Monthly Archives: May 2016

A teacher in life and after death

Painting by mumPainting by Sigrid Rabiger c.1960

 

Last Friday I went to Southwark Cathedral for a thanksgiving service put on by Kings College London and the London and South East Committee of Anatomists. Hundreds of medical and healthcare science students benefit from hands-on experiences with real human bodies. Each year, a number of generous and public-spirited people donate their bodies for the benefit of medical education, training and research*. In August, one of those to donate their body was my mum.

When it became clear that she was dying, finding solace in the practical, I decided to familiarise myself with the paperwork in the folder marked “after my death” so that I would make sensible choices when the time came. I had learnt over the last few roller coaster years of acting on her behalf that being informed was essential to good decision-making. It was a bit of a surprise to see that on August 27th 2008 my mum signed and sent off papers to donate her body to medical science. It was lucky I found this when I did as there is a short window in which you have to arrange for the collection of the body so that it can be prepared for its use by medical students for the next 3-5 years.

Part of the motivation for my move back to England in 2007 after over 10 years living and teaching abroad, was to try to be closer to my mum and to extend some support for her. This wasn’t easy as my mum has been a very troubled person since her adolescence and by then was elderly, isolated and suffering from various health issues which inevitably also impacted on her already fragile mental health. I and my little family did our best and my siblings provided what support they could from abroad. But over time, her health failed to the extent that she had a massive stroke in January 2014 and ended up needing 24 hour nursing care.  A year and a half later – 7 years after she signed those papers – she slowly and gently faded away. I was there close by, watching over her, so grateful that after such an awful life of suffering and brutality she could be granted such a peaceful, forgiving and gentle passage to whatever lay beyond this world. By some strange coincidence, her body was donated the very same date that she signed those papers, 27th August 2015 – my 45th birthday no less.

Because Southwark Cathedral was so packed with families, I found myself sitting  in amongst the Kings College London choir, while they belted out the most heavenly and uplifting sounds. My eyes were fixed on their open mouths and the organist’s back, in these regal surroundings. The ceremony was non-religious and highly mindful of how people of all and no religion approach life and death. And the title of ‘thanksgiving’ went far beyond my expectations.

First up was a student physiotherapist. The irony didn’t escape me considering how central physiotherapists have been in my life with my disabled knee that I have been struggling with since I ruptured my ACL. Immediately I was struck by the passion with which this student described her love of learning, and the genuine gratitude she felt: “thank you for animating the transient, mortal, human body into a timeless gift – that of scientific learning and medical teaching. It is invaluable”.

She went on, “as the canvas is to the artist, the body is to the physiotherapists and it is with huge respect and thanks I can honestly say how enriching it has been to navigate my learning in this visual and tangible way”. You will understand if you read on why this reference to the artist warmed my heart.

She said, “Your loved ones donated their body to our medical curriculum, and they became our silent teachers”.

Rather than describe the ceremony in blow by blow detail, I wanted to find a way to express here how my mum, a parent who in many ways had failed me as a role model and a teacher, also inspired me to become a teacher myself and has even helped me positively shape my parenting too. I was so awestruck by the fact that this trip into the unknown at Southwark Cathedral helped me continue trying to make sense of so much that I am still grappling with.

I believe that everyone is a teacher and you can learn from everyone. One of the things I know about learning from other people is that you often have to separate people out into segments of their person to understand them and to gain from them what they are there to teach you. What I mean by this can be illustrated by my experience of my mum. She had a childhood filled with horrific abuse and mistreatment. She escaped her family to art school and by the early 1960s had been hanging out with a bohemian crowd of fellow artists. Our family home was filled with paintings by her from this era and today my siblings and I have her bold and vibrant paintings in our own homes. By the time I came along, she was broken. Two failed marriages behind her,  she found herself a single parent of two small children and pregnant with me, trying to hold her demons at bay and build a life for herself and her children. It must have been the most awful of times and while she essentially replicated the abuse, neglect and mistreatment on her own children, we somehow were always able to see beyond, to the person she would have liked to have been. We were always able to see her own small-child self battling the demons that had seized her. We were able to see her as the raging adult, fragile and let down by those that should have protected her, somewhere in the fire and brimstone.

