Teacher in a Wheelchair Series – No 2 – Why Bother?

I’ve lost count of how many times people have asked me how I appear to just carry on despite rapidly falling to pieces. Just as often I look confused at them & say “err I just do. It’s nothing special.”.  Looking at it objectively, actually my ability to hold down a full time job is thanks to a million little tricks and adjustments. This series of blogs is all about unpicking those adjustments & sharing them. Number 1 shared some tricks on making it through the day in one piece, or at least in as few separate pieces as possible. This week, I’m focusing on mental health.

For those who don’t know, I have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome – a genetic condition which affects connective tissues throughout my body making them stretchier than they should be. For me this meant undiagnosed joint pain, weird injuries, & enormous anxiety as a child; later this became chronic pain in my back & gastric issues; finally (and this isn’t my final form) in my mid 30s I dislocate daily, have dysautonomia, intense fatigue, & the joys of adrenal imbalance making me easily “stressy” and unable to sleep at appropriate times.

Life could very easily get very dark; I could easily dwell on the potential of overdoing it & rupturing an important organ; it’s not unusual to do the 2am game of “which body part hurts the most?” – tonight, come on down thoracic vertebrae! We have a winner! ; I am human & the odd week long pity party for one is allowed (and frankly, quite health behaviour when you are faced with similar pain to a broken bone all the time & for the rest of your life). At my PIP interview the assessor took Mr Geek aside and said bluntly “keep.an eye on her, that brave face is going to slip soon & she will crash and burn”. PIP or Personal Independence Payment is the UK disibility benefit to enable us to pay for care & mobility aids. It has a very bad press & the process tested my mental health to the absolute limit. I lucked out with my assessor who was kind & fair and was so jaded by the system that he just asked me straight rather than trying to trip me up. I thought he was being dramatic when he said to look out for my mental health. He wasn’t. 

So here’s some pieces of advice on mental health in the workplace when you have chronic pain. 

1. Every Little Helps

It’s very easy to feel like Sisyphus forever rolling that boulder up a hill & getting nowhere. As teachers, even after years, we have this idea in our heads that we can create a community of well behaved & engaged kids. That ideal will never go.

When I first used my wheelchair at school, I was scared that it would impact on my authority and the kids wouldn’t behave. Quite the opposite. It’s allowed me to be softer with them because I’m in less pain, so have more patience, and they copy my more happy style.

It’s not all sunshine & rainbows though. This week I’ve encountered all sorts and it’s worn me down. We’ve had uniform “adjustments”, monosyllabic grunting  (that drives me up the wall), swearing, use of the words “retard” “gender bender” “gay” “mong” (can you say detention with an essay researching the history of why that is offensive?), graffiti, large items thrown through windows, parents complaining that I’m horrible. I’m painting an awful picture, but this is not business as usual. 

I work in an outstanding school. Not because Ofsted say so, but because it’s a place I want to go to. I gladly increase my pain levels to spend time with the kids & my colleagues. And you can bet any amount of money that each of those issues will be dealt with in a style similar to Thor’s Hammer.

Yes, I’m sick to the back teeth of kids talking to me like something on their shoe, but what they don’t realise is that I’m grittier than them. They will pass this course if I have to drag them kicking & screaming. I secretly like them. Even when they’re making my life hellish.

And that’s my secret weapon. They don’t need to like me, they need to know I have their best interests at heart. They initially think I’m evil. I set all this homework and demand proof that they’ve revised. Then had the audacity to set a test for year 11 on Tuesday. They got their results today & the majority did wonderfully. I gave them proof that their hard work paid off. I won.

2. It’s not personal

Meet the teenager who greets you with “let me sing you the song of my people: that teacher hates me”. The song translates to a number of things:

  • “that teacher set me work that I don’t immediately understand and they won’t do it for me”
  • “That teacher won’t let me sit with my friends and chat”
  • “That teacher doesn’t understand why I’m struggling in class”


In the 3rd instance, yes, we’re in the wrong. And we are not infallible and do miss things. But when those complaints come in because you set high expectations & push for independent thought  (and they will), it’s not personal. Not for you as the teacher. It’s hard for children (and nd adults) to adjust from being spoon-fed answers to being investigators. It’s natural to dislike the person who is pushing you out of your comfort zone. I hated my programming teacher. As he strode around the classroom proclaiming we were all useless & a waste of his precious time so no he wouldn’t lower himself to giving us the answer! We resolved to make him look stupid by proving him wrong and aceing the module. We were played. Looking back, he was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.

I’m not suggesting his style of teaching. But be firm. Follow your behaviour guidelines. Write home. Know that you are the target for their fear of failure & self doubt.  And by knowing that, you also know it’s not as personal as there words suggest.

