Posted in Life

Revelations for a new year

This is a blog post.(#) It has words. They are carefully and deliberately put together from thoughts, ideas, nuances, shards of memory, sideways glances, fluff on the carpet, cliche.

It has a point. I don’t want to get to it too early and give the game away; but rest assured there is one. 

Unless there isn’t. 

My sister celebrated 35 years of marriage a week or so ago, as did her husband. I remember that over-half-a-life-time-ago day. Deb arriving in a horse-drawn cart, carrying a parasol, looking petit and feminine. Grant in his white suit. Mum falling, or did she faint? Maybe she was pushed. 

That memory sparks another. Grade 8: “You’re nothing like your sister, are you?” Mr Murphy, my geography teacher, providing an exemplary example of good teaching. Yes, in front of the whole class.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that question, or a worse one: ‘Why can’t you be more like your sister?’. They’re not really questions I’ve ever felt capable of answering beyond a sullen ‘I dunno’. But they’re questions that never cast me in a good light. It’s like when my mother says, “you’re just like your father” in that tone she has. The one where I can tell she doesn’t mean the nice things about him. 

My sister is good. If I wasn’t like her, then I must be bad.

That’s how I grew up – as a living comparison to my good sister. 

Deb is fiercely competitive. She loves to be the first one to do things, and she likes to come first when there’s even a hint of a possibility that there might, perhaps, even slightly, be a chance of a second place. 

That was my place. Second. 

But this isn’t about Deb. This is about me. The above was just a bit of context; some background information to place what comes next. There’s a technical term for it, but my mind is drawing a blank at the moment (the blank my mind is drawing has a border around it – a pretty kind of green filigree – but the bit in the inside is still blank).

You see, something happened the other day: I had a thought. A revelation if you will. It surprised me.

I was walking to the train station not really thinking about anything, in that ‘I’m walking with a purpose and my mind isn’t really present’ kind of way I have, when a thought popped into my mind. Just like that.

Pop.

‘Sharon’ the thought said in that spooky way thoughts speak to you (not that my thought spoke in a spooky voice. Rather it was spooky that my thought addressed me by name). ‘It doesn’t matter that you aren’t like your sister. And’ my thought paused for dramatic effect (now that I think about it, I probably added the pause in later) ‘being nothing like your sister doesn’t mean that you’re bad’.

“Well that’s a relief” I said. Out loud. In that way old ladies do when they’re having existential conversations with themselves on the way to the train station. I smiled at the young man walking past to show that I wasn’t really mad, but his look suggested that he thought I was on the verge. 

‘And.’  Oh, my thought hadn’t finished. I’d better pay attention. ‘Being just like your father doesn’t only mean bad things either’. 

“Humpf” I said in a surprised kind of way. Again I said it out loud. The young man looked around to see that I was still trotting at his heels. He sped up. 

It was a relief, to be honest, to know that I could think of myself differently: not in comparison to my sister (who hadn’t been married first (that was me) but whose marriage had lasted almost three times as long as mine … Deb: good/me: not so much), but that I could think of myself as my own self.

And don’t bother asking why I hadn’t come to that conclusion many years ago. That’s as much use as a teacher asking why you aren’t more like your sister. A mumbled ‘I dunno’ is about as good as you’re going to get and I don’t suppose that’s the answer you want. 

So there you have it.

I’m okay not being like my sister. 

She’s cool and all that, but I’m okay too.

(#) this is in response to my husband’s recent blog post which wasn’t, in fact, a blog post. 

Posted in Learning, Life

For richer or poorer …

In a throw-away society, it’s affirming to witness things that last; that endure; that go on … that despite setbacks and difficulties and challenges, keep going.

Fads come and go … fads in fashion and food and where to go for coffee. One day ‘this’ place is in favour and you wait half an hour for a table (if you’re lucky and if you can be bothered waiting), and the next day it’s empty; tumbleweeds blow through eyeing the perplexed owner with disdain as he sits with his head in his hands wondering what on earth went wrong. The tumbleweed has no answer and blows right through to the place next door which, at this very moment, has a queue of people out the door, all prepared to wait at least half an hour for just the right blend of MoroccanBrazilianHighlandofNewGuineaUnderwaterPoland coffee that’s suddenly all the rage.

Big hair is in; then it’s out. Shoulder pads come and go, more or less subtle at each reincarnation. The ripped jeans that I wore in the 70s are back, this time with more rip and less jean. I’m waiting for a resurgence of the gozunder – the pot that’s squished into the under-bed space, along with the bulbs waiting for planting, and the kids’ Christmas presents.

And then there’s marriage. It seems to go in and out of favour, depending on which celebrity endorses (or trashes) it. And most of the marriages we hear about – the ones featured in magazines, not the ordinary ones we live – don’t last. We seem surprised when they do, or maybe we just don’t hear about them very often and because it seems so usual to hear about the ones that fail we are surprised to hear of the ones that don’t.

But weddings still happen and marriages are still celebrated. My son Daniel and his wife Cathy just celebrated their first wedding anniversary. Tim and I have just celebrated our fourth.

And yesterday, my parents, Noel and Sheila Pittaway, celebrated their 56th.

Yes, 56 years together. Through richer and poorer; in sickness and in health. They’ve been together through the tough times and the good times. Through the Navy years and the many years since then: learning to live together after sometimes months at a time living apart. Through the business years driving up and down the coast, and helping people make happy travel memories. Through their own times spent travelling and living overseas. Through the work years and the retirement years. Through living on the south and north coasts of NSW, into Queensland, and back to NSW. Through raising three (gorgeous) children, and welcoming a flurry of (gorgeous) grandchildren (ten at the last count), and the same number of (gorgeous) great-grandchildren (I don’t know how they keep up because I’m not sure I’ve counted them all) into the family.

