Messing with Perfectionism

When I draw, I like to leave the sketchlines showing. Those words are from a song, metaphorically describing my desires for explorative, transparent communication processes in relationships. But most writing I share is produced with an invisible digital editing process.

A ‘zine-in-a-day’ workshop counters this digitality. We made physical stacks of printed material by cutting, pasting and writing with ink pen and printing with a Risograph printer within a few hours. With a risograph printer creating a master costs £1, after which prints cost 1p in ink, but the master can only be used for one batch: so making all the copies in one batch is the most efficient option. ‘I always think you might as well do 50’, the workshop leader told me. 30 was my compromise.

My project was personal and therapeutic: to reclaim my PGCE assignment. I’d submitted a draft a week before. Writing had been an up and down experience, spread over more than a year due to the disruptions to my course. My engagement with it had gone up and down with the normal difficulties of writing, and more personally with the processing of my experiences in schools from messy reality tinged with failure and anxiety into professional learning experiences. After many periods of serious avoidance and procrastination, and two full restructurings, I got well into it. Rediscovering educationalists who are dedicated to good pedagogy and who write research that is good for thinking with heartened me– in particular Askew, Resnick, Boaler. A coursemate’s kindly shared submission met the explicit learning criteria exactly but bored me stiff, making me value my attempts to include my ambivalences and cross the gulf between systemic critique and classroom practice.

Writing between the lines of my conclusion, literally as well as figuratively, re-claimed my ideas on my own terms, for an audience of my peers and community rather than my assessors. What I handed in was written in the academic register, and trod a line between criticality and compliance. Many of the thoughts which preoccupy me most were not incorporated, or were written in muted forms. I may still get feedback to cut the polemic and focus more on the classroom, so before dealing with that I wanted to value my personal experience and political rage, and mourn how these raw edges are controlled and smoothed over by professionalism.

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Paper based production challenged my perfectionism in writing. My choices of writing fast or slow, my hesitations, my corrections are all visible in the printed zine. I drew skyscrapers and some suits with currency symbols on them pulling puppet strings, and then self-consciously scrawled ‘generic clicheed representations of gneoliberal capitalism’ over them. It is unclear, and chaotic in places. I overwrote my nod to the examiners that “the capacity to convey enthusiasm, [threatened by the isolation and overwork of the teacher’s role,] is ‘a core Teacher’s Standard’” to the point of illegibility with the comment ‘like I give a shit about standards; this was a question of sanity’. I touch on ideas without finishing them, leaving threads of thoughts hanging. It’s a messy area in a way that a composed piece of writing never can be.

At the last minute I used this bit of writing to make a B-side poster fold out. I handwrote on the side ‘sometimes, when conversation fails, I end up sitting by myself and writing’ and ‘This zine is for everyone who’s been around me as I’ve been withdrawn and/or needy through my PGCE years. And everyone’s who’s grappling the role of teacher …’. I then accidentally made a black master before changing the roll to a light ink, so the text as image behind the text didn’t work. With that and another printing fail I’ve got a one-sided zine. It would have been good to have something that I liked on the poster side – but I’ve shared what I did produce with a few people anyway, and shall continue to do so when socially appropriate conversation is failing me when they ask ‘how’s the teaching going?’

This digital text makes the process behind the zine explicit, but also flattens it. I’ve found this easy to write, but I don’t know how well it conveys my thoughts and feelings. I’ve become trained into producing theoretical words, which are unnecessarily distancing to read. I’d like to re-educate myself away from the supremacy of pure text for communication, particularly formal writing. Alt text for the zine could read as briefly as:

When writing critically about teaching and learning as part of ‘professional learning’ balancing making a systemic critique, portraying personal experiences of frustration, presenting all experiences as ‘professional learning’ and complying with ‘explicit learning outcomes’ was a struggle for me.

That may be clearer, it’s certainly easier to read. But . . . it’s the process more than the product that makes me glad I made this messy little zine.

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regarding your question

You ask like you expect a reply off the cuff,
as if some social small talk could be enough;
but it’s a topic that’s been lying hidden in my brain
that I need to share before it drives me insane.
Can’t give you off the cuff when my heart’s on my sleeve
But if you want to know what I truly believe,
may I tell you my frame, before we discuss the picture?