3. Cake Monday

Make time for your colleagues. They are your support network. This year is arrived on our first day back with a home baked black forest cake and declared Monday breaktimes “Cake Monday” where we all stop, Drink tea, eat cake, and most importantly talk about us (not work, but what’s going on with our lives). That 20 minutes each week allows us to touch base & gauge if anyone is wobbly. Case in point being my wobble over going to hospital in October – I talked about my fears & whilst they can’t fix it, they are keeping it low key with questions about it banned unless I bring it up.

4. Mark your work!

Err how is this good for mental health exactly? Well, set a routine with books. Collect then in each week & leave a minimum of one positive comment in there. Where they need to improve, ask a question instead of telling them.

When you write down positive things about your class, you feel more positive towards them. This is especially helpful for new classes, or ones you find challenging.

My favourite right now is to buy packs of DC & Marvel stickers which go on the cover of their books if they show effort or grit or self control. These also equate to housepoints, but they love my silly comments of “super effort” or my personal favourite “incredible homework ” accompanied by a sticker of the hulk.

4. Ask for help

Do as I say, not what I do. I am so bad at this & am paying the price. My job this weekend whilst away is to put together a list of tasks that are causing me pain, or issues at work.the reason being so I can propose a change in my support from Access to Work. I’ve reached a stage where I’m aware that I’m overstretching my physical capabilities and need a support worker in some capacity. Travel in a converted van with my wheelchair strapped down is painful & noisy to the point of tinnitus.

As part of this, I used an accelerometer on my phone to measure some of the bumps over my 30 minute journey into work. These show a reading in m/s2 (meters per second squared)

Remembering that travelling in a wheelchair means you are sat bold upright thus placing the ptessure of any bumps directly onto the spine: at it’s highest reading, this was a 3g pressure downwards. That’s on a par with a roller coaster. This could explain why I start each morning with tea & painkillers.

This kind of data will help me to legitimately ask for help & not be seen as moaning. It’s unlikely that’s they would, but I’m my head I’m biting the hand that feeds me.

So, a bit of a long rambley post which I guess is fitting for looking after your mental health when you’re dealing with life & chronic pain. 

Until next time xx

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Chronically Optimistic

I quite often feel bemused when people look at me just getting on with life and exclaim “I don’t know how you’re so cheerful”, or “I don’t know how you do it. You’re really brave.”

Anyone who actually knows me, knows that rather a lot of the time I’m angrier & more irrational than a wasp, and spend an unnecessary amount of time holding pity parties. Generally this is in the privacy of home where Mr Geek can appreciate the full spectrum of my whining. God, he’s a lucky bastard.
But as I trundle out of the door, Mr Geek gives me a kiss & grumbles something about dinner and I slap a smile on.

Because, you know, if you take a deep breath & smile…. it confuses the living shit out of people. I smile at people because it makes people feel nice to be smiled at. I love my good morning routine as I roll past the ladies in the front office, the premises guys, & the happiest maths teacher on the planet. 

It doesn’t matter that I’m struggling with increasingly uncontrollable pain levels. I’m more than my body. I might not be physically dancing about in a snorkel anymore, but I’m still me. Weirdly, the end of term approaching has reminded me that I’m more than the sum of my parts. Rather than finishing this year haggard and wondering what a bloody stupid idea it was to become a teacher, this year I’ve been a wreck anyway so actually I’m ending it appreciating all the ways that teaching allows me to be a real person.

Next year, I welcome my new form (my last lot have now flown my nest after 3 years of growing into adults!). Each of us in the year team have a special reason for students to be placed with us – think of it like a teacher talent tree. Mine is routines & extra TLC. Our routines are visual and planned in advance – I am happiest when everything is structured & my kids tend to be those that thrive on similar. The TLC bit applies to a whole range of reasons. Kids arrive with a spectrum of issues that reflects the adult world, from shyness to mental health to physical health. There is no child that doesn’t benefit from someone who welcomes them as part of their extended family. In turn, I get to witness their successes, their soap opera style relationships, hand out birthday cards, read to & with them, I’m the sympathetic ear when they need one, and the kick up the backside when they’re being a knob. My last form witnessed my health decline rapidly over 3 years & they used it to forge intensely empathic responses to others who needed help. I didn’t think I could be prouder.

Then I was when I met my new form. I ended our induction day by showing their parents photos of our day together where they’d overcome fear of school, of new places, of sensory overload, of looking silly (posing for selfies with our form teddy bear when you’re 13 wipes out any Alpha male ideas). Just like having another child, you don’t divide your love, it multiplies. And stealing the words of an old headteacher “you’ve gotta love em. Children, no matter how old, need love”.

So as one academic year ends (in a week and 1/2) & another is right around the corner, I’m optimistic. By September, I’ll have my Master Teacher badge which sadly is just that – gone are the days of elevated pay, but it’s nice to be recognised as a subject specialist & be involved with training new Computer Science teachers.

