Going off the edge...

What I am supposed to be writing about right now is how passionate I am about children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, about how passionate I am about gender equality, BAME, and closing that – dreaded – gap! About how I am a teacher and parent committed to always moving forward to make things better.


Never be content, never be finished, always be better, is sort of my life motto.


Well, that is all well and good, and it is me, but that drive to “always be better” can sometimes translate to not being realistic. I would like to think that I have realistic, strategic, steps and goals. As a middle leader, I have been very good at designing TIP and curricular which are exactly that; believable, achievable and forward-thinking, for the benefit of me, my team and my students.





However, from a personality point of view, this is a real struggle.


Lockdown has, nearly, caused me to have another breakdown.


Here is the context; I have a happy life. A big extended, wonderful family, a job in a school I love, a wonderful husband and two small children.

Looks lovely doesn’t it? We both have good jobs, have not been furloughed under Lockdown, have some credit debt (don’t we all!) and have been saving for a mortgage, and generally life looks good now and for the future.


So why aren’t I writing about my normal passions? Why am I writing about me?

At first, lock down was fine, even – I hate to say it – good! It took the first two weeks before the Easter holidays to stop being stressed with the different ways of teaching (if we can call it that – but that is another debate) but spending more time with my children and using my normal commute time (a minimum of 2 hours a day normally, more in any adverse traffic) to go for a bike ride was sheer pleasure. Indeed, the first 2 months, I was getting up at 5.30 as normal, riding, seeing the kids, doing work, talking to the parents of my form students and building relationships, planning for post-September learning, deep cleaning the house, gardening, and generally feeling like I could conquer anything!


Okay, I had a few moments like on Mother’s Day and Easter Sunday when I was teary, and the sense of weirdness going for the weekly shop when it was my turn, and the worry about my vulnerable relatives, did take their toll. Similarly, my husband and I had some early lock down “conversations” (I mean rows) because he worked from home before, an so his job seemed to take precedence over mine, despite the fact that we earn nearly the same and are both full time. Within this white, middle-class (ish) middle-aged (we’re getting there) and in almost all senses privileged (demographically speaking) household, the gender divide was quite evident; my job took a back seat, it was always me who worried about what state the house was in and who organised the home-schooling, craft, technology… basically anything except baking, at which I am crap.


I point out our demograph, not out of some self-congratulatory crap or self-depreciating melancholy, but because I think it is important to consider two things:

  1. Demograph is a reasonable indicator of trends, but cannot tell us individual experience. Those who work with children, young people, families… in fact, people who work closely with people, will be able to tell you that there are so many variations within a trend.

  2. If, within our context, we have been negatively affected, how much worse may it have been for many who have worse situations that ourselves?

What do we have going for us:

  • Two desk top computers, several “second” monitors, and a laptop each.

  • A decent internet connection.

  • The children have tablets each.

  • A large house.

  • A decent garden.

So, where did the problems begin? As outlined before, part of the initial problem was a gender-based one. My husband is generally based from home, and so the change from myself going to work and the children going to school/grandparents was not really felt by him and his work. It more felt like my school holidays (such as they are “holidays”) to him, at first, little changed except there was more noise in the house. We quickly worked this out and allocated ourselves “slots” for working.


Was this the answer? Well, it was a definite improvement. However, for my part, I could never quite tune out from the household noise whilst I was working in my slot. What are they doing? Is it educational? Will the house be tidier, the same, or even more effing messy when I emerge?


This was all before recording lessons and live lessons, which I thoroughly enjoyed! but did put more of a strain on my necessary child-free, or even worry-free time! Online meetings with my wonderful faculty were better without children, but if they wandered in it wasn’t too bad. Two months later, we have my 2 year old instinctively gatecrashing my lessons because he really likes saying hello to people (let’s be fair, it’d been a while since he has seen any!) and showing off that he can press the numbers 1 to 9 in sequence whilst counting.

This might be cute once or so, but when constant it just feels as though:

  1. I am never fully present in a meeting

  2. I cannot properly teach a lesson and

  3. the question of why I can control hundreds of 11-18 year olds simultaneously but not one 2 year old was… is… fundamentally embarrassing.

And this is before the need for “head space” to do anything other than the ticking-over jobs. I have loved making welfare calls and really connecting with my tutees and their parents, I have enjoyed the challenge of finding effective ways to teach remotely, and to have more agency in my own CPD, including starting an MA.


What do I want to do? I have KS3 and A Level curriculum design to do. I could do this in a minimal way, but like all teachers, I do not want to. There is a continual cycle of analysis, evaluation and improvement - and passion - which goes in to these. Combine this with these not being normal times, and so these plan mean even more for ensuring that students suffer as little as possible from lockdown.

That we have a reasonable and effective route forward!

That we do not allow the situation to let The Gaps grow ever wider!


