Sunday Shelf Vol. 6

Half-Year Reading Roundup

As of 30th June 2021 (how have we reached the second half of the year already?) I’ve read 25 books since New Year’s Day. I’m an avid reader, as regulars to the blog will recognise, but for the last three years my book total per year has stalled around 35 titles for the whole year. Therefore, I’m pretty impressed to have reached 25 by the end of June! Here are the 25, linked where possible with affiliate links to bookshop.org (a brilliant site which supports independent bookshops across the UK – if you make a purchase from one of my links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

  1. The Truths We Hold, by Vice-President Kamala Harris
  2. milk and honey, by Rupi Kaur
    • I’m not usually one to go for poetry, but I was drawn in the by the hype around this book (albeit quite a bit late to the party!) And yet I found it to be a capital-s Something kind of read. So much of it spoke to me deeply, and made the whole book feel like a warm tealight glow on a dark day.
  3. As Old as Time: A Twisted Tale, by Liz Braswell
  4. No Such Thing As Normal, by Bryony Gordon
  5. The Diary of a Bookseller, by Shaun Bythell
  6. The Astounding Broccoli Boy, by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  7. How to be Champion, by Sarah Millican
  8. The Boy at the Back of the Class, by Onjali Q. Raúf
  9. Zikora, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  10. Closing the Reading Gap, by Alex Quigley
  11. 1984, by George Orwell
    • This was my second time reading 1984, and it still had me totally gripped. I had the same visceral shock reaction to a huge plot twist, that I felt the first time around. Once again I was lulled into the same false sense of security. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking read for sure.
  12. The Rules of Modern Policing, by Guy Adams/DCI Gene Hunt
  13. The Future of Modern Policing, by Guy Adams/DCI Gene Hunt
    • This and the above were complete impulse buys, in the wake of binge-watching both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes in quick succession. But I have no regrets, both were short, quick reads that made it impossible to keep a straight face.
  14. The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis
    • Yes, I watched the Netflix series first… But reading the book felt even more intimately wonderful. This book made me want to play the kind of chess that the main character plays – a game that can be elegant, sophisticated and effortlessly intelligent. [I cannot play good chess, in the least.]
  15. The Little Village School, by Gervase Phinn
  16. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
  17. Pizazz, by Sophy Henn
  18. Pages and Co: Tilly and the Bookwanders, by Anna James
  19. Meet Me at the Museum, By Anne Youngson
  20. Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Frank Cottrell Boyce
  21. Bloom: The Surprising Seeds of Sorrell Fallowfield, by Nicola Skinner
  22. The Wages of Sin, by Kaite Welsh
  23. A Girl Called Justice, by Elly Griffiths
  24. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
  25. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle
    • An absolute classic, that surprised me with how accessible and easy-to-read it was, considering it was first published in 1902! I love the energy between Holmes and Watson – it’s honestly a delight to read alongside wrapping your head around the mystery at hand.

The summer holidays are approaching rapidly. Hopefully so are more immersive reads!

NQT/ECT Advice #4

How to prepare for a supply teacher

I studied at university for three years to become a teacher, (‘become a teacher’ on paper at least, I wouldn’t say I’m there yet!) and not once did this topic come up in taught sessions, lectures or even in conversation – we just never thought about it! But as an NQT/ECT you spend a fair bit of time out of the classroom on trainings etc, so you have to get used to leaving work for someone else to manage with your class. It can be tough knowing where to start – where do you start, when it comes to imparting some of the huge amount of knowledge you employ every day to teach your unique group of learners?

I’ve worked on supply this year (only briefly; it’s really not my thing!) and been on the receiving end of teachers’ information of varying quality… Here are my pointers on the kinds of information that I aimed/will aim to leave, and that it was helpful to receive, on arriving in a brand new school and class.

Timings

If I’ve never been to your school, I have no idea how things work. Please tell me what time everything happens, including information like how long it takes your class to do things like lining up or collecting belongings for home time. Also, if you’ve set multiple tasks for a lesson, feel free to tell me how long you would normally expect each one to take. It’s fairly customary to leave more for a supply teacher than can be completed in the time they have with your class, so that they don’t run out of things to do, but please give a heads up when you’ve done this!

Details

When you’re typing out your information for your supply teacher, it can feel like you’re being overly explanatory and insulting the intelligence of the person coming into your class. You’re not. You don’t know if the person coming in will have twenty years’ experience, and can run with a very brief plan, or if they’re someone like you at a very early stage in their career who would prefer all the details. From my point of view: tell me everything so that I can get it right for you! If you have strict rules on presentation, say so! I can do my best for you and your class wth all the relevant information.

Behaviour

How does your beautiful chart on the wall work? How many warnings do you give, and how many is too many? What are the consequences for ‘moving down’ on the behaviour chart/system?

Beleieve me, I know it’s really laborious to type out your expectations for supply staff to understand during their brief time in your class – especially if certain pupils have differentiated responses to behaviour. My tip is to have a stock document that you use for supply instructions, that has your behaviour expectations, timings of the day and SEN information already on it, so you do’t have to re-type it every time you’ve got someone covering for you.

SEN

I am in no way the best placed individual on this topic! If in doubt, speak to the SENCO at your school on what information needs to be passed on or not to supply staff.

However, here are some brief ideas off the top of my head.

Which children in the class have additional needs? Are there any accommodations I need to be aware of? [For example: making eye contact or not, sensory breaks, writing in certain colours or avoiding certain colours on the board, using a pupil’s name at the start of speaking to them, ensuring subtitles are on for any videos.]

