Chaucer etc appropriate for 12-14 year olds?  Does it matter?

I think it does.

I was a voracious reader as a young person. My mother used to buy me stacks of books from the second-hand bookstore, but she could never buy enough to keep pace with me. So, when I had nothing to read, I would raid my Dad’s bookcase.

By the age of 10, I was reading Jane Austen, Wilbur Smith, Harold Robbins (!), George Orwell, James Joyce, Jeffrey Archer, Maeve Binchy, Daphne Du Maurier, Robert Ludlum, and more.

I didn’t really understand much of what I was reading, although the experience vastly expanded my vocabulary. A common childhood memory is my older sister sniping, “Don’t use words you don’t understand”. To which I’d smugly reply, “No, I think I’m using words you don’t understand”.

The concepts though, were well beyond my comprehension and it wasn’t until I was much older that I appreciated the subtext. Yes, we could have “discussed” the meaning over broccoli (bleuh), but for the most part Dad’s books didn’t interest me. In fact, some (Ulysses, WTAF??) just confirmed what I had long suspected: adults are weird.

I have two teenagers of my own now and all reports suggest that opinion of adults hasn’t changed. So what then is the purpose in making young people read books that were never actually written for them?

Let me phrase that another way to make an associated point: could there be value in the books that ARE written for them?

I think there is. And some of the books that my children’s teachers have selected have been outstanding. Not only are they age appropriate but they deal with complex concepts. You know, the kind supposedly only covered by “great (adult) literature”?

The ones that have stuck in my mind over recent years are:

Nanberry: Black Brother White

Pavana

Chinese Cinderella: The true story of an unwanted daughter

Once

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

In a diverse and complex world, these are the types of books I want my children to read and I’m grateful to my kids’ teachers for selecting them. There’s plenty of time for dead white guys, should they ever choose to read them. In the meantime, they get to learn about each other and the heritage of their friends.

They learn that everyone – no matter where they’re from, what they look like or what culture/religion they embrace – feels pain, sadness, joy and love.

They learn that people can do unspeakable things when one group feels superior to another.

They also learn that they – as white, middle class children of professional parents living in Australia – have freedoms and privileges of which some children can only dream.

And if I (or my son’s teachers) have to use The Day my Bum went Psycho covered in macaroni cheese as a gate-way drug to get my rugby-loving, school-hating son to read in order to learn these truths, that’s what we’ll do.

Because there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d read Chaucer, let alone develop a life-long love of reading from the experience.

And that’s not the result of low expectations, people.  That’s reality.

Try it sometime.

 

 

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* Shared with my daughter’s permission and, yes, she had my help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Inclusion

Tom Bennett, secondary school teacher of philosophy and religion, English EduTwitter doyen, director of ResearchED, writer for the Times Education Supplement and the UK government’s “Behaviour Tsar” (who will be in Melbourne for ResearchED this coming weekend), said in the TES yesterday that “exclusion shouldn’t be a dirty word“. Apparently Tom is an advocate for exclusions as part of an effective school behaviour policy and has been for some time. I can’t say all that needs to be said on this subject in just one post, so I shall have to leave exclusion for another time. For now, I’d like to concentrate on inclusion.

Inclusion At All Costs?

In his TES article, Tom criticises something he calls “Inclusion At All Costs” (IAAC). This is not something with which I am familiar, perhaps because it is not a real policy and no one has ever advocated for it. From what I can gather from his article and a similar piece in The Conversation, “inclusion at all costs” is a phrase that one of The Guardian’s Secret Teachers used to describe the cost that the inclusion of a student with disability has for others; e.g., classroom teachers and the other 29 students in their class.

I can understand where Tom is coming from and have no doubt his frustration resonates with a great many teachers. But, there are a number of problems with his article, as well as the Secret Teacher piece, that I feel duty bound to point out. These problems revolve around the uncritical use of words like “mainstream”, the way that inclusion is being conceptualised, and the conflation of equity and equality.

These are common issues in the field of inclusive education; ones that we discuss with teachers completing LCN629: Inclusive Education, Theory, Policy & Practice as part of their Masters degree here at QUT. I first wrote about this back in 2008 with Roger Slee but it seems the situation has only gotten worse since then. So, perhaps it is time to make the point again (in plainer language)… 😉

Language matters.

Critiques of inclusion are revealing. Not only do they indicate how poorly governments have enacted inclusive education but they also give us an inkling as to why – after 20+ years – we’re (still) not there yet.

Let me turn to the Secret Teacher piece to illustrate what I mean.

Inclusion in principle is the right sentiment but, at best, it can come at a high price and, at worst, it can be a complete injustice. Children are individuals so the solution needs to be individual. There are plenty of examples of children with SEN who are successfully integrated in mainstream schools to the benefit of themselves and their peers. But if we want children with SEN to have the same opportunities to succeed as others, we should not feel guilty about admitting they may need a different environment in which to do this. Furthermore, our responsibility is to all children equally, not just those with SEN.

My first issue with this paragraph is the faulty conceptualisation of inclusive education. Whilst some might dismiss the conceptual slippage in this piece as pure semantics, that would simply reinforce the error.

This is because there is a difference between integration and inclusion. Anyone with knowledge in the area knows that the inclusion movement came about because a former movement, called integration, had failed. One of the reasons that integration failed is because students with disability were being placed into an unreconstructed “mainstream” with little support and next to no training for classroom teachers (sound familiar?) Another term that was used to describe this practice is “main-dumping”. Not hard to understand why it failed.

Inclusive education — as Len Barton, Roger Slee, Mel Ainscow, Suzanne Carrington, myself and many others have argued — requires the reconceptualisation of schooling. The problem is that this reconceptualisation hasn’t happened. Along the way, governments have given lip service to the ideals of inclusive education and have recognised the potential benefits for students both with and without disability, but most haven’t genuinely embraced the philosophy.

Why?

Well, this is going to sound cynical but I suspect the cost of reconceptualisation lost out to the savings that could be achieved by adopting the language of inclusion but leaving structures in place that meant only something resembling a rebadged form of integration was possible. This is why I said yes when Jarlath O’Brien asked me the other night if I thought New South Wales deserved an ‘F’ for inclusion. Instead of “Inclusion At All Costs” we should be talking about “Inclusion At Low Cost”.

When I said that inclusion requires us to reconceptualise schooling, I didn’t just mean building schools with ramps or retrofitting existing schools (again with the ramps). And I also wasn’t referring to more Integration Funding Support (small bundles of money to support individual students).

I meant thinking about students with disability and learning difficulties from the get-go.

Keeping them in mind when writing curriculum, designing assessments, providing teachers with release from face-to-face teaching to plan their lessons, as well as providing quality professional development (not just policy compliance infomercial sessions), and honestly assessing how much resourcing schools actually need to redevelop their practice, rather than providing only what Treasury will allow them to have.

