Do I Miss Teaching?

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Next week it will be six months since I taught my last lesson. That sounds a bit like an AA introduction doesn’t it?

“Hi my name is Zoe.” 

“Hi Zoe!”

“It has been six months since my last lesson.”

And then you all clap. I think. I’ve never been to AA but I’ve seen films.

Last year my resignation letter caused far more drama than I’d anticipated. I wrote it on a Saturday night whilst babysitting my nephew (he was only 18 months old at the time and asleep – I wasn’t just ignoring him for the whole evening.) It had been in my drafts since I’d told my head teacher I was leaving in the January (much to the disappointment of one breakfast TV show that rang to ask if I’d like to resign live on air – no I bloody don’t.) I posted it at about midnight and went to bed. The following morning I woke up to nine missed calls, a flurry emails and an invitation to go on BBC Breakfast the next day. By the time I got hold of my Head of school he told me he’d already read the post because a member of his family had shared it on Facebook. The week that followed was surreal and hugely overwhelming: from press turning up on my Mum’s doorstep,  to supportive phone calls from the wonderful Kevin Courtney and Martin Ellis-Hall.

Anyway. Now I’ve left. I didn’t have much time to process that over the summer as we were finishing the preparations for our wedding. Then we took 10 weeks to channel our inner-Palin and circumnavigate the globe and now we’re now settled into our new life in Amsterdam pursuing careers in writing.

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An entire term has passed by without me entering a school. Do I miss it? Yes. I miss the teaching. Those sacred hours between 9am and 3pm when it was just me with my class hammering out how to multiply fractions, reading endlessly and learning about the world. I miss seeing children succeed and make progress, not always in neat, measurable steps, but progress nonetheless. I miss finding new ways to challenge my pupils, researching new ideas and trying them out. I miss laughing with (ok sometimes at) my class every single day.

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I miss these monsters.
I miss the colleagues: teachers are some of the smartest, funniest and most interesting people I’ve ever met and our colleagues from the six schools we’ve worked in made up over 70% of our wedding guests and remain our dear friends. I miss the sense of community and camaraderie that comes from working in a school.

I don’t miss how much of my life I had to sacrifice to do the job well. I don’t miss: leaving the house before 7am, working until 7pm, working some more at weekends, inputting data, analysing data, feeling guilty about the data. Worrying about the results, worrying about forced academisation and worrying about Ofsted. I don’t miss the fear. The fear that’s felt by both my head teacher friends and my NQT friends.  Fear of being caught out, or of failing – because there is no time to fail any more. A head teacher cannot have a bad set of results and an NQT cannot have a bad lesson observation without questions being asked. I appreciate this isn’t true of every school. I was part of a new SLT who were hired to help improve an “RI school”  – which let’s face it was never going to be a straightforward job but it isn’t just RI schools feeling the fear. I don’t miss the frustration at having to tell parents of able writers that, because their child hadn’t used what the DfE call exclamation sentences, they were not meeting national expectations. Actually whilst we’re on it – I don’t miss the DfE at all.

I now have two things I never have as a teacher: time and energy. I exercise every day. There are some incredible people that can do that as well as work a 60 hour week but I was never one of them. I have time to speak to my husband – as in properly speak to him for hours. He’s one of my favourite people in the whole world but when we were both senior leaders we’d stagger through the weeks barely acknowledging one another, sleep and drink through the weekends and repeat. Now we have time to visit new places, go and see exhibitions, I even stay awake when we go to the cinema. I’m not too tired to answer the phone. The number of phone calls I didn’t answer simply because I couldn’t face talking. Not talking to that person just talking in general. I really noticed it this Christmas. In the past the Christmas holidays were a lighthouse in a rough sea that called to me throughout that long autumn term. It was a time to recover and recharge. This year I relaxed and took three days off from responding to emails etc… and I actually had enough energy to get out and see people. I was present for entire conversations and not thinking about work.

