5 Lessons We Can Learn From Children

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This was originally going to be a post about Milo Yiannopoulos and the news that he has been banned from giving a talk at his old school. But the more more I read about the story and the further I was dragged into the dark little corner of internet dominated by the alt-right the more depressed I became with the whole political situation. This is the problem with politics being one of your main interests, in a year like 2016 where there has been a barrage of bad news it can really take over your head a bit. Sometimes you need to step away from the news, turn off Twitter and go and find waffles. Which is exactly what I did this morning.
wafflesThey say that in London you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat. Well in Amsterdam you’re never more than 10ft from a waffle. On my walk to the waffle house, I passed a group of children on a school trip and immediately felt a pang of longing to have my own class again. This shows the strength of nostalgia because, in reality, there are things I miss about teaching but schools trips aren’t one of them. With only a couple of exceptions, school trips were days of head counting, sick bags and trying to look composed in front of parent helpers whilst herding 60 wildebeest excitable children around an overcrowded museum. Still. I do miss having a class. Working with children is unpredictable, stressful and exhausting but they will make you laugh every single day. Even on those really awful, child protection meetings, crying in the toilets days your class will make you laugh. I wholeheartedly believe that if everybody spent just one hour a day with a five-year-old we would all be happier, kinder people. So I decided that, instead of giving more attention to Yiannopoulos who is ultimately a professional attention seeker, I would write about a far more worthy subject – the lessons we can all learn from children.

It’s OK to say “No.”

No is one of the first words children learn and they are the experts at saying it. In my experience, four-year-olds are far better at saying “no” than thirty-year-olds. It’s not an easy word to say; it has a tendency to disappoint or upset people. When I was younger I would do anything to avoid saying no. In an eagerness to please, I would take on anything and everything I was asked to do and then end up unable to cope and having to let people down. Whether it’s work, a social event or a favour for a friend – it’s far better to say no from the very beginning than promise something you won’t be able to deliver. For the sake of your mental health and wellbeing allow yourself to say no.

Be Silly

I’m quite a silly grown up as I believe most teachers are at heart. Silliness was a defining characteristic of the staff room in my first school where lunchtimes were spent quoting Monty Python, discussing the items that had made their way onto the “Michael Gove Shelf” and debating the philosophical question, “Would you still be friends with me if I had cups for hands?” It remains an important part of the Paramour household today. From spending, what some might call, an abnormal amount of our time voicing our cat’s inner monologue to recreating that manic Blair Christmas card.

Children are the masters of silliness. I remember walking into my husband’s Year 6 class one year, at the height of SATs mania, and they were trying to rap the entire theme tune to, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” between them. In my own class two stand out memories are the two boys who created a “Jedi Hedgehog School” (complete with light sabers made from pencils wrapped in coloured paper) and the group of children who approached me one playtime to tentatively ask if we could have a, “Dress Up As A Frog Day.” (We did – on the last day of the Spring term and only the children who had approached me actually did it.) Children teach us not to take ourselves too seriously.

Live In The Moment

This one sounds like a such a bullshit cliche but it is true: children force you into the present because that is how they live. There’s no time for your mind to wander or to retreat into your own thoughts; you have to be there in that moment all the time. And not just because at any minute one of them could rock too far back on their chair and fall and crack their head open – has anyone ever actually had that happen? Or is that just something we tell children? Living in the moment means no worrying about tomorrow, no time to wallow in self pity about a break up or stressing about the work you have to do that evening. You are very much “there” dealing and experiencing what is happening right in front of you. Of course being permanently “present” is one of the reasons the job is so exhausting and why, after three consecutive days of wet play, you find yourself quietly pressing your forehead against the cold window and breathing deeply.

Mindfulness is now up there with hygge, craft beer and pop-up eateries in trendiness but before you dismiss it as another passing fad – give it a go. Learn from children: notice the details, take pleasure in the simple things and keep your thoughts focused on the present.

Be Open Minded

“It’s OK to change your mind” became a motto for one class I taught. In this class there was a handful of dominant characters who would have huge, explosive disagreements that would drag on for days out of stubbornness more than anything else. Even if they knew they had done the wrong thing or perhaps got the wrong idea about a situation they would dig their heels in and allow the drama to continue. So we introduced, “It’s OK To Change Your Mind.” It was our class way of saying “I was wrong” without having to use those exact words.

It is only natural that we become more sure of our views and opinions as we grow up; by the time we’re adults our worldview has been shaped by a range of life experiences, the people we’ve met and things we’ve learnt for ourselves. But how often do we challenge these beliefs? Having strongly held views is honourable but, like children, we should try and remain open-minded to the idea of them changing.

Be Proud Of Your Scars

Children wear scars like badges of honour: “LOOK! I fell down the stairs and look what it’s made – I’VE GOT A SCAR!” cue 29 admiring “ooohs” from the rest of the room and the teacher calling out, “Come back to the carpet – we can look at Ahmed’s scar at playtime.”

When you’re five, scars are to be shown off and marvelled – they demand respect. If you’re extra lucky the teacher might even let you tell the story of how you got your scar in the epic battle of staircase. The child who turns up with a plaster cast on their arm is immediately the most popular child in the class. As we grow older we hide our scars, be they emotional or physical. We keep them a secret out of fear of being judged as weak or vulnerable. Now I’m not suggesting we start covering our scars in batman plasters and shoving them into the faces of unsuspecting passers-by but let’s not be ashamed of them. Scars are reminders that we survived – they symbolise strength.