The world is a sad and terrible place.
I think that’s a truth that we’ve got to embrace.
If we’re to live with it, do what we can with it,
it’s something I’d sooner just face.
What we feel may be what our warped thoughts think,
but reality may not be better, could also be worse.
Critical thinking might be a curse, a quagmire where to be stuck is to sink,
but the lack of it surely is more hopeless still.
I chose the apple, and I always will
seek out the fruits that show possibilities of infinities of change.
We can only hope our futures will not be as they seem.
If nothing is inevitable, everything is possible, we gotta be critical
and we gotta dream.

So, about the teaching. Given capitalism in general, and schools in specific are fucked, it’s going kind of ok.

Indignant 17yrold[me] Confronting Unjust Suspension

In which getting on for 10 yrs ago I wrote an angry email. Just found it. Made me laugh. And also reflect on how little I brushed up personally with disciplinary procedures at school – I probably wouldn’t have had such a righteous approach otherwise. Can’t remember the outcome now, but I think it was the first confronting (white-man-in-a-suit) man in authority to call their bullshit in solidarity with a bunch of their victims. The punishment had made me particularly angry because it was purely retributive – with no reparation (eg developing a code of use for the cafe with the workers there, or painting the pillar) or even preventative action (because it had been so totally out of the blue and unpredictable). The principal in question was highly acclaimed as successful – but this was one incident that displayed his ego, and inclination to throw power around without listening to others or attending to its effects.

29 September 200* 14:18:22
Message
From:        [The Principal at my college]
Subject:    Re: suspensions re. cafe
To:        [my full name]

B*****
You have an appointment to see me at 12 o’clock on Monday. I warn you now that you will need to adopt a very different tone to that be used in phrases like “There were a total of 27 names on the height chart on the wall(also impermanent) and these people are not being punished, possibly because there is a limit to the depletion of college attendance that you wish to inflict.”.
P****

[my full name] on 29 September 200* at 11:21 +0000 wrote:
I am writing because I am very concerned over the suspension of 7 students for a week in response to the incident of sticking stickers on a pillar in the cafe. This seems to be an over reaction to impermanent and inoffensive damage. I do understand why you are upset, because you have interpreted this as vandalism that shows a lack of respect and value for college property. We understand that you observed the damage immediately after inspecting a theft, and that you were therefore already rightfully angry. However, although it was thoughtless, no harm was intended.
The punishment of suspension seems disproportionate to the offence and it disadvantages all concerned. The 7 students will lose a week of tuition- among the concerned are dedicated students on whom this will have a considerable effect. It seems contrary to the recent college crackdown on termtime holidays that 35 student college days are being compulsorily wasted.
It is also unjust that others involved are totally unpunished. There were a total of 27 names on the height chart on the wall(also impermanent) and these people are not being punished, possibly because there is a limit to the depletion of college attendance that you wish to inflict. There were also others involved with the stickers, as they were perceived as harmless fun.
I am apologising for frivulous attitudes relating to this incident- we at first found it hard to take the reaction of crime scene tape around the area seriously- we have now realised our mistake in our attitudes and are taking the whole incident seriously. I am certain that we have all received a shock and have seen that this behaviour is not going to be tolerated and in future will avoid such activities.

I know that I am expressing views shared by a great number of students and possbibly also of others, and I would like to discuss this further.

Yours sincerely,
[my full name]

to PGCE

I am going to start a PGCE. Not GTP, not Schools Direct, and not Teach First.

There are many reasons that I have chosen a PGCE, despite the financial disincentive. One of these is that I’ve been lucky to have had a low rent enabling me to have saved up enough money to be able to afford it comfortably with a Student Finance Loan & 2:1 degree bursary [damn that not-a-first, if I’d known it would’ve been so significant I’d’ve got stressed to push the boundary].

I also chose to work in schools as a teaching assistant before applying for a PGCE. I cannot over-rate this experience in terms of the amount I have learnt about schools, and the people in them. The hierarchical nature of schools was a shock to my system, and I am glad not to be navigating it from scratch at the same time as training to be a teacher. I grew up in a social bubble, in a rural area so white that I didn’t notice how white Cambridge was when I went there. I went to an independent secondary school, which was ‘less posh’ than others, more champagne socialist than tory. It was a desire to widen my social experience as much as indecision that made me put off my PGCE.

Experience that included being part of a group of TAs reacting to the offer of a free course out of working hours. Experiencing different class and supply teachers. Observing the social dynamics between TAs and teachers from a position on the fence – working as a TA, but coming from a more teacher-typical background. Watching several different teachers and staff teach that a square is not a rectangle, and attempting to intervene tactfully, with varying success. The experience of my key child, who had just listened as I brought his attention to the pencils he’d dropped and was picking them up from under the table being told off across the room by the teacher. The experience of being told by the headmaster at my secondment in his office that I disrespected authority, and was sometimes aggressive (no specific examples – though in following up my class teacher named the incident in the previous sentence). The experience of having an abnormally friendly relationship with the headteacher based on her perception of me as ‘very intelligent, far too good to be working as a TA’, which made her think of me for secondment, and then for a school garden design project.

