Over and Out

A lot has changed since I started this blog. I’ve moved out, finished uni, got engaged, become a qualified teacher, almost learned to drive, and been on a ferry for the first time – all equally important of course… Now I’ve moved on to this new phase of my life, a grown-up in the real world with a career who’s responsible for my fiancée and not just myself, I feel the time has come to move on from writing this blog too.

Some might say a blog is self-indulgent, a way of showing off and needily getting affirmation by likes. While I apologise for times that this has crept in, my main intention has been to point people towards Jesus and the amazing things He’s done for me, not to point towards myself. Other times it’s also been to let people who have wanted to listen hear what I’ve been thinking about, sometimes a way of processing and organising my thoughts about a topic, and sometimes just a way of being creative. In addition, through writing my blog I’ve realised more and more that even the most effective words are flawed and can only partly reflect God’s grace, holiness, power and love – He’s much too huge to be contained by any box, let alone a man-made construct like language!

As I looked back nostalgically at some of my older posts this morning, I thought about the main things my blog has discussed:

– God keeps his promises! (e.g. Turning Back the Clock)

– Manliness is about empathy, courage, and other similar internal qualities more than muscles or physical strength (e.g. Redefining Masculinity)

– Teaching is a great job in many ways but is incredibly tough (e.g. Noah)

– Jesus died for my sins so I could be in relationship with God, the Creator of the universe! (e.g. Who’s in Control?).

This blog won’t change the world, and it was never meant to. However, I hope it’s been enjoyable and beneficial to the little band of people who have chosen to listen to what I had to say. Thanks for reading!

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Poetry Corner #2: ‘The Circle.’

It’s mundane, yet magnificent. Ordinary, yet extraordinary. Simple, yet baffling.

Its one side includes; it is united, communistic, joined together never to be broken. But it also excludes. An outside. An inside. “Them” and “us”. Who is trapped? Who is free?

It’s the circle of life. Birth, death, resurrection. But it’s the full stop at the end of this sentence

It’s the inevitable, unstoppable rotation of the hands of the clock. But why do they never get past twelve?

The completion of its line evokes wholeness, but a cruel emptiness lies at its core which only the holy One can fill.

It brings stability; banality; security; predictability. But in an instant it can turn vicious.

It’s blissfully unique, yet conforms to its place. It’s a letter of the alphabet. It’s confined in the curriculum, trapped in the elitist club of polygons possessing two dimensions.

It’s conspicuously hidden, veiled in plain sight. The wheels that drive us forward. The signs that prohibit. The green light that beckons us on.

Its paradoxical antitheses will never end.

Words

We use words every day; to talk, to listen, to write, to think. Without words we can’t communicate properly. And if we use them incorrectly we risk misunderstanding others, or being misunderstood by others. During a chat with a friend this week, I realised that words make a huge difference to the way we see ourselves too: saying “I am special”, and saying “I am special in the eyes of others”, are two very different things, and taking out those 5 extra words has a huge positive impact on your world.

Firstly, if you see yourself as only special in the eyes of others, you will be constantly searching for approval from others. You’ll feel insecure as you aren’t certain of your worth, and this means you won’t always believe people when they do affirm you. “What if they’re just saying I’m special to make me happy?” you might think. Or “what if tomorrow they don’t think I’m special any more?” Your whole world has the potential to crumble beneath your feet.

Compare this to believing that you actually are special. This doesn’t mean thinking you’re flawless, or particularly amazing at a specific skill; rather, it means accepting that you are you, with your unique talents, qualities, and flaws, and that that’s great. If you believe you’re special your perception of yourself is more positive and more constant, less reliant on, or affected by, the opinions of other people. Your more stable identity will help you be a source of strength for others rather than depending on others to keep yourself strong. You become like Bear Grylls helping someone else to abseil down that impossibly treacherous cliff face rather than being the one needing a “Bear Grylls” figure for your survival. (Not that I’m always the Bear Grylls figure! Sometimes I’m one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both at the same time; it’s something I’m still working on too.)

