Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Doug Lemov and the art of gentleness

I found the BBC Radio 4 Programme broadcast yesterday ('The World's Best Teachers') captivating and inspiring. It was all about Doug Lemov's techniques for teaching, which focus on gentle, non-invasive interventions helping children and students to bring their attention back to the classroom. Teachers can stay in control of their own emotions, and children don't feel yelled at and coerced.

I found it inspiring for so many reasons.

When I was a university lecturer, we were never given any teacher training at all, which is why university lecturers are, on the whole, poor teachers. All my teaching was based on having done a load of acting and improv as an undergraduate – I acted my way through. On the whole that worked fine, unless I was in a sticky situation with one student, or wasn't as familiar with the material I was trying to teach.

I did have a year in the classroom, in France, in a Lycée Technique in the Vosges. I was 21, on a year abroad during my undergraduate degree, and really not very sure what to do. The classroom had a toilet in the corner, and one day a kid got up and used it. I think I struggled to stop myself crying in front of the others. Later on, one of the kids put a bottle through the back window of my car. I left that job and went to teach privately in Paris.

As a university teacher, I didn't have disruptive behaviour in the classroom until I was teaching in London. There the students were balancing travel, second jobs and study commitments, and were sullen, judgemental and unthinking. Or at least, that's how I found them, after the wonderland of Oxford and Cambridge.

I know now that I needed to up my game as a teacher, that I wasn't going far enough, and that I had never HAD to think about how to engage people, I'd simply relied on my own acting.

My second insight into bringing distracted students back to the fold wasn't in teaching at all, but in management consultancy. I was trained, in fact by an ex-actor, in how to facilitate. The methods he gave me weren't that different from what I'd instinctively gone for (smiling does help). But what was crucial in what he said was that everyone in the room is looking for a leader, and that it's not enough to be a passive facilitator, hoping everyone will make nice, even in a room of supposed adults. There will always be one participant trying to take over, bully others or bully you. You have to learn to address that person directly, for the sake of everyone else. You can explicitly park them and say you'll take their point later – but you have to name what they are doing, to them, in front of everyone. You cannot let the elephant remain in the room. After years and years of perfecting what I thought was a non-directive approach which would just let things happen in a natural and organic way – successful in a space in which everyone wants to play by the rules – I at last understood that you can certainly establish such a space (a performance space), but you have to do so in an active way, and sometimes name the rules out loud in the middle of the game.

My third insight has been in raising my own children. One of the tales on which Shakespeare bases The Taming of the Shrew is an old folk tale, in which a wild woman is 'tamed' by gradually learning that kindness and gentle words will win more than shouting. She defeats a goblin, by being so lovely to it that it explodes in its own frustration. Miss Honey, the improbably sweet teacher in Roald Dahl's Matilda, is another version of this.

I am more wild Katerina than sweet Miss Honey, but I understand, intellectually and emotionally, that kind words and gentleness win more than sharpness and shouting. It's just that it's VERY DIFFICULT to put into practice, perhaps especially with one's own children, when every single moment is a form of boundary-testing.

It is an inordinate challenge to remain silent under provocation, but it works.

It is exceptionally tricky not to shout when your kids get up from the table for the fifth time in a meal, but a quiet reminder will get them sitting down without even thinking about it.

It is deeply painful to be turned into a servant, and have no apparent authority, but a gentle touch and word will get those chores done. Here I was helped by How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen when Kids Talk – a wonderful book that's been on my bedside table for the past decade, like a Gideon Bible of parental encouragement.

My fourth insight comes from writing, yoga and mindfulness. As a writer, I have to tame my wild brain every time I want to write. I have to establish rituals, and banish distractions. I have to create the rules of engagement with myself, set myself goals and aim towards them. I must let my imagination go, and rein it in. Learning to sit with my feelings, and just experience them, rather than fight with them, to breathe, to hold poses longer than is comfortable, and realise I can stretch a little further, all this has taught me that I can achieve a writing frame of mind without doing violence to myself, as I learnt to do as a child and student. I do not have to force, but I do have to be actively gentle.

It is so easy to forget these methods of gentleness, pausing, silence, non-invasive intervention. They are incredibly hard to learn and deploy, but they are so powerful.

Here's to Doug Lemov, and the kid in the Vosges who peed in my classroom. Every little helps.

Thursday, 10 December 2015


Yesterday, my son was nearly assaulted on his way home from school.

Another mother said that she'd seen him 'enthusiastically skipping' along the road after a school club. She'd thought of asking him to walk with her, but hadn't wanted to 'cramp his style'. He stopped to stroke a local cat he knows, called Ollie. He was nearly at the turn-off to our road. It was just before 5pm, on a dark December evening.

A white van pulled up beside him, and the driver leaned across. He said that he had some sweets in the van and asked if my child would like to get in and have some.

My child said, 'Um, I live round the corner, and I have an appointment at home, so, no thank you'. The man scowled at him, and drove away. Then my son ran all the way home.

When he got to the door, he came in, rattling away at me about something that had happened at school. He was wheezing, and I was concerned, told him to get his inhaler. It was only then that he told me about the man in the van.

