Saturday 9 July 2016

Not Your Mother

This blog has been pretty dormant for a while as I've been dealing with a lot of upheaval, both at home and at work. But I could not let this news go unacknowledged.

"Andrea Leadsom 'says she is better suited to be Prime Minister because she has children'"

This is nothing new. Women without children have been vilified for centuries, burnt at stakes and accused of being less than women. Last summer, at a staff picnic, I overheard a colleague stating that it was impossible to experience true love if one wasn't a mother. About that time, I wrote this poem. I'm no creative mind, and it's probably just more of that dark emo stuff I wrote as a teenager, but I'm publishing it for the first time.

Anyone who thinks I don't know true love has never seen my family and the love that is given freely in abundance. Nor have they spent a moment in my classroom.

Although I am not your mother

Although I am not your mother, I have birthed every one of you.
For years I have incubated you in my room.
My womb.
Like a foetus, you were magnificent parasites –
Taking what you needed from me in order to thrive.
Not O2 or C6H12O6, or even Ca2+, but knowledge and passion.
And I have willingly offered up more of me as the caecilian lets her hatchlings tear chunks of her skin off.

Although I am not your mother (I never carried your bodies inside me for nine months), I continue to bear the burden of your hopes for the future.
When you cry, big howling sobs of despair, it is the call of the bear cub, and my instinct is to run to you, protect you, fight to the death to ensure your survival.
I want to shelter you under my wings, or keep you in a safe place where predators cannot seek you out and torment you.
I want to take your poor shattered hearts and spirits, broken by people, places and pathogens –
Sew them back together using my anatomy books.

Although I am not your mother, birthday cards and memories of carrot cake say otherwise.
I feel your pain as my own, and revel in your joy.
I am so proud of you all;
I'm your biggest fan.
I talk excitedly about your successes to anyone who will listen.

Although I am not your mother and my DNA will die with me, I pass on much more.
You do not have my mitochondria, but you have my energy.
And energy can never be destroyed.

What say you, Andrea Leadsom? Do I have a stake in the future?

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Annus Horribilis, Annus Mirabilis

Although December is less than halfway through the academic year, our cultural reference points draw us still to reminisce at the end of the calendar year and to make resolutions for the next one. Before teaching, my husband and I used to send out annual newsletters talking about all the wonderful things we had done that year. As it is, the wonderful things are increasingly the awesome achievements of my students, which fill my heart with joy but which don't lend themselves very easily to being read about by relatives at the breakfast table. So that tradition has rather died, but I have a need to do some kind of stock-taking.

2014 was split down the middle. Up to August I remained at the college I had worked at for five years. The academic year 2013-2014 was the worst of my life, with no exceptions. We had an Ofsted inspection in the spring term, the outcome of which, and the decisions then made in our department, broke my heart. Worst of all, it finally impacted on my teaching. Throughout my teaching career, I had been able to avoid stress, bureaucracy and bullying affecting the quality of my teaching, but some of my students could tell I wasn't on top of my game. I still performed very well - my graded observation (oh yes, FE still has them...) was good, I successfully got the department through the BTEC external verification and HND external examination for the second year running, and my students got the best pass rate in AS and A2. But I was losing the spark, and I was dangerously close to burnout. My husband and I sometimes wondered if we were just being over-sensitive, but everyone we spoke to in the education field responded with a variation on "Damn, that's terrible."

