Dealing with personal loss whilst at work


I am posting this to commemorate the anniversary of my friend, a teacher, who died by his own hand a year ago this week. It was written at the time.

Grief is a filthy business. It is not just sadness, that might be manageable. For me it is disconnection, disaffection and distress. It is needing to be alone but feeling lonely. It is insecurity and incoherence; questioning the point of everything, wanting to stop feeling for a while and panicking that I am not feeling enough. It is the urge to hold onto every memory but the need to let go of my last conversation with the person who died, which incessantly circles my mind.

As a teacher used to being practical, problem solving, taking action I find the sudden loss of a friend to be an agony of inaction. ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’ everyone says but if you are not closely involved in practical arrangements there is little to do but wait and wring your hands at the terrible tragedy of it all.

And how to carry on at work? It is a blessing to be busy and deal with minor homework quibbles, missing books or lost resources; braced by the gaze of 32 pairs of eyes and carried by the momentum of a scheme of work. The show must go on. But it is harder to care about marking and lesson planning at home; life going on as normal, when life is not normal, it is shattered into tiny, unidentifiable pieces.

Lucky then to have warm and caring colleagues, who provide the soft cushion of comfort when they discretely bring you a sweet cup or tea, sit next to you for a chat at lunch but spare you the dangerous catalyst of sympathy when you are about to go into class. Wonderful to have a quiet chapel to hide away in and sit, stunned, before switching back into role.

I think about those students who have experienced terrible loss, who now sit in my classes. They might be drifting off in quiet moments, unable to see the value of a piece of History homework, when nothing makes any sense. Trying to forget but desperate to remember. How do they manage? Grief might be like blocks of concrete holding their legs, yet they try to keep going. And perhaps I don’t notice their cement after a while. There is too much content to get through and they seem to be fine.

We have a great pastoral team here; they acknowledge the cement which can weigh on the students even as they appear to be functioning. They help them  to manage their grief, their anger or their desire to blend in and be normal. They remember the anniversaries, they give a quiet little word, ‘You okay?’ They notice.

So, this week I am just taking a moment to notice all the people around me who are getting on with things and boxing off their feelings, just long enough to get through the day and maintain the enriching flow of education. It’s hard. Be kind to yourselves.



Is it too late for last minute revision?

Here is a poem I wrote to help year 11 remember key facts about the League of Nations. That is how desperate I became to cram in the facts. It is a poem because it rhymes, so there.

The League of Nations

In Geneva, League of Nations
Hoped to stop more confrontations
Altogether they brought muscle
To prevent a violent tussle.

Weaker countries were effective
Now they had the safe collective.
Everyone would ditch their arms
Talk instead and cause no harm.

But they only had persuasion
To prevent a large invasion.
Or they could have all stopped trading
With the one who was invading.

Things worked well with the Commissions
Helping people’s life conditions
But membership caused worried doubt
When several countries were left out

And then the US didn’t join
Which was a hard kick in the groin
So though the twenties saw success
The 30s were a dreadful mess.

The League was proved to have no might
To stop an international fight
And Woodrow Wilson’s dream was dead
The world had chosen war instead.

Everyone loves a treasure hunt

Last term was a knuckle-scraping slog. By the end of term the students seemed ‘full’ and unwilling or unable to take on board any more information. I’m reminded of it because I have just been to the Science museum in London, and although I was determined to spend the entire day there, having seen the range of exciting exhibits, after 2 hours my brain was leaking and I had to crawl out.
As we beckoned and cajoled the students towards the Easter break I did manage to light the fire of enthusiasm in my year 9 class with two particular lessons. One of them might be called foolhardy but I took a risk.
The purpose was for them to gather both facts and personal source evidence about rationing. The Enquiry Question centred on the variety of experiences of the Second World War at home; weighing up opinions and measuring them against the ‘stone cold facts’. However shunting a pen across the page had become a Herculean task for many pupils so I needed to make them desire the information. In a moment of pure optimism I decided to bill the whole exercise as a treasure hunt.
Each pupil was given two different coloured slips of paper. One with a fact and the other with a contemporaneous quote. They were informed that they needed to answer the question, ‘What was the impact of rationing?’ by finding relevant evidence. I thought I might be dreaming; the minute I mentioned a treasure hunt they visibly contracted into a state of high alert. This notwithstanding the fact the ‘treasure’ was a hoard of History information.
Having frequently organised Easter Egg Hunts, only to forget where I put the eggs I decided they should each hide their own two pieces of paper. Thus they could also retrieve them at the end of the game and avoid irritating the cleaners. The ground rules were that they had to allow at least a corner of the ‘treasure’ to peep out. Apart from that they could hide them anywhere. Then I let them loose, within certain parameters, on the corridor and inside the classroom. They scattered away, revelling in the subterfuge needed to secrete their evidence, without detection. After this they returned to class and grabbed their exercise books which they needed to record the information. The primary objective of discovering where others had hidden the information seemed to diminish the arduous nature of having to write things down.
Everyone swept off again, buzzing with excitement, whilst the LSA and I gawped in disbelief at the lack of passive resistance. The least motivated students simply tried to circumvent the exercise by sharing quotes with each other rather than hunting for them. They went to great lengths to hide their subversion without appreciating that their collaboration equally served my purpose. Actually a passing senior teacher on walkabout feared there was a riot in the corridor until she noticed they were all talking about History. It might possibly have disrupted everyone else’s lessons in the vicinity, but my mug was not deliberately smashed in the staff room later, so I think I got away with it.
After 20 minutes everyone legged it back into the classroom declaiming about the obscure locations in which they had successfully discovered quotes. Their energy translated into a heated discussion about the enquiry question, because everyone had different evidence. I hadn’t even dared hope for that, period six on a Thursday.
In the throes of my gambler’s lucky streak I then decided to design another risky, crowd-pleasing lesson for this class, set in a court room. The results will be outlined in another blog.

