Who’d be a teacher in 2017?

With record stress levels, funding cuts and uncompetitive salaries, the teaching industry’s in the throws of a recruitment and retention crisis. So you’d be crazy to sacrifice a comfortable private sector career to teach, right?

I chat to the very sane Clare Wheelwright, who did just that.

In 2011 Clare Wheelwright was head of a large department in an international publishing firm. She managed a sizeable staff and budget. She drove a new car, enjoyed a big-ticket social life and purchased a new pair of shoes a week. She seemed to be on a fast-track path to both a directorship and basically winning at life.

But, she wasn’t happy.

All these trappings couldn’t compensate for basically supressing her ‘calling’. Clare says “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was little but the problems in the teaching sector have been apparent since then. Anyone I asked, anyone I spoke to about it said “don’t do it”. They said you’d be crazy, so I didn’t”.

“I went into publishing but the longer I stayed there and the further up I got, the less connected I was to what we were doing. And I felt more and more unhappy, more and more bored”.

At a time when three quarters of teachers were considering leaving the profession (according to a NASUWT survey), Clare saved £25,000 and quit her job to become one. Her course was a year-long GTP (Graduate Teacher Programme) which paid a bursary of £15,000 to ‘career-changers’.

Of course it hasn’t been an easy ride, Clare says of her old life “I miss the money! I also miss the time off, just shutting down and going home”. She’s also realistic about the challenges of the role “lesson-wise you have the disaster ones when you think what did they actually learn? I either pitched that too hard or too easy”.

However, it’s clear from the responses of her line managers and pupils alike, that hers was the right decision. She has a particular talent for engaging challenging pupils. As a trainee she was commended for persuading two headstrong girls to reduce their make-up when more experienced teachers had failed, by promising to come in bare-faced herself.

She said “I like make-up and I like looking glamorous but I told them how pretty they looked without it and the next day I thought, right I’m going to have to do it. I walked in with no make-up on, looking, I felt pretty rough and they were absolutely chuffed to bits. They went “Ahhh, she’s done it!” They said “you did what you said you’d do””.

She talks with fondness about a pupil with a difficult home life and work avoidance tendencies “I just showered him with praise. I said “if I give you another few days to do this homework assignment, are you actually going to do it or should I just put you in detention now?” and he said “no, I’ll do it, I’ll do it” and I came back to my desk the next day and it was printed out. It was a detective story with a handwritten note at the top saying ‘I told you I would do it’. He repaid my faith in him and that was wonderful”.

Clare’s undeniably ambitious, when asked about future aspirations she answers without hesitation “I want to be a Head Teacher”.

Throughout our conversation I get the impression that her hunger and the way she approaches teaching as a vocation rather than just a job, stems from having paid her dues early on. Of young graduates she says “they get really jaded by the amount of work and perhaps don’t realise that the grass isn’t always greener in an office environment. In an office I wasn’t making a difference in any real way”.

Clare’s story suggests that career-changers might be part of the answer for the teaching industry. She says “I probably would’ve left if I’d started at 18, as I think teaching requires some life experience”. Of the need to enable older applicants she says “I never would’ve done it with no pay because I couldn’t have lived. So the government does need to think about that. They still need this paid-for route to incentivise people”.

In terms of her teaching legacy, she says students already tell her that she’s “turned them onto English”. “They say they’ve learnt more with me than they have previously. That’s always nice. Some say that they love reading or that they love learning. Learning for learning’s sake…and that we had a laugh while we were doing it, which I think my year 11’s would say. We really did have fun and they all passed and that was just amazing”.

This is the kind of teacher I wish for every British classroom.


Two Tribes

I was an immigrant for 10 years.

I was labelled an expat (I guess as I was white, western and had relocated for work) but essentially immigrant and expat are the same thing – potato, po-tar-to and all that.

In 1868 the US introduced an expatriation act which said the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people, indispensable to the enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

 I concur. My decade as an expat/immigrant was great. We satisfied our thirst for adventure and curiosity about other cultures, lived in flip flops, ate great sushi, expanded our networks and diversified our CVs. And it wasn’t all take, take, take, like most immigrants we paid taxes, bought the eye-wateringly expensive bananas and contributed to society with our workplace skills.

Donald Trump’s Scottish mother, Nigel Farage’s German wife and London-born (anti-immigration) former Australian PM Tony Abbott were all in the same boat. Not literally the same boat, though that has potential for a good joke opener…

We’re the fortunate ones, possessors of those magical burgundy booklets in which her majesty the Queen, no less “requests and requires” that we can “pass freely without let or hindrance.” We have relative freedom (pre-Brexit anyway) to choose to up-sticks and move overseas for frivolous reasons like career progression or just being sick of the British weather.