At his wedding just over a year ago, Daniel (grandson number 2) paid his respects to his grandparents when he spoke about them in his speech, acknowledging their place in his life as role models – for their love and commitment to each other, and to their family.

It seems fitting then, that to celebrate their 56 years together they should spend the weekend with Daniel and his wife Cathy, together with other grandchildren: Eliza and her partner Shawn, and Chase and his wife Megan, along with two great-grandchildren, Hunter and Lily.

The younger generations, spending time with the family elders – learning what it is to work hard at what matters most, sharing quiet moments together, laughing, eating, doing the things families do. Celebrating those things that count.

Happy anniversary Mum and Dad. Still dancing after all these years!

Newlyweds Noel and Sheila Pittawaystill dancing
My sister wrote a beautiful tribute to Mum and Dad earlier in the week. In her post she said that ‘I love the fact that I am a part of them’. It’s a sentiment I share. Thanks for putting it so beautifully Deb.

Posted in Learning, Life, Studying, Teaching

Do unto others …

My husband, Tim, and I are different.

One of my colleagues highlighted this difference when she said, “Tim’s nice. And Sharon, you have good ideas. Together you make one decent person.”

It’s become something of a refrain for us and we joke about it at odd times in that way couples do when the truth of what’s been said hits us between the eyes.

It serves to bring our difference into sharp relief.

Tim is nice.

And I do have good ideas.

***

In our work as teacher educators, we assess a lot of student work. Tim writes nice comments on the work he marks; his language is positive and his niceness exudes through his words. When students receive their assignments, they feel reassured.

***

He loads his presentation, gathers his papers and asks me if I’m ready.

I am.

I love listening to Tim’s presentations because his thinking is so clear, he uses language beautifully, and the connections he makes are interesting ones. His voice is soothing and controlled and warm.

My mind flashes back to November 23, 1999: the first time I heard Tim speak. It was his Honours presentation and I was impressed by the clarity of his thinking and the way he communicated ideas. Even though I didn’t know him then, I was determined to introduce myself to him afterwards. Three months later we meet again, both new PhD candidates, in adjoining offices. I listen to him speak on numerous occasions over the next few years and he impresses me each time.

This presentation is different though. It’s not Tim at his best. He finishes and looks expectantly at me.

I am not nice.

***

I load my presentation, gather my papers and ask him if he’s ready.

He is.

I start and a few slides in, I stop. I had had an idea. I tell Tim I’ll be back in a moment.

A few minutes later I am back, and I start again.

Tim listens respectfully. I finish and look expectantly at him.

Tim is nice.

***

I give Tim some feedback on his presentation: “I was confused by this slide because it didn’t reflect what you were saying”, “the information you spoke about [at this point] was very complex”, “on the fourth slide the information you present is in the opposite order to what you say and that distracts me”

Tim is upset.

“Do you have anything nice to say?”

***

Tim gives me feedback on my presentation: “It’s great. Well done. You’ll be fabulous. I really like how you have organised your ideas”

I am upset.

“Don’t give me nice. Tell me how to make it better.”

***

And there’s the difference.

Tim wanted me to be nice. He needed to be reassured.

I wanted Tim to be critical. I needed to be better.

***

Tim’s feedback to students reassures them. They feel that they can do ‘this’, that they can succeed, that they can achieve their goal of getting through university and being a teacher.

My feedback is anything but reassuring. It points out how they can improve their work, how they can communicate in writing more clearly, how they might connect their ideas in more logical ways … it doesn’t reassure.

Tim placates.

I challenge and question.

I struggle to write nice things. I object to the ‘bollocks sandwich’ approach (as one student described it): the say something nice, then say something constructive about how the work could be improved, then finish with something else nice.

To me it feels like I’m writing platitudes and empty words: “Thank you for your submission. You have used a clear font and met the word count.”

It feels wrong to me, and not at all reassuring.

And it’s because I wouldn’t want to hear it. Don’t tell me stupid stuff, tell me what I can do to improve my work – don’t waste my time with things that don’t matter.

***

We are taught from a young age that we should do unto others as we would have others do unto us.

But that’s quite patently wrong.

What’s really at work here is this: do unto others as they would be done unto.

When I ‘do unto others as I would have them do unto me’, I give the kind of feedback that I want to hear.

But there are plenty of students who want something different: they want to be reassured.

***

Tim is going to have to get more critical.

And I’m going to have to learn to be nice.

It’s going to be a struggle for both of us.

Posted in Life

On clutter …

I don’t like clutter: things scattered haphazardly on any available surface, all inviting tiny molecules of dust to settle on them, all moving of their own accord to look out of alignment and to crowd together in a state of general untidiness.

On Thursday morning last week, Tim and I arrived back in the state with a car bursting with … well, it’s not the technical term but I’m going to call it “stuff”. The man at the quarantine check in Devonport had been mightily impressed with my packing skills, saying that he’d never seen a vehicle so well-packed. If a car could be said to be stuffed full – our car was it.

Tim had to go back to work that morning and I had to collect a hire car to drive for a little over two hours to do a school visit. Our car stayed stuffed.

On Friday morning Tim headed back to work and I only had an hour’s drive to visit another school, so I spent half an hour unpacking the car.

A full thirty minutes and there was barely a dent in the stuff still packed in the car. In fact, Tim walked past it that afternoon and didn’t even notice that the car was no longer bursting.

But when I walked into the lounge room, I could tell. Stuff everywhere. Bags of unidentified belongings, pillows, doonas, blankets, sheets, photos, canvases, others’ art works we’ve gathered over the years, trinkets, clothes, old school reports, information kits of one kind or another (do you reckon it’s too late to do the bowel test I got a kit for two years ago?) … even a bag of coat hangers. All dumped in the lounge room, and the hallway, and the bathroom, and our bedroom, and the guest room and my study. Oh, and the kitchen.