But where is my head? Worrying about the fact that my little girl does not want to do her reading book. That the brioche we gave the children whilst on their ipads so we could work will both result in mice and children who are emotionally unfulfilled.


Here is the next part of the problem though: the children.

I feel absolutely awful saying this, but anyone who has had something (children, work, dependant relative) which is unpredictable is likely to relate to this.

My husband and I have been lucky in many respects during lockdown; no furlough, no (so far, everything crossed!) bereavements, and certainly under normal circumstances no domestic strife outside of the normal realm of whose turn it is to do the ironing.

The first few months were okay. We had our issues to sort out, but we still had a work-life balance of some sort, had exercise, an enjoyed our time with our children.


The last 6 weeks has been something else. We have been waiting for our Prime Minister to announce “bubbles” with another household. Our youngest’s normal childcare is with my grandparents (young ones!), as is the pre and post-school care for our four year old. It seemed pointless to claim my “key worker” allocation when people working in the shops, factories or hospitals needed those places more. My own head was exceptional in taking in to consideration those with children and/or significant commutes as well as considering those who were vulnerable or who had vulnerable relatives.


Yet, the further we progressed in to lockdown, and the more work demands changed (let’s not forget, there were 41 updates to a 50 page document in the 5 days before half term, which head teachers had to trawl through every time), and the longer we were never, as parents, off the hook, was starting to get to us.


The first two months we ploughed through okay, but looking at the last month, having literally had a two hour breather today, the last month looks pretty frightening. Why?


Context:


I have had a breakdown before, based on 70+ hour weeks, in which I was asked to make “fundamental changes to a failing department”, without “rocking the boat”…. Yes, I am sure you see the problem here. I started to shake uncontrollably whenever I got an email. Sundays were just awful as I was an I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school-wreck, every piece of work took 10 times longer than it should to complete, I had migraines which were a debilitating new experience. I never relaxed. I put on weight. My amazing union got me, amongst other things, counselling. I got out of that toxic environment and found a new school-family which is awesome *yay*


Lockdown:


The never-seeing-the-end of Lockdown has been the issue, I think. At first, we were certain that out main child care provider, grandparents (who we pay, by the way) might be able to form a bubble with us. Both they and the children missed each other massively – with lots of tears both ways. The last month of Lockdown I have found it harder and harder to block out the children, even on “my slot”. That and our carefully honed “slots” began to be harder to keep. Increased meetings, live teaching and planning for September took up the time and so “slots”, as imperfect as they were, became even less so.


We both put on a stone in a month. We stopped having the time, or was it the energy (?) to exercise. I took a day off work (in lockdown!) to ward off a migraine, and I began to jump – for a month – at the sound of my children’s voices. This did not differentiated between high-pitched squealing, shouting, wingding or well-meaning platitudes (because was it not time for maths using sweets, Mummy?)


These jumps were the same as I used to have in the job which prompted a breakdown. I began to feel the same pulls on my emotional wellbeing: when I was working I felt as though I should be spending quality time with my children, but spending time with my children was stressful even when it was delightful, as I felt I should be working.


Mr Johnson’s announcement that, from the 4th July, I could socially distanced go to the pub, but STILL not use the childcare I pay for prompted a rage beyond all else. I followed up my polite email to my MP with a rather emotional phone call. I couldn’t go to the pub to chill out even if I wanted to because, guess what, I have not been “off duty” for 100 days now. Many others, single parents with no joint custody, still working parents, parents who sent their children away whilst they worked for the NHS, are in the same position.


From the conversation I had with my MP, and the letter he has sent to Gavin Williamson, and the conversations I came across in Morrisons supermarket, I am not alone in feeling that people in our position or similar have been indirectly discriminated against throughout the whole. The “Key workers can…” rhetoric does not count if there is not the facility to accommodate. Our 4yo has been on the reserve lists for weeks at school, and the 2yo is normally looked after by grandparents, and so getting him in to a nursery is both impossible, as most are not even taking all of the kids they had before, and would have been emotionally unfair on him.


So, just as I began to feel I might spiral out of control, Grandparents stepped in and took the children for two hours today, socially distanced in the garden (I’m not asking any questions. There are groups of 19 teenagers hanging out in the park behind us every day since Cummings). This felt like such a freedom, such a luxury not to be interrupted 8 times every half hour whilst trying to work. I am not exaggerating, I like statistics, I did the measuring.


Today I realised how close I was to having that break down again; no motivation, constantly at the end of my tether and near to tears…


Imagine how much worse this must be for families who do not have the benefits we do?


Today, walking back home holding my children’s hands, was the most joy I have had in months.


A N Onymous

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All views expressed are those of the individual contributors and do not claim to reflect the wider views of EdGE Thinking. 

© 2020 R.W.AITKEN