Category Archives: Sense of Identity

On art and creativity, the Royal Academy Why & How Conference & magnetic moments

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Stellar Adler

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

Stellar Adler, American actress and acting teacher, (1901 – 1992).

There are moments in my working life when I feel truly blessed and thrilled beyond words at the invitations that find their way to my inbox. There are times also, when I wonder what path I have set out on, that is so challenging, lonely at times, devoid of recognition or appreciation. But that is another matter.

An invitation from Molly Bretton, Access Manager at the Royal Academy, London, to deliver the opening keynote presentation for their second annual Why and How Conference – engaging children with SEN in creating art and cultural experiences, has been one of the greatest delights of my professional life. I have loved this event, Saturday 19th March 2016, truly, madly, deeply.
Royal Academy
Here is the Reynolds Room, the venue for my opening Reith-style lecture, and closing panel discussions. The logistics of hosting a conference taking multiple gallery rooms on a busy working Saturday seemed vast, but all was handled with ease and efficiency.

I have been impressed with every aspect of the event – the venue, unfamiliar to me (guilty confession, keen to make amends), the programme, the workshops, the food, the people. Perhaps I should say ‘the good people’, echoing Susan Potter’s closing comments. It has been a journey of discovery, with so many magnetic moments. Of which, more…

This conference invitation has also held challenges for me in several weeks of deliberations: what shall I say, what form will my presentation take, am I using visuals, can I really expect an audience to listen to me, alone, for the duration of my allotted 50 minutes delivery time? I am of a mind to think, how shall I occupy my time now the writing of this great beast of an 8,000 word lecture, is complete. Or at least, the significant part of my task is over. My bibliography is still a work in progress.

I will not revisit my lecture here, but instead, the thoughts that flood my mind are the abundance of good, joyous, uplifting conversations with strangers who have been as dear to me as the most familiar of friends. There have been so many remarkable, inspiring, ridiculously funny and moving moments, borne out of the passion, insight and hard work of so many individuals and teams, setting out to inspire and bring creativity to an audience that includes some of our most vulnerable young people in society.

In my lecture I referenced a phrase I heard once on the radio, some years ago, but never did discover its origins. So I have seized upon it, eager to popularise its use. It is ‘magnetic moments in time.’ They are the moments that create a lasting imprint on the mind, so that, long after the details and minutiae are forgotten, there is an impression there, that lingers and attaches itself, like a magnet to our heart.

There have been so many magnetic moments this day.

In the workshop, Illustrating a journey of engagement with children with SEMH, the presenters, Jhinuk Sarkar, Robin Johnson of Keddleston Schools and Matthew Johnson, Outreach Officer at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, shared some of the museum’s Inuit artefacts. Aside the very serious matter of how best to engage with young people with SEND, the workshop allowed us to explore the artefacts and create our own block prints. It was the most unexpected delight! I have to confess, though, finding the artefacts in much demand, my attention was caught by some fine bust of a gentleman on display in the Saloon.
November 2015  - February 2016 314

I suspect I shall not be in great demand for my print-making, but I am so keen to find further opportunities to explore this beautiful craft.

In the past I had some fanciful notion I would attempt to recreate the William Morris prints of animal and nature, scenes that I so love on post-cards and wrapping paper. And then, and then, create for myself prints of my own design on wrapping paper. How simple it all looks, but how complex the design and detail…

William Morris prints

 

 

Little way to go, huh?

 
The second workshop I attended, Understanding Creative Empowerment for Children and Young People with Learning Disabilities, with Corali and Greenside School, was also breathtakingly fantastic, unexpected, slightly surreal and almost spiritual in its beauty. Coralis use a partnership, performance-led, mixed-media methodology to provoke and discuss inventive and original ways that children and young people with LDD can be artistically and creatively empowered to engage with the arts.

Corali are the heroes of my heart. Whatever your audience, children, young people with LDD, adults, the corporate world, emotional and mental health and well-being, the potential is huge. I feel bereft already that I am missing my dancing partners, as we swirled and swooped and caressed and tip-toed on our precious object, inspired by the environment, a stretch of red velvet fabric.

What a privilege also, in a one hour workshop, to be gently encouraged to move and dance and create, and to conjure up such inventive scenes, around flowers, a bowl of fruit and a piece of red velvet. My words cannot do justice, but I was, and am, captivated. I loved the gathering around to watch the instant video playback of our shared movements, and performing as a group before a video backdrop of our earlier work.

In all the excited chatter with my fellow dancers, we decided that we each took on different persona, as we played and indulged our inner creative selves. One lady in the group was constantly tuned to practical uses of our precious red velvet; another erupting into bull-fighting drama and peek-a-boo scenarios, with another using the red velvet to soothe and caress. (I was told I was majestic, with my red velvet, so I will stay with that, thank you).

Sadly, I did not have time to attend all the workshops on offer, but with such a richness of choice, and in such a beautiful setting, how could delegates fail to be impressed?

Bringing together events like The Royal Academy’s Why and How Conference, is a challenging task. It takes great insight, courage, tenacity and flair to bring such diverse elements of a complex and ever expanding field of expertise together, in one venue. My hat goes off to Molly Bretton for a truly inspirational event.

I must also mention the precious joy of meeting colleagues I have only conversed with by phone, or have met too little – Noel Hayden, SEN Programme Manager from the Museum of London and Dermot Dolan, Training and Partnerships Manager of Whizz-Kidz. Dermot’s cheery greeting was the sweetest moment.

And then, there were the post-event discussions and far ranging chatter with Molly Bretton, Rachael Christophides, who so expertly chaired the close of day panel discussion, and Paul Anderson Morrow, artist, teacher and workshop presenter. Well, that was a world in itself. A brilliant end to a perfect day! Slight matter of my missing my last train home, aside.

chinua achebe

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him. Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) Nigerian novelist, poet, professor and critic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On fear, finding new oceans and fortitude

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Fear (1)

Choice, or otherwise, fear lives in us all. When once encountered, fear is a remarkably persistent character, slipping around our shoulders, yapping at our ankles, lingering in the quiet still hours, keeping us wakeful when we’re desperate to sleep.