Names

You don’t have to leave a class list for a supply teacher (unless it’s your school policy to, obviously) but a seating plan can be really useful. Children are prone to pushing it with supply staff (in the style of Ted Hastings, “Give me strength!”) and it can be so helpful to be able to call out poor behaviour by name, rather than aiming generally at an area of the room!

Secondly, please leave a note for your supply teacher with key names of other staff around school. It’s really handy, for example, to know the name of the next door teacher, or to drop in the name of the deputy head if behaviour gets a little bit hairy! (Remember that a supply teacher may have only been called that morning, so may not have had chance to look up the school online for names of senior leaders etc.)

Marking

As a supply teacher, I didn’t want the class teacher to return and feel like Sheldon (above) on their return! I experienced a lot of marking policies as a student, but didn’t appreciate just how much marking differs between schools until I did supply work. Some schools are so particular about if and how supply staff should mark work. Like with your behaviour information, keep your marking policy saved as a staple part of your supply instructions and re-use it every time you need cover.

Covid

Obviously this section is subject to change – by the time this post goes live it’ll probably be outdated! But please tell your supply staff anything they need to know about covid responsibilities in your school: zones on the playground, staffroom access, wiping tables down etc. Even eighteen months on from the Great Coronavirus Shutdown of 2020, so much hasn’t returned to normal (not to be political, but nor should it, until we’re sure everyone can be kept safe!) Things are different in different local authorities and even across different schools under the same authority, so just let your supply staff know for their own peace of mind.


I think I’ve covered most things here, but if you’ve got other things to add or ask, start a conversation in the comments section, or tag me on twitter @CaitTeachesKind.

Looking to get lost

The (unintentional) break I took away from blogging left me with plenty of time to immerse myself in all sorts – that’s how I judge how good something is, I think. If I can forget the rest of the world while I’m consuming it, if I can slip into that world and feel at home there, then it’s usually an enjoyable experience.

It makes me smile to write about escaping reality through media – as an A-level French student, a question that our class dreaded though it came up far too often, was along the lines of “s’eschapper de la réalité” (escaping from reality) and those four words became a dreaded phrase. There were various things I hated about French (sorry Sir, Miss, if you’re reading this!) but trying to put into words the things that crossed my mind when I was buried in my introverted inner-world ranked pretty highly up there. I can still barely word it in English, the immense pleasure of sinking into an alternate reality and becoming pre-occupied by someone else’s problems for a while. It was infinitely easier, in French at least, to be cynical and try to argue from a standpoint like Carl from Up – reality is reality, you can’t escape from it. When your brain is hardly co-operating enough to get you through the next thirty seconds of speaking in front of a class, explaining the nuances of escaping reality is borderline impossible.

On to the main point of the post: five things that have assisted me lately in my missions to be lost.


1 (and 2) – Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes

I am decidedly behind the times when it comes to these two BBC dramas, although in my defence I wasn’t old enough to watch them when they originally aired! [Life on Mars aired across two series, from January 2006 to April 2007 and Ashes to Ashes aired three series between February 2008 and May 2010]

Life on Mars appeared in my Netflix suggestions early this year, and it sat in my list unwatched before moving to the ‘Last chance to watch’ section, which finally spurred me into action. I’m so glad that I did! The first three weeks of April 2021 were a rollercoaster of binge-watching (in my haste to stay firmly within the realms of Fenchurch East CID, I neglected to notice that the sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, was not in the ‘Last chance to watch’ area…)

Both series centre around a modern-day police officer sent back in time following a violent incident. In Life on Mars, DCI Sam Tyler of Greater Manchester Police is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973, as a DI under DCI Gene Hunt, whose one-liners alone should be enough to land him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“Look at her, she’s as nervous as a very small nun at a penguin shoot.”

Gene Hunt, Life on Mars

As you can imagine, a straight-laced, by-the-book DCI from the 21st centrury clashes at almost every opportunity with a DCI embodying every bit of the 1970s. I’m still not quite sure how the character of Gene Hunt endeared to me so quickly – think misogyny, racism, homophobia and excessive violence, and you’ve about got the measure of him. But underneath the bravado there are flashes of humanity that meant I couldn’t help adding him to my extensive cast of favourite characters.

The second police officer swept up in time is DI Alex Drake, a police psychologist who worked with Sam Tyler following his ordeal, in the Metropolitan Police. She is caught up with an old adversary and ends up being shot, only to wake up in 1981 in a sticky situation from which she can only be rescued by a certain aforementioned DCI (which becomes a running theme, as she can’t seem to stay out of trouble across the twenty-four episodes of Ashes to Ashes!) And if Sam Tyler had disagreements with Gene Hunt, they were nothing in comparison with the blazing rows between Alex and ‘the Guv’!

There was so much to like about both series: sharp dialogue, well-rounded characters, the reliable formula of police procedural dramas blended with the suspense and mystery surrounding Sam and Alex and their desire to go back to the future. But these series really envelope you in their timelines, tying you to and making you care about the characters, even when they’re saying and doing things that are so drastically opposed to your own moral compass. Over my three weeks of viewing, I tumbled down the rabbit hole in 1973 and subsequently 1981 with the same ferocious immersion as the two protagonist police officers. And I loved it.


3 – Face Value

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/c/c9/Phil_Collins_-Face_Value.png/220px-Phil_Collins-_Face_Value.png

I’ve always liked older music, having been raised on tunes from the 70s and 80s (thanks, Mum and Dad!) The soundtracks of all twenty-four episodes of Ashes to Ashes have been rotating on my Spotify for weeks now – brilliant songs from the eighties, many that I’d liked even before I had new favourite characters attached to them. (Seriously, s01e06’s use of Ultravox’s Vienna sends shivers down my spine. The climax of the episode, the cinematography, the suggested chemistry… Every single shade of yes!)