So it was time to move on. I probably should have moved on a year earlier, but the 2012-2013 year was so awesome that I was lulled into a false sense of security. I interviewed for a job in July and was offered it the same day (which is actually pretty unusual for FE, though not schools). It is pure A Level teaching and a tutor group. I work in a department where people are genuinely friends, where it is always possible to find someone willing to help, and where my managers encourage us to minimise our workloads and leave the office promptly. There is a lot less paperwork, and a lot more time for teaching. I have survived my first term at the new college, and have thrived. I have amazing students, brilliant colleagues and nurturing managers. Some of the edited highlights:
  • My manager offered to buy me a skeleton for my classroom (duly bought and named Silent Bob), and agreed to buy me a microscope with USB camera, which is used nearly daily.
  • My classroom is so welcoming that, even though it's the coldest room in the department, my students still like hanging out there between classes.
  • Every time my manager walks past my classroom I seem to be talking about something utterly random and possibly inappropriate to the lesson (e.g. David Nutt and "Nuttsack", colorectal cancer, how a rolled Ammophila leaf resembles a roach), and because she teaches biology too, she laughs - she gets it.
  • During a game of biology-themed Pictionary, one group of students got the word "turgid" in under two seconds because their artist drew a penis.
  • My efforts to educate my students on intersectionality are starting to pay off, even if they're not quite there - on a hexagons revision table I saw the Bundle of His renamed to the "Bundle of Sexism".
I have no regrets about changing jobs. I earn more for having less responsibility, and I am able to devote the bulk of my time to my students and their learning. This time last year I was broken, and wondering what on Earth I could do if I didn't teach. But there is life after teaching in an awful, awful college. It just took me a while to feel alive again.

Season's greetings to all, and a happy new year.

Tuesday 19 August 2014


When it seemed that, without intervention, the Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki) would become extinct due to a chytrid fungus infection, conservation scientists removed as many of the remaining population as they could, to give the species the best chance of survival in a controlled, fungus-free environment.

Seeds of the world's smallest water lily (Nymphaea thermarum) were collected before the plant's habitat was destroyed forever, to preserve genetic diversity and grow new plants with a view to repopulating similar habitats in the future.

In both these cases, the organisms were saved from their environment before it killed them. It seems rather brutal to gather up all the surviving members of a species and take them away to a terrarium or greenhouse, leaving the ecosystem without a significant component. Some may think this is an interference too far.

These came to mind today, because several of my students from my previous workplace have come to enrol at my new college. I've done the calculations, and this does not leave a lot of students for A-levels at the old place. With declining numbers and support over the years for this qualification in this organisation, the localised extinction of A-levels is imminent. So my students, with my blessing, have moved to a nurturing and supportive habitat, and assured their survival.

At least that's what I keep telling myself when I worry that, in trying to do the best for the students, I have been the one to kill off the qualification I fought so hard to keep going at that place.

Friday 8 August 2014

Mind The Gap

Given that I have a policy of removing blogs from my RSS reader after six months of inactivity, I suspect that a gap between posts of 11 months might have lost a few readers, but I shall attempt to restart the old blogging machine.

People close to me will know this year has not been particularly easy on a professional level. When you play the Game Of Thrones you win or you die, and it was very nearly the latter. With A-level, Access and HND - all very intensive, high-level courses - plus the "professional challenges" faced on a daily basis (which I do not intend to discuss, but oh boy are you going to find out about them), there was nothing left of me at the end of the day to fulfil even my basic physiological needs. My weight and mental health both took a dive, and I'm sure colleagues got as sick of my sarcastic responses as I did of their constant questions as to what my weight-loss secret was!

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. I interviewed for and was offered a position at another college. With a stronger A-level provision, an established sixth form, and a good track record of Oxbridge applicants, it's in a different league altogether. I will predominantly be teaching A-level, and you have no idea how good that feels. Nearly four years ago I interviewed for a position that was exclusively A-level, and I turned it down because I felt I'd get bored. Now I don't think that's possible. To be able to focus on one subject and one specification and really strive for brilliance in me and my students could be the most fascinating role of my career yet.

The academic year 2003-2004 was absolutely awful. The academic year 2013-2014 has matched it, but for (mostly) different reasons. Ten years ago, I felt broken. Now, I can use the painful memories to help me be a better teacher, friend, wife, daughter and sister. Maybe I'll be able to put this year to similarly good use. To those of you still here, thank you for not getting round to sorting out your RSS feeds!

Sunday 8 September 2013

Reflecting On Privilege In Education

Yesterday I attended the fantastic researchED 2013 conference at Dulwich College. I've been past there a few times round the South Circular (usually being towed to the Fiat specialists in Catford...), but this was my first time inside. The setting was beautiful, the conference very well organised and smoothly run - no complaints whatsoever on that front. But being inside somewhere open only to the truly privileged made my skin itch a bit.