It may be fear of serious illness, of facing an uncertain future, of the end of a long term relationship, or fear in some insidious guise, free-floating,  drifting to suit a mood and context. Life is uncertain and fragile. We do not have to look far to find suffering, anguish, unhappiness, or witness troubled lives racing fast to perilous outcomes.

Fear is defined as ‘an unpleasant emotion, caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm.’ In old Saxon forms of the verb, fear becomes ‘faron’ and translates as ‘to lie in wait.’ Old Norse terminology echoes this definition, with ‘faera’, ‘to taunt’. It does seem that fear taunts us, goads us into behaviour we would prefer not to display

Walking to a hospital appointment on a sharp, frost-laden day, watching the morning sun rise and beat out the blue, I was lost in a reverie, contemplating fear. I have known fear intimately since my breast cancer diagnosis, some three years ago. The fear of dying from my cancer lingers. Two years on, and cancer free, I confront those fears each time I revisit the hospital for check ups, scans and general health reviews. I recognize that, and wish it were not so, but I seem powerless to rid myself of the burden of fear.

Once in my life I have been close to death, a very real close encounter when infection caught hold during chemotherapy and spread like a wildfire through my body. By the time I had appreciated the seriousness of the situation, my mind was compromised, responding poorly to the need for help. Sleep seemed the answer. The desperate desire to sleep, to ease the pain through oblivion.

It was 3am when I was eventually admitted to hospital, after a series of administrative blunders, and poor advice. My temperature had soared to 41 degrees, my blood pressure had dropped, my pulse racing. I had no comprehension of what was happening to me, but somewhere inside I knew, if I fell asleep alone in my home, I might not wake up again.

I was diagnosed with neutropenic sepsis shortly after admittance, and remained in a negative pressure isolation room for six days. For much of that time, those early days, it was hard to have an interest in living, when my body seemed so incapable of sustaining my life independently. It was then that fear retreated.  I was unafraid.

That feeling of slipping away from the world is so poignant in the Bruce Springsteen song, Streets of Philadelphia, about a man confronting his own imminent death after contracting AIDS.

The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake,
I can feel myself fading away,
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss,
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the Streets of Philadelphia

Fear has taken up residence in my heart. Just when I think it is safely out of sight, tucked in some recess in my mind, it leaps to the fore with a vengeance when I revisit the place of my darkest hour: the hospital cancer wards. Memories of my year long treatment, the anguish, heartache and physical dread of chemotherapy, comes flooding back with an urgency that takes me by surprise as I walk familiar corridors.

If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fear is the very absence of confidence in our ability to protect or preserve our own or others safety. It is the emotion that betrays us, when we think we have put on a brave face, or kept our true feelings in check. Fear is the tears that fall, unexpected and uncontrolled, when confronting our dread. It is the anxiety in our heart when we feel out of our depth. It is the nightmare that torments us with alarming regularity.

Finding some way to build our resilience, to have fortitude in the face of adversity, must be our goal, yet it is not easy. I have been fascinated by fortitude  since my teenage years. It is not an attribute hugely in fashion. It is largely an unused, rather archaic term. As an inveterate re-reader, I have cherished and long adored the horse-lovers’ trilogy and multi-dimensional novels, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming, set in the ranch lands of Wyoming in the 1930s.

In these novels, the all-seeing, all-knowing mother, Nell, sees the challenges her two sons face and has conversations with them on important themes. In one, she talks of the need for fortitude.  Reading that as an eleven year old, it brought wonder to my heart. This was something teachers never talked about at school, the idea that we might develop fortitude, to find our own inner strength when our external environment sadly failed to protect as we might wish. These books, and Nell’s little sermons, opened up a whole new world of insight and knowledge. How do we manage, not what is happening around us, but what is happening inside of us, at our very core?

The Sky Atlantic drama, Fortitude, is set in the fictional Arctic town of Fortitude. Aside from having a remarkable and intriguing plot, and quite mesmerising theme music, it fascinates because each character is tested to the limits of their fortitude. The environment is an immediate and obvious challenge, but so too, are a myriad obstacles, internal, external, metaphorical and literal. There is not one person free from challenge, from inner turmoil, from anguish, yet still lives must carry on, children fed, work tended to, relationships managed, against this threatening backdrop.

There are many ways in which we can sustain ourselves, but finding what works for us, what reduces or alleviates fear is a personal matter. It is trial and error too, and it is having the courage to reject what others may feel is ‘good for us’ in favour of our own personal responses. The need to work constantly to restore poor mental health, or build better frameworks to sustain good mental health are imperative, yet they are skills too infrequently taught in schools and in the workplace.

I used to describe the local National Trust property, Baddesley Clinton, as my private sanctuary, a place I visited often during treatment. Walking alone around the lake, observing the great changing beauty of nature, I felt a great sense of peace, a freedom from fear or anxiety or anguish. It kept me safe, restored me for the journey home and that great rushing in of the world once more.

New oceans quote

Fear may live in us all, or reside in our hearts during times of duress and challenge, but it need not always be that way. There is a need to find a balance too in our understanding of the self, our mental health concerns and our environment. It is the ability to recognize that which helps, and that which hinders our journey away from fear.

How much do we work on our inner dialogue, striving to understand our emotions and motivations, and how much do we consider our environment, the very real living space we inhabit, the people we surround ourselves with who may be unwitting accessories to fear?

I like the idea of new oceans to explore. Taken from a vantage point of vulnerability or of strength, out there, new oceans await us. We must first, have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

 

 

 

 

 

On turning tragedy into triumph, A level results, UCAS, clearing and the need to plan for alternative avenues.

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Teenager unhappy (2)

Sharing a post from August 2014, on A level results day in the UK, with a post-script one year on.

“Facebook is not a good place, at times like this.”

Most often writing in a professional capacity, I am blurring the lines here between professional and personal as I share thoughts on A level results, UCAS and the clearing process from first hand experience, or rather, share (with my daughter’s consent) something of our experiences on Thursday 14th August 2014 – A level results day in the UK.

