Friday, December 13, 2013

Crackberries and Dumb phones

Day 1: Sunday, 12:00 pm  I can do this. It's no problem at all.  Here I am taking a walk down the High Street armed only with a basic Nokia mobile.  No touchscreen, no apps.  I have made a wager that I can go twenty four hours without my iphone.  Certain people seem to think that I can't survive without it.  Of course I can.  I am the master of my iphone, not the other way around.

12:15   What if someone needs to email me?  What if it's urgent?  I have to admit I keep checking the Nokia, like I reflexively look at my wrist when I've forgotten to wear my watch.  I've written an 'out of office' reply with this number in case anyone needs to reach me so if it really is dire... But in a work situation people expect quick replies.  I bet I have tons in my inbox when I get home. 

12:20 What has happened to all the internet cafes?  They used to be everywhere.

12:25  That Starbucks down the road has free wifi.  I wonder if someone would let me check my email on their laptop?  Probably not a good idea.

12:30 How does the Bluetooth on the Nokia work?  Can't I get internet access that way?

12:35 Better head home.  Nice to be outdoors for a change though.

2:00  No problems at all during lunch.  Laptop, television, kindle provide enough entertainment.  I've promised to take the kids to the playground - this will give me a great opportunity to interact with them. 

2:15 Lots of parents in the playground checking their phones.  Man, I'm glad I'm not that bad!

2:17 Check the Nokia.  No texts.

2:20 Check the Nokia again.  Absentmindedly touch screen.  Nothing happens. 

2:31 When did Rocky come out?  1977 or maybe 1976?  I guess I can check on the laptop when I get home... 

6:00  Bathtime, stories, then bedtime for the kids.  No problem at all giving up the smartphone for a day.  The wife has hidden it somewhere and has promised to return it to me tomorrow at lunchtime.  Usually while the bath is running I check the rugby results, send some emails (the wife does not allow it at the table and the last time I checked it during dinner she gave me a look that would strip paint of the wall).  But I'm fine just getting the bedtime stuff ready and listening to Radio 4.  Programme on cheese preservation.  Cool.

6:07 C'mon water.  Flow.

6:11 It just has to be accepted that multitasking is the way in today's world.  Quick information is a necessary developmental milestone.  Smartphones are helpful and beneficial.

6:12  I wonder where she put it.  Not under the bed, not on her chest of drawers, not under the rug.  I don't want it, I'm just curious.

6:13 If I phone it, I can figure out where it is!  She might not hear the ring over the bath running.

6:14  It's not upstairs.

6:30 Bedtime stories with no smartphone.  I have to listen when it's the wife's turn to read.  I hate how Dr Seuss can't scan the rhyme properly.

6:35 How long is this story?  EAT THE EGGS AND HAM ALREADY!!!

Monday 6:00 am  I drowsily reach for the bedside table to find... nothing.  Then I remember.  The sounds coming from downstairs indicate that the wife is getting breakfast ready. 

6:02  where is it where is it where is it!  All work and no play makes jack a dull boy.

6:10  Aha!  That minx buried it under my socks.  I turn it on.  Nothing happens.  What the hell!  Did she disable it somehow?  Damn it, I can't ask her because she will know I went looking for it.  Fiend.

8:00 On the way to my office I run into a colleague carrying her morning coffee.  She stops me.  'Did you get my email?'
'No, when did you send it?'
'About five minutes ago.' 
I tell her about the wager.  She laughs and says, 'I thought you looked different.'
'What do you mean?  How?'
'Well, you're making eye contact and your arms are at your sides.'
I am never sure when she is joking.  If she is, not very funny. 

10:30  Morning management team meeting.  I look across the oval table hoping it's a quick one.  While pretty much everyone is checking their phones, I stare at the meeting agenda. The letters seep together and no longer make sense as words.  I have no choice but to pay attention.  The Head is talking about deadlines for budget submissions.  Why does he look so annoyed?  And why is he repeating everything three times?  God, this is taking ages.  Is it 12 o'clock yet? 

I discreetly check my wrist.  There is nothing there.  I check again five minutes later.

12:00  She's late.  She's never late.  She's doing this on purpose to torture me.  Well, it won't work.  I was absolutely fine without it. 

12:02  She knocks on the office door.  She hands me the phone.  'Here it is.  Was it...' 
I slam the door and caress the phone.  It's on.  My apps shine like beacons on an airfield guiding me home.

'Let's never be apart again.'

Monday, December 9, 2013

Sleep debt

The sweet embrace of sleep could not hold him...

I read the Iliad in college and what I remember most about one of the world's truly great epics is sleep.  Throughout the poem the characters seem to have sleep thrust upon them (or are tricked into it) rather than choosing to go to sleep.  Sleep is a god, a brother of Death, who can use his power at will, 'Sweet Sleep rushed to the Achaean ships, to inform Poseidon, the Encircler and Shaker of the Earth.  Coming up to him, Sleep spoke—his words had wings...' Perhaps sleep is portrayed this way because the Iliad describes a warrior culture where needing to sleep is considered weak.

Sleep is in very short supply when you have young children.  When they are babies they sleep in short stretches that eventually lengthen.  The midwives always tell new mums to get your rest and sleep when the baby sleeps.  That never worked for me because I could never predict how long Big One would sleep and just before she slumbered I would have consumed three cups of coffee to stop the near constant grogginess.  Luckily both Big One and Little One slept through the night right away so the stage of late night/early morning feedings and snatched naps was short. 

Now they go to bed willingly enough around 7 pm.  However, they have taken to waking up around 6 am - even on weekends.  Highly uncivilized.  My attempts to convince them that it is still night-time have not worked.

