From Miss Honey to John Keating: the narrative of the martyr teacher has to come to an end.

A friend and ex. colleague of mine recently asked me for some advice. She is currently working as an Assistant Head in a particularly challenging school: high levels of deprivation, tough behaviour and the sort of data that has you living in fear of “the call.”  She is a fantastic teacher: skilled, hardworking and completely committed to her work. “I know I’m making a difference where it really matters.” She said, “I can see the impact of my work which is fulfilling but I have no life and the stress is wreaking havoc on the other areas of my life and my health. But looking for a job in a less challenging school feels like selling out like I’m letting my pupils down. What do I do?”

My friend didn’t come to me because I am some sort of fount of wisdom, she came to me because she knows I was in the exact same position just two years ago. I was an Assistant Head of a challenging school in East London, regularly working 70 hours a week, which isn’t uncommon. Recent research carried out by the Guardian found that a third of teachers work over 60 hours a week, with over 70% believing it impacts on their mental and physical health.

working hours

Of course my situation was my own fault as much as any one else’s. New to senior leadership, I was committed to leading by example: I wanted anyone in my phase to be able to walk into my classroom at any time and see exemplary practice. My books were always (triple) marked and up-to-date, my displays relevant and my classroom tidy and organised. I met every deadline and said yes to anything and everything I was asked to do. I ran clubs, parent workshops and even holiday revision sessions (never again.) I was responsible for teaching and learning in KS1, leading English, the performance management of five teachers, mentoring an NQT, carrying out a full programme of monitoring every half term, coaching and team teaching with struggling staff and producing written data analysis every six weeks. Oh, and there was also the small matter of being a full time class teacher, desperately trying to get 30 six-year-olds, only 2 of whom had English as a first language, to meet National Expectations.

Why did I do it? The simplest answer is I didn’t want to let anyone down. And I WAS making a difference, which in itself was satisfying. The children in our school had such chaotic and challenging lives and I believed that dedicating my entire life to them was the honourable thing to do. There were children whose only meal between school lunches was the breakfast I brought in for them each day.  They needed me and I genuinely believed I would be letting them down by doing less. Not to mention that there was also the very real threat of academisation hanging over us if our results didn’t improve.  I was convinced that the level of work I was doing was necessary to “save the school.”

Other members of staff would comment on how organised I was, they would ask how I managed to Martyr Complexget everything done and I’d just sort of shrug and say, “I guess I’m just very organised.” When really I just wanted to scream, “ALL I DO IS WORK & SLEEP! I’VE LOST 10lbs THIS MONTH BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE TIME TO EAT! MY IRON LEVELS ARE DANGEROUSLY LOW BUT I DON’T HAVE TIME TO GO TO THE DOCTOR! THAT’S HOW I GET IT ALL DONE!” 

Looking back, that would probably have been more reassuring to my colleagues than pretending I was coping with a completely unreasonable workload. I was setting an example but it was unfair to expect anyone to follow it. But I remained determined to keep all the plates spinning – and I did a pretty good job of doing it and looking like I was coping. I was in full martyr teacher mode and everyone around me praised me for my hard work so I didn’t question it. Even when I called in sick to spend two days sleeping, I just told work it was a stomach bug and returned to my old routine once I was back. Even when I was crying as I drove to work, partly because of the stress and partly down to exhaustion, I didn’t think there was a problem with what I was doing, I just berated myself for not coping better. Reflecting on this now, it is no wonder I was ready to walk away from the profession by the end of the school year.

The problem is that we still celebrate martyr teachers; it’s the most damaging narrative in our profession. You see them in films and read about them literature: from Miss Honey to John Keating. Miss HoneyThey’re the teachers who sacrifice everything for their work. We are surrounded by the message that to be a good teacher, to truly make a difference, you must sacrifice your evenings, your weekends, your holidays, your time with your family and friends along with any hobbies or interests. And all for an average salary of £24,525.