One afternoon, I remarked to my dad that I couldn’t understand why In The Air Tonight had a fade-out ending, after more than five minutes of some of the best lyrics and drumming of all time. I lamented that there wasn’t an ending as iconic as that immense crescendo drum moment.

Well, if you told me you were drowning // I would not lend a hand // I’ve seen your face before my friend // But I don’t know if you know who I am

Phil Collins, In The Air Tonight (1981)

Indulging my love of music of that era, Dad suggested I listen to the entirety of the album that song hails from – Phil Collins’ Face Value.

Oh. My.

What. An. Album.

Seeing as a lot of my blog readers are older than I am, I’ll guess you’ve probably heard most, if not all, of Face Value. If you haven’t, I urge you to listen in its entirety. It’s raw, emotional, masterful. As songwriters go, few come close to measuring up to Phil Collins – who is not only the master of post-divorce angst-rich songs, but also wrote the soundtrack and lyrics for Tarzan (and recorded them in English, French, Italian, Spanish and German!)


4 – The Queen’s Gambit

Next in my selection of immersive media is a book/TV series pair. Unusually for me, I didn’t read the book first – I know, I know! Last summer I caught onto the huge hype around this unusual series about chess, and then early in the spring this year, I picked up the book, which turned out to be a compelling read. It’s as much about self-belief as it is about chess – the ancient game is the vehicle for Beth Harmon (the protagonist) to find herself, know her worth and conquer her demons.

The series follows Beth from orphaned child to troubled teen to train-wreck young woman and out into the sun again, against the backdrop of the 1960s. I’m spotting a decidedly retro theme to my choices in this blog! I found myself rooting for her from the start, admiring her mental agility and downright envying her ability to not only play chess but understand it, live it and breathe it. I can play, insofar as I know how the pieces can and can’t move. But the chess presented in The Queen’s Gambit has a unique beauty, a magic that cast a spell over me from the first episode to the last. I want to play chess like that! But perhaps cramming more into my head, spinning even more plates, is not my best plan when I’m three weeks shy of moving to the opposite end of the country for a new job!

For now, I might have to settle for working on a Beth Harmon-esque enviable focus instead, which would be no bad thing.


5 – Desert Island Discs

My final addition to this blog is yet more damning evidence that I might just be a little old before my time… I’ve been listening to DID podcasts for a few years, starting before a long car journey for a family holiday. Each episode is an insight into another person’s brain: hearing people talk about music that matters to them, in the same way so much music matters to me, is a pleasure. In sharing their intimate connections to music, the celebrity guests often share details that just wouldn’t be known otherwise: anecdotes from childhood, emotionally charged stories about family tragedies, glances into real life for these figures that become somewhat less ‘real’ for having been so prominent in popular culture. But not all the figures are super-famous and instantly recogniseable. Two of my favourite episodes are those featuring Dr. Sabrina Rachel Cohen-Hatton (firefighter, psychologist and writer) and Sinéad Burke (teacher, writer and disability activist) whose stories really inspired me.

I don’t envy those who have to choose their Desert Island Discs: the premise of the show being that you choose eight tracks that define you and that you couldn’t live without, should you be marooned on a desert island. Music is such a huge part of my life, I wouldn’t know where to start in trawling through my favourites and narrowing them down to just eight, and then to just one! At the end of the show, the guest is always asked which one of their tracks they would save, should all the others be washed away… How would I make that decision?!?

Que Sera, Sera – Hang In There

When I started writing blogs, more than twelve months ago now, I never would have suspected it would lead me here. First, that people would read it, and like to read it, too! Second, that I would make wonderful friends as a result of (quietly) shouting my thoughts into the great abyss of the internet! And third, that I would wind up writing a blog about a song that has a track record of making me run from a room to avoid hearing it!

I’ve always been honest in my blogs, as far as I can be anyway, and this entry is no exception.

I spoke on a podcast last summer, where I talked about a teacher who had meant a lot to me, one who is sadly no longer with us. I talked about the impact that she’d had on me as a teacher, how I carry her legacy with me as I step out into the world as a new teacher myself, hoping to have even a fraction of the sparkle she brought to the profession. This song reminds me of her so much – she would spontaneously break into singing it when prompting us to choose the correct French tense (the simple future… maybe? With a head full of Y5 maths tuition at the moment, forgive me for not having a pinpoint-accurate memory of French grammar!)

In the first year after she died, this song seemed to be everywhere. I would joke to my mum in lighter moments that she was sending it to test me, though when its appearance came in darker moments, it would leave me in tears. The optimism, lightness and sheer joy of this song epitomised everything good that I remembered of her, and I found it so hard to come to terms with the injustice of her passing that even the opening bars of this song had the power to send me fleeing a room or punching buttons on the radio to hear absolutely anything else.

I’m not writing for sympathy – much to the contrary, as shortly I’ll be making an about turn to follow the example of Doris Day’s innocent optimism myself! I’m writing honestly because that’s what I do, and because we don’t talk about grief enough. It hits all of us at one time or another, and yet we bury it away, suffer it silently and alone, and try to hide it from others if it happens to burst from its box outside the privacy of one’s own home.

Just to make it super clear – it is totally normal to grieve in your own way. You do you, you remember your people in your own way. But you don’t have to do it on your own.

