REPORT A PROBLEM
There is a certain elegance to the process of producing 100 words a day. Like the structure of a poem it imposes literary constraints which serve to focus the mind: words have to be chosen carefully; oneís thoughts have to be distilled and expressed succinctly and the temptation to waffle curbed. Thereís the challenge of having each entry stand alone in its own right while at the same time relating to other entries within a given month. Itís an art form, with each day a snapshot of oneís state of mind, a reflection on life or a moment in time.
One day back at work and Madrid feels like a long time ago. The kids have been completely loopy today. They usually are after a break but it feels like a lot of the gains of the last few weeks are slipping away. Letís hope Iím wrong. It never fails to amaze me how easily I forget the level of emotional energy this job requires. Itís why the idea of a desk job sometimes sounds attractive. Still, best not to judge things based on the first day back. No two days are the same. Tomorrow might be an absolute dream!
Thinking about Madrid I find myself examining an issue which often recurs for me; namely, that for all I have lived in this part of the world for nearly nine years now I have made much less effort to travel that I would have once imagined. Whereas Melbourne is a long way from anywhere, here in London we are but a hop and a skip from any number of exciting and exotic destinations. Once upon a time all I wanted to do was to travel and see the world. Not so now. Maybe itís something to do with getting older.
The world back in 1982 was very different to the world today. I remember when I set off for London it felt as though I was doing something incredibly bold and adventurous. I was heading off to Thatcherís Britain and a divided Europe where East and West pitted mind-boggling numbers of inter-continental ballistic missiles at each otherís cities. The Falklands War was in full swing and the Irish were bombing the UK with monotonous regularity. When I left Australia back then I considered myself to be a traveller. On the few times I go abroad now Iím simply a tourist.
Four days in and there is a palpable sense of crisis at work. The young folk are exercising their anti-social muscle and we are all feeling the strain. In desperation Iíve turned to my senior management colleagues and drawn up a plan of action to reverse the downward slide. With these sorts of kids itís necessary to rein things in quickly and decisively. Itís one thing to be sympathetic and sensitive to all the extenuating circumstances surrounding why they behave the way they do but at the end of the day nothing can be accomplished in the midst of chaos.
To the uninitiated it can seem odd that a group of kids could wield such collective power. It has to be understood in context. These are kids that no school has been able to work with. Dozens of professional and government agencies have tried and failed to make any headway with them. Thatís why theyíre with us. They are experts in disruptive and anti-social behaviour which includes an extraordinary ability to run rings around any adult who would try to bring any kind of structure into their lives. Consequently, we in turn have to be masters of covert behaviour modification.
I remember as a teenager growing up in Australia a telephone call from England was a big deal. It was also incredibly expensive. The time and date of the call was usually planned in advance by letter and when it came we crowded around the telephone marvelling at how clear the voice on the other end of the line was. The conversations were invariably rushed, informed as they were by the cost such a call and when it was over we would all marvel at how it sounded like theyíd been in the next room and not 12,000 miles away.
For all that instant messaging has improved the speed of communication in recent years Iím not so sure it has enhanced it. Checking and deleting my email is a daily ritual but I have to admit I miss sending and receiving letters. I have a box in storage somewhere back home that is filled with the letters I have received from friends over the years, many now long dead. Iíve never had the courage nor desire to dispose of them. They are part of the fabric of my being in a way that digital information, however significant, can never be.
There can be no denying that without the benefit of the internet our ability to engage with an architect on a building project on the other side of the planet would not be feasible. In the space of two short months weíve managed to shortlist and select our architect and with regular Skype conferencing successfully negotiate the design of a high specification house. The whole process is proving to be more straight forward and less stressful than I could have possibly imagined. Needless to say that for all its limitations and drawbacks, communication over the internet is an extraordinary phenomenon.
Today was about cracking the whip and as days go I think weíve made a good start. Itís in the nature of this kind of work that you hit a trough every so often and I certainly hit a big one last week. However itís my job to rally the troops and I believe weíve managed to turn a corner. By engaging everyone in the process of coming up with solutions there is a collective sense of re-engagement and refocusing on our key values and expectations which in turn reinvigorates our sense of what we are all capable of achieving.