My daughter did not achieve the grades she needed for her first choice university, or her insurance choice and the message displayed as she logged into UCAS in the early hours of Thursday morning was one of rejection. It is a stark message that sugar-coats nothing at all, but marks the passage-way to clearing.

I would like to say I was there right from the start, at 6am, but we discussed how the day might roll out the evening before, and that was not how events unfolded. My entry into her highly charged world of phone calls, endless open screens on her lap-top, Facebook pop-up messages and a constantly bleeping phone, came about part of the way through the morning, when emotions had calmed and discussion was possible.

Champagne and celebrations

What was part of the plan was champagne in the fridge, a table booked at a favourite restaurant, my daughter’s friends arriving in the afternoon and a late night out for a celebratory evening of clubbing.

All the pieces were in place for a perfect day, but those damned results, and an unexpectedly poor fairing in one paper (now subject to a remark), threw the day, and my daughter’s future, into turmoil.

It is an emotional roller-coaster of a day when results do not go as expected. The torment experienced must not be under-estimated.

How dreams can be shattered in an instant.

It is a failing of our education system that success must be measured by exam grades and a resolutely single-route into university. Consideration of what alternatives may also be possible futures, or what lies beyond Plan A, when back up insurance offers are not an option, is limited. There is little emotional or practical preparation or support for students whose grades do not meet requirements. Minds that are blasted by rejection are not in the best fit state to begin negotiating alternative offers in those 24 – 48 crucial hours after results are released.

Which? University recently ran a poll of over 1000 students to consider how many had a back up plan if they did not achieve the necessary grades for their university choices. Over half of those polled had no back up plan. For more news on this story, here’s a useful link from TES Connect – http://news.tes.co.uk/b/news/2014/08/05/half-of-would-be-university-students-have-no-back-up-plan-if-a-levels-fall-short.aspx

The timescale to act on results day is exceptionally harsh.

Within 48 hours of clearing opening, decisions must be made and verbal offers from universities accepted and confirmed. Everything happens at lightening speed, so that all the leisurely months of browsing university handbooks, or attending open days seem absurdly remote when decisions about where to study need to be made – and made fast.

But even where speed and the need to act quickly is a necessity, the need to plan is even greater.

After breakfast (in bed on this occasion…) my daughter and I made a plan.

The first need was to prioritize universities to be called on their direct clearing number. We drew up  –

  • A list of all universities that had been considered at the beginning of the year
  • A check to ensure that the university were offering the course wanted through clearing
  • A contact phone number list for clearing for each university
  • A second list of universities offering the same or a related course
  • For each university, the UK ranking was noted along with the clearing phone number
  • For each university, my daughter considered her preferences on a 1 – 3 star rating

The best laid plans must still be subject to testing!

We soon discovered that the top-ranking universities, the Russell Group and those within the top 50, had long waiting times for calls to be answered, from 18 minutes to 32 minutes. That is a long time to hang onto a telephone! It is also a prohibitively long time to wait when the need to gain a number of firm verbal offers of a place is paramount and the hours in the day fixed.

The first hour of my daughter’s call time to universities was a relentless round of frustration and increasing despair with a complete failure to get through to speak to anyone. Several universities had phone lines that had collapsed under a siege of calls. Messages were being relayed via Twitter – please tweet your query here and Sam will get back to you. Very modern day, but very little real help (try condensing anguished emotions and queries into 140 characters!)

Our emotions are a precarious thing. They can be a blessing or a great burden. The emotional toll of the UCAS clearing process is great. It subjects young people, feeling at their most vulnerable and dejected, to a barrage of instant decision making with limited personal interaction or support. There is little to engage or buoy the spirits.

A change of tactic ensued which began to produce results.

Rather than prioritizing the top ranking universities and the long call waiting times, my daughter began to look at others, working her way up from the bottom of the list to the top.

The results were impressive and dramatic!

Within 20 minutes of calling lower priority universities (according to the list we’d established earlier), calls were going through instantly to admissions, and then to departments. Two offers were made from universities within a matter of minutes.

The mood suddenly lifted.

I have never felt so jubilant for my daughter as that first offer of a place at around 11.30am! And how that success became a catalyst for even greater success.

Quotes

Within two hours my daughter had verbal offers from five universities, all offering the course she wanted to study or a close match. It is ironic that many needed higher UCAS points than her first choice university that had, not more than a few hours before, rejected her, but still the offers came in.

Then began the process of deciding whether to continue seeking offers, and trying to bag an even higher ranking prize, or whether to capitalize on gains?

Do we stick or do we deal? 

We decided to stick with our offers and explore each one in detail.

The final draw came down to two London universities, both elaborate in their attention to detail. The virtual tours of university life were impressive. As studying in London had been off the cards previously, both were unknown quantities. Now, suddenly, it held appeal in vast quantities. A certain nightclub featuring in Freshers’ fortnight had a magical effect in transforming one university’s status instantly. A turning point had been reached.

From disaster and tragedy, suddenly new opportunities were forming.

By 4pm on Thursday, my daughter had accepted an offer to study History at Greenwich University, London. As a passionate Tudor scholar, imagine the delight to discover the great and significant connections with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. As a passionate party-goer, imagine the delight at discovering the proximity of London’s night scene and a two-week fresher experience that includes XOYO! Well, my daughter had found her Mecca. 

Greenwich College

Royal births at Greenwich include

  • 1491 Henry VIII
  • 1499 Edward
  • 1516 Mary
  • 1533 Elizabeth
  • 1536 Ann Boleyn miscarried

Royal weddings at Greenwich include

  • 1509 Henry VIII to Katherine of Aragon
  • 1540 Henry VIII to Anne of Cleves

Lessons to be learned

In supporting our sons and daughters through the turbulent sea of life, we must be mindful to keep dreams alive and a sense of self-worth intact. There is a harshness in the competitive world of education and work that can erode the human spirit and wreak havoc on dreams and aspirations. In difficult circumstances we must ensure that we do not lose sight of the longer term goal, or allow those we love to be set off-course, on some downward trajectory, by obstacles to our success.

