13 Teacher Gift Ideas That Are Cheap, Useful & Unusual 2018

Buying gifts for teachers is a nightmare. If you’re a parent you want to avoid replicating things. (And do they like chocolate/wine, etc?) If they’re your partner/sibling/parent/friend, you don’t want to have to deal with them judging you against some internal mark scheme they carry around.
So here are some things that teachers almost always want/need, but are still reasonably priced and make a nice change from getting yet another box of All Gold.

  1. Board Marker Pens  – about £8

Debate rages over the best brand of board pen, but Berol have been around for years and are considered one of the most enduring. You can buy a cheaper brand, or a more fierce-sounding one like Staedtler, but everyone is happy when they see the name ‘Berol’ and this particular box, for around £8, has the added bonus of not having a much-loathed yellow marker.
By the way – these are bullet tip, which is the most popular, but some teachers (especially those who teach English) prefer a chisel tip.

2. A Personalised Mug – £6

Teachers get loads of mugs, but they usually don’t mind because they go missing or get broken a lot.
Help your teacher by getting them a mug with a defining mark, like these personalised letter mugs from MYOG. Works particularly well if the teacher is called Xavier, or Yvonne.

3. Tissue Dispenser

This is not a joke. Tissues are one of the most important pieces of classroom equipment. Having them inside a fun item helps to brighten up a class, and also stops the box from going walkies into someone else’s room.

Tissue Book Box – £16

For the traditionalists, this is a way of bringing together books and dirty noses. What else do you need?

Best Tissue Box Ever – £26

Okay, you might need this tissue box too…

4. A ‘no-hands’ water bottle

Teachers can’t easily sneak away for a drink, nor can they always be supping on a big bottle of water while keeping an eye on their class. Enter: the Camelbak! Using technology designed for cyclists, you just bite on the end of the bottle and the water jets into your mouth. I used to use these while flying around for break duty or between lessons. Also, they can’t spill on anything and they’re practically indestructable. Woo!

Camelbak – £10-£40 depending on colour and size

5. Large Bag For Carrying Books – £6

One of my favourites is the ‘I’m a teacher, What’s Your Super Power’ bag
They also have a teaching assistant one, and the super teacher autograph bag. 

6. Aroma Diffuser – £10 to £20

Getting your classroom to smell nice is really important. And difficult. Plug-ins have weird chemicals in them. Pot pourri isn’t strong enough. Candles have flames. And so on.
Diffusers are the perfect compromise because they can quickly pump out nice-smelling stuff using just water and aromatherapy oils. You can change scent frequently enough that it doesn’t make the room cloying, and it overcomes the smell of Year 9 boys – woo!

Expensive & solid (I use this one) – £21

Cheap (but highly recommended on Amazon) – £12

7. Edible Insects – a great behaviour management tool

In my desk I used to keep a tin of roasted ants. When difficult kids came for detention I would whip them out and ask if they wanted one. Most said no. I’d shrug and then chomp a few. It always worked. The kids went silent. ‘Miss eats ants,’ they would tell their friends later, ‘I think she means business’.
Of course, this only works if your teacher gift-receiver will actually eat the ants. But if they’re an unfussy eater, then for a few quid you can give them the gift of silent detentions.
A bag of crunchy ants from Amazon is about £5

8. A Talking Clock – £18

Sure, you can use google and your phone and various programmes as a timer, but this talking clock has the added bonus of yelling the time at you. In countdown mode it alerts you every ten minutes, then – near the end – each minute, every ten seconds, and a final countdown.
Less useful with pupils (it gets them all riled up), it’s very useful for sticking to time when lesson planning or marking, as those can become absorbing. On the rare occasion you want to add a little urgency to a classroom task it can also be used then too.

9.  Visualiser Camera – £39

In a recent Teacher Tapp survey, a visualiser was the item people most said they would like to have in their classroom. Given they are reasonably cheap, it’s interesting that more people don’t already have them. It could be because they aren’t allowed to add their own software to a classroom, so worth checking in on this before buying it, (especially as it’s the most expensive item on here), but it’s definitely something that teachers say they want.
They are around £39 on Amazon

10. Stapleless Stapler

My mother-in-law bought one of these in Japan about a decade ago and turned my teaching organisation life around. I’m useless at remembering to buy refills for anything, but especially staples. These gizmos staple pages together without the use of any extra item. (It uses the paper itself for binding). Helpful for about a million things in school

Staples 5 sheets – £6

Staples 10 sheets – £12

11. A Paper Cutter/Guillotine – £10

As with the stapler, I don’t think any present made me happier in years than a personal paper cutter/guillotine. It came in useful for a million things: making homework notes, cutting up resources, creating A5 out of A4 for an activity, and so on.
Having to run all the way to the reprographics room is not as convenient as getting this baby out of your drawer.

12. How to Explain Absolutely Anything To Anyone – £12

This storming book from Andy Tharby is my pick of literature for teachers this Christmas. It explains the psychology, research, science and art of solidly good explanations. Great teachers know that how you explain information is key to helping children retain and use it. This book shows you how to do it.



And finally…

13. A Foot Spa! – about £30

I know foot spas were popular about ten thousand years ago when we all had 4 telly channels and nowhere to go on a Sunday, but teachers still get tired legs! A major perk of the job is that you don’t have to sit at a computer all day. A downside of that is having to stand up all darn day.
After each half-term, the first few days can be agony as creaking muscles get used to being flexed again. A warming foot spa doesn’t half help. (And you can use those aromatherapy oils from the diffuser to help you out too!)
Right, I’m off to start ordering!

