It’s been a while since my last update…! It is an understatement to tell you that this term has been a challenging one for schools, students, their parents and staff. As you will have already gathered, students and at times whole year groups have been instructed to self-isolate at home, with some students missing more months of their education and losing the structure that being in school provides. I now relate better to how it might have felt/feel for my students to be trapped within the same four walls, or to carry a confusing label with a stigma attached, or to be out of sync socially with their friends and family, especially at an important time of the year. Dyspraxia and other hidden learning differences can certainly exacerbate the anxieties associated with COVID-19, as there is a tendency to overthink situations, process them differently to others, and feel the emotions of overwhelm more intensely than neurotypicals might do.
As ever, poetry and the arts provide a helpful way for many of us dyspraxics to process this overwhelm, ground ourselves, and make sense of challenges, hopes, fears, triumphs, and our favourite word of the year, “unprecedented situations”! I know this is the case for my students, too, whose poems and courage to share them continue to energise me and strengthen my sense of purpose as a new teacher. The following poem might not be the most uplifting one I have written in 2020(!), however I am sharing it in the hope that it might be relatable for some of you, whether you are dyspraxic or not:
It is but it isn’t.
If it isn’t the label of disordered fine motor control,
then it’s the loss of control in a train engine
planned to stop at the station three days ago,
back before Saturn collided with Jupiter and gave me a new label.
If it isn’t a hot turkey dinner made for six,
then it’s an empty plate and one absent voice
with only several paranoid ones lingering
in the background of a laggy Zoom call.
If it isn’t Tiers like on last summer’s fancy wedding cake,
then it’s only a second-rate ready meal eaten alone
and its shredded paper wrappings tossed to the bin,
right where Christmas is now, rotting away
in the company of crushed-up carrots that Rudolf missed,
and chicken past its sell-by date. (Let’s not forget
my own saliva stuck to tears that fester
in a camouflage trap that convinces even wild animals of its safety.)
If it isn’t squeaky-clean laminate flooring and polished windows,
then it’s the insanity of the ones who sanitised obsessively,
who were negative about being on the positive list,
all in a split second.
You didn't break me like you broke all the others,
shattering their windows, and like you broke Christmas.
You spared me like you spared the turkey I won’t be eating,
and if it isn't Christmas, then it's a miracle that I am sparing others.
I wish you all a safe holiday period, whether you celebrate Christmas or otherwise. If you are spending the holiday alone this year, then I hope that you can find little joys and lightness among the darkness. All dyspraxics carry inner strength necessary to overcome struggle, even if it doesn’t seem like it – I hope you can recognise yours and learn something from it.
I will write again in a few days with a more detailed review of my first term as a dyspraxic teacher, including some reflections and advice for managing distance teaching and Google Classroom as a dyspraxic teacher, and managing distance learning as a dyspraxic student (along with some hopefully amusing anecdotes as always!).
During teacher training, I was warned all about the challenges of getting through November as a new teacher. This phenomena was referred to as something along the lines of “long, cold, dark November”, when October half-term is a distant memory and the Christmas holidays are too far away to count down to just yet. And here I am – this is no longer a figure of speech! The “cold” part is definitely exasperated by the current requirement to push all classroom windows wide open…
It feels like a small milestone to have already made it past October half term, though, as living a daily contradiction with the label of “lockdown” leaves education settings stretched and squeezed to the limit. I tried to reflect this absurdity in this week’s poem, and hope that it might be relatable for some, whether you identify with dyspraxic traits or otherwise.
Take care everyone,
Held means Hero
they make a bee line
for the C line tube
where we are all squeezed in:
them with their juice cartons from concentrate
and me with my brain cells concentrated
on just getting through the day,
on getting through to them
in an hourglass squeezed full of sardines
stuck against the frames
wedged open and our few screws
have come loose again
as they shiver the words:
"Miss, do we have to keep them open?"
but coats and mouths are zipped to close
down mentions of the C-word,
for this tube is held
by bleak Outlook pings
and crippling reminders
that 'Held' means hero in German-
Held back with 'can't's streaming down my cheeks,
Held up through the missed minutes
and unsaid pep talks on weary late nights
Holding us up through the missing links
that test us in tubes
squeezing to burst.
Creativity tends to be a major strength in dyspraxic adults and young people alike, as we can think “outside the box” in highly valuable ways. These ways might include, but are in no way limited to, creativity in art, music, and our use of language. Creative writing can be a cathartic practice for all of us, particularly in testing times, and I know that this is certainly the case for other dyspraxics too. When you are pushed to your limits, your struggle can fuel a creative energy that enables others to feel and connect with your experience. My students sharing their own powerful poems on handouts in the staffroom this week has motivated me to do the same.
This first poem is entitled “Corridors of coping”, and expresses some of the logistical challenges involved in starting as a teacher this September.