And look, even in the laundry. How could one car hold so much?

It reminded me of what my house used to look like when I was the mother of four young children. Stuff everywhere. No semblance of order. No rhyme or reason why any of it was where it was – it just was. And it was mostly covered in dried weetbix or porridge …

When we lived in Queensland, the neighbour’s little boy once told his mother that he really liked my car … because it had everything you could ever want in it! A very polite way of saying it was a mess.

And that’s what the house looked like on Friday morning. And it looked exactly the same on Friday evening when I returned from the school I’d visited. Tim arrived home from work, had a spurt of energy and finished unloading the car. There was barely enough floor, couch, table, bed, desk space for it all. We cleared a space on the couch to sit, and did our best to ignore it all. It oozed untidiness from every corner.

On Saturday morning, despite the prospect of a four hour drive north, I was up at 5am putting the bathroom in order. You can only imagine the strong sense of satisfaction I felt when everything fitted in the cupboard in an orderly way!

Out of the safe (i.e. tidy) confines of the bathroom, I felt burdened by the piles and piles and piles of things. What is all this stuff? Where did it come from? Had the neighbours added to it while I wasn’t looking?  And where was it all going to go? We’d thought the house was already full, but now we had to find extra places for the litter of possessions covering every surface.

Now that I no longer have little children, I like things neat. Well-ordered. Straight. A bed that’s made makes for a much neater room than an unmade bed; a kitchen bench that’s unencumbered with every utensil known to humankind is a delight to behold; a lounge room floor that is not a trip hazard makes me a happy girl. Pencils lying on a desk look better when they’re straight. A box of tissues on the fridge looks neater when it’s straight. A pile of mail on the table … you get the idea.

And so to Sunday morning. De-clutter day. What a great day! By Sunday afternoon we had bags and bags (and bags) of things we didn’t want, ready to take to an op shop; we had bags and bags of rubbish (why did we keep that and that or … goodness, what is that?) and best of all we had beautifully organised cupboards and drawers.

And yes, just in case you’re wondering, my sock drawer has straight rows of socks. If I was home I’d take a picture – it really looks that good!

Even my mother, the queen of unclutter, would be impressed.

Just don’t open that cupboard Mum!

Posted in Learning, Schools, Teaching

On success pt. 2

Earlier this month (October) World Teachers’ Day was celebrated around … well … around the world. Did you hear about any celebrations? Did you take part in any? If you have school age children did you do something nice for their teacher/s? If you’re a teacher, did you celebrate in some way, or were you celebrated/acknowledged by others?

When thinking about success yesterday, I began to think about what it meant to be successful as a teacher. How is success measured? What does a successful teacher look like? What do they know, what skills and understandings have they developed, in what ways can they communicate their ideas, knowledge, understandings, thoughts, feelings, views? What are their values and what do they value?  Can you ‘see’ teacher success by looking at their students? Is there a link between a successful teacher and successful students? Is teacher success a sum of individual students’ successes? Is it simply a matter of addition … successful student A + successful student B (and so on)  = successful teacher?

We sometimes talk about students as if they are pieces of machinery that can be weighed and tested to see if they fit a certain list of pre-ordained specifications. Even if they are, would the teacher be the only one responsible for ensuring they meet those specifications, or are others involved too?

The structure of the school, for instance, has a part to play in student success – the kinds of programs the school offers, the number of lessons scheduled each day (and therefore the amount of time students have to work on things that matter), the relative worth of particular subjects (what’s more important and therefore how much time is spent learning Physics, English, Drama,  Maths, the capital cities of the countries of the world, the canon of English literature, History, driver ed, pet care, sustainability …?). And when there is only so much time in the day, what’s given priority? What’s missed out? And ability to ‘do’ which of those subjects would constitute success? If you can do quadratic equations but not name the poet who wrote The rime of the Ancient Mariner and discuss what it’s about in a coherent way, should you be considered successful?  If you cannot name the rivers down the eastern seaboard of Australia, but be able to parse a sentence correctly, are you a success? And for how long do you need to know this information? If you could parse a sentence when you were at school, but couldn’t now to save your life … were you really successful/was the teacher?

Different people will have different views on these questions and I doubt there will ever be any agreement. You might think that there is no question, that surely everyone would agree with your perspective, but ask around. What do others think?  Do they agree with you? On what points do your views diverge?

So the ways schools work has some impact on student success and our understanding of success has some influence on whether we deem students successful or not. The culture of the school – which is often established by the principal and leadership team  – also has an impact. If the principal says, at the end of lunch, ‘Okay troops, back to the trenches’ then she is putting a particular way of being into place. The teachers are soldiers and the students are … the enemy? Language is important, and it is to our detriment that we ignore the power of the metaphors we use and the influence they have on our own and others’ actions.

Of course, parents also have an influence on how successful their children are at school. Parents’ attitude to education and to teachers will be communicated to their children even if they don’t say anything to them directly.  Some parents will be in a position to take their children overseas and provide cultural experiences that other parents will not have an opportunity to provide; some parents will nag their children to do their homework, while other parents will have the view that schoolwork should happen between 9 and 3 and there should be no requirement for children to do school work out of school hours. Some parents will hold that view and still nag their children to do it! Some parents will talk to their children and in that way support the child’s capacity to communicate with adults; some parents will buy books for their children and establish a routine of reading to them at bedtime each night; some parents will limit time on the Nintendo DS and the iPod and how many hours of cartoons/video games/internet porn their children watch and will encourage them to become involved in sporting, cultural, community, and/or social activities. Some parents will speak to their child’s teacher and show an interest in the child’s education and progress.