What to wear for a TV interview

TV appearances are exciting, but they have a major downside: people can see you.
This is good, because it means the brand you are representing (yourself, or an organisation) is getting exposure. But if you’re not prepared for the fact that people can see everything about you – including your clothes – then you can end up inadvertently distracting from your message.
Hence, over the past three years, as I’ve increasingly done tv interviews on behalf of Schools Week I’ve gathered together some handy tips for avoiding fashion faux pas and putting viewers at easy.
A small caveat: I get this may seem vain. Not caring how you look is liberating and cheaper.  But many viewers will care how you look regardless of your feelings about fashion. Those viewers will then end up distracted by outfits that don’t quite work and stop listening to your message because they are wondering who told you beige was flattering. So, for everyone’s sake, whether vain or not, I suggest you care at least a little about how you look if you’re appearing on people’s telly screens.
Also, what I’m writing here counts for radio broadcasts too. Many media outlets are multi-channel, and will have cameras in studios, or expect to take pics of you for twitter, or want you also to appear on a tv news channel. Hence, if you’re going in a building with producers, follow these rules!
So, if you are going on television/radio, what should you wear?
Anyone who tells you the only rule is that you must feel comfortable is lying. You can’t even rely on the rule that if an outfit looks nice in real life then it’ll look nice on telly.
The first time I went on the news I almost didn’t accept the invite because I was wearingrubbish clothes a sweatshirt with a tuxedo jacket which, in the office, seen as a full outfit, was very cool – ironically combining sports and elite formal clothing with little accessories (belts, shoes) to pull it off. Shh, it was great.
On camera, where you could only see me from waist up, it was weird. Also, my hair was greasy. And my make-up was old and thin.
I knew it was going to film horribly and I was correct. (see right)
But the actual rule number 1 is: never turn down television just because you are wearing rubbish clothes. If your hair is a mess and your clothes don’t match, STILL GO ON. But, if you have any chance of changing clothes before you get there, do.
What to wear if you have the time?
What you want is one major item that is at least colourful (not black or white, or beige, or cream). Do not take this to mean you should wear LOADS of colours. One sensible but brightly coloured item is what you want. A coloured jacket. A coloured tie. A coloured shirt. ONE OF THOSE.
Patterns are possible, and good, but can be tricky (see below), so for the main tip I’d say pick one strong colour and use it with other neutrals.
But, frankly, if you want my NUMBER ONE killer tip…
WEAR NAVY BLUE. If in doubt, get the navy out. There is a reason why male politicians almost universally wear navy blue these days, and it’s not because they follow fashion fads. Navy comes across warmer on television. It’s not as harsh against the skin, and it can more easily mix with other colours. Wear a yellow shirt with a black suit and you look like a bumblebee. Wear a yellow shirt with a navy suit, and you’re the forefront of Italian chic. Bellisimo!
My second tip is WEAR SOMETHING WITH POCKETS. This is less of a worry for men. Most of your clothes come with pockets, and you have no idea what a privilege that is. Women’s clothes rarely come with usable pockets. At best you might have a centimetre of fake pocket on a jacket or a pair of trousers. But if you’re going on telly then you’re likely going to have a microphone pack on your person which is about the size of an old-school walkman. If you’re wearing a glam shift dress that sucks you in and makes you look like a shapely goddess that might be good for your self-confidence, but it’s going to be super awks when you’re handed a microphone pack and you’ve nothing to hook it to. At the very least, if you must wear a shift dress, wear a belt so you can latch it to that. In an ideal world, however, wear something with substantial pockets. (A jacket over the shift dress can work well for this – just make sure the pockets are deep).
My THIRD tip is THINK ABOUT YOUR NECK. This goes for men as much as for women. From about the age of 35, no-one’s neck is their best asset. So you need to think about how you are going to deal with it, because it’s right underneath your face, which is where the camera is pointing. Men typically cover theirs with a tie. That’s great, but ties can go wrong. Tie it too tightly or too loosely and you’re going to look like you’re at school. Too much pattern will distract the audience. Too dull and it’s going to look like you’re going to a funeral. And, for heaven’s sake, AVOID TWO-TONE TIES. (Those are the ones which appear to change shade depending on the angle you are looking at them). If you wear two-tone then half the audience are going to be busy crossing their eyes trying to work out if there’s a magic eye pattern around your neck rather than listening to what you are saying.
Women have a harder time with the neck problem. Theresa May has been a genius on this, employing what I call the ‘Harriet Harman’ principles of fancy (often chunky) jewellery OR a scarf OR a stand-up collar (on your jacket, shirt, or polo neck). May is also queen of the jazzy asymmetrical necklined outfit. Andrea Ledsom is also good on this. (By the way, if you want a guru of women’s political fashion, you can’t go wrong with Harriet Harman: she gives great suit). Remember: what you want is ONE of those things – not loads. No one needs to wear a polo neck, a necklace AND a scarf. I know this because I’ve made that mistake. You’ll be overly hot and you’ll go pink on screen. Just cover your neck – with ONE.
My fourth tip is: DO NOT FORGET ABOUT SHOES. Most of the time on TV, no one will see your shoes. But if you do Channel 4 news, or Newsnight, or any other ’round table’ discussion, then cameras often pan back and show your shoes. Hence, something that matches your outfit is helpful. At the very least it needs to match the genre of what you are wearing. Smart suits need smart shoes. A streamlined outfit needs streamlined shoes. NEVER WEAR TRAINERS. You are not in PE class. Do not wear heels you cannot walk in. Copy that for overly tight skirts. Producers need you to take your seat quickly and quietly, often while a short video is playing. No one is going to be chuffed if you’re clomping like an elephant and shuffling like Morticia Adams. Finally, always remember to check for labels on the soles of your shoes. Again, this is one I’ve forgotten and happily informed the world that my shoes were £35 from Next. Bargain marketing for the retailer; not so good for keeping people focused on my message.
All of the points so far work for most people. Here are a couple of extra bits which are more specific:
Clothes which don’t move much are a good thing. As trainee teachers we were told you should be able to ‘reach up to the blackboard’ and’ pick litter off the floor’ without any part of your clothing coming untucked or hitching up. It’s a pretty good tv rule too. Once you’ve got your outfit on, reach up high, then bend down to feign picking something off the floor. If your outfit doesn’t move, it’s going to feel comfy on telly, and you won’t have to worry about it. If it does, change it. Or start buckling it down: belts, pins, brooches, buttons, whatever you need to do. Honestly, when you’re worried that Emily Maitlis is going to start asking you difficult questions, you don’t want to have to be pulling your skirt towards your knees. Also, check out how your outfit moves when you sit down. Men: some trousers have a terrible tendency to bubble up around your groin. It’s not a good look! (Nope, it’s not). Women: shirt buttons have a tendency to gape when we sit. Do a quick sitting-check. If anything gapes or bubbles, change the clothes.
Bright colours are great … as long as you are not delivering bad news. Wearing bright clothes is good. They look great, you stand out, they attract attention. BUT, you cannot always wear them. Last year I was invited onto Newsnight to discuss why free lunches for all children in primary schools is not a great policy. I was literally going to say that we shouldn’t feed children. (I know, I’m awful; except I’m not, as explained here). That same day Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, was also doing lots of media and she was wearing a bright lime green jacket. Picking my wardrobe for the interview, it struck me that if I wore a bright pink or yellow jacket (as I usually do) then we were going to look like the buffet at a 7 year-old’s birthday party. Also, how can you say you don’t think you should feed children while wearing a bright pink jacket? If you’re going to deliver bad news then you need a sombre outfit that shows confidence, but not arrogance. Smart, forceful, but not flashy. Hence, I wore a navy blue jacket with white piping. The piping gives authority (Amber Rudd wore lots of it during the election), because it outlines form and so makes you seem more present, but doesn’t do it in a flashy way. The jacket was also devoid of fancy buttons or jewels or anything that says I AM POSH AND HATE CHILDREN. (I know, I know, but read the piece, honestly, there are good reasons for not implementing that policy).
Finally, and because some douche always asks, I’m going to address the whole ‘who cares anyway, isn’t it your opinions that matter’ thing.
Frankly, the answer is that lots of people care about how things look. It has an evolutionary basis; it’s about scanning for clues, it’s about how we determine authenticity, and it’s about basic science. (Some patterns, for example, cause havoc with TV technology and that’s when you get that whizzy effect on the clothing).
Good clothing on TV is not about looking beautiful. It’s simply about not distracting viewers from the central message you are delivering (which is what our brain is wired to detect). Hence, while you don’t want to look mismatched, you also don’t want to look over-done. Turning up in a glitzy jacket with shoulder pads and a ballgown is unlikely to be useful for your average performance on BBC South. A tidy shift dress, with a belt, and bright jacket with pockets will work better. Stick a chunky necklace around your neck and boom, you’re done.
BUT – and I say this with real, genuine seriousness – no matter what your clothes are like never ever turn down telly because of them. I have appeared on telly looking dreadful. The world coped. Women in particular fall prey to the idea that if their hair isn’t perfect they can’t go in front of a camera. That’s daft. I can’t think of a single man who would turn down an opportunity to go on telly because of his hair. So don’t let what I’ve said here control if you do something. But, when you get the chance, use it to look the most congruous version of your fabulous self.
Photo credit: Ted’s photos – For Me & You 2017 – Vancouver – CBC News Photographer via photopin (license)