It started when I pulled into the car park, my battered, bird-shit-covered, bumper-stickered Punto nose to tail with enormous SUVs and Jaguars. I was promptly turned round and sent back round the corner to the conference delegates' parking space, on a building site. My tyres were caked in mud and my shoes still have Dulwich College hardcore embedded in the soles. In the meantime, the car parks inside were entirely empty. There may have been a logical reason for this (gate wardens on duty only until lunchtime, perhaps), but it definitely felt like the riff-raff were being separated out. Paul, even more left-wing than I am, was grumbling under his breath for a good 15 minutes.

Then, the Master of the College referred, in his opening speech, to the sixth-formers helping with registration as "servants". I bristled at this. We often ask students to help us out with events. But we call them "ambassadors" - we place them in a position of respect and responsibility, not servitude. In the hall there were pictures of former headteachers - all men, naturally. Then again, it is a boys' school, and you'd never see a male headteacher's painting on the wall of a girls' independent school. Our walls are covered with pictures of students. It felt as though our two institutions had very different opinions of the worth of their students.

Then I saw a couple of posters in the student café, protesting the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance. I wondered how many students at Dulwich College were even eligible for EMA. When EMA was offered, getting on for one-third of our full-time students were eligible, most of which were entitled to the full amount of £30 per week.I remember very few of my students not being either EMA or ALG (adult learning grant) recipients. For the non-UK readers, EMA was basically paid because otherwise low-income students would have been unable to afford the bus fare to college, and in some cases eat. The government has now abolished it, and instead raised the participation age to "motivate" hungry students to come to college.

Now, I consider myself middle-class. My father was a teacher, and my mother, the daughter of a country GP (so pretty much high society for Shropshire), was a radiographer. Paul's father was a bank manager, and his mother is still a teacher. I attended a comprehensive school until I was 16, then won a scholarship (and the benefit of a government-assisted place) to an independent school for the sixth form. This step undoubtedly gave me a massive boost in getting to Cambridge, and well - they don't come much more privileged than a Cambridge graduate. And as both of us are teachers, that makes our family middle-class, despite the fact we can only afford to rent a one-bedroom flat.

The most frequently-asked question of me by my students is "Why didn't you become a doctor?". The second most frequently-asked question is "Why do you want to teach here if you went to Cambridge?" And I get that one from students and staff alike. For students, I turn it back to them - "Why wouldn't I? I think you deserve to be taught by highly qualified teachers, don't you?" For staff, it's been harder, but I think my response will be a shorter version of this post. I think I have a talent for teaching - the thanks, the little gifts, the continued contact with my students over the years suggests so. I cannot bear the thought of restricting that talent to the most privileged - they do not need my help. They can buy tuition, their children can have more personalised teaching, they can do amazing things (through the school) to pad out their personal statements so they're a shoo-in for the elite universities, and with the pedigree they have, they will walk into highly-paid city jobs when they graduate.

For most of my students, the four and a half hours in a class of 20 with me is the only tuition they can afford. And so I give my time outside of this willingly with no expectation of reimbursement (though a chocolate bar to share during a long session is always appreciated). Students at independent schools have access to a plethora of teachers, many of whom have Oxbridge degrees, not to mention highly literate parents - they have an advantage when writing coursework, personal statements and the like. Many of my students are the only members of their family who can speak English (making parents' evening really interesting!). They can't ask their mum or dad to look over their personal statement, or proof-read an essay. So I do that too.

I teach in FE because it's the best job in the world. I love the diversity of the students I teach and their ideas and experiences. I teach in FE because they have never asked me to apply for a job via hand-written letter, as one independent school did. I suspected if the quality of my handwriting and the choice of pen and paper used was an important consideration in an applicant, then the headteacher and I would not have got on, and so I decided not to go through with the application. I teach in FE because I far prefer being called "Julia" than "Mrs Anderson" (though a plaintive "Miii-iiiss" seems to haunt female teachers everywhere). I teach in FE because, through a combination of my brain-power and money from the government, paid through taxes, I was able to get a place at a top school and then the best university in the country. What sort of person am I if I was able to enjoy that privilege at little cost to myself, only to not pay society back by helping others to enjoy an excellent education?

