Sunday, 20 May 2012


Some of the things I’ve learned from travelling…

1.    People are generally good
I have been helped along the way by many total strangers; the trainee priests in Jerusalem who saved me from being lost in a tiny, half-kilometre long tunnel without a light, the man in Marrakesh who took me in a taxi to my hotel because it was my birthday and I couldn’t figure out which bus to get on and the ladies in Muscat who organised and gave me a lift to one of the most bonkers massages I’ve ever had are just a handful of examples.  I met the priests randomly in a valley, the Moroccan chap was wandering down the street and the Omani ladies were in a nail salon – none of these people had an ulterior motive, they were just kind.

Ema - one of the kindest people I've ever met
I try to remember these experiences when I’m being surrounded by news stories about how society is becoming more violent or the world is full of predators.  Sure, I’ve been ripped off, hassled and groped on my travels, but usually by opportunists taking advantage; the times I’ve been helped have generally required the kind-hearted strangers to put themselves out to act altruistically for me.  On balance, I’d say the good guys win.

2.    The world is beautiful and surprising – you just have to see it
Some people think that you need to travel to ‘exotic’ places to see stunning sights, but the art of mindful travelling is noticing the unexpected and unusual rather than treating a trip as a series of photo opportunities.  I remember one guide who kept asking my friend and I if we wanted to take pictures; he knew that we both love photography and the challenge of capturing the essence of a place through a lens (she’s particularly good – check out but we also both understand that to really see a place you have to step back and give the subject your whole concentration, not dilute that experience by worrying about your camera and whether you’ve got the focus right.  The guide could not understand why we kept responding in the negative and just looking around us, only to whip our cameras out at something that he thought was unremarkable. 

I can buy a postcard or a guidebook to see the standard view of a place – the world doesn’t need another snap of Niagara Falls, for example – the real joy is in going past that and spotting the little things that others may miss.  It’s like the difference between seeing the personality someone puts on at a party and getting to know the complex human being behind the jolly front.  You can never really claim to ‘know’ someone you’ve only met at functions – you have to share their joys and pains before you establish any kind of meaningful relationship.

3.    Travelling the world really is the best way to learn about it
Bullet holes in a wall, a body on a funeral pyre, lions and elephants in a standoff in the savannah, women bent double picking tea, men mining for sapphires in a world untouched by health and safety considerations, children truly grateful for an education, war cemeteries with gravestones stretching as far as the eye can see, people feeding monkeys at the temple, the sheer size of a mountain, waterfall or desert – that these things exist is not news.  Seeing them in real life, however, lends them an immediacy and importance that cannot be grasped from a book or television programme, no matter how well made.  As a classroom, our planet has no competitor.

4.    ‘Exotic’ or ‘adventurous’ are not determined by location but by mindset
Seeing travel as a geographical journey, ticking off the countries and the sights along the way, leads to a fairly generic experience.  Enriching that physical journey by seeking personal and mental progress too ensures an individual and memorable trip with often intangible lasting consequences.  You don’t have to have your vaccines up to date or endure days of bum-numbing transport to ‘travel’, you just need to allow your mind to wander.

Sunday, 13 May 2012


I was recently on the receiving end of some quite bizarre behaviour.  I met a woman who took a dislike to me.  This happens; we can’t all like everyone.  It was not her dislike of me that was bizarre – it’s her right to decide I’m not her kind of person – it was the way it manifested itself that was so strange, coming from a grown woman.

At various times during the period we spent together she kicked me, planted herself between me and a person I was chatting with, ostentatiously turning her back to me while I was talking and beginning her own conversation with my friend and generally either engaged in embarrassing episodes of one-upmanship or pointedly ignored me at any time we were both involved in a group conversation.

Luckily, I am a fairly thick-skinned person and get on with the vast majority of people I meet.  I am well travelled and have made friends all over the planet in the 34 years that I’ve been on it.  This experience affords me the inner strength to tell myself that the problem in this situation was with her and not me; it was still pretty hurtful, but I have the fortitude of adulthood which enabled me to not let it ruin my day.