The Gift of Mr McGee

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Written February 2017, after the terrible year that was 2016
Twenty-one and a half years ago my English teacher, Mr McGee, gave me a gift.
It was autumn 1995 and he made our class write about the summer holidays. But, he said, we were not to write in the normal way. No listing activities or saying what a nice time we had. Instead we must write with our senses. ALL of our senses. We had to feel memories. Taste sunshine.
Twenty-one and a half years later and I am alone in a place far from the bad times that followed me lately. I’m on the Andaman Islands, an Indian outpost so remote that some islanders have never communicated with the outside world. They live in a permanent Stone Age, intransigent to change. After the Tsunami hit in 2004, rescue boats were sent to help the Sentinelese people who, in turn, sent back arrows and jeers.
One cannot outrun the bad times, however, any more than one can force kindness on self-sufficient people.
Hence I find myself, after four days of travelling, sitting on the far side of Havelock island, on Radhanagar beach number 7 – one of the most beautiful coastlines on earth – ready to burst into tears. The only thing stopping me is that I hear Mr McGee’s words.
Those words have helped a thousand times when my mind is racing and the anxiety of a thousand fears blooms in my skull.
“Think like a writer,” says my distant memory-version Mr McGee. “Listen to the sounds. Taste the air. What are you feeling? What can you hear? Tell me what you hear.”
And in my head, I start to write.
I scramble for words describing the mint green waves ahead: rising and pluming, bubbling forwards, grasping for the beach with outstretched fingers. Then, the sounds. The hissing as the sea sploshes the sand like spitballs on hot plates. Psht. Ptth. Pfft. Waves evaporate on contact, as if the beach’s fervent beauty makes the water sigh towards heaven, exalted at last.
Tastes are more pedestrian. Salt, grit, my tears. In the smell there is nothing at all, except an occasional whiff of burning wood, similar to old-man musk worn by granddads on Valentine’s Day. Except, in fact, I am sat by a granddad. I realise it’s Valentine’s Day. And his wife is down in the sea calling for him to come and join her as she might have done every Valentine’s Day for the past fifty-seven years. Yet here he sits alongside me in stony silence. Why won’t she sit down, his face says. Why, for once, won’t she sit next to him and enjoy this wood-dank cologne he’s daubed every February 14th for fifty-seven years and which she has resolutely ignored.
Old-man musk smells of hope from now on. Hope, steeped, fifty-seven years.
I am disappointed by the sights. Or, rather, with my inability to form words adequate to describe the sights. Not good enough even for a Year 8 English assignment. The only metaphor coming to mind is of the 1980s quiz show, Catchphrase, which would play video clips if a contestant won the final round. Bugles played, lights flashed, a voice boomed – YOU HAVE WON THE HOLIDAY OF A LIFETIME – because, somehow, in 1980s England, everyone had the same dream, And lo! Up would rise movie shots of crystal-blue waters, perfect white sands, stripy fish by a snorkeler, a man in a white suit and sunglasses. At home, viewers would simultaneously put down their forks on their Saturday tea-tray and turn to one another and say “we’ll go there one day, when we win the pools”. Except, of course, no one ever won the pools and real holidays were spent in Malaga with Stella Artois and techno clubs, which are also holidays of a lifetime, in their own way, but it does mean that when one is suddenly struck with the superlative version it can be hard to find the right words. Saying what you see is harder than it looks.
As for feelings? Sadness is sticky. Tears leave residue. Snot gums my sleeve. In my heart I hold nothing. Except, perhaps, a strange fondness for the tiny Andaman beach crabs, thousands of them, scurrying on the sand, traversing their way between the minty open ocean and a Jurassic Park-jungle that at any moment threatens to throw a pterodactyl from its canopy.
The crabs are fretful. Wobbling at speed, dashing in and out of sand holes, scared by the slightest sound. Worries flit across my brain that way. Appearing and disappearing. Hiding, watching, waiting. Wobbling. The crabs meet the water, then panic and run back. They dash to the jungle and feel uneasy on the soil. Waving their claws they hurtle again toward the sea. A never-ending path, strewn with imaginary dangers; their shells not hard enough to withstand trampling, their exteriors not soft enough for warmth. It is tiresome always being a crab.
Beaches do not play well with pen and paper. Words come thick and fast but remain in my mind until several hours later when I finally bash them onto a screen using my phone and a portable keyboard in a small beach shack, engulfed in power-cut darkness, while I imbibe paneer masala with a spoon and the other patrons – struggling without light – express surprise as I flick on my pocket headlamp and continue unmoved.
(The note was interrupted by an unhappy German come to tell me I must turn my light away as it is shining in his eyes. Is it beyond expectation that HE shift HIS seat?)
In England it is now 2pm and the BBC tells me it is raining. Here, we sit outside without shoes.  The sadness creeps back in. But tomorrow I will sit on a beach so perfect the sea screams with excitement and dies a fizzy, happy death. The crabs are all asleep now in their deepest holes. The gift of words will accompany me until I finish dinner. The headlamp will light my way home.

A Christmas Carol: The Exam

Amazon ran a competition to re-invent A Christmas Carol as a 1,000-word children’s story. For fun, during a tube journey, I decided to write  an entry on my phone. What fell out has a difficult message, and made me cry on the tube, and I didn’t win. But I sort of love it anyway. 
So here it is. Merry Christmas, every one!
Headmaster Gerald Fezziwig glared across the cold, dark dining room of Grays Boarding School. His children, Tim and Jessica, were passing something under the table instead of finishing their spelling test.
“Freeze!” yelled Gerald, marching towards them, hands locked behind his back.
Tim reached out a trembling palm. In it was a crumpled Christmas present, wrapped in glittery paper.
“It’s for you”, said Tim. “It’s for Christmas tomorrow”.
Mr Fezziwig looked down.
“Children,” he asked in a menacing tone, “what do I learn from a present?”
Jessica shrank in her seat. “Nothing, daddy. We just thought it might make you happy.”
“Happy?” said Mr Fezziwig with surprise. “What use is happiness? The best children know that how you feel isn’t important. What matters is in your head. What do I always tell you Timothy?”
Tim sighed: “Happiness is fleeting, but learning lasts forever?”
“Exactly!” said Mr Fezziwig. “And because I love you so much, we will spend tomorrow doing multiplication tests.”
Later, as Mr Fezziwig sat in his cold, dark study, he looked at the crumpled present and frowned, before tossing it into the bin.
His eyelids became heavy and he fell into a deep sleep. Until a noise shattered his snoring.
“Who’s there?” Mr Fezziwig shouted.
“Wooooooooooooooo-oooooo,” came the reply.
Mr Fezziwig’s heartbeat grew rapid. “Stop this at once,” he shouted, “who’s there?”
“WooooooOOO… hee hee hee,” the ghostly voice cracked into a peal of laughter.
In the dark, Mr Fezziwig’s furious face changed. Suddenly he was soft, and quiet.
“Nora?” he whispered.
A figure glowing with light stepped from behind the Christmas tree. It was Nora: his first love, his only love.
“Oh Nora,” he said, running towards her. But her radiant body was untouchable.
“Shhhh….” she said, translucent eyes shimmering. “We must go!”
She clicked her fingers and the room faded. A scent of mince pies filled the hallway in which they now crouched, looking into a brightly-lit kitchen, bursting with toys, hams, and cakes.
A tinier Tim and Jessica sat at the table. Jessica was throwing her Christmas pudding across the room, while Tim rubbed some into his face, making her squeal.
“There’s me!” said Mr Fezziwig, catching a glimpse of his past self. A tall, young Fezziwig smiled and twirled Nora across the kitchen to the strains of a brass band playing Christmas carols in the background.
“Look children!” young Fezziwig exclaimed, “We are dancing!”
“Dance again! Dance again!” said Jessica.
“Without you? Never!” Whisking Jessica from her chair, Mr Fezziwig waltzed her around the kitchen with glee.
“Teach me! Teach me!” said Tim, wriggling from his chair.
“What is there to teach?” Gerald cried. “Feel as you go, Tim. Dance from your heart!”
In the cold hallway, a tear dripped down old Mr Fezziwig’s face. Who was this young man with such hope in his soul?
“Nora, what happened to me?” he asked. But she was gone.
“Nora?” he cried. “Nora!”
Above him the roof melted away. Rain fell on his head. Mud squidged around his slippered feet, as he realised he was stood in a familiar field.
A wreath of flowers passed by. Two children, dressed in black, stood beside their father. He was holding all his emotions inside so they did not fall out and hit those two little people below.
In the background, from beyond the church door, he could hear the hum of a Christmas tune.
A tearful Jessica looked up: “Daddy, it’s mummy’s favourite song. Should we dance?”
Her father avoided her gaze as he replied: “Not anymore.”
“But we can dance using our hearts, daddy,” said Tim.
“There is no more dancing,” said their father. “From today, there is no more heart.”
In his slippers and robe, the present-day Mr Fezziwig lurched to hug his grieving children, but as he did, the church melted away.
“Why have you left me again, Nora?” Mr Fezziwig cried, “What are you trying to show me?”
Stood once more in the draughty dining hall of Grays Academy, Mr Fezziwig could see Tim at the master’s table. He was older now, a grown-up, but his eyes missing their sparkle. Two children sat before him in the hall, writing furiously with one hand and passing a crumpled-up gift with the other.
“Father, what is Christmas?” the small boy asked.
“It is something for other people,” said the no-longer tiny Tim.
“But… we found this,” said the boy. “Is it a present for us?”
Tim took the gift and looked at it, long and hard. After a moment, he opened the glittery paper and pulled out its contents. It was a tiny porcelain figure of a man and woman dancing.
Tim softened, momentarily. Then his face grew angry.
“Of course this isn’t for you! Happiness is fleeting, but learning lasts forever. All good children know that. Carry on with your test,” he snapped.
Mr Fezziwig knew, at last, what Nora was trying to show him.
It was early morning at Greys Boarding Academy when Jessica and Tim dragged themselves to the dining hall. Their father waited with a stopwatch.
“Today, we are going to have a test,” announced Mr Fezziwig.
The pair sighed and waited for their papers.
Instead, their father held out a Christmas Pudding.
“First task! Who can rub the most pudding into their face in one minute?”
The children looked confused.
“Really?” asked Tim.
“Really!” beamed Mr Fezziwig. “And then,” he said, pulling out a large turkey and presents wrapped in glittery paper, “we are going to cook lunch, play pass the parcel, and…” his voice trailed off as he brought out a music player and pressed the button, springing forth a rambunctious melody of brass bands. “And… we are going to dance. We are going to spend lots of time dancing. We are going to dance from our arms and our legs and, most of all, our hearts.”
The Fezziwig children sat, open-mouthed. In his heart Gerald finally felt something. It wasn’t learning. It was happiness.