In the words of Dr Seuss, there are mountains awaiting, so get on your way…

Dr Seuss

Postscript: One year on and my daughter has had a brilliant first year at Greenwich University, utterly immersed in student life and city life. It is different from what was expected, but better in many ways. There is much that one could regret, regarding other university opportunities, but much to be grateful for. We adjust, we adapt, we move on and we make the best of the opportunities set before us. Your mountain is waiting – so get on your way!

On positive word walls and the language of success for children with SEND

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Swimming for the disabledWhat is success? How do we measure it, outside of the host of data and targets and tracking records that schools have to complete? What does success look like in the classroom, on the playground, at home?

I suspect many children and teenagers with special educational needs shy away from the language of success, dwelling far more on those aspects of themselves that seem to be in deficit, found wanting, inadequate.

In my one-to-one discussions and subsequent assessment of children in schools, I ask the question – What are you good at? What are your strengths? To which, the inevitable reply is ‘I don’t know what I’m good at but I can tell you what I’m not good at…’

When we reach a point whereby a child’s definition of themselves is marked by failure, by difficulties, then we have let down that child badly. All children should have a strong sense of their successes, of what makes them happy, inspires them or gives them confidence, for all of those factors are the ingrediants of success – happiness, confidence, optimism, inspiration.

happy teenagersLooking back through old school files this morning I am struck by the wealth of advice and resources given out to many schools over so many years – advice and support that I hope has made some difference. Much though, as many school practitioners and independent consultants will know, will never make it to a publishing house or enjoy the longevity of being part of a book in print. Nevertheless, it is these little contributions that make our world and the educational landscape a better place for the children in our care.

 

So, here is an example of a Positive Word Wall that can be added to with illustrations and used for display within the classroom or as a personal resource for young people who struggle to see anything good about themselves.  Once we focus on a language that is positive, it is amazing hos our thoughts subtly shift to match the words spoken.

Positive Word Wall0001

For some young people, whose internal language is by default, unfailingly harsh and critical, their external environment has taught them that their inner critic, that subconscious voice, may be correct. There is much work to do to turn around a poor self-opinion and low self-esteem, but a starting point is to think – what is the language of success? What words foster positivity and how often, in the classroom, do we hear them heard out loud?

Some ideas to develop your own Positive Word Wall in the classroom –

  1. Draw up a table as above and head it as a Positive Word Wall
  2. Make your chart at least A4 or preferably A3 and decorate with an attractive border design
  3. Use the vocabulary from above, or complete adding also your own choice of Positive words
  4. Leave some blank spaces on the chart for words that are used within the classroom or school – add them as they are attributed to members of the class
  5. Be mindful that the focus is on raising the esteem and self-image of children with SEND, so ensure that new additions to the chart are not just from the same small cluster of high achievers
  6. Be mindful also not to make a public show of trying to bolster the confidence of one or two individuals – there is a fne line between encouragement and false praise
  7. Have a mantra at the start of the day that focuses on one or two words from the chart
  8. Bring this into a period of Mindfulness, by repeating a set phrase or expression incorporating two or three positive words
  9. Focus your attention as class/form/subject teacher on the qualities children display that reflect a positive language
  10. Use it as a motivation booster after difficult times or periods of disharmony
  11. Have a word a day to focus on and incorporate into everyday actions, words and thoughts. A chart with 30 words on will cover a typical half term worth of daily motivational thoughts
  12. Create a personal copy of the positive word wall for one or two children who suffer with low self-esteem as reminders of their capabilities, their potential and their qualities

Motivational quotesFor those professionals working hard to ensure a high quality of educational experience for the children in your care, mindful of every slight against their character, every challenge they must overcome, do remember also to focus on the language of success. Never forget the contribution you are making daily as you turn around lives of difficulty and despair, and create in its place, opportunities for hope, happiness and success.

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!” 
―    Dr. Seuss,    Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

 

 

 

 

On adjusting expectations, hopes and fears and letters from friends

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There was a point in my life where the routines of each day held me firmly in their grip. I set out each morning on travels that took in visits to three schools a day, to a backdrop of a small but select cluster of albums, the CDs that stayed in my car.

John Lennon Greatest Hits, I recall, has a track I have long loved, Watching the Wheels. According to my routines, this song played somehwere around the point at which I climbed the winding Fosse Way to the rural villages that make up South Warks. From that point on, my day began as a local authority support service advisor working on behalf of children with special educational needs.

On 5th October I received a diagnosis of grade 3 breast cancer. It has been a tumultuous time. The diagnosis sets a seal and a date to what was once feared and dreaded. During these demanding times, I have gained a great pleasure from listening to music, guided by an inner voice that draws me to this song or that soundtrack for reasons I fail to comprehend, until I make time to listen, and then I understand. I wonder at the power of our subconscioius mind which has such great reserves of inspiration, knowledge, wisdom that we too readily dismiss.

So, here are the lyrics to one of my all time favourite John Lennon tracks – and a favoured youtube clip to boot.

People say I’m crazy, doing what I’m doing
Well, they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin
When I say that I’m okay, well, they look at me kinda strange
“Surely, you’re not happy now, you no longer play the game”

People say I’m lazy, dreaming my life away
Well, they give me all kinds of advice designed to enlighten me
When I tell them that I’m doing fine watching shadows on the wall
“Don’t you miss the big time, boy. You’re no longer on the ball”

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go

Ahhh, people ask me questions, lost in confusion
Well, I tell them there’s no problem, only solutions
Well, they shake their heads and they look at me as if I’ve lost my mind
I tell them there’s no hurry, I’m just sitting here doing time

I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round

There is something here in this song that holds me fast. I have been concerned, pre-occupied with how unproductive, business-wise, this past six weeks has been. This diagnosis is the most damned of intrusions into a year that I have planned as ambitious, forward-looking, active on many fronts, professional and private. My glorious business trip to Bologna not that many weeks before heralded the start of new opportunities. My dashing from south to the north of England, speaking on Child Poverty and Green Papers, and Testing and Assessment, on matters that form the fulcrum of my business, all now seem but a shadow of my past, my pre-cancer existence.