It means governments recognising the perverse incentives inherent in their own policy concoctions, changing them and making sure that these never see the light of day again. For an example of what I mean, just consider what comparing students’ NAPLAN performance on the My School website does for the marketability of students with disability and/or the academic reputation of the inclusive schools that embrace them. Consider too the effect of a crowded curriculum within a high stakes testing culture on the ability of teachers to actually be inclusive.

Truth is, there has been a reconceptualisation of schooling in the last 20+ years but it has taken a completely different form than that argued by the proponents of inclusion. The relentless intensification of teachers’ work resulting from standardised assessment accountability frameworks and the pressure to achieve ever higher standards in contexts affected by increasing social inequality has contributed to an environment that is hostile to inclusion. Why aren’t critics of inclusion critiquing that??

Shifting the deckchairs

My second issue with the above paragraph from Secret Teacher is the uncritical reference to “mainstream schools”. It raises many questions for me, like:

  • What exactly is a mainstream school?
  • What do we mean when we say that?
  • Does the use of the term “mainstream” risk reinforcing the notion that there is a one-size-fits-all?
  • Might this be why we need “somewhere” (as Tom put it) else for all the students for whom that one-size doesn’t work?
  • What would need to change for us to instead use the term “inclusive schools”?
  • Local schools would actually have to be inclusive, right?
  • Could/should they be run as your local school is now?

If mainstream means “business as usual with teacher aides for students with disability”, as I suspect it does judging from what I have seen in my last 12 years of research in this area, then criticism should be directed at the right culprit (re-badged integration and an unreconstructed mainstream) and not inclusion, which argues for something else entirely. This too is something we have discussed in LCN629.

Equality, inequality and equity

My final issue with the Secret Teacher paragraph above – and Tom’s TES piece which covers similar territory – is the appeal to equality.  Thinking in terms of equality means everyone gets the same and it is a problem because it can lead to discrimination.

In the words of Felix Frankfurter (and no, he wasn’t the lead character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show), there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals.

In previous writing, I’ve drawn on political philosophy and the metaphor of cutting a cake to explain the difference between equality and equity. Rather than giving everyone the same, equity means giving each what they need. Appeals to equality for all students – disabled and nondisabled alike – is either the result of ignorance or it’s an attempt to justify giving disabled students less.

Again, this is something that we’ve covered in LCN629 and the number of students who have used the graphic below to illustrate the difference between equality and equity suggests that they totally get it.

It’s about time everyone else with something to say about inclusion did too.

equality-equity cartoon

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Hypocrisy & double-standards…

The Twitter Edublog-O’sphere is a fabulous playground for scholars interested in the politics of language. Perhaps that is why I follow so many English, history and humanities teachers on social media. People like @debsnet, @DrNomyn, @DrSRiddle and @GFThommo…

Oops, sorry!!  #mybad

Alice-facepalm

According to the rules (being rewritten daily), my colleagues Stewart Riddle and Greg Thompson* are no longer teachers. Although they were both secondary school teachers for a decade or more, now that they’ve joined “The Academy”, they are now mere “educationalists” (like me).

As I understand it, this is something akin to being a potato.

Stew Riddle was so inspired by this clever caricature that he wrote a one-act play called “On being a ‘real’ teacher or perhaps a potato“.

Personally, I’d like to crowdfund a Stew-debut at the Brisbane Powerhouse. It could be like those Rocky Horror/Sound of Music re-enactments where the audience sings along? We could dine on a feast of creatively cooked potatoes and throw the dodgy ones at the non-teacher actors.  Right now, frankly, it feels like we’re chucking them at each other…

Just another day at the Potato Olympics

Surely an Olympic standard potato-throw was this week’s charge that I am a “non-teacher” “educationalist” who doesn’t like teachers.

Non-teacher tweets

An excellent throw!  I score it a 10.00   🙂

In all seriousness, I’m grateful to @greg_ashman (a real teacher at a real school in Victoria, Australia, which is also a real place in the real world) for pointing out my non-teacher status because it gives me an opportunity to point to the double-standards that I see being mobilised in the discourse around education, particularly when it comes to research.

Should ‘non-teachers’ be banned from education debate?

Teachers are absolutely central to education and no one would ever deny that. But teachers are not the only stakeholders and theirs, therefore, is not the only perspective that counts. Students are the largest stakeholder group, even just in terms of sheer numbers, though sadly their influence is disproportionately weak.

Despite the relative lack of consultation about all things educational, students’ views matter. For the most part, it is their lives we’re dissecting. Their learning, their struggles, their achievements, their emotions, their experiences, their worries, their future. Their “excuses” that we’re not having a bar of

I think most teachers would agree that students matter. After all, many of the teachers I know (and like very much, thank you) went into teaching because they want to make a difference to young people and, through those young people, make a difference to society itself. This centrality of students to all things education is why people like me*, Pat Thomson*, John Smyth*, and many others research student experience and value student voice.

Whilst not central in the same way as teachers and students, parents are also important stakeholders. Their values, perspectives and decisions matter too. They are the ones who choose the school that their child attends, they make the decisions upon which the logic of school markets depend, they are the ones who secure tutors. That’s why education researchers like Helen Proctor*, Karen Dooley* and Cathie Doherty* involve parents in their research.

Parents also know their children best, as most parents of a child with disability will tell you. They have that child’s medical and educational history etched into their memory and their child’s future is constantly in mind. That’s why education researchers like me*, Kathy Cologon*, Katherine Runswick-Cole* and others include parents in their research.

But, if we are to take these new parameters of educational discourse as directed, research by someone like me – indeed, all of the researchers that I’ve mentioned – is somehow irrelevant because we are not (or are no longer) school teachers. Further, it seems that any educational research that does not focus on “what works” within the four walls of a classroom (even if it wasn’t tested there) is also irrelevant.

It’s a very insular view and whilst I know it isn’t shared by the majority of teachers or even researchers, I think it needs to be called out anyway. It is also strikingly inconsistent with the bulk of the research that is being drawn upon to validate claims by these self-proclaimed revolutionaries. Research from the field of cognitive science, for example.

Getting (hypo)critical about non-teaching Members of the Academy

Now I, as a non-teacher Member of The Academy (hereafter n-tMoTA), have absolutely no problem with research from cognitive science. I respect what they do and, in my experience, the feeling is mutual. Some of my closest friends and colleagues are experimental cognitive scientists, psychologists and speech pathologists 😉 and we’ve learned a lot from each other in the years that we’ve been working together.

We also have a LOT of fun because we think so differently and there are genuinely funny moments when we each try to explain what we mean or what we want to do. It isn’t easy and respect for each other’s knowledge and expertise is essential to avoid a relationship-destroying paradigm war.

But – in public discourse about education, not within The Academy itself – it seems we have now arrived at a point in time where an op-ed piece by one n-tMoTA is considered valid evidence but the peer-reviewed research of another is not, simply because the latter’s area of expertise is education.

Yep. That’s right.