Almost six years down the line, this song still conjures strong emotions for me, though usually they’re not the kind accompanied by tears anymore! These days, Que Sera Sera sits on a playlist I hold dear, one that is made up of cozy, old-timey tunes. Tulips from Amsterdam, Moonlight Sernade, et cetera. Que Sera Sera sits proudly alongside the others, and like the others, I sometimes skip it, but sometimes too I take in all two minutes of the song and let it envelop me like a hug, or a quiet nod of acknowledgement.

Because I’m not the same girl who would flee a room or rush to switch to another radio station, anymore. In November 2015, I didn’t need one more reason to feel crushed by emotions I couldn’t keep a lid on. But in May 2021, I have grown up considerably, come to terms with my anxiety, managed that side-order of grief and learned to live with it too (no matter what anyone tells you, it’s okay for it to never leave you!) A long way from enduring A-level lessons where I couldn’t say a word, I now tutor up to seven groups of children a day, or tutor three groups in a morning then move on to supply work of an afternoon. I have to keep talking, and most days that simple act doesn’t have even a fraction of the difficulty it once had.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll be familiar with my struggle to find classroom work again, after losing out on an opportunity at my NQT school. So many on twitter too became invested in my optimistic tweets about new applications, and comiserated with me and supported me when rejections started to pile up. Que Sera Sera seemed insincere after a while: it was so easy for people to say that the right school would find me, of course they were only saying ‘your time will come’ to try and make me feel better, because it couldn’t be true, could it? I didn’t think the lyric ‘Whatever will be, will be // The future’s not ours to see’ had any relevance to me whatsoever. I was trudging along, applying for what every time seemed like it could be the right school.

And then, with cautious optimism, I threw myself into another opportunity, one that unlike all the others, paid off in spades.

This summer, I’m upping sticks, setting off for a full-time classroom teaching job at long last, and I couldn’t be happier. Moving approximately two hundred miles from home is sometimes a little scary, but to draw on some exceptional wisdom from a much-loved teacher, whatever will be, will be.

The Death Of A Bookshop

Part 1: A resolution to be more sustainable

I recently read a book about books. Or, more accurately, a book about selling books. ‘The Diary Of A Bookseller’ by Shaun Bythell is a read I’d recommend for a number of reasons.

  • It made me finally watch ‘Black Books’, a Channel 4 comedy I’d been hoarding in my Netflix list for quite a while, which brought inordinate joy. It’s an irreverent series in a similar vein to Father Ted, kind of like a more grown-up Inbetweeners but with books everywhere.
  • Sometimes, you need a book where there is no significant action and drama. For a read to be gentle, to me at least, is no bad thing!
  • It opened my eyes to an industry in crisis, something which I’m sure has only been compounded in recent months by the pandemic.

You can buy a copy of the book here – I will give more details about this link later in this blog, and in the second part, coming soon. However, for legal reasons I must disclose that it is an affiliate link to bookshop.org meaning that it is free to folow the link but if you make a purchase after following it, I will earn a small comission at no extra cost to you (you will also be supporting independent booksellers across the UK.)


As I’ve grown up, I’ve made various conscious choices around sustainability and social conscience. I buy teabags that don’t contain microplastics, I don’t send clothes to landfill, I support small businesses where I can. But little did I realise, one of my great passions and the way I explored it, was contributing to the gradual destruction of hundreds of small businesses.

I love to read, and I love books: to be surrounded by them is a bizarre comfort I can’t quite explain. But the industry giant Amazon and even my perennial favourite Waterstones, are swallowing up the independent booksellers one by one. With their vast empires, the former two can afford to undercut the ‘indies’ with low prices, quick delivery times and multibuyu offers in a way that single-branch independents are simply unable to.

I’m not immune to the draw of Amazon Prime, in fact it was a regular thing for me to indulge in the near-instant gratification of the ‘Buy Now’ button, only to receive a shiny new tome a day or two later. But since becoming the owner of a micro-business myself (you can visit my Etsy shop here, and my instagram @classroomdreamsbymissb) my social conscience and desire for a more sustainable choice have increased considerably.


As I’m confined to home though (thanks, covid) it wasn’t easy as googling local options and roadtripping to catch all the independent bookshops like Pokémon. However, in googling, I did find an online option, one created for the purpose of competing with Amazon.

Bookshop.org launched in the US in January 2020, and by November, when its UK counterpart emerged, it had already raised $7.5 million dollars for US independent bookshops. Once you register (for free) on this platform, you can find an indie near you and choose it to receive the percentage from your book purchases, or you can add to the communcal pot which supports bookshops around the UK.

The site is user-friendly and way less visually cluttered than the overlord it aims to challenge!

You won’t find the rock-bottom prices and postal guarantees you’ll find elsewhere. Pure and simple, this is because these don’t support the survival of the book industry. So you will probably find yourself paying a little bit more, but is that such a bad thing, when you’re helping to maintain market choice by supporting the ecology of the book industry?

Student Teacher Tips – English

English is my favourite core subject to teach: as a student, I loved my uni sessions and found it so exciting to apply what I’d learned to placement experiences, alongside my own long-standing passion for the subject. However, I was as student with others who felt completely oppositely to me: they loved maths for its black-and-white-ness and the security of one correct answer (this is exactly why I’m not the greatest fan!) or they looked to science for its answers to all the big questions. English, to them, was a challenge for all the reasons I loved it so much. A creative subject, where the whole point is to think differently to everyone else, seemed an unpleasant intimidation both in the planning and the delivery stages.

In this blog, I’ve put together five key tips that might help you with planning and teaching English. If you’ve still got questions, feel free to leave them in the comments, follow up on the ‘Contact Me’ tab or find me on Twitter, @CaitTeachesKind.