By some miracle, while we were small children, my mum built herself a career. It was survival. She had been a stay at home mum until my older brother was five but with my dad gone, she had to work. She built on her knowledge as an artist and taught. In the 1970s, she taught basket weaving and sculpture at nursing homes, what were then called ‘handicapped centres’, and in a unit for school-phobic children. She brought home materials and we all learned to paint, draw, weave, do macramé, plaster-casting, sculpting, lino prints, the works. When she taught us, the irritable, quick to be triggered, lashing out hands, would diminish. She would connect for a moment and her voice and eyes would soften.

Through my early secondary school years in the 1980s my mum trained to be an art therapist at evening school while working and running the family home during the day. She started working at a centre for autistic children and later at a special school, and became hooked. She read voraciously, she became involved in what would now be deemed as action-research, constantly thinking about and writing about art as therapy. She found the personal and professional relationships extremely challenging and often felt alienated and misunderstood by her colleagues. But she was real and intense and absolutely committed to her work with the children as a teacher.

Fast forward to 2014. She has had the stroke, is in intensive care, then rehab for months and we are faced with £1,000 a week nursing home costs. We need to clear out her house and sell it to foot the bill. She has always been a hoarder and this was the most visceral and ghastly of tasks. I can only liken it to an archaeological dig – perhaps somewhere like Pompeii – each find throwing up images of a life lived and a disaster that had dashed away the possibilities somehow. Each room contained layers of a life holed up in the same house since the 1960s.

In one room she stored her art teacher and art therapy days. Piles and piles of powder paints, papers, work books and guide books, felt tip pens, huge pots of paintbrushes, reams of cane, lino cutting tools, and other dried out, dust encrusted items. On one side of the room, stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling were makeshift portfolios filled with children’s drawings, each picture dated and labelled in her spidery semi-legible handwriting. Alongside them were albums of photos of the same works, also labelled and dated, bursting at the seams. She was carrying out a decades-long study, building up her evidence, complemented by her reading and illegible writing. Every wall, table, chair, surface of the house was filled with papers and books on child psychology, psychotherapy and art. She was a teacher, a student, a researcher, living and breathing her profession. It was painful to dispose of all of it.

I’m recalling this incredible labour of love of hers. As the choir is singing the painfully beautiful John Taverner’s Funeral Ikos I am thinking of my mum as the ‘silent teacher’ and as a parent. As both parent and teacher myself I have come to realise that one gives so much of oneself but that this giving is often done essentially out of necessity and not always from choice. As both parent and teacher you can be driven to give above and beyond because you are passionately trying to do the right thing. And similarly, you can be pushed to even going against what your principled mind truly believes in, because you are at the edge of your capacity to cope as a person. My mum, as a parent and as a teacher was often so unable to help others on so many occasions, including her own children, because she was so helpless herself. She was operating at the edge of and beyond her capacity so much of the time. And yet, as a teacher and as a parent, I know that she was so committed and fighting to stay committed all along. She loved the children she worked with and she loved her own children despite the inherited demons that led her to commit crimes against them.

Through donating her body in this way, we were being denied closure and the opportunity to bury her body – perhaps just as we may never have closure and bury what we went through in childhood. However, it was clear to me that my mum had chosen this option with clarity of mind and because of her conviction about the importance of learning, passing on learning to others and supporting our beloved NHS.  In amongst the constant chaos and unpredictable sanity, my mum made a clear, principled and generous decision that embodied her political, spiritual and moral beliefs and I am extremely proud of her for doing so. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “the only gift is a portion of thyself” and I know with complete certainty that this is what she did her best to give in her life as a parent and a teacher, and again in her death as a “silent teacher”.

In memory of Sigrid Alison Rabiger 02.05.1934 – 26.08.2015, artist, parent, teacherMum drawing

*If you are interested in finding out more about donating your body to medical science there is a good article from The Guardian here or click here for the Royal College of Surgeons site

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On authenticity as a teacher, a parent and elsewhere

authenticity

 

Authenticity and teaching

As a teacher, I had ideas about what a good teacher-student relationship should be. I was lucky that my teacher training course included masses of time and discussion on the philosophical and deeply personal questions of what education is, why we ourselves want to be teachers and what models there were in the world. We read about and visited all sorts of schools – those working to a democratic model, or to an experimental choice-based one, to systems with rigid rote learning.