I could not believe what I was hearing. I knew he hadn't made it up, but it was also such a cliché that my brain couldn't accept it. Here was my son, safe and well, apart from being a little out of breath. Yet he was telling me that a strange man had offered him sweets and asked him into his van. Even now, I can type the words, but I cannot believe them.

I called the police, and an hour later the tallest policewoman I have ever seen walked in. She was the best antidote to a grim scare you could wish for. She had a sister with the same name as me; her birthday was the day before my son's; she had a nearly nine-year-old son herself…we laughed and joked and drank tea. She took a statement from my son. When he got to the part about 'distinguishing features' (she was impressed when he said that), he hesitated, and then said, 'He was a large, well, fat… black man'. He looked ashamed. The policewoman, without missing a beat, said, 'Was he lighter or darker than me?' My son was ashamed to talk about skin colour to a black woman, he thought he was being racist. And he was ashamed that he had told a lie to the man – there was no appointment at home.

The policewoman made it absolutely clear to him that he had acted in exactly the right way, that he should be incredibly proud of himself for keeping his head – and that he shouldn't stop walking home from school. 'Independence goes forwards not backwards,' she said. She made my day.

I told everyone I could think of – schools, fellow parents, my daughter, also coming home from school in the dark. By this morning, everyone knew, and the word will spread.

My brain has been playing tricks on me: it immediately rationalised everything. Child safe and well, so nothing happened. We are safe at home, so nothing bad can happen. Child sometimes tells tall tales, perhaps this is a fib. It was only the reactions of other parents, and the policewoman's visit, that told me what had happened was not nothing, safe though he is.

I knew I had to call the police, to prevent the man preying on any other child. But I also felt as if I was a reluctant bit player in a soap opera. I spend so much of my time persuading myself that it is extremely unlikely that anything bad will happen, and avoiding scaremongering stories, avoiding crime drama on TV, not reading detective stories about forensic scientists in pathology labs, steering clear of both hysteria and cynicism, that it is impossible for me to think that this has happened, to my child, within weeks of him starting to walk home from school, something he was keen to do and is ready to do. He was in an area full of people he knows – he was even seen by a friendly mum just seconds before the incident happened. He lives here, this is our home. The idea that a paedophile could worm his way into a community and attack my child a street away from where we live – I can write it down, but I cannot take it in.


After I was forced to quit my lectureship, following the birth of my first child, there was a paedophilia scandal in my ex-department. It involved a lecturer I had played tennis with, who had won prizes for his teaching ability. He was taken to court, and let off with a suspended sentence. His college sacked him, but the department did not, on the basis that he would find it impossible to find work anywhere else, and had only distributed images, rather than acting on his desires. The decision split the department: the woman who had forced me to resign left the department. Others turned on each other.

This was another story I could not believe when I first heard it. That a man I had known and shared jokes with was distributing indecent images of babies was hard enough to bear, but that he had kept his job despite being a known paedophile, while I had lost mine, simply because I had had a baby, beggared belief. One argument I heard was that 'it was everywhere, so you just had to accept it'. It felt as if the department was engaged in a kind of philosophical doublethink.

The last thing I did before being forced to quit was design an MA module entitled 'The Faces of Compassion'. It felt as though the department was making the paedophile its limit case – at what point should compassion stop and judgement, exclusion, rejection begin? No compassion at all was shown to me by the department when I most needed it – all was silence and fear – yet he was shown compassion, retained his job and his pension. What was I supposed to conclude?


Part of Motherload, for me, is the constant feeling that I am being judged for being negligent, as I strive to give my children greater independence rather than over-protect them, in an era of heightened fearfulness. I make them do chores, I make them do their own homework, I make them walk to school and back, I insist on their table manners, and pull no punches in expecting decent standards, I will not let them answer back or be rude to me.

As a result, there is a lot of fighting in our house (I didn't say I was good at it, I just said I did it). I am aware that other parents are not as hardline as I am, or have gentler methods, or don't fight every battle – I feel isolated and miserable a lot of the time in my Victorian parenting methods.

I do my best to be loving and gentle, but won't put up with fussiness, rudeness or laziness. I just can't, congenitally cannot, accept being put down by my own offspring. Nor can I accept them not making an effort when they have good health, intelligence, two arms and two legs. Failure, messing up, of course I can cope with – but not bothering is verboten.

What amazes me is that it is a continual fight – that were I to give ground, they would take it. They simply cannot accept that picking up their clothes, not watching three hours of youtube, clearing away the dinner things, doing their homework, showering, is something they just need to suck up. I like to think I am preparing them for teamwork. There may be no 'I' in team, but there is most certainly an 'I' in my house, and it's me, shouting.

It is impossible for me (although I suspect I know the answer), stuck in the middle as I am, to know whether this resistance in my kids has always been true of all children, or is a new phenomenon (to be blamed on Consumerism, The Internet, Women Working or any other modern scapegoat). I know that I did not dare to answer my father back, and respected my mother too much to answer back – but that's just what I remember. The reality may have been different. The trouble is that it's so long ago, my mother can't remember either.

Last night as I stared at my child, hearing him tell me that a man had invited him into a van, I felt a creeping numbness and despair spread through me. It does not matter whether I protect him, make him follow the rules, or give him independence.

There is absolutely nothing I can do against a determined paedophile.