But imagine it wasn’t really a choice. Imagine if you hadn’t won the great citizenship lottery, if you hadn’t happened to be born on this privileged isle? Would you honestly keep your family in a country that promised little in the way of job opportunities, offered poor education, scant healthcare or even basic safety? Would you condemn your children to a life with few prospects simply because the hand of fate placed you on a portion of the globe less fortunate than others?

When it comes to citizenship we use the term ‘right’. My right to live in the UK was achieved by a chance encounter of a sperm and egg in a maisonette in South West England in ’75, surrounded by Art Garfunkel and brown wallpaper. I did absolutely nothing to secure this right. It is my right by default and my children’s by the same default setting.

There’s been much vitriolic anti immigration talk lately and I can understand why to a certain extent. Fuelled by media propaganda, it comes from a place of fear and tribal thinking. People want to be surrounded by their tribe and fear others who might threaten the existence of the tribe.

Well the closest I’ve come to feeling part of a tribe was 10,000 miles away in a suburb filled with Australians, Portuguese, Americans, Danes, Indians, Swedes, Filipinos and Brits. In the UK the folks I most admire are the ones who’ve had the courage and gumption to leave behind everything they’ve ever known to embrace a new life and opportunity here.

I admire these folks more than anti immigration Brits with an unearned birth right. Those folks who’d be eating meat and bland, stewed vegetables instead of flavoursome curries or pasta dishes if not for immigration. Those folks who’d have a third fewer doctors to see if not for immigration. Those folks who’d be living in a country so much the poorer in terms of arts, culture, language and brilliant minds if not for immigration. Those folks with an entitled ‘I’m all right Jack’ attitude, because that attitude is not all right and they are not part of my tribe.


(Forty) Five Get Back to Nature

‘Twas five days after Christmas, when all through the house(s) not a creature was stirring…except to fight over the last non coffee cream Quality Street.

The no man’s week between 26th and 31st December sees us existing in a claustrophobic, centrally-heated fog of lethargy. It’s like a nuclear fall-out: the cramped shelter whiffing of too many bodies (and stilton), a diet of pickled food, rare glimpses of daylight and nobody having the slightest clue what day it is.

The obvious solution to cabin-feveritis is that festive tradition most lamented by screen addicted children everywhere – the Christmas walk.

So on 30th December, 50 folks from our (not-so-intimate) school social circle rendezvoused in a pre-arranged spot, following a week of What’s App discussions and online forecast monitoring. Once latecomers had been appropriately mocked for sleeping in (enviously by those of us with demonic 6am-risers), we set off.

Onlookers might’ve assumed we were embarking on a long, arduous expedition through difficult terrain, on account of the sophisticated trekking gear on display. In reality it was a gentle 5-miler through some fields, broken up by a pub lunch.

As we strode further from the heated seat comfort of the cars, mobile signal bars dropped away in quick succession along with children’s moans. Sticks were procured, ice sheets were cracked and cow pats trampled…occasionally flung. Mud and poo adorned every child, they were in their filthy, feral element.

Among the adults, actual real-life interactions were had, without the need for user names or emoticons. The ground was frost-hardened, the air was biting and the flora was scratchy but, at the risk of sounding like a daft hippy, we were liberated!

It had taken screens, Sat Navs and half a warehouse of Millet’s products to get us there but this group of cosseted twenty first century families recalled why we’d chosen to settle among these ancient hills and valleys (and what had put an extra £75K on our house prices). We had taken it back to basics, it was nothing fancy – a few hours of icy fresh air, warm conversation and a lot of mud.

Back at the cars, children were stripped, hugs and “Happy New Years” were exchanged. We made a collective resolution to make this a regular thing and returned to the perhaps aptly labelled ‘trappings’ of our busy lives.


All I want for Christmas…is to be a man

When I was a kid there was a mysterious presence in my house come December, responsible for conjuring all kinds of festive magic.

She didn’t have a beard or red and white coat (just a beige shoulder-padded number from C&A). She worked almost as hard as the main man, with a lot less recognition and a job at GCHQ on the side.

There were always handmade decorations made from prickly teasles and gold spray paint and a cake with obligatory teeth-shattering snow peaks (fondant icing was yet to hit Sainsburys). Bowls of uber exotic-feeling Bombay mix, Ferrero Rocher and After Eights seemed to manifest spontaneously on every surface. Vol au vents were assembled, pigs wrapped in blankets, donkey costumes stitched and football socks stuffed with magic fish and satsumas late on 24th.

It was such a magical time that I refused to comprehend or accept it when she claimed to “hate” Christmas. This was the mantra she muttered every year the minute Noddy Holder started banging on about “everybody having fun”.

But, in the last few years I’ve kind’ve started to see her point.