Secondly, seeing yourself as special is the more accurate way to see yourself out of the two. We all have things we are good at, or qualities that make us who we are, and no two people in the history of the world has had the exact same compound of talents and characteristics as you. And these things are within us, not dependent on other people’s opinions.

David Beckham was good at football, and that’s a fact; it doesn’t change based on what people think. He was special. The late Leonard Nimoy, who played Captain Spock in Star Trek, was a great actor. That doesn’t change based on what people think. It’s a fact. He was special. This same rule applies to us normal everyday people too, like my Mum. She is strong, resilient, and caring; three qualities she has that make her the person she is and therefore that make her special. Whether others agree that she has those qualities or not doesn’t change the fact that she does. She is special, not just special in the eyes of others.

And you don’t have to be the best at something to be special. Even if you think there’s nothing you are particularly good at (which probably isn’t true), you are still unique; there’s nobody else exactly like you, so by that reason alone you’re special. If limited edition coins that are inherently flawed are worth a fortune (see dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1196644/Rare-20p-coin-sells-7-100-eBay-thats-35-500-times-face-value.html) then how much more are we valuable as people who, although inherently flawed ourselves, are one-of-a-kind and alive!

Finally, seeing yourself as special is the more accurate of the two from a Christian perspective. I’ve talked before about how God gives us stable identity (see my “Identity” blog post). And I’ve mentioned in a few other posts about how Jesus died and rose again to set us free. One of the things He came to earth to set us free from was this sort of mindset; we don’t need to be slaves to it any more, we can be free and know we are loved and worth dying for. And if that wasn’t enough, God created the whole of time and space, yet values little you and little me so much that he took time and thought to shape us (Psalm 139:13-16), chose where in creation to let us be born, has protected and guided us so far in our lives, and he delights in us despite all the times we’ve messed up and let him down! (Zephaniah 3:17; Psalm 149:4) Wow! Now that shows that we’re special. If God says it, I can trust it’s true and fixed as God never lies. We’re not just special in the eyes of others; we’re special. Full stop.

I really hope and pray that anyone who reads this, but especially the friend I wrote it for, genuinely engages with what I’ve said and weighs it up for themselves. Words are important; they have the power to change a life and set you free. You are loved. You are unique. You are special.

Noah

There isn’t a word to describe how challenging teaching is. The workload is incredible, the pressure is intense, and the brightness of the spotlight which always stays on you is almost blinding. I was reading about Noah and the flood in the Bible this week and I felt a bit like I was drowning, submerged by the floodwaters of relentless planning and marking. But when I thought about it a bit more, there were some other things in the passage that have really encouraged me:

– Even though there are soooo many people in the world, God sees the individual and loves them so much!

– When the floodwaters rise, God protects those who are faithful to Him and doesn’t let them get submerged.

– Even during the flood, God’s promises are as true as they were before.

– God uses hardship to refine and bring about something better.

– The floodwaters will eventually go down!

Noah had to live by faith and obey for a loooong time before he saw any rain. This week has been so difficult, and I’ve had to keep going and have faith in myself and in God’s plan for my life even when I wasn’t seeing any fruit. Today was a really good day, though, and I’m thankful for that. However, I need to remember to keep positive and keep living by faith even when it’s tough; I need to remember that God loves me SO MUCH, that He is protecting me and won’t let me drown, and that His plan for my life is still the best.

#Vision

Five weeks into my teacher training course, I’m exhausted. Yeah on the whole I’m having a great time, the people are really cool, and most of the sessions are helpful, but the days are so long (two days this week were 8am-7.30pm) and I’m exhausted. One of the many buzz words we’re frequently exposed to is ‘vision’ – others include leadership, resilience, values, journey, collaboration, growth mindsets, and inclusion – and while we joke about how often the word ‘vision’ is used, it really is SO important to have a driving force behind what you’re doing. If you have no deeper reason for going into teaching except for earning some money, you’ll have nothing to push you to keep going when the going gets tough. So after ‘reflecting’ (that’s another buzz word), here’s my vision…