15 months away from education gave me some much needed perspective. When I started toying with the idea of coming back I promised myself I could only do so on the understanding that my job would never be more important than my health or overall quality of life. I still work hard: on average 50-55 hours a week – but I don’t take any work home (apart from report writing.) My weekends are my own and I use my evenings to write, exercise and see friends. It’s not that I’m working less, I’m just working more effectively, learning when enough is enough and saying no more often.

It’s very easy for me to say, “I used to work too much and now I don’t and now life is much better” but it took retreating from the profession for over a year to realise that this was possible and to understand that leaving at 5pm doesn’t make me a bad teacher, or any less committed to my class. Once I’d accepted this, I then had to find the right school to return to. Last September I still had half a book to write so I wasn’t going to be able to give over my weekends to school work, even if I had wanted to. I needed a school with a realistic marking policy (no triple marking), a pragmatic approach to monitoring and a leadership team that would encourage teachers to have a life outside of work. The last one is easy: I think every head teacher would say they want their teachers to have hobbies, interests and time with their friends and family but this can sometimes be at odds with their policies and expectations. If we’re going to get rid of the martyr teacher complex from our schools it has to start with the expectations from the leadership.

I used to wear my 70-hour-week as badge of honour: it was worth it just to see the impact I was having and I would glow with pride whenever comments were made about my commitment and dedication. Now, I take pride in turning up on Monday refreshed and full of stories about my weekend to share with my colleagues and class.

I’m no Miss Honey, but that’s OK.

Heaven Knows We’re Miserable Now

image1 (1)

One of the most difficult things about saying goodbye to Year 6 at the end of the year is the knowledge that, regardless of which school they are off to next, they are about to enter a really difficult few years. Being a teenager is bloody horrible. You can be the most well-adjusted child, from the most stable and loving home and still have days, weeks, months where you hate yourself. Not just hate your arms, your nose or your thighs but genuinely hate yourself.

So it was depressing, but not surprising, to read that young girls in Britain are increasingly unhappy.  Research carried out by the Children’s Society found that 14% of 10 to 15-year-old girls are unhappy with their life as a whole and a third of them are unhappy with their appearance. Apparently the researchers who interviewed the girls heard them describe themselves as “ugly” and “worthless.” If I’m really honest, I was surprised that it wasn’t a higher percentage. To me the fact that 66% of the young people interviewed DIDN’T feel unhappy about their appearance is very encouraging. The worry is that the number of young girls who are unhappy has risen by 10% in the last 5 years (interestingly boys percentages haven’t budged.) Are teenage girls getting more unhappy? Isn’t being unhappy and hating your body almost par for the course in your teenage years? Isn’t teenage melancholy the reason entire genres of music were created and why people listened to the Smiths. Or is that just one of those horribly insensitive “didn’t worry about that in my day” comments? In a letter to his 16 year-old self Stephen Fry wrote:

“I am perhaps happier now than I have ever been and yet I cannot but recognise that I would trade all that I am to be you, the eternally unhappy, nervous, wild, wondering and despairing 16-year-old Stephen: angry, angst-ridden and awkward but alive. Because you know how to feel, and knowing how to feel is more important than how you feel.”

I am not trying to dismiss mental health issues or play them down in any way I just don’t know anyone that at some point in their teenage years wasn’t filled with insecurities about their appearance. Obviously just because “that’s how it’s always been” is no reason to allow anything to continue and our hope is that quality of life would improve with each generation. I’ve only read two short articles on this piece of research. I’m currently on a train trundling through the Gobi desert and downloading articles on my phone is a bit like like trying to download music with dial-up internet. I’ve only managed to find articles sharing the percentages and suggesting we increase support for teen mental health – so far so good. What I haven’t found is any analysis as to WHY these girls are unhappier, particularly with their appearance, compared to girls in previous years. So I thought I’d do my own.