Christmas in all its glittery, gluttonous glory IS gorgeous but it’s also bloody hard work.

The magic doesn’t magic-up itself, more often than not this is the domain of the female of the household (with the exception of the Big SC himself…and maybe Jamie Oliver).

Like performing magicians or backstage theatre staff, mums at Christmas are the architects of illusion and when you know exactly how the rabbit gets into the hat, the spectacle fades somewhat. To paraphrase the late, great Paul Daniels: “mums’ll like this…not a lot”.

So the bit of Christmas I’m most eagerly anticipating (aside from the John Lewis sale and the Sherlock special) is Boxing Day, when my mother in law dons a top hat and grabs the magic wand. I’ll forgo one of my X chromosomes in exchange for a solid 30 minute sit-down in a quiet corner, with a glass of something fizzy in my hand and a Lindt Lindor ball in my gob.

To mums (makers-of-magic) everywhere, we (I) wish you a manageable Christmas and a breezy new year x


Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not at home anymore

“No map data available” flashed-up the jeep’s Sat Nav. We’d sped down a 6 lane highway flanked by glistening, bladelike towers but the tarmac had quickly yielded to the sand and dust. The scene in the rear view mirror was of an Emerald City-like metropolis promising glitz, glamour and fulfilment of fantasies. The windscreen view resembled the driest parts of Kansas: flat, bare and ceaseless.

This wasn’t a bleak view though, it was an almost welcome, sepia-toned antidote to the synthetic glare of the city. Though sunglasses were a necessity to protect against the searing desert sun, here they weren’t needed to protect eyes from the dazzling constructs of man.

We were not the Scarecrow and the Tin Man but two expat book reps en route from Dubai to neighbouring emirate, Umm Al-Quwain. Our quest was not to win a brain or heart but to pedal school books to their education minister and we followed the yellow-sand road in the opposite direction to the city.

We drove slowly, maximising the car’s suspension, bumping up and down on the rock-strewn track as if astride a couple of the scraggy camels that dotted the roadside. As Dubai shrank to a tiny space age atom behind us, the foreground became lunar-like. Just a smattering of road signs and simple concrete homes betrayed the presence of people. These sparse buildings along with a few course grasses which defiantly fought their way through the sand, provided rare punctuation of the horizon.

At the meeting we drank sweet tea, chatted about the weather and children’s reading books that were made in Chigwell. When we’d said our goodbyes, the minister, clad in brilliant white kandura, held open the door of the modest bureau and a wall of raw and unapologetic heat greeted us. Within three clicks of the jeep’s key fob we were comfortably cooled and blinking at a wobbly mirage-like skyline swelling on the horizon.

Back home in my shiny new villa, having washed all trace of the desert down the shower drain, I prepared to go out for the evening. Our dinner destination was an artificial madinat complete with faux canals and piped-in souk smells, set in the grounds of a luxury hotel. I watched a tiny, twitchy gecko scuttle into the bedroom, its family had been the first residents of our two-month old townhouse. While I’d usually bemoan the under-stairs reptile ghetto, the sand piles under external doors and the sun-warmed ‘cold’ tap water, this time I felt humbled.

I took away more than a purchase order on that day’s trip. I left with a taste of what my new country was before the cranes, the tourists and the oil. I left with a taste of a Dubai beyond the malls and steeples of opulence: a sleepy, subtropical-arid land where nature dominated and dictated the human way of life. Somewhere over the tallest tower in the world, there’s a land of sand and stillness.


The Purple Petal

The edge of the purple petal teased the pebble and then relented, wrapping itself around the stone’s slick surface. It seemed to seek respite from the constant ebb and flow. For a whole day the petal had bobbed and swirled its way across the bustling stretch of water. Its epic journey silently observed by a colossal steel arch. The jacaranda tree of its origin now shrouded in a jagged, multi sail-shaped shadow on the far shore.

We were heading home after a leisurely spring afternoon in the park. My son broke loose to run down to the water’s edge. He was desperate to make a stone skip and hop across the surface just once but they invariably plunged deep onto the harbour bed with a loud ‘plop’. He claimed this as his own secret pirate cove as it was partially hidden from the road by more jacarandas, like sumptuous velvet theatre curtains concealing a fantasy world beyond.

From the pavement, a parting of tree branches and a steep step down had gained us entry to the bay. A second or two of murkiness from the tree shadows and we had emerged, blinking at the glittering, ever shifting swell. A gentle incline of course copper sand gave way to the lapping shore. We staked a claim on a smooth water-worn boulder and paused to survey our territory.