I also teach in FE because I don't imagine the likes of Dulwich College would appoint me with blue hair, facial piercing and tattoos up my arms, but that is probably another issue entirely.

Thursday 6 June 2013

On Realising I'm An Emotional Wreck

This evening, Paul and I were channel-hopping, and we thought "Super Tornado" looked good. Normally, I find shows about natural phenomena really interesting, so it seemed the right choice. But when we started watching (a little after it had started), the programme was focusing on the staff and children at one of the two elementary schools that was hit.

I watched for a couple of minutes, wondering why it would occur to anyone to film this on their cameraphones rather than doing everything they could to watch out for danger and survive. Then they showed the footage of children and teachers leaving their hiding places and stepping out into an absolutely destroyed corridor. And I couldn't watch any more. I got very tearful, and had to switch channels to find something less school/college-focused.

This has happened regularly since I became a teacher. It never happened in any of my other jobs. I watched dramas about gunmen in court rooms when I worked for a judge (never worried me), footage of the July 7 bombings when Paul was commuting to that area of London (it absolutely bothered him though), and numerous campus incidents, fact and fiction, when I was a student, and it never affected me like this.

A friend once said that having children was as though someone opened a direct route to her heart and just left it exposed. I've never had children, and won't be doing so, and I would never dream of comparing being a teacher to being a mother, however much I mother and nurture my students. But I think I'm starting to get a better understanding of what my friend meant, and a little taster of what she must experience every day.

I struggled to deal with my feelings after the Sandy Hook shootings (in particular I couldn't get Vicki Soto and her sacrifice out of my head). Hell, I found it difficult to watch the "Silent Witness" episode "Shadows", and that was fictional. We have a lockdown policy for the College. My lab is the furthest point from the main entrance, so, one might imagine it would be the least likely place to have an incident. But that doesn't stop me spending far more time than is probably healthy, at least once a week, thinking about our lockdown policy, how quickly I could shut the door, turn off the lights and get everyone away from the windows. Where would I tell my students to sit? Would they be safe under the lab benches? Would the back of the lab under the windows actually be safer as we're on the 2nd floor?

I've become increasingly protective of my students. My manager has commented on this. And it's true - I will go up against Senior Management (and have done!) if a decision will adversely and unfairly affect them. I refer to it as "going Mama-Bear", though Paul says it's more that I'm the Khaleesi and the students are my dragons.

Do other teachers find they become complete wimps when anything violent happens in a school or college? Or am I just over-sensitive?

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Farewell To Coursework

In just over a month I will send off the last batch of A-level coursework I will ever have to mark (or at least until the specification changes). I can't say I will be sad to see it go. After four years, I shall enjoy having some time to enjoy my Easter holiday, and will be delighted to not go through a large bottle of Gaviscon for the fortnight before the 15th May deadline.

I had two great seasons of fieldwork with the class of 2010 and 2011. Then the class of 2012 rebelled and demanded to do lab work (then went back on their demand when they realised fieldwork would have been more straightforward). And for the class of 2013, I had provisionally booked fieldwork for them before their summer break, only to discover that our departmental budget was weirdly empty... So it's been another year of living hell lab work for Unit 6.

Now, I've written about the fun of fieldwork, and how exciting the data collection could be. And I've listed the many advantages of the written work as preparation for university and beyond. But the drawbacks of coursework have superseded the benefits, and in September we changed exam boards from Edexcel to OCR. The latter examines its Unit 3 and Unit 6 through practical assessments in the laboratory.