The views of non-teaching Members of the Academy who have not completed up to 9 years of study in the field of education, many of whom do not conduct school-based research, are those privileged in this brave new revolutionary world.

Meanwhile, the views of the ones who have completed up to 9 years study in education and who do school-based research (often with teachers) are dismissed with the derisive name of “non-teacher”.

Hypocrisy much?

No doubt my protagonist’s response will likely be that n-tMoTA’s in education (e.g., “educationalists” like me) do crap research, but that is a massive generalisation.

Even if there are some quality issues in education – and I agree that there are some – that is no justification to junk an entire field, along with the depth of knowledge and breadth of expertise within it.

Rather, I think there’s another strategy at play. One that aims to drive a wedge between education researchers and the teaching profession.

As a sociologist of education, this raises a number of questions for me, like:

  • Why?
  • Who benefits from these new arrangements?
  • And what will happen when ex-teachers (potato educationalists like Stewart Riddle, Pat Thomson, John Smyth, Helen Proctor, Karen Dooley, Cathie Doherty and Greg Thompson and maybe, one day, even you) are excluded from research in education?
  • What types of questions will not longer be asked??
  • Whose voices will be heard then?

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* Each one of these researchers has been successful in securing external research funding from the Australian Research Council or the UK’s ESRC, including prestigious fellowships that are extremely competitive. Quite frankly, crap research doesn’t get a look in. External grant success is just one indicator of research quality… Research metrics is another but I shall write on that another day.

What “no excuses” & “zero tolerance” really means…

I’ve been watching the debate over the not-so-new “get tough” approach to student behaviour in England with a mixture of frustration, boredom, fatigue and just-can’t-help-myself fascination.

The truth is that this isn’t a new debate and these ideas have had their day in previous eras, with occasional bursts in from the cold in various jurisdictions.

Republican states in the US have been the most ardent supporters of zero tolerance approaches to school discipline, prompting extensive research that has provided evidence to show just how dangerous these approaches are. Just do a brief Google Scholar search on zero tolerance, disproportionality, early school leaving, and the school-to-prison-pipeline. You’ll see what I mean…

“No excuses discipline” is ineffective, in addition to being dangerous. Despite being dressed up as a new kind of social justice – one that promises to rescue the hapless chav from their bleak working class existence – the reality is that such an approach will not work with every young person. In fact, it is particularly unsuccessful with a certain type of student.

Sure, there are a lot of kids who will reward these approaches with compliance. They’ll keep quiet in the corridors, they’ll wear the correct uniform, they won’t talk in class, they’ll arrive prepared, and they might even do their homework!

But, and it’s a BIG but, this will not necessarily make them learn.

Ultimately, this is the one trump card that a kid has and it is extremely unwise for adults to forget that. In fact, if I had to point to one common characteristic among the young people I’ve worked with, in what we here in Australia call “behaviour schools” (somewhat like PRUs), it’s that these kids have worked out that there is NOTHING that anyone can do to make them learn.

Just in case some folks don’t get this, let me spell it out.

Eventually, after several years of school experience, some kids master task avoidance. They may do this overtly:

  • by disrupting others, deliberately derailing the lesson, not completing work and so on

…or they may do it covertly:

  • by going through the motions, by junking the information they’ve just heard and not attempting to encode it in their memory, by putting in minimal effort, by doing the littlest amount possible just for it to be seen to be done and to get the adults off their back.

Oh, and this isn’t a uniquely working class thing either. There are plenty of kids underachieving in our schools and I’m happy to speculate that a goodly number of them are of the second type.

When confronted with this reality many adults try to rationalise, saying that “Well, that’s not very sensible… pretty self-defeating… why would a kid do that?”

My answer to that is because sometimes to refuse to learn is the only power they feel they have. Plus, it has the added bonus of payback. A teacher’s job is to get students to learn. Refusing to learn is the ultimate rejection of teacher authority. Maybe that’s why it stings so much…

Rather than recognise any of this and thinking of ways to work with the kids who’ve actually figured this out, we have a simplistic debate about “no excuses discipline”. Ironically, this is the best way to create and/or exacerbate the problem I’ve just described.

What disturbs me about this latest debate is the “my way or the highway” discourse which is code for “if they don’t do what they’re told we have licence to abdicate from our responsibility as educators”. PHEW!!

In other words, we can abandon with impunity now because the student has exercised choice. They’ve chosen not to comply, they’ve chosen not to learn, so they can also choose to leave if they don’t like it. We can give up and live a peaceful existence teaching only the kids who want to be taught. DOUBLE PHEW!!

i see what you did ther

That’s what I read between the lines of the recent “no excuses discipline” debate and it’s wrong. It’s weakness, dressed up as strength. It’s capitulation rearticulated in solid sounding words that seek to make it acceptable to consign some young people to the scrap heap because, well, we’re right, they’re wrong and we always know best. And, besides, they chose this. They could have done what they were told to do!

Jarlath O’Brien referred to this as professional vanity and, I think rightly, pointed to the fear and professional insecurity feeding the “get tough or get out” mindset:

To completely refuse to look beneath the veneer suggests to me professional insecurity and, in some cases, fear. You would have to be professionally secure enough to admit, like the best schools do, that they don’t know it all, that improvements, either academic or in terms of behaviour, take an investment of time, energy and love (yes, I said it) in the child. You have to be professionally secure enough to know that the changes need to come first from the adults and the school, starting from where the child is at, and then celebrate the improvements and achievements that will surely follow.

Jarlath’s post was the catalyst for me to pen what I’ve been thinking, as it is similar but perhaps a little more pointed.

To my mind, the other thing that this “no excuses” discourse masks is the complete and utter refusal to consider that just *maybe* the kid has a point.

In other words, with a “no excuses”, “zero tolerance”, “like it or lump it” approach, systems, schools and teachers – who are that way inclined – can excuse themselves.

Teach badly?  No matter.

Curriculum is mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant?  So what.

Treat young people like they are indentured servants with no opportunity to exercise or extend their developing identity?  S’ok.

It’s okay because our uncompromising standards mean that those young people will have to leave and when they do they will become someone else’s problem. Then we can get on with teaching the kids who like or who can at least endure mind-numbing irrelevant curriculum taught poorly by autocratic teachers who know best.

That’s what I see lurking behind the latest strain of this particular discourse and it ain’t pretty.

It reminds me of something I wrote a long, long time ago. Such a shame that we’re back here again…

It is a discursive tactic that firmly positions the incorrigible child as the site of the educational problem, demarcating between children who “choose” to conform to prevailing norms and those who supposedly choose otherwise. This suggests not only equality of choice but that the “approved” choices are relevant and desirous to all. Ironically, it could be argued that the child who “chooses” otherwise is demonstrating more autonomy than the child who chooses the choice already made for him/her. Such is the chimera of “choice”. (Graham, 2007, p. 209)

Relationships…

I’m writing this blog whilst preparing for a 50 minute undergraduate lecture on relationships in primary and secondary school education. Let me repeat that… a 50 minute lecture on relationships in primary and secondary school education. Not much time, hey?