I had some woeful examples of teachers as a student myself and the thing that fired my enthusiasm for being a teacher in the first place was a need to ensure that I could reach into hearts and minds and touch them positively, no matter how much other adults may have let them down. I wanted to be someone who would be respected because I had earned it by being respectful myself, and that could inspire young people because I was constantly learning and discovering things myself. I had to prove to myself as much as anyone else that I could be authentic, and that I could keep clear and healthy boundaries while inspiring, instructing and sometimes compelling students to learn and grow. I learned so much about being a good leader as a teacher, and of course I made some awful, embarrassing mistakes finding my way. The mistakes most often happened when I was trying to hide who I was in that moment – that I was confused or simply unprepared, that I was trying to grab control and respect rather than doing what I needed to do to be in control and to gain respect.

But the thing I learned the most was that authenticity isn’t even a choice. A teacher is absolutely transparent to their class from the moment they set foot in the classroom and any attempt to be something you are not, will backfire on you. This self-awareness can be your biggest impediment and greatest source of empowerment.

Authenticity and parenting

It’s kind of obvious but so easy to try to avoid facing up to, that parenting is leadership. Although you spend much of your waking life under the watchful eye of your offspring or the children you have decided to bring into your life through adoption, fostering or caring for, you can easily kid yourself (pardon the pun) that you can hide who you really are.

Before my children were born I had all sorts of ideas about how I would parent them. Again, my own parents were not good role models. In fact they were appalling. As a result, becoming a parent myself was not a simple or obvious choice. I came at it with an attitude that it would probably stir up all sorts of pain and challenge for me and that I would need to work hard to separate my own childhood from that of my children. I couldn’t fix my childhood through my own children’s lives but I would do my best to make sure that I was as truthful about this as possible with myself and with my partner.

When children are little, we can believe the illusion that we are omnipotent leaders by adopting the “do as I say” rule. Later, as the babies and toddlers become children and young adults, for some parents it expands to “do as I say, don’t do as I do”. The Modern Brits are world famous for their systems and processes for everything. I became keenly aware of these bureaucratic techniques when I moved back to England 9 years ago – the naughty step, time out, five minute warnings, rigid bath and bedtime routines, reward and punishment charts and more.  The beautiful thing I am learning now, being the parent of a teenager and a pre-teen is that authenticity can have its  very own calming effect and can diffuse potentially explosive situations better than any of these techniques. Authenticity can also teach compassion, empathy, and that to err and to fail is painful but part of learning and growing.

This all makes me sound either holier than thou or like I am a bumbling idiot over-sharing my vulnerability with all and sundry. Actually, as a teacher, I earned the title of “firm but fair” from my students and my kids often refer to me the same way. I do believe we should try to model self-discipline, diligence, reliability, hard work, courage, empathy, generosity and all of the good stuff. But over time, I have learnt humility in the form of being able to apologise (agonising as it feels before you do it), reconsidering my position because I have listened and really heard what my child is saying to me, and other useful lessons of authenticity. I have learned to say that the way that I spoke or acted was absolutely unacceptable and that I am really sorry and ashamed. And I have learnt to say that I am struggling and need some space to try and work through the inner conflict that is making me want to lash out or close down inwards.

Authenticity in the workplace

I’m getting used to my new place of work and the people that I work with. I’ve only been there for six months. It’s quite an extraordinary workplace culture and I have written a little about this in a previous post. One thing that it demands is great authenticity. Like teaching and parenting, working in an open-plan office and alongside a small team of bright people doing great things means you are constantly visible to each other.

