Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Simple Answers

"We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 - 1945)

In Canada, according to a friend of mine, being a teacher entitles you not only to a 'good' wage, but also free dental care, eye care (including cost of contact lenses), medical care and massages. But don't go trying to get a teaching job in Canada- they're hard to find. Being a teacher has prestige, social standing and is considered a more than acceptable career choice.

Here in Britain yesterday a quarter of a million people protested in London about the Government spending cuts. Almost every week for the last few months our head teacher has been outlining another thing the school will have to do without or do itself in the coming financial year. Some schools are having to take desperate steps. Last week for us it was careers advice, the week before cuts in Teacher Assistants/Aides. Two staff members recently quit after time off on stress leave, I can think of at least another two who should be on leave, but are turning up each day because, like so many, the fact that they care is still getting them out of bed in the morning. It is my experience that this kind of situation is the rule, rather than the exception in most schools in England AND New Zealand.

So it was refreshing to see on Friday the former CEO of what I consider to be one of Britain's least environmentally and socially responsible supermarkets chains speak out in favour of higher teacher salaries. Sir Terry Leahy argues that instead of freezing teacher salaries as planned in September, the government ought to make the higher pay of teachers a spending priority.

“We want the profession to have higher standing in society. It is more than just pay, but pay is part of it. You want it to be a profession that the best and the brightest want to go into.”

Sir Terry Leahy. From here

Yes, I couldn't agree more and it is great to see someone from the corporate world coming out in favour of government spending in education, even if he does centre his argument around economics rather than the benefit to humanity. However, one thing caught my attention:

Asked about his spell advising Gordon Brown’s Labour government on education policy, he said: “It was easy to give advice on education because unlike other areas of social policy the answers are relatively straightforward.

“Perhaps they (the Government) knew those things but focused rather too much on target-setting and there were perhaps too many central bodies seeking to impose performance standards rather than actually working on simpler first principles that empowered schools to teach.”

Now, putting aside some of the fundamental flaws in the institution of education and schooling for a moment, there can be found some straightforward solutions. Being quite opinionated and occasionally passionate about this topic, I have had many a conversation with teachers (and others) about what, given an unlimited budget, could make schools better equip young people. Smaller class sizes, more non-contact time, greater wages and recognition for teachers usually stand out. These solutions are so uncomplicated that is frustrating to think how easily these issues could all be solved.

But all the answers aren't simple. I have often sat at my desk at the end of a school day, or over a drink at the end of the day, or (far too often) waking and mulling it over at 3 o'clock in the morning, feeling frustrated that I don't know how to help a class learn effectively, or how to help a particular student get through a situation. If you believe, as I do, that we should measure schools on the quality of young, informed, participating citizens it develops, then there is no clear quantifying examination or study guide to lead towards this.

Currently the greatest pressure on my teaching is to ensure that my pupils meet their grade targets. They are given by the school free breakfast study sessions, study kits, close mentoring and every six weeks I have to send a new gradecard to their parents. Yet my class of a dozen 'bottom set' fourteen year olds don't have the social skills to sit in a room with each other for 50 minutes without yelling abuse at each other, crying or getting close to physical confrontation. They are actually wonderful young people but they don't know how to listen to each other, complement each other and, worst of all, they don't have any belief in themselves as valued members of the school community. They are often told (by myself included I'm ashamed to say) to simply behave and stop talking to each other.

It's hard to find someone to blame. I work with teachers and some school leaders who are incredible passionate about these young people and the frustration lies in not having the resources or emphasis to help them. There is clearly a missing factor in Terry Leahy's argument because the debate seems to be centred around the economic costs of miseducating our young people, more money will equal better teachers, will equal better schools, will equal a more profitable economy. It's hard to articulate what it is that's missing, but I think we could start an intrinsic belief within government, within society in general that young people matter more than anything else. Nothing economic should take precidence over our teaching and nurturing of them.

I'm going to stand by my comment...

Sunday, March 20, 2011


This is my new camera:

Well, not exactly. It's a picture I found on the internet that looks a lot like my camera. Whilst in a charity store last week I found the camera for sale. I asked the guy how much it was. "We don't know if it works, so make an offer" He was happy with £5 and I took it home. It is a Beirette E. Ludwig Maritar 2.0/4.5, made in East Germany probably in the late 1960s. When I got it home I found the shutter release button didn't go down and had lost its cover, so I didn't have high hopes. But I put a film in it yesterday and it works.

Friends of mine are running a half marathon today. Those of us who are not so brave are watching them run past, one mile from the finish line from our friend's place- he has an apartment on the waterfront. Last night we went to an exhibition opening in which he had a piece. The theme of the exhibition was Conflicts in Time and he had a digital installation based on a theory of Einstein's about how time changes as it approaches the speed of light.

My grandfather turned 92 yesterday. You may remember him from here. He had a good day, the weather was sunny and they went for lunch at my uncle and aunt's place. I know this because my grandmother, who is 84, just sent me an email on her new laptop telling me all about the day.