I began the slides with a plan that my lecture would have 3 Acts:

  • Act I: Teacher-Student Relationships
  • Act II: Teacher-Parent Relationships
  • Act III: Teacher-Teacher Relationships

All three are important. And they affect each other. Teacher-student relationships won out though, because when I got to 43 slides and was nowhere near finished, well… something’s gotta go, right?

I suppose I *could* have spent 15 minutes (about 5 slides) on each. In the end, however, my decision to cover only one of these three topics in the lecture was based on the belief that covering something as important as teacher-student relationships inadequately is just as bad as not covering it at all.

So what to do?

Well, this morning I will give my lecture on teacher-student relationships*, but I will cover the other two topics via this blog. In this current post, I shall have a say about teacher-parent relationships and, within the next week, I’ll say something about teacher-teacher relationships. Hopefully with the input of some of my teacher friends… 😉

Teacher-parent relationships

I’ve already made some of my thoughts known on teacher-parent relationships and the impact that staff room chatter can have. I wrote that post in despair after reading yet another click-bait article on “bad parents” at the beginning of this school year and my aim was to implore teachers to dismiss the “us vs them” thinking that such articles promote.

However, neither my post nor the article I was responding to provide any advice on how to approach parents to discuss their child but it’s a critically important skill. Here are my thoughts on it – both as a parent with 13 years of school education and 4 years of ECE experience under my belt and as a researcher who has conducted research with parents of children with disability and severely disruptive behaviour.

Approach is a biggie.

Parents love their kids and the vast majority are doing the very best they can. It is true that parents are not perfect, but I’ve never met anyone who is. We all have our own beliefs about parenting and what the best approaches are. I often have to tell myself that when I see my kids’ friends Facebook/Instagram feeds and catch myself thinking, “Where on earth are their parents??”

It’s very easy to feel superior at times, but I’m sure there are things that those parents are better at than I am. Put it this way, we don’t have a swear jar in our house… I’d be broke if we did. And I’ve made my share of mistakes, if dropping my kid off to school on a pupil free day is any indication. But, if I had to sum up one thing I’ve learnt in my 17 chequered years of parenting, it would be that what works with one of my kids doesn’t necessarily work with the other.

Let me explain…

Pretty much every time I leave town I receive a phone call from my son’s school. I’d like to think that’s because I’m a stabilising influence but in reality it’s probably just timing. For example, a few months ago when I was in Sydney, I received a call from my son’s Design Tech teacher and it was a great call. I mean that!

The subject matter was serious (like, if my son didn’t get organised and write/submit his written assessment he’d fail the subject), but his DT teacher was so down to earth and friendly that we had a bit of a laugh and agreed that together we’d do our best to sort it out.

Early in the call, it became apparent that my son’s DT teacher is also my daughter’s Graphics teacher. It was a great ice-breaker because my two kids are like chalk and cheese. Perhaps if all of my son’s teachers had my daughter before him they’d begin our phone conversations a little differently…

The point I’m making here is that parents can be a teacher’s strongest ally – or not – depending on how they are brought into the conversation and how that conversation positions them. A call or an email that is imbued with subtle blame is just about the most unproductive thing anyone can do. And that is the same whether the blame is directed towards the child or the parent (or the teacher, take note, parents!)

Constructive teacher-parent communication is positive, solution-oriented and respectful – on both sides. It should be informed by the recognition that parents may be fearful for their child and any communication should avoid raising their protective instincts.

Similarly, teachers should take great care to not come across as though they are talking down to parents. I’ve had many occasions to think about this over the years because I suspect that the difficulty some schools have engaging parent communities in disadvantaged areas may be partly affected by this issue.

That said, there are so many teachers and principals who do an outstanding job in this regard and I’m fortunate to have interviewed many who have worked hard to develop inclusive school communities.

But, my research with parents suggests that this is not as widespread or uniform as it should be. In 2012, I spoke with parents of boys from my behaviour school project and was struck by how desperate they were to get help for their child, but also how frustrated they were by the difficulties they experienced in successfully advocating for that child. In their view, this was because they were perceived as the problem and rarely as part of the solution.

Each spoke of only being contacted when there was a problem and of never receiving any positive feedback, until their child began attending the behaviour school. At the National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour last year, presenters talked about making a deliberate effort to catch kids being good and to make positive reports back to those kids’ parents. Morayfield State School in Queensland was one of those schools and their presentation is well worth watching.

wad of pound notes

I have had SO many phone calls from my kids’ schools and I’m glad to say that the ones that stick most in my mind are the positive. The subject of the call wasn’t positive, rather it was the manner in which the contact was made.

It’s not everyday (thank goodness!) that you receive a phone call to politely inquire whether you’re missing any money because your 8 year old daughter has just tried to purchase carob drops at the school canteen with a wad of notes totalling £85.00!!

Or when you receive an email from your son’s Year 4 teacher with a screenshot of his self-chosen Mathletics account name “F**kanator”(you can fill in the blanks) under the subject heading “Your son’s behaviour today ;)”.

Or when you receive an email from your son with the subject heading “I’ve been very bad today and I’m going straight to bed when I get home”, learning only when you reply, “What did you do?” that your son accepted a dare to do a nudie run around the school and then ran full-tilt into the Principal.

These are some of my most cherished memories of my kids being at school over the last 13 years, and much of that is because they involved moments of genuine warmth and affection between me and my kids’ principals and teachers.

On those days I truly felt like we were part of a team, that my husband and I weren’t in this alone, and that these intelligent, thoughtful, warm and caring adults cared about our children, could see past that particular brain explosion to who our children are, as well as who they could be — albeit, with a little (or in some cases, a lot) of guidance from their parents and teachers.

In fact, the best part about these spectacular brain explosions is that they explained so much about other less amusing actions. They provided opportunities for dialogue, for conversations about the future, and what we could all do to make sure that future was as good as it could possibly be.

The school’s response to each of these events could have been stern and reactive. It could have been punitive (there have been a few of those, trust me), it could have been tinged with parent-blame, but it wasn’t.

Instead the response was supportive, my husband and I weren’t treated as progenitors of the devil’s spawn, and it meant that the next time there was a brain explosion, neither party picked up the phone with gritted teeth or bated breath.

I’m grateful to each and every one of those teachers and principals because they’ve enriched mine and my kids’ lives. And I know that they’ll never forget my kids. 😉

Speaking of which, I just received two texts while I’ve been writing this: one about an after-school detention, and the other about a missed after-school detention.

Sigh… better go!

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* BTW, I prefer to say T-S rather than S-T relationships because adults have more power to set the tone of a relationship than kids do — and that incidentally is what my most recent research with Penny Van Bergen and Naomi Sweller suggests kids may think too.