Corridors of coping
armed with dog-eared downside-up seating plans
scrawled with hieroglyphs that hold your gaze –
today’s performance is masked by a face drenched
in sanitised regrets. i only tried to
sanitise my mind, yet my mind is a magnet
for lost words stuck down the back of yesterday’s trimmer.
i misread my timetable and arrived five minutes late,
asking you to fill in today’s missing pages,
not to fill the room with your fits of giggles.
but i can decipher the codes clues to your
barrier to learning familiar to my own barrier to teaching
for i am the teacher who catches you
dropping to the floor without a back-up plan
like a pile of clumsy papers lost along the
one-way maze at rush hour on a weekday.
i am the teacher tired of pacman-style manoeuvers
that create chaos in the corridors of not coping.
i aim to be the teacher who builds a bridge past the haze,
I had planned a series of daily posts for Dyspraxia Awareness Week 2020, including sharing my own poems and illustrations to raise awareness of dyspraxia in these challenging times. However, I missed that boat, which sailed away three weeks ago in the storm that is coping as a new teacher in a pandemic – my endless to-do lists scrawled onto post-it notes lay strewn across my floor, alongside literally hundreds of dog-eared worksheets destined only for the recycling bin… To make up for missing Awareness Week, here is a timely(!) post about the challenges of managing your time as a dyspraxic adult, along with some worked strategies that can help.
Time seems to be in short supply as a dyspraxic teacher, yet time feels like the secret ingredient to survival. There needs to be sufficient time and mental space away to reflect on the “bad” lessons, to properly process the criticism from observations, and to feel satisfied enough with the “better” lessons. According to the Dyspraxia Foundation, time-management, planning and organisation are issues that present in most dyspraxics to some degree, and affect their experiences in both education and work. A quick search shows that time management tends to be a challenge specifically for dyspraxic teachers too. Timing and pace come under the Teacher Standards, yet a greater understanding of how dyspraxia affects timing and pace is important in discussions of teaching and learning.
Teaching is a great performance, but I don’t pretend to be a perfect performer: I tend to be one step behind my beady-eyed students at least half of the time, and I know they know this too! The sound of “Miss, the date is wrong”, “Miss, we don’t have that on our sheet”, and “Miss, the board is frozen” are only too common occurrences in my classroom, which leave me wishing the remote-control could freeze the whole lesson at times, Hogwarts-style. Or even better, a rewind button to back-track on my dodgy explanations. This week, when I was in full flow with my noisy Year 8 class, I could have sworn I had ten more minutes left. I was determined to get my silence, insisting on “five minutes silent working” – I even dared to put a timer up on the board. But to what end? In less than a minute, the brief tranquility was shattered – most of the class was shouting out over my gentle voice: “Miss, the lesson is OVER. We’re going to be LATE. We need to GO”. I felt a deep sense of self-frustration with my mess-up of timings, yet again, despite thorough planning and best intentions to get this right.
To top things off, last week I lost track of the time and nearly paid for the consequences. I was multitasking again, trying to achieve five different tasks with ten different tabs open, flitting between them all and in reality achieving nothing. It was half past three and my teaching was finished for the day and I had the innocent aim of taking less work home with me – I was catching up on some lesson-planning, logging reports, tracking student data, marking tests, and then thought why not stick around to make some phone calls home. I was utterly caught up in an all-consuming bubble: somehow, it was now half past five. My line manager had made it clear to me at the start of the term: you must leave before 6pm, or the doors will lock. But this wasn’t clear enough for me. I seem to have to learn from experience…
Armed with two Tesco bags full of exercise books to mark, I wobbled along to the School Reception at 17.50. I was in a state of panic when my keycard refused to open the doors. I took a deep breath, consoling myself, this can’t be possible, and I tried the outside doors. They were padlocked too – no luck there. I was reminded of that time in Paris, when I set off the emergency security alarm by pressing the big red button. Only this was worse, because there wasn’t anyone at the end of the intercom to hear me. Trapped. Just as I was starting to despair and give up on my hope of leaving the school for the evening, envisioning the worst from horror films, I was very grateful to see a member of the site team emerge. She wasn’t best amused, but did let me escape. It is in these moments that you either laugh or cry. Choosing to laugh comes from a place of strength and resilience, knowing that it could always be worse – after all, I know that I won’t have been the first OR last person to have got locked in the school. Hopefully – can anyone back me up?!
Dodgy organisation anecdotes aside, here are some time-management strategies that really do work well for me:
Break down to-do lists and use separate post-it notes for different classes – ideally different colours, to keep my thinking separate between the different groups. I recommend the strategies on Twinkl, to compartmentalise your to-do lists and prioritise. So as not to feel overwhelmed, limiting the list to 3-5 key actions can help. Organising the tasks in terms of priority (from non-negotiable to thing that can wait) helps me to feel less overwhelmed too. I have to physically tick off each task once I have completed it.
Stick to “cut-off times” – each evening, I aim to not to work beyond a certain time. Accepting that at some point you have done all that you can and sleep is more important.
Prepare 1) lunch, 2) clothes and 3) bag the night before school – again, as a list of three actions to do before I can sleep, this makes it easier to remember.