It's three weeks until the holidays. I have a lot to do before then, so the posts may be a bit erratic for a while. A fortnight ago I was offered more teaching work at the school I am at now, at least until Christmas and before these holidays arrive I must have made my decision. Whatever I decide seems to have a lot of consequences and it's leading to some deep thinking, especially about teaching and my role in it. I've now learnt never to promose anything about future posts, but I will try to keep you informed.

Peace out.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Next Chosen Career of Curley Fermudge: Episode Two

The late May sun was well into its decent as Curley Fermudge strolled the pavements home following his first day as the new employee of L.J. Horr Realty. He couldn't wait to get home and reflect on the day over a glass of wine.

For now though his prime importance lay in focussing on the ambience of each property that he passed by. Ever since finding out that his new offer of gainful employment also included a company car which could be left at the office, Curley had decided to apply a theory he'd read about in one of the text books from his CUSS* course.

The Imaleech Theory proposes that by getting a sense of the unhappiness of those in a household, one can gain an indication of how easily the members of said household could be suggested into selling. The giggling children at No. 124 Trout Street had led him to cross them off his potentials list. But the loud blues music coming from No. 278, and subsequent woman's raised voice demanding the volume be lowered suggested to him that things were not all rosy. Placing a brochure in the letter box, or even a chance visit one evening, might plant the idea in their heads that their unhappiness lay with the house they resided in, rather than an unhappiness with each other. It did seem like an extreme example, but Curley knew that he had to consider such things as these if he was ever going to make it in the real estate trade.

Arriving at No. 666 Trout Street, the Fermudge residence, Curley took the newspaper from the mailbox (his wife was out of town, probably a good thing as he needed to focus on his new chosen career) and went inside. An hour later, sitting on the patio drinking a glass of Devilsweat Estate Pinot Greasio 2007 (a bitey vintage, with tinges of chilli and cedar bark), Curley sighed a long sigh and thought of Roger, his new boss; Felicity the secretary and Moss, Jeanie and Trev the other agents. All great inspiring characters who had spent the day giving advice, as well as running through the protocols and working methods of LJ Horr Realty. Jeanie had been particulary helpful, even suggesting that Curley should use fake tan to radiate a more successful look. She'd even kindly offered to get him the appropraite supplies fron the chemist on her way home (after she'd secured $20 from Curley to pay for it).

Yes, Curley thought to himself, it had been a good start and Curley was just as sure that he'd made all the right impressions upon his co-workers. He had indeed made a switch for the better.

*CUSS= Certificate with Uniform for Selling Stuff

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Next Chosen Career of Curley Fermudge: Episode One

The fourth Tuesday in May was just like any other. The sun shone weakly, as it tends to do on fourth Tuesdays in Mays. The birds were chirping meekly as they tried to rise above the morning sounds of people heading in to work on this day, the fourth Tuesday in May, a day like any other.

Well, that is to anyone except Curley Fermudge. It was a special Tuesday for Curley, for only a fortnight ago had he graduated from OUST* with a CUSS**, gained his terracotta coloured jacket with apricot coloured handkerchief and been invited to join the junior ranks of L.J. Horr Realty on Lime Street.

Curley tried to maintain the air of dignity and slight smirk that was expected of a man of his new profession, but inside his heart fluttered with the excitement of what was to come, the chance to prove to his doubters that he could be a man of substance and humility and realty, all at once.

Even the seagull that crapped on Curley Fermudge's jacket as he crossed the street could not soil his mood. He simply wiped it away with the bottom part of his apricot coloured hankerchief and stepped through the reflective doors of L.J. Horr on Lime Street...

*OUST= Open University for Sellout Types
**CUSS= Certificate with Uniform for Selling Stuff

The Poor Poem from Monday's 5:03 Ride

The train stops at a red signal
And I search
Outside in the wild among
The skittle twigs and
Branches ragged for
Signals of Spring. We move

Forward as I catch
It, glimpse a little yellow bloom.
Winter's spell is
Being bustled away. And
The moss on Battle platform
Shifts its tone, but
Not its shape. From a satellite
Of gloom to the light
Rustic scent of postcards

To be posted home.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Right now, in New Zealand time, it is my dear Mum's 60th birthday. She was born in 1951, but she's not actually sixty, she's a little over a sprightly 52. How is that? I hear you ask. Well I have done a small calculation. You see there are 22 organs in the body and 206 bones. All 22 organs, and 203 of the bones are 60 years old. However, two years ago she had a knee replacement, three years ago a hip replacement, and 4.5 years ago another hip replacement. Taking the age of these three bones into consideration brings it all out to an average age of 57. Yet hip bones and knee bones are not only bones, they are joints, which makes them worth about ten times the average bone. The recalculation of which brings it out at a little over 52 years. This calculation is also intended to get me back in her good books after making an 'old' joke. She has threatened to skin me alive next time she talks to me (it's amazing what you can do on skype nowadays).

Last night, my Dad and sister Rachael organised a surprise birthday party for Mum. The genesis behind it being that they didn't want to hold a normal party as she would enivtably end up doing a lot of the preparation. So, over the past few weeks, while Mum was at her Tuesday quiz nights Dad and Rach got on the phone and organised it all. This didn't always work as sometimes Mum dragged Dad along to make up the numbers in the quiz team and sometimes Mum didn't go.