 

I’m writing this blog post on a flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles because I was so moved whilst analysing statements made by the participants in our behaviour school study that I just had to share them with my teacher colleagues.

You see, my research doesn’t often have positive things to say about schooling because I work with very disaffected and disengaged young people; kids who really haven’t had positive school experiences.

These kids typically have quite conflictual relationships with their teachers and for most (in our research at least) this started in the early years: K-2. In another project tracking children from prep, which was recently funded by the Australian Research Council, we’re getting some idea of how this happens and I have to say it isn’t all one way traffic.

By that I mean that classroom conflict takes two. It is the product of interactions between particular children (involving their temperaments, abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes) and particular teachers (and their temperaments, abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes).

In our longitudinal prep study, for example, we’re finding that children’s ability to self-regulate has a large bearing on educational outcomes and that self-regulation is affected by many things, including age and gender. Unfortunately, this sets some kids up for conflict with their teachers, some of whom find it difficult to understand why some of the children in their class find it difficult to control their bodies and emotions, whilst other children seem not to have any problem at all.

In the next few years I’m sure that we’re going to be reporting a lot of data on what goes wrong in the interactions between kids and teachers but, for now, I’d like to take this opportunity to share something about when it goes right.

Students’ recall of positive teacher-student relationships

My colleagues, Penny Van Bergen, Naomi Sweller and I are currently writing a paper analysing students’ memories of their relationships with past teachers. The lovely thing about this paper is that when we asked students to tell us about the first teacher they remember having, the vast majority remembered that teacher for positive reasons.

This doesn’t mean that the first relationship that they had was positive, rather that the teacher that was front of mind when they were asked to remember a relationship is a teacher they connected with.

This was true for students in behaviour schools as well and it is these stories that I want to share with my teacher colleagues. Teaching is hard work and I know that the hardest part of all can be working with challenging young people who often seem as if they do not see or care about the effort that their teachers are making.

The reason that I was incredibly moved today is because the recollections of the challenging little people in our behaviour school study show that they do see and that they do care, even if they may not acknowledge it to the teacher who made the difference at that particular point in time. This is why I’m sharing this data via a blog.

Yes, we’ll publish the paper and it will be evidence-based and it will feature rigorous statistical analysis backed up by the research literature, but I believe that researchers in education are in a position to provide feedback to the teaching profession that may meet other needs too: emotional needs, the need for affirmation, or just some acknowledgement that the efforts you’re making are being noticed. By someone and not least your students.

Data on these teaching contributions might not feature on My School but, well, somehow I don’t think that’s why you’re doing it… 😉

Anyway, the recollections that I’m reading as I analyse our data on the 5+ hours flight from Philly, show that kids notice the *little* things: a teacher who “always smiles at kids”, a teacher who “had time for me”, teachers who would smile when she/he spoke to them, who would say “hello” and talk to that child regardless of how they’d behaved, whether they were ever in that teacher’s class, or whether they’d had that teacher years before.

Because she had time for me… When a bunch of year sixes were picking on me and I went to her and she told me to come in and I told her what was going on and then she told someone, someone told the principal and…

(Rory, age 13, behaviour school)

These actions are the little everyday things that we all know teachers do but which teachers may not always be able to tell are registering with the little people those kindnesses are directed towards. Well, let me tell you, given that almost 90% of our students’ responses focused on positive teacher actions such as those I describe above, I’d say that those little everyday actions are registering. Remember that the next time your nemesis gives you a rough time…

Positive relationship with teacher meme

 

But, the big actions are also remembered

This is what made me cry. We hear all the time about teachers paying for children’s lunches and school supplies out of their own pocket, but I think maybe the general public either doesn’t believe it or they’re so used to hearing it that it’s kind of expected and so it goes unnoticed. Or maybe they think teachers just say this and that it’s not really true… Who knows.

Well, this comment by one of the boys in our research near broke my heart. In describing the first teacher he remembered, this boy (let’s call him Harley) talked about Miss H. Whilst his is one of the most poignant recollections, it should be noted that almost two thirds of student responses were in the same category: positive memories of the teacher because of something that the teacher did for the student. The other category, into which the remaining third of responses fell, was: positive memories of the teacher because the teacher was generally “nice” (e.g., nice to everyone).

In this case, Harley – whom I remember very clearly and who was enrolled in a behaviour school when he was interviewed – described the first teacher he remembered having as someone “who helped me with my anger”. But it was his response to the question “do you think she liked you?” that moved me to tears.

Yeah. She always used… um, like, every time I’d go there without food because my mum couldn’t afford it, she had to pay rent, because they do her money, like, different every week. She doesn’t get paid the same every two weeks, or something. One day she only got paid a hundred bucks, and she owed four hundred on the rent, and she couldn’t pay it – she paid a hundred dollars off the rent, left us with no food and no money, nothing. Just meat – she had meat and that in the fridge, but she can’t just give me raw meat or nothing, so Miss H always used to buy me lunch, let me go on excursions, because at [school name blinded] I’d never been – I was never allowed to go on an excursion because of my ADHD….and…yeah.

(Harley, age 13, behaviour school)

This made me cry because I know this boy lived with serious domestic violence and that he often watched his mother get beaten up by his step-dad. I also know that he, his mum and sister had been evicted many times because his mum couldn’t pay the rent in their housing commission home, and he’d had to move schools every time.

I know that the principal of the behaviour school had to call the police and women’s refuges to take the three of them in because Harley’s mum had come to the school with a depressed skull fracture, two kids, no money and nowhere to go. Like a number of our behaviour school boys, Harley had deep reservoirs of anger that manifested in a “don’t care/fuck you” attitude. This attitude was directed most vehemently to anyone who tried to lay down the law to him… Not hard to understand why once the context is known, hey?

Whilst this 13 year old was no angel and the actions of one kind and caring primary school teacher wasn’t enough to protect him from the overwhelming odds characterising his life, it was an action he still remembered many years later. It’s an action that – if repeated enough times and by enough of his teachers – could possibly have made a difference. It may still. I live in hope that he escapes the future I fear for him.

The difficult thing for teachers is that they seldom see the end product of their work. So much of the focus is about achieving academic benchmarks and handing on children who are sufficiently on the way to those benchmarks to the teachers of the next grade.

That’s absolutely important work. But helping the Harley’s of this world to cope with (justifiable) anger, to overcome the dreadful hands they’ve been dealt, to show them kindness, tolerance, understanding and love — well, that’s just as important. Without it, the other benchmarks might just become irrelevant.

So to all of you who’ve had a Harley in your class, who’ve lived the acts of kindness that these kids are talking about here, I acknowledge you. Keep doing it. Please.

It is noticed and it does matter. Support each other, build reservoirs of kindness in tough schools. Even if you’re rebuffed by the kids or the parents, keep going. These kids tend not to show it but even our toughest boys remembered a teacher who cared about them. And, you never know, that teacher could have been you.