I am relieved that I did not go onto a Teach First programme two and a bit years ago. I believe if I had applied, in a fit of careerism, I would have had a fair chance of getting on the programme. But I feel certain that I’ve increased my chances of being a better teacher, if three  years later, during which time I have been a good (well, ok, I hope) TA & playworker, on the far side of  a PGCE. I will be able to develop my ideas about teaching in a community of peers, with a supportive faculty. I will be able to learn from observing a range of teachers and schools on my placements, and experiment while I am not yet bottom-lining children’s education for a year.

‘Tough Young Teachers’ has been, as a few people have put it ‘an advertisement for the PGCE route’. It has also shown how hostile performance management in schools can be, and to have a year of supportive training before bearing the full brunt of it can only help. Teach First candidates may be driven and idealistic, but surely they would be able to do even better if they had the opportunities to develop as reflective teachers given – slightly- by a PGCE, or B Ed.

I’m entering teaching with a fair degree of cynicism. Formal schooling is at a status quo of 30 kids, one room, one curriculum, one timetable, which makes one problem. The experience, however, can be far far better or worse. The difference between insecure teachers with poor understanding and little inspiration and motivated, insightful, confident, dedicated nurturing teachers is huge in its impact on pupils. This isn’t only about the teacher, but about a supportive school environment, from management to parents. I do not know how effective a teacher I am capable of becoming, and I know that I will not know without committing to a huge amount of work. I fear accepting becoming a teacher who is mediocre, while losing sight of the sorts of relationships with children, learning and the world which I value. The teaching profession has a bad way of defeating young idealistic teachers, to become old moaners.

While I want to do my best as a teacher, I am not expecting to become a teacher as my sole core identity. I want to explore the potential and limitations of schools, and once I am fully qualified, I will see whether staying in the role of teacher looks like it makes sense to me.

“Thanks, sweetie”

‘Could you pick up those pens, Sara? . . . Thanks, sweetie’

Ok sir, I don’t mind getting them

I might’ve dropped them,

but can I be your mate, your pal?

Like Khaleb, Ben and David?

How come they your friends,

when I’m some little darling?

Guess that’s how it is

and it’s not so much bother.

Least you answer my questions

not like some others.

Dad calls me ‘sweetie’ too –

he listens to my brother, but tells me

I ‘won’t get it, go and pester your mother’,

and I go upstairs, find mum’s bag

read ’20 ways to impress your man’.

Sounds complicated, not just the golden rules.

You don’t just tell the truth,

it doesn’t do to be too kind,

and you must never, ever, speak your mind.

So I smile and toss my hair, as I reach beneath the table.

I’m helping my teacher, I’m a good girl, he likes me.

I wrote this after a day in a year 5 class, with a young male teacher. He was unusually not-strict and flexible for the school, and did a few really good things to manage the classroom fairly, and the class clearly liked him pretty well. But he used some gendered term or other on me early in the day, which made my ears prick up, and through the day I observed him consistently addressing girls as ‘sweetie’, ‘dear’ and ‘darling’, only using their names when needed for clarity. With boys, he used their names slightly more, but called them, especially those who were more street – cool, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. Think he just about stopped short of ‘bro’, thankfully for the race and class dynamics there. It bothered me that all the terms for girls imply a paternalistic relationship, while the terms he used for boys all denoted equality.

 

I seriously intended to bring it up – with him, or with other teachers/ management. I didn’t get further than casually bringing it up with other teaching assistants in the staffroom. They all disliked how he was informal, commenting that he also called parents by their first names, and also commented the current yr 6 class (causing reverberations in the school with their naughty/teenagerish behaviour) were fine before he had them for a year. They valued formal respect, appropriate to people in distinct positions. Manners appropriate to cross – hierarchy.

 

Wanting to draw out more of the gender dimension I pointed out ‘these girls are going to expect to accept sexist treatment from their bosses – it’s really not ok. I mean, if [headteacher] were to call all the female teachers and T As ‘sweetie’ and the male ones ‘mate’ that wouldn’t be ok!’. They agreed, but the idea of doing something about this issue was clearly positioned well beyond their power. When a female deputy head started, I felt I would have been able to bring it up with her. But then, in an entirely different story, it came to light that the school had judged me ‘insubordinate’ and ‘not really fitting in to the team’ in my class, and so I concentrated on trying to work out just how this had come about, and never followed up the sexism. Oh, and the male teacher in question got some sort of national outstanding teacher award. Making it even less possible to criticise him as a temporary teaching assistant who ‘really has to be the most flexible person on the team’ as was explained to me by the head.