But not all parents will do those things. Does that mean that some students get a head start? Or are better placed to be successful in schools?

We can’t discount the influence of teachers, of course, but we should remember that not all teachers are the same. They will have different motivations, different ideas about their role in the classroom, different ideas about the purpose of education, different ideas about how best to manage the classroom and its resources, how best to motivate and engage students, how to interact with children to allow them to flourish. Some teachers won’t even think about student flourishing. Some teachers claim that they teach subjects (disciplines) while other teachers claim they teach children. Some teachers are critically reflexive and question everything they do and question why they do it in the way they do it; some teachers don’t. Some teachers go to PD on a regular basis and continually learn; some teachers don’t. Some teachers leave as soon as the bell goes at the end of the day; others stay at school for hours, planning and marking and finding resources. Some teachers take their students on camps or walk the Kokoda Track with them, spending hours preparing themselves and their students for the trek.

Education is not a level playing field – not in terms of the children, their families, the schools they attend, or the teachers who teach them. But neither is it a factory, where a raw product is off-loaded in the loading bay, put on an assembly line, moved through a series of processes that are done to it over a number of years, evaluated at the end of the process to see if it measures up, and sent on its way – that ‘way’ being determined by how it measures up.

I have a hard time thinking of children as products, as things that need to have processes “done to them”.

And so I have a hard time determining what constitutes success when it comes to teaching. What does a successful teacher look like? What is the outcome of their success? Is it a group of children who all know the same things because they’ve been through a standardised/standardising ‘process’? Or is it more than that – how much more? What does that ‘more’ include?

And how do we know when a teacher has been successful? A teacher’s success may take years to be realised – there are countless instances of students who get in touch with their teachers many years after leaving school and recount a story of the impact the teacher had on that child as an adult. Success may not be immediate. Does that mean the teacher is any less successful?

I’m really interested in your thoughts on this. What does it mean for a teacher to be successful? Can success be measured and if so how? Against which criteria and whose judgements? Do we all have the same understanding of success and are we confident that we’re measuring apples against apples – if we agree that there is some way to measure teacher success?

Let me know what you think. I’m sure there’s a body of literature out there – people who have conducted studies on this very issue, but I’m interested in what you think.

And if you do think, then perhaps you should thank your teachers!

Posted in Learning, Life

On success …

I’ve been reading a lot this week about the ways young people define success; I’ve also been reading about the aspirations of adolescent girls.

I’ve therefore been thinking quite a bit about aspirations and success.

What is success? Well, according to the year 7 students in Wendy’s study it’s a lot to do with having a goal and achieving it (it’s also, according to them, about fame and wealth). Wendy is another success story, but I’ll leave that for another day.

And aspirations? For the year 10 girls in Cherie’s study, there was a sense of uncertainty, a lack of clarity around their aspirations for the future. They had ideas/fantasies, but no concrete goals they were actively planning to achieve. There were so many options for them, that they found it difficult to project themselves one year or 10 years into the future and choose which of those options felt right for them. The girls had difficulty visualising life as anything but what it is now.

I empathise with that view. Do you? Can you imagine yourself 10 years older: what you’ll look like, what you’ll be doing, where you’ll be living, what kind of relationship you might be in (particularly if you aren’t in one now), where you might have travelled to? Could you have done that when you were 15 or 16?

I certainly couldn’t. I never imagined I’d be a university lecturer, for instance. I can’t believe I’ve been one for so long that I’m eligible for long service leave! It wasn’t something I had as a goal. Being a lecturer wasn’t something I strived for, or planned for, or worked towards attaining. It wasn’t on my to-do list. My life just led there. It’s just what happened.

For those of you who are planners, that might seem unnatural, not the proper way of doing things, it might even seem wrong. For those of you who have known me for the longest time (and I’m talking almost 40 years here. Yes, Michelle, it’s been that long) you might think I made decisions that inevitably led me to that destination – but if I did it was never with that destination consciously in mind. I didn’t at any point say “I have aspirations to be a lecturer”. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to me to aspire to that kind of role.

I don’t generally set goals. I hate the question “where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?” No, not hate. Loathe. I loathe that question. I don’t know where I’ll be in ten years’ time, but ten years ago I didn’t know I’d:

* be married (to the most fabulous man I know)
* be living in Burnie (and loving living here)
* have (almost) six more grandchildren than I did at the time
* have my doctorate
* be employed full-time as a lecturer
* have had the opportunity to be a Course Coordinator (and in so doing help change some lives)
* have had the privilege of being the Director of Student Engagement (and help to change a few more)
* have travelled to Paris (twice), been to Germany to visit Elke (twice), spent a week in Venice with Sarah and Ben, caught the train around France and Italy by myself, or been proposed to on the London Eye
* have seen Macbeth at the Globe Theatre in London, Les Mis on the West End, or Loch Ness
* be a student again, this time studying Media Communication.

And more … much more. I wouldn’t have thought of some of those things ten years ago, let alone planned to achieve them if they’d been goals – and look how much I would have missed out on. So for me, that’s a clear justification for not living your life according to five or ten year plans. I know others will see it differently, and I’m not saying they’re wrong, I’m just saying that I don’t live my life that way.

So … and I’m getting to the point now … imagine how surprised I was in November last year when I set myself a goal. Just one mind you, but it was a big one. It was one I wasn’t convinced at the time I could achieve, but I set it nonetheless. I couldn’t “see” myself into the future to see how I would look or feel if I achieved this goal, but that didn’t stop me from setting it.

And it didn’t stop me from working towards it.

You see, I’d become increasingly unhappy with my … physical self/weight/appearance/being treated by strangers as stupid just because I was fat. I wrote the following earlier this year as part of an assignment for university:

Lizzie* was fat. Morbidly obese, according to the chart in her doctor’s office. She’d
been that way for years, apart from the time, five years ago, when she lost 12 kilos.
Since then she’d managed to put on 20. Or more.

