Posted in Learning, Studying, Teaching

What I do and the value of what I do: A long read

We are asked to introduce ourselves. Most people give their name, title and something about the work they do. It’s my turn and I say ‘Hi, I’m Sharon. I do stuff.’

People laugh and then the next person introduces himself, gives his title, says something about what he does, and that continues around the table.

But … what?

Why did I respond in that way? Why didn’t I give my title and say something about what I do? Particularly as the people around the table are my colleagues. Most of them – if not all of them – know my title and what I do.

Weird.

Even weirder, now that I think about it some more in the cold hard light of day. And when I say ‘cold’ I mean freezing. It’s so cold today I’m sitting inside with a woolen hat on, a buff (a scarf without ends) around my neck, a warm cardigan, while the heater dribbles out heat in the background.

I went to see Cornelia (not her real name) yesterday afternoon. Cornelia is my onc-psych (yes, apparently there is such a thing) and I told her about this because I thought it was interesting and it fitted in with other things we were talking about.

Cornelia challenged me to describe what I do and the value of what I do to an imaginary audience of Grade 5 kids. Or Prep kids. Or people who aren’t in the same industry as me.

So here I am. I’m sure she didn’t mean for me to do this on my blog, but as you’re my audience and might be good enough to give me your time and possibly some feedback, I thought I may as well describe what I do and the value of what I do to you – a real, rather than an imagined audience.

Or perhaps you are an imagined audience. I’ll imagine you’re out there, sitting in the warmth, scrolling through your emails, finding one from Musings on the Cold, and saying to yourself ‘what the heck. I may as well see what Sharon has to say today.’ And here you are.

Grab a cuppa, this is a seriously long read.

What do I do in my professional life and what is its value?

I’m a Senior Lecturer (Student Engagement) in the Faculty of Business and Law at Deakin University.

I work with academic staff (those who teach undergraduate and postgraduate students) to help further develop their teaching practice. I also work with those who work with academic staff to help them further develop the work they do in working with academic staff in further developing their teaching practice.

That sounds a little convoluted, even to me. Hopefully, it will become a bit more clear as (if) you read on.

Academics have three main parts to their role:

  1. Research (that includes writing grant applications, conducting research – writing ethics applications, designing surveys/questionnaires/interview schedules, gathering and analysing data, writing peer reviewed journal articles …)
  2. Service (engage in committees that make decisions about important initiatives, take on leaderships roles …)
  3. Teach (prepare unit guides, design the structure of an 11 week unit/subject so that it has a coherent thread, design assessment tasks, record lectures and podcasts and be animated and lively as you do it, align assessment with learning outcomes, develop learning resources to scaffold student learning, determine ways of engaging students and tapping into their personal motivations and interest for studying this subject, liaise with library staff about library resources, liaise with language and literacy advisers on the best way to support students’ academic development, liaise with the work integrated learning team to determine how to incorporate some employability education into the unit, ensure compliance with the Higher Education Standards Framework in terms of discipline knowledge and also how to teach and assess, present information, meet with those teaching into their units to ensure there’s consistency in the information provided to students and in the ways students are being taught, respond to student requests for extensions, comply with standards for online learning (accessibility, etc), respond to student requests for information that was in the Week 3 notes but that the student hadn’t accessed, respond to student queries about whether this particular nugget of information will be in the exam, wonder why many students don’t turn up to class, mark student assignments, give feedback to students saying the same thing over and over ‘your work could be strengthened if you accessed the materials and attended more regularly’, conduct moderation meetings to ensure all markers are marking consistently and are providing positive and constructive feedback, write a unit review at the end of the semester to justify the high fail rates, ensure there’s a spread of grades consistent with a bell curve even though we do criterion-referenced assessment to which bell curves don’t apply, read student evaluations that often say hurtful things of a personal nature (Sharon is fat, Sharon has no sense of humour, Sharon’s hair is ridiculous), respond to student enquiries within 48 hours, ensure the unit is inclusive of those from rural and regional areas, those from a low socio-economic demographic, those who have a disability, those who work, those who have children and elderly parents, those who don’t really want to be in this subject, this course, this university, this country but they have to because their parents’ expectations are high, engage students in active learning, teach them about teamwork and self management and critical thinking and problem solving and global citizenship as well as disciplinary-specific content knowledge, be familiar with a range of technologies, pretend you can do all this … and more …).

A ‘balanced’ workload is 40/40/20. That is, an academic will have 40% of their workload allocation devoted to research, 40% to teaching and 20% to service.

Many academics come to universities as experts in their field. They are expert accountants, or financial planners, or foreign exchange traders. They are keen to undertake research. Research builds your profile nationally and internationally. Research builds a university’s profile nationally and internationally. There are university rankings and all universities want to be at or close to the top. You get close to the top primarily through research, although teaching evaluations from students plus success and retention rates are also part of the equation. But research is important.

Most academics have a PhD and so come to the academy knowing how to do research. Once at the university, they often get onto research teams and are mentored and supported by more experienced others in how to write grant applications, how to write ethics applications, how to write journal articles, how to get published (or they mentor and support those who are newer to academia). They publish in teams and so an academic might have their name on a dozen papers, along with a dozen other academics, all of whom contributed in some way to the research, although not necessarily to the writing of the paper. It’s very important to have your name on the paper. It’s how you and the university builds a national and international profile.

Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

Not many academics come to universities knowing how to teach. They’ve been in school, they’ve spent time in universities as students, but just as going to the dentist regularly doesn’t mean you know how to dentist, being a student doesn’t mean you know how to teach. Teaching is often something that is done individually. A unit chair will do much of the work I mentioned in point 3 above. On their own. Often with limited time, particularly in the initial stages of unit design and development.

Many academics come to teaching with the idea that teaching is about telling students what they need to know and then testing them on that at the end of the trimester to see how much they’ve ‘learnt’. Not many academics build their national or international profile through teaching. Not many universities get to the top of the league tables through teaching.

Teaching is often evaluated on the basis of what students have to say and when what they have to say is unhelpful (Sharon is fat. Sharon has no sense of humour. Sharon’s hair is ridiculous) then it’s difficult to know how to improve. Teaching tends not to be a team activity. There’s little mentoring and support from more experienced others. Research into your own teaching is called ‘scholarship of teaching and learning’ rather than research and isn’t valued as highly as ‘real’ research, even though there are grant applications to write, ethics applications to develop, data to be gathered and analysed, writing of a journal article that will be peer reviewed … it’s just like research but it’s called scholarship and so doesn’t count as much.

So for the academic who comes to university primarily to engage in research, teaching can be an uncomfortable space. An often unsupported space.

Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash

Universities provide support for the technological aspects of teaching: how to record a lecture (as in, which buttons to push) but not so many resources on how to record a lecture (as in, how to engage students in the ways you present information, the structure of the lecture, ways to be your authentic self in front of the camera); how to develop a rubric (as in, which buttons to click to ensure it’s in the right place within the learning management system and that the numbers add up accurately) but there are fewer people employed to support academics in how to develop a rubric (as in, how do you develop criteria that align with the learning outcomes, what language do you use to differentiate between someone’s capacity to communicate at a Distinction level rather than a High Distinction level; how to assess quality rather than quantity – how well the references were used to suppport the writer’s argument or analysis rather than how many were used).

I am a teacher. I’ve been a qualified teacher since 1997. I’ve spent over 22 years in classrooms of one sort or another and/or supporting those who teach. I started out teaching English and Drama to senior secondary students. English teaching (and preparing to be an English teacher) meant that I learnt about language and purpose and audience and structure and communicating in writing as well as verbally. It taught me about nuances in language and about the formalities of language – about register and tone and semiotics and syntax. And about deliberate communicative structures and when it’s okay to break rules and why apostrophes are important.

Drama teaching (and preparing to be a Drama teacher) taught me about embodied learning, about authentic learning, about experiential learning, about giving feedback, about being in the moment, about jumping in and doing rather than sitting back and thinking, about experiences and ways of communicating them through real and imagined events, about emotionality and how to make a scream with your body rather than your voice, and about experimentation and trying things out, about flexible and creative thinking, about the importance of reflection to the learning process, and the importance of breath and movement and of voice – of using it and supporting it.

Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

And for many years I worked in radio. Working in radio taught me about time – time management, time use, how to fill it, how to structure it. It taught me about audience – communicating with the audience, listening to the audience, speaking to one person rather than to many, imagining your listener and speaking directly to that person. It taught me about structure, how to use music to carry the program through an hour of ups and downs, of melodies and rhythms; how to use pace, when to speed up and when to slow down; how to edit an interview and to structure it to make it flow; how to present information, how to ask open questions, how to encourage people to tell their story, how to build relationships quickly, how to use humour to add light and shade to an interview (Sharon has no sense of humour), how a smile warms up your voice. It also taught me the importance of preparation, whether that’s preparing for a music program, a talk program, a panel interview, an interview with a member of parliament, for talkback with Peter Cundall, for dealing with technical issues in a dignified way on air and ensuring your microphone is off before you fall to pieces.

For many years I was a teacher educator, teaching those preparing to become primary and secondary school teachers. Teaching and learning, assessment and planning, curriculum and pedagogy were what I taught – they were my disciplines. I was teaching people about teaching – asking them endless questions about the role of schools in society, the role of teachers, the reason we teach what we teach in schools. I encouraged students to think about who they were as teachers, why they were teaching, why they were teaching in the way they were teaching, encouraging them to think about how they use their time, how they structure it in the classroom, how they plan for learning, how they know that learning has happened. I was also teaching about self-management – about planning, monitoring and evaluating your own learning, critical thinking, communicating to diverse audiences, working as a member of a team, ethical practice. In addition, I taught Drama and Literacy and encouraged students to keep their teaching real and authentic and embodied and experiential. I developed as a teacher-educator over time, just as, years before, I had developed as a teacher over time.

And so now I know something about teaching and learning and engagement and assessment. About how to structure the presentation of information, how to communicate with an audience you’re not in front of, how to ask questions that elicit responses that go beyond yes/no answers. I know about unit design for oncampus and online teaching and learning; I know what strategies will encourage active learning; I can use language effectively in the development of rubrics; I know how to design a unit to encourage intellectual engagement as well as professional and academic engagement. I have written articles and conference papers about teaching and learning, I have developed my knowledge and understanding and practice from a myriad of authors who engage in the scholarship of teaching and learning. I attend conferences and listen to how others enact their teaching and how they encourage students to engage in learning. My ideas about teaching are built on experience and reflection and scholarship and research and reading and interacting with others. And, if I’m honest, my ideas about teaching are also built on my experience as an educational leader.

And so, I do more than ‘stuff’. I work with academic staff (those involved in teaching) to further develop their teaching practice. I encourage them to reconsider the ‘teaching as telling’ approach; to think about teaching as an embodied, experiential, authentic endeavour that leads to students being more effective communicators and critical thinkers and team members and problem solvers.

