Tag Archives: self esteem

Solitude

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For a long time my greatest fear was being alone.

I’m not sure when it started. Possibly around the time that I stopped believing in the fairies at the bottom of my garden and realised how mean people could be.

Often I would feel lonely even in a crowd. Especially then.

It took me forever to shake that gnawing teenage angst that no-one really understood me – or even wanted to. I had friends. Some really great friends, I can see that now. But at the time my paranoia wouldn’t let me appreciate them as much as I should have.

As you can probably imagine this didn’t bode terribly well for functional relationships. In my twenties I pinballed between variously inappropriate men: some lovely, some not so lovely, but none the right person to fill that chasm in my soul, however much I tried to convince myself that they were.

I began to think I should maybe look elsewhere, and decided to give internet dating a shot. It wasn’t really my thing, but I convinced myself I was being old-fashioned. I knew an increasing number of people who had found their soul-mate online after all.

One evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, I settled down to fill in the (rather lengthy) questionnaire which would give me access to one of these internet dating sites. As I made my way through the questions, responding as honestly as I could, I couldn’t help but begin to feel excited. This site was building such a detailed profile of me that it promised to only show up ‘deeply compatible’ potential partners. Whatever idiosyncrasies I feared I may have, well, they would have them too! No more trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. This was it: my chance to find the perfect partner.

And then the results came back.

They started by saying they were very sorry, that this didn’t happen often. Well, ever actually.

But in their database of over three million people they did not, in fact, have a match for me.

This really makes me giggle when I think about it now. And it did then too, once I’d got over the initial shock. No wonder I’d had trouble finding love, had never been able to shake that niggling feeling of being alone – there simply wasn’t anyone out there who I was compatible with!

I decided it was time to make peace with myself, to accept my wonderful uniqueness for what it was, to begin to revel in being solitary rather than being afraid of it.

It didn’t last long. A couple of months later I found my future husband (sort of online as it happens) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst I think I had finally got to a place where I was happy on my own, it’s hard to put into words how wonderful it was – and still is – to have found the person I’d been looking for. We have only been together for five years, but in that time we’ve shared so many adventures.

Now that we’ve embarked on this great adventure of parenthood together I’ve pretty much forgotten what it feels like to be alone. And the little person who has shared almost every minute with me since his conception almost three years ago does not care that I’m a bit peculiar. In fact he probably loves me even more because of it.

I admit that nowadays there are even times when I crave a bit of solitude.

But then I look back at how far I’ve come, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am finally happy in my skin. And whilst it might now be a moot point, I am no longer afraid of being alone.

 

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Why setting children by ability does more harm than good

Yesterday afternoon I was rudely awakened from my post-Gove reverie by the announcement that Nicky Morgan plans to effectively force schools into setting pupils by ability. Twitter was aflame with indignation, tempered only by those who were sure the papers were over-reacting. Morgan herself was quick to refute the claims soon after, but I cannot help but wonder whether that was prompted more by the backlash the news received than the lack of truth at its core. And exaggeration or not, I’m not prepared to leave this one alone – particularly when Cameron is so clear on his own views about the issue: “I want to see setting in every single school. Parents know it works. Teachers know it works… But it still hasn’t happened. We will keep up the pressure till it does.”

When you put it like that it appears there’s not much to argue against. If everyone knows setting works so well, then why indeed are all our children not taught in ability groupings? The thing is of course that, like most things in education, it’s not actually that simple. It may seem obvious – separate the brighter kids from the ones who are struggling so that teachers can pitch their lessons more effectively – but in reality it doesn’t quite work that that. I’ve got plenty of anecdotal evidence to draw on here, but first let’s look at the research.

The Educational Endowment Foundation, in its analysis of setting or streaming as a potential intervention to raise achievement, concludes that overall it has a slightly detrimental effect. On average pupils taught in ability groups will be one month behind similar pupils elsewhere at the end of a year, with the only positive impact (equivalent to one or two additional months progress) being seen in higher attaining pupils. Significantly negative impact on achievement is seen in pupils who are mid-range or lower attainers, summer born or from ethnic minorities.

And it’s not just the detrimental impact on achievement that we should be concerned about. This might fly directly in the face of Cameron’s claims, but even more worrying are the myriad of other impacts setting by ability has on our children.