If I had to pick one reason why I chose to go into teaching, it would be to be a positive male role model to children who don’t have one. (I’ve written about this here and here, so I won’t go into detail again…) But after hearing about Teach First’s vision, that ‘no child’s educational success should be limited by their socio-economic background’, my vision altered to include this, and a major driving force for me now is that as a teacher I will help to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in my classroom through the transformative power of education, giving children from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to have a successful and fulfilling life not held back by limitations that aren’t their fault. How will I do that? By having high expectations for all, regardless of background; allowing no excuses for my children not succeeding; setting work that stretches ALL children and moves them forward (i.e. good planning and ‘differentiation’); and promoting high aspirations in the children for their futures. Furthermore, as a Christian I also believe it’s important to give my children a chance to hear about Jesus and His amazing love for us, and the extent to which I can (and should) do this in school will probably be something I wrestle with over the two-year course and beyond. (Of course, I wanted a teaching job for selfish reasons too, to earn money to support myself and hopefully a family one day, and to feel good about myself for making a positive contribution to the world, but I like to think they’re of secondary importance to these other things!)

Proverbs 22:6 (from the Bible) kind of sums up why I’m doing primary teaching. It says:
‘Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it’. Some would label this as idealistic, and I see their point; even a child with a great start in life may go off the rails later. However, setting them up in the right way makes it much more likely that they will succeed in the future. Children are so impressionable, especially when they are primary school age, and excellent teachers at this stage makes it much more likely that they will succeed later, equipping them with knowledge, skills, and qualities to have a great life and break past limitations imposed on them.

While writing this, I also thought about what values I actually want to model for my children. I want them to have resilience, empathy, selflessness, courage, self-belief, creativity, and a love for learning. I also want them to see that being a man isn’t necessarily about being physically strong or aggressive, and that instead it’s more about having these qualities listed above. Inspiring these qualities in them starts with me, though, so I need to keep developing these qualities in myself if I want my children to have them too.

So if at any point during the next two years and beyond I moan about my massive workload, my lack of sleep and/or social life, or how that one child in my class just won’t behave, pleeease point me back to this blog post. This is why I’m becoming a teacher; I want to make a difference, I want to be the change I want to see, and I want to help change lives. I can’t do it on my own though; I’ll need the support of my family, friends, and most importantly God, the One who gives me strength to succeed, but ultimately I will succeed and I will be the leader/teacher/human I’m meant to be, helping my children become who they’re meant to be in the process.

Redefining masculinity

Captain America

Captain America: a Marvel-lous example of hypermasculinity…

Society has a huge problem. It is dangerous and highly pervasive, yet normally remains undetected. Have you guessed it yet? It’s a skewed definition of masculinity. Today millions of young people around the world are without positive male role models, and the problem is getting worse. In 2012, 1 in 3 U.S. children (15 million individuals) lived without a father, three times more than in 1960 (Washington Times, 2012). While many of those fathers may still be in contact with their children and may be excellent role models to them, I suspect that number is balanced out by those fathers who, despite sticking around to help raise their children, aren’t good role models at all. Many boys and young men are desperately searching for a pattern to follow to show them how to become a man, and if they don’t have one in the family home, it makes sense for them to look to their teachers at school. However, as a quarter of primary schools in England are staffed entirely by women and men only present 12% of the primary school workforce (Daily Telegraph, 2013), that search may prove futile, causing them to turn to other sources; characters on TV and in films, for example. While watching the film Captain America 2 a while ago, I was struck by its unhelpful portrayal of masculinity, and I soon realised that most superhero films I’d seen portrayed a similarly unhelpful image.