And I work with those others in the team (colleagues employed as learning designers or educational technologists or educational developers or project managers) who also work with academic staff, to further my colleagues’ understanding of teaching and learning and how best to work with academics in helping them further develop their practice.

As well as the many failures I’ve had, I’ve also had some successes. My office is littered with Teaching Merit Certificates from my years at the University of Tasmania. Last year I was awarded Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. HEA Fellowship ‘demonstrates a personal and institutional commitment to professionalism in learning and teaching in higher education’. Senior Fellows need to provide evidence of a sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, and so it was an honour to be successful in my application.

Most recently, I was part of a team awarded an Australian Award for University Teaching (AAUT) ‘Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning’. Only 30 were awarded across Australia and again, I felt very honoured to have been part of a successful team.

Here I am with fellow team member, Assoc. Prof Victor Fang and Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University Professor Jane den Hollander AO at the AAUT awards presentation earlier this month.

So perhaps I need to acknowledge that I do know stuff, and that it’s quite valuable stuff to know, and that I can add value to others’ practice and ultimately to the student experience.


I tend to think I lost the Prep audience some time ago, and possibly the Grade 5 audience too.

But what about you? Did you make it this far?

If so, do you consider what I do to have value?

Any comments are most welcome, apart from the ‘Sharon’s hair is ridiculous’ type 🙂

 

Posted in Life, Photography

It’s not a headlight

I stopped listening to Enya some time ago, without making a conscious decision to do so. I guess I just didn’t need her anymore. Her music had seen me through a few challenging and difficult months, but I’m through them now and so no longer need the calming effect she had on me.

I woke up on Monday morning two weeks ago and immediately felt a different sort of energy in my body. It was a really interesting experience; I just knew that something had changed. My breast was still discoloured and peeling but the fatigue I’d been experiencing was gone. Just like that.

Then it was Easter and I had 10 days off work, travelled to Tumbarumba to visit family, then came home and faffed around home for the rest of the week. It was fabulous. Lots of time spent taking photos and deciding which ones to include in my developing portfolio; lots of time talking photography with Tim, discovering, then almost obsessively watching, Sean Tucker’s videos on YouTube; seeking out others’ work to draw inspiration from; doubting my own capacity as a photographer then coming across an image that causes me to catch my breath and think that maybe I am okay at this, then doubting myself again.

I went back to work on Monday and just about every colleague I ran into said how well I was looking. Many of them also commented on how fabulous my hair was looking, with one woman telling me I looked 400 years younger! All because I was wearing it down, rather than tied up to keep it off my face. There’s less grey when it’s down!

So spending time with Tim, my mother, sister,  brother, uncle, neice, nephew and great neice over Easter, spending time at home in the week after Easter, realising I don’t need to listen to Enya anymore, and being complimented on how good I’m looking has meant the last two weeks have been great.

Much, much greater though is the fact that I’m a grandmother again. Yes, grandson number 9 (aka Byron) is now 9 days old and I’m heading north at the end of the week to introduce myself to him. I’m feeling as excited as I did when my first grandson was born just over 20 years ago (and just in case you didn’t know me then, that’s VERY excited).

Tim and I had been talking just days before about how we have so many grandchildren, yet there are no double ups with birthdays. That is, until now. Byron was born on Tim’s birthday, making it an extra special day! At least I think that’s the way Tim’s viewing it.

The year so far has been difficult and challenging and confronting, but I feel like I’ve reached the end of the tunnel and I’m happy to announce that the light at the end of it isn’t the headlight of an oncoming train!

I’ve learnt to listen to my body, to rest when I needed to, to exercise when I can and not push myself too hard, to not be too bothered about what I eat, to give myself a break and know that if I didn’t get to something one day, I’d get to it another day. I’ve learnt to not feel guilty about taking the time I needed to get well, to let my body and mind recover from the trauma of surgery and treatment, and the fears and uncertainties that come with a cancer diagnosis.

And I’ve had reinforced for me how fortunate I am to be surrounded by incredibly generous family and friends who have done all they could to support me.

I am indeed blessed.

All I need to do now is sort out the pain in my chest caused by the scar tissue. Any ideas for how to do that?


Here are some of the photos I’ve been taking over the last few weeks … most of them are a long way out of my comfort zone, photographically speaking, but I’m enjoying the challenge.

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From Empire at Burnham Beeches
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Mmmm …
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Part of Melbourne Central I’d never seen before
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Nicki serving icecream
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Centre Place, Melbourne
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Saskia
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Honour Ave, Macedon

 

 

Posted in Flowers, Photography

Celebration …

I finished my radio therapy treatment on Thursday last week. The final four treatments were ‘booster’ treatments, which I found quite terrifying. No goggles, no holding my breath, just a really big machine zapping a very targeted part of me at close quarters. I almost asked for the goggles back, then realised I could just shut my eyes to avoid being confronted by the bigness, closeness and scariness of the machine.

Each treatment was over quickly though and Emma would drive me home while I felt a little more shell shocked each time. I have no idea what I would’ve done without her.

It was fabulous to have Emma stay with us (Photo by Tim)

I’d somehow forgotten about, or perhaps thought I was immune to, the side-effects though. Apart, of course, from fatigue.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Karen, my radio oncologist, told me about the potential for them, as did the breast care nurses, and others I’ve spoken with who have gone through similar treatment. I even wrote about them on this very blog a few weeks ago, yet I was still caught off-guard.

A sunburn type response.

Redness.

Swelling.

Peeling.

Pain.

