Saturday, 9 January 2016

The search for place

The search for place

-         I think this will be the first of several posts which may or may not relate to each other.

Recently I have been thinking about how places are tied in with identity and interpretations of history. Actually, this isn’t a recent thinking as I have often thought about colonialism and the views of my Dad, who was born in India (and my grandparents who lived through it) my Mum, who is from Liverpool and learned about this history via the grammar school she attended, and from my Grandad whose understanding of the world beyond Liverpool was simultaneously extended and limited by WW2.
 Both sides of my family have ties to places going back for centuries. Both sides of my family have places that are linked with ‘us’ – stories that are handed down, memories, photographs, parts played in history…all of these things contribute to an individual’s world view and their understanding of things like race, culture and ethnicity which in turn play a part in senses of self and place. Somehow, on both sides, I am the only one to be born and live ‘down South’. With Milton Keynes being such a new, young town I wonder if that’s the same for many of us born here, from areas that were not in the original villages that were joined to create it. As in, are we – the first generations of MK – united in that our backgrounds lie elsewhere, making MK a bit of a half-way house in family histories? This isn’t a negative; we could be a turning point in our family tapestries and as with anything, only time will tell how that turns out.

One day, I imagine my own children will learn of (what will then be the great *CITY* of…) Milton Keynes through me. They’ll hear of what it means to be ‘a Bletchley girl’ (actually no, no they won’t). They’ll learn of it because, just as I have grown up away from my ‘family background’, they are unlikely to share my birthplace and the contribution to ‘self’ which that entails. I have always moved a lot, both within Milton Keynes as a youngster, Madrid and around South England as an adult. I’ve lived in Princethorpe, a hotel by Banbury, Aylesbury and Oxford so far and have stayed in hotels around many places in the UK. Within my family we joke that my natural propensity for movement is down to centuries of gipsy heritage (could be said some socio-economic/cultural or social factors are a result of that heritage). It amazes me that my family have moved continent and how difficult it is for any of us here in England to visit or return to. Mostly, the courage to leave amazes me. I have watched many discussions about refugees, racism, colonialism, privilege, immigrants and politics over the last few years and have wondered how the views about each of these things are formed and how heritage - the stories, photographs, memories and parts played in history are passed down, and thus how interpretations weave and mutate throughout generations, providing a thread between the now and the then. There is so much more to this that I am thinking about as I write. There is a lot more that I am still thinking about and will save for another time; however, this post is borne out of my recent whizzy trip to Scotland and the reflections it inspired that I want to make sense of.

Currently, I am looking for somewhere new to live. Being a commitment phobic person (I dislike thinking I’ll stay anywhere for more than a year…) I find this to be exciting but stressful. I know I can live anywhere. I’m lucky in that I have a freedom of movement that others perhaps don’t. However, mentally, it’s much harder. Wherever I’ve been, I always return to Bletchley; home. Interestingly, close friends and I have different feelings on this. For me, I miss Bletchley and the life I know – the people, the places and familiarity more so than the house, but for some of my friends the opposite is true. I miss what the house represents – a base – somewhere to retreat to, but not the house or home itself if that makes sense.

 As I drove around Scotland this week I realised how seemingly 'wallpaper' things contribute to that sense of place without us realising. Heading towards Edinburgh, I drove through the area that my ancestors knew well; I looked out on to the fields where my Mum's grandad died in questionable circumstances; I saw the hills my Grandma used to tell my Mum about (Lammermuir) and experienced the changes in weather and lighting that Milton Keynes rarely sees. Partly, I am able to experience this because the landscape across the midlothian area hasn't changed drastically. However, it is the knowledge of family, the narratives, the things that have shaped 'us' through the generations (400yrs worth) that forge a connection - a thread - to a sense of place. During my brief flyover, I had the opportunity to do something I've never considered before; I visited the Church where many of my family members are buried. There is also a graveyard in Liverpool that holds my grandad and many of his lineage. Both of these are rarely visited due to distance. Perhaps, in a way, this is a good thing because when considering things like grief or moving on, the option to continue visiting a grave or 'hold on' isn't there but the knowledge that these places don't change in absence is. A bit like when people leave home for the first time; that 'base' is there to return to. I've never had the experience of just deciding to visit like this before because everything has been planned and the expense can rack up. On previous visits I've walked the same streets my Grandma grew up on and seen the house she lived in - protected by some sort of heritage clause, the houses aren't allowed to be changed much. The photos in our family album, now over 100yrs old, still match the area. Similarly, the advent of technology has allowed me to see videos of the village and house in India where my Dad and Grandad were born and the buildings connected with my family, watched with my grandparents narrating which building was which, who lived where and explaining what was in shot or round the corner. Other family members who managed to visit had filmed it.