To be fair to Captain America, he does show some genuinely desirable masculine traits, such as unwavering loyalty to his best friend and his boss, and a drive to make a difference to society. However, they remain overshadowed by his overly-muscly body, and the film actually portrays the message that without his muscles, Captain America would be a failure: skinny, powerless, and undesirable in the eyes of women. He is a striking example of ‘hypermasculinity’, ‘a psychological term for the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality’ (Wikipedia, 2014). It’s a similar story with the Hulk, whose physical prowess and aggression are his dominant features. Furthermore, the Hulk’s strength comes from getting angry, suggesting to the film’s audience that it’s okay to become angry and wreak destruction to achieve a certain end. Iron Man, too, portrays a similarly problematic pattern: Tony Stark cannot save the world as himself, so instead he clothes himself in a big metal suit to do so. Superman, Spiderman, and Batman also have to conceal their true identity behind a costume, portraying the message that they can only succeed by adopting a constructed persona and concealing the real person beneath. Furthermore, all these male heroes have an attractive girl by their side, encouraging us to believe that real men need to have a woman to define themselves against.

So in a nutshell, these films portray the message that to be a real man, you need to have big muscles, be physically powerful, be angry, conceal the real ‘you’, and be in a relationship. They also portray women as weaker than, and reliant upon, men, reinforcing sexist discourse in society. Just to clarify, I do really enjoy watching these superhero films, and I could have picked lots of other examples of ‘role models’ who portray skewed versions of masculinity (e.g. many footballers, pop-stars, and other characters on TV and in films), which unfortunately demonstrates how widespread the problem is. However good these films are, though, they provide undeniable evidence of the skewed version of masculinity valued and perpetuated by our society (even the term ‘superheroes’ sets these characters up as ideals to be aspired to!) which actually puts intense pressure on men to conform to a standard they can never reach.

The effects of males having poor role models can be seen in the ‘lad culture’ which is all too visible at uni, pressurising young men to sleep around, get drunk on a regular basis, and be incredibly misogynist. However, as ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’ (the awesome quote which Amnesty International’s iconic logo is based on), I’m going to end this blog post by giving three excellent examples of what a man should be like. The first is a guy called Gideon, who I’ve actually mentioned on my blog before. Despite seeing himself as weak and feeble, he was commanded to lead an army, and with him in charge they won a memorable victory against their enemies, demonstrating courage and assertive leadership in the process. The second is someone called Daniel, who was a highly educated young man taken prisoner in a foreign country. Despite unbelievable pressure to give up everything he believed in to fit this new culture, he refused to compromise his identity and core beliefs and was eventually rewarded with status and success as a reward for his conduct. And the third is called Jesus, who loved His friends so much – ordinary people like you and me – that He sacrificed His own life to save them from death. Even under intense pressure He demonstrated resilience and determination, doing whatever it took to keep His promise. Also, the shortest verse in the Bible – ‘Jesus wept’ – shows us that real men are allowed to cry; we don’t have to conceal our emotions behind a constructed persona.

Contrary to what society might tell us, then, real men aren’t those who get hench, get drunk, and get laid; real men are selfless, have conviction in their beliefs, take responsibility for effecting positive change, and have the courage, wisdom, sensitivity and empathy to lead well. Society needs more men like this today if masculinity is to be redefined and if all boys and young men are to have access to positive male role models. In the words of Kid President, ‘Grown ups, it’s scary but true: kids are learning how to be people by watching you.’

What makes a good teacher?

In just over two months, I’ll be starting the first part of my 2-year teacher training course. This part is an intense six-week summer school to help us learn how to be good teachers before we’re released into the wild (our placement schools) in September. That got me thinking – what actually makes a good teacher? When you think about it, it’s very hard to define. A teacher is so many roles rolled into one; Colin Richards suggests for a teacher to fit the government’s expectations of them, they need ‘the omni-competence of Leonardo da Vinci, the diplomatic expertise of Kofi Annan, […] the grim determination of Alex Ferguson [and] the omniscience of God’ (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010). Although he admits to being over the top here, Richards raises a valid point that a successful teacher needs to have lots of different skills! He also suggests teaching can be characterised as a science, a craft, or an art (or a mixture of all three), making it even more unclear which particular skills a good teacher should have. I think it’s really hard to pinpoint what exactly makes a good teacher, but seeing one in action certainly makes it easier. Maybe you can remember a teacher from your school days who genuinely cared and went the extra mile, or was just great at explaining things! Even then, though, two teachers with very different teaching styles can be equally effective (or equally ineffective), which complicates things even more. However, I’d argue that the best example of a good teacher is a guy who lived around 2000 years ago called Jesus, for three main reasons: He modelled the good principles He wanted His ‘students’ to live by, He used Vygotsky’s theories wayyy before they’d even been invented to help Him impart knowledge effectively, and He made all the necessary sacrifices to get the job done.