1. Modelling

Going into my first placement, I didn’t quite appreciate the importance of this. Sure, it had been talked about A LOT at uni, but how useful could it really be, in a real classroom? I can’t explain exactly how wrong my uninformed, first-year self was! It doesn’t matter what age you’re teaching (although modelling becomes more critical, the younger you go) pupils need to see what they’re aiming for, and probably see the process that goes into creating that, too.

Don’t rely on your own skills of explanation to paint a clear picture for pupils of what they should produce in a lesson. This is especially true during periods of remote learning, whether you’re delivering content live, in a recorded video or leaving written instructions.

As an example, here’s a video I recorded for my Y1 class in May 2020. It’s by no means perfect – looking back at it now there’s a lot I would do differently, HOWEVER, I was an NQT, attempting to keep my head above water with remote learning, and the responses produced by some pupils in my class were great! For them, seeing the process of me writing out an example piece of work made it so much clearer than just giving them a typed example. They could see exactly how it would take shape, they saw me colour code focus words like I did in class, and they heard me talk through some of my decisions, as well as changing my mind about punctuation.

Obviously, with different year groups, the goal posts for a piece of work will be very different. Know your objective, and work out how your modelled writing shows that objective being met.

There’s no reason why you couldn’t do a typed modelled write, if you have the ability to share your screen or record your screen and you talking through what you’re doing. I know plenty of qualified teachers who prefer to type over handwrite! Bear in mind though that with younger pupils, it is important for them to see letter formation in practice too.

2. Don’t make any assumptions about prior knowledge

The likelihood is, if you’re reading this as a student, you’ve had quite a lot of different life experiences to date. These shape everything: the examples you use in figures of speech, your vocabulary choices, and your ability to write, at the drop of a hat, about a huge variety of given subjects. Young children just haven’t had this life experience. And all the way through primary, children’s lives outside of school vary massively. Children might never have seen the sea, they might not know what it’s like to have grandparents, they might never have been on holiday or even left the town they live in. This is the reality for a number of children, so we simply cannot assume that children are on our wavelength and can respond when we say “Okay, we’re going to write about the beach.”

So, what do we do about that? How do we bridge that experience gap and allow children to access what we’ve got planned?

Use everything available to you. If you’re reading about a beach setting (as we were in Y1 with The Storm Whale in Winter, above) bring shells, fishing nets and a bucket and spade. Find large images (I actually borrowed a canvas from my parents for my display during this topic, as student in 2019!) Search for youtube videos that have ambient sounds of the setting you’re after. I had seaside sounds, but had to look also for a sound even I hadn’t heard before, as part of this book – an icebreaker ship. This kind of immersion really helps children with their understanding and in turn, their writing. They can describe their own experiences far better than imagining something abstract that they have never heard, seen or touched.

3. Varied voices in literature

There’s huge conversations about this at the moment, in all corners of the internet. People far more qualified than me have made convincing arguments as to why the curriculum shouldn’t be ignoring voices that aren’t white, heterosexual and able-bodied.

Don’t just settle for the first thing suggested to you. Even if, as a student, the curriculum is set already with a specific books, you can suggest alternative titles to your class teacher. If you know of a really great book by a BAME or LGBT author that is around the same topic, share this with them! There may well be time for reading to pupils, and this is a great time to share diverse voices with pupils.

The schools I’ve taught in so far have been majority white schools, with very little diversity between pupils racially. This makes it even more important that they are exposed to voices and stories by people who don’t look like them. But it’s also true that diversity exists even within 100% White British class. Your pupils may not all live in a household with a mum and a dad and 2.4 children. There are increasing numbers of books for children with LGBT parents, parents with disabilities, reconstituted families. In the same way that it’s important for ethnic minority children to see themselves in the stories we share, for a child growing up with two dads, or a chronically ill parent, it’s important for them to have representation too.

If you’ve already come across lists of diverse books, share these with your schools. They may have a plan in place already to diversify their literature choices, but if they don’t, you’ll be making a big difference.

4. Reading for reading’s sake

Granted, this is a lot easier when teaching in-person rather than remotely via Zoom or Teams! In a non-covid, ‘normal’ classroom, you can have beautiful displays of books you recommend and children recommend to each other, inviting reading areas, shelves and boxes of books for pupils to choose from. In the times we’re living in now, it can be a little more challenging. As I’m not a classroom teacher this year, I turned to that always-helpful resource of EduTwitter to see what other people are doing.

When I tweeted out for help on this, I got some fantastic responses. I have linked a few below, and will update this as needed.

This blog post by Christopher Harrison.

This twitter account, for a book club initiative in schools.

Natalie‘s fantastic reading spine, available here.

This blog, centred around poetry.

It doesn’t matter how you do it, just promote a love of reading, because it has the potential and the power to change lives. I was lucky enough to be on a zoom call recently with the author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, and he spoke with such dedication about the ability of reading to set you free from the situation you are in. I couldn’t agree more. If you’re not a big reader, for the sake of your pupils you have to learn to pretend, because you might encourage a reluctant reader to try a book that unlocks it all for the,. Conversely, if you don’t, then an avid reader might be turned off it because their teacher doesn’t think it’s important. We have such power as teachers to influence pupil choices. Remember that when you don’t feel like being chirpy about books!

5. As a student, you’re not on your own

It’s easy to feel like you’ve been thrown in the deep end as a student, expected to know everything and know how to do everything. I definitely felt like this more than once when I was out on placements. But, now that I’ve come out the other side of training, and have had a year as a class teacher, I can see the error in this way of thinking.! If I’m ever responsible for a student teacher (and I’m hopeful that one day I could be!) then I’d never expect them to know everything there is to know (I’m doubtful that I’ll ever know enough to get by, never mind know everything!)