 I have often thought about my values and where they've 'come from'. When I made a complaint against a large body of intelligent people - diplomatic to refer to it as 'the system' - almost everyone thought I would lose my argument and be jepardising my future, regardless of whether my argument was founded or not. It was only later that I learned of the time my Grandma had refused to strike over something at the hospital where she worked because she disagreed with the premise (an accident occurred when a popular porter was drunk on duty. Porter was fired, people went on strike to re-instate him). She was the only one not to strike and thus the only one to walk the picket past friends, and others who had appeared friends but didn't act so then. After the storm, she was respected for her attitude. There are stories of her enduring the snobbery of an arrogant doctor in the days when some people lauded their class over others; he didn't value her much because she was 'just a cleaner' and not great at reading or writing. And she was Scottish, known as Scotch Cathy. When they bumped into each other at my Mum's grammar school, the arrogant Doctor changed his attitude towards her. Oppression comes in many forms; change takes time, manners and patience.
 Everyone who knew her tells me I'd of liked her. She was Presbyterian but should've been Catholic if her own father hadn't of been killed in her infancy. As an aside: jokes about 'pikees' and the lack of regard for traveller heritage - those of us with this heritage may know of extreme racism to our families. I know I am not the only one to have a death in recent generations due to religious or cultural racism. When I taught a traveller child (although I prefer the term gipsy when used without malice) he was very quiet about his culture until he knew this part of my background. It was important he knew it because this heritage is as much marginalised in our current British society as any other, but not recognised as being so. It is almost like a forgotten racism. Perhaps all this also ties in with senses of place and goes back to knowing the parts played in history.

The final reflection I have from my trip up North is how these familial values and cultures are carried with us as we move around. In a way, how that thread continues to weave. I have always felt a difference between the pace and expectations of people from the North (or with links to) compared with those of us from the South. I include myself in that because I feel the 'busyness' that appears to be encouraged in the South is less valued in the North. These are my own biased generalisations and based on nothing but conversations with others and my own feelings. Equally, the cultures and expectations between Northern and Southern India differ; both of these may be influenced by the climates and changes in weather and how that then impacts on lifestyles. The geography and landscapes may also impact, especially when it comes to transport routes, commuting and ease of movement. I think the ease of movement has been the biggest contributor to pace of life actually. Maybe it's something to do with accessing a bigger area and thus having more to cover and think about, rather than focusing on a community and developed sense of place...

(this leads me to think of how the internet and social media affect this too but that's enough for one post!)

Monday, 21 December 2015

We need to stop blaming ITE

We need to stop blaming ITE

Recently, I have read several blogs by writers I respect, discussing ITE/ITT and I have to say, at first glance the critical assessment of the English systems flaws did have me nodding in agreement. Writers made me think and have inspired me to write this post to help clear my own view point, so personally, I’d recommend reading other blogs on the theme to gain a wider perspective.
 It’s fair to say that ITE is feeling a little under fire at present. There are panels to investigate and report on them. There are newer teachers citing the lack of knowledge or training they feel they’ve left their courses with. There are leaders in schools citing experiences of students being ill-equipped for placements. ITE sounds crap really. No offence to those in HE.

 There is a lot I’ve been thinking about around this topic, mainly because I haven’t been sure what my views are or how I could articulate my thoughts (sometimes, words are all just a big jumble until one day, they make some sort of sense). For these posts, I’m writing generally from my own opinions and observations as well as cherry picking areas that I have clearer thoughts on. The first is a quote taken from Greg Ashman’s blog which he in turn has quoted from the Carter Review.

