Today I prayed for peace…

Last week a boy was killed at the end of my road

knife stuck into his body like meat

intimately cutting through his me-ness

until his life was drained

and that departed.

 

And this was done by a kid.

 

This evening I prayed for peace

proclaimed it over our neighbourhood

that this community – My Community

will be known as a place of peace,

not because we have eliminated our differences

but because reconciliation –

the desire to listen, to love, to understand –

has prevailed.

 

Earlier I found two boys fighting,

scrapping in the playground:

“He threw me down and I didn’t like it so I hit him”

“We Do Not Hit People”

I repeated,

the shocked teacher.

 

And yet this same evening,

my friend accidentally crossed a line

and I sprung back wild, mad,

heart thumping, blood racing, face burning

I brought my fist down on his solid body.

The fear of not being heard, a past anger,

a glass of wine and a moment of weakness

was all it took to discover again

that the same violence that ran in the veins of the kid who killed poor Quarami

the same blood that runs through children in the playground

also runs in me.

 

I am no better.

We each of us have violence in our hearts,

whether it is expressed in thoughts, post-it notes and quiet actions

or with knives and guns.

 

I am no better.

We each of us have hammered in nails,

mocked and made a crown of thorns,

we each of us have scrapped and hit

have built walls and twisted knives –

 

So now, still,

all the more with self-righteousness vanquished and helplessness uncovered,

I will sing:

The kingdom of God is justice and peace

and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Come, Lord, and open in us

the gates of your kingdom.

 

“It’s for the ‘wee one’ that I will go.  Because everyone is guilty for everyone else. For all the ‘wee ones,’ because there are little children and big children. All people are ‘wee ones.’ And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them.” (Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Book IX, Ch 4)

 

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An invitation for 2017

 

In 2017, let’s not exchange being in God’s presence for talking about God’s presence.

Alone for half an hour with the door closed.

Or a walk in the park, mist settled on the ground; God in the security of the old trees and God in the fragility of the new; God in the life of the birds; God in the sacredness of space set aside for us to flourish.

In 2017, let’s not exchange being redeemed for explaining the system of redemption.

Understanding is important only insofar as it accompanies

raw experience.

A fresh start given whenever we return; not just once for all but every time.

Change that happens so slowly we might not notice a subtle transformation taking place, formed by small victories of sadness in place of bitterness; by acceptance in place of indignation; by existing accepted and acceptable in the present Now;

witnessed by the gradual accumulation of beauteous wrinkles –

and eye-contact that is ever more open.

In 2017 let’s not exchange experiencing God’s love for talking about God’s love.

To clear away the clutter

and hear the quiet whisper

You are my Daughter.  You are my Beloved.  You are my Chosen One.  I ordained your birth.  I have watched you, walked with you, run with you, cried with you.  I find joy in you.  I will never leave you.  You are my Daughter.  You are my Beloved.

In our Father’s house are many rooms – there is a place for you.

Talking about God’s love without experiencing it is like reading a book in a language you don’t understand.  You can say the words but you don’t really know what they mean.

Come!

Hear the quiet whisper.

Come!

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“Hello, Ladies!”

Let it be known

that I do not identify as a lady.

 

Ladies polish their nails and laugh enchantingly,

they brush their hair, curl it, straighten it and flick it bewitchingly,

Ladies must sit with their legs together and sip tea delicately –

No,

I’m afraid I cannot identify as a lady.

 

But I am a girl,

crazy hair and mud under the nails,

giggling ridiculously,

a bundle of

honesty, silliness and comfortable clothing,

I sit how I like, and spill tea and paint all over the floor! –

No,

I do not identify as a lady.

 

Ladies are pretty and make an impression,

with fluttering eyelids and self-possession,

with high-heels, make up and polite conversation,

No,

I cannot identify as a lady.

 

For I am a woman,

bloody and rhythmic,

who loves and laughs deeply,

hoping

to embody truth, motherhood, simplicity, strength.

I am becoming beautiful year by year,

line by line –

No,

I will not identify as a lady.

 

Ladies are smooth, correct, and clean,

a façade, a face, a doll, an image,

a mannequin in a window, an advert frozen in time,

plucked, shaved, creamed, garnished,

the object of desire –

No,

I do not identify as a lady.

 

But I am a person,

a human being,

that fragile combination of frailty and power,

a naked Wonder of the Universe,

Of earth I am made and to earth I will return –

Yes,

 

I am a person,

a human being,

that fragile combination of frailty and power,

a naked Wonder of the Universe,

Of earth I am made and to earth I will return

 

Just let it be known,

that I do not identify as a lady.

 

girl/woman, Learning

Will I wait for you?

To mend the door, to fix the leak, to chop the wood –

Will I wait for you?

To stop the draft, to sort the brakes, to kill the spider –

Will I wait for you?

To disagree, to criticise, to volunteer –

to speak out

Will I wait for you?

 

Or will I creep out of the back door,

across the garden,

into the shed, all smelling of oil,

reach for the saw,

take up the wood,

glance around to ensure I am hidden,

and

renegade,

learn for myself?