As a teacher, I often have to deal with the consequences of young people being picked on.  Amongst other things, this involves reiterating the standard messages that we all heard when we were younger: “they’re not worth it,” “don’t let them see that they’ve upset you,” “the bullies are the weak ones,” etc.  As I was attempting to let her hateful attitude be like water off my duck-like back I was acutely aware that my 15 year old self would not have had the strength of character to be quite so unruffled by the experience.  For the first time in years of working with young people I got a real, visceral sense of how damaging this kind of seemingly fairly innocuous behaviour could be if directed at an averagely fragile teen.  Sadly, this insight didn’t extend to something useful I could say to a young person experiencing similar treatment, but it has definitely made me appreciate the supportive role that I can play for someone who is being picked on.  Platitudes won’t hurt but they won’t particularly help either; what is more practical is to try to counter the damage caused by this type of grinding negativity by helping the recipients (I hesitate to use the word ‘victims’ as I think it can perpetuate the feelings of inadequacy) learn to have confidence in themselves as worthwhile people.  The way to achieve that is different for every child – part of the skill of the professional is to try to find the right method for each individual.

Travel extends and challenges us in unforeseen ways sometimes; it is ironic that the net outcome of this woman’s poor behaviour will actually be positive as I am now better able to support my students as they deal with the crap that life throws at them than I was before experiencing her childishness.  For that, my students, my students yet to come and I thank her very much.  

Friday, 4 May 2012


I became a teacher because there’s not much else you can do with a degree in Theology and Religious Studies and because I like holidays.  I remain a teacher because it turns out that helping young people to discover and make sense of the world around them is one of life’s greatest pleasures. 

I am fond of pointing out to my students that I don’t get out of bed in the morning so that I can tell people off; I do it in the hope that someone will be inspired to think, to question, to want to know more.  I do it because I think it’s important and because I learn as much from them as they do from me.  Sometimes, someone says thank you, but that’s not why I do it.  I do it because our future depends upon the nurturing of enquiry, creativity and a refusal to blindly accept the status quo.  I do it because some children do not get taught how to be polite, respectful and sociable at home.  I do it because it matters.

Ten years ago, when I first encountered an OFSTED inspector, I naively followed the advice I was given not to plan anything special and taught the lesson that I had planned before I knew that we were being inspected.  This happened to be a full lesson of silent assessment.  It was graded as ‘outstanding’ because the inspector was allowed to use his professional judgement; he saw the relationship I had with my class in the way they approached and followed the strict rules of my classroom.  He saw my lesson plans and spoke to the students and was satisfied that for me to deliver anything other than the planned hour of silence would be to undermine the carefully thought out programme of learning that I had provided for the students.  He checked their books and saw evidence of learning, teaching, marking and progress.  He spoke with them and had no doubt that they had been well taught.  Both he and I were trusted as professionals to put the students’ interests before the box-ticking.

Now, upon inspection, I am expected to be able to provide hard evidence of progress every twenty minutes.  I should ensure that I have included elements of ECM, PLTS, AfL and VAK (of course, these acronyms are subject to the whims of those in power and will undoubtedly change – of the four, only VAK was around when I trained, and ICTAC has come and gone in the meantime).  60 alphanumeric levels (current and target for each student) should be on the tip of my tongue every hour and every student should be doing something which is clearly productive at every moment.  The lesson I taught ten years ago would now be ‘poor’.  What this means in practice is that given the same set of circumstances, my students would arrive at their lesson prepared for an assessment and instead be surprised by a show lesson.  Fine.  I’ll play the game.  I’ll get my ‘outstanding’.  Who has benefited?  The students’ learning has been disrupted and neither I nor the inspector has been trusted to exercise the slightest bit of professional judgement.

Three weeks ago I was in Nepal.  Whilst I was there I had the pleasure and the privilege of spending a few days at a school in Kathmandu and working with them to modernise their curriculum and pedagogical approach.  Freed from the shackles of an inspection regime designed to produce figures which can be spun by the ruling party to ‘prove’ their success at educating the nation, we were able to make fundamental changes which would profoundly alter the learning experience of the students for the better.  We were able to use our combined and varied experience to find solutions to contextual problems and implement them without having to justify ourselves; it was enough for us all to know that we had the students’ best interests at heart.

The whole experience was inspirational for me; the opportunity to be an educator, rather than an acronym-fulfiller was motivating and rewarding.  My relationship with the school in Kathmandu is ongoing and their students and mine continue to benefit.  I’d find it hard to provide evidence for this that would satisfy the current OFSTED regime because the delight on my students’ faces when I showed them photos of Nepali children enjoying their work and the enthusiasm with which the Nepali teachers embraced our relationship can’t be quantified on a tick sheet.  This saddens me.

I became a teacher because there’s not much else you can do with a degree in Theology and Religious Studies and because I like holidays.  I remain a teacher despite the bureaucracy.