Although people disagree on whether Jesus is the Son of God or not, most people would agree that the principles Jesus taught were good. He says the greatest two commandments are to ‘Love the Lord your God with [everything you have, and to] love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-39). He extends this second one further, saying you should even ‘love your enemies’ (Matthew 5:44) – not a wishy-washy or romantic sort of love either; a powerful, enduring love that perseveres even when it’s difficult. What makes His words so powerful, though, is that He backed up these good principles He taught with His actions and modelled the life he wanted His ‘students’ to lead. He frequently gave up His time for them, He healed lots of them, and the very reason He came to earth was His love for them – and us! More on that later… But the point is that teachers should ‘demonstrate the positive values, attitudes and behaviour they expect from [their] children’ through their own actions (Learning to Teach in the Primary School, 2010), something Jesus does excellently.

The second reason I think Jesus is the best teacher is that He basically invented the wheel before the inventor of the wheel invented it. In other words, He used an approach proposed by a theorist called Lev Vygotsky, who has been incredibly influential on teaching practice in the last few decades. One of his theories is that of the ZPD, or Zone of Proximal Development, which is the gap between what the learner can do now independently and what they can do with assistance. In this model, the teacher’s role is to meet the learner where they’re at and help them progress to the next stage. Jesus did that all the time: when He taught people, He used the sort of language they could understand. When talking to everyday people, He used parables which involved situations they could relate to so they could get what he was trying to say. He would also have spoken in an everyday dialect too, something older translations of the Bible with thee’s and thou’s in can make us forget. However, when talking to religious leaders He would quote from the Old Testament more often, showing His ability to meet people on their level to help them learn better.

Even by coming to earth, though, Jesus was applying the ZPD on a huge scale. God clothed Himself in human flesh and came to earth, leaving behind a place of perfection for a place of devastation. He came to where we are in our sin and shame to take us further than we could ever go by ourselves. He died on the cross, taking the punishment we should have paid for our sin (the wrong things we do that separate us from God). And that means sin can no longer hold us back from being close to Him, allowing us the opportunity to be in a personal relationship with our heavenly Father, the same God who created the universe and holds it all in His hands. Wow. And then He came back to life, backing up His claims with irrefutable evidence of His power! Amazing.

My third point follows on from this: Jesus was willing to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to get the job done. Like any good teacher, He had such an amazing love for His children that He would do anything it takes to help them succeed. Our job as teachers might be to help shape the children we teach into good young people while imparting knowledge to them, which will take some sacrifices sometimes; late nights marking, early mornings planning lessons, etc. But as we’ve just seen, Jesus’ job was to bridge the gap between God and man, something only He could do as only He was fully God and fully man. And as the task was so difficult, the sacrifice was so much greater: it involved giving up His life. However, He chose to do it anyway because He loves us so much.

So as we’ve seen, Jesus wasn’t just a good teacher – He saved the world! And actually Jesus doesn’t leave us the option of seeing Him just as a good teacher. If He wasn’t the Son of God, yet claimed He was, He would actually be an awful teacher who is either incredibly arrogant, a liar, or a crazy man. However, He backed up His claims with His actions, showing God’s power flowing through Him by healing the sick and ultimately by coming back to life after dying on the cross. So as well as being the best teacher ever, demonstrating excellent teaching practice that any trainee teacher could learn a lot from, He is our Saviour, giving His life to set us free from sin and allow us to be close to God again. He’s done all the hard work, all we have to do is believe and accept the sacrifice that He has made! Brilliant. (Now all I need is to find someone to do all my marking and lesson plans for me…)