I have thought a lot about how you can be a leader in an organisation which is quite flat in its hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, the conclusion I have reached is that authenticity is essential. Part of this authenticity I realise, especially as a woman prone to at times doubting her abilities,  means being really clear on where you absolutely do have the skills, experience and confidence to lead your colleagues no matter their status.  Alongside this it’s important to not lose sight of where you will need challenge, support, affirmation or understanding from colleagues and where you must give these things unconditionally in order to encourage authenticity from others. It also means you need to be clear that at any point, and from any colleague no matter their age, experience or standing, you are going to learn and grow.

Authenticity online

Authenticity online has got to be the most complicated feat of all. It’s the place where you can have a massive impact and yet can be completely unaware of how your words are being read and what meaning, right or wrong, is being read into them. It is also a place where what you say can be misinterpreted or can ruffle feathers even if you don’t intend it to.

I use several platforms on social media. I use Facebook for friends and family although I find it is most useful as a repository for photos and a place to go when I can’t sleep. I like Twitter as a way to stay up to date with education sector developments and discussions. I am starting to develop my voice as a blogger and without the constraints of 140 characters, it’s probably the place I can be most authentically me. Part of my need for authenticity is accepting the dangers inherent in social media. I know that every so often, something will misfire, be misread, be badly worded by me, will strike a disharmonious chord to someone else’s ears. But like teaching, aiming to connect, share, resonate, inspire, enthuse and be authentic can be so rewarding for those touched by it, yourself included.

I bumped into an old work colleague on the Underground recently. I haven’t seen him for probably 4 years but we are Facebook friends, watching each other’s children growing up and hitting ‘like’ on each other’s posts occasionally. I was so stunned when, after we chatted a bit, he said that he wanted to thank me for my authenticity and openness on Facebook. I had posted quite a bit about my journey as a carer for my mother through the decline of her mental and physical health which culminated in her having a massive stroke and becoming completely dependent day and night for all her physical needs. In writing about it, I felt it was important for those close to me to know what I was experiencing and it was therapeutic for me to write even a few sentences about it. But I also felt that it was important to others who might have been through something similar or might go through it sometime in the future to know that it is okay to speak about it with authenticity and to reach out for some support.

Authenticity as myself

I think as I become older (and I’m feeling this now especially as I have been through some quite gruelling life experiences yet again in the last couple of years) I have come to realise that I cannot be anyone but myself. Of course, I am committed as ever to lifelong learning, to growing and developing as a person, as a parent, as a professional. But with age, I have realised that this is it. The me that I am is work in progress, nimble and agile, but I am also like a great static cliff hammered by seas and the elements. I have taken a shape that is unique and recognisable and if people want to come closer explore the subtleties, I can do nothing but stand still.

On empathy and viewing education through a lens of childhood

heart and brain

Image source: https://atmanco.com/blog/working-environment/importance-of-empathy-in-your-organization/

I read an article this weekend about Why You Should Have More Empathy and it got me thinking about our society and how managerialist culture, the obsession with productivity and outputs, measurement and data can really mean empathy and a place for human beings’ emotional investment takes a huge hit. It was later in the weekend that Alison Peacock tweeted “Leadership that views primary education through the lens of childhood is essential if we are to provide optimum learning for all” and I realised that this is completely connected to my earlier thoughts about empathy.

Somehow, we have created an education system where the child, at every stage in their childhood development, seems to be invisible in the setting of education policy. We are hell bent on trying to define where they should end up, what level they are at as compared with where they should be, what part of productivity in the capitalist machine they should take. And we are using our children’s learning as a way to measure their teachers’ success in instilling in their students the latest fad of what a good curriculum should look like. Through a lack of empathy we are dehumanising our children, their parents and their teachers in favour of an apparently more superior, logical and linear thinking, data and measurement.

To illustrate my point, I was flicking through my Year 8 daughter’s English workbook after she had shown me some really interesting homework she was doing on comparing two poems that show panic and confusion in very different ways. “I need to write more” she said, looking glum. “Looks good to me, you have argued your points well and there seems to be every inch of each poem covered” I responded – I try not to get involved, but I was an English teacher for a decade, I think I recognise good work when I see it. As I was turning the pages of her workbook, my eye rested on one of those little “Oral feedback given” stamps and then on the next page in red pen: “You need to write another paragraph – how can you maintain a level 7 if you don’t write more?!” Argh. There it is again.