Take our Feminist Movement survey

Warning: pissing on other feminists’ organising cornflakes a bit. Dear UK Feminista: I think it’s great you did a survey. But it . . . just doesn’t really . . . somehow I had an unexpectedly strong reaction while responding to this survey by UK Feminista. I stumbled across it from the excellent Feminist Webs which I had been reccomended as a resource for networking feminists and girls/ young women’s groups (of which there is an exciting resurgence at the moment), and thought I’d supportively fill it in. But I wrote so much that I wanted to write it up.

feminista survey

The survey started, after the offer of a free T-shirt & tote bag or somthing:

“Tell us about your passions, priorities and needs in our online survey” 

Sure. Ok. I scrolled on down. First question: 

  • Are you part of a feminist, women’s or other campaigning group?* YesNo
  • If yes, what is the name of your group?

Ah, well . . . what group? There are different groups I sometimes attend, and do different things with. I’m not sure if I’m part of any of them. Is there a maybe? I don’t have any group that I primarily identify myself with.

Hackles up, I continued.

  • Please describe your involvement in feminist activismFor example, have you run or participated in any campaigns? Have you attended any demonstrations or protests?

OK, can we just address that formalised feminist activism, in the form of demonstrations or protests, is NOT THE ONLY SORT. I have attended plenty demos, reclaim the night, pro-choice stuff, uh, and erm, loads of non demo/protests . . .one the most worthwhile things I have ‘done’  was a women’s split off from our anarcho network, a group of women in activism joining together to have conversations we hadn’t had before, unfortunately is didn’t get through the puke phase into the productive FUCK YEAH WE WANT TO ORGANISE ON THIS stage, but it felt connected and real and valuable . . .

and wait a minute. actually, this is just not where I’m at.
my feminist activism is my hairy legs and armpits when I work in a school. it’s subverting the make-up out at ‘girls’ club’ at a secondary special needs school with girls who can barely assent yet alone comprehend or express fully why & how they might want to use make up by joking about it, by suggesting to boys that they put on some eyeshadow to bring out the colour of their eyes, and how pretty they’d look if they did, and then in the staffroom discussing how we push genderroles onto kids, in a way that connects with the other staff who will not self identify as feminists.

It’s supporting my women friends in any and everyway, being actively non-judgemental. It’s telling a woman who’s beating herself up about getting interviews but no jobs that it’s capitalism, not her, and capitalism and the patriarchy want her to blame herself and try harder (in more user-friendly language).

It’s dealing with intimacy and power and expectation and consent and our histories in our interactions and relationships. Recognising that there is a rape culture, and acting on the assumption that we are all affected by this, and knowing that anyone could be a survivor of something that they may not ever want to talk about.

It’s reacting to sexist comments with confrontational or jokey or provocative responses. It’s letting a fellow applicant who’s got two kids know that I thought the introduction to our PGCE course where they said ‘by the way, don’t get pregnant this year’ was bang out of order. It’s letting a girl choose to get muddy or not get muddy in the garden.

It’s not ever greeting a girl with ‘oooh you’re pretty aren’t you’ as the first comment, and calling out my colleague when she does it, but finding a way to talk to her which doesn’t make me seem like a wanky PC academic feminist but actually connects with her.

It’s having a conversation on equal terms with that 10ryold girl about playing, growing up, maturity, conflict, bullying, teachers, safety vs sticking up for your friends, football, when she says tentatively ‘it’s like they’re sexist or something’ affirming ‘they are sexist’, and making plans with her for setting up a girls’ group, letting her know that she is able to get things and stick up for herslef in a way that adult women struggle with, but sometimes adult women come together to help each other stick up for themselves better, and seeing her mother, and discussing the issues around the conflict kids have to deal with, and the responsibility as a single mother . . .

It’s pointing out to my partner that he’s been socialised to under-estimate the amount of cleaning that gets done in a house because his mum did the lion’s share, and so actually he’s over estimating the proportion of washing up he’s doing.