Hospital visits there have been a-plenty this past six weeks. Visits that I assume will be a brief dash in and out, have lasted a morning. Tests and checks that I thought may be inconsequential, have left me in tears, full of sorrows and anxieties that seem to rid the body and mind of any reasonable focus or purpose. There have been days when picking up my Breast Cancer Care folder, a guide provided by the hospital, have caused tears to fall that will not stop for the most frustrating duration. Still I have not learned lessons that are waiting for me, as I fight this futile battle against the injustices of my illness.

But slowly, slowly, I am adjusting my expectations of what might be possible today, tomorrow, and for the weeks to come and finding there is much to contemplate.

On 7th November I had surgery, a lumpectomy to remove the tumour. It seems to me, though others may view it differently, that this surgery marks a turning point, a significant shift and forward movement. It is a relief, after all the anxieties and concerns, that surgery is behind me. Treatment still is to come, and the results – the results weigh heavily on my mind. But there is no denying I feel a sense of euphoria that the tumour has been removed.

Today is the first day I am home alone, having a pyjama day, with all good intentions to read the magazines that await my idle attention, gaze at the flowers that adorn two rooms of my home, and immerse myself in Wolf Hall. I shall try not to eat too many of the M & S biscuits that call to me from their glistening tin of gold.

My son and daughter have been a brilliant and stirling source of support, company, amusement, interest and great practical help. My son stayed with me throughout a series of hospital visits this week leading up to surgery, and was present during my less lucid and most anxious moments, before I was taken away to theatre. We have had some very funny moments, and some more thoughtful, poignant times over evening meals, breakfast, and on a long walk yesterday through the Warwickshire countryside. I came back tired, but delighted that my daily routine – at least for a short while – incorporates an afternoon siesta.

One very dear friend, fellow Twitterer and correspondent @wishdasher, sent the most thoughtful and eloquent email earlier this week, to support and guide me through this trying time. I printed out the email and had it with me to read and re-read, before surgery, and in that drawn out, slightly surreal time, waiting for permission to go home in the early afternoon.

In his email, @wishdasher guides me to consider three themes. The first, is to secure myself in the present, to dwell in the detail, to regain ‘some of the mental balance that such an upset can steal away’. The second, is that distraction and doing what I enjoy doing will soothe better than most medicines. I should delight in all those pleasures that time and circumstance render to more narrow confines. The final point is on the theme of courage. Again, I can do no better than quote from Q’s remarkable words –

‘courage is the act of surrendering oneself to reason in the face of fears that seem to urge one to act unreasonably.’

What has pleased me more than words can say is the reference, in Q’s letter, to the works of T S Eliot (how well he knows my loves) The Four Quartets –

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

Finally, alongside this letter from Q, I have been much moved by the best wishes and concerns of so many dear friends and my family. What a great source of comfort and strength are those who love us, or hold us in their thoughts. My breast cancer care guide, ‘Treating Breast Cancer’ advises that the period post-cancer treatment, a time that should be one to celebrate, can create its own set of problems, as the constant attention and concern of others, diminshes as the treatment progresses and health is restored. There is a further period of adjustment to make as our role in many areas of life, with family, with work colleagues, in a professional capacity, has changed irrevocably. Time moves on. So much to consider, but I am mindful of the counsel of my dear friend, and shall resist the temptation to anticipate the future. I shall dwell instead, in the present.

Earlier this week I tweeted that I was in need of courage. It has amused, distracted and interested me to find extracts from a range of sources on the theme of courage, but one that I return to and look on fondly is the quest of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, to find courage.

“You have plenty of courage, I am sure,” answered Oz. “All you need is confidence in yourself. There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.” 

Now, you must excuse, for I have magazines to read, flowers to gaze upon (and attempt to paint later, with my newly acquired watercolours), Wolf Hall at my side, and a friend calling. I am very much of a mind to emulate John Lennon’s good advice, and watch the wheels go round and round.

If you have time to spare a thought for me, wish me luck when my results come through.

Godspeed and my fond wishes always.

On the UK theme tune, the rhythm of life and BBC Radio 4

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I have been quite ecstatic to discover via Youtube the UK theme tune, the haunting, melodic and uplifting music that once marked the end of transmission by the BBC World Service and the resumption of service by BBC Radio 4 and the beginnings of a brand new day. This music was, for my years, the bedrock of my existence and I was deeply saddened by its demise. Always inclined to rise early, this music cheered, rejuvenated the spirit, inspired and moved me in turns, according to my waking mood.

According to Wikipedia, the theme tune was played every morning between 23 November 1978 and 23 April 2006. It is my age, I am sure, but it does not seem six years since last I heard this from my bedside radio.

I was ecstatic to discover the music and to listen, enraptured, as it played out its various themes for many reasons – a certain Autumnal nostalgia creeping in as the year draws towards its close, a lingering discontent at the lack of division between BBC World Service and Radio 4, my own longing for a return to some of the simple pleasures of the past.

For those curious to know the origins of the musical themes, my thanks again go to Wikipedia –

The Theme is a collection of traditional British tunes representing the four home countries of the United Kingdom as well as the national maritime tradition.

  • The finale of the piece, after alluding again to “Early One Morning”, ends with a full orchestral version of “Rule Britannia” over which a solo trumpet plays the “Trumpet Voluntary“.

We live our lives by various rhythms, that we fall into consciously and attentively, or subconsciously, without our great knowledge or awareness.

Our internal body clock governs our daily or circadian rhythm – telling us when to wake up and when to feel sleepy. Circadian comes from the Latin circa, meaning about and dies, meaning day

The BBC site on Science & Nature http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/sleep/crt/ gives a very short and simple test to indicate our natural circadian rhythms – and having just competed that test, I can apprecaite a little more my inclination to feeling soporific early afternoon. Speaking or workshop engagements that schedule me for an after-lunch slot fill me with some dread..