Making it through the tough bits means I reap the rewards of being a stubborn arsehole who’s still got more fight left in her. And, well, Mr Geek, that lucky bastard gets at least another academic year of me falling asleep on my marking & being a diabolical wife.
Maybe this year will be the year I finally get around to submitting my fellowship for the Society for Education… dream big 💖

Meh

Today was meh. Actually, it was more than meh. It was a megalithic shitstorm. And yet I kept my temper.

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We’re now 4 weeks past the final final coursework deadline. So far I’ve marked & moderated all the GCSE controlled assessments  (again), all of the AS structured tasks, and most of the A2 projects… apart from the few that aren’t finished. 4 weeks past the extended final deadline.

If they worked for me, they’d be fired. As it is, one particular student waltzes in today & demands that I mark his 4 week late project tonight so he can make improvements. As it is, I did mark it. Then sat there horrified that the month long extension produced no additional code than that copied from my tutorials. So here I am between the rock of a kid who has barely worked for the past 12 months (seriously, we started this in June 2015) who deserves the grade he gets and the hard place of being judged on the value added that he brings to my class results which utterly wipes out the amazing hard work that the other kids have put in with some achieving incredible results. And here is the teacher conundrum; do you go with the moral high ground of allowing them to learn the greater life lesson of results actually require hard work, or do I go with the gnawing fear of our results being pulled down by the kid failing & give him yet another chance?

The day that gnawing feeling leads me to over help (delicate way of saying do it for them), is the day I leave teaching. But I hate that I have to put my morals and the important lesson of allowing someone to fail aside because ultimately, I know that my pay grade is weighted against my classes performance. By performance, I mean how many grades above their predicted results at the start of the course are they by the time they leave.

Today, I have watched my daughter stay up til past 9 trying practice papers for an exam for 11 year olds that ultimately benefits the school but not her, have been made to feel unsupportive because after a year of trying to extract work I took longer than 4 days to turn around some marking, worried more about departmental stays than a human being, and my bones hurt. I dragged myself out of bed this morning despite lightening shooting through my back & legs, but I’m not wholly sure why now. We visited Squeezy my SIL for her birthday this evening & trying to enjoy the company, I could barely sit in my chair because of the pain in my pelvis despite all the opiates. As I sat squirming, I could feel myself reaching blackout levels on the pain scale as my bones turned to lava & all feeling left my feet. As Mr Geek lifted me back into the chair when we got home, I couldn’t hold myself up anymore. Welcome to not pacing.

I’ve lost some of my fight today. This isn’t a closed mindset – I genuinely believe that they could reach the stars with enough hard work. But I won’t do the work for them. My challenge now is how to instil that growth mindset into those final few kids who year on year don’t heed the advice of start early & do little & often. I fear this isn’t an easily won battle.

The SATS battle of Parent vs. Teacher in 1 body.

So, today I had a conversation with my mother in law about SATS. She is one of those grandparents that anyone would be blessed to have. The girls have grown up with her in their lives not just as the lady we visit, but as someone who actively looks after them each week (frankly, without Mr Geek’s parents & mine we wouldn’t be in a position to work!). Anyway, I digress.

She told me about a conversation she had with Beanpole about the year 6 SATS that start in a week. My 11 year old child described it this:

“It’s like banging your head against a wall again and again and again and again [making banging motions against her forehead with her palm]. I just want to wake up and it’s all over.”

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As a mum, my heart broke. I’m meant to protect my offspring against shit like this. I’ve not protected her from.Ms Morgan. She’s got to my child with her long tendrils of testing.

As a teacher, I felt ashamed. How dare my profession allow a one woman army to make children feel like this? Bright, intelligent children who are left feeling like their entire worth rests on 1 week of exams. For the first time in my professional life, I’m not proud of what I do.

There are many parents removing their children from school tomorrow in protest. Except, they’ll just be tested on a different day. These parents are unlikely to get the backlash teachers don’t when they strike, they’ll likely get empathy from teachers, but just like striking, it won’t cause the current government to bat and eyelid.

So, as with all things inevitable like Sunday evenings ending too quickly & the resignation of Education Ministers, let’s just get this over and done with.

The September Germfest

When kids go home for the summer, I’m convinced that they become little distilleries for mega germs which they store away for September to launch at unsuspecting teachers the minute we return and set them homework.

My personal downfall this year was looking at past social media statements I had made over the past few years about how awful ‘freshers flu’ is and the general germiness of the Autumn. As I read these, I chuckled to myself at how terrible my immune system must have been last year and how I’d escaped scot free because I’m soooo much healthier now. We all know where this is going….