Lizzie knew that she was fat; she could feel it. When she laughed, her whole body
wobbled; Lizzie didn’t like that, so she stopped laughing. Her knees creaked under
her weight: with each stair she climbed or descended Lizzie was accompanied by a
painful musical chorus. Lizzie’s eyes grew squinty and her best friend commented,
rather rudely Lizzie thought, that she must be turning Japanese. Lizzie’s mummy-apron
grew bigger by the day. Her arms, her thighs, her wrists, her elbows … fat.

Fatness oozed from her shoes with every step.

In her fatness Lizzie was lumpy, unlovely, lost. Far beyond chubby or plump, Lizzie
was fleshy, hefty, corpulent.

And, unhappy.

*The name was changed to protect  … well, me.

So, yes I set myself a weight loss goal. By October 12, 2013 I wanted to weigh a lot (lot) less.

Daniel, son number 2, was getting married to Cathy in Byron Bay. I knew there were whales that went past Byron and I didn’t want to be one of them.

It was a goal I was determined to make.

******

I didn’t make it.

But I was close. Really, really close.

I came home from Byron even more determined to reach the goal I had set myself in November last year.

On Monday last week I was 800g away from it.

By the Wednesday I was 400g away.

On Monday this week, I was 600g away. Ouch! That really hurt.

On Wednesday I was 100g away. It was so close … but not quite there. I wanted to see the actual number I’d been striving for on the scales, not settle with ‘close enough’.

You can imagine my trepidation on Friday (yesterday) when I stood next to the scales with my health coach standing beside – prodding me to get on them.

What if I’d put on weight? What if … ah, this was no time for what ifs. I just got on.

Result? I’d blitzed it! I hadn’t just gone down by the 100g I needed to make my goal; I’d dropped 900g and was well on the way to achieving the next (much, much smaller) weight loss goal I’d already decided on.

So, here I am. Forty-nine weeks after having set my goal. Still full of determination and resolve but 35.5kgs lighter.

Yes, dear reader, you read that correctly: 35.5kgs.

In one way I’m horribly embarrassed that there was that much of me to lose, but that really doesn’t stop me feeling proud of myself for losing it.

It was an aspiration. To weigh less, to not look like a whale at Daniel’s wedding, to not embarrass him in front of Cathy’s family (which I hadn’t met).

I had a goal: a particular weight I wanted to be at a certain time (which meant losing 34.7kgs in just less than a year).

I had a plan: an eating and exercise one.

I was determined. Through this process I’ve been re-introduced to my determination. It’s pretty strong!

I worked hard and didn’t let anything deter me.

I didn’t stop when I didn’t make it, or when it got hard, or when the weight  wouldn’t move, when my body wouldn’t move, when my knee groaned harder than it had ever groaned before, when others around me ate cake or musk sticks or spearmint leaves or Turkish Delight (thanks Rochelle and Emma), or even toast and vegemite (thanks Mum, but no thanks).

I was determined. I was initially determined to do it for Daniel, but then it got to the point where I was doing it for myself. And my determination didn’t waver.

And I made it. Two weeks late, but hey, I’m not going to quibble.

I set a goal. I worked hard to achieve it. I made it.

If this is what success feels like … I like it!! I might not have fame or wealth, but this feeling of satisfaction more than makes up for that.

******

If I was brave enough I’d put up before and after shots.

You’ll notice from their absence that I’m not yet that brave!

******

I have to acknowledge Tim, my wonderful husband, for his unfailing, constant support, encouragement, and belief in me. You’re the best and I love you to bits!  

Thanks Helen and Robyn and Carolyn. You are the best encouragers! You always noticed and let me know that you noticed and that meant a lot to me.

Thanks to Warren and Ben for your quiet support and pride in me. You’re both like Dad/Grandad … you don’t say much in words, but your actions speak loudly.

Thanks to Rochelle for being my exercise buddy for a short time. It helped push me just that bit harder. I don’t do ‘love pats’ at boxing anymore thanks to you!

Finally, thanks to Carolyn and Delicia and Eve. Your support has been amazing. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

Being …

This year I took on a new identity … not, I hasten to add, in a witness protection kind of way. Nothing that dramatic! … but a new identity nonetheless.

I could say that I took on a new role … but with new roles comes new identities. We can choose to define ourselves by our new roles/identities, and thus think about ourselves differently. Being an academic means particular things. Being an under-graduate student means almost the polar opposite. We may choose to act in ways that are consistent with our new role and that might lead to inconsistencies in how we portray ourselves to the world. Will I be student today, or teacher? What does it mean to be a student in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my teacher or my peers; when I don’t get to hear their voices or even see what they look like? It’s a disconcerting experience. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a teacher in an online environment where I don’t get to spend time with my students, when I don’t get to hear their voices or see what they look like? Experiencing that as an online student heightens my awareness of that ‘disconcerting experience’ as a teacher of online students. 

In addition to thinking about myself in a different way and considering if I will act differently to signify this new role/identity, others see me in that new role and make different kinds of connections with me, or think about me in particular ways and so have their own view of who I am (which might not bear any relation to who I am when inhabiting a different identity/role).

My university tutors do not see me as a colleague; as someone who, like them, teaches in an online environment. They see me as a student – a distant one, it has to be said: one who doesn’t appear to be very engaged, who forgets to read her unit outline, who leaves assignments till the last minute, who doesn’t follow the requirements of the task as closely as she should, who doesn’t engage in conversations online, who hasn’t made connections with other students in the online environment.