It made me think about how an injection of empathy could impact on situations I have experienced lately connected with education. One example is around SATs again. My youngest is in year 6 and I have written recently about her experience as I see it. I watched the “Kids Strike” with interest last week. The parents’ slogan of “Let Kids be Kids” is catchy but not very clear. What I would hope they are trying to say is that kids generally love to learn, and if done well, they can even quite enjoy the challenge of a test or two along the way so long as they understand that this is a good way to see whether what they have learnt has stuck. If it hasn’t, their teachers can then ask, is that across the whole class? This might indicate that there might be a problem with the teaching, the curriculum, the planning over time for the whole class and it could help the teachers to think again. Or there might be a problem for individual children within the class, indicating the same issues may have affected a handful of children alongside other factors that might be getting in the way of their learning. Again, so useful to know to make sure the right things happen next.

But how did these parents of Year 2 children get to such a place that they felt they had to take this radical action and stage a strike? How did the conflict of empathy vs. rigid policy play out such that they had to make a stand based on their own empathic understanding of what is right for their children over and above what government thinks is right for children. I think in part it might be because at no point was there any thought put in, when orders were passed top-down regarding the Year 2 SATs test, into the feelings that would be stirred up in the headteachers, teachers, children and their parents. Perhaps a little step by step, empathetic, easing in would have gone a long way. It’s so telling that almost as an afterthought a template letter has been adopted and circulated this Friday by some headteachers nationwide, telling kids that they are awesome whatever the outcome and to relax and take it easy, ahead of the Year 6 SATs next week. Empathy yes, but so late in the process it’s almost ridiculous.

Another example this week was that I had my first experience of feeling so exercised by a situation unfolding in my older daughter’s secondary school that I felt I had to go and speak with the headteacher. For context, it takes a lot for me to go into school and say what I think is not going well and I make sure I write an email at least twice a year to the school thanking them and outlining what I think has gone well. I asked a couple of headteacher acquaintances for their advice on how to go about this and the answers were pretty much the same: go immediately and speak to the school. A couple mentioned following the school’s complaints procedure so I thought I would check this out online and try to be a good citizen. It irked me to think about this as a complaint though. I am not a consumer, receiving bad service here. I am a parent, who through listening to their child and discussing this situation, has realised that for the school to grow and learn, I really must feed this back. My daughter, who is so empathetic it is sometimes paralysing for her, was worried about the teacher getting told off, and of making her feel bad. She could see why this teacher had behaved the way she did and that the teacher obviously had a difficult conflict of interests that she was wrestling with.

The school complaints procedure is the most classic example of British, managerialist, bureaucratic and unempathetic prose written. It immediately starts with almost legalistic jargon mentioning statutory duty, with an array of numbered clauses down the margins. It would make even the meekest parent bristle ready for a fight. I would love to see something that starts perhaps like this: “We take care and pride in our school and our relationship with the children and parents in our school community. We recognise that we may not always get this right, and we appreciate your feedback and support to help our school be a place of true learning and growth. Therefore, we have written this guide to help you through what we perceive to be a fair and correct way to register a complaint, suggest a change, give some feedback or request a greater understanding of what we do at the school…..”

I practice what I preach in the workplace. Managerialist culture can fail to recognise the importance of the emotional life of your fellow colleagues and yet this failure is the very thing that can hold back effectiveness and quality of work. I feel it is my duty to act with empathy with the people I work alongside. It is such a strong and relevant ‘tool’ to begin with when setting a vision, working towards targets and goals and when leading and supporting other colleagues. Always the first thing on my mind when setting out the strategy of how we will get from here to there, is who are the people, what do I want them to feel, how will I communicate this to them? And in the current education sector, I do feel that unless we can find a way to disentangle the short-term political gains from the long-term educational aims, we are forever going to be locked into this politicised, marketised, unempathetic and managerialist attitude. The representation of logical thinking, measurement and data as inherently superior to emotional and intuitive reasoning can lead to the more extreme and rigid forms of managerialism we are seeing in the education sector and many other workplaces. We need a more humanised, responsive and relationship-based practice at the heart of what we do in order to succeed.