What I’m trying to say is that your class teacher is there to support you. You can go to them for support with your planning, you can run ideas by them, you’re totally allowed to say “I don’t know how to teach this!” In the unlikely event that your class teacher isn’t co-operative with this, you can get in touch with your training provider for help, and you can ask other teachers in school too. Find out who the English subject lead is and throw your planning struggles their way (asking nicely, of course!) Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes is enough to solve a problem, and sometimes you just need someone to say “Oh, this is what I did when I had to meet that objective,” and it’ll settle more in your head too. And finally, you can always do what I did with the advice for reading – EduTwitter is full of people who have the bits of knowledge you’re missing.

When It’s Not “Just” Blue Monday

“Blue Monday” is the name given to the third Monday of the year, the day dubbed the most depressing on the entire calendar. In other words, it’s one of the few days of the year when it’s socially acceptable, cool, even, to use the word depression to describe how you’re feeling.

For those of us who use it on a far more regular basis, forgive us for judging it all as a little bit insincere.

“Blue Monday” was coined by a travel company, believe it or not, as a marketing tool to sell holidays on a day when the warm buzz of Christmas had worn off, leaving behind a need to escape everyday life for sunnier climes. This year, when I browsed the feeds for #BlueMonday on various social networks, it took no time at all to spot similar attempts to cash in on winter blues. Unsurprisingly, there were lots of holidays, lots of gymwear and lots of at-home exercise subscriptions claiming to give you ‘the body you’ve always wanted’. Hardly the kind of material to cheer you up, if you really were feeling a bit on the low end of ‘I’m fine, honestly.’

Since the first UK lockdown last spring, there has been a huge rise in the number of people reporting mental health difficulties. We are confronted daily with a staggering crisis: a constant stream of death, every one of them a tragedy; constant changes to work no matter what sector you work in; and for many, unrelenting isolation.

Writing not only as a teacher, but as someone who has juggled mental health and work, I want to contribute something useful to the #BlueMonday discourse. It’s February now, so you may question my timing, but sometimes Blue Monday rolls into Blue Tuesday, Blue Wednesday and so on, until you feel trapped and suffocated by the darkness. Since the first lockdown began, many teachers are experiencing the darkness or the web of worry for the first time. I hope some of the points below might help a little.

How to keep calm and carry on, when everything feels a bit too difficult

1. Check your to-do list

I really do understand what it feels like when that omnipresent list tips over to become an added pressure you just don’t need. There’s a fine line between that list being helpful and making everything worse! But one thing is for sure, there’s always a lot to do as a teacher (one thing I’ve noticed since online teaching has begun, is that people’s lists are getting longer and longer.) When your mental health is suffering, it’s time to re-evaluate. Look at what’s on your list and ask yourself: why is this on my list? If the answer is not along the lines of this is going to impact children’s learning then it can wait until tomorrow (that being a proverbial tomorrow, meaning whenever you have the time and/or the headspace to accomodate it.)

2. Stay hydrated

Brain fog can be a real issue when you’re feeling a bit down. I can’t stand that feeling of thoughts moving through treacle (not that this motivates me to follow this piece of advice all the time!) Drinking plenty of water can feel like a chore sometimes, but it will help you stay focused and counteract some of that screen headache!

3. Back to basics

Try and get enough sleep, enough daylight, and enough proper food (sorry, grabbing a cereal bar instead of a meal doesn’t count!) It may be harder in a pandemic, but something I found in my NQT year was this: if buying premade sandwiches on your way to work/in your lunch break means you eat a proper lunch, then it’s a worthy expense until you’re feeling better.

4. It’s okay to say no…

I am terrible for saying yes all the time, to the detriment of my own wellbeing. If you don’t feel like you can do something, for whatever reason, or you just can’t do it, then you are allowed to turn it down. The world won’t end if you lay down a boundary and don’t add something to your to-do list. You might actually be helping yourself by taking a nap instead of attending zoom aerobics. However, there’s a caveat to this:

5. Sometimes you have to say yes!

Sometimes, it actually makes you feel better to say yes.

6. Reach out

Know who your support system is, and don’t talk yourself out of getting in touch with them when you’re struggling. Call your mum, text your teacher buddy, jump back into the group chat. Whatever it is, whoever your people are, remember them and talk to them.

Sunday Shelf Vol. 5

2020 Reading Roundup

Since January 2018, I have recorded every book I have completed, with a few notes of what I thought about each one. My reading journal now has three years’ worth of notes, quotes and musings around the literature I’ve consumed.

I read thirty-seven books in 2020. (In case anyone’s interested, I read thrity-three in 2018 and another thirty-three in 2019.) This year, I’m aiming for forty (and have completed 1.5 to date) but before I start getting ahead of myself, I wanted to release my list of reads for 2020.

Here are ten of my favourites, because I really couldn’t narrow it down any further!

Disclaimer – the affiliate links below will take you to bookshop.org, an online bookshop supporting independent booksellers. I will also earn a small commission if you make a purchase, at no extra cost to you.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Anne Shaffer and Annie Barrows

This was a hugely comforting read for me – one that I dipped in and out of and then devoured, in the week culminating in the UK school closures in March 2020. At first I was hesitant, not sure how I would get on with the story being told purely through letters, but in the end I barely noticed. The story is charming in every way: I found myself falling in love with Guernsey and the characters easily.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, on bookshop.org

Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery

This was a lovely escapist read. The town of Avonlea, where the book is set, struck me as very like Maycomb (the town in To Kill a Mockingbird) and the two books themselves felt quite similar, although this one is all the calmer for not having morality tied into every plot point.