We have one life and I am determined not to spend mine working 60 hours a week for 40 years. I just can’t. Not because I’m afraid of hard work – I got my first job at 14, held down two jobs whilst studying at University, helped set up a business in my year out and then went into teaching. I am happy to work hard but I will no longer sacrifice my relationships with my friends and family, my health and my wellbeing for my career – no matter how worthy or noble the profession. Life is too short to only work.

I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this thinking, “What a load of crap – teaching doesn’t have to be like that and it isn’t at my school.” And that’s great. But it was very much my experience. The hours and energy it required were just not sustainable long term.

But I do miss it. And if the time or school came along where I could do the job well on a 40-45 hour week and if we ever get past this high-stakes testing and schools being judged on their ability to jump over an ever-raising bar then yeah, I’d be back.

Is There Something Wrong With How We Teach Children To Write?

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The idea for this post came to me at 10:35am whilst I was boarding a train at Amsterdam Centraal.  We were heading to Cologne to check out the Christmas markets. I spent the entire two-hour journey scribbling down the idea on a piece of paper my husband had been using as a bookmark. (I normally carry a notebook but on this occasion, had left it at home to make more room for Cologne Christmas purchases.) My notes were messy and incoherent as I rushed to get everything down:

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The next day I sat at my desk and transferred my notes into a first draft. It was still incoherent: just a list of points I wanted to make that needed to be fleshed out into full sentences. During the drafting stage I am always comforted by Hemingway’s claim that, “the first draft of everything is shit.” I used to have this quote written on a post-it and stuck to my laptop as a reminder for those “this is so crap and you’re deluded if you think anyone will ever read it” days.

That draft was written about a month ago and since then I’ve been editing and rewriting. The idea that had come so suddenly and easily proved to be harder to write than I’d thought.  But I liked the idea so I stayed with it. Yesterday I had 1,700 words in a sort of coherent structure but still wasn’t happy; I dropped the laptop into my husband’s lap and said, “Can you work out why this is so rubbish?” I just couldn’t get it right – I had been so enthusiastic about the initial idea it was as if any attempt to create the post didn’t do the idea justice. Once he’d read it he commented how ironic it was, given the subject matter of the post, that I was struggling with it so much.

Then last night, as I was getting into bed, it clicked; I realised what I’d been doing wrong. I grabbed my notebook and quickly scribbled out a new plan ready to be typed up the next day. And here it is- you’re reading it which means I’m finally happy enough with it to post it – hooray!

You’ll notice I haven’t actually mentioned the idea that came to me on the train to Cologne – so far this has just been a blog about blogging (meta-blogging?) The idea itself is something that I was always slightly aware of as a teacher but has been highlighted since I started writing professionally:

Why is there such disconnect between how we as adults write and the processes we ask pupils in schools to follow?

It starts with asking children to generate ideas on demand. Yes, we provide plenty of discussion and stimulus but essentially a child can walk into a classroom and be told that in that hour they have to come up with an idea for a report/story/diary entry etc… That’s a big ask. Even when I’m pitching ideas to my editor they are ideas I’ve developed in my own time. Of course time is the main constraint here and generating ideas is just one part of writing (and the part that normally involves the least writing) so we can’t afford the luxury of allowing children endless time to generate ideas and develop them. Equally, if the objective is “To write a diary entry” there is no reason why you can’t provide the pupil with the idea just to get them writing.

Once they’ve had/been given the idea it is commonplace to ask children to complete some sort of plan. Google “KS1/KS2 planning formats” and you’ll be presented with dozens of versions of essentially the same document: a page of boxes for the children to complete.

 

In the early stages of their education, when children need to be taught HOW to plan, there is certainly a place for these but once they’ve learnt the process I would argue that these templates can be more of a hindrance than a help. On a practical level the boxes are small which means you have to think about keeping your handwriting neat to make sure your ideas fit in. It also limits the amount you can write which doesn’t allow for those ideas to lead to other ideas – there just isn’t the space for that!