I think every generation believes that when they were younger “kids were allowed to be kids” for a lot longer – I’m not sure this is true. A 10-year-old living on London in the 1940s for example would have faced traumas that are incomprehensible to a 10 -year-old growing up in London today. Still each generation sees the world their children are growing up in as more cynical than their own childhoods. When my parents were 10 they could play out in the street until it was dark, front doors could be kept unlocked and everybody knew their name. Similarly, when I was 10 if I wanted to phone a friend I used the phone in the lounge, after 6 o’clock (and for no longer than 10 minutes because we’re not made of money.) I didn’t have my own mobile until I was 14 (Nokia 3210 – obvs) and there was no internet access at home until I 15. There was no WhatsApp or Facebook even MySpace was still an idea waiting to be developed

It was the 90s and the height of Britpop, arguably a time that was less image obsessed than the X-Factor world young people grow up in today. The women I saw on TV and in the newspapers were Denise Van Outen, Zoe Ball and Sarah Cox – smart, confident and funny women who were as comfortable at Glastonbury as they were on the sofa of the children’s programmes I loved. They wore baggy clothes, hung out with Oasis and drank lager; I thought they were cool as anything. Like most young girls in 1997 my idols were the Spice Girls. Say what you want about them but they were five normal looking girls without a fake tan or a size 0 between them (at least in the early days.) They had frizzy hair, mad clothes and were all proud to be different. When I compare them to the role models the current generation of children have from Cheryl Cole to any one of the Kardashians, perfectly groomed within an inch of their lives, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that these women are more damaging role models for young girls than the women I admired 20 years ago… right? Not quite.

In 1996 a magazine published a photograph of Emma Bunton and her mum walking along a beach in their swimming costumes. The headline read, “Which One Is The Spice Girl?” The implication being that Emma Bunton’s figure was indistinguishable from that of woman over double her age. I remember looking at the picture and admiring Emma’s lovely figure (thankfully I was completely unaware of the magazines attempt to body shame a 21-year-old) I thought to myself, “My legs look a bit like Emma Bunton’s” At 10 years-old I was proud – I looked like a Spice Girl! For the next couple of years I would look at photos of Emma and try and judge if I was still as thin as her. I’d replicate her poses and judge whether my thighs spread out more than hers when I crossed my legs or if I had more rolls of fat on my stomach when I sat down. I didn’t ever tell anyone about my Bunton Body Barometer and by the time I was 14 my obsession with the Spice Girls had been replaced by an obsession with Robbie Williams – and my thighs were definitely much narrower than his so that was fine.

The photographs I have from my early teenage years are generally awful. There were no GHDs so if you were blessed with unruly, frizzy hair then that is what you had. Limited income and a lack of affordable brands meant most of my make-up came from the bargain bin in Superdrug: orange eye shadow and foundation two shades too dark. It didn’t matter that we had shit hair, hand me down clothes or crap make up – it was what we didn’t have that made a difference. There was no, what my husband refers to as, “Personal PR” social media accounts to present our lives as glossier, happier and sexier than they really are. I read in an article that teenagers are guilty of “checking in” on Facebook to places they haven’t actually been in an attempt to make their lives seem more interesting. The 90s equivalent was just bullshitting about what you did at the weekend and, more often than not, you got called out on it.

We couldn’t edit photos to make them more attractive and we knew nothing about the hand on the hip/leg forward pose I now rely on to hide all manner of sins in photographs. We didn’t have to deal with Instagram: hundreds of thousands of images, carefully prepped and posed for, cropped and filtered to make everyone look thin, beautiful and blemish free. We didn’t have social media promoting “The A4 Waist Challenge” or “The Thigh Gap Challenge” – in fact the phrase “thigh gap” wasn’t in the shared lexicon of the time.

Adam Edwards in Year 9 may have fantasised about seeing pictures of us in our underwear (because that’s what teenage boys do) but he would have never have had the nerve to have the conversation to ask for one. Even if he had we would never have agreed mainly because it would have meant buying a disposable camera, waiting for our parents to be out, getting the bus to Boots, hoping the person that developed the film didn’t know our parents. Then finally, upon receiving the photos, we’d have had to have prayed there was at least one that was taken without our finger over the lens. Today all Adam Edwards has to do is send a text, Snapchat or WhatsApp to the phone that also has the camera on. He may even be chivalrous enough to send a picture of his genitals to get us in the mood. The pressure is huge.