For those of you in the know, why didn’t you tell me it would be like this? 🙂 If only you’d told me to read the unit outline carefully and repeatedly, or that I’d need at least 10 hours per week per unit to do full justice to the work I needed to do, or that learning to use new software is time-consuming and requires a great deal of independent learning and commitment and energy, or that coming home from work and having to study till late is exhausting, or that trying to find information when it’s in ten different places in the online environment is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole experience (it really isn’t all that difficult to put all the information required for weekly activities in the one place), or that reading all the other students’ posts can be mind-numbing and take up all the time I’d set aside for study (and seriously, do 18 year olds really like talk in that like annoying way where they like say a lot without like saying anything at all, you know, sort of, I guess, do you get me? Despite my student status I am still a teacher and despair over the abominable use of language on public discussion boards).

Not that it’s all bad of course. In one subject (Writing Professionally – actually I don’t know if that’s the name of the subject because for some reason I haven’t looked at the unit outline properly to even know what the unit is called), the tutor gives general feedback on our ‘writing watches’ (which are assessed) and on two occasions has encouraged other students to read my work for its ‘quality and depth’ (you have no idea how embarrassed I feel writing that). We had to do three ‘writing watches’ across the course of the semester – responding in a systemically functionally linguistic way to something we’d read. I chose to respond to:

1. an article in a photography magazine

2. an essay by Richard Flanagan which appeared in The Monthly (the article was on David Walsh and MONA which I’d just been to, so it seemed fitting)

3. a blog post titled The oddest English spellings, part 20: The letter “y” from the Oxford University Press’s blog. It was interesting. Seriously!

These writing watches were practice for our exam. Yes, you heard that right – exam. I had to sit an exam.

Why didn’t someone tell me how stressful that is?! That you spend days and nights thinking about what the questions might be, what the text choices might be, what you know (or rather, don’t know) about systemic functional linguistics and how you’re going to write “pages” on it in two hours?

But I did it and wrote (typed) five pages of blather about an advertisement for Income Protection titled Confessions of a financial adviser. An interesting way to spend a day, particularly when you’re at home and the phone keeps ringing just as you think you have the modality worked out!

We also had to do weekly ‘word watches’ (which were assessed). We had to find two unfamiliar words each week and write about them: what they mean, where we’d read/heard them, their derivation, and we had to use the words in a sentence.

At first I found this difficult. I don’t want to sound like a pompous git (unlike some people I know), but in the everyday, normal, regular reading I do I don’t come across too many words which I don’t know. So I determined to try harder.

Here are my words (you, clever reader, are quite possibly aware of their meanings and already sprinkle them through your everyday conversations. I, on the other hand, did not).

  • Eupraxis (thank you David M)
  • Conation (actually, I did know what that meant because I’d written about it in a journal article published last year, but until I wrote about it I didn’t know what it meant)
  • Heuristic
  • Prevaricate (actually I wavered on this quite a bit)
  • Mendicant (it had been in the news – Tasmania is a mendicant state apparently)
  • Noetic (nothing to do with Christmas)
  • Rendering (a word from my Graphic Design unit)
  • Misandry (its opposite had been much in the news)
  • Chirographic
  • Contumacious (if my mother had known this word when I was a child I’m sure I would have heard it a lot!)
  • Whovian (my sister is a mad one of these)
  • Gonzo (I’d been to MONA and learnt this word while wandering the subterranean halls. Tim already knew it. He’d read Hunter S. Thompson apparently)
  • Metaredound (don’t ask me)
  • Analogous (I actually had heard this word, but I wanted to use it in a way I hadn’t used it before and that was in relation to colour: analogous harmony)
  • Indigent (thanks Germaine)
  • Calumniated (and again)
  • Emic
  • Etic (yes, they are related)
  • Eschatology
  • Ratiocination (I had to listen to this a number of times to get the pronunciation right. Thanks YouTube!)
  • Contingent (used in a way I didn’t understand – of all people, by my husband, in a journal article we wrote some time ago. I hadn’t told him I didn’t understand the way he used it as I didn’t want to look stupid!)
  • Hegemony (with a soft ‘j’ sound for the ‘g’)
  • Picayune
  • Ludology (nothing to do with Ludo as it turns out … although …)

So there you have it. New words to pepper through my dinner-time conversations. Feel free to use any of them, particularly in ways that are inventive and thus deeply satisfying.

I am a student and I am learning things. That’s what students do isn’t it? Isn’t that the purpose of being a student? It’s why I decided to be a student: to learn something/s. And even though I’ve said ‘the message’ countless times, it’s always different when you’re on the receiving end of it. The message is: learning can be hard. And it isn’t always fun.

But it is satisfying.

Being a student not only challenges my own identity (I have to flip between student and teacher on a regular basis and I am very conscious of not being a teacher in my student role – which is partly why I don’t engage on the discussion boards: I don’t yet have the student language down pat. I’m too caught up using teacher language and saying teacher things and I don’t want to do that as a student).

Being a student also challenges how others see me.

Some people, on first hearing that I am a university student again, thought (and said) “are you mad?” and other equally dis/en/couraging words. My new role was something they wanted to reject – it was ludicrous, or unnecessary (especially at your age), or just plain silly. I have a PhD, why would I want to be an under-grad again? That’s something young people do. I should do some serious study, not a bachelor degree in an area I potentially know a little bit about. Why, for instance, am I doing Professional Writing (that’s its official title – I thought I’d better check) when I have had a number of journal articles, book chapters and conference papers published?

I guess I feel that I can always learn more – and I did. Heaps in fact, and that’ll help my writing when next I write something for publication. 

On hearing that I am a student again, other people saw me differently. They made a different kind of connection with me. Some, because of their own identity as ‘student’ (or perhaps, student-in-the-not-too-distant past) applauded my decision – I was now one of them, a member of a community of adults who are (or were) university students. For those whom I’ve taught – who have been my own students – the connection is even closer. Their teacher/lecturer/colleague is now in the same position they recall so clearly and thus our connection is strengthened. There’s a shared understanding … and as I give advice quite freely about being a student, I also imagine there’s a little bit of mirth around my stumbling attempts at student-hood.