And most of these things are things that women do every day without calling them feminist activism. It’s life. And many women who operate in the everyday sphere of feminism normally haven’t had the hours of explicit feminist spaces and campaigns and protest that I have had to to articulate this rant in terms of feminism, and certainly not in response to your question and it’s answer box. Most people have learnt at school and in their workplaces that you should give the answer to a question that is wanted on a form. Say yes, no, specify, elaborate, Don’t question the question, that gets you in trouble.

Well, your box hasn’t run out. I’ve got physical space to write this, but you didn’t invite it. And you wonder why UK feminista isn’t being led by a greater diversity of women. No-one who is at the bottom of the capitalist patriarchal heap has got the energy to come and seek out a movement that’s not going to help them with immediate practical stuff. Go and try meet some people where they’re at and find out how you can support them. This survey isn’t the way to do it.

this next question . . . I like what it’s asking for, but not how it asks it.

  • Describe a feminist action or campaign you have found particularly inspiring or empowering

practical feminist self defence. Getting women who are not necessarily active in Feminism together, to learn and share practical, useful reactions to the violence and oppression and harrasment perpetrated against them, and discovering a commonality of experience, including having learned to be ‘polite’ and also discovering a variety of ways in which we experience harassment etc and choose to deal with it in different circumstances.

  • What are the top three issues you are most passionate about taking action on? women sticking up for themselves women looking after each other

    learning ways to work together for collective action

And the survey went on a little bit more. I think there are some wider reflections to draw out of this, that are dynamics between organising around a campaign, or organising around people as a starting point. I’ve had a lot of recent contact with youth work engaged for social change, in the sense of emancipatory, youth-led, holistic youth work rather than youth services, and discussions around the failures and successes of activism and youth work, and one thing I’m processing from that is picking out those two distinct organising dynamics. I think that Feminista’s survey is a campaign centred approach, which I am just coming to view as inherently and problematically limited in its potential for inclusivity. This, after having entered a-lot of stuff through quite formal, if anarchofeminist in consensus decision making process, groups. I’ve just had a transformation in my levels of connection and motivation, for the better, and I’m trying to formulate and express how my vision of ‘how to organise’ has changed/ what it has become. Thanks, Feminista, for provoking this thought-space. I might try and draft a more people-centred variant on this survey. Or look for an existing one.

Pond dipping – new to newts

Something pretty exciting is happening in the wild garden. It’s spring. The frogs and newts are out from hibernation, and getting on with, y’know, what they do in spring (that’s another post though). And that’s not the most exciting thing for me – I do love it, have done every year of my life. It’s the kids’ reactions.

I’m lucky to be a playworker in community garden in urban london. It’s somewhere where children can wander in, and if they’re over 8, they can do this independently of their parents/carers, if they’re younger then they can come as a family. We’re next to a busy road, but are screened from it by trees and our building. Some children don’t come very often, but there’s a few who keep coming back. And sometimes there’s someone who comes for the first time.

With a new person, they don’t always become a regular. Often though, there’s something which they’re excited by, and a bit scared of but then they overcome that fear and hesitation and experience something new. These moments are happening in the wild garden. Urban kids are jerky. They respond sharply to each other. They are alarmed as they slip on uneven ground. And they glance around without focussing closely.

Then they see something move in the pond.

“Aaagrh what’s that?”

“It’s a frog, I can see it?”

They’re not sure about putting their hand or knee down on the dirty ground but they can’t balance without doing so, so their nets dip wildly. I ask them if they can see anything where they’re dipping. They can’t, it’s murky where they stirred it up. I lean in slowly, getting someone to watch the end of the net to develop their underwater eyes, and we scoop up a newt (common/smooth newt, Lissotriton vulgaris – which in the UK is protected from sale, but may be captured, unlike the Great Crested Newt).

“Does he bite?”

“it looks like a fish!” “No, like a lizard”

“Can you touch it?”

Most of them won’t come close, let alone touch a newt at first. It’s a rule that you can only touch creatures from the pond if you dip your hand in pond water so it’s cool and damp first. But after a while, sometimes after ten minutes, once the most screamy friend has gone away, they’ll come, and they’ll look at the newt’s golden eyes, his spotty (or her speckly) belly. They can see which is male and which is female (the females have bulging middles full of eggs, and the males have bulging balls at this time of year). Some of the kids it takes longer to break through the hesitation. They have to slow down to observe. But once they’ve seen, they’re telling the others, and showing them. They’re learning through doing and looking and thinking, because something’s there right in front of them, and they need to work out what’s going on. They’ll remember that the newt can breathe in air as well as water, and when they come out, they’ll see that newtings, with their external gills, can’t breathe air. And this knowledge is not abstract, but is immediately shaping their actions.