Why not take the test and discover your own circadian rhythm>  Circadian Rhythm Test

In keeping with the rhythm of life theme, I am a long admirer of the very uplifting and dashing piece of music that is The Rhythm of Life. It is a musical masterpiece and one that always sends shivers down my spine when I hear it played on the radio.

I began my post with a great motivation to share my love of the UK theme tune. Discovering the music again has delighted me and also,  brought to mind thoughts of the different stages of life, and of a time from around the mid 1980s when I first discovered the UK theme tune to its final broadcast in 2006, when every day began with a familiar, much-loved routine – the radio turning on shortly before the UK theme tune and waking to its endearing melodies.

Perhaps it is the Autumn, this slow and steady descent into Winter that has my thoughts somewhat maudlin, but there is a time for all things, to reflect, consider again our great gains and blessings, and a time to prepare for the next stage of our life. Not usually one to quote from the Bible, nevertheless, these words express so perfectly a sentiment that strikes a chord.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

There is a time for everything…
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance

Wishing you great blessings, at this time of your life and always.

On Emmy Awards, Damian Lewis, wake up calls and this stage of life

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Quite jubilant, I began my day with the most lovely news that one of my favourite actors, Damian Lewis, won a Best Actor Emmy Award for his role in the tv drama Homeland. My admiration knows no bounds, for I came late to the knowledge that Homeland was a remarkable drama, whilst many much wiser than I, knew that from the first.

Those who follow my Twitterings – https://twitter.com/HMStack – will know that my solace on many an evening is to watch Band of Brothers, a 10-part World War II miniseries, first broadcast in 2001, but still utterly captivating with the power to withstand the vagaries of time and change – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0185906/

One of the stars of Band of Brothers, of course, is Damian Lewis.  I return to that series like an old friend, long absent from my life, but with an appeal that endures.

As I listened to the news, fresh on BBC Radio 4 at around 6 am this morning, and repeated at hourly intervals, I have mused on what it must be like to wake up in Hollywood, the day after the  Award ceremony and contemplate one’s achievements, as a victor, and not just as a participant. To hear that news broadcast across global media the day after, and for many days to come, must also reinforce and magnify that sense of outstanding victory, success and achievement.

Emmy Award Damian Lewis

 

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances..”

As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

If, as Shakespeare wrote, all the world’s a stage, it seems to me that some occupy that stage far more brightly than others, taking the leading role with certitude, with gusto, with absolute confidence in their own ability to perform and be at their best, not just when needed, but at all times.

I began musing this blog post with the title ‘My life’s like this..’ inspired by the mundane realities of emptying the dishwasher at the start of the day, the demands of early morning routines, mapping out a weekly schedule and considering what my immediate future has in store. In my mind I had a fairly stark contrast with images of Damian Lewis, family in tow, waking in some glorious Hollywood hotel, with others to attend to the minutia of life – the tiny detail that weighs us down, the tasks that make us feel busy and productive, but slow down our real achievements.

I work to a 12 month business plan, broken down into 90 day cycles, and tie in with that certain personal goals and ambitions, yet despite the rigour of my planning, I know too well how easy it is to let plans slide, to allow goals to remain unrealized, to start the clock once more on the same self-made targets.

Yet for all my failings, I have at times this year experienced a great delight in life, and have woken with such pleasure and joy in my surroundings, my family, my place on this stage of life, that I am motivated to replicate the circumstances and actions taken that have lead to my greatest successes and richest moments.

My musings this morning were part motivated by a myriad mixed emotions, a slight frustration at the pace of change and progress towards long-held goals, certain insecurities, counterbalanced by admiration for the achievements of those whom I esteem highly in the arts and entertainment industry. And finally, an acceptance and acknowledgement that at times I too, have enjoyed moments that have felt, in some slender way, akin to the morning after the awards.

We all need a wake up call to remind us, at times, of what is important to us, of what we truly wish to achieve in our brief time on this earth. My particular wake up call was around 6.15 this morning, Monday 24th September 2012, listening to the news of an English actor, Damian Lewis, winning a coveted award in Hollywood for his role in a tv drama series.

When did you last have a wake up call and what has it revealed to you?

Postscript:

I am always drawn to this posting as a favourite of mine, and also because of an enduring admiration for Damian Lewis and Band of Brothers, and of course, Homeland. I am drawn to this posting also because its theme strikes a deeply personal chord, written as it was, just weeks before my diagnosis of breast cancer. How much more important then, when we do not know what lies ahead, that we take life each day at a time, remember what it is that is most important to us and have in mind always what we truly wish to achieve in our brief time on this earth?  

On productivity, the power of purpose and passion in life and in work

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“I am very, very busy.

From 6.30 when I rise to 11.30 when I seek my bed. You can imagine how much is to be done – new ship, new officers, new men…”

Captain Robert Falcon Scott

There are times when the need to exert extraordinary powers of effort, will and perseverence fall upon us, though circumstance or design, yet how many of us truly rate and believe in our capacity to be productive, to be purposeful with every moment of our time, to achieve the success we desire?

I am reading Ranulph Fiennes’ ‘Captain Scott’ (2003) and the quote above by Scott most impressed me. There seems hardly a time in Scott’s life when he was not endlessly busy, borne of great ambition but also of habit, purpose and studied decision making. Scott guarded himself constantly against indolence, fearful that he would live a life plagued by the financial insecurities that had haunted his father and left his mother and two sisters dependent on Scott’s modest naval wages whilst still a young man.

I am enamoured of Scott, having read his collected diary accounts, Scott’s Last Expedition in a year that marks the centenary of his death in 1912. In this year of rememberance, and of great interest in Scott’s work and legacy, it is easy to be drawn to believing that such feats of endurance, of incredible achievement and sacrifice, have died with that golden age of exploration.

Yet Scott was born neither wealthy, nor physically fit, nor exceptional. He worked relentlessly hard over many years to achieve the right to lead his first British Antartic Expedition on HMS Discovery, 1901 – 1904. Even after his first successful polar exploration, his endeavours did not let up, but were multiplied.