Create mini-rewards for ticking off tasks on to-do lists – this helps me resist the urge to procrastinate. Easier said than done to complete one task properly rather than flitting between five different ones and not finishing any of them, but I try to complete tasks as they arise.
Similarly, plan the next lesson as soon as possible after the previous one – this logic also works for things like essay-planning and preparing presentations. When information is fresher in mind, you can make your future self grateful by at least setting up the steps for you to come back to later. In this way, I make use of ready-made templates for emailing, which might help you if you are a slow emailer like me!
My dyspraxic students struggle with timing and pace too – in their daily routines, this often presents itself in them arriving late to my lessons, mixing up which lesson they are in, having the right equipment or books but for the wrong day, and seeming like they are “in the clouds”. A large part of me being a teacher, of course, is needing to be the teacher I didn’t have myself – a teacher who noticed what made me different, for the right reasons. I find myself in the unique position of identifying with the student who can’t remember where he sits in my class, and take it seriously when the other students snigger at him. I feel for the student who bursts into tears about the low grade she got in the test, because I can see that she defines herself by it. I have admiration for the student who comes to my classroom to show me her purple Irlen lenses with pride: “Miss, look what’s finally arrived!” She puts them on for me and grins. I feel a surge of purpose and my why re-surfaces once more, after being knocked to the floor minutes earlier by my relentless year 9s. I think to myself, if only there could have been a teacher who encouraged me to use my coloured overlays and wear my coloured lenses, a teacher who could see beyond my quirks.
I’ll blog next with some thoughts on maintaining a sustainable well-being in the face of anxiety in education settings during this second lockdown. Take care everyone, and do reach out to me via the website if you have a comment or question.
Further links and research on time-management and dyspraxia:
When I was still a languages student at university from 2014-2018, I posted very actively tothis blog. I took you through many of the frustrating yet amusing dyspraxidents that occurred during my time at university and on my Year Abroad, and aimed to prove what is possible in spite of a dyspraxia diagnosis. During this year, I survived and thrived as a language assistant, a volunteer teacher with refugees, a trilingual administrative assistant and an au-pair with French children. My Erasmus-funded year abroad feels far ago now. When I started writing this in the midst of a suspended teacher training placement and Brexit on the horizon, my distant memories of setting off security alarms in Paris and colliding with lampposts in Germany a few years earlier felt almost like a luxury. Following my year abroad, I successfully completed my undergraduate degree and a Master’s. I then went on to train to be a languages teacher, and regret not having returned to the blog to share the ups and downs with you all.
When I was still a languages student, I didn’t think or know that the path awaiting me was that of a teacher. In fact, it’s fair to say that I never wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a journalist, an interior designer, a translator. But never a teacher. Partly because it was a profession I didn’t think I had the “right” character for. And indeed, earlier this year, when I was told that I might consider “changing my personality” (reinforced after being told to “leave my personality outside the door” in the corporate office I worked at in Paris in 2017), this doubt somewhat solidified the following itching thought: What if I am too dyspraxic to be a teacher? What if I just can’t do it?
Back in June, I took part in some research into student teachers’ perceptions of “success” in schools, reflecting on what “success” meant to me as a neurodivergent trainee teacher. It feels more necessary than ever to continue sharing my journey from a student to now teacher – and a lover of languages and the arts, despite the odds. Late diagnosis remains an issue, with many students slipping through the net. Language-learning for dyspraxics has yet to be explored in depth by previous writers and not much research has been conducted into the language-processing of people with Specific Learning Difficulties. Dyspraxia tends to be associated with “problems of perception, language and thought” (“speech apraxia” or “articulatory dyspraxia” can affect how people express themselves verbally and their pronunciation of words). But this doesn’t have to mean that dyspraxic people are automatically less able in language-learning – an argument I will come back to in future posts.
I’m very grateful to the people closest to me who encouraged me to start writing this blog again. The world has never been such a complex place, and having once been where my students are today – albeit in a less complex world context – I hope I can provide some encouragement. I continue to speak to fellow dyspraxics who might be put off languages in light of their reputation as “too difficult” for those with “language problems”. But I also address those who might never have heard of, or do not understand, dyspraxia and its implications for the mind and body, and for learning and teaching. In this way, I’m addressing my past teachers and lecturers, my current colleagues in teaching, and my family and friends. Above all, I write for myself – I might not be a student anymore, but I seek to continue learning about how dyspraxia affects my life and that of my students. I hope to be able to offer various perspectives from a learner and a teacher.
In this series of blog posts, I’ll continue to bring you reflections on my experiences as a young person / adult / student / teacher. This time, I’ll intersperse my reflections with humorous stories, poems, my own art and also research about dyspraxia. As I venture into a baptism of fire, learning how to be a new teacher in a London comprehensive in the middle of a pandemic, I aim to also provide some hope to those in similar situations and to improve understanding about what dyspraxia means for learning and teaching.