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.



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

The glorious differentiation wheel

I need to pay homage to the glorious differentiation wheel; saviour of my (occasional) one dimensional lessons, bounteous giver of time. I was alerted to this neat little lesson idea through Mike Fleetham’s thinking class room

It centres on creating a wheel of activities from a central oasis of content. Students choose their own activities; one which they can do easily and one which is a challenge. When they have finished they need to find others who have done the same activities as them and compare. Another task is for them to organise the tasks in order of difficulty and explain their why they think certain tasks are harder than others.

186_0_Differentiation Wheel Apr 13

It works really well based on the idea that students like to choose their own activities and will often seek to challenge themselves once they have achieved something in the first task. The simplicity means that it saves lots of planning time (can’t say fairer than that) and frees up the teacher to offer support during lesson time because the students have more ownership of the task.

I tend to use it to allow students to apply different skills for instance using a sources or sources, but you can easily write ‘Repression under Stalin’ in the central bubble and give a variety of tasks based on this content. If I’m feeling particularly on the ball I’ll base my tasks on Bloom’s taxonomy. My colleague used it for GCSE revision and the variety of tasks meant that it avoided the heavy treacle-wading sensation that revision sessions can sometimes engender.

Thank you Mike Fleetham wherever you are…

New teaching idea for the Enabling Act

As I groaned under the weight of Turkey and potatoes anchoring my stomach I suddenly felt inspired for an active way to teach the Enabling Law. It has nothing to do with turkey. Perhaps I finally felt relaxed after a long term followed by frantic Christmas preparations for a new idea to seep through.
It involves students acting out a range of roles. The key thing with this legislation is to convey the import of voting it all in. The consequences were catastrophic and students must go beyond just thinking ‘They were scared.’ They need to consider individual responsibility to society and the interplay of a complex number of reasons that went through the minds of the Weimar politicians when they handed over power to a brutal extremist. Students need to see the human face of this decision and recognise the temptation to feel helpless and hand over power to others in contemporary political systems.
I will make a series of cards reflecting the views of a range of politicians and also throw in a lot of SA bullies. They will need to mingle and have snatched conversations trying to decide what to do and then try to vote honestly. However the vote turns out will lead to an interesting discussion.
Watch this space for what I come up with.

An inspired Year 12 homework

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to teach Year 12 Italian Unification and I came across this idea using

Fake book pages make such amusing homeworks for a creative Year 12 class. My group were told to make pages for the intellectual thinkers of the Italian Risorgimento. They really got into it, showing how much they understood the beliefs of the protagonists and also their relationships with each other. They could also show how people’s beliefs changed over time. They would write a post from one of the intellectuals and date it, then write out the responses from other thinkers of the time. They could also write another post from a different date to show how the Thinkers changed their beliefs over time. Needless to say they were very imaginative and they had to think hard about the people involved and how they might respond to events which is crucial for interpreting sources.

I also got to learn current lingo for use on Facebook which will probably make me look like a prat it I use it.