“We have identified what appear to be potentially significant gaps in a range of courses in areas such as subject knowledge development, subject-specific pedagogy, behaviour management, assessment and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). We believe there may be a case for a better shared understanding of what the essential elements of good ITT content look like.”

Something that struck me from the list above is that behaviour management and understanding of SEND feel to me, to be wider societal issues that are, as happens with schools sometimes, being laid at ITE door to ‘fix’. Teachers and observers cite a weakness in these things as profession – going by the media and teacher accounts, schools are struggling with behaviour; instead of looking at the wider socio-cultural aspects that have created the current classrooms we have, it feels to me as if government is taking a linear view of ‘teachers can’t cope and this must be due to a lack within ITE so let’s revamp that’. I’ve no doubt there are deficits in ITE courses, particularly PGCE's. No course will please all. However, in relation to behaviour, I do feel that to expect these courses to equip students with what are essentially counselling/social work skills and a depth of psychological knowledge that is probably (generalisation) equivalent to at least A-Level study if not higher, is a little unfair. I 100% advocate that teachers engage and have an awareness of them but this takes time - something PGCE courses in particular, are short of.

 Personally, it also makes me wonder *why* students who are training as teachers are entering the profession without being able to, as Tom Bennett says 'run a room'. I love this phrase and it resonates; I was a football coach by 14. By 15 I was coaching across my hometown, by 17 I started a club and mentored others, by 19 I'd designed and run an academy (by 20 I was knackered and went to sleep!) At no point did I receive training on how to manage behaviour. I learned management skills from watching the coaches who ''buddy-led' me and linking it to my own experience as a player. My understanding is that students do this on placements, freeing the course time on campus up to focus on subject knowledge development and pedagogy - if students are not encountering successful behaviour management on placements, is the issue with support within schools rather than ITE?

 Another can of worms but, are the role models suitable? Mentors can be early career teachers really, having been in classrooms for 2-3yrs - is this enough time to have gained a breadth of experience to be observed on? Are the conversations around learning and the 'recent history of education' limited because not enough time as part of the profession has been experienced? Unsure what, but there is a difference between reading theory/knowing and having lived through experiences to share (like is it more powerful to read/discuss a war diary or talk to the veteran?) I feel that when I mentored others I did a good enough job in being a role model but was I ready to be? No. I was still developing competency in other areas that weren't directly related to my main coaching practice. Juggling paperwork, financing, my own standards and subject knowledge and knowing how to develop others wasn't easy yet I did a good enough job for both of those people to step into careers within sport. I can guarantee those coaches will be lacking somewhere; if they're not I didn't do a good enough job. Despite some core ideas remaining, learning, the nature of it and approach to it is constantly changing as are the contexts we work within daily, weekly, monthly... I don't have answers and am not sure what I think but these are the questions that are occurring to me as I write. 

Secondly, should people be approaching education courses expecting to be explicitly taught how to manage behaviour? To me, behaviour and humans are not fixed. I am of the opinion the biggest behaviour management 'tool' is flexibility and knowing the learner personally, but I consider these to be people skills and not limited only to educational contexts. For this reason, they are not skills I would attend an education course explicitly expecting. If I sign up for an art course should I expect to be taught further without having a basic knowledge of the media I could be working in? If perspectives and style were pedagogy, would it be expected that I attend an art course having not heard of cubism, impressionism or pop art? Some responsibility for preparation must lie with the learners and ITE courses can only work with what they've got applying.

Thirdly, this has made me wonder if the descent of behaviour in schools is symptomatic of a generation that does not understand what respect is or how to create an environment that fosters a positive culture. I’m going to make another generalisation that the majority of newer teachers are around ages 24-30. We grew up with the National Curriculum, SATS and rode the crest of the surging internet wave (who remembers chat rooms before they had any safety measures? Myspace? Bebo? Downloading ringtones because that was the only way you could? Picture messages that WEREN’T PHOTOS!) The recession hit as my age group left universities, degrees were lovely but not getting people jobs, the housing market crashed and left many of us living with parents or housesharing with no hope of getting onto a property ladder - this is a huge generalisation and limited by my own social contexts but the media has reported on these things in relation to current twenty-somethings. This age bracket has not had the chance to really be self-sufficient - to grow up. Could the lack of understanding around behaviour be related to these social aspects? Either in perceptions of teachers by pupils or by teachers self-perceptions? In relation to older teachers finding it hard to navigate behaviour and respect, does British society value age? Is age and the aging process respected? This could be a whole other blog post on it's own for social perceptions, of women in particular. As previously stated, these are thoughts and questions coming to me as I write; I have no answers only thoughts.