I wrote in that earlier post: ‘I might get all of these, some of them, or none.’

I got the jackpot – all of them.

The good news is that they probably won’t last more than a week or two (or maybe three or four).

And the other good news is that I’ve had company since halfway through my treatment – others to share my daily annoyances with. Probably not good news for them, but I’ve appreciated having Emma (who stayed an extra week with me) and now Deb to whinge to.

I also had the foresight to take some sick leave and I’m very pleased I did. I couldn’t have coped with going to work on top of everything.

But this is getting boring now. And if I’m bored by it all, I’m sure you are too. So I’m not going to write anymore about it.

****
On Sunday, Alison (aka Number 6) decided to spend the day with us, celebrating ‘me’ – my birthday earlier in the month and the end of my treatment.

Alison knows that I love to photograph flowers and so we went to the Queen Vic Market and bought loads: carnations, daisies, bluegum leaves, wheat that had been spray painted, and others I have no names for.

The outside table was strewn with flowers and leaves and twine and special scissors for cutting the stems and ribbon; palings from a fallen-down fence were put to good use as a backdrop and a surface; a tabletop was perched on the backs of kitchen chairs so we could shoot against the white wall under the clothes line; a shiny black tile and a sheet of black cardboard was set up in the kitchen as a different kind of photographic space … in amongst this chaotic space Alison managed to create a beautiful bouquet, and a delicious dinner.

It was a fabulous way to spend an afternoon!

Yellow daisies

 

 

These are beautiful even though I don’t know what they’re called

 

Gorgeous lilac roses

 

Spray painted wheat

 

Alison’s bouquet

These are just some of the shots I took – and if the wind stops I might take even more.

Thanks Alison! Let’s do it again some time.

Posted in Life

The final countdown …

I’ve had fifteen radiotherapy treatments so far and fatigue has hit me hard.

It’s a feeling of total energy loss and of heaviness in my body. Apparently, fatigue is one of the most common side effects of cancer and cancer treatment and can stick around for weeks and months after treatment. 

It doesn’t affect me all the time – at the moment, for instance, I have some energy (mind you, I just ate dinner) – but at other times of the day it hits and I’m left feeling empty and almost unable to move.

It’s weird though because resting doesn’t always help, so it’s not like I should quit doing exercise or should start laying around all day watching Netflix – as enticing as that sometimes sounds. In fact, that might make it worse. In the spirit of not resting too much, I walked the 1km to the local shops yesterday morning and found it very difficult to walk the 1km home. It was a very slow trip back.

Fatigue hasn’t only affected me physically. I’ve found it’s taken its toll on me emotionally and mentally as well. I’m exhausted after an hour and a half at work, I can’t concentrate on tasks that would normally be unproblematic, I’m more short-tempered than usual, and I’ve been having trouble sleeping. So much so that my GP prescribed sleeping tablets. I’m so desperate for a good night’s sleep I’m even taking them.

Fatigue isn’t the only side effect of my radiotherapy treatment but it’s certainly the one having the most impact on me at the moment.

Information the Cancer Council’s published on coping with fatigue tells me to exercise if I can, and if I’m already used to exercise, to take it easier than normal.

My GP told me on Thursday to only go to the gym if I find it enjoyable, to not push myself, and only ‘do nurturing things’ there. I made sure to tell Tom, my trainer, that that’s what my GP had said, and on Friday I had a very nurturing workout. No deadlifts, all weights reduced, and I didn’t have to go as fast on the bike or cross-trainer as usual. I have to say, I did feel better afterwards.

The Cancer Council information also advises to ‘do the things you need and want to do. If you have people around you who are able and willing, let them take on some of your usual activities’. As I have no family in Melbourne (apart from Alison), this seemed to be an impossibility. That’s not to say Tim isn’t fantastic, but I can’t rely on him for everything.

Fortunately for me, Emma, my youngest daughter, John, her husband, and Lincoln, their 3 year old son were prepared to come to Melbourne to help us out. Emma has driven around Melbourne like she’s done it all her life – driving me to work, to treatment, to the class I’m taking two nights a week in the city and wherever else I’ve needed to go. Between her and John they’ve made endless cups of tea, packed and unpacked the dishwasher countless times, vacuumed, put washing on the line and taken it in, replaced the battery in Tim’s scooter, gardened, been on bin and recycling duty: in general, been a huge support.

I have to admit to being worried about having an energetic 3 year old  around, but Lincoln has been a true delight. He’s such a sweet boy and loves stories, telling them and reading them. His new favourite is Pete the Cat, but he’s also partial to Russell the Sheep and Giraffes can’t Dance. We read stories in my bed the other evening before dinner and he fell asleep to the soothing sound of my voice.

John and Lincoln went home to Tassie yesterday, while Emma decided to stay for another week to continuing supporting me in my final week of treatment.

Yes, only one week to go and then I’m done with radiotherapy!

It’s been a confronting, challenging journey but I’m blessed to have so much support.

Let the final countdown begin!

Love spending time with this gorgeous boy!

 

Posted in Life

It’s my birthday …

… and I’ll deadlift if I want to!

Here’s me in action at the gym this morning*.

About to deadlift 40kgs

 

I reckon Tom will make this heavier next time!

I don’t usually get this visually visible on my blog, but I saw a post by my cousin Jen this morning on Facebook where she told her friends that I was ‘awesome’. It made me stop and think why someone would say that about me. Seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes can be a useful exercise and I suddenly felt proud of myself for continuing with my personal training sessions while going through radiotherapy treatment. And so I asked Tom (my personal trainer) to take a photo of me this morning because I wanted a record of this.