 

Will I wait till all are out

to turn my bike upside down?

Where did all my bravery go, that growing up I knew so real?

And my feminism?

 

Shall I have a go,

 

or shall I wait for you?

 

 

Teaching, driving, and other challenges…

I think I was about 7 or 8 when I came to the realisation that I was clever, and by the time I was 10, this was the most important thing about me – being Clever was what made me stand out; it was what made me important.

In the survival-of-the-fittest climate that dominated inner-city playgrounds when I was a child, you either had to be cool, clever or strong.  Growing up with no TV, a mat of messy brown curls, and an obstinate refusal to wear anything but dresses, and having lost enforced arm wrestling competitions not just with everyone in my year but also everyone in the year below – being Clever was essentially what made me worth the space I took up.

The year I finished primary school was the same year Carol Dweck was publishing her research into fixed and growth mindsets.  The fixed mindset, she proposed, is based on the belief that you have inscribed in your personality a set amount of intelligence, meaning that you cannot ‘become’ Clever.  You either are or you aren’t.  The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees intellectual ability as made up of habits of mind that you can learn, improve on and grow in.

Fascinatingly, Dweck linked these two mindsets to the way in which different children were praised.  Researchers provided 128 children with a simple maths problem, and then gave each child one line of praise.  To some they stated, “You did really well, you’re so Clever”, whilst to others, “You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”  The children were then given new, more challenging maths problems.  The children praised for their effort showed more resilience, trying different approaches and attributing their failure only to a lack of effort that could be overcome.  The children praised for being clever were more anxious, showed more fear of failure and less perseverance, and concluded that they weren’t Clever enough.  Later some even lied about their capability to complete the tasks, inflating their scores to make themselves look better.*

For the children praised for ‘being Clever’, failure became a threat to their identity and their worth – if they failed, presumably they weren’t in fact Clever after all.  For children praised for trying hard, failure was part of the route to success.

Given my background, you can guess which camp I was in.

A funny thing about being Clever is that at school it’s the most important thing in the world, but in the workplace all that matters is that you do the job.  On entering the teaching profession I discovered that although I desperately and instinctively spread the word that I had studied at Oxford, and was secretly delighted when I got the top grammar score in a staff audit, the fact was, no-one really minded that I was Clever.  It wasn’t significant.

What was much more noticeable was the fact that my classroom resembled a cross between feeding time at the zoo and a scene from the London riots of 2011.  The failure that I had grown up to fear so deeply as threatening to my value in the world had come to pay me a visit.

During my NQT year I’d had the excuse of being new, so I’d managed to stave off criticism from within and without, and hold on to a reputation of being both Calm and Efficient.  But 6 weeks into my second year of teaching, on the cusp of an observation as I attempted to collect one child from under the table while another had run out of the classroom behind me and what seemed like dozens of others were squabbling loudly or wandering aimlessly around the room, I knew that the truth would soon be revealed: that I was in fact, Not Good Enough for this job.  I went to my supervisor’s room and freaked the hell out of her by crying continuously and hysterically, and threatening to leave.

Over the last three years, one of the most redemptive aspects of learning to teach, has in fact been learning to learn.  As I teach the children to learn well, I encourage the ‘four R’s’:

Resilience – the ability to just keep trying, to try different approaches, to not give up.

Resourcefulness – What can I do/ use to help myself?

Reflectiveness – What did I do well that I could do again? What do I want to avoid in future?

Relationships/ Reciprocity – Who could I work with?  Who could I ask for help?  Who could I help?

In the end, it was these same skills that helped me.

It turns out that if you need help, it doesn’t actually mean that you’re Not Clever and therefore not worth the space you take up.  It just means you need to find someone or something to help you.

It turns out that if something goes wrong, it doesn’t mean that you are a Failure.  It means you can learn from your mistakes to do it a bit better next time.

It turns out that even if you don’t manage to do something right straight away, or even second or third time, it doesn’t mean you’re Not Good Enough.  It just means you need to keep trying.

So here I am, typing away the night before I take my fifth driving test.

My fixed mindset tells me my worth is in a balance: tomorrow it will be decided whether I am Good at driving or Not good at driving; a Success or a Failure; Worth the space I take up, or Not worth the space I take up… anxiety levels this week have been running high…

But my growth minset says “Wait!  Let’s look at the 4 R’s…”  In the process of learning to drive, I have practised Resilience – I have been trying on and off to do this for nearly 10 years, and have continued despite running out of money, moving house and failing repeatedly; I have practised Resourcefulness and Reciprocity – I spent a week with a friend’s Dad practising my driving in return for helping him get some jobs done, and have received support and encouragement from so many people; I have practised Reflectiveness – I haven’t repeated the same mistakes and  I’ve considered what to do better next time.

Essentially, through learning to drive, I have got better at learning.  Surely this, if nothing else is a success in itself?  Maybe I will fail again tomorrow**, but if so, maybe it will lead to me getting even better at learning, at becoming more resilient, resourceful, reflective, and relational through further practice?