 My final thought for tonight is that perhaps teachers need to leave ITE with an understanding of the fluidity of education and that what they've learned in their time training is like receiving the first gifts for a fist home. ITE will offer the key utensils needed at that point(?) Over time, some essentials for the house will remain (led by politics and society) but what is considered homely (pedagogy) the decor (approaches) and items within (skill sets) will ultimately be down to the owner.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Gendered language

 When I encounter the word ‘gender’ I think of male or female in a biological way. I also think of softness and a hardness (not sure how to describe what feels a sub-conscious, inbuilt impression…) influenced by pink and blue - possibly due to seeing this linked with gender discussions on Twitter - and minimally, gender stereotype roles/appearances of men and women. That’s my current underlying stereotype of the word gender. Those impressions above, whether I want to agree with them or not, are the ‘baggage’ I bring to my view of gender, men and women. Having thought about it, I feel a bit embarrassed or ashamed that my unbridled impressions are so cliché and predictable. From the words I’m writing, people could probably make several inferences based on that peeping view into my consciousness, but those inferences would be informed as much by a reader’s stereotype as mine; without dialogue, meaning can only be constructed by the ‘consumer’.

The current language discussion taking place is based on sex-based social structures and the notion that some words are masculine or feminine. Although heated and sometimes unpleasant, there are some really interesting conversations around the theme. For me, what’s missing from these discussions is recognition that the purpose of language is to communicate. Words, letters, symbols - all are systems that were invented to help humans communicate with each other. The debate is focused on whether some of those words and symbols in English are male/female words but I don’t understand how this can be so when both language and the meaning given to it is fluid over time.

My understanding of language is that its meaning is constructed by the users and social contexts. For example, in my locality we are familiar with the terms bredders/bredrin, shank and peng. To shank someone is to stab them but for many the word shank could be associated with lamb and Sunday roasts, which is significantly less violent than the former (sorry, this is the main example I can think of to demonstrate what I’m trying to say). The same word has different meanings depending upon who is using it, how and on the context of the rest of the sentence. In English, I’m not sure words in isolation can be separated into masculine/feminine due to this.

 When thinking about gendered language, I think along similar lines and can’t see past language being a social construct; for me, the context of the rest of the sentence and situation determines the connotations that I attach to words such as mastery. As a female footballer I have grown up with terms such as grit, resilience, responsibility and commitment (the latter two are interesting to muse on) but within the context of female teams, leagues and the arena of higher level sport, these words do not appear as masculine to me and having asked other sporty people - limited by the bias of my network - others have said the same. For us, the terms are verbs that help describe expectations of what it means to be a sports person with an underlying implication that this is what is needed for success, regardless of gender. I’ve no degree or further reading to be able to explain why but considering the context, I think it is because those words are closely linked with my identity (and maybe the identity of anyone with a long-term involvement in sport?) so how we’ve internalised their meaning may differ to those who have not experienced a similar background. Is my personality masculine for being successful in sport? I’ve had equal success within art and writing too, does that make my personality feminine? When I see term’s like soft arts, I don’t imagine femininity but rather a spiritual, meditative space. When I see terms such as hard edged sciences, I imagine a unisex lab full of people in white coats with test tubes George’s Marvellous medicine style. I get an impression of activity and teamwork but for arts I feel it as a more solitary activity - this may be because for me, art and writing are solitary activities. My experience, without me explicitly being aware of it, probably influences my view. This is probably true of language too; our perceptions on whether a word is masculine or feminine is influenced not only by our experiences but also by society, however, how we choose to frame and create meaning from those words ultimately lies within us. With this in mind, can there be a generalisation that some words are masculine and some are feminine?