Constant harbour traffic ensured the surface was rarely still. Ferries, sailboats and Tall Ships (that my son suspected were pirate vessels) created false tides in the bay. A speedboat charged at a harbour wall, revving its engine and thrilling the tourist passengers whose shrieks punctured the calm. Teatime commuters chatted on ferry decks. A low hiccup preceded a raucous laugh from a lone kookaburra. A dog escaped its lead, crashed through the tree branch curtain and landed heavily onto the sand from the path above. Mini Long John Silver looked on disapprovingly, irked that his private realm had been infringed. Having wetted its paws, sniffed around the gnarly, briny roots of a tree, the intruder bounded off as hurriedly as had it arrived.

Though being constantly pushed and sucked in and out, to and fro, the water remained as clear as glass. Nervous, darting fish appeared suspended above the harbour bed by invisible wires. Mellow afternoon rays cast dappled patterns on the sea floor and peppered the surface with gems worthy of a hundred pirates’ loot. This room-sized pocket of land, metres from one of the most iconic, tourist-ridden harbours in the world yet absent from any guide book, could be the most beautiful place in the world.

As the sun began to nudge the fluid horizon we climbed out through the fragranced lilac curtains and into the familiar suburban street. The tiny petal awoke twitching, loosening itself from the sanctuary of the stone. The cove had provided a moment’s solace before it resumed its furtive voyage across the thronging harbour surface at the bottom the earth.


Another Mummy Blog

Here’s another ‘mummy blog’ post.

It won’t bemoan the utter relentlessness of parenthood with witty tips on removing Weetabix missiles from bras. There won’t be a parody of Peppa Pig in which Mummy Pig smashes some plates and goes to stay with Auntie Pig for a little ‘break’. And it won’t make reference to wine, gin or prosecco as medicinal stress relief following #toddlerdayfromhell.

I’m not knocking the light relief provided by the current spate of parenting blogs. They make me feel normal, human even. Netmums can be nauseatingly bourgeois but it has its uses too. I just feel we could do with balancing the current cultural theme of having kids as spectacularly un-fun, with a more positive image.

Parenting’s had a bit of a bad rap.

For all the Groundhog-style days spent wiping fluids, parenting has been the most life-affirming, adrenaline-filled ride of my life. Looking back, it feels like my very nice pre-kid life, involving working hard, playing hard and travelling hard still lacked the highs of post-kid life. A line graph representing both emotional existences would show the pre-kid line gently undulating with the odd blip – basically comfortable and controlled. While the post-kid one would resemble an erratic, jagged zig-zag – some lows offset by the most incredible highs.

It’s such a cliché and not in my very cynical British nature to say it, but the first time you hold your baby is mind-blowing…albeit sticky. I mean you have made an actual human being with a button nose and (hopefully) 10 ickle fingers and toes. They may look like either or both of you, which you may or may not find endearing. They may just look like Winston Churchill, either way it’s a kind’ve existential experience…man.

Life after the hospital continues to throw up moments of inexplicable joy, fascination and humour. These are obviously interspersed with the mundane and challenging but on the whole, the scales tip in favour of the good.

There are so many reasons for not having children: maybe you can’t, never met the right person or ever felt the urge. The world’s overpopulated so it’s right that it’s not right for everyone. But if it’s based on a fear that the second that double blue line appears you’ll undergo a personality transplant and spend every night sorting Tupperware cupboards in the suburbs, you’re doing procreation a disservice (unless you have a pre-existing plastic storage fetish).

Many expectant parents vow to carry on exactly as before, but it’s miserable trying to do so. We learned the hard way with our two sleep-dodgers: fashioning makeshift towel blinds to darken Velux windows at Grandma’s and croaking endless 2am lullabies in various hotel rooms. However, it wasn’t long before those bleary, nappy-obsessed days subsided and we gradually emerged out of the fog, back into our new version of normality. With adaptiveness, willing Grandparents and many, many baby wipes you should be able to choose your own adventures.

My son got his first passport at two days old and slept in his PJs in a carrier while I ate my dinners in the night markets of Hong Kong. My daughter’s oblivious to having crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge multiple times before her 1 month birthday in the same carrier. It’s no accident that the market for tow along bike trailers, folding travel cots and camper vans is booming right now. Generation X and Y parents refuse to take this lying down.

So if you’re the thrill-seeking type, consider embarking on the riskiest, most fulfilling experience this life has to offer. There are no safety nets, insurance or instructors. Having children is not for the faint-hearted, it’s not easy or safe but the most rewarding things in life seldom are.

This uncharacteristically slushy mummy blogger is off to check her own button-nosed slumbering humans. Normal ‘Shouty Mummy’ service will resume tomorrow. I’ll sign off with this excellent quote by American satirist P J O’Rourke:

“Humans are the only animals that have children on purpose with the exception of guppies, who like to eat theirs”.