My Year In Books 2017: What I Finished (& Didn't), and Liked (& Didn't)

For the first time this year I’ve kept an eye on the books I’m reading, and thought I’d share lessons from the worthwhile & highlight those which weren’t. I’ve left education books out, as I speed-read those for my job, so I can’t always say if I’ve finished or liked with accuracy. Plus, I’m always talking about those.
So here’s everything else:

Finished, & Liked

  1. Option B – Sheryl SandbergMy Book Of The Year 

When Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, lost her husband to a heart-attack when he was  47, her word fell apart. Two weeks later, a friend offered to attend parents’ evening with her. Weeping, she said it was a kind offer, but she simply wanted her husband back. “Option A is no longer available,” said her friend, “so you’ll just have to kick the shit out of Option B.”
That line is devastating. So is this book. And yet, it’s oddly hopeful. Because it’s not a self-help book about dragging yourself up. Instead, it’s about how to lift others when they find themselves destroyed and on the floor. What you should text a friend in need. (‘How are you today?’ is a good example). What not to say. (Sandberg describes the many people who tell her about a friend who never got over the death of their husband – not helpful, folks!)
Be warned. It’s sad.  I sobbed for two weeks on the tube while reading it. But I also became a better person afterwards. If you’re naturally good with distraught people, you may not need it. Everyone else, get it. Just be sure to carry tissues.
2. What’s Your Message – Cam Barber
Do you think you’re good at presentations? Yeah, me too. Then I read Cam Barber’s book which lays out the most effective way to do presentations, and suddenly realised I don’t know anything. Ultimately, most people will go away from a talk with only a few memories. How you shape those is what will matter. Focus on one big message, and then sub-messages, for best effect. Sound obvious, but Barber shows its power.
3. Fashion Journalism – Julie Bradford
Fashion? Yeah, fashion. I can’t tell you how many people tell me in one breath that  fashion is unimportant, and kids shouldn’t judge each other by looks, and how dare I mention how politicians dress; then, in the next breath, tell me how important it is that kids wear blazers.
Why is that? One of my theories is that we’re not good as a country at talking intelligently about fashion because it’s often treated as an irrelevance. Hence, when events occur like this year’s rule change, allowing MPs not to wear ties in Parliament, few people could give any context as to why the rule was even there in the first place.
I therefore went looking for a history of fashion. I didn’t find it in Bradford’s textbook for fashion journalism students but I found a good foundation for understanding how fashion media works, and how intelligent the journalism can be. And then I found…
4. Costume & Fashion: A Concise History – James Laver
This book blew my mind. Did you know there are statues from ancient Malta in which the women are wearing ballgowns almost identical to those in fashion thousands of years later? Did you know the history of fashion divides down two axes: hot/cold countries, draped/tailored outfits. Note: gender isn’t in there. For much of history, and in other countries, it simply isn’t a thing! Mind-boggling when you think how important fashion is in gender identification in Britain today.
Then there’s the constant theme of royalty and politicians and power leading the way in fashion. The tale of how the modern-day suit came from Charles II’s declaration shortly after the Great London Fire of what the royal court must wear. (Not even mentioned on his Wikipedia page, by the way). Stories of booms and busts: how one decade there’s no collars, then one appears, and thirty years later collars are so flouncy that people can barely see. Fashion changes so fast across the decades of all centuries that it left me believing that our idea the pace of change is faster now than ever before is probably a lie.
5. The Ethical Slut – Janet Hardy & Dossie Easton
This one might raise an eyebrow because it’s about sex, and having lots of it, potentially with multiple people at the same time. For that reason, I almost left it out. BUT, not only would that be dishonest, it’s also a bloody brilliant book and I’d really like other people to read it and talk to me about it.
Also I can’t think of a better year for people to be reading a book about the ethics of sex, especially given all the sex scandals, plus compulsory relationship and sex education on the horizon for schools.
The book is twenty years old and onto its third edition. (I read the second). Essentially, it’s a manual for ‘open relationships’. But don’t jump to conclusions! That doesn’t mean polyamory (though it can), or hippy communes (though it can), nor labelling yourself as pansexual, or hyperflexible, or anything else. (Though, guess what? It can!) Instead, it starts from the premise that sexual relationships are interesting, and fun, and can be healthy and helpful. Also, given that people spend a lot of time thinking/worried/at it at any one time, then how can we best talk about sex and act in a really clear, ethical (but still sexy) way?  Unlike other relationship books it doesn’t suggest monogamy is an aberration or to be avoided. It merely puts it as a very good option along with lots of other ways of relating. What it is absolutely clear about is THAT EVERYONE NEEDS TO BE CONSENSUAL and it does a great job of being honest about the complexity of relationships. If you are going to be in charge of sex education at school, I would urge you to read it, even if you end up disagreeing with parts of it.
6. The Invention of Angela Carter – Edmund Gordon
The most unlikely book I’ve ever enjoyed, this is a biography of feminist author Angela Carter. Except, is she actually feminist? I’ve no idea. Because, weirdly, I’ve never read any of her work. I can’t stand most fiction and she writes those ‘magical realism’ books where people sprout wings while they’re flying around Sainsburys (or something).  BUT this biography, by the incredible Edmund Gordon (who is the same age as me – weep), is astounding. Carter is a truly independent woman who runs around the world having slightly strange relationships and writing books. It’s as much a guidebook for how to live your best life. Second, Gordon’s writing is a masterclass in getting to know a subject and checking and re-checking sources. For someone whose background is philosophy and creative writing, Gordon has the tenacity and care of a ruthless historian. The way Gordon gently explains how he knows things, without ever taking away from this being Carter’s story, is breath-taking.
7. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote
Somehow, I never heard of Truman Capote – the celebrated writer – until I was in a journalism class in the US. This book, In Cold Blood, was mentioned as a classic of the ‘real crime’ journalistic form. It tells the tale of a grizzly (true) murder, starting with all the characters and leading up to arrests and the final punishments. I read while on an Indian island in February without any power, using only a head-lamp because it was so gripping. I was utterly bereft when it was finished.
8. Effective Investigation of Child Homicide & Suspicious Deaths – David Marshall
This is an expensive, technical and reasonably long British police textbook on how to investigate child murders. And yes, I finished and liked it. As a teacher, and while a journalist, I’ve been faintly obsessed with asking the best question to get the most useful answer so that something unknown before receiving it becomes known afterwards. One of the most difficult cases for police to prosecute are child murders – particularly those of babies. They usually happen at home, motives are harder to ascertain, and the line between accident and intention is murkier because children’s frailty means things that wouldn’t kill an adult nevertheless cause kids to die (for example, a fall down the stairs).
Hence, I went looking for clues of how to deal with ambiguity. What I got was a glimpse into the incredibly difficult job that police investigators do and the care, and smartness, and interpersonal skills needed. It reminds of the absolutely horrific circumstances families can sometimes find themselves in. I found I kept thinking about the siblings who survive, and how it must affect their schooling. Not a widely recommended read, but a definite pause for thought.
9. Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Survive – Jared Diamond
This book has changed my mind about geography as a subject. For years I’ve found geography a strange anachronism on modern-day timetables. Its inclusion in the EBacc continues to baffle. The absence of many geography teachers on social media, or among headteachers, means I’ve rarely heard counter-narratives. But Jared Diamond’s book, which uses geography – really uses it – to show how island civilisations across the world have faded out of existence is mind-blowing.
For example, he talks at length about the Easter Islands and how the giant stone statues that are now a tourist trap were a form of annual competition between tribes. However, the tribes became so obsessed with winning that they started using all their resources on the statues, never thinking that the island’s preciously-limited items were being extinguished for no greater gain than winning a game with no long-term purpose. Starting to sound eerily familiar? The rest of the book takes that line and keeps smashing you with it in the most powerful way.
(And if you’re wondering how this is geography, and not history, it’s because these island civilisations disappeared without trace centuries ago – so most of the work to figure out what was going on involves looking at soil, rocks, the stomach contents of birds, etc).
10. Coalition Diaries – David Laws
This book is 600 pages long and you feel it. It’s a mammoth. In its pages, we learn of David Laws’ years at the education department with Michael Gove. We learn of Gove’s madcap assistant, Dom Cummings, who went on to become famous as a spearhead of the Leave campaign; and you learn of the times Laws tried to stop some of Gove’s crazier ideas. (He lost on Mary Seacole and sex education).
The funniest part of the book, though, isn’t actually related to education, though. Throughout the entire thing, no matter what is going on, the backburning issue in Laws’ constituency is the widening of the A303 in Somerset. It’s like a constant boil that keeps flaming and needs lancing. One minute Laws is at a summit on world peace, and the next he’s posing in a hardhat while looking sad about the A303 for the local newspaper. It reminds what a nuts job being an MP really is.


