Woman! Know thy place.

It’s been a tough week. I’ve always subscribed to the Paulo Coelho school of thought that the secret to life is being knocked down seven times but getting up eight times. When I was abused by my piano teacher, I practiced my scales because I loved music. When girls at my school hospitalised me twice, I walked back into school the following days with my head held high. When I found myself aged 24, penniless, abandoned and pregnant, I brought my son into the world alone and taught him that love and knowledge would conquer the world and it sustained him all the way to Oxford. I’m used to finding silver linings and getting up. Chumbawumba minded me. So why on earth did I let some negativity on twitter bring me down this week? This post is not intended to be a ‘pity me’ post, but rather an exploration of why it is that a small number of privately educated men seem to think it’s alright to personally attack women they deem to be strong. And most of all, it’s a celebration of the ilkhood that sprung up in hundreds over the past few days and which I’ve come to think of as the I Love Kids brigade.

I was aware of the Robert Peal review as I boarded a plane to Turkey with my family but was unconcerned. He has a motive for revenge – I had hardly been complimentary about his own book and I had known he would vent his spleen. I hadn’t quite been prepared for the fact that the dish on which he served his revenge had been given to him by Academies Week. Still, as I outlined above, I’ve faced far more formidable foes than Robert Peal and my husband and I read the review laughing on a beach and ordered another cocktail. I thought I’d save a response for when I got home but the subsequent furore has really spoiled this holiday and so I post this now in the hope of salvaging the last two days.

Bitterness blinds. Of the errors he points out in terms of content, only one is valid. That South Korea has the third highest child suicide rate in the world, not the highest. This is true and I knew it when I wrote it. I had meant that it had the highest of all the countries topping the PISA tables, but that’s not what I wrote. The other erroneous points either contain data that was published after the book had gone to print. Or they are just misleading. One error that was missed was the statement I made that Robert Peal was returning to teaching at the Michaela free school. He did not go to Michaela, but is completing his NQT year at Toby Young’s West London Free School instead. Apologies Robert for that error.

The review seems to have only covered the sections of the book that named the reviewer and so it’s not surprising perhaps that he missed the points raised or the ideas in it. He claims that there are no suggestions as to what a new education system might look like, but there are detailed outlines for reform of ITT and suggestions for what teachers can do in their own schools and classrooms – pedagogical activism which I outline as a form of quiet revolution. But then, those arguments are made in the book, so if you are interested, do read them.

Nor is the book highly critical of Teach First. While it raises concerns about funding and closeness to government, there are many positives to the TF philosophy that I highlight and I also tackle some of the common misconceptions levelled at TF. It is, however, critical of inconsistent ITT provision.

Peal also attacks some of the citations I offer in support of the impact of narrative, emotion and activity on memory. If anyone would like to know more about this, then I’d read Willingham and Egan on the power of narrative, Damasio and Curran on the power of emotion and there are large sections in the book dedicated to activity and embodied cognition, but Goldin-Meadow is a good place to start.

Now, onto the meat of the issue. It was not, as I said, a peevish review that upset me. Nor was it particularly the platform offered by Academies Week. Controversy sells and I respect that. But it was the gleeful barking of the scavengers waiting to feast on the carrion of the review that did me in. I found myself in the Aegean but feeling like I was swimming in spite. “Brilliant review” tweeted Old Andrew Smith about a book he could not be bothered to read. And others joined in. John Blake, supposed champion of academic achievement, sneered at my doctorate and accused me of pride. God forbid a woman should be proud. I was wounded. And I mean, really, tearfully wounded. And that’s the point at which I always ask ‘what’s really going on here?’ I went through the timelines of all those gleeful hangers on. Mostly (but not quite all) men educated at all boys schools. Mostly Oxbridge graduates. Mostly middle class. None who had come from backgrounds where getting ‘ideas above your station’ was a sin. Rachel Da Souza recounts this mindset well in her profile for Academies Week. To be working class, female and aspirational is difficult. While my parents always encouraged me, the attitude in my school to anyone who wanted something more than babies and hairdressing in their lives was spiteful. It led to having your head smashed repeatedly against a concrete floor. It led to having your cornea sliced open with a fingernail. By far and away, the worst insult a teenage girl could (and still can) hear is “She loves herself”. So there was the sting.