Anne of Green Gables, on bookshop.org

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

I am in awe of just how much happened in this book. There were so many individual plot points but all of them seemed fleshed out and rich. The settings were so well-described that I felt like I was there, and the character development was exceptional. It’s a book that I wish I could always read for the first time, strange as that may sound, because I wish I could always feel so strongly about it as I did the first time.

The Kite Runner, on bookshop.org

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge

This book opened my eyes and opened my mind, making me re-consider my position of privilege as an educated white woman, and re-consider how I should be responding to acts of racial violence such as those we saw in 2020.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, on bookshop.org

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

This was an inspirational read and it took me a shamefully long time to read it. But I was so inspired by Mrs Obama’s work ethic and determination – it made me so determined to work hard to get where I want to be, personally and professionally.

Becoming, on bookshop.org

No Ballet Shoes in Syria, by Catherine Bruton

I found this book to be very moving in the way it tackled the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s a middle-grade children’s book, one that I look forward to recommending to children that I teach in the future.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria, on bookshop.org

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy

This book is a masterpiece. It was bought for me by the mum of a child I taught last academic year, and there’s something extra magical about having had it chosen for me. It’s so pure and innocent, but equally deep and meaningful. Everyone should read this book.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, on bookshop.org

52 Time Britain Was A *******, by James Felton

As a self-certified history geek, I loved this book. It’s a riotous history book, kind of a like a sweary Horrible Histories. I couldn’t help laughing out loud as a I read some of it, shocked into laughter by some of the absolute atrocities committed by “Great” Britain. It’s a much needed reminder to all, that the Empire was a horrible idea.

52 Times Britain was a *******, on bookshop.org

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez

From history geekness to rampant feminism now – I didn’t even know that ‘data bias’ was a thing until I read this book, but it infuriated me greatly (and probably infuriated my family greatly too, as I burst into indignant conversations about it at regular intervals while reading!) So much of the world is inherently designed without women in mind, because women were never part of the design process – example: did you know that your seatbelt is not designed to save you, if you’re biologically female? If you think we don’t have a problem with gender inequality anymore, you need to read this book.

Invisible Women, on bookshop.org

One Child, by Torey Hayden

This was a really profound read. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for, buying this on the recommendation of a family friend. I only knew that it was a teacher’s (true) account of a ‘difficult’ child. I was so drawn into Torey Hayden’s world and her classroom because it was such a powerfully told story.

One Child, on bookshop.org


I think it’s fair to say that I have extremely varied taste in my reading choices, which can be a blessing and a curse! I wonder what it would be like to walk into a bookshop and make a beeline for a particular section, instead of doing what I do – stand, dazzled by choice at the door before drifting between shelves all over the shop. I mean, it makes my reading life more interesting, but does my bank account no good whatsoever.

Don’t Call Me Fragile

This blog post has been a very long time coming. I’ve hesitated, paused, rethought and rewritten, always afraid that I would cause offence by publishing it. Because this post is going to call people out, and if I’ve written it right, it might make others uncomfortable with their own language choices around the subject of mental health.

(I will link to resources at the end of the post in case you want/need further information, or if you need support.)

I’m not sharing this out of anger so much as a need to make sure that one day, no-one will have to experience The Stigma that still shrouds mental illness, and worse having this stigma thrust so hurtfully in their face. You need to know how much damage your words can do.


The first time, I was eighteen.

I thought I liked him, and I thought he liked me back. We would send messages back and forth every evening that made me smile. The whole world was ahead of us: we carved the headspace for conversation out of university applications, history essays and astonishing academic pressure from almost every angle. He knew that I was anxious. He’d been in enough lessons where I had frozen, no words coming out and no amount of reassurance going in.

We weren’t ‘together’ or anything, though I might have quite liked us to be. Neither of us seemed to fit in, but it felt like we fitted together.

He invited me out for coffee, a few months after my birthday. I thought something was about to happen – I felt like a helium balloon, tugging skywards on its string.

And something did happen. Mercifully, I have forgotten his phrasing, except for one word. The gist, however, was that I wasn’t someone he could consider a relationship with.

I was too “fragile”.

It wasn’t so much a pin in the balloon as a cannonball, obliterating it and me.

For a long time, I believed him. When you trust someone, it’s hard not to. But I know now that in that last year of sixth form, though I was the most anxious I have ever been, I was never fragile. I had panic attacks nearly every day. I was practically selectively mute at times (something which I’ll always be apologetic to my teachers for!) I buried myself in my schoolwork, desperate not to get anything wrong. But I showed up every day. I forced myself into that building every morning, no matter how hard it was.

I am loath to say it, for reasons you may understand shortly, but there was nothing fragile about me.


Unfortunately, he was not the only person to call me ‘fragile’. Someone else has done it too, though you’ll have to forgive me for being a little more cagey around my second example. I’m aware of how relatively recent it was, and maintaining as much anonymity as possible – to protect myself, more than anything else. I have a right to tell my story, but not to dob anyone else in.

She led me to believe that I could trust her. I thought that those of us with similar experiences appreciated how difficult it was to share those experiences, and understood the sanctity of the trust you place in someone you chose to share them with. Naively, I assumed she understood. She gave me her time when I needed to talk and gave me a huge amount of reassurance that things would turn out okay. I tried my best to return her kindness when I could, or at least make it worth something by working hard and proving myself. At least, I thought that’s what I was doing.