There is one other thing that has helped me in this immense, identity-changing learning process, and that is the discovery of strength in weakness, which to be found in my faith.

Paul in the Bible prayed for God to sort out a serious problem for him – much like I did at various points in the year!  But instead of sorting it out for him, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness”.  Then we see that though his situation didn’t change, his state of mind definitely did, because he went on to write:

“So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12: 9-10)

If we imagine God only as a strong, powerful being, then weakness is the opposite of God and entirely outside of God’s nature.

But if God is still able to be God when dying on a cross, weak, rejected, ashamed and in immense pain, then weakness – including my weakness – is within the life and understanding of God.  When I am weak or have failed, my identity and my worth need not be threatened.  Instead I can find peace in remembering that this weakness and failure is something that I have in common with God, and thus a way that God’s life can be seen in me – be it in the classroom, in the car or anywhere else.

Jesus’ failure was part of the route to his success – and so was mine: by the end of the year, I could honestly say that I loved my class and thought my job was amazing – it was totally transformed from the start of the year.

But in the moment when everything is falling apart, success seems unimaginable.  During those times I have started to learn to trust that as the weakness lives in me, so “the power of Christ may dwell in me”.  Though the problems may stay the same, my mindset can be different because I know that God is working through my weakness.

It is this belief of strength in weakness that has enabled me to move gradually from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset over the course of the year.

Gradually it becomes less important that I’m Clever, and more important that I’m Learning.

*Grosz,S The Examined Life, p.19

**I passed!!!!

A Dose of Activism…

Minister of State for Schools

Dear Mr Gibb,

I am writing regarding my concerns around the current National Curriculum for Key Stage 1.

As you are aware, the percentage of teachers considering leaving the profession is at an unprecedented high, reported by the NUT as being up to 50% of teachers, due to “workload and low morale”. As a graduate of the University of Oxford in my second year of primary school teaching, this does not come as a surprise.

I present my situation as a case study: I have a year 2 class of 30 children in an inner-city London school, of whom 90% have to reach the ‘Expected’ standard. There is one teaching assistant who is shared between two classes and there are no learning support assistants. Within my class, two children have arrived in the country this year, one child is autistic, two dyslexic, one with partial sight and hearing, one with an overactive thyroid and two with recognised behavioural, emotional and social needs.

For these children, the writing standards exemplified in the Interim Assessment Frameworks recently released are simply unattainable – and yet I am told that there are “no excuses” for failing to attain the targets set. Even if I forgo foundation subjects until the end of May and focus solely on teaching to the tests, the task set before me is impossible – and yet this is what you, Mr Gibb, are requiring of me. The low morale of teachers is not simply a product of the workload, it is this sense of failure before one even begins.

Nevertheless I am convinced that such pressure is unnecessary, both for teachers and for children. The role of play in children has been shown to relate to the development of both language and of self-regulation, which in turn form predictors for academic success and emotional wellbeing later on in life. With the current demands on the children’s academic attainment at such a young age, play is pigeon-holed into 15 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at lunchtime, and even that is on condition the child does not have a ‘booster group’ and it is not raining. Through no fault of their own, many of the children simply do not have the levels of language and self-regulation necessary to learn all that is expected of them at this stage. These children are thus set up to fail, losing confidence in their abilities and damaging their attitude to learning despite being only seven years old. By the time children in this country finish key stage 1, many of them are already stressed about “exams”. The future mental health and wellbeing of our country is under threat by a curriculum that enforces achievement in tests at the cost of physical activity, social interaction and emotional development.

It is for these reasons that I urge you to reconsider the Key Stage 1 curriculum in the light of the evidence, and to think about extending a play-based curriculum to the age of seven. Such a curriculum would prioritise communication and language, physical development and personal social and emotional development, as is currently the case only in Early Years Foundation Stage. I am convinced that engaging with this proposition would address the problem of extreme dissatisfaction among teachers as well as improving the long-term health of our children, thus creating a more positive future for our country.

Given the situation outlined above, how do you plan on keeping teachers in the profession?

How will you address the threat our curriculum brings to the wellbeing of children in the UK?

How will you respond to the suggestion of extending a play-based curriculum to the age of seven?

 

Yours faithfully,

A—

Yes Lord, I will go there

Yes Lord, I will go there

But only if you go there with me

into the unknown places in me

Only if the time is right

Yes Lord, I will go there.

 

Where terror wraps me up in night

Or anger makes me flinch and hide

I will go there though I fight

Yes Lord, I will go there.

 

For you are there and you are safe

Broken, bleeding and in pain,

Nails in hands and breathing faint,

My God, why have you forsaken me?

Yes Lord, I will go there.

 

So far from you I find my welcome

I am caught and ushered in

there you know me, you are with me,

Yes Lord, I will go there.

 

And there surprised by resurrection,

Fear as emptinesses fill,

peace with vulnerability

Yes Lord I will go there

 

But only if you go there with me

into the unknown places in me

Only if the time is right

Yes Lord, I will go there.

 

 A poem I wrote a few years ago, but that so often feels relevant!