Plus it’s an interesting looking contraption!

Apart from being my birthday, it’s also International Women’s Day today and as I celebrate I feel blessed to have so many awesome women in my life. They continually inspire me and support me and I know my life would be less rich without them.

*****

Thanks to Tom, my trainer, for taking the photos.

Just one note Tom. Josh gave me flowers on my birthday last year. Just sayin’ …

Posted in Life

A new daily routine

Arrive. Hand over your patient card with a smile. Fine thanks, you reply to the smiling friendly receptionist who asks, somewhat unnecessarily you think, how you are. You take a seat as directed and wait for your name to be called by one of the radiotherapists.

Through the glass sliding door into the change room. Dress/top off. Bra off. Gown on. Stuff clothes into the green bag.

Carry it into the treatment room and put it on the chair. Hi. Good thanks. Name, date of birth, address.

On to the hard cold bed of the machine. Whoops, forgot to take your arms out of the gown again. Off the bed. Arms out, clutching the gown around you as you try to retain some control over exposing your body to strangers. Give that up and climb back on the cold hard bed of the machine with the gown unwrapped underneath you.

Whoops, forgot to take your glasses off. Off the bed, drop glasses into the green bag while clutching at your gown to hold it up. Back onto the bed.

Goggles on. Arms above your head and hold the bar. Legs up as they put the red cushion beneath your knees. Feeling thankful to have been doing abdominal exercises with Tom lately.

Lying there unable to see what’s going on, listening to the numbers flying between the two radiotherapists, feeling them mark your body, the cold of the tracing making you feel more exposed. Lie heavy as we move you Sharon. Left arm lifted into position, left hip shifted, ribs moved.

The cube is taped to your stomach – although you only know it’s a cube because you’ve heard them mention it. You can’t see anything because of the goggles.

The bed goes up and up – to shoulder height. You can’t see it because of the goggles but you can feel it from the way they make their final adjustments.

Sleeves of the gown are draped over your breasts.

All good Sharon. We’re out now.

A pause and you lie there watching the white square in the goggles.

A voice over the intercom. When you’re ready, a slow breath in for a short one. The yellow bar floats into the blue box and turns green. And breathe normally.

Silence.

When you’re ready, another slow breath in for a short one.

In

Hold

Great. Breathe normally.

The machine whirs and clicks like a cicada, the bed jolts into position and you see your spine and ribs on the screen in the goggles. The word pug seems to be repeated down your spine and you wonder what that’s about.

Okay Sharon. When you’re ready, a slow breath in for a long one.

The yellow bar turns green and you concentrate on keeping it there, only barely aware of the machine’s high pitched squeal.

Holding

Holding

Wondering if you can hold any longer. The green bar wobbles, bounces up and down gently within the blue box, and you clench your jaw with the effort of holding your breath.

Just when you think you can’t hold anymore, ‘And breathe normally’.

You can tell you’re struggling to bring your breathing under control by the way the yellow bar bounces around. You breathe out, all the way out, and hold. Your breath swoops into your body and the yellow bar flies up the screen. Hold. Breathe out. Just as you get your breathing under control ‘when you’re ready Sharon, a slow breath in for a long one’.

The machine whirs and spins, or at least that’s what you imagine is happening from the noises you can hear. You can’t see anything because of the goggles.

Holding

Holding

The green bar wobbles. You concentrate hard to keep it there.

Holding

You want to close your eyes but you can’t because the green bar might turn yellow. You think about how good you are at breathing. You remind yourself of your years of practice. That makes you want to laugh and the green bar wobbles and you get the giggles and it wobbles some more. You clench your jaw even tighter but some giggles escape along with some breath. Luckily the blue box is just wide enough to contain it. You tell yourself this is no time for jokes but then your other self tells you that if now isn’t a time for jokes then when is? And you argue with yourself while the machine squeals its high pitched squeal and your arms tingle from holding the bar above your head and the green bar bounces gently and ‘breathe normally Sharon’.

The screen in the goggles turns back into a white square. You lower your arms gently because they’re really hurting now and remove the goggles. I’ll take those says the radiotherapist as he comes back into the room. He lowers the bed and you sit up, lifting your legs over the red knee cushions, clutching your gown around you as you stand, stuffing your arms into the sleeves and covering your body to counteract the feeling of exposure. A too-late gesture that nevertheless makes you feel somewhat in control.

You put your glasses back on, pick up your bag, yes see you tomorrow and smile as you head to the change room. You rub MooGoo udder cream into your left breast, dress, unlock the change room door, push the green button to open the sliding glass door, wave at the receptionist, go through one more glass sliding door into the hospital corridor, turn left and make your way to the car for the 32 minute drive to work in peak hour traffic.

Another one down. Only eleven to go.

Yellow … this time unconnected from my breath
Posted in Learning, Life, Schools, Teaching

An inspiration

I was already a grandmother by the time I started teaching at university in 2000. Phil, who turned 20 earlier this week, and his brother Scott were my only grandchildren till Ronan arrived in the world eight years after Phil. Then Jordan and Hunter and Sakye – and then more and more and more!

As my list of grandchildren grew I started to think more and more about the student teachers I was teaching and I’d often say to them ‘You never know, one day you might be teaching one of my grandchildren – they’re scattered all over Australia – and that might mean me popping into your classroom to have a chat and see what the grandkids are up to’.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s come to pass. Some of my grandchildren have had the pleasure of being taught by some of the very special people I taught at university and it’s always lovely to wander into their classrooms and see them as teachers now, after seeing them as students. I don’t pretend to have any influence on who they are as teachers, but it’s lovely to see them nonetheless.