In her 2002 book ‘Ability Grouping in Schools’, Susan Hallam delves deeper into this, analysing research carried out over almost a century to conclude that:

‘concerns about underachievement, lack of pro-school attitudes and exclusion have tended to be approached by calls for more differentiation by ability or attainment. Such moves are not supported in the research literature. Indeed differentiation by ability/ attainment has been associated with limited access to knowledge by some pupils, domination of pedagogic practices by teachers, preferred teachers for ‘elite’ pupils and enforcement of social divisions among pupils’

Students put in lower ability groups struggle with their self-esteem, which then impacts on their motivation and performance – a situation only made worse by the allocation of less experienced or less effective teachers to their classes. Every teacher I know has tales of bottom sets made up of mostly boys, with a disproportionate number of pupils of lower socio-economic status and a high incidence or special educational needs and challenging behaviour – and these experiences are fully supported by the research that has been carried out.

But what of the higher attainers? The ones who would otherwise be held back by those badly behaving boys, have their thirst for knowledge hampered by the need for teachers to attend to all those individual needs? Well I would argue that they, too, are ill done by to be grouped with others of supposedly similar ability. My experience of teaching top sets has shown me that pupils can become arrogant, ultimately underachieving against their individual potential because they feel that the label they have been given shows they don’t need to work as hard as everyone else. At the other end of the scale it has also shown me bright students lacking in confidence who feel that they don’t belong in the top set, who will happily take their place at the bottom of that particular ladder when if they were taught in a system which valued the individual they may have been more keen to play to their strengths.

The thing with mixed ability teaching is that you can’t do it unless you recognise that all the students in front of you are individuals. Of course that is true in any classroom, but teachers can be lulled into a false sense of security if they are told that the students in their charge fall into a set – that there is parity in how they will perform as learners.

One of my favourite ever classes was a mixed ability group who were studying for GCSEs in English and Media. The target grades in that class ranged from G to B, and the personalities ranged from introverted high achievers to poor attenders with challenging behaviour. I had to design my lessons around each of their needs – to pitch each different task at the level that was going to best help each individual in that class achieve their potential. That process was illuminating in itself, because there was not one child in that room who was universally high or low ability. Some were better at analysing literature, others at creative writing; some excelled in creative thinking, others in their artistic ability; some listened perceptively, others spoke engagingly and eruditely on a range of topics.

I am confident that each pupil in that class left with a strong sense of what they were good at, and also the areas in which they needed to improve. They learnt not to judge others on face value, that they had much to gain from listening to their peers as well as much to offer in supporting them. And the actual grades they achieved ranged from E to A*, with a good proportion going on to study English or Media in sixth form.

In a literature review carried out in 2005, Kutnick et al express their concern about the narrow scope of the educational outcomes that are considered, saying that ‘in general a narrow range of learning outcomes has been researched with little concern for critical thinking, creativity and meta-cognitive and transferable skills’. 

I would add to this concerns about equality, about social mobility, and about mental health. Ultimately I believe in the importance of each pupil being able to genuinely discover their potential through learning, not through a label imposed on them at the start of their educational journey.

But even if we put all this to one side, even if we focus purely on academic achievement, then the fact remains that setting children by ability does more harm than good.

In contrast, research shows that mixed ability teaching can:

  • provide a means of offering equal opportunities
  • address the negative social consequences of structured ability grouping by encouraging co-operative behaviour and social integration
  • provide positive role-models for less able pupils
  • promote good relations between pupils
  • enhance pupil/ teacher interactions
  • reduce some of the competition engendered by structured grouping
  • enable pupils to work at their own pace
  • provide a sense of continuity and security for primary pupils when they transfer to secondary school
  • encourage teachers to acknowledge that the pupils in their class are not a homogenous group
  • encourage teachers to identify pupil needs and match learning tasks to them 

(S.Hallam, 2002)

Or to put it another way:

‘I love group discussions and I admit I get really excited and a surge of energy to participate. In GCSE English we had mixed ability students in class and I enjoyed it. Helping and telling others what I know about the task or stimulus helped me to remember as I was going over it out loud. I learn the best in discussions or debates as I hear what other people are thinking and it gives me a different or an altered view and the ideas just seem to flow one after another in my head.’

(A* GCSE English student, 2009)

For me this sums up the key benefits of mixed ability classrooms – where students become collaborators in each others’ learning and teachers adapt their pedagogy to include, challenge and engage all learners.

Of course not all schools or classrooms or situations are the same, and where mixed ability works for one teacher and one group of pupils another may thrive on setting by ability. But to claim that setting should be happening across the board? I am afraid, Mr Cameron, that I do not see the logic in that.

Reclaiming my body

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When we set off on holiday this Easter I had two main objectives: to relax and unwind after a hectic few months, and to spend some quality time with my little family. I think we achieved these rather well, but there was something else that happened that I hadn’t really been expecting or even realised I needed: over the week we were away, I gradually began to feel like my body was mine again – something I haven’t really been able to say since before I fell pregnant.