But I have finished the semester, completed teaching and learning surveys (and been very honest – in a professional way – as all students should be), and am eagerly awaiting my final results.

I have also determined to be a better student next semester. I have already created folders for my two new subjects (one is Production Planning; the other is Visual Storytelling), downloaded the information from the course and unit handbook, looked up information about textbooks (I don’t have to buy any), and worked out what I do when I procrastinate (I work … yes, on my study days!).

Being a student: challenging, stressful, but ultimately satisfying.

What’s your experience?

Posted in Learning, Studying, Writing

The envelope

My online students, in the days before we went online, used to talk about waiting for ‘the envelope’. Ours were yellow and students would camp at their letter boxes waiting for the big yellow envelope to arrive. Some would leave it sitting on the kitchen bench till they felt strong enough to open it; others would rip it open, eager to see their result.

My first envelope arrived in the post earlier this week and I have to say it was an odd feeling. Partly, I think because of the ways my students (now graduates) used to talk about the arrival of the envelope, and the importance it held for them. It was a validation of them as students, scholars, learners, and sometimes it was even more. It was a validation of themselves. Were they worth anything? Could they do it? Were they cut out for this thing called university? Did they have what it takes? Was university really for people like them?

Many of those students had not been on to the university campus at that stage, or had not been on to the campus often. Many of them didn’t live in the same state as the university; many hadn’t physically met their lecturers, tutors, peers. University was a disembodied experience. An experience that involved sitting at home, on their computer, by themselves, struggling to work out what the task required, having little access to anyone to seek clarification, advice, ideas. Not knowing if they were on the right track.

They did their best, not knowing if they measured up; their whole being invested in this. What if I’m not on the right track? What if I fail? Will that mean I’m a failure?

It’s high stakes.

A few days before my own envelope arrived, I had returned my own students’ assignments – though not in envelopes – and was aware of the emotions involved in receiving feedback and a grade. But I was aware of the emotions as an objective observer: as someone who knew that the students would have an emotional reaction, but not as someone who felt the emotion directly. Some of my students had not met the pass standard, and the emotions varied: some were angry, others were disappointed. Many of them spent the weekend crying. Other students had met the pass standard but had expected the same success as they’d had at college. Their emotions were similar – to them their pass (or credit) felt like a fail.

I had warned students that they might feel this range of emotions and that they might react in particular ways; I had wanted to prepare them and to let them know it is normal to feel a range of emotions … and to be quite honest, to let them know that they weren’t to email me at the height of their emotional response. The “post-assignment-blues” email is not a good one to look back on when the emotion has subsided!

All of this was raging through my head when my own envelope arrived. What if I failed … or just as bad … what if  I only passed?

So when my envelope arrived I felt part of a community – a community of those who knew the importance attached to the envelope – and for the first time I was an insider in this experience. I felt the weight of expectation and the weight of former students’ associations. It was exciting and daunting in equal measure. The assignment was to write a non-fiction piece of around 500-800 words on a topic of our choice. We had to state the purpose and the audience of our piece, and we had to submit two drafts of our writing plus the final copy. We also had to write a statement about the editing process. Suggestions for our writing included CD liner notes (I didn’t know they still existed), a review (of a book, an art work, an exhibition), a newspaper feature article.

I didn’t know how to write any of those things so I wrote a blog entry. And while I wrote about a real-life experience I wrote it a bit story-like (I used elements of narrative writing) and so was uncertain whether the tutor would accept it as non-fiction.

She did.

I enjoyed your blog immensely. It’s rare to receive an error-free assignment; you’ve obviously invested time and effort for this submission. Thank you.

A validation …

… of my capacity to correct errors.

That won’t surprise any of my own students!

I won’t be so scared when the next envelope arrives. Except I can’t remember when the next assignment is due. I really will need to read the unit outline soon!!

Posted in Learning

Lesson #6

1992. Wynyard, Tasmania. A brochure from the Faculty of Education at the University of Tasmania sat on the counter at the radio station. Two words spoke to me as soon as I picked it up: English/Drama. Before that moment I couldn’t have articulated my passion for either of them. They didn’t fit in the world in which I lived; a world of domesticity on the one hand, and male-dominated sports on the other. Football, soccer, boys basketball, cricket.

But the brochure did more than cause a realisation in me that here were two areas of interest to me. When I read that it was possible to study English Literature and Theatre a rumbling began deep within me.  Over the next few weeks as I pondered whether it was possible, the rumbling became louder until it was a roar in my head. I discovered that it wasn’t possible to not do it. To not enrol. To pass up this opportunity.

Opportunities that allow us to begin, to change direction in our lives, to choose the direction in which we head may not present themselves on a regular basis. They certainly hadn’t for me. I had had no choice in the move from NSW to Queensland, or in the decision to move from Queensland to Tasmania. They were life changing decisions, they changed the direction of my life, but I was not in control of those decisions.

But here was an opportunity to take control, to make a decision. I knew instinctively what my choice was going to be, but my decision also impacted on others. It was a life-changing decision, and it wasn’t only my life that would be changed. It meant yet another move to yet another new place, yet another move away from family – this time my own children. It meant sacrifice – theirs and mine – again.

It meant making a decision that was ultimately selfish. It was a decision that was all about me.

****

1993. Launceston, Tasmania. I made the move, began again, and changed my life.

And I learnt.

I learnt that making life-changing decisions means your life changes and you can’t predict the ripple effects those changes have.

I learnt that making life-changing decisions requires courage and resilience and a willingness to sacrifice.