How many of us can say that when a degree of success is achieved we maintain the motivation, the productivity of earlier effort, to achieve still more? I fall far short on that and have an endless range of distractions that serve to ensure the rewards of hard work remain on some distant shore.

In Stephen Covey’s most celebrated and enduring ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’, Covey asserts that there is a need to define success not through independence, but through interdependence, people working together to achieve something that is greater than might be possible alone. Covey sets out to show that –

“Our character is a collection of our habits, and habits have a powerful role in our lives.”

Scott also recognized that need for good, productive habits to be formed early in life if they are to endure, having witnessed at first hand through his father’s penurious state the consequence of poor habit and discipline.

So, I return to Covey’s 7 habits which in outline are –

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the end in mind
  3. Put first things first
  4. Think win/win
  5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the saw

I love the progression of ideas and transformative power of Covey’s principles and strive to bear in mind, if not all, but at least some of those habits as I go about my daily business. But, oh, the temptations that exist.

At various times when I have been most busy, I have found excuse to be away, playing tennis when a report most prudently could be written. I have the most ardent need to wander the streets of Oxford, to indulge my love of Stratford upon Avon, or my weakness for quiet coffee shop moments, at times that most merit my full attention.

The moment slips by and those great and good intentions are lost to the passage of time.

I do not have an Arts and Crafts clock as beautiful as this from a collection at The Victoria & Albert Museum, London, but I do have a stone hand-crafted clock in my kitchen, bearing the same timely message –

“Time and tide wait for no man”

But all this quest for productivity, for good time management, for the power of purpose, is for nothing if there is not, somewhere behind the scenes, a passion driving forward our best endeavours.

What is your passion?

What inspires you to achieve the best you can possibly achieve?

As always, there is soul-searching to be done if we are to understand not just our own nature, but our habits, what it is that prevents or brings us closer to the life we would wish to lead.

Life is made infinitely richer once we find our passion. Only then can we work tirelessly towards our self-made goals and become productive in our daily habits. 

On confidence, its origins and protecting against its loss

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Ah, confidence, confidence. How do we acquire it when needed? From where does it spring? How do we keep hold of it during difficult times? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment, that the universe is against he who does not have confidence, is strking. We are battling not only the universe, it seems to me, but also ourselves, when we lose confidence in our ability to achieve, to provide, to be a good friend, parent, employee or boss.

I have been musing these various matters lately as my teenage daughter approaches the end of the school term and has been engaged in all manner of social events – proms, belated birthday parties, celebrations to mark the end of exams, celebrations to mark the last formal day of school, celebrations for celebrations sake.

Yet, despite this joyous time and great spirit of adventure and freedom, there are some who have not taken part in the many social events on offer: those who stayed home alone on Prom night; those who did not attend the leavers’ lunch; those who shied away from end of exam celebrations.  There are some for whom, the whole social whirl of this time of year has been too much to bear, a painful reminder of the absence of friends, the absence of the right wardrobe, the absence of confidence.

Of course, I begin these posts with great and good intentions that I will address so many matters and then my word count rises and needs must, there is this paring down of what matters most to say.

Confidence it seems to me, comes in many forms, and from many sources. If confidence is not instilled in us, through our parents, our family unit in the early years, how much harder it is to acquire later in life.

Here are my 8 keys to confidence, some more transitory than others but all accumulating to give, in their entirety, supreme confidence  –

  1. Family
  2. Friendships
  3. Personal Relationships
  4. Knowledge
  5. Possessions
  6. Appearance
  7. Status
  8. Love

In guarding against the loss of our self confidence it is useful to consider where still do we feel confident? From where, or from whom, can we borrow confidence, until ours is retored, made plentiful again? We see often young people who alone are timid and hesitant about accepting new social invites, but armed with a group of friends, or one good friend, accept readily whatever comes their way. This act of ‘borrowing’ confidence from another, is common to us all.

Some of my 8 keys to confidence may present as rather vacuous, or be regarded with dismay. How can possessions be a source of confidence? But many will know the look of joy on a young woman’s face when presented with the perfect shoes, the most exquisite dress, the most wondrous bag?

We gain so much of our confidence from our appearance, from how we look, from the possessions we acquire and adore. It would be foolish to think that we do not, but of course, the secret to holding onto our confidence, is to have still that great air of significance, or worth, when our possessions are lost to the past and our looks are but a distant dream.

We gain much of our early sense of self worth and confidence from our parents, from those significant adults in our life. Our family and our friendships afford us confidence.

Those who have many friends and friendships from different social groups, have much to feel confident about and have that  confidence reinforced each time they re-connect with their social group.

Those who have fewer friends are much more vulnerable to the heartache and despair of social anonymity, of isolation, are much more likely to be on the outside, looking in, as others enjoy the rewards of their social success.

From our social success, there is a gain that gives even greater confidence, and that is in the status we acquire amongst our peers. In the business world, status is everything, but even amongst the young, there is a status to be acquired in the classroom or on the playground. At its most positive, developing a reputation and status in a particular  field is important to success, to credibility, to professional longevity. At its worst, status corrupts the minds and behaviours of our most vulnerable in society, and is the cause behind some of our most feared and violent gang related crime.

In my work with children and young people with special educational needs, I have commented often in assessment advice on the ‘need for an increased self-confidence, across a range of contexts’. That range of contexts is an attempt to guide change and is significant. I may be challenged at times, with the comment from parents or teachers – ‘oh, but he is incredibly confident – wait until you see him at home/riding his bike/on the farm…’  Yet that confidence is not seen in the classroom, is not seen in that young person’s expectations of their own academic success, is not seen on the playground, where friends are few and far between.

Confidence can be static, confined to single isolated situations or contexts.  The confidence this child has can be seen to originate from knowledge and specific skill sets, but it may not be enough to protect that child from the taunts and teasing of the playground, of the wider social world of the school.

Confidence that comes from our knowledge and our skills may be said to be enduring, long-lasting, and it forms as a protection of sorts, against an erosion of our self-worth. We have a value in what we know, in what we can achieve, in what we can do. But in itself it is still not enough. Like our isolated child in the classroom, confidence in one context does not protect from an absence of confidence in another. There is a need always to think, how can this confidence be transferreed across a range of contexts?