I know I’m not perfect. Good grief, I’ve never even claimed to be, I wouldn’t dare! I have many, many faults, but I did not deserve what I got, which was ‘fragile’ being used as a reason why I didn’t receive professional support that I should have been entitled to.

It’s difficult to explain exactly how much of an impact this had on me. She hit me where it hurt. Was I really not right for the profession because of my anxiety? I thought she had been supporting me from a place of understanding, not from thinking that my mental health made me a weak member of the team.

I had confided so much in her and she broke that trust in the worst way.

When the conversation was over, I cried. Although ‘cried’ doesn’t do it justice. If you really haven’t got the key message yet, that ‘fragile’ is not a good word, then know that I have never been that upset in my life. I wasn’t even safe to drive myself home – I had to call my parents to come and rescue me and my car, from a safe distance where I knew I wouldn’t be seen in my weakness.

The person who called me fragile that time saw no error in what she said. She probably doesn’t even remember saying it. But I will never forget. She made me doubt everything, breaking down walls I had spent years building up.


You can say all sorts of things about me and my anxiety, but ‘fragile’ is my hard limit. Please do not imply weakness on my part.

I am capable of talking myself down hideously, without any extra help from you, thank you.

There is nothing fragile in the least, about being introverted and anxious, and still pursuing one of the ‘talkiest’ professions going. I’m a one-woman walking paradox, I’m proud of that (sometimes) and I am strong


Don’t call me fragile.


Resources

https://www.mind.org.uk/ – Information on (I think) all mental health conditions, wellbeing tips, plus a useful “Get help now” button, that doesn’t trigger the end of the world but instead can give you some real coping strategies for use in a crisis.

https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/ – The definitive campaign to end mental health discrimination across society, including use of language and how to talk about mental health with sensitivity.

https://www.educationsupport.org.uk/ – Charity supporting educators and school staff in the UK

https://www.samaritans.org/ – You can call confidentially at any time, and someone will be there to listen.

Under The Same Stars

Here we are, back in lockdown again… I’ll resist the urge to get all political and go on a rant, I promise!

As you’ll know if you’ve read my NQT year blogs (an ongoing project) I am an avid journaller, writing every day if I can. While being invaluable for recounting my NQT experiences, it’s also useful for looking back at how lockdown felt the first time around.

“There’s talk that all this – the lockdown, the social distancing, the school closures – could last six months or more. It’s a very sobering thought that all this could go on until September.”

29th March 2020

Reading those words, neatly put on the page in fountain pen (like now, I was at liberty to take the time to let the ink dry) I am very glad there’s no such thing as time travel. If I had known back then that nearly twelve months later nothing would be different, it would have been very difficult to find motivation for anything.

This lockdown is equally as difficult as the first, though for different reasons. The first time around, we didn’t know what to expect; this time, we kind of do, in that we know how grim it can be to feel trapped indoors! In the spring, I remember finding it hard to keep my house cool, whereas now it’s commonplace to hear variations on “Were you born in a barn?” or “Who’s forgotten to close the door behind the dog?!”

I should point out that for me, there are some major differences in my lockdown experience, First – last year, I had boldly gone out into the world, living with a schoolfriend in our first taste of young-professional freedom. For a whole collection of reasons, we’ve had to give up our house and move home to our parents’, which was really not part of the plan! Second – last year I had a full-time class teacher position, therefore a class to teach remotely and a rota of days to fulfil, teaching and caring for key-worker and vulnerable children at school. This year, as a school-based NTP tutor, I don’t have this. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be delivering tuition online or whether I will be furloughed. It’s hardly an ideal situation, and thousands of others are experiencing similar uncertainty.

Having upped sticks and moved twice in eighteen months, you can probably imagine the absolute chaos that is my assortment of belongings… My rented storage unit is the place of nightmares!

But I found something interesting the other day, that transported me instantly back to that first lockdown. I have a whole box full of notebooks, and slipped between two of them was a slip of paper, hastily scrawled some time in April, I think. I remember having plans to blog about it at the time.

So, nearly nine months on, we reach the crux of this post – the reason why it’s called “Under The Same Stars.”

Early in Lockdown 1, I took great solace from my work group chat. We all found it hard to suddenly be away from school and the close-quarters working life that a single-form-entry school can create. The whatsapp was full of memes, gifs and daily tales of lockdown life, though beneath the laughs there was undoubtedly an undercurrent of worry, fuelled by the uncertainty spawned by constant media speculation of reopening schools and regular spells of internet teacher-bashing. We muddled along as best we could.

One evening late on, I sat at my desk in the corner of my room, my attention split between the piece of writing I was working on and the little notification light on my phone, that relentlessly remained lit. The whatsapp was alive and kicking, and I put down my pen to join in.

Everyone was looking for a group of satellites in the dark sky: rumour had it they would be easily visible that night, and as luck would have it we had a clear evening. Some of us leaned from windows, some stood in gardens, others ventured out of their front doors for the first time in a while. We all gazed skywards, looking for the moving lights in the sky. And then came the perfect message, that brought inordinate joy. “Are we even looking at the right thing?”

I was alone in my bedroom but it still made me laugh out loud. True, we had no way of knowing if we were looking at the fabled satellites, or even if we were all looking at the same thing in the sky. But in that moment there was such beauty and warmth: it didn’t matter that we were spread out in our own homes having not been together for weeks. We were united by our separation, all looking up at the same night sky.

So if you’re feeling alone in lockdown, missing your friends or family or even the old normal of cramming into an overflowing train carriage, remember to look up. We are all under the same stars.