I left school at 5.30pm tonight feeling a bit scratchy, but clutching my box of marking. By the time I got to the kids’ trampolining lesson, I felt sort of heavy, but I’d had a full day with no break (hall & lunch duties made sure that I ate on my feet and just about got a loo break). No biggie. Probably just need to sit down.

Trampolining is a full hour, so out came the marking and I ploughed in with my notaredpen, got the stuff done and actually quite enjoyed the task (mainly because this first programming task was to write a program that tells a joke – wow, they know some REALLY nerdy jokes!). As I got up to collect the kids I sneezed. Oh crap. It’s not hayfever season… Dust? Yes. Dust. Please let it be dust….

7pm, we drive to the station to collect the other adult who’s been in London all day and is on the train back home to us. He’s tired and hungry, but in a good mood and texts me updates on the station as he goes. I sit in the car listening to the kids singing really flipping loudly & wonder why my eyeballs are throbbing.

8pm, kids are in bed. The other adult has been sent out on a mission to fill the car up with fuel & locate soup based food. I change out of the new super smart teacher clothes into slouchy pjs and sit on the bed with the iPad to check emails (nervous parents with homework questions – I have no issue answering them) & put together a bit of a blog post. Then it hits me. Oooh soft bed. Hello bed. Throat sore, head fuzzy, nose itchy. Oh bugger. They got me with their germ warfare.

What they didn’t bank on is me having my own ammunition… I have a bag of pain killers, throat sweets and tissues. I will survive, but will they after I’ve sneezed on their homework?

Let Sleeping Teachers Lay

11pm – laying in bed rolling over possible ideas of how to get ‘that class’ to knuckle down to some real work. They’re clearly learning something, but the behaviour leaves a lot to be desired.

As I stand at the front of the class using positive language and body language to show that I’m waiting for them to shut the hell up be quiet and let me speak, I am mentally channelling this guy:

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In my head I am repeating that these are not bad kids. They’re really not. They have no idea how important the time that they are wasting actually is and it’s my job to drag them all the way through to the end. Mr Drew is a bit of a hero of mine. I draw on that mental image of him greeting each child personally in the corridor as I enter ‘that’ classroom. I make sure I start with a smile – there’s a lot to be said for expecting the best. These kids are not grades on a bit of paper, so no matter how much they ‘banter’, I am not giving up.

At the start of last year, one of them announced proudly to me that they’d got every teacher they’d had as a class to leave within a year & I was next. Bless them. I made it through last year & this year, well, this year I’m back in true terminator style. And this time I’ve got handouts.

My mission this year is to find that tactic that breaks down the teenage bravado exterior and feeds the intelligent child inside that was swallowed up by testosterone and overly liberal deodorant. There have already been lessons where I have needed to breathe deeply (not too deeply, remember the deodorant) and rationalise that not every battle can be won. But every victory on my part brings them a step closer to succeeding.

This week’s small victory was to set a test, where they all scored over 50%. Every one of them. I chose five of them to give verbal feedback to in the form of a video where I talked them through their paper, the rest were marked traditionally. Verbal feedback is personal, but can be embarrassing when you are a teenage boy with a reputation to uphold. Easier then to have a video that you can watch when your mates have gone away which praises your efforts and shows you how to move forward. This is diplomacy at its best – I’m meeting them half way, but on my terms.

There will always be lessons where I may feel like this inside:

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But that’s only because I can see this big picture. I want them to do well, and it upsets me to see them waste the precious little time they have left at school.

Sucking at Something is The First Step To Becoming Sorta Good At Something

Excellent quote from my favourite cartoon dog.

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As the term really gets into swing, one of the things I seem to be repeating in every class is that I don’t mind if they hand me a piece of coding that doesn’t work. What I want to see is that they’ve created it, rewritten it, shouted at it, looked on the Internet and tried everything then handed it to me with wild hair as they mutter about how much they hate the program. Because you know what? That’s what programmers do. We get hold of a problem and roll it around in our heads like a insanity ball that eats away at our souls until BINGO! We get it. Then the joy can commence.

Getting stuff wrong isn’t bad. Repeatedly sucking isn’t the goal. The idea is to suck a little bit less each time until you’re basically bloody awesome. But that takes practice.

I’ve met a few students who got the bug early and made it their mission to practice at every given opportunity. I love the lunchtimes when they bounce into the classroom to show me their latest ‘thing’, all sorts of weirdness from nods to Pokemon to 8 bit music programs, to card games. Every one of these came from them taking it on themselves to bend their heads around the code. All I did was show them the yellow brick road – they followed it. I’m stupidly proud of them.

The same applies to how I see my teaching ability. The more I do this, the less I suck. I’m not scared of trying some new stuff this year, because if I suck at something to start off with, it’s just the first step to being sorta good at it. And so far we’ve been in the zone.

What time is it? Adventure Time!!

Thanks Jake.