13th December 2016

This is not about teaching. It’s a true story, it’s about kindness, and it’s about my thoughts on workload.

Oh, and it took all I have to write. It’s probably going to be long so do skip to the conclusion. I won’t mind know.

December 13th
9 years ago today, my (now) husband, Rich and I had our first date.
6 years ago today, Rich was taken ill. After a long spell in Bristol’s Southmead Hospital and a kidney biopsy, he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called IgA Nephropathy. Put simply, his immune system attacks his kidneys. My head-teacher (at the time) emailed me with an offer of advice on who to speak to in the hospital if we weren’t getting the answers we wanted and she also gave me ‘a direct order’ to take some time off work and to be with Rich. She was utterly compassionate. Things moved on, Rich is medicated for life and within a week I was back at work.
3 months ago today, I got the dreaded call. Rich, a tree-surgeon, had had a 25ft fall and was being taken, once again, to Southmead hospital. A combination of a wet day and a rotten branch meant that he didn’t have much hope of staying in that tree, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

If you have ever had One of Those Calls, then you’ll know that time freezes. Your body takes on the function of keeping you alive. Your sensory awareness becomes limited to sound, which is distant and hollow at best. The questions I asked in that moment. The questions. Can he walk? Can he feel his legs? His neck? How’s his neck? Is it his right arm? He’s an artist. He’s an artist. Is it his right arm? What about his kidneys? Is he hydrated? Will he be home tonight? (No, Sarah, he will not be home for a very long time). I left work without looking back into my classroom.

I went to pick up our daughter. I did dinner, bath and bedtime. Then the ward sister phoned me to say that Rich would still be in X-ray and the CT scanner and the plaster-room for the foreseeable part of the evening and that I would be able to visit tomorrow. I cancelled my parents (who had dropped everything to babysit) and went to bed.

The next day, I went to work late. My school covered me. Why was I late? Well, our car was at the arborists’ yard. I’d used my mum’s the day before and she needed it back. The childminder isn’t near enough to walk and my school is 6 miles away. My head did not sanction me for requesting cover. She understood that this was an unforeseen twist and it wasn’t an issue. She did the human thing. She also let me leave at lunch to go to the hospital; I still hadn’t seen Rich and a PPA during the last period meant that this caused disruption to nobody. This went on for a week – leaving in afternoon PPAs and asking for cover favours saw me through that week. The childminder kept my baby later for a week, as Rich normally did the pick-up. People rallied round. They made me lasagne. My support network carried me through autopilot and back to reality.

Eventually, when we’d worked out the number of bones he’d broken (too many to count, if you’re interested, but his wrist and his hip were the worst victims to this fall), the surgery he’d need and what support we needed as a family, my head gave me a very generous amount of compassionate leave. It was becoming impossible to care for my baby, care for my husband (partners do the bed-baths in hospital these days, I can assure you). I couldn’t get to school every day, let alone concentrate on planning, preparation and marking. We agreed that I would come back on an agreed date. Just some broken bones, some might say. On paper, yes. Some broken bones. Rich came home from hospital during this compassionate leave, I adapted our home for downstairs living (a caravan toilet, a bed and all the other paraphernalia of the injured were set up in place of the dining table) and things started to move on.

The end was in sight. Everything was in place and agreed. I returned to work and was back in the swing of things. It was still very hard to get to work on time, even with an earlier start. I dressed myself, my husband and then my daughter before even thinking about the day ahead. Evenings were similar – autopilot and then sleep. Funnily enough, I started to blog around this time. In the cool, still hours of the night I would write about education. Call it therapy. Anyway, things were moving on and I no longer needed special exceptions to be made for me at work.


There is a detail that I missed out, you see.

The whole-body CT scan – only undertaken as a result of his two black eyes, which can be indicative of a fractured skull – showed no damage to his head, neck or spine. The CT scan did, however, show shadows in his lungs. Lumps. Problematic lumps. He’s seen a consultant a couple of times and has had a bronchoscopy (a grim procedure for anybody, especially one with limited movement). I haven’t shared this detail with many. I hate – hate – being One of Those People. You know. The fuss-pots. The excuse-makers. The people who you dread sitting next to because they always have another drama. I have absolutely no doubt that if I had a school-age child that I would not have shared this detail with the school either. So, while I am carrying on and putting things back in order, I am also carrying a little voice in my mind – a voice that reminds me that things aren’t quite right. The consultant needs to take us through the biopsy. Something more might come of this.

Why am I writing all this?

Yesterday, I got involved in a #noexcuses conversation. Screenshots of the conversation flew around a few times because some ostensibly shocking hypothetical situations were exchanged. I dropped out of the discussion fairly early on; it was too close to the bone and I also tend to enjoy Twitter for my #TeamEnglish contacts, sharing resources and getting involved with the ResearchED community.

I work with a predominantly traditional approach and have done for many years. I have followed KIPP Public Charter Schools in the USA for a long time. The principles are similar to the elements you’ll read about Michaela*: Knowledge is Power. Work Hard, Be Nice. Drilling. Silence when it’s needed. And so on. I believe that testing and routine give our students the best opportunities to perform well when it matters. I am strict – really strict. I am also valued by the students. My students get excellent results. I love my subject and I am certain that proper engagement and enjoyment comes from proper, subject specialist teaching.

This on-going argument between the traditionalists and the progressives is bringing out some extreme views in members of the EduTwitter community. 140 is nowhere near enough to express what we want to say. Flippant remarks get made and people get offended. I’m the NKOTB – maybe you get hardened to it after some time, but yesterday there was definite upset and anger.

So, I am using this blog space to contextualise and justify my thoughts on issuing sanctions when we know that something is awry at home.

Nobody can know the reality of a child’s home-life or situation. Nobody. Sometimes not even the child.

No matter what principles we work to, we need to work on the assumption that we don’t know the whole story.

We need to understand that what a parent tells us may not be the whole story.

We need to take on board that if we are aware that ‘something’ is going on at home, then it may well be the tip of the iceberg.

We need to understand that a situation that sounds straightforward to us may not be.

We need to appreciate that if boundaries and agreements are met with a parent in this sort of situation, that whether or not the child does homework is likely to be the last concern on that parent’s mind. We should be grateful that s/he found the time to communicate with us at all.

We need to appreciate that situations can and do change very suddenly, or practicalities may have been overlooked by the family (such as transport).

Above all this, even in a #noexcuses culture, we need to be human.

P.S. he is walking again now. He still can’t pick up our baby but he manages a story every night. Things are getting better.

*This blog is not about Michaela. I really hesitated on typing their school name. It’s about Twitter comments that can belie the kinder, softer side that I believe most of us work with.