What's all this then?

I tweet too much. So I needed somewhere else to start storing all the words. This is it. Think of it as the external hard drive for my thoughts.

I don't have an obesssion, a dream, a fixation or a hook, so don't be expecting a focus here. It's like great big lumps of my twitterings. You may see teaching stuff, rants, maternal anxiety and occasional sojourns away from reality.

Anyway, I like a nice chat so we should talk. By we, I of course mean me...

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The myth of the brilliant teacher

So, who was *that* teacher for you? You know, the one who inspired you, who set you on your life’s path and made a difference?

It’s ok. You don’t have to answer that; please put your hands down. I only ask because it’s a question that surfaces a lot in teaching circles. The TES loves to ask a sleb who inspired them and it’s something we teachers are fascinated by. Maybe a little bit of us dreams of being mentioned by a Nobel Prize winner, “And I never would have even considered going into particle physics if it wasn’t for Miss Bird. Without her, there would be no Grand Unified Theory of Everything on a Shoestring.”

I think though it’s perfectly ok not to remember a teacher in that way. I’ve several memorable teachers. They were fascinating and funny and made learning a good experience. I’m not sure any of them changed my life and I wouldn’t list them in Facebook under “Inspirations”, that spot is saved for Thor Heyerdal (if only I didn’t get seasick) and Bagpuss (all-round zen-like guru).

So, where can we look for inspirational teachers?

Teachers are a tough crowd, it’s not easy to impress them, as a whole. I think many of us watch the Teaching Awards with a slightly derisive sniff and a large glass of wine thinking, “But that’s not special - I know loads of teachers like that!” And we do. We know lots of good teachers, but inspirational? That’s hard to find. Jamie Oliver struggled to find people who could teach his “Dream School” in an inspiring way, and he was looking amongst great minds and talents of our time. And Rolf Harris. I love Rolf.

Maybe there was a golden age of teaching past when teachers were good and wise? Ah, the Socratic method, the community of enquiry. Yes, that’s a lovely dream of teaching. But, and be honest now, how many of us got into teaching so we could be just like Socrates ( and I am pronouncing that as in Bill & Ted, by the way)?
Who are the famous teachers? Famous great teachers? I’m looking to the world of fiction. Classic novels are full of incredible teachers, men and women providing a pivotal point in the story of their society: Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Bhaer, Mr Chips. Hollywood loves a tragically heroic teacher: see Dead Poet’s Society, and MonaLisa Smile for the girls version, Dangerous Minds and, um, School of Rock. Look, I didn’t say they were good films.  We also love fictional mentors: Mr Miyagi, Merlin and, of course, Yoda. Children’s fiction obviously features an abundance of school stories. I loved Malory Towers and my daughter loves its contemporary equivalent, Glitterwings Academy (It’s a boarding school for fairies. Don’t ask). Children’s authors such as Roald Dahl and JK Rowling create legendary teachers, who invest their whole being in their charges and through their nurturing relationship with the child not only do they release the child’s potential but they defeat a greater evil: Miss Honey and Matilda, Dumbledore and Harry.

All marvellous teachers. All fictional. So is the legend of the inspirational teacher really a fairytale? I don't think so, I think it's a myth. If, that is, we take myth in its truest meaning.

A myth is not a groundless fiction, it’s not a fairy tale; it has roots. In many cultures, a myth is a teaching story. We learn something from the trials of the characters, their adventures serve to show us how to act, how to think. All world religions have their teaching myths. In Australia, many aboriginal teaching myths are based around the visible landscape so the whole world becomes a reminder of our Learning Intentions. Look at those three rock pillars, the Three Sisters: they were turned to stone for throwing rocks down onto the Bunyip’s lake. What Are We Learning Today? Don’t throw rocks over the edge of cliffs, silly, it’s dangerous.

Some theories of myth suggest that it should be seen as a model for action, what Karen Armstrong refers to as a “call to arms”.
So the myth of the brilliant teacher is our call to action. It reminds us of who we want to be, of everything we should be. The stories of inspirational teachers, whether they come from the fevered minds of Hollywood or our own cobbled together childhood memories, lodge in our minds as a constant reminder of what teaching is about. We should be striving to be that wonderful, inspirational, illuminating person who turns classrooms into new worlds with a Mary Poppins click of our fingers.

Another role of the myth is to provide access to the divine, the fantastical, to provide a sense of awe and wonder. There is no-one so open to a sense of wonder as a 5 year old child. You can tell them we’re going to do something very exciting....... tidying up the home corner! and they will believe you and get excited. We can all be wonderful, as least to children.