Charles I comes up Trumps



How can you teach the demise of Charles I? It’s a fascinating period; the build up to the Civil War, after all, shows the buds of democracy, the culmination of religious upheaval set in motion by Henry VIII and the prelude to a war which set families against each other and traumatised the English people for decades.
But it is ever so complicated for year 8.
We try to get students to unpick the decisions that Charles made and assess whether they showed good leadership or terrible judgement. Ideally they can tease out the differences between conflicts centred on religion, economics or power. However there are so many decisions over the course of seventeen years that they tangle together in an impenetrable knot. It can be difficult for a year 8 student to see the trees in the dark wood of history.
We use different media. For instance there are clips from Cromwell, with a rather fey Alec Guinness as Charles, to evaluate,
and excerpts from BBC class clips to explain his relationship with religion.

They can also split into groups to defend the behaviour of Charles or parliament in a court room scene.
But the best learning opportunity seems to come from Top Trumps. Everyone played it when they were young and by year 8 they have a sort of nostalgia for the game from ‘when they were children.’ I made 15 decision cards to fill in and illustrate. The illustrations highlight their relative understanding of the issue. For each decision Charles’ leadership is assessed for decisiveness, intelligence, strength, listening skills and trustworthiness. Students have to score each decision and then decide if it was aligned to religion, power or the economy. They are all inter-linked, of course, but one might be more dominant. More able students write his decisions themselves, right up until Charles raised his standard in Nottingham to declare war on parliament in 1642.
Making the cards is a creative homework and they come in excited with the promise of playing games. The scores given for his leadership then determine who wins each round of cards. It gets surprisingly competitive.

As you can see they enjoyed playing whilst unconsciously reflecting on the role of Charles. Following this the students had to organise the cards on their desks into categories and within these order them according to the quality of Charles’ decision making. Thus they had a ready made essay plan, divided into three paragraphs, with evidence of the events to cite and a criteria for judging Charles’ decision making.
They barely noticed they were learning which is much better than the assessment brain-ache  I used to observe contorting their faces before I thought of introducing Top Trumps.


I’m not having that…

‘The Provisional government in Russia failed because they were too weak and refused to use repression or the secret police to maintain power.’
This was supposed to be a recap of the previous lessons on opposition in Russia 1855 – 1917. I had a plan for the lesson which did not involve having a fierce discussion about whether dismantling a repressive apparatus is weak government. But that summary from a highly intelligent student snagged me in my headlong journey.
‘Wait! I’m not having that!’ ( I think I slapped the table with my palm.) They all looked up, alert, eyes glinting; *Game On!*
‘What do you think the Provisional government should have done? Do you support the use of terror to maintain government?’ I demanded.
Another student joined in, ‘It was necessary to be repressive in Russia at that time, in order to keep control.’
‘It was “necessary” to arrest people in the middle of the night, torture them and remove all civil rights, in order to rule?’
They were grinning, certain that they had the better of the argument. It was clear that I was just being an old hippy again, clinging onto idealism, playing acoustic guitar in Peace Park.
‘It was the only thing which would work in Russia. The Provisional Government should have used those methods for a while until they had established control and then gradually eased off, once people were ready for democracy and liberalism.’
I tried to drill down into what they were proposing, as the lesson ticked on.
‘Er. So, begin with mass arrests, censorship and torture and then gradually ease off? Perhaps torturing people less often, or slightly less rigorously? Ending with tickling – as a prelude to the introduction of democracy.’
They exchanged looks. I was being ridiculous. They needed to get it through to me.
‘They just needed to repress people for a while until they had established their control. There is no point being liberal if you cannot hold onto power. The Bolsheviks may have been ruthless but they were successful.’ The students all nodded in agreement.
‘Is it usual for rulers to establish a repressive regime and then use this as a platform to introduce democracy? Do you think Saddam Hussein needed a little more time to introduce his liberal ideas? Yoweri Museveni aimed to end the repression of Idi Amin in Uganda. He just needed to ensure stability and control before he could begin. 27 years later he is still dictator and threatening to execute gay people.’
They were wearing their, ‘What’s she going on about?’ faces.
Then someone said,
‘But sometimes it is the only way to rule a country when there is so much opposition.’
I tried a different tack,
‘What about if the coalition government here began to arrest people using a secret police force?’
At this point the class divided into those who felt this can be justified to prevent terrorism and those who felt it would be inappropriate in Britain.