Those disadvantages:

  • The mark schemes seem increasingly poorly applied. I've seen superb papers that I have advised students to submit for publication given low marks (including often only half of the communication marks for flawlessly formatted, perfectly spelled academic prose). I've seen awful papers that barely discuss the issues associated with the applied biology given high marks. I have been to training days, I have sought subject expert advice, I have co-moderated with colleagues internally and externally, and I have appealed outrageous marks, but the ability to predict the marks given (and therefore evidently the ability to help students do well) eludes me. Time to move on and use an exam board with prescriptive, clearly worded mark schemes.
  • Many of my students come from an ESOL background. Until last September, students did not require GCSE English in order to be enrolled onto A-levels. This had a minimal effect on the other STEM subjects, but it clearly hurt A-level biology. Some of my students only complete GCSE English alongside their A2 exams. A 3,000-word report may be doable for them by the time they get to university, but it's a struggle before then.
  • The sections in the report bear little resemblance to how scientific papers are actually structured. This limits the utility of the coursework for me. The students do this kiddy-on Disneyfied version of a science paper, then no doubt will try to submit manuscripts with full discussion of the credibility of each of the sources cited in the references.
  • Actually, despite my assertions that the process of doing coursework was a unique skill that could not be gained in any other way, I can provide opportunities for students to learn these skills throughout their two years.
  • Least importantly (since it's all about the students really), it is stressful running 17 different experiments, negotiating with the lab technicians, postponing experiments because reagents that should have been shipped next-day have not arrived three weeks later, postponing deadlines because none of the little sods could be bothered to do their experiment plans and giving up my Wednesday evenings for a month to increase the lab time available. Not to mention the fact that I gave up two days of my Easter holiday to supervise the final few experiments - trying to find everything in the prep room without my lab technicians was terrifying.

So I have 17 Unit 6 practical reports and four Unit 3 issue report resits to deal with, which is a lot better than the 14 Unit 6 and 43 Unit 3 papers I had last year. I just hope the students luck out with their examiner for the final time. And I hope the transition to the practical assessments of OCR proves to be the correct decision.

Friday 22 February 2013

So What Can We Teach?

A couple of stories (along with comments from some of the louder and more obnoxious members of the Edublogosphere) have popped up over the past few days. Most relevant to my own teaching is on the subject of SRE lessons, which will now include aspects of respect and intolerance of violence against women. Relevant to Paul is the introduction of an A-level in Creative Writing.

Where these two seemingly divergent subjects meet is in the overwhelming criticism of both SRE and creative writing, namely that teachers are woefully underqualified to teach both of them. Apparently our relationships are train-wrecks by and large, and we shouldn't be giving advice to students on their relationships. And the only people who will be able to teach Creative Writing will be those who have been successful writers in their own right. I'll address this one first.

"Only successful authors can teach Creative Writing effectively"

Fortunately, Paul is a successful writer and editor and would be able to rock that A-level teaching. But do all teachers of creative subjects need to be accomplished in that field? The actual creation is not the majority of the qualification - in Art I spent a lot of time learning ratios, perspective, techniques, history of various movements. In Music (I didn't do any qualifications save for my AB exams) there was a formula for composing music, which I was supposed to demonstrate in my Grade V theory exam. I would imagine in Creative Writing there are similar theories and formulae that can be used to help students write creatively.

But surely this is extended to the supposedly non-creative subjects. Do I need to be a successful biologist in order to teach A-level Biology? I most certainly am not. I'm not even a biologist, though I have a masters in Biosystematics. I'm a geologist and I have one published paper. I don't have a PhD - I failed to do that twice. No, I need a good understanding of the subject matter and an ability to pass that understanding to my students. I can do that without a PhD, long publication record, grant applications and the other characteristics of successful scientists.

"Teachers are the last people who should be advising on relationships. Look at us!"

My marriage is not perfect. Many people close to us know we've had some trials and tribulations. My family's story would be rejected by sitcom writers for being too outrageous and unbelievable. But despite all that (or maybe because?) I still deal one-to-one with a large number of students with boyfriend/girlfriend problems, family issues and so on. I'm now certified to give out condoms to students under our borough's C-Card scheme. In Biology classes I discuss IVF, contraception, STIs, abortion and drug use - sometimes it's even relevant to the specification. Why shouldn't I take the opportunity to discuss relationships with the students too?

There have been some concerns that certain supposedly controversial issues such as homosexuality would be difficult to teach about in SRE if one's religious beliefs state that it's a sin. Well, the same colleagues who would have issues also have serious problems with evolution and an old Earth, but no one has suggested (apart from me) that they shouldn't be teaching Biology... If these colleagues can teach a topic they think is inaccurate and wrong, then they can jolly well teach about the full range of human relationships.