I am not for a second suggesting that the current generation of teenagers are in anyway more naïve or foolish – in fact the opposite is probably the case. Teenagers have enough on their plates without women in their late twenties sticking the knife in from behind the the safety of a computer screen. There are plenty of teenagers who have a perfectly healthy relationship with social media. Those that are struggling need nothing other than our support and reassurance. After all, they are dealing with pressures and challenges that those before them never had to. Worse than that – a lot of those challenges are ones we did not know we had to prepare them for.

So what do we do? Social media continues to grow at an exponential rate; we can’t hold it back. Some might suggest that young people should spend less time on their phones but it would be astonishingly hypocritical for me to argue for that. We need to accept that social media and the challenges that come with it are here to stay and we need to educate. We need to teach that who they are is more important than how they look. That being smart, loyal and kind is as important as looking good in skinny jeans. It’s taken me 29 years to learn this lesson and I still have days where I fail completely, where I delete photographs taken from an angle that doesn’t flatter my thighs.

More than anything we need to be loud. The positive messages that these young people hear from us have to be so loud that we drown out the doubts put in their mind every time they log on.

 

The Daft Dad Stereotype Needs To Stop

“The first rule of being a man in modern Britain is you’re not allowed to talk about it.”

accessory-933123_1920

It was a very ordinary Tuesday. I went out to collect my class and one of my favourite parents (yes, we have favourites) came running up to me dragging her daughter behind her. “Sorry Miss Brown, it was Daddy’s turn to get her ready today so surprise, surprise, she hasn’t got her glasses!” This isn’t a one off. I’ve heard dads blamed for, incomplete homework, no book bag and unwashed hair. Of course it could just be the case that there are hundreds of incompetent men out there producing children without the intelligence to look after them but I doubt that’s true. It got me thinking.

I am a feminist. This means I believe in equal rights for men and women. In many ways women still aren’t treated equally to men and I will always speak up against that. However, there are mutterings at the moment of a “crisis of masculinity” that cannot, and should not, be ignored.

Research conducted by the Men’s Health Forum, a charity which aims to tackle male health inequalities, found that men are more likely to take their own lives than women – in fact suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under the age of 35. The research also discovered that, on average, men attain lower at all stages of school, are more likely to be homeless, are less likely to access NHS services when they need to and, as they get older, men have fewer friends than women and feel more isolated.

So what is going on? Men still earn more than women, they dominate politics and business and are less likely to be the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. There isn’t an expectation on them to sacrifice their careers for family life and, to top it all off, they don’t have to give birth. Yet suicide is the cause of death for 26% of men under the age of 35.

So let’s start at the beginning.

School Days

The problem starts in the first few years. Seven-year-old boys are 7% less likely to reach the expected level in reading and writing than girls. By the end of Primary school, that gap is eight percentage points. It gets wider the older the children get: at 13 it’s 12%; by GCSE, for achievement at grades A* to C in English, the gap is 14 percentage points. So whilst 66% of girls achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C or equivalent, only 56% of boys manage the same. Show me a maintained school that doesn’t have “boys’ writing” on their School Improvement Plan and I’ll show you a school in denial.

One could argue that this is because we have an education system based on an outdated model that measures how many revision notes you can remember and how neat your handwriting is but that is probably being too cynical. Also, I seem to remember the Daily Mail once published a “schools are sexist towards boys” article once so let’s give that argument a wide berth. The reasons boys don’t achieve as highly as girls is a separate article/dissertation in itself (one that I may write in the near future.)

Media Men

Now I am not for a second suggesting that the way men are portrayed is worse than the way women are portrayed but I think there is definitely an issue here. Adverts, in particular, like to present the man as a bit daft, bumbling and almost childlike. Think of any advert that shows a “regular household” and you will see a man struggling to get their heads around childcare, internet providers or electrical goods whilst the women run around sorting out the house, the children and generally saving the day.