Off Track

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Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessing. And  once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”  

Elizabeth Gilbert

It’s been nearly three weeks since my last post. In that time there have been several legal challenges made against the Labour Party by erm, the Labour Party, the Conservatives have announced that they are planning to build more Grammar Schools (shock), Donald Trump continues to insult and abuse everyone he meets: from the parents of a dead soldier, to a crying baby and Nigel Farage has grown a moustache, one assumes in an attempt to look more statesman/German porn star-like. Lack of inspiration is not my excuse for not writing it is just, for once, I have been somewhat distracted by some more uplifting news: Tim and I got married last week. It was a beautiful day filled with the most incredible people. I won’t bore you with the lovely details – I’ll just leave a few of our photos here:

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I should just mention our wonderful photographers Neil and Lisa who are responsible for these beautiful pictures – not just because I know they read this blog!

Last week was also significant for a second reason. We finally activated what we refer to as: The Plan (capital T capital P.)
The Plan

Tim and I have made no secret that we were really struggling with the state of the education system. Earlier this year we both publicly resigned and we’ve documented our ongoing frustrations on our blogs. If I’m honest the decision to leave teaching has been made for a while. Our head teachers knew long before our public resignations and our friends and family long before that. In fact, the moment that exit poll flashed up on the screen on May 7th 2015 we knew it wasn’t a matter of IF we’d leave the profession, just a matter of when and, more importantly, how. Neither of us has ever done anything else; we’d both imagined we’d stay in teaching until we retired.

But handing in our resignations in January filled us with a sense of optimism and hope that we hadn’t felt for long time. We were young(ish), educated and free to choose the direction our life was going to take – we just had to decide what direction that was. It’s the sort of decision most people are faced with when they are 18 and fresh out of school or at 21 as a young graduate. At the age of 11 I knew with such certainty that I wanted to be teacher so I was never confronted with that crossroads. No difficult decisions or soul searching was required, just a few forms to complete to secure my place on the PGCE course. Now here I was at 29, resigning from a successful career that I had, until recently, enjoyed. It was as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

We had three big decisions to make: what our next jobs would be, where we were going to live and, even more importantly, where we were going to go on our honeymoon. What followed was months of discussions and several draft versions of “The Plan.” You name it, we considered it. From buying and renovating a windmill, to buying a plot of land and building an eco-friendly lodge complete with allotment and solar panels to retreating to a cottage in the Hebrides to write stories and make/sell/eat fudge. We researched every career we could possibly do next: from politics, to cheese making, writing, plumbing, developing a scheme that would help Primary school teachers teach politics even foreign currency trading.

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making (lesson) plans.”

All we knew for sure was we wanted to ensure that the next stage of our life had more of a work-life balance than that last. We’ve been good at the work bit but the life bit requires serious improvement. Two teachers/school leaders does not equal a lot of quality time together. It means evenings spent too exhausted to talk or hunched over data or books and weekends spent trying to catch up on sleep – and we haven’t even got children to factor in at this point. It’s not a sustainable model and it’s certainly not a happy one. We’ve both been in the education system since we were four years old. That’s 25 years of the day being structured into hourly lesson slots, set lunch hours, bells ringing to let us know when we can go to the toilet or have a hot drink. What I think we’re both craving more than anything is more autonomy and control over our time.

After much deliberation, discussion and number crunching, we decided we would kick start our married life with a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Inspired by Phileas Fogg Michael Palin we decided on a round-the-world trip – by train. Which is why I am writing to you from a café in Leningradsky station, Moscow, not from a sofa in Wood Green. We’ve spent the last two days on a sleeper train from London, because nothing says honeymoon like 48 hours confined to a small cabin with an old Russian lady and an unwashed student. Our plan from here, after a few days exploring St. Petersburg, is to take the Tran Siberian Express to Lake Baikal where we’ll hole up in a chalet before continuing to Mongolia to stay in a yurt with a Mongolian tribe and a few goats. Then it’s back on the train all the way to Beijing. After we’ve done London to China by train, it all gets a bit more honeymoon-like. We get on a plane to cross the ocean to Hawaii where we’ll kick back for three weeks before continuing on to San Francisco to do coast-to-coat America on, you guessed it, more trains. All being well, we’ll be back in the UK at the end of October to catch up with our loved ones, wash our clothes and repack in time for our move to Amsterdam in November.

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Why Amsterdam? A few factors swung it: we needed to be somewhere accessible that meant we could still get back to London, somewhere we could get by with English whilst we learnt the language (Tim has multiple languages up his sleeve where as I have only a smattering of Italian phrases at my disposal which will only get you so far in Holland.) We ideally wanted somewhere politically left-leaning and we didn’t want to live somewhere that would mean relying on a car. So Amsterdam it is. We’ve got a place for 6 months and we haven’t decided the plan from then on. Tim’s got to be back in London for a short time because he’s starring in a one-man show about education – yes really – more on that another time.

So my posts for the next few weeks may be slightly more sporadic depending on whether I can get access to the internet. For the next few weeks I may even venture away (just slightly) from education and politics at times. That said, we arrive in Washington about three weeks before the Presidential Election so I’m sure I’ll have a word or 1,000 to say about that. The Labour Leadership Election takes place whilst we’re in Hawaii and, whilst it feels wrong to dwell on the dilemmas facing the Labour Party whilst sitting in a tropical paradise, I imagine it won’t be far from our thoughts; it has already dominated our conversation whilst travelling through Belarus yesterday.

 

If you’re interested you’ll find be able to follow our adventures and musings here. Normal service will resume in October  but, for now at least, The Girl on the Piccadilly Line is off track.