Didn’t Finish, Did Like

11. Goebbels – Peter Longrich
The people behind the people are endlessly fascinating to me, and none more so than Goebbels. This is a wonderful and rich book, and I got all the way to him meeting Hitler (which took a long time), but then it all got a bit military textbook for me and I lost interest.
12. Strong Woman – Karren Brady
I love Karren Brady. She’s straight-talking. And interesting. And correct. The book is a good overview of her life. But she’s so straight that it gets a little plain and I got a bit distracted and ended up leaving the last four or five chapters.

Finished, Didn’t Like

13. The Gay Talese Reader – Gay Talese
Frank Sinatra Has A Cold is the greatest profile interview I’ve ever read. (With this one, about R Kelly, a close second). I’d also become more aware of 81-year-old journalism-god Talese after the bru-ha-ha over his book, The Voyeur’s Motel. (Netflix recently released a great documentary on that incident which is worth watching too).
This book includes Talese’s most famous profiles over the years. There’s Sinatra, but also Mohammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio. Plus a few others. However, I’ll be honest: I didn’t like a lot of them. Too meandering, and too sportsy, and too something-I-dont-know but it felt dull. HOWEVER, there is one story, about an incident in his grandfather’s tailors in Italy which is just wonderful story-telling and leaves you rolling with laughter. Almost worth it just for that as the tale is not online. (Unlike most of the rest).

Didn’t Finish, Didn’t Like

They all bored me to tears. I have no more to add.
14. Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thein
15. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There – Marshall Goldsmith
16. The Early Stories Of Truman Capote – Truman Capote


Finally, I  re-read these books this year because I’ve loved them so much in the past. They are very close to being on my ‘classic texts’ list.
17. Believe In People – Karel Capek < Essays from the Czech writer who invented the word ‘robot’. I went back to re-read his essay on why he isn’t a communist, after I had spent a weekend getting beaten up by Corbyn supporters for writing a blog about why I don’t agree with free university tuition. Capek’s reminder that humans, not political ideologies, are what really matters is always a comfort.
18. Good Self, Bad Self – Judy Smith < Smith is the Hollywood ‘reputation handler’ that the TV series Scandal is based on. This book talks about the qualities that ultimately bring down celebrities and politicians. It’s always a useful reminder to keep ones ego in check.
19. Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste – Carl Wilson < This book is about Celine Dion. Wilson, the author, is a cool music journalist who hates her and sets out to discover why other people love her. This is the most well-written book I’ve ever read.

Goals for 2018

You may have noticed the distinct lack of fiction.
The problem is that I have three beloved fiction authors: John Irving, Maeve Binchy, & Terry Pratchett. Two are dead and the other averages one book every three years.
So, if you feel moved to do so, make me a fiction recommendation in the comments.
It needs to be written in unfussy language and, ideally, peppered with a slightly sarcastic tone. If it’s sci-fi, it has to be funny. If it’s set in another country, the names have to be easy to read and remember.

Think Like An Education Secretary 2016

In a tradition that now spans three education secretaries, it’s this year’s Education Secretary Christmas Reading List. (Gosh, aren’t we all getting old).
This year we have a new overlord, Justine Greening.
She’s actually really smart, and interesting, and seems ‘nice’, if that isn’t an offensive word to use about people these days. Almost everyone who has met her says this. Which is really good for the sector, but a bit rubbish for anyone trying to write a funny book list related to her foibles.
Still, because it’s Christmas, I did what I always do and used my professional judgment (best guesses) to discern (totes guesses) what Justine Greening has been reading this year.
And this is where the clues led….
1. The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving A F*ck – Sarah Knight
It takes a special sort of person to be the first comprehensively-educated education secretary and then, for your first policy, announce you are bringing back selective schools which is basically the evidence-equivalent of saying you don’t believe in climate change or that you are about to replace the NHS with homeopathy. One can only presume this is because J-Green read this best-seller by Knight which launched last New Year’s eve as a book for people whose only resolutions for 2016 were not having any resolutions. (As it turned out this was probably for the best, given most dreams for 2016 have been comprehensively defecated on all year).
The book is a dirge on the importance of not really giving a stuff about other people’s opinions. Greening has shown she can do this with panache, having sent out an email saying the government were defo going ahead with its mad grammar school plan less than 72 hours after it closed its consultation. Sad that you spent so long writing up your consultation response? Sorry! You should have spent more time life-changingly not giving a f*ck!
One of the greatest pieces of advice in this book is to “offer your regret” (for being a terrible person) “in a timely fashion” – which also made me think that former education secretary Michael Gove has been reading this book this year. Six YEARS after he cancelled a bunch of buildings for schools in desperate need of new shelter he finally ‘fessed up and said that he had made a hash of the thing and he regretted it. Well gee, thanks Michael. But, having read Knight’s book, I find it rather magical to say I don’t give a monkeys for your inadequately late regret. Cheers anyway, love! *thumbs up emoji*
2. The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working Class Kids Still Get Working Class Jobs – James Bloodworth
Okay, okay. Greening is nice, so the barbs above were mean. (They were also true, but yes, a bit mean).
What Greening actually seems motivated by is working under the radar in order to make inching improvements in life conditions. She has announced six “opportunity areas” around the country where the government is going to put cash and elbow grease with the aim of improving the lot of poorer kids in the area. The approach is neat and gets to the heart of meritocracy chats which have come up all over the place this year but nowhere better than in James Bloodworth’s The Myth Of Meritocracy, which talks at length about the fact that people often work damn hard but their employment and wages are still often pitifully unstable. Bloodworth gives ideas for changing schooling (and the workplace) to help. Greening’s plan to trial these sorts of policies in areas of need, with eventual scaling if they work, is right out of Bloodworth’s leftist playbook even if the blues want to recapture social mobility as their right-wing baby.


3. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way – Katharine Birbalsingh and assorted cast members
Justine Greening will have had this book thrust at her by Nick Gibb whether she likes it or not. I know this because Nick Gibb needles me about how marvellous Michaela Community (Free) School is every time I see him and I don’t even have any actual power.
Our conversations tend to go like this:
Nick Gibb: Hello, Laura. That was a mean thing you wrote about me the other day. But, more importantly, have you been to Michaela School yet? I went recently and the children there eat with knives and forks and it is brilliant and you should go.
Me: I haven’t been. Also lots of children eat with knives and forks. But good for them.
Nick Gibb: Oh no, they don’t eat with knives and forks like the children at Michaela. There they eat so beautifully, altogether and in time, that it makes middle class people weep. Have you really not been?
Me: No.
Nick Gibb: Well you really should. Also, did I mention about how they learn facts?….
And so on…
Admittedly this is a little bit of a paraphrase (though not as much as you might think) but if you’ve never had the joy of running into Nick Gibb, or otherwise learning about Michaela, then you need to know it is a comprehensive secondary in north London with an obsession for structures and practices to aid learning and an evangelical zeal about sharing them. It’s a bit draconian in its implementation of policies for some tastes but there’s nothing fundamentally evil about what its staff are doing. Many practices are just old wine in new bottles and some of the new innovations are rather handy. The team have done a particularly good job of creating sexy new terminology that I expect Gibb will encourage Greening to drop into speeches next year to show how hip she is for having consumed this book. Keep an eye out for “knowledge organisers” as the new word for “schemes of work” and watch as “summer school” becomes “bootcamp” and anything now debunked gets replaced with “cognitive psychology”.
4. Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With The Language of Politics – Mark Thompson
Nicky Morgan (remember her?) was also guilty of this crime but Justine Greening has continued this year’s fad for having a single strapline and sticking to it: damn all context, truth, or even sense. While Morgs was always hamming up “educational excellence everywhere” we have had that replaced with Greening’s insistence on using two key phrases. One: “schools that work for everyone”. Which is hilarious, in part because the document it is based on only talks about bright children and doesn’t give two figs for children with special needs, but also because there’s scant evidence grammar schools work much for anyone at all. (There’s that magic of not giving a f*ck again!).
The other phrase Greening has clung to like a limpet in a tidal wave is the fact there are now 1.8 million more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010. Putting aside the fact this is largely down to a baby boom and immigration (shhh, don’t wake the Brexiteers), it’s also because the Ofsted frameworks changed and they are incomparable now anyway. Forsooth!
Still, as Mark Thompson’s rollicking read on the language of politics points out, “word work” can make or break politics. Hence the current trend is for hammering home a simple point – damn its truthfulness – and doing so in a way that is less about actual persuasion and more like an algorithm which works out just how often someone needs to hear a message before believing it. Saying schools are ace and grammars “work for everyone” enough times and it turns out people might just believe it’s true. Greening’s own soul might even start to believe it, eventually.
3 books Justine Greening probably didn’t read this year… but should
This is the bit where I pontificate about what books the education secretary probably should have read. [NB: Special advisors, this bit is for you. Just stick them in her bag. It’ll work a treat].
1. Don’t send him in tomorrow – Jarlath O’Brien
The parts of the school community dealing with children outside the mainstream – whether that’s special needs schools, pupil referral units, hospital schools, whatever – are commonly missed from political discourse. That’s stupid. Because it is one of the areas where there is the most good to be leveraged even just by talking about them more. Why education politicians fail to get this point is entirely beyond me. Even more crazy is that O’Brien’s brilliant book, which gives all the facts and figures to show why this sector matters, AND practical solutions for improving it, is a ready-made speech for a politician with the cojones to give it. Sod letting Edward Timpson read this and steal some future glory where he tries to tackle the alternative education system. Greening should be all over it as soon as the turkey is finished and scribbling down notes for her next big speech.
2. The regulation of standards in British life – Gillian Peele and David Hine
Should you ever wish to invoke raised eyebrows from the staff and visitors at an entire spa, I do suggest reading this gloriously titled book while lounging by the jacuzzi and shouting “oh good point” as you turn the pages. (What do you mean have I ever done this? Pfffsshh…. *noticeably doesn’t answer*).
Peele and Hine’s book looks incredibly dull and, let’s be honest, because it is written by academics and published by an academic publishing house, it’s overly long and a bit pretentious in parts. BUT, there are neat summaries at the end of each chapter and the actual content is glorious. Looking at the trend for regulation the points out what the consequences are for trust, accountability, public services, costs, etc. In a sector where we love a good regulator – come on now, who didn’t send a Christmas card to Ofqual? – this is a particularly apt read.
Academies are particularly affected by regulation as intrusion by Ofsted, the schools commissioners, and the education funding agency are the main ways ministers are trying to ensure academy freedoms are not used for piss-taking (also known as: paying yourself a second salary, or failing to teach science, etc, etc). But, as Peele and Hine point out, if this regulation is poorly done or, sometimes, overdone it can actually undermine policies. The education department are very very far from having perfected regulation of academies. This book won’t solve that. But Greening learning more about the latest thinking on this topic certainly wouldn’t hurt.

3.Passing Time In The Loo – Steven W Anderson
Finally, if I can give Greening a bit of advice for future speeches, it would be that she needs a bit of oomph. She’s not the greatest speaker, and that’s in comparison to woodentop Nicky Morgan (ouch), and because of that she’s coming across a bit… impersonal. Which is a shame because, as I said at the start, there’s a very likable and smart politician hiding inside her. If she doesn’t let it out, though, she’ll lose the broader sector and I fear a louder, more charismatic, possibly madder and certainly less competent politician will try and wrestle the education brief from her. So, my final recommendation for the year is that she gets herself a copy of the brilliant Passing Time In The Loo – which is a huge compendium of 2-page summaries of novels and classic texts, and pages and pages of funny quotes. A little humour and pop culture might just be the thing to elevate her speeches from being good in her head, to also being ones that people engage with.
I know, I know, it’s very uncool to say that you have to grab people’s interests these days with fluffy analogies and a wisecrack. But as any headteacher who takes assembly will tell you: the way you pass on the message really matters as to whether or not the kids take it home and tell their parents.

Right, folks. That’s 2016 almost done. Go get a survivor’s t-shirt.
See you in 2017 to do it all over again.