Given a framework, regardless of our experience in the world of relationships, we can raise discussion points. We can ask the right questions. We can get students to reflect on their own relationships and those they see around them. I'm not a role model - I have tattoos, blue hair and am contemplating a nose ring (hey, it's MY midlife crisis, right?). I drink and occasionally smoke. I eat poorly. I still have to teach students about the importance of healthy eating and the dangers of lung cancer. No one has suggested that, because I'm overweight, I shouldn't be teaching students about a balanced diet. So why should private relationship woes prevent a teacher from teaching about positive relationships and respect for each other?

Right. Time for caffeine. I don't usually write before my first cup of the day. It probably shows.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

You Don't Scare Me, I Teach In FE #1: Hearts In The Air

My A2 class are an interesting lot (mostly in a good way). They do the "why regress" on me whenever I teach them about metabolic pathways (thus reaching the limit of my biochemical understanding and sending me screaming for the textbooks). They have a slightly too healthy interest in dissecting stuff. They know themselves and their opinions and they aren't afraid to show it. Last year these characteristics were pretty much condensed into one awesome student, and it's great to see more of the same.

Occasionally, however, they test my patience... Surely not, you cry! How could 17 teenagers and twenty-somethings possibly get on my nerves?

Well, last Wednesday was my birthday, and rather than bring in chocolate or anything like that, I offered my A2s a practical. They'd already done one heart dissection at the start of their AS studies, but would they like to do another one? Hell yes. Spirits were high and the students were thrilled at the thought of being allowed scalpels (why we haven't had more injuries, I will never know).

Until one little darling picked up his heart (the disembodied sheep one) and asked me if he should throw it. Well, no, obviously. He said he was going to, and I have to say I was getting a little nervous and squeaky in my protestations. And then he threw it.

I don't know if any of you have ever seen a sizeable sheep's heart sailing across a laboratory, but it is something of a surreal experience. It would have been rejected by the producers of "Teachers" for being too unrealistic. I'm just glad that one of the other students caught it (though my poor broken nerves could have done without her throwing it back to the original culprit!).

This will be an infrequent (I hope) insight into some of the more extreme aspects of my teaching life. Just in case there's anyone who doesn't think teachers earn their holidays.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Other Natural Substances

An advert that always amuses me is the Rennie "Happy Tummy" one, which has been around for a couple of years (sadly, can't embed it). In it, the wonderful declaration is made that "Rennie turns excess acid into water and other natural substances". What are those "natural substances" exactly?

Rennie contains magnesium carbonate and calcium carbonate. That's fairly standard antacid remedy, because it's pretty good at neutralising stomach acid, which is hydrochloric acid.

MgCO3 + 2HCl → MgCl2 + H2CO3
CaCO3 + 2HCl → CaCl2 + H2CO3

Nothing wrong with MgCl2 or CaCl2 (all of those ions are vital for the body's metabolic functions anyway). It's the benign little molecule produced in both reactions: H2CO3. That's carbonic acid. Now, anyone who has studied environmental geochemistry (and any A2 student daft enough to ask) knows that:

CO2 + H2O ⇌ H2CO3 ⇌ H+ + HCO3- ⇌ 2H+ + CO32-

This is the carbonate buffer system, which maintains the pH of the oceans. It's also involved in the maintenance of our internal pH (though it seems to be more frequently called the bicarbonate buffer system in physiology). It's an equilibrium, shifting to the right when the pH increases (in other words, the concentration of H+ ions decreases). Which means that, when the pH is low (the conditions are acidic), the equilibrium will move to the left.

What's on the left hand side? Well that would be water, H2O. We knew about that from the Rennie advert. But this other molecule, CO2, is carbon dioxide. The gas produced when we belch and fart. This is simply the standard chemistry behind the action of antacids, and shouldn't be a surprise to anyone with some high school science in them. It's tickled me that the advert is so coy about it, but I suppose if we were told that indigestion remedies leave us trumping like a one-man oompah band none of us would run out and buy them.
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