So sometime on Saturday Dad said he was popping out to get diesel and returned instead with Rachael from the airport. Mum, wiping away the tears was told to get dressed as they were going out to dinner. She must have been starting to get suspicious, especially when they arrived at the venue and Rach said to the waitress "Hi, we've got a table booked for Jackman" to which the waitress replied "Oh, you're with the par...[Rach making frantic gestures for her to shut up]..". Nevertheless the surprise worked and a great party ensued with much cocaine sniffing, absinthe drinking and table-top dancing, so I am told. Rock on.

Still is was a good to hear Mum had a night to let her grey hair down, she's been working hard recently looking after my three grandparents.

Happy Birthday Mum

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

Emails from home.

Last night Mum forwarded me an email from a cousin of hers living in Sumner, on the outskirts of Christchurch. Nearly two weeks later it is still hard to believe they don't have running water or a sewage system other than portaloos at various points along the road. They have decorated their portaloo with gnomes and seats. The strange irony is that they have been without television coverage for a lot of the time so have been unaware of the true extent of the damage in the central city that I've been seeing up close on the web from the other side of the world, including a picture of their portaloo. On thier street it all has a emptiness to it as few have stayed on, but life in a strange sort of way is continuing on.

Meanwhile Mum has nagged Dad to bracket the free standing wardrobe in their spare room in case an earthquake strikes while a guest is staying. I've been in both the last two big (although they hardly seem big now) earthquakes in Gisborne over the last twenty years and I remember how jumpy you get- everytime a truck goes past the road you think it's another aftershock. You go to others' houses and wonder how stable their pieces of free standing furniture are.

In the days following February 22nd I felt a sort of detached emotion. So connected and empathietic to what had happened, but distant from it all. Now I almost have a guilty feeling of being glad to be away from it all. For a start I don't have to suffer John Campbell's mundane and endless broadcasts, but mostly I think there is going to a long road back to normal. This is a wound that's still very much open. There is a lot of healing and rebuilding to be done and I am lucky to not have to face the realities of that everyday.

Today, for instance the most challenging thing I had to do was explaining to 11-year-olds why Juliet decided sleeping potion was the best answer, why she wasn't just allowed to marry anyone and why Shakespeare just couldn't let her get over it and not die. I tried to explain as best I could and thought of lost lives in general.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

For Richard...

... who is still realising the role cats play in the domestic environment.

Notes on a Saturday

I took some pictures yesterday during my bike ride to the next town east. But the computer won't let me have them, so the pictures will remain hidden for now and I'll plagiarise this one from the internet.

I went along the coast, past old churches and castles and monuments and coastguard cottages. There was also a military canal, a left over guard point from WWII, a lot of signs detailing history. The Normans were here, there were smugglers in the eighteenth century, it was French territory until Henry VIII, the shoreline was further inland, seventeen coastguard men lost their lives in a storm at this point at this time.

In the town of Rye the antique shops outnumber the rest (including one called RYE DIY). I can hear the accents of American and French tourists and it seems strange. We don't get tourists in Hastings, the reputation of St Leonards is such that even people in neighbouring Hastings and Bexhill don't go there.

The train from Rye only comes once an hour. I catch it back and check the map. Must have been about 17 miles I rode today.

That evening I meet friends and we go to the (re)opening of The Roomz. Back in December, when I arrived in St Leonards I was delighted to find a music venue just around the corner called The Rooms, basically a small cafe/performance space with some rehearsal rooms in the basement. It went to see a blues band play there in December and the next week I saw it had closed down. Well last night it re-opened with a new coat of paint and now definitely more hip with a 'z' in its title.

The highlight of the night was the Swedish/Russian gypsy punk act called The White Trash Family. The drama of the night came when, during the warm up act, a member of The White Trash got locked in the toilet. It seems the new door handle was reluctant to move. The barman who was in middle of fetching my round had to go and help. In the end, my friend Mark (a plumber by day) used a knife from the kitchen to get it open- all to massive applause from the packed out audience. However, this was not before the fire service had been called and for some reason the bar staff had been told not to serve anyone until the fireman had given the all clear. The barman, quite young and now very flustered, got back to my round. I felt very honest in reminding him of the two drinks he had forgotten to charge me for.

Still it was nice to be listening to good live music again and to have A Very Nice Saturday.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Visit to the Gurkha Chef

There are two Nepalese restaurants in St Leonards-on-Sea. The local word on the street is that the one on the corner of Warrior Square isn't as good as the Gurkha Chef on the Grand Parade. So tonight it decided to put it to the takeaway test. Feeling exhausted I entered the recommended spot and ordered, being told I had a fifteen minute wait.

Then I started talking to Raj, the waiter, about Nepal and his journey here with his wife. We talked about the roads in and out of Kathmandu, the ethnic groups, the landscape and the language. It made me miss my second most favourite country just a little bit.


And my dinner was delicious.