I’ve been teaching for over 20 years now. Being a teacher was something I never imagined I’d do. Debbie, my sister, had always wanted to be a teacher, but it hadn’t been on my list of career choices.

I no longer teach those preparing to be teachers in primary and high schools; rather I find myself running workshops for academic staff who are teaching university students studying for degrees in commerce and accounting and information systems and business analytics. While I know nothing about accounting and commerce and business analytics I do know something about teaching.

And, what’s more, after running six workshops in the last week I’ve been reminded that I love it. I love teaching. I love asking questions that generate thinking, I love putting ideas out there and seeing how others develop them, or consider them, or debate them, or draw insight from them.

Those who know me in person, know that I’m not a dynamic person in ordinary life, but I seem to get another sort of energy when I’m teaching and as I get older and therefore more comfortable and confident with my teaching persona I find I turn into a warm and funny and energised person who is enthusiastic and passionate and insightful.

Well, at least that’s what I’ve been told.

I’ve had a few positives in terms of my teaching and supporting teachers over the last twelve months. I (successfully) supported a team of academics in their application for a VC’s award for outstanding contributions to student learning, and on the back of that award the team was encouraged to apply for a national award.

We found out earlier in the week that we’d been successful at the national level and so, as part of a team, I now have an AAUT (Australian Award for University Teaching) citation for outstanding contributions to student learning under my belt. They only awarded 60 across the country this year, so I’m pretty chuffed with that.

Last year I was successful in applying to become a Senior Fellow of the (UK) Higher Education Academy. Being a Senior Fellow means I ‘demonstrate a thorough understanding of effective approaches to teaching and learning support as a key contribution to high quality student learning [and] impact and influence on other colleagues through, for example, responsibility for leading, managing or organising programmes, subjects and/or disciplinary areas’ (www.heaacademy.ac.uk).

It was a 6,000 word application supported by two referee statements (thanks Robyn and Sharon B) and required a lot of evidence to support my claims.

The awards are great – even though they require a lot of work and the collection of a lot of evidence from over my 20 years of teaching and are a great recognition of the work I’ve done.

But much (much) more meaningful than the awards and fellowship came in the form of a text message from one of my daughters-in-law last week.

It turns out that Jada, one of my granddaughters, is being taught this year by someone I taught at university. Here are the messages I received:

Met with Scott [teacher] for a parent-teacher meeting this evening. He may have lit up like a Christmas tree when Jada mentioned your name (we had to go through the “Do you know Grandma Sharon” *blank look* “my grandma Sharon Pittaway” dance before he twigged).

He said you were his all time favourite lecturer and that you allowed students to give their own perspective on things and that you never just read or regurgitated information from a textbook. He said this made you inspiring. He also asked for me to pass on his regards.

He ALSO said that Jada no longer needs to come to school as she is now an A+ student because she knows ‘Grandma Sharon’.

I’m glad he took the no school rule back-Jada would have run with that!
I made Scott out as being kind of excited, he was more yelling “oh my god” and “really??” He was flailing his arms around a little and slapping his thighs haha. Congratulations to you on making such an impact on people and allowing them to filter their enthusiasm for learning and growing through to the next generation. I’m especially grateful they are our kids!

He said the way I taught made me inspiring.

That’s worth more (much much more) than a VC’s award or a national citation or a senior fellowship.

That’s real!

Jada, reading … because teachers are amazing!
Posted in Life

Two down, 17 to go

I cried in the shower this morning.

Not because I was hurting from falling over this morning playing scarecrows and face planting into the oval.

Not because my face hurts from my glasses bashing into my cheekbone during said face plant.

Not because my hands hurt from trying to stop my face plowing into the ground, or my hip or my knee.

I cried because I was dwelling on a couple of conversations I’ve had recently and the hurt they’ve caused me.

But I want to backtrack a little first.

On Thursday morning we made it to the oncology centre with minutes to spare before my first treatment. The traffic had been worse than we’d thought it was going to be at that time of the day.

I handed over my patient card to the receptionist who kindly acknowledged that it was my first time, then asked if I could move the time of my second treatment to later in the afternoon. That suited me better so I had no hesitation saying yes, that’s fine.

It wasn’t long before one of the radiotherapists called my name, took me on a tour of the, admittedly not huge, facility. Here’s the change room, there’s the loo, here’s the control room, and here’s the room you’ll be in to have treatment. There were red lines from the lasers all over the walls. I changed, put the blue gown on, put my clothes in the green bag that I was to bring to each treatment (along with the gown), and went back into the room with the big machine in it.

I lay on the bed, took off my glasses, put on the goggles, put my arms above my head and held onto the handlebars and then was instructed to ‘lie heavy. I need to move your arm, but let me do it’ said the radio therapist. My arm in position, my hip moved slightly to the right, numbers and positions flying between the two radio therapists, more marks on my body, a cube to measure my breathing taped to my stomach, the sleeves of the gown crossed over my breasts and it was time to start.

They left the room and I was instructed to take a long slow breath in, hold it for a moment, then out again. On the screen in my goggles appeared an x-ray of my spine and ribs. I wish I knew how to read it so I could assure myself that all was in order.

The x-ray disappeared and the yellow line and blue box reappeared. Take a long slow breath in for me Sharon and hold it. It’ll be a long one this time.

I moved the yellow line into the blue box, turning the line green, then concentrated really hard to keep it there for what felt like a really (really) long time.