Of course the reason this started was to subvert the stereotype of the airhead woman being rescued by the competent, strong man. Whilst I understand where this formula came from I can’t help but feel it is counterproductive in the fight for gender equality. We’ve all agreed it isn’t right to perpetuate unfair, female stereotypes so why don’t we feel the same way about male stereotypes?

A couple of years ago there was a Boots advert that showed two women, full of cold, talking about the busy days they’d had. When they ask about each other’s partners they both explain their partner is tucked up in bed with a cold – bless him. The message is clear: women get on with it whilst men mope about. If that advert was men talking about women it would have been called out as sexist.

From Homer Simpson, to the man who was late to his wife’s prenatal scan because he took a detour to McDonalds or the “Huggies” Dad Test –  advertising love the “dumb Dad.” He is presented as an additional child, creating more work for the Mum. The message is loud and clear: he is surplus to requirement within the household.

Gender Roles

It used to be so simple (albeit unfair.) The man went off to work/kill a mammoth and women would stay at home to cook dinner and clean the cave. Thank God/Father Christmas it changed. Women don’t have to choose between a career or a family, they can have both, either or neither. Inevitably, this fact has had an impact on relationships between men and women too. Women don’t have to rely on men for a roof above their heads/financial support/protection from bears and men cannot assume that the house will be clean and dinner will be on the table when they get home.

This is fantastic and I am so grateful to be born at a time where I can choose whether or not I have children, where I work, where I live and how I spend my money. This does mean that couples, rather than making assumptions, have to have a conscious discussion about the roles they are going to play in their relationships. Are they going to share housework equally? Who will sort bills? Who will do childcare and who will work or will you both do a bit of both? Obviously this issue affects both men and women but are men going to opt for childcare if they are constantly made to feel as though they aren’t doing the job as well as a woman would?

Partners

When I first got together with the Man on the Piccadilly Line people would talk about “training him up” which is a strange way to speak about a human and I’m not sure if any of his friends asked him the same question about me. We’ve allowed this idea that men would be “lost” without women or need us to improve them to take hold. It is unfair, untrue and never said by men about women. It’s the female equivalent of the man that talks about “her indoors” or “the old ball and chain.”

I’ve never heard any of my male friends say, “Yeah she’s putting on weight. I’ve told her she needs to get rid of her tummy so she’s joined a gym. I’ve bought her some new clothes to try and replace those god awful cardigans she wears.” (I’m a big fan of a cardigan.) Yet it’s a common theme women trying to “improve” their partner and not in a “helping them achieve their dreams” sort of way. In a “wear this, eat this and be a bit more like this” sort of way. It’s not by ANY means all, or even most, women but it’s enough.

Surely when you commit to a relationship you are committing to love that person for who they are not for who you hope you will be able to train them to be. By marrying me, The Man on the Piccadilly Line knows that every couple of months he will probably get a phone call asking if he’ll be home soon because I’ve locked myself out. He knows that if we get lost it will be he, and he alone, that has to get us found as my sense of direction and map reading skills resemble those of a snail. He also knows that I will leave my hair straighteners on at least three times a month. Equally, I know that most of our holidays will be taken by train, I will occasionally find the freezer emptied of food and replaced with bags of ice for a DIY air-conditioning experiment and I will sometimes lose him to a novel he’s writing, the World Cup or Battlestar Galactica marathons. I’m sure you could try and train the person you love to be more like version you have in your head but you won’t be particularly successful and it will make you both miserable.

Yet comments like this are so common they’ve almost become acceptable in some female circles. You can talk about your partner’s appearance, annoying habits and make derogatory comments about their intelligence, organisational skills or competencies. (Disclaimer: obviously we are allowed to moan with our friends.) I just worry that for some people there is a sense of achievement in promoting how incapable your partner is in comparison to you. It is possible this stems from some women feeling it is justified. After all, women have had more than their fair share of this sort of treatment, this just resets the balance, right?