It seems acceptable if it is happening to other people.

The debate raged on. In the meantime my carefully crafted lesson had exploded at the seams. But I can’t bear to hear A level students nurture a perspective of history which, although convenient , is simplistic and callous. History is about real people and real values. To make glib comments justifying repression and murder is to ignore the fact that at the sharp end of those methods were the beating hearts of other humans. Stopped dead.
It might work in the exam. But I’m not having it.

Right, where did I put my acoustic guitar….

Tread carefully, but tread brilliantly.

It’s funny how hard it is to come up with motivational speeches to pupils when you have had 4 hours of sleep and 20 hours of travelling. My colleague pronounced this phrase, having held the group to account for some horseplay at the hotel we were staying at in New Hampshire. This was during my first ever residential school trip at half term ( After 15 years of teaching). And it was the Double Rollover Euromillions jackpot; a ski trip to the White Mountains.

With 48 students to shepherd and support the experience turned out to be a challenge as well as a continuous sensation of excitement, as we negotiated the unfamiliar environment. I learned a lot from the other staff about how to contain and channel the enthusiasm of students in the field. Firm boundaries and consistent monitoring were paramount. I didn’t realise how focused we would have to be at all times. One morning I watched R with mild amusement when he snapped off a huge icicle and brandished it after a girl across the treacherous ice, but my colleague called him over to ‘talk through’ the possible outcomes of this escapade. We were always alert, breaking off from our breakfast conversations to call students over for abandoning their plates on the table or wandering off. Students had deadlines to meet us for mealtimes and those who were late had to clear up; no hats were worn at the table, no visiting bedrooms, no food or drink on the coach.

It sounds dour and fun-free but it turned out that with these boundaries were like handrails in an unpredictable and potentially hazardous landscape. Once they were in place we could let loose the banter and socialising. R didn’t mind that I couldn’t help him retrieve his skis because I had been temporarily incapacitated by laughter. J was proud that his backward acceleration down a slope became legendary. H ruefully admitted that he crashed headlong into a ‘SLOW DOWN’ sign because he was going too fast. The girls shared a chairlift with me and learned about feminism. Everyone felt relaxed and at ease (but we never stopped counting heads.) We had discos, Karaoke, tubing and spoof awards. We compared purchases at the mall and we all saw each other with facial sheet-marks and bed-head. We had a fantastic time, it was a deeper type of education; building memories and strong relationships.

My colleague, Darren, was our Obama. He began each day with a speech. But we could not let him forget that particular phrase, quoting it back to him and to the students, whenever we thought his blush was finally receding. In the end, though he was right. Because the students did tread carefully but they also trod brilliantly.


“I’ve been trying to boil the kettle for 3 hours” said M.



Heavy snow fall and transport to the slopes

Befuddlement and confusion

Launching straight into Year 10 GCSE with the ‘Creation of the Weimar Government’ can be problematic. It is like thanking students for choosing History and then tipping a bucket of  concepts and vocabulary on their heads.

“Before hitler was elected the weimar government had been in power, this was a communist run party with right wing beliefs.”

So began a student with an A* target the other day. Apart from the fact that the Weimar government wasn’t a singular political party, the Communists never formed a government and Communists are left wing, I think I have conveyed the issues clearly. Although I acknowledge a slight problem with capital letters.

I might be doing it wrong. After several attempts to unravel the Weimar constitution by explaining Proportional Representation vis a vis the First Past the Post system (with pictures and diagrams) , constituencies, the Reichstag, coalition governments, presidents and chancellors, a third of the students will have dead eyes. They think it has no connection with their world. I probably need to think up an X Factor analogy. In the meantime students extract their own meaning;

“in 1932 hindenburg was still the president he was a weak leader because he had to ask all of the people what to do because he couldn’t decide for himself”

Ergo ‘Democracy is the terrible consequence of weak presidents who can’t decide for themselves?’ (And punctuation is something which needs to be ditched at the first opportunity.)

Anyway, when someone asks, ‘What’s proportional representation again?’ I have been known to say, ‘Just remember it means lots of different parties who can never agree, so nothing gets done.’ An adequate response to vacuum up some GCSE marks on this topic perhaps but not very fair if the Lib Dems want to attract young voters in the future.

Unfortunately there are several opportunities to oversimplify in this course as students canter over the boggy sands of content to be ready for an exam. Appeasement was clearly a mistake (crazy pacifists) the League of Nations were weak because they didn’t use an army (nothing can be achieved without an army) the Treaty of Versailles was too vengeful (typical French over reaction) I can’t bear to let these one dimensional notions go unchallenged but students often cling onto them like buoys in the rough sea of complex ideas.

So I am resolved to scour popular culture for anything which might help me open the door into their minds. And I will endeavour not to release them into the world holding skewed notions of politics, democracy and international relations. After all, they will be in charge of the world when I am too old to go on a protest march.