It’s good to have a glimpse of teacher perfection nagging at us, not just because it make us better teachers, but because it is a view of a more exciting life, one that isn’t bogged down with APP and endless paperwork. Sometimes, we should all pretend to be the maverick teacher from stories, who laughs in the face of authority and takes the students to sing in the park instead of writing up their reports. Fake it till you make it.

I think it’s ok to secretly be a little bit inspired by fictional teachers, or wish you had a nomination at the Teaching Awards, or to imagine shaking hands with an ex-pupil as they show you round their new pad at No 10 Downing Street. It’s ok to grab a metre rule and do your best “Fame costs...” speech when no-one’s looking or slip Yoda-isms into your PSHE lessons or even call your student "grasshopper".

The myth of the inspirational teacher keeps us looking at the stars from Gove’s gutter. We need it more than ever.

And while we’re sharing, what’s my favourite teacher myth? It’s Sean Connery in the Untouchables (accent not withstanding) educating the naive Elliot Ness in the Chicago Way. Here endeth the lesson.

Monday, 2 January 2012

In real life...

In memory of @littlemunchkin

One of the things that makes me itchy on twitter is when people say it’s not real. It’s only twitter. It’s not real.

It makes me uncomfortable because that’s one step away from saying all the people on there aren’t real. And if people aren’t real to us then we can treat them how we like, can’t we? It doesn’t matter. It’s not real.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that reality is subjective. I can cheerfully spend days inside my own head, planning a post-apocalyptic commune or practising my oscar acceptance speech. Soap Stars who have their character name yelled at them know about the flexible borders of reality, so do kids who spend hours being a dinosaur or a rice pop. Or is it just my kids? Twitter can let you head off into realms of glorious nonsense too, re-writing Waterloo Road or discussing the merits of a poached pear (none). But the people you talk all this crap to are real.

Each tweet is a beautiful little glimpse into their mind. Each dinner announcement, each gripe about colleagues, each cleverly crafted gag or weepy moment comes from a real person doing real things in their real life. But we forget this easily.

It comes home to us sometimes. When we meet a twitterer and discover they’re just the same off screen, but in 3 dimensions, possibly more
, and they talk in longer bursts. Or, as happened to many of us this week, when we lose someone.

This week Lucy, who we all knew as @littlemunchkin, died. And it was a bloody horrible shock. It feels odd to talk about the loss in twitter terms, but that doesn’t make it less real. You realise that you’ll never see that person crop up in your timeline again, you’ll never laugh at their
tweet or chat about trivial stuff. And that produces grief that is real.

I never knew Lucy outside of twitter, but I knew her there for nearly three years. She was warm, caring, hugely positive and funny. After talking with her, you felt better about the world. She often said she wanted to be a teacher, and a few tweets later I would go away believing that my job teaching was as rewarding as she said it was. She made people happier.

Lucy was the first person I talked to on twitter. I found her through a RT of Neil Gaiman’s. She had sent him a link to Pimp That Snack. It was a photo of a giant custard cream. How can you not like someone who tweets pictures of humungous biscuits? I followed her instantly and plucked up the courage to chat. A few days later, my class at school were having a ball making giant fruit pastilles, thanks to my inspiration from Lucy. 

Over the next couple of years, Lucy was an enthusiastic supporter of my unusual cooking ventures, like the cream egg baked in a cake. She was a keen cook herself, sharing her own experimental recipes on her blog. Had I had a less warm introduction to twitter, I might have missed out on a lot. Her tweets were so enthusiastic and vital that, despite knowing how long she had been ill, it didn’t seem possible that her illness would win. I didn’t see the signs in her last few tweets, I found the news hard to believe.

What do you do with twitter loss? Well, firstly you accept it’s real. As real as the person you won’t be seeing around any more. As real as an illness like anorexia that not enough people take seriously.  Then you grieve. In real life.

So let’s not say twitter isn’t real. Because that belittles all the wonderful people on there who you share space with, who let you into their worlds for a bit, and with people like Lucy, that’s a real privilege.

Twitter is fun, it’s silly and it’s not usually 100% located in reality. But the people on there are real people, and you can really lose them. And it’s really sad. So let’s not take these little interactions with real people for granted or dismiss them, especially when they’re as lovely as @littlemunchkin.

It seemed appropriate to me to donate to b-eat, a charity Lucy supported.