 

Opting out of NAPLAN

I read Robert Randall’s defence of NAPLAN tonight with interest, but was annoyed by the moralising tone and the assumption that parents need NAPLAN to know whether their child is performing academically.

My children attend a government high school that sends very comprehensive reports home at the end of every term. Their results for each subject are depicted in graphs that show how many children in their year scored in each grade level and where they sit relative to their peers.

It is very clear to me which subjects my children are doing well in, as well as the subjects in which they need to work harder. But that’s not why my son won’t be doing NAPLAN this year.

naplan image

I have to admit I’ve never been a huge fan.

My dis/engagement began six years ago when my son was in Year 3 and had to learn the narrative structure: orientation, complication, resolution, CODA. I remember it clearly but he doesn’t. To me, that’s the first clue that we might be on the wrong track educationally.

His next brush with NAPLAN was relatively uneventful. My only real memory is that I was asked to sign a permission form allowing the school to place him in a separate room for the duration of the three tests. This, I was assured, was not to improve his performance, rather so he didn’t disrupt the performance of others. Fair enough, I thought.

Year 7 was a different story.* On the second day of testing, he arrived home asking whether 21/50 was a good mark for reading in NAPLAN. Obviously it isn’t, but that wasn’t why I was stunned.

So, I began asking questions. What was he talking about for a start?  How did he know his mark?

He told me that his teacher had read their marks out in class and that he had said publicly that “21/50 … 42% isn’t good”. I knew immediately that something was up because my son didn’t know how to work out percentages.

So, I asked more questions. Lots of questions. Like how his teacher knew the marks?

“Oh, well, when we did our tests, he did his”.

More questions.

Turns out that there was a spare test and when the kids were at lunch, the teacher marked theirs using his own answers as a guide. He then read the marks aloud when they returned. ALOUD.

When my son’s was read out apparently there was much jeering. He asked the teacher later if he could please not read his marks aloud in class, but the response was that he should try harder if he was embarrassed by his results.

The teacher also told the kids that they couldn’t tell anyone (including the other Yr 7 students) because the marks “weren’t final”. This was to be their “class code”.

I had a sleepless night wondering what to do. I was tempted to pull him from the third day of testing (numeracy) and report the breach, but decided to give his teacher the benefit of the doubt.

The next morning I sent my son off and said that if it happened again he should write the mark and percentage down.

He was late home that afternoon and when he arrived at the front door, I knew immediately that something was wrong. He looked a total mess.

It transpired that the same thing had happened but the teacher had caught my son taking notes of what he, the teacher, was doing. In a bid to avoid another interrogation from me, my son decided he needed evidence. As a researcher, I was secretly impressed.

His teacher wasn’t. My then 12 year old son was kept in for lunch and asked repeatedly if I’d put him up to it. After lunch, the other students asked for their marks but the teacher said that “someone had broken the class code” and told about the marks, so now no one could have theirs. Of course, everyone knew who that “someone” was.

At the end of the school day, the teacher again kept my son in, determined to find out if I knew. He was released only after he admitted that he’d told me, but he swore the idea to record was his. The teacher threatened him that it is against the law to record anyone without their knowledge.

My son was petrified. And I was absolutely furious.

After consulting some principal friends, I contacted the school. The breach was investigated by the Department which, after some months, confirmed that yes, this was indeed a breach of NAPLAN. Life went on as normal and the teacher continued to read marks out in class.

Upon entering Year 9 this year, my son declared that he is not doing NAPLAN. He is adamant that it is a waste of time and I have to agree. I know him better than anyone and I know what he is capable of. I’m not sure he knows what he is capable of, but I know that he doesn’t read questions carefully and that he rushes.

I know that his academic results reflect his approach and his attitude. I know this because when I review his work and ask him how to spell the 15 incorrectly spelt words in the stream of consciousness that he has penned, he can spell them all. He just doesn’t bother writing them correctly in his rush to get his work over and done with.

The truth is that NAPLAN doesn’t serve kids like him well. And I feel for teachers and principals because all the “NAPLAN Turbo Day’s” in the world won’t help when the issue is a mix of poor self-regulation and don’t care factor.

So, whilst I don’t agree with schools asking parents to keep poorly performing kids at home, I’m not going to make my son do something that he is dead-set determined not to do. Who on earth is that going to help?

I also can’t support something that makes a nice guy do something completely hare-brained in an effort to get his class to try harder. Whilst I’m sure this is an isolated case and that NAPLAN runs without a hitch in thousands of classrooms around the country, in this case it didn’t and I’ll never forget the experience. Nor will my son it seems.

_________________

* In 2014, Year 7 was still in primary in most of Queensland .

On dis/ability and identity

Seventeen years ago today my husband and I went for a long, hot walk along Manly Beach, just for something to do as we waited for our daughter to make an appearance. I was 40+ weeks pregnant, she still hadn’t engaged, and it seemed like she would never ever come out.

We didn’t plan our walk well because Manly on Australia Day is complete bedlam. There was no parking anywhere so we had to park miles away, atop the headland, and walk down what seemed a million steps, up the beach and back. It was hot and crowded, and I can’t remember going back up the steps but I must have. Later, around 3am, my water broke and it was on… Oh boy, was it on.

I can’t believe it was so long ago. Our daughter turns 17 tomorrow and this will be her last year of school. And, I simply cannot wait! The horizon is so tantalisingly close and, when it’s over, the celebration will be E-P-I-C.

Sweetpea in art gallery

We’re already celebrating little milestones.

Yesterday she mused that Thursday will be her last first day of school and I almost cheered. I’m especially pleased that her year isn’t going back until Thursday because her first day back to school has often been on her birthday. It seems fitting that she escapes that in Year 12.

I’m writing a personal blog post today because this week I have a couple of posts coming out in The Conversation about disability, education support funding, and gate-keeping students with disability.

These are based on my empirical research but, like many academics, I have dual identities – an academic research identity and a personal identity.

Sometimes, my public and personal identities collide as they did last week when I spoke to The Age about gate-keeping in schools. As much as we might try and keep them separate, and as much as some academics try to project a singular identity (in a bid to appear “objective”), we are all real people with real life experiences.

And yes, I have personal experience in the disability/special needs domain.

I also have views as the mother of a child in the education system that I don’t necessarily share as an academic. If my feelings as a mother were paramount, I would probably have advocated that children with an ADHD diagnosis receive targeted funding, but as a researcher I know what the consequences of that would be.

I also know many parents with similar experiences and feel uneasy at times that I rarely speak as a parent. In fact, I subordinate the personal to the academic and demand far less than I would if I had only the one identity. I think that is because I worry that people will dismiss what I have to say as an academic but the reality is that having a foot in both camps helps you to see things that other (one-siders) cannot.

Embracing life in the “grey zone”

Our daughter spent the second week of her life in intensive care with meningitis (as did the mother and baby we shared a room with in the maternity ward).