What I miss most about the pre-children era is the Sunday lie-in. I can no longer spend Sunday morning reading the Times (Yes, I know it's part of the diabolical Murdoch empire but I like their Culture section) in my pyjamas.  Once when my husband asked what I wanted for Christmas, I described such a morning to him.  It was a great gift, as it wouldn't cost him anything and it was what I really wanted.  A look of pure terror crossed his face.  'Why don't I get you some jewellery instead?'  Hmmmm Koh-i-Noor diamond or a Sunday lie-in complete with fry-up?  The choice is obvious.  I’d like my eggs scrambled, please.

Lots of people think sleep is overrated.  Margaret Thatcher bragged that she only needed 4 hours of sleep a night and such brilliant thinkers as varied as Thomas Edison and Bon Jovi have pointed out that you can sleep when you're dead.  I can understand the idea of life being too short to waste but I don’t want to spend those waking hours feeling like I’m covered in molasses.

Parents with older children assure me that when Little One and Big One become teenagers that it will be impossible to wake them up in the morning.  So at least one aspect of the stroppy teenage years to look forward to... 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Those who can't...

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?

He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation. 

Mondays are good days for rants.  And this one is longstanding.  Similar to the notion that a stay-at-home mom lives a life of ease, there is an all too common misperception that teaching is an easy job.  Please allow me to debunk some of the more persistent myths.


1. Teachers have really short hours.  When the school day is over, you're done!

The misperception here is that we only work when students have lessons.  However, in order for those lessons to be interesting and educational, we have to plan them.  If the set has an exam at the end of the term or year, we have to know what is on that exam and find a way to help our students learn the content.  We also must deal with marking and if you teach a writing-heavy subject (English, History, Philosophy), marking is the ravenous beast that devours most of your 'free time'.  If you must mark board-set coursework, you may have to deal with a mark scheme that sometimes appears to have been written by mental patients who only communicate in seventeenth century vernacular.  Then there are meetings; department meetings, health and safety meetings, parents' evenings, meetings with parents who children have misbehaved, meetings about how we can have fewer meetings... I could go on but I'd really rather not.  Teachers also moderate extracurricular activities and coach sport.  If you work in a boarding school and someone remarks on how lucky you are to have such fantastic hours, depending on how far in the school term you are, you either laugh until no sound comes out of your mouth and tears flow freely down your cheeks or you bludgeon them with something heavy.  Like a car.

2.  You have summers off. 

Sort of.  By the time summer arrives and the lovely little darlings are released into the wild, you are so exhausted that the Bataan death march seems like a relaxing holiday.  In August you must deal with exam results.  This can mean your Head of Department inquiring as to why your student's marks were so low, mixed or high.  This also means parents demanding to know why little Jago only got a B or since little Tarquin now has an A* can we not get him into Oxford?  Now?  While we're on the phone?  If your school introduces a new syllabus, summer is the time for teachers to incorporate the new material into what they already teach.  Being able to rehash the same lessons year after year just never happens.  You must also find time to keep up with any new scholarship in your subject or new ideas on education (No fear, there will also be copious meetings about these topics within the school year).  And because of item number five below, many teachers I knew in NYC worked second jobs during the summer to ensure a decent income.

3. You're job isn't really hard.  The children just read and write and watch movies.

Again, sort of.  There are 'filler' lessons where teachers decide to relax before moving on to a new topic, where it's the last day of term and you know no one is motivated enough to do real work.  So you put on a DVD and watch the drool pool on the desks next to the little bent heads.  But such passivity cannot last long.  You are responsible for your charges' learning and accountable to a Head of Department, a Headmaster/mistress and many fee-paying or tax-paying parents.  During lessons, you don’t get a chance to go to the loo and hide for five minutes because you are having a bad day or don't feel well.  And sometimes it is easier to man up and teach your lessons when you are ill rather than come up with an interesting cover assignment and risk the wrath of the teachers who have to look after your lessons while you are gone.

 4. Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach.

In other words, if you had any ambition you would have a proper, challenging, well-paying job. But you either couldn't get one of those or you were too lazy to really try.  Not even close.  Before I started teaching, I was a copywriter in a large multinational advertising agency.  I had a PA, an office (well, a little one), job security and a good salary.  I did not leave that career behind because I wasn't driven.  I left because after beginning a part-time postgrad degree, I realised that my job didn't really satisfy me anymore.  I wanted to be around people who were as excited about and interested in History as I was.  Admittedly as a secondary school teacher that engagement doesn't happen often - but when it does, when you have a really great lesson or read an incisive, well-written essay, it's an unbelievable high.  I didn't get that when I saw the Visa advert I had worked on in The New York Times Magazine.  Okay, maybe I did a little bit.  Of course there are teachers who are not very good at their jobs.  And that is mainly because they became teachers because they believed numbers 1-4 were true.  Most don't last long.  Research shows the teaching profession has the highest burnout rate of any public service job and if you're in it because you believed it would be easy, then you usually run far and fast very quickly.  A huge majority of the teachers I have met are dedicated and enthusiastic about their jobs and make a real effort to improve.  Luckily for Jago, Tarquin and others, truly terrible teachers are few and far between.

5.  Teachers aren't paid very much.

Yes, this is true.  It shouldn't be true (of course, I would say that).  Dostoyevsky opined that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.  I would add schools to that as well.  The opinion that teaching isn’t a worthwhile occupation because the paycheck isn’t big doesn’t diminish the value of our jobs.  Rather it demonstrates the value the speaker puts on money and status and value society puts on what we do.  Big paycheck does not equal valuable and fulfilling career.  Just ask the bankers over at Lehman Brothers.  Oh, wait, you can’t.

All right, the rant is over.  This particular rant, that is.  For now.