On death, FOIs, and coping at work: A very personal essay

Four weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, I received a text saying the government had dumped me. After three and a half of years of head-to-head battle with the department for education over some free school documents – including endless appeals and even a court appearance – they were now giving in. I could have the documents, a subsequent email said.
Four hours later I received a text from my mum. One of her best friends, a dear family friend, was now in the hospice. The likelihood was that she wouldn’t come home. After four and a half years in her own battle with cancer, she was going to lose.
Tears in eyes I was suddenly overcome with the thought I wanted to give it all back. The government could keep the stupid documents, I thought, if we could just keep Jenny. Who needs paper when people are dying? What use a legal win if the people you love don’t get to be winners in more important battles?
It’s a stupid thought, of course. That’s not how death works. I’m not daft enough to believe that any action by me could have made a difference to her disease. It’s also why some people will have bridled at my use of the term ‘battle’ with regards to cancer: as if there is somehow an agency in these things. I’ve tried to find another word for it, but I can’t. I watched from the sidelines as Jenny went through endless rounds of chemotherapy, removal of organ upon organ, and hearing of the doctors who said over and again what a miracle it was that she lived so long after diagnosis. For every person who told me I was courageous for ‘fighting’ the Department for Education, there was someone saying the same to her. Different battles, with a strange helplessness and randomness to them, but battling is how they both felt .
On Tuesday, I finally received the documents. The Friday prior I attended Jenny’s funeral.
At the latter a memory book had been put together of photographs from her life. It was a surreal thing to flip through and see someone so familiar growing up over a series of pages. At one point I glanced at a picture. I was confused. It appeared to be of me and yet I couldn’t remember where it was taken. I looked again. It was actually of my mum in her thirties. How fast time flies. How little we notice it disappearing.
At the end of last year I wrote about the four Christmases I spent preparing legal documents to help get that free school information. Since Jenny went into the hospice I’ve mused whether it was a smart thing to do. Whether I should have been spending time on other things.
My dislike of Christmas is well known. I talk about it each year on social media and it’s been that way for a long time. There are several contributing reasons, but a major one is that I have very little family and those that do exist are not always good at spending time together. Hence, as an only child, Christmas day was often very quiet – just me, mum and dad. But Boxing Day? Oh, that was the day to live for. Jenny and her husband had four children and lived just around the corner. I could see their house from my bedroom window. Their daughter, Emma, was my friend. For a period of time, around the age of 6, we were best friends: forever in one another’s houses. I grew up watching Jenny shepherd those four children – born within just 28 months of each other – with a combination of military precision and beautiful fun. In comparison to our quiet, tidy house, theirs was one of chaos. People and animals everywhere. Hamsters, snakes, a bird of prey. Tables that pulled out of cabinets to make sure everyone had a seat for dinner. A car with seats in the boot so we could all be loaded in and taken to national trust days, or church. (I was regularly swept into the car with the other kids come Sunday afternoon).
On Boxing Day their family would descend on ours, alongside my parents’ other friends and children, and it would be magical – there was chilli, and karaoke, and games, and fun. A melee of people giggling and chatting. Even now I think of Boxing Day as the most wonderful time of my childhood.
Growing older, Jenny became the person I saw at Good News Events. You know the ones: weddings, Christmas, birthday parties. I would always make sure to speak with her. Even as an adult I craved her sense of perspective, her ability to shake things off and be positive. She knew I was a worry wort and would wheedle problems out of me, forcing me to look at them differently. She would remind me of all the great things in life.
That she has gone: so young, so soon: has put a hole in our makeshift family. Good news events are now down a smile.
And back here in reality it feels like all I have left is a big pile of unconnected papers, which have absolutely nothing to do with her, and yet every time I look at them all I can think is that they are some unbearable consolation prize.
I’ve barely touched them since they arrived.
The problem of being a professional during stressful times
I need to get over this emotional blockage. The documents are vital and there a number of things, professionally, I want to do with them. There are articles to write, stats to compile, stories to tell. Having peeked the day I opened them, I can already see there are things the public should know about them and it’s my job to get on and tell the story.
This week has been tough, though. Processing the loss of someone, especially when that person isn’t an immediate family member and so there isn’t some expected and accepted level of upset, is a weird thing. On the one hand I keep thinking I shouldn’t be hard hit. On the other, I know that I am and that I can no more magic that feeling away than I could hand back those envelopes and get Jenny in return.
Every person with a job faces this problem. Some days, you just don’t have the same capacity as others. As a teacher there are days when you feel awful: you have flu, or an ill parent, or a bullied child, and yet you can’t take any time to deal with this – you have to go into the classroom at dot-on 9am and do your best caring face so that stressed-out bottom-set year 7 can learn their maths. School leaders face the same problem: it doesn’t matter if you’re worried about your husband’s ill health, you’ve just been told a supply teacher has hit a child and so you must pull together and go deal with it.
This goes for everyone, across all workplaces, pretty much ever. There is nothing particularly special about this circumstance. But this week I’ve wondered why we don’t talk about it? Is everyone else really just able to switch off their emotions and “be professional” at will? Or are there, like me this week, people in workplaces across the country steadying themselves for 5 minutes before putting on brave faces and wondering how everyone else is managing to keep things in?
It has also made me wonder how, in an economy where we increasingly put pressure on workers to do more – longer hours, be better, achieve higher, be efficient – do we make space for these very human dips. How do we find ways to deal with the down days? When teachers’ nerves are burned to a frazzle, what is the plan? If someone feels they can no longer cope with a full-timetable and the stress of exam classes – what’s the alternative? There have to be some levers for dialing down pressure as needed otherwise people are forced to walk away from their jobs when the going gets rough, even if it could become better again very soon, and that’s more of a loss than the education sector can take given the pressure of growing pupil numbers.
How we cope with bad times
Over the years I’ve developed two mechanisms for when things get bad.
The first is seeing experiences as learning opportunities. Shitty relationship break-up? At least you learned how not to end things. Terrible choice of career? At least you can work out what you don’t like, and move on. Taken to court for being vexatious under the freedom of information act? Well at least you had a chance to become an expert on tribunal law.
A second approach is making things into a funny story. “That will be a hell of a tale for the pub,” I would say to crying newbie teachers as they relayed disastrous interactions with a child.
But sometimes neither tactic works. Sometimes you can’t learn from a situation. Not if you’re too angry, or disappointed, or sad. So far, that’s how I have felt about the free school stuff. I’m aching over the lost time – the absolute waste of all those emails and documents just for someone after three and a half years to shrug and hand them over.
Also, some things just aren’t funny. And they don’t lend themselves to a story. This blog could be a story about Jenny, but I can’t find one. There isn’t a neat story of her life or how I feel about her. Hence this blog spiraled into being many things. There isn’t a neat story I can write and make myself feel better.
Thinking about this put me in mind of one of my all-time favourite books: George Vaillant’s Adaptation To Life. In it Vaillant describes his life work, tracking 268 super-smart university graduates over forty years, and discovering the ‘mechanisms’ they use to cope with life. Some are less ‘healthy’ than others – humour, for example, is considered more mature than hitting people – but even those we consider positive can be problematic when used to excess. As my favourite highlighted passage reads: “In adolescence, Tarrytown learned to use alcohol the way Goodhart used books – to escape.”
What Adaptation to Life shows is that finding ways to cope with change and discomfort is something every person must do if they are to continue feeling sane. Vaillant argues that mental health problems tend to derive from this process not going well, though they aren’t inevitably long-term. Think about physical health. People frequently get colds but overcome them quickly by keeping warm, drinking fluids, clearing noses. With mental health, we might be disordered in our thinking for a short period, but it’s possible that with simple actions – sharing time with people we love, or writing fears down – we can quickly get over them. In more serious circumstances our physical health becomes overwhelmed and getting back on track is more difficult. Maybe it involves chemotherapy, organ removal, intensive care. The same goes for minds. What we have to work out is how, over a lifetime, we manage changes in our thinking – in our adaptations to life – and figure out what paths are available to get back on track.
A problem of the book is that it doesn’t say exactly how we figure out what’s wrong or what we do to get back on track. There are a plethora of mechanisms we can use: intellectual pursuits, aggression, suppression. But no answer as to which one we should use. Why? Because there isn’t an answer. Vaillant’s last story is of a man named Allan Poe who, in his fifties, is living a life some would find objectionable but with which he is content. He calls Vaillant in and tells him that whatever his research finds, whether certain things match with mental health – a good income, spending time with family, doing exercise – it would nevertheless be possible to have those things and yet be miserable. It’s also possible not to have those things and be content.
Everyone wants simple answers for how we should feel better and get back on track. I’ve wanted one all month. What I actually need to do is figure out how to feel okay even without such an answer.
So, what does any of this mean?
I can’t make sense of Jenny’s death and that is not a surprise. Death isn’t easy to rationalize, or laugh at, or learn from. My usual techniques are all out. In weeks of trying to do so, I’ve mixed up the freedom of information stuff into how I feel about her because the time periods overlap and story-telling is one of my defence mechanisms. The unfortunate consequence is that they’ve now become so intertwined it has been a struggle to engage with the documents even though I need to.
I’d love to tell you at this point that I’ve figured out some solutions, but the sad truth is that even after writing 2,000 words – which you have now trogged through – I’m afraid we will both leave with limited wisdom. But, I also figured, if we only share thoughts once they are ‘clear’, then we will rarely share the things that can’t be written about in clear, sensible blocks like death, and loss, and change. And if we never speak of these complicated things then we risk giving the impression that the world is full of completely together individuals – when none us really are. And if we believe that everyone else is dealing with the world better, and we are somehow at fault for struggling, then that is also alienating and unhelpful. Far better to write, even without wisdom, if only because doing so might clear the blockage and maybe start a conversation about how we help, support, and build capacity for dealing with our down days.
Beyond that, after weeks of pondering and upset and trying to make sense of everything, the best I could get to was that sometimes you win a battle and get a box of documents in your hands, other times you lose and get a box in the ground.
I’d do anything to change the way round it went but death doesn’t operate on rules of justice. No legal document in the world can be written to get its decisions overturned.