We have no proof that this particular event had any neurological impact but it is the only explanation (other than our other suspect, family genetics) for particular idiosyncrasies that baffled us, particularly when our daughter was little.

Things like repetitive parallel play, inability to relate to age-peers, reciting the lines of movies verbatim after watching them twice, talking in memorised chunks rather than stringing together individual words, recoiling from touch, not feeling pain when excited; huge issues with food, loud noises, bright lights, perfumes; no wind down or off switch, and so on…

When she was 3, her speech pathologist recommended that we see a clinical psychologist who diagnosed her with Asperger’s Syndrome, but I couldn’t cope with that, ran home and pretended it was all in my head.

A year later, when she was four, we were told she was gifted and that she had ADHD Combined type with a co-morbid anxiety disorder. Specialists very emphatically recommended that we medicate her with Zoloft and Dexamphetamine. I rejected that too.

When she was seven, we were back at Asperger’s after a particularly tumultuous year during which I began to accept that we were probably never going to have any answer and that we should just get used to living in the “grey zone”.

Each of these diagnostic categories has had some explanatory power at different points in our daughter’s life but none ever fit perfectly. No one could ever really explain what was going on or why. Maybe this was why we found it easier to just reject medical diagnoses, learn and accept the way she did things, try and teach her what she needed to get on in the world the best we could, whilst embracing her unique potential.

It hasn’t been easy and this “no medication/no labels” route isn’t for everyone. It was just what made sense to us and I guess the proof will be in the pudding, won’t it?

Counting the days… 

Our daughter started school well advanced beyond her year group but quickly spiralled downhill. The school wanted more testing, after which the counsellor pronounced that she had borderline mild intellectual impairment, and wanted us to sign off on an application for teacher aide funding. We laughed, horrified, and moved her to an Independent girls school, where there was no such pressure or extra support but where she flourished.*

A year later, she tested in the above average range. Go figure. By this point I’d pretty much had it with the diagnosis/testing merry-go-round. None of it seemed accurate and none came with any real practical solutions, so my husband and I decided to abandon the lot and to instead work with the many strengths our daughter has.

We enlisted brilliant, powerful teachers for whom I’d walk over hot coals (@henriettaMi – our family is indebted to you), employed tutors, and mixed them with a lot of hard work, love, laughter, and a shitload of lectures to explain the world and why people think, act, speak, and behave in the way they do.

From that point on, our daughter didn’t have a ‘disability’ or even ‘special needs’.

She finds some things hard – especially language and concentration – but she has an incredible sense of humour and is really, really funny. She is gentle, kind, patient, polite, knows and likes who she is, and has learned to be more tactful. She is eminently sensible, a keen observer who steers clear of more worldly kids who might pick on her, and she works bloody hard to be this way.

Which is why I get pissed off when she gets done over by the cracks in the schooling system.

Because we rejected the disability tag and all the stuff that goes with it (funding applications, etc), we can’t and don’t ask for much. Besides, quality differentiated inclusive practice is all our daughter needs.

Frustratingly, without the disability tag, it can be very difficult to receive quality differentiated practice, even though the tag isn’t technically necessary. That’s what a needs-based, non-categorical support/identification system is all about.

Whilst we’ve had the pleasure of knowing some brilliant teachers and school leaders who have made a lasting and positive difference, it’s the little things that are making me count the days…

Like the night I stood in line at the parent/teacher night and overheard the history teacher wax lyrical to the mother of a girl in my daughter’s class, telling her that her daughter was wonderful, that she didn’t need to be at the PT night, to go and get a coffee because her daughter was SO smart, a “pleasure” to teach, and had achieved straight A’s. All this without having to consult the marks book in front of her.

I fronted up next but the teacher of one of my daughter’s favourite subjects didn’t even know who she was. She had to look up her name in her marks book to work out which class she was in and then proceeded to say “Oh yes, [name]… C, B, C… Yes, she could do better. She’s going to have to work a lot harder, Mrs [name]!” I would have thought the kids who could do better would be front of mind.

Or like every year for the last few years in her current school where there is a “no surprises” policy and parents are supposed to receive advance warning that their child is not tracking well academically, well before the end of term report.

I can’t even estimate how many harried phone calls/emails I have received a day or two before my daughter’s report is sent out. Phone calls and emails in which it is clear they don’t really know my daughter (she always receives excellent/very good in behaviour) and that they haven’t ever checked OneSchool.

One particularly memorable contact was the morning of report day in Year 10. My daughter’s science teacher sent me an email to tell me that she had failed. Thing was, she was standing behind me and upon reading the email she burst into tears and ran.

This poor child had NO IDEA that she wasn’t doing well in science. Both she and I were under the impression that she was tracking well and she was feeling really positive about the subject. She had even been considering a career in podiatry.

To give due credit, once her science teacher and I had a very robust conversation – after about 2 minutes of me receiving that email – he made a significant effort to read and enact the support notes about our daughter that are posted on OneSchool, her achievement improved, and she passed science the following term.

That’s all I ask.

That her teachers check her understanding, that they read the support notes, that they provide worked examples, that they give clear and explicit instructions, that they give her the extra time in exams that she is meant to receive, and that I am advised in a timely way if there are problems, so that I have a chance to do something about it. You shouldn’t need a disability tag or additional funding for that.

But, last term, at the end of her twelfth year of schooling, only one of her teachers remembered that she is entitled to extra time in her critical Year 11 block exams. Only one.

Another berated her for not knowing how to do something in a software program, despite the fact that she’d transferred into his class only that semester and the program was taught in the previous one. It seems my daughter, being quiet and compliant, is also quite forgettable.

Countless teachers have recommended that she read more to improve her comprehension but when they do, I know bloody well that they haven’t read the support notes on OneSchool because her issues with comprehension (and Theory of Mind) are all outlined there. This is a kid who has a book almost permanently attached to the end of her nose. Lack of reading ain’t the problem!

I don’t know what the point of red-flagging a kid in OneSchool and providing support notes is if no one is going to read it. As a researcher in education, I completely get the difficulties teachers face and I continue to fight hard to improve the system, but as a mum I watch my daughter get passed over and it makes me angry.

I don’t like that the careers advisor recommended that she not go for an OP and that she think about doing a Certificate III instead. I don’t like that meetings about her predicted OP take place without her parents present and where she is told a heap of complicated stuff she doesn’t understand, cannot remember, and which undermines her confidence.

I don’t like the fact that the Independent girls school she was booked into since she was 3 years old and with whom we were 100% honest to make sure they could cope, called us three months before she was due to commence Year 5 to ask “if she still has learning difficulties because we’re academically selective in Y5 now and even though you had a confirmed place, she will have to sit an entrance test. And, no, you can’t have your $3000 back.”

So, yes, we’re celebrating that this is our daughter’s final year of school. I’m tired of begging, chasing, asking, cajoling, reprimanding, emailing, reminding, explaining, defending. And, we’ve still got our son to go.