The kids we work with like to know where they stand. Itís in their nature to exploit any perceived weakness in adults and to maximise whatever gains they can. That doesnít make them bad kids. If anything itís a mark of their ingenuity. What tends to happen sometimes is that adults working with such kids can feel threatened by such ingenuity and unwittingly forfeit their own self confidence. The challenge is always to see them for what they are: children. They may be disadvantaged, they may be damaged, they may be incredibly challenging but that does not make them undeserving.
He may be unreliable when it comes to lesson planning paperwork and he may be eccentric and unconventional in approach but thatís precisely the reason I wanted him on the team. What he brings to the role is the kind of quality you wish you could bottle; a genuine desire to communicate and reach these kids in a way that may be atypical but is nonetheless remarkably effective. The fact of the matter is, in this line of work you either have it or you donít and all the paper pushing and record keeping are pointless without the Midas touch.
We may not have achieved everything I wanted us to achieve this week at work but as weeks go I think weíve done pretty damned well. Thereís a lot to be said for taking drastic surgical action and the action weíve taken this week has made a significant difference not only to the behaviour of the students but just as importantly to our own sense of well being.
There are times when I fear that Iím not cut out for this leadership lark. I doubt myself and start buying into negative self talk. Then I remember Iím better than that.
One of the many pleasures of this great city has to be turning a corner and entering a street youíve never seen before that fills you will wonder and awe. Such was the experience today as we soldiered through the howling wind across London Bridge and into the back streets around Waterloo Station only to discover an area so totally preserved and un-bastardised one could be forgiven for thinking weíd stumbled onto a movie set. And then to discover a quaint corner pub beckoning at the end of the street Ė these are the days I will remember when I remember London.
I love it that weíre still such good friends after all these years. To a casual observer from the outside looking in, you with your partner and me with mine, who would imagine the rich and complex tapestry our friendship has woven over the years. You have arguably been the most influential person in my life and here we are on a cold but sunny afternoon enjoying roast duck, chilled French champagne and the pleasure of each otherís company while discussing our new Australian venture with more enthusiasm that I could have hoped for. How precious are days like today.
Despite an uncertain start to the day I managed to find the keys to the school I had inadvertently misplaced last Friday; I was able to locate the keys to the computer cabinet that have been AWOL since September; I was successful in persuading my internet service provider to waive the £160 excess download charges I had unwittingly accrued over the last four months; I managed to persuade my credit card company to waive the late fee and accompanying interest charges from my American Express card and to top it all off my partner won £53 on the lottery. Priceless!
Itís a little strange to think that by this time next year weíll not only be living back in Melbourne, we will have been there for more than three months. Construction for the new house will have commenced. Hopefully one or both of us will have jobs. London will be a receding memory. I know. Iíve done it before. Going back for a month each year is one thing but actually moving there is completely different. Three months will seem like a long time. Paradoxically, Iím in no doubt about the fact that the next nine months will fly by.
Working with disaffected kids can be unrelenting in terms of being challenged not just on a daily basis but often on an hour by hour or even minute by minute basis. It can become incredibly wearing, tedious even, and you can quickly end up feeling drained and demoralised. It is possible however to turn such frustration on its head and discover strengths and skills you never thought you had and thatís an amazing feeling because when all is said and done, and for all their sins, theyíre still just kids and deserving of our attention, our time and our respect.
There can be no underestimating the value of good sleep on work performance. Despite my propensity to do otherwise, Iíve been ensuring I get at least six hours of sleep a night and where possible more than that. Consequently I have been more focused, more tolerant and more objective in my dealings with both the staff and the students and much more self assured. So much of what I do on a daily basis requires me to make swift but balanced decisions which have a knock-on effect for everyone else. Without good sleep, such decisions can often become painfully skewered.
Today was Children In Need Day and to mark the event our team was sponsored to wear our pyjamas to work. We got the kids involved with a variety of fund raising activities including how many marshmallows they could fit in their mouths without chewing, who could eat a donut without licking their lips and who could lift an apple out of a bucket of water with their mouths. One lad even offered to have his legs waxed! And despite the many opportunities for things to get silly everyone got into the spirit of things and we raised over £135!