And breathe normally again Sharon.

The line became yellow again as I exhaled, then ‘one more long slow deep breath Sharon and hold’.

I began to feel a little panicky the second time. It felt quite claustrophobic to be honest. What if I couldn’t hold my breath for as long as I was required to? The now green line bobbed up and down slightly as I concentrated on holding the green line within the box.

And breathe normally again Sharon. That’s it, we’re all done.

Goggles off, arms down, off the table, shoes on, glasses on, head off to the change room. The radio therapists’ friendly ‘see you tomorrow Sharon’ stopped me as I went through the curtain. Oh yes, I’ll be doing this again tomorrow … and for another 17 weekdays after that. It feels different knowing that it’s not a once off scan. This is real. This is really happening.

Friday … second treatment. Any questions? What happens if I can’t hold my breath for as long as I need to? That’s okay. The machine is clever enough to turn off and then we just pick it up where we left off when you’re ready.

Knowing that certainly eased my mind.

See you on Monday!

*****

And now back to the real issue for me this morning: at least you’re not dying. At least you’re assured of a good outcome. At least you’re not 70 and having to hold your breath for that long. At least you don’t have to drive 200kms each day to have treatment.

I have a suggestion, perhaps even some advice.

If you have a friend or relative who’s going through cancer treatment, comparing their experience to your aunt’s cousin’s brother-in-law’s mother and starting a sentence with ‘at least’ negates the fact that your friend is going through an experience of their own. And while it might not be ‘as bad’ as someone else they know who’s going through cancer treatment, or has already gone through cancer treatment, they’re still experiencing something.

They’re still dealing with emotions and what ifs and potential side effects and uncertainty and not knowing and I know uncertainty is similar to not knowing but it’s kind of different too.

Don’t compare.

Don’t start a sentence with ‘at least …’.

Don’t tell them stories about their best friend who’s just died age 30 from bowel cancer.

Don’t tell them they’re lucky.

Don’t make out that their experience is any less than someone else’s.

It’s hurtful …

So much so that I cried in the shower this morning.

A burst of orange to cheer me up

 

 

Posted in Life

A hiatus

Finally, life is back to normal.

I’m driving again, I’m back at work (and actually doing work), back at the gym (even doing some upper body work and this morning I ran almost 2kms as part of walk club), and I’m attending a photography course two nights a week plus doing the requisite homework for it.

My scars are healing well – one of them is virtually invisible (and in a spot that no one besides me would look anyway) and the other one is still a little red but otherwise fine.

It’s been four and a half weeks since my surgery, I’ve been to the final post-surgery checkup with the breast surgeon and she’s happy with my progress.

It feels like normal life and that feels good.

Except … I now have a schedule of radiotherapy treatments covering some of the fridge poetry I composed last weekend. Beautiful poems of tenderness and fragility.

Okay, I lie. The poems are words flung together with barely any thought and consequently are absurdly nonsensical.

Absurd nonsense on the fridge

You can only imagine how horrid the ones being covered are!

But the covering – the sheet of paper obscuring the absurdity of my fridge poetry – reminds me that life is not yet back to real normal.

I’m living in a hiatus. And I like it.

I can pretend that this particular episode is over and normal life has resumed … apart from the times I venture to the fridge, and when I have other appointments. Like the one on Tuesday last week.

I received the schedule on Tuesday last week when I went for my radiotherapy consultation. It started with a meeting with the finance person who gave me a patient card and explained what I needed to do with it, a parking permit allowing me to park on the hospital grounds for free during my treatment, and a hefty document explaining how the treatment will be financed.

I was startled to hear that it’s amazingly expensive – $24,000 to be precise although there might have been a few cents added in just to make it look like that wasn’t a number plucked out of midair. Thankfully we live in Australia and Medicare pays most of it. The out of pocket expense is a lot less, but still a substantial amount of money. I signed the forms and then was introduced to Katrina, one of the radio therapists. Until that particular moment in time I had never realised that was an actual job title.

Katrina led us to a part of the hospital we hadn’t visited before – I don’t think there are too many of them left – then into a cubicle where I had to take my clothes off – from the waist up – and put on a gown (opening at the front please). I put my clothes into one of the blue patient bags, handed it to Tim and followed Katrina into a room with a big machine in it. I lay down, put my arms above my head and held the handle bars as instructed, I was wriggled into position, then drawn on, wriggled into a slightly different position, lowered, moved backward then forward, raised, had some sort of cube taped to my stomach,  drawn on some more … I have to admit to feeling like one of the drawings on Mr Squiggle.

I put on the goggles as instructed, then watched as the yellow bar raised and lowered as I breathed. When I took a particularly deep breath the yellow bar went into the blue box at the top and turned green. I practised breathing and holding the green bar in the blue box (holding my breath), as instructed, then breathed normally. Okay, we’re going to start the first scan now, says a disembodied voice close to my right ear. Breathe normally.

I breathed normally watching the yellow bar float up and down, my arms starting to tingle from being held above my head for so long. The screen in the goggles went to a white square and static-like lines criss-crossed it.

Silence.

I lay still.

We’re going to have to stop there, said the voice.

Apparently, the CT scanner had stopped working. They turned it off and back on again but then engineers were mentioned and I wondered if I could put my arms down. When it was decided that getting it going again would take quite some time, I was able to put my arms down, remove the goggles, but before I could get up they did a tracing of all the drawings they’d done on me. When I say ‘drawings’ I really just mean crosses. The tracing is in case the crosses wear/wash off between now and my treatment.