But, for some reason, his teachers don’t hesitate to call me about him…

_______________

* Not all Independent schools are the same.

 

 

One for the girls

This is a post for my female contemporaries, those of you approaching or just past 40.*

If, like me, you have an incredibly busy life and are continually juggling stuff you just don’t have time to do, you may also be in the situation where the unpleasant personal stuff sinks to the bottom of your priorities list and stays there.

Part of that is busyness, the other part is desirability. Some of the stuff we have to do is just not appealing, no matter how good it might be for you. Going to the gym is one. Getting your lady parts checked is another.

So it was that I reached the grand old age of 43.5 years without ever having a mammogram, despite a family history of breast cancer. I have a diligent mother (and father) who regularly remind me of the things I should be doing given my family history (which also includes sudden heart attack and bowel cancer), but I’m very good at saying “Yes, yes, I will when [I’ve finished this paper/the kids are on holidays/the world stops spinning and I can get off].

I have good intentions but the world never actually does stop spinning, there are other things to do when the kids go on holidays, and there’s always another paper (or five).

Sometimes we’re lucky as I’ve just been but sometimes we’re not. I’m writing this post as a public service (lol, as I do with all my posts) because, in the last 6 weeks, I’ve learnt a couple of things that might be useful or reassuring to other women in my life phase.

Lumps feel like…?

One of the problems with the whole breast awareness thing is that you don’t know what you’re looking for. I gave up self-checking years ago because everything on me feels lumpy and I can’t tell one month to the next what is what.

What no one told me is what a lump that I should worry about feels like. Now I’m sure there are different kinds of lumps but what I accidentally found on the last morning of AARE in December after rolling over in a particularly hard bed had no earthly reason for being where it was.

I knew pretty much straight away that I’d never felt anything like this before and it wasn’t normal for me. That said, I spent half the flight on the way home from Fremantle feeling myself up in the airplane toilet hoping that it was just my imagination.

My husband had already made an emergency appointment with the GP for the following morning, so I headed off, still kind of thinking that I was imagining things, even though every family member had had a go and agreed that they could definitely feel a hard lump. Not hard as in glassy like a marble, but hard as in one of those little bouncy balls liked by kids and cats.

bouncy ball

After much prodding the GP recommended that I get myself along to the Breast Clinic at the Wesley. I didn’t realise it at the time – naive as I was – that she was trying to stress urgency without stressing me.

I was already worried enough because a doctor had felt my bouncy ball, so I knew now that this wasn’t my imagination but I was not feeling panicked. That came later.

My GP warned that the Wesley had a bit of a waiting list and told me to read her referral to the receptionist over the phone when trying to make an appointment.

It still didn’t twig that this was no “normal” lump (I had cyst in my head by this point). She even said that if they couldn’t get me an appointment within the next week to call her back and she’d “arrange something”. I just thought she was being nice.

Sure enough, the Wesley is very busy with appointments booked for weeks ahead. The panic started when after hearing what my GP had written the receptionist said “Can you be here in an hour?”

Anyway, I gave a teary yes, toddled off to the Wesley and waited in fear for the dreaded mammogram machine, which I’d heard so many horror stories about.

It’s really not that bad…

You heard it here first ladies – a mammogram is nothing!  For years I’d been putting off this particular torture chamber because I’d heard how painful it was but, in my experience, it wasn’t.

In fact, the breast nurses were so kind, professional, humorous and caring, it turned out to be a bit of a feminine love-in. I’ve never felt so respected. Could do with more of that in maternity wards, I can tell you…

So point number 1 for this blog is don’t believe what you’ve heard: once you hit 40, go get the damn mammogram.

I’ll be lining up for my dose of feminine love every year from now on because not only do I apparently have “busy breasts” but what the mammogram found scared the shit out of me.

What you don’t know could kill you

I fronted up to the Wesley knowing that I had a lump in my right breast. The GP confirmed that much.

What I didn’t know and what the mammogram showed was that there were two in the left breast as well, and that two of the three lumps were relatively large.

At that point I called my husband and said that he should probably be around for the next leg: ultrasound.

The ultrasound was more painful than the mammogram because they have to push so hard to get a clear picture. However, I don’t think it is like that for all women. I’ve been told I have fibromyalgia (a kind of princess and the pea syndrome), so I’m probably a lot more sensitive than most.

The ultrasound confirmed that there were three lumps and biopsies were ordered. This, it turns out, is why my GP wanted me to go to the Wesley Breast Clinic. She knew I was going to need a biopsy and that they could do all on the same day: a one-stop shop with a diagnosis at the end.

They did a fine needle biopsy for the third smaller lump and I honestly didn’t feel a thing. No local, nothing. It was amazing!  Even better was that the lump imploded as soon as the needle entered, so that was confirmed as a cyst. The specialist had suspected that from the dark colour/ presentation of the lump on the films.

The other two, however, required core biopsies. Again, the most unpleasant part was the pressure from the ultrasound as the local anaesthetics numbed everything else.

I was panicking big time at this stage because I could see the difference between these two lumps and the other. They were cloudy, large and had their own blood supply. The specialist took five core biopsies of each, patched me up and we waited for the verdict.

I love doctors, especially Irish ones…

My breast specialist was from Dublin. Just hearing her talk made me feel safe and secure (I grew up there and Irish accents just feel like home). She explained what they’d found: two large tumours, 4 cm diameter on the right, and 2.5 cm diameter on the left.

Just to put that in perspective, the one on the right is the same size as a ping-pong ball, golf ball, or squash ball. The one on the left is about the same size as one of my cats’ bouncy balls AND NEITHER I OR MY GP KNEW IT WAS THERE.

That blew me away. The fact that I had a hard squash ball in my right breast and had only found it by chance, and that there was another smaller (but by no means small) lump in my left breast that only the mammogram could detect, really taught me a lesson.

Anyway, my breast specialist said we’d have to wait the weekend for pathology results but she didn’t think we were looking at cancer. That was a massive relief but she did say I’d have to have surgery quick smart because she suspected these were phyllodes tumours; very fast growing tumours that can double in size in weeks and even erupt from the skin.

WTF…?

look of horror

So, yesterday I underwent surgery at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. This too was far less awful than I imagined and, as you can probably tell by the fact I’m blogging the morning after, I’m not feeling bad at all.

My husband is looking after me brilliantly (so far he’s made chorizo pasta, avocado on toast, and brought Bounty Bars home), so I’m going to milk this for all its worth.

If you’ve made it this far I hope that my experience can help counteract whatever horror stories you might have heard. Don’t let them put you off. It really isn’t that bad!

It’s much worse finding out that you might have left it too late, or worse that your hitherto neglected boobs might be trying to kill you.

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* Feel free to pass this on to your loved ones boys… especially if they are as myopic about this stuff as me.

PS: I’d like to give a special shout out to my research assistant, Kylie Rayner, who has been a wonderful support and wealth of information on all things breast related. 🙂

 

 

 

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