My plans are messy and illegible to anyone else and that’s fine because nobody else needs to read them. What is the main barrier to children being allowed to plan their writing freely? I would argue it’s presentation policies and policies that state there should be a certain number of completed pieces of work in a book each week. I’m not saying children shouldn’t take care over their presentation and learn to underline the date etc… but it shouldn’t take priority over the learning. Children need a space where they can write freely without worrying about cursive script or drawing in a margin. Some schools have draft books or jotters for this purpose but I’ve heard of schools getting rid of these books because they were “messy” or hiding them when Ofsted turn up.

Once they’ve planned, children start their first draft. In the ideal world the children would have the option of typing a first draft because the process of editing and rewriting is laborious enough without having to do it by hand. If you’ve written a four-page draft that you want to edit and then rewrite, it means turning back and forth between pages and squashing notes into a margin or rewriting sentences in that little gap between the original sentence and the line. Once again, when you’re first teaching editing, it’s essential that children see the process modelled, either by watching you mark their work or editing a piece of work together as class. By upper KS2 children should be able to edit their own work with the support of a checklist of criteria and a dictionary. Their editing would need to be checked by the class teacher but most of it could be done independently. The problem with editing is that it takes time – time that schools don’t have. This post took weeks to edit but even when I’m on a deadline the process can take days and includes a cooling off period where I walk away from the piece for anything from an hour to a day.

Finally we ask children to write up their work. As in rewrite the whole piece again. By hand. For what could be the third or fourth time depending how many drafts they’ve done. Out come the line guides, paperclips and ruled margins which will end up being elaborately decorated. Had they been word processing from the beginning the final draft would be there waiting to print once they’d finished editing and even if that isn’t an option I question how valuable “copying up” lessons are. You could perhaps argue it is a handwriting exercise but there are other ways to teach handwriting. By the “copying up” stage only the keenest of children are still interested in this piece of writing.

Conversely, how often do children get to scrap their work and start again from the very beginning if they want to? I had a child ask to do exactly that when the rest of the class were on their final drafts and I said no because we only had one more lesson to spend on this and next week we’d be moving on to something new. That was the right answer. Children have to learn to meet deadlines and follow instructions and I’m not suggesting we abandon our plans every time a child changes their mind but I do wonder whether if I’d agreed that he could start again on the condition he’d have to work on it at home he might have produced a better piece.

Obviously we’re not teaching children to be “writers” any more than we’re teaching them to be astronauts, doctors or civil servants. We are teaching them to write which requires practising the basics over and over again. It means showing them how to construct complex sentences and how to use punctuation and grammar and giving them time to practise it. Writing is bloody hard work and learning to write even more so.

This post isn’t a criticism – just a general musing. I would love to hear about how different schools teach writing  – please get in touch. I’m also not suggesting that the way I write is how we should teach children to write – I’m not Michael Gove. It’s just that if we are serious about children mastering a “writer’s voice” we should, at least occasionally, allow them to behave like writers.

 

#Teacher5aday Day 2 – Managing Workload & Marking

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In 2015 the DfE summoned our brightest and best teachers, consultants and educationalists and commissioned them to carry out a review of teachers’ workload, the findings of which can be found in this report. Having scrutinised marking policies, the Workload Review team concluded that marking should be underpinned by three key principles. It should be: meaningful, manageable and motivating.

Most of us know what meaningful marking looks like. We’ve experienced the satisfaction of a child being able to tackle an area of learning that they had previously struggled with as a result of our feedback. Meaningful marking motivates children to make progress. So that leaves “manageable.”  How can we make marking manageable? Particularly now that so man marking policies seem to require an arsenal of stationery including at least three different coloured pens.

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How to make marking manageable may well be the million dollar question but it’s one we need to start addressing. A third of teachers who qualified in 2010 have already left the profession, with 50% of them stating workload as one of the key reasons, schools need to start taking the issue of teacher workload seriously.

I’m interested to see the suggestions that come out of the #teacher5aday slow chat. So to get us started here are my suggestions for making marking manageable.