I Trolled A Scam Caller So Hard … HE Put The Phone Down On ME

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I received a phone call last week from a scam artist.
It was obvious from pretty early on that he was going to pretend I had a bunch of computer problems and then either sell me a really expensive download to stop the alleged problem, or allow him access to my computer so he could steal personal data.
Scams like this annoy me. My grandparents are both in their 80s but try to use computers as best they can. (They like facebook, and Skype). Calls like these could easily bamboozle them into thinking something was wrong and handing over money for something they really don’t need.
So I figured the best thing I could do was waste some of the callers’ time.
Which is what I did and I recorded it.

PS – What I tell him near the end, which finally pushes him to hang up, is genuinely true!

Dealing with obnoxious young people at a concert (or just about anywhere)

Yesterday I went to a concert with my other half. It started about 4pm.
Five minutes after we arrived the row in front, behind and to our left filled up with young people who looked like they’d been imported in from The Only Way Is Essex – all hair extensions, checked shirts and screechy vowels.
They were of indeterminate late teen age (my guess would be lower sixth form) and not being a pain on purpose but, by dint of their being twenty in number, and them being over-excited and chatty, it was pretty difficult to hear the band we’d paid sixty quid to hear.
That familiar sense of dread began. And the thoughts start flying: Do I say something? What do I say? Will they get worse if I say something just so they can prove how hard they are?
The same feeling arises faced with strangers acting inconsiderately in any public place – especially on transport. Too many people become paralysed by the panicked thoughts and feelings, and so never actually do anything.
But I have a formula.
It’s based on the time I spent as a sixth form manager and works particularly well with 16-19 year olds, but it can be used with just about anyone.
The main trick is to stay super calm and speak from a place of genuine concern. Then you use the formula to decide what to say.
Back at the o2 arena, with nerves fraying, I took a moment to think about the actual issue I was having.
I turned to the group sat behind and motioned for them to lean in.
“I can’t hear the band over you all talking. It’s no big deal, but can you either bring the volume down or – if you want to chat – go and stand in the bars downstairs – there’s plenty of seats there which could accommodate you all,” I said.
The same formula works in tons of situations.
“Your phone playing that music is really disturbing my reading – do you have head phones to put on or can you switch it off?”
“Sorry to interrupt, but the smell of that food is making me ill – could you put it away in a bag or would you mind stepping outside?”
Note: no one is saying they have to do anything. In school, if you’re a teacher, you don’t need to hedge. Just tell the kid they have to do x or y – and that’s it. But in the real world, the slightly softer approach is better, if only because most people are a little affronted that you’ve approached them and so their heckles rise. If they think you are concerned and asking for help, rather than angry, they tend to get over the rising panic more quickly.
You will get a variety of reactions to your interjection. The most common is:
A mass of apologies – “sorry, sorry, sorry”. This is tricky as it can just be an embarrassment reflector and really means “we are just saying sorry so you will go away”. So confirm they are sorry: ‘That’s okay, I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it. Does that mean you’re going to quiet down, or will you go downstairs?”
More aggressive responses also happen and can be just as easily dealt with:
You can’t tell me what to do: This is where your hedging works. You didn’t tell them what to do. Calmly (and still with a tone of concern) point it out: “I didn’t tell you what to do, and I appreciate it’s your concert/train journey/cinema ticket too. But your volume is a problem and I’ve asked what you’re going to do, be quiet or step outside. Which is going to be better?”
We weren’t doing nuffin’: Again, you didn’t say they were. You concentrated on consequences  and so can (extremely politely) deny this. “I know you weren’t trying to do anything wrong, I understand. I’m just pointing out that I can’t hear the concert and asking you to help me out. Can you be quiet or go downstairs, which is better?”
In either case, the point to focus on is that you have described a problem and asked them to help you solve it. That’s it. You haven’t yelled at anyone, or implied any wrong doing. You’re simply relying on the fact that most people aren’t sociopaths, they don’t want to be idiots, and that when they’ve done something wrong they need an opportunity to save face which you are very politely offering.
Because of that, and if you can manage to stay calm and act like a human who needs help (rather than a person who is angry), then you should get a decent outcome about 90% of the time.
In the other 10% of time you will unfortunately be facing a sociopath or a group with a high need to look tough. In that case your choices are up the ante (“if you don’t do it, I’ll have to ask someone to come and remove you”), change seats/trains, or stick it out quietly fuming.
Back at the concert the young people  went for the multiple sorry approach and said they would quiet  down. As we were speaking the ones from the front row started shouting up and teasing so I went and said the same thing to them. More multiple sorries – and shortly after they moved downstairs for a bit.
When they came back they moved out of our way into some nearby empty seats and weren’t wonderfully quiet (always difficult to achieve in a big group) but at least they were no longer obnoxious or ruining the concert.
I’m counting it as another win for human decency.

My 5 Top Blogposts of the year (and the 5 I *wish* had been better read)

A single rule plagues the land of blogging:

White’s Law – The number of people who read your work is usually inverse to either (a) time spent on it, or (b) your level of pride about it.

So every year I write a list of things that other people liked, and a list of things I liked.
Here’s this year’s:
My Top 5 Most Popular Blogs of 2014
1. What do you notice about this free school monitoring visit?
2. Less than one week to my DfE FOI tribunal
3. Women! Share your numbers! (aka ‘The surprising reason why I offer less work to women’)
4. Should we be placing unqualified teachers in inadequate schools?
5. The Jonah Complex: Why we are afraid of being brilliant
My Top 5 Posts I *Wish* Were Most Popular
1. A tale for when you are missing out on an event
2. The Berlin Wall Manifesto: For politicians serious about private schools
3. Kentucky Fried Schools: Are academies a ‘trade secret’?
4. Students should be able to freely access their exam papers – end of argument!
5. What I learned about teaching at the Wellington Education Festival
Finally, here’s my list of favourite things I wrote elsewhere in 2014:
1. Trojan Horse: Why are some extremists more acceptable than others? – The Guardian
2. Tim Brighouse profile interview – Academies Week
3. Are teachers who dislike group work doing it wrong? – Edapt
4. The Godless delusion – TES
5. What should we do about the Berlin Wall? Follow the Indian model – The New Statesman
Here’s to more in 2015. If you have thoughts of things I should be covering, please do drop me a line (laura@academiesweek.co.uk).