I am yet to meet a woman who has achieved something who doesn’t suffer from imposter syndrome. I’ve had so many whispered conversations with those who appear to be strong and confident about the fear of ‘being found out’ – the fear that you can’t possibly be as good as others think you are. There have been psychological studies about the tendency of women to focus on the negative comments even when the positive far out weigh them, and this has certainly been true for me. Perhaps this is why I got upset. But I’m not upset any more. I am buoyed and I am back in the ring. I have the ilk to thank for that. Robert Peal had no idea what he started with the phrase ‘Debra Kidd and her ilk.’

As soon as I tweeted that I’d had enough, hundreds of DMs and tweets came flooding in. Some chose to remain anonymous because of their high public profile, but support was offered nonetheless. Others tweeted loudly in support. It turned out that the ilk, many of them women but a great many others decent, kind and fair minded men, were numerous and generous. And they lifted me out of a little fog of self pity and reminded me that it’s not about me. And it’s not about them. It’s about children. And that’s what we’re battling for. And if in twenty years time, some of the kids I’ve taught have the word Dr. on the front of their books, I’ll be cheering loudly and very, very proudly indeed. Thank you all ilks for reminding me what matters.

Life after teaching (thus far…)

By far and away, the most popular post I ever wrote was “When you know it’s time to go” – and now it’s a case of ‘Life After Teaching’. I thought I’d write a very little update on what it’s like…

Firstly, it’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve left at a pretty exciting time. My book is out. And I left knowing that I’d be able to work with the brilliant staff at Independent Thinking and do more with one of the loves of my life, the International Schools Theatre Association. So all in all, there were lots of things to look forward to. But like any break up, there is pain too.

On the first day of term, I drove past my school like a heartbroken lover, staring up the driveway and wondering if I should pop in. I even sent a message to my ex Head of Department, offering to come in and clean the fridge. I’ve had little moments of heartache as I’ve realised I won’t be going to the Year 11 prom (which is particularly devastating as I now fit into THAT dress) and I nearly wept when I bumped into some members of my form group at the supermarket and saw their faces light up when they saw me. You forget sometimes how much you love them when you’re knee deep in marking their punctuation free sentences.

But my goodness, I don’t miss the marking. I know it’s necessary. I know it is an act of love. But it can be soul destroying and the twitter conversation last night in which it became clear that across both primary and secondary, the increased expectations that staff will be marking for around 3/4 hours every single night reminded me that we’ve moved beyond the boundaries of what can be considered to be humane expectations of our teachers. Even without marking, the habit of working well into the evening is really hard to break – especially after 21 years. I find myself sitting at my computer doing tasks I don’t even need to do because I can’t think of anything else to do simply out of force of habit. Evenings remain firmly programmed in my brain as “work time”.

But mornings are another matter. I swim. I do yoga. I used to try to do both, but to do so meant getting up at 5. Now, some days I can do it after dropping the littlest one off at school. I feel better – healthier, more rested and more alive. And my own children have noticed a difference – they seem more relaxed. I don’t bark at them to leave me alone. We laugh together.

I miss the classroom; the camaraderie, the challenge. I miss my colleagues – their generosity and spirit. But I don’t miss the bureaucracy. I don’t miss chasing data. I don’t miss doing things because Ofsted might want it. I don’t miss that at all.

And as for money. Well I’m poorer. I donated all my royalties to charity (so some child in Africa might well now get a pen) and I keep saying yes to things that don’t pay. I need to stop relying on my savings to get by. But the things I am doing are so interesting. I get to go to different places, meet different people, think in different ways. There are many ways of being rich. And I feel lucky to be richly stimulated.

I wish this fulfilment could come in school. Why is it that people have to leave teaching to feel trusted and respected; to feel that they have professional autonomy and the ability to take risks and try new things? What a crying shame.

I’ll keep updating the Life After Teaching posts. And maybe one day, I’ll be writing a ‘When You Know it’s Time to Go Home” blog. But until then….if you are thinking of leaving, make sure you know what you’ll miss and consider whether it’s worth it. Accept that you may earn less, but feel richer in other ways. Put some savings aside. Then leap and trust…