Plan Your Marking

One of the greatest challenges I faced as an Assistant Head was juggling my role as a full time class teacher with my leadership responsibilities. In an attempt to maintain some sanity, I created planning rotas for maths and English. No they weren’t always kept to, but more often than not I could get all my marking done between 7am-8:30am and 3:30pm – 6:00pm at school. Other than test papers, I never took marking home at the weekends.

Make planning for marking part of your weekly PPA session. Look at the week ahead and the lessons you have planned. Then look at your diary and look at everything you’re doing next week: clubs, INSET, parent workshops, staff meetings, social events (yes, they count.)

Now back to the lesson plans. If one of the lessons requires you to have marked the first drafts of their stories in detail – don’t pencil that first draft lesson in for Monday when you have both INSET and Dance Club. Schedule “heavy marking” days in and write them in your diary so you know not to take on too many extra-curricular activities on those days.

Obviously your marking plan should not guide the learning and sometimes a particular piece of work will HAVE to be done on a day when it’ll be difficult to get it marked but, for the most part, you can plan your marking so it is manageable.

Verbal Feedback

Marking is just one of a variety of types of feedback and arguably not even the most effective for some pieces of work. Verbal feedback allows for a dialogue. The child can explain to you exactly what they haven’t understood and you can respond immediately. You or the child can make notes in the child’s book as you feedback so they have a few prompts to guide them once they return to work.

Verbal feedback can happen one-to-one during the lesson or, having looked at their books, by taking a small group who made similar mistakes last lesson and going through their work with them.

Live Marking

Live marking is similar to verbal feedback but can be done with the whole class rather than one on one. This works well with grammar exercises, calculations and short answer questions. The questions go up on the board and you go through them one by one – occasionally choosing a pair of children to explain the answer or the method. The children can mark their own work as they go and add in their own corrections.

The advantage of Live Marking is that you can get a whole set of books marked during the lesson and all children having the chance to discuss the answer, ask questions about the things they didn’t understand. Something to bear in mind is that this sort of marking takes time. We’re talking 10/15 minutes of the lesson. If you marked like this every lesson children wouldn’t be producing enough work for marking to be an issue in the first place but used occasionally it can be very effective.

Peer Marking

Peer marking takes a lot of training but, done properly, it can be very valuable. I’ve seen effective peer marking in Year 2 and even peer “critique” in Year 1 where they go around and say what they like and what could be improved about the work on their table. Peer marking can work with the same sort of tasks as Live Marking – short answers that are either right or wrong. When it comes to more complex investigations or extended pieces of writing the quality of peer marking relies too heavily on the pupil’s knowledge.

A little tip: in the first week of a new school year mark a piece of shared writing as class and whilst you’re doing this create a “Class Marking Policy.” This could be an agreed list of symbols that you can all use. Keep those symbols on the wall all year and the children can then use this marking policy during peer marking.

Speak Up

Views about marking are changing. Last month Ofsted released a clarification document challenging the idea that they expect in depth marking@

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Similarly, the Workload Review concluded that, “If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on student progress, stop [doing] it.” Spread the word: it isn’t about endless, in depth notes on children’s work it’s about effective feedback – the sort that will actually help the children learn.

If the last two comments you’ve left in Amber’s book are all about using captial letters and fulls stops, complete with a next step task for her to practise them, and two pages later she isn’t using capital letters and full stops – change your approach. Stop setting it as a next step and find some time during the lesson to go through sentence punctuation with her.

If your school’s policy is still demanding twelve “next steps” a week, written in nineteen different colours and adorned with post-its, stamps, and stickers then it’s time to start the conversation about marking in your school. You don’t have to have be in a leadership role to evoke change. So whether it’s at the next staff meeting, or just during a casual discussion in the staff room don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Does anyone else think we could be marking differently?”


 

The #teacher5aday slow chat on workload and marking will be taking place on Tuesday 10th January 2017. The discussions will take place on Twitter both before and after school. Take part by following the #Teacher5aday #SlowChat4 hashtags and share your ideas, thoughts and suggestions. You can find more information on the Slow Chat week here. Here are the questions we’ll be discussing on the day:

1) How much time do you spend marking each week? When and where do you mark?