Any new beginning, no matter how big or small, requires us to adapt, to hang on, to allow it to happen (and we never fully realise what ‘it’ is when we first start out).

A beginning is not a moment in time; while it begins with one step it requires more than the first step. Beginnings take time and energy and commitment and desire. We have to want to begin and we have to commit to the messiness that often accompanies a beginning, the messiness of the steps contained within the beginning.

Beginnings lead to new identities. We try them on, test them out, sometimes deny those identities because they don’t fit comfortably with the view we have of ourselves. We often can only see ourselves with the old identity on … wife/mother not student; teacher aide not pre-service teacher. Others see the shiny new identity, but denial is strong. Sometimes we only see that new identity when we’re about to lose it.

Beginnings lead somewhere. They inevitably lead to endings. Beginning a university degree leads to ending a university degree. We might not be able to see that ending when we first begin. It might seem out of reach at the beginning, but the end of that particular beginning means a new beginning.

Beginnings mean journeys. It’s a journey we’re not wholly in control of … the pathway may seem clear when we’re looking at the satellite image, but when we zoom in a little we see a connecting maze of laneways, dead-ends, cul-de-sacs, open spaces. Changing the view to street view means we see the detail up close – letter boxes, flowering shrubs, front yards, driveways. We can get lost in the minutia when we only see through street view and it seems to take an age to move from one block to another. We see the complexity of the journey in a whole new light, and we need spaces/time/semester breaks to step back and re-look from the distance of the satellite.

Big beginnings contain many smaller ones. Beginning school as a five year sets the child on a journey through education that will take many years, but within that big beginning are many other beginnings: beginning a new grade, beginning with a new teacher, with new students, making new friends, learning new rules and expectations, learning new skills that lead to other beginnings – learning that squiggly lines on a page can be interpreted and can lead us into new worlds, new ideas, new imaginings.

****

2013. Burnie, Tasmania. Another beginning.

 

 

Posted in Learning

Learning … pain … achievement

I haven’t been well for two weeks now.  I generally don’t get sick and so it’s a shock to my system.  I haven’t been able to think clearly, to expend much energy on normal, everyday, regular things.  My breathing is short, my chest is tight, and my cough is just plain annoying.  And not just to me!  I’ve thought about writing a blog post but haven’t had anything to say … I keep searching my mind, but it’s a blank.  There is no inspiration.

Until I read this: “Probably the most violent and aggressive act that any person can do to other persons is to invade their minds with ideas and twists of meaning which disturb the comforting security of things known and faith kept. Yet this is what I, as a teacher, am required to do.” 
— R. W. Packer, “Breaking the Sound Barrier: A Dramatic Presentation” inTeaching in the Universities: No One Way, McGill-Queens University Press, 1974.

At Orientation in February I talked about the leap from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence (through a few stages) and how that process – the process of learning – is not straight-forward and is not painless.  There are bumps along the way, and periods of time described as “ouch” where learning bites. But I hadn’t quite considered it in this light – in the light of a violent and aggressive act.  Of invading minds; of disturbing comforting securities.

A student enrolled in Curriculum and Pedagogy is frustrated with my lectures: “Sharon just asks so many questions!  Why can’t she just tell us stuff?” is the cry (and I know there are other students who feel the same way – even tutors ask that question: why can’t you just tell us stuff?).  My questions disturb comforting securities, invade students’ minds, force them to think.  My questions are painful.  They suggest that there are no certainties, that students must create their own responses, must deal with not being completely sure, must live in the land of I’m not sure if this is right – the land of ambiguity. Wendy remembers this land and the frustration of being there; of being forced to go there through question after question. 

It hurts.

It’s not always a pleasant place to be.

It stretches us.

When you’ve spent the day in the garden, you wake up the next morning feeling a bit stiff (particularly if it’s been a while since you gardened).  You stretch your leg out and there’s a twinge.  You twist your body and feel the tug in your back.  Lifting your arm above your head brings another source of discomfort.  Just slight, but you can feel it in ways you couldn’t the day before.  You stand up, and realise your whole body aches.  Reaching for the kettle, climbing the stairs, bending over to empty the dishwasher … ouch.

But you look out into the garden and it looks fantastic.  The roses are tidy, the weeds are gone, the pebbles are all back where they should be, the edges are neat again.  Your effort, your pain, has produced this.  It feels good.

Trudi (not her real name) reminds me of this on the weekend.  I first met Trudi in 2008.  She was ‘just a …’ and couldn’t imagine being anything else.  I’m just a mother; just an SSO … I don’t think I could be a teacher.  (Trudi couldn’t imagine being a university student either.) Trudi has a core of resilience and tenacity and strength but wasn’t fully aware of that back then.  She enrolled in the BEd course, fearful, uncertain, not confident.  She started studying, at home, alone, surrounded by her family who didn’t know what it was like to study at home, alone.

Trudi’s mind was invaded, her way of seeing the world was challenged, her taken-for-granted assumptions were drawn to the surface and she had to examine them.  It was painful.  There were tears, and feelings of I can’t do this, and late nights, and other students (friends now) to support her.  And there was pain.

Most of all though, there was learning.

Trudi started studying in 2008; she was timid and not sure that she could do it. Now, in August 2012 Trudi is a teacher. She glows with it.  It shines from her, and despite her thinking that any minute now someone’s going to come into my classroom and tell me thanks, but I’ll take over now, she’s the teacher.  Her students love her. The parents of her students love her. Her principal comes into her classroom to tell her that she’s doing a wonderful job. She kept going through the pain; she stretched herself, she grew, she learnt … she achieved.

And I feel a sense of achievement too; a small sense of pride because I know I had a part to play in Trudi’s journey – even if that part was painful.

I might be causing pain, but I know the rewards are worth it.