Can you come back in on Thursday morning so we can do the full scan? Sure.

The crosses had washed off by Thursday so the tracing proved its worth. Less wriggling, fewer drawings, scanner at full power the whole time, yellow bar turning green as it moved into the blue box, breathe normally again thanks Sharon. Apparently I’m very good at the breathing! Years of experience, I tell them.

There’s a blood vessel at the bottom of the heart that falls in the zone of the radiotherapy treatment, as does the bottom of the lung, so holding my breath means the blood vessel and lung are lifted out of the way. It’s a simple yet clever innovation in treatment which not every radiotherapy clinic offers.

Second scan complete, I pick up the new schedule, drive home and put it on the fridge, a reminder that it’s not quite over.

Because of the delay in doing the scan, my treatment will now start on Thursday 21 February at 8am. That’s the day I’m running a new staff induction day at work. The induction day is sure to take my mind off the beginning of treatment and plunge me back into work reality – at least that’s my hope.

I don’t really know what’s in store for me as I go through treatment, but I’ll find out soon enough.

In the meantime I’m enjoying the hiatus.

Photo by me

 

 

Posted in Life

The next phase

I woke this morning to Tim getting ready for a bike ride. Did I want to go? No, not today thanks. After he left, my mind and body had a bit of a tussle: get up and go for a walk! No, I don’t have enough energy.

As I’m now listening to my body I got up and went for a walk. And it felt good. It was a lovely 22C, ahead of an expected top of 39C, the sky was blue, and the sun was warm on my shoulders. My feet led me up the hill of our street and then up the slightly steeper hill of Glenferrie Rd, which isn’t the way I would’ve gone if I’d given it any thought but my body was obviously ready for a little extra challenge.

It’s been almost three weeks since my surgery and my body is healing well. The swelling has gone down, with only one isolated spot still swollen but even that is reducing each day. The numb patch under my arm is still numb but that’s not likely to change apparently, and the itching has finally (thankfully)  stopped. I’m back at the gym for my twice-weekly personal training sessions and this coming week I’ll re-introduce upper body work to my workouts. So no problems with my physical recovery.

And I was feeling good about that. Well, really, why wouldn’t I feel good? My body is recovering strength and soon I’ll be back into training for the runs I’m keen to do this year. I am, after all, a runner. So I’m feeling good physically.

Not so much emotionally it has to be said. My oncology appointments on Friday discombobulated me. They reminded me that surgery wasn’t the end of this particular life episode. I haven’t wanted this to be a big deal – I had a lump that needed to be removed, much like an appendix or gall bladder. It’s been removed and I’m recovered, as someone who’s had their appendix or gall bladder removed recovers and then goes back to their regular life.

At the moment though, it does feel like a big deal. Hopefully the bigness of the deal will decrease over time, but I’m trying to be honest here and sort through what I’m feeling and that’s like this is a big deal. Or at least a bigger deal than I wanted it to be.

Meeting my radio oncologist and my medical oncologist makes it clear that I can’t go back to my regular life – at least not just yet. If I’d had my appendix or gall bladder removed I wouldn’t have to worry about my appendix or gall bladder ever again; appendicitis isn’t ever going to pop up in another part of my body, or even in the same part. Mind you, I’ve not had my appendix out, so what would I know? 

What I do know is that the analogy I’ve been using to help keep me grounded – that this is just like having my appendix out – isn’t working for me at the moment. And so the deal is somehow bigger.

Karen, my radio oncologist, is lovely. She has extensive notes about me but asks me to tell my story in my own words. I resist the urge to start with being born in Sydney, in March 19**, the second daughter of Noel and Sheila Pittaway ….

Karen is compassionate and patient, working through the information in a structured and rational way. She explains why I need treatment, what the treatment entails, how it’s delivered and possible side effects. There are possible side effects for the short term, the medium term and the long term. She draws diagrams to help explain the ‘how’ and answers our questions. We talk dates and it’s likely my four weeks of radio therapy will start on February 18 meaning I’ll be done by mid-March. I might get red, irritated and blistered skin, my breast might swell and change colour, and I might get tired. I might get all, some or none of these side effects. If I do get any of them it’ll most likely be in the final week or two of treatment and then continue for a week or two after treatment.

I sign the consent form and Karen says she’ll see me on February 11 for the planning consultation.

Lara, my medical oncologist, is just as lovely. She’s quiet and kind and works through the information in a rational and structured way. She explains why I need endocrine (hormone) therapy, what it entails (a pill every day for five years), possible side effects, and when I should start treatment (after radio therapy). The side effects are minimal: hot flashes, hair thinning, crankiness, and joint stiffness (which exercise can help alleviate). Lara gives me a prescription and says she’ll see me six weeks after I start the medication.

I know I’m in good hands but I’m still discombobulated. My analogy is ripping apart and the bigness of this particular deal is reasserting itself into my consciousness. I try not to let it, but all I want to do when we get home is to crawl into bed and pull the blankets over my head. I resist this urge, telling myself that it isn’t such a big deal: it’s four weeks of radio therapy then five years of taking a pill every day and that’s all. That’s it.

It isn’t a big deal.

I don’t/can’t/won’t believe it. It is a big deal.

I lie on the couch in my favourite PJs and Tim lays a blanket over me. It takes over two hours for my body to warm up. I eventually emerge from my cave but my ambivalence remains.

Is it a big deal? Should it be?

At the moment it is to me.

And in this situation there are no ‘shoulds’.

Photographing flowers is good therapy