I rather like this quotation from the late Arthur Ashe. Self-preparation as an important key to confidence. In sport, as in business, preparations are the key to success. There are no short cuts and no quick fixes. Time spent on preparations is essential, even if that does not attract the crowds, or is valued by clients.

Finally, I must mention love. Who has not felt an abundance of confidence at the same time as feeling an overwhelming sense of love? It may be the love of a mother for a new born child, the love of a parent for a child who has surpassed all expectations, the love of one person for another, the first love of teenagers, the love of good friends. In others, we gain confidence. To others, we give confidence.

Do I love you because you’re beautiful,
Or are you beautiful because I love you?
~Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Cinderella

On the exodus of pupils with SEN from state funded to private education

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“Over the past decade the number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in private schools has almost trebled, with an extra 52,594 taking places, according to a recent report by the Bow Group.

Some time ago I was asked to write a comment on the exodus of pupils with SEN from the state to the private sector. Before that request, I confess, I had not given this matter much thought. I was aware of many parents sharing concerns about their child’s stressful transition to secondary education, and about several local families who were considering private education for their sons and daughters, driven by a fear that if they did not act soon, they would not be in a position to choose, such were the troubles and problems they faced.

Here’s a link to a copy of the full report by the Bow Group – http://www.bowgroup.org/files/bowgroup/Charlotte%20Leslie%20-%20SEN,%20the%20Truth%20about%20Inclusion.pdf

My own work and professional concerns more frequently lie with those young people whose lives are blighted by the double-edged sword of difficulty in addition to often deep-rooted social deprivation and lack of opportunity. I have raised my concerns this past 24 months with the Dept for Education and with Sarah Teather in particular, about the escalation of additoinally resourced provision, units, learning support centres, call them what you will, that house increasingly small numbers of pupils typically excluded from local mainstream schools. There lies a whole pandora’s box of trouble, and is a matter that disturbs me greatly.

But back to this request to add comment to an article for the Independent Executive – http://independentexec.co.uk/–  about the exodus of pupils with SEN from state funded to private education. Here is an extract from my article –

Many children and young people with special educational needs have been dealt a debilitating blow by both our previous and current Government and its educational policies. The inclusion agenda has been blindly adhered to, regardless of consequence, casualties or cost. There are many children and young people whose lives have been blighted by the inclusion agenda, which promises so much, but delivers so little. Discussions about education placement have been marginalized as issues of provision have come to the fore, so much so that in many local authorities, real and urgent debate about the future of young people excluded from mainstream schools is taken out of the public domain.

Mainstream secondary schools too frequently over-promise and under-deliver, when it comes to the reality of provision following primary-secondary transition. Parents are persuaded that the early difficulties their child experiences are settling in problems, transitory matters that will soon resolve themselves, but it is possible to anticipate that concerns on-going at six weeks after transfer, are likely to be more pressing concerns and difficulties, some six months later.

Parents who have been swayed by the hard-sell of mainstream secondary provision, are frequently disillusioned and disappointed by the lack of care and apparent concern of those professionals working in the school’s Inclusion or Special Needs Department for their child’s needs. The needs of the young person that were formerly prioritised by the primary school, are now sidelined by the secondary as other more urgent and challenging needs absorb all resources, time and personnel.

What our good private schools do well, is recognize the need that all parents have, for time to discuss their child, time to discuss the petty and minor concerns as well as those more significant matters, time to reflect on progress and celebrate success. It is this unburdening the load of parental responsibility, this joint sharing of concerns, that reassures and calms the parent who has reached a point beyond which, only trouble lies.  It is about giving time and attention to the needs of each and every individual.

Our state education fares poorly in comparision, although our best performing schools recognize that need to understand and know each and every child and each and every family, that make up its whole.

What parent wouldn’t be swayed, where a place in a private school is within reach, by the Headteacher who regards their child as an asset, as a cherished and valued member of the school community, over the Headteacher whose only contact with the parent is to issue warnings, to formalize parental contracts, to exert pressure… It sounds stark, unreal almost, a falsehood, but that is the reality some parents face – a visit here that reassures, a meeting there that terrifies and causes such a rush of anguish and concern.

The transition of a child from one school to another, house moves and relocations aside, almost invariably comes about after some crisis or breakdown in relationships, communications, confidence and trust. In my role as SEN Consultant, I have been invited to attend many multi-professional meetings, where the final outcome is a decision by the school to exclude a young person, to pass on the burden of responsibility to another, to exert such onerous conditions that the likelihood of a return to the same setting, is marginal.

As a parent, as an active member of my local community, I am aware of many parents who have felt a great sense of injustice, who have felt robbed of choice, compelled to accept ever more restrictive conditions, as their child’s problems at school escalate and the school closes its ranks and pulls up the drawbridge.

Both sides and courses of action, are understandable. It is this choice that parents seem to be making in their droves, where it is even remotely possible, to move a child from state funded to private education, that intrigues. Aside the Bow Group, I wonder how much more attention is given to this great and current matter?

Private schools that appreciate their true value and appeal to parents of children with special needs, may be in great demand as the exodus of children with special needs from the maintained to private sector is in its infancy.

The reform of our special needs system and the vast sweeping changes in our educational landscape may come far too late to restore hope to many parents who remain fearful for the future, and fearful for their children’s prospects of making a successful transition to adulthood and independence.

What parent, after all, does not want their child to have friends, to be a part of a community, to feel valued and wanted? What should be the birthright of us all, presents as an elusive dream to some.

My heart goes out to those young people whose difficulties render friendships problematic, whose learning needs isolate them from the social and academic lives of their peers, who  struggle to get by in an  often uncompromising environment.

I applaud the efforts of those school who take time to get to know not only the students in their care, but also their families, to really know and understand what is going on in that young person’s life. Private or state education – excellence comes in many forms. It is about who strives to make a difference.

 “Even the rich are hungry for love, for being cared for, for being wanted…”

Mother Theresa of Calcutta