2) What are the barriers to making marking manageable?

3) How can we overcome these?

4) If you were writing your school’s feedback policy from scratch what would it look like?

5) Is your marking monitored by SLT?

6) What tips/strategies have you got for teachers struggling to keep on top of their marking?

I’m looking forward to chatting with you all.

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Should We Correct Our Pupils’ Speech?

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We’ve all had it. About twenty minutes into a lesson a small hand is tentatively raised.

“Miss Brown, can I go toilet?”

“No. You can go TO the toilet. You can’t go toilet.”

Any of my ex. pupils will recognise that as my standard response. It didn’t matter if the child was in Year 1 or Year 6 – they were expected to use standard English in my classroom. It’s worth mentioning at this point the exception to that rule (because there is always at least one exception.) When children arrived in my class with no English, as they very often did, then I would, to begin with, accept “toilet” as a request to be excused but would model standard English in my response, “Yes, you can go to the toilet.” Other than that, all children were expected to use standard English. We spent one registration saying the word, “ask” over and over again because of the number of children who had started saying, “arks.” Actually, we spent most that registration saying the word “mask” and working up to dropping the “m.” To some it sounds pedantic and Dickensian but I know of one head teacher who didn’t give a job to a candidate because in her lesson she’d said to the children, “I want to arks you something.” Right or wrong, that is how plenty of employers think.

I raised the issue in a staff meeting following a series of observations that had left me with concerns about the standard of some teachers’ English. I argued that, given the number of children in the school who were learning English as a second language, and given the fact our children would be assessed on their ability to write in standard English it was our duty to model it in the classroom. This meant no more “ain’t,”, “pass me them scissors” or “yous lot.” At the time I didn’t consider this a particularly controversial request. After all, demonstrating the correct use of standard English is one of the Teachers’ Standards. However, this announcement was not well-received. It started with a few questions about why staff couldn’t “be themselves” with their class and then escalated into me being told I was “having a go” at working class staff and, in one case, that I was being racist.

It isn’t racist and it’s not “having a go at working class staff.” I don’t care how teachers speak at home, or pupils for the matter, but in school we set high expectations and that includes the use standard English.  If we truly believe that education is the great equaliser then we have to ensure that a pupil’s background in no way limits their life chances. I presented this case in the staff meeting, arguing that it would only be a matter of years before the children in our school would be competing for jobs and university places with children from far more privileged backgrounds. If a child from Edmonton is going to have the same chances as a child from Sevenoaks, then they need to know how to use standard English. There is an assumption that standard English means speaking with an RP accent – it doesn’t. It is a shared grammar, spelling and punctuation. When you hear Sean Bean or Ray Winstone interviewed, they use standard English. This isn’t about changing people’s accents or discriminating against particular backgrounds.

But am I fighting the wrong battle? Only 15% of the UK population, the wealthiest 15% I might add, use standard English in its entirety (Trudgill 1999). Should I not be fighting for children to have the same opportunities no matter what form of English they use? After all, language is fluid and constantly evolving and many would argue that it’s more important that children feel able to communicate confidently than worry about verb tenses. Would the worry of being corrected have put some children off speaking up in my class?

I put it out to Twitter. The poll is running for another 4 hours so feel free to get involved. With only 47 votes, this is not exactly the most scientific study but, out of those who responded, 74% believe that we should insist on standard English. One teacher got in touch and raised the issue that, like all policies, this would only work if the school insisted on it from Reception. Enforcing standard English in upper KS2 becomes an almost impossible task if it hasn’t been taught previously.

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I will leave you in the hands of the expert, David Crystal. This man taught me how to write. Most of my time studying English was spent reading through his vast body of work and it is my firm belief that “Rediscover Grammar” should be on every teacher’s bookshelf. It is only right he has the final word.

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.