I am a feminist. This means I will always fight for equality between the sexes. I’m not saying that men deserve to be held up on a pedestal and neither am I denying that women still suffer at the of hands inequality far more than men do. But let’s be vigilant. The fight for equality is not won by indulging lazy stereotyping.

#Teacher5aday Pledge 2016

fruit

Martyn Reah’s idea is a very simple one: If teachers are happy their pupils are happy. To achieve this wellbeing needs to be at the forefront of a school’s agenda and head teachers need to make looking after their staff a priority. However it is all too easy to blame a head teacher for our workload or your stress levels. The idea of #Teacher5aday is that teachers take responsibility for their own wellbeing by pledging 5 changes. if you want to find out more check out the original post here. Also, get involved on Twitter by following the #Teacher5aday hashtag. If you really want to support the cause you can contribute to crowdfunding the #Teaher5aday journal to guide teachers through a year of looking after themselves.

  1. Connect: Easy – spend more time with friends and family. Planning a wedding offers plenty of opportunities for this. Also, try and be more “present” in the evenings. At the moment I tend to get home and collapse onto the sofa and scroll through my phone or get lost in the internet. Time to turn off the screens and make the most of my evenings.
  2. Exercise: Normally at this time of year I would be signing up to a gym or buying a Groupon for 8 Zumba sessions, “this way I’ll definitely go because I’ve already paid for it” no, no it doesn’t mean I’ll go it means I’ve kissed goodbye to £40. This year I need to get real the only way I’m going to be more active is if I can convince my body it isn’t really exercise, like when we told my brother the homemade soup he loved so much was chicken when it was actually mushroom otherwise he’d never have eaten it. So I’ve invested in a Fitbit and I have a target of 10,000 steps a day which is about 7km. The stats get sent to my phone so I can track my progress. This way I’m just building more activity into my day-to-day life.
  3. Notice:  I’ve kept journals on-and-off since I was little and I’ve never been able maintain writing an entry every day. Some days I’m just too busy and others the entry would read, “Watched an entire series of “Orange is the New Black.” However I’ve got this book that I was given last year that requires just one line a day. Just one reflection. I can manage that.
  4. Learn: It’s my 30th birthday this year so it’s probably time to extend the repertoire of recipes I have up my sleeve. At the moment I seem to live off pesto pasta and that’s been the case for the last decade. I LOVE cookery books and have a shelf packed with everyone from Nigella to Nigel Slater. So to keep it manageable I’ll learn just one new recipe a month. Watch this space.
  5. Volunteer: I’m a moderately active member of the Labour Party and I’ll be volunteering my time to campaign during the run up to the mayoral election.  
Whilst this began as an initiative to support teachers I think we’re all prone to burning out and putting our mental health and wellbeing too far down our list of priorities. So whatever your job, think about how you can keep yourself happy and healthy this year. Write the ideas down, stick them on your fridge, scribble them on the mirror  or print them on a t-shirt. Do whatever it takes and remind yourself each day: my wellbeing matters.

Lonely This Christmas?

shutterstock_160283171

Holidays are coming. Just like carols, mistletoe and Coca-Cola truck, the Christmas advert are a tradition that is here to stay. John Lewis have developed a fairly sold formula for their ads: a well-known song covered by an up-and-coming singer in breathy tones over soft focus shots of children/animals/snowmen preparing for Christmas. All of which is meant to distract you from the fact the purpose of the advert is to charm you into spending even more money at John Lewis. However I love Christmas so I will try and park my cynicism to one side for the sake of being festive. This year’s advert, “The Man On The Moon” is no different. Whilst it’s not clear why this old man has been sent to live on his own on the moon the message is clear enough: reach out to people who are lonely this Christmas.