Since puberty, and in common with many other women I know, I’ve had a bit of a tricky relationship with my body. I struggled with anorexia as a teenager, and put myself through the mill with rather too much partying in the years that followed. Through my twenties I was plagued by an underlying paranoia about being frumpy and overweight, though looking at pictures of my younger self now I realise this was completely misplaced. My body was simply the physical manifestation of my self-esteem: the less happy I was, the more I hated what I saw in the mirror.

Through all of this I never stopped exercising – sometimes healthily, sometimes to excess. Having loved gymnastics as a kid I became obsessed with trampolining when I discovered my local club aged fourteen. It was that, actually, that stopped my anorexia being more damaging than it was: my coach declared one day that I was not allowed to come to training if I lost any more weight, and slowly but surely I began to find a balance. I kept the trampolining up through my late teens and twenties, funding my way through university by coaching at local sports centres. I also rediscovered gymnastics with tumbling classes at a circus school in East London, and loved going to yoga whenever I could slow down enough to fit it in. I also started going to the gym from time to time, though I’ve never had much patience with exercise just for the sake of it.

In the lead up to my wedding though I worked out a lot, made suddenly nervous by the idea of all those photographs. When we got married in the summer of 2011 I was probably in the best shape of my life. I was happy, and felt comfortable in my skin for the first time in many years.

Then when we decided to start trying for a baby the following spring my focus changed. I was terrified that the abuse I’d subjected my body to when I was younger would mean that I wouldn’t be able to have children, and focused everything on creating a nutrient rich environment to nurture a new life. It worked, and I fell pregnant more quickly than either of us had imagined, but that was just the beginning. I was scared all the way through that something would go wrong, stayed away from vigorous exercise and let myself gain probably a bit too much weight. I really wasn’t thinking about that though – I was following my instincts and doing what I felt would be best for our baby. The one thing I am really glad I stuck to was a pregnancy pilates class. That was never really about keeping in shape, but it did help keep me grounded as my body changed beyond recognition.

After Arthur was born, I was amazed at what my body had created and couldn’t begrudge it a single ounce of the extra weight it had acquired along the way. None of that mattered any more: my body had gone from being an awkward shell housing pent-up insecurities to a powerhouse that had grown a brand new person and delivered it into the world. And all that was important to me in the early days was to help that little person thrive: to work through the challenges we faced in establishing breastfeeding and keep myself strong and focused enough to be his mum.

Those days turned into months, and though I’ve shed a little weight along the way through breastfeeding and kept my core strong through babywearing my body is a long way from where it used to be. It’s not that I want my old body back – and I certainly wouldn’t want the angst and neuroses that went with it. But something has been niggling at me about wanting to reclaim a little of my body for myself, and that’s what happened on this holiday.

Between us, Leigh and I gave each other some time over the week to focus on ourselves. Just an hour or so a day, but even that felt pretty incredible after being on duty pretty much permanently for the past sixteen months. I did yoga and pilates classes, swam some lengths in the pool, went for a run. I even got to lie in the sun for a while, the warmth of its rays caressing my skin. And possibly best of all I enjoyed some proper swimming in the sea, back and forth along the bay as Leigh and Arthur played in the sand, feeling my breath quicken and my muscles tighten as my body slowly became my own again.

I’m not expecting to have it back entirely: I am still very much committed to breastfeeding Arthur – for how much longer I’m not sure any more. I still enjoy co-sleeping with him, even though it means I can never entirely relax and often wake up feeling achy and stiff. And I still intend to wear him in the sling for a while yet, which lovely as it is does restrict my movements rather more than I would like. But alongside all this I’m going to make an effort to get to know my body again, to give it the attention it deserves after everything it’s been through.

There’s a trampolining class I’ve been going to at the place Arthur does his baby gym, but I’m often too exhausted to give it my all. I’m going to try to rectify that, to make the most of the opportunity to do something physical that I love. I have a hula-hoop that was one of the main tools in my arsenal for getting fit for my wedding, and I’m going to try to pick that up again whenever I can – even just for ten minutes at a time. And I’m also going to try my best to fit in some of the other things I enjoy – swimming, yoga, running – and let Arthur and his Dad spend some time together, which I know they’ll love.

This holiday didn’t immediately transform my body, but it reminded me that it is mine, that it is strong and flexible and that I shouldn’t take those things for granted. I am looking forward to building on that over the weeks and months to come: to continuing to be a mother, but also remembering to be me as well.

Thank you to Sara at ‘Mum Turned Mom’ for inspiring this post with her prompt ‘In matters of healing the body or the mind, vacation is a true genius!’ (Mehmet Murat ildan).

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