Itís been one of those doing-nothing-in-particular days. After such a full and busy week Iíve been happy to lounge around and be a slob. I keep telling myself I should be getting out and doing more but I keep finding reasons not to. No doubt when weíre living back in Melbourne Iíll be berating myself for having not made more of an effort to do so while I was here but when you work hard you donít always want to be gadding about all the time. Thereís a lot to be said for chilling out at home.
Maybe Iím simply adjusting to the season but Iím enjoying the fact that itís been a dull, dark and rainy day. Itís rather nice to sit and gaze out at the wet streets below and to feel warm and snug inside. We considered going to the cinema but opted instead to be homebodies and watch the telly, read the paper and do those rainy day things that people tend to do when it rains. That includes sitting here in the back of the cafť listening to Duffy singing
, enjoying a hot brew and thinking of things to write.
Itís not the going to work that bothers me on these cold dark mornings; rather, itís the act of getting out of bed. I usually wake before the alarm and lay there, my mind hovering between the receding dreams of the night just passing and the beckoning challenges and demands of the day ahead. The very idea of climbing out from beneath the quilt and getting under the shower seems foreign and unappealing, yet once I feel the warm water washing over me I know Iím on my way. Thereafter I switch to automatic pilot and another dayís adventure begins.
Itís been a while since I picked up a paintbrush. From time to time I see something that excites my imagination and it occurs to me to do something about it but as yet it hasnít translated into decisive action. I have a half-finished painting that has sat staring at me in the spare room for so long I donít even notice it any more. One of these weekends Iíll get around to finishing it off I guess. Itís not that I donít like the idea of painting anymore; rather, I seem to find my time spent doing other things.
I havenít made much time for reading lately. Apart from C J Sansomís excellent novel
I seem to have lost the urge to pick up a book, which is strange really because this is the time of year when my reading usually gathers pace. The colder weather tends to encourage me to curl up with a good book. The only time I seem to read right now however is either on the train or on the bus going to and from work. I think I need to pay the library a visit and see what jumps off the shelves.
After the gains of the last two or three weeks I can sense things brewing again at work. Call it a hunch. Itís due in part to the fact that weíve had some newcomers plus the fact that Iíve had one of the more disruptive lads on an alternative timetable for the last few days; hence the dynamics of the group have changed with various characters vying for the position of top dog. What they seem to forget is Iím the top dog and Iím guessing another crack of the whip is going to be required sooner rather than later.
Having remained calm all week I switched when I saw one of the students batting an apple across the room. It wasnít his first such effort. Iíd remained calm the first time, calling him to account without losing my cool. But when he did it again I let rip, marching everyone into the kitchen and venting my spleen, withdrawing all additional little luxuries that I and other staff members provide without reimbursement from the school. Itís so out of character for me: I hope it had the desired effect.
Then again, they probably thought my outburst was a good laugh.
We found out today that our building proposal was forwarded to council yesterday. Hopefully weíll know by Christmas whether weíve made it to first base or whether the whole thing gets thrown back at us. Weíre choosing to err on the side of optimism. One of the reasons for choosing our architect was his confidence that, barring a few minor objections, our submission would be approved by council. After that it goes out to advert, an altogether more uncertain process in which neighbours and interested parties get to voice their objections and/or concerns. Nonetheless, the first milestone has been reached.
With Christmas less than a month away Iím starting to look forward to the festive season. It will be the last one we spend in the northern hemisphere for the foreseeable future. Christmas in the UK is very different to Christmas down under. Thereís a snugness brought on by the colder climate that makes the occasion seem special in a way in a way it doesnít feel back home. I suppose I reconnect with my earliest memories of Christmas spent as a kid on the Isle of Wight. For me, Christmas is a time for wrapping up and keeping warm.
Breakfast club at school today was a Spartan affair consisting of toast, butter and water. No crumpets, no muffins, no jam, no juice, no hot drinks and no fruit. I donít think they believed me when I said I would do it but despite a half-hearted challenge by one lad who tried to make himself a cup of tea they all accepted it. It does them no harm to take stock of the fact that as a staff we provide all of the little luxuries that they take for granted and hopefully theyíll be a little more appreciative in future.
The Tip Jar