The advert was made with the help of Age UK to raise awareness of the issue of loneliness. Although not currently classed as a mental health issue, loneliness is closely linked with mental health problems. A study by the Mental Health Organisation found links between loneliness and problems with the cardiovascular and immune systems;  you are more likely to be ill, less likely to sleep and more like to overeat and drink if you are lonely. It’s a real problem: 51% of people over the age of 75 say their main source of company is the television and it is estimated that 10% of the over-65 population feel lonely all the time. That’s approximately 900,000 people that feel as though they have no one they can reach out to. The Campaign to End Loneliness got together with Channel 4 to make this video which really brings home the issue. “It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s nobody there to rescue you.” (A little heads up: this video is probably not to be watched when tired or emotionally unstable.)

It’s not surprising that so many elderly people feel isolated. Local communities have become fractured, particularly in large transient cities like London. Community centres, libraries and other local spaces have been closed down, there are no longer local pubs at the end of every road – ultimately there are fewer opportunities for people to congregate. That and people are moving around with increasing regularity (there have been 3 sets of tenants in the flat above ours over the last 5 years.) Research carried out in 2013 found that a third of people would not recognise their neighbours. People are more likely to move away from their home town; it’s not taken for granted that people will live close enough to their parents and grandparents to look after them and keep them company as they get older. Interestingly, whilst I was researching this post I found out that research shows that Southerners move twice as far from their home as Northerners. Make of that what you will.

So with all this moving around how do you create a community? It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked working in schools – the school community provides support, friendship and, in some cases, husbands. But what about if you don’t have children that are school age or you aren’t a teacher? People are trying to answer this question and find new ways to build communities. The Sunday Assembly is a “secular” church. It provides the community of a church but it is inclusive of all – no matter what they believe. Their argument is:

“Why do we exist? Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.”

Taking a more practical approach, Streetbank have tried build communities in a slightly different way. Streetbank describes itself as a “movement of people who share with neighbours.” Type in your postcode and you can borrow anything from a lawnmower to a hoover from the people in your area. It’s the 21st Century equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar.

Jumble Trail is another fantastic idea my friend Kirsty told me about. The idea is communities host their own jumble sale. Anyone who wants to can set up a stall selling art/second hand clothes/food/homemade lemonade. People can come and buy from one another, meet their neighbours and other local residents.  Anyone can set up a Jumble Trail – just follow the link: http://www.jumbletrail.com

This issue of building communities came up at Labour party meeting about Mental Health that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I raised the point that activists are willing to knock on hundreds of doors to get people’s votes but most (myself included) haven’t EVER knocked on their neighbours doors to ask how they are. Jumble Trail and Streetbank are both fantastic ideas but its unlikely your 87 year old neighbour has heard of them. Sometimes you need to go back to basics. I’ve suggested a Christmas Cheer campaign to encourage people to get to know their neighbours and the people that share our streets. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you regularly pass someone on your street make the effort to smile and greet them. If you live in London you may look a mad person but persevere.
  • Send Christmas cards to your neighbours. Even if you don’t know their names – use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself.
  • Have a Christmas Song sing-a-long! You only need a flyer and a few posters. Maybe invite a few friends and mull some wine to get the singing started.
  • When the last tenants moved out of the flat above us they put the things they didn’t want to take with them on the wall outside: old toys, furniture etc… Slowly but surely all the items went. If there had just been a person “manning” the wall it would have been a fantastic way for people to have met.
  • Set up a Facebook Page for your street. People can post about events, share news and keep in contact even when they’re not able to meet face-to-face
  • Campaign together. Want to improve your local park? Too much rubbish on the road? Nothing brings people together faster than a shared cause. Start your campaign and pool the skills and ideas you have on your street.
  • Finally, if you know that there is an elderly person living alone on your street take the time to get to know them. Find an excuse to knock on their door and strike up a conversation.
Of course the only flaw in my “door-knocking” campaign is that we don’t answer our front door unless we are expecting guests. Why?
Really though, if we can’t reach out at Christmas when can we? So be brave, don’t worry about looking mad, take a deep breath and knock on that door. If there is a Christmas message that can apply to all of us in multi-cultural/multi-faith 21st-Century Britain, surely it is: “you don’t have to be alone.”