Day 7 of 200 – In the chair

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Tuesday 16 October 2018

I’m in the chair.

It’s my first local authority review as a Chair of Governors, a role I’ve been in for a matter of weeks.  I’m seated opposite the school improvement partner who is asking lots of searching questions about governance.  The questions are straightforwardly challenging, nothing that comes out of left field.  No curve balls here.  I’m being stretched but I’m confident. I’ve spent the last twelve months absorbing information as a governor; I’ve spent the last seven months on the Executive Board.  It’s an unusual way to run a school but it’s given me a great developmental opportunity that I’m pressing into service.  The more he pushes, the more I’ve got.  I think we’re both enjoying the interview.

And then it happens.  Quite literally, one second I’m talking through the way in which the governing body is positioning itself to offer greater rigour, support and challenge to the school and the next my left leg feels like it’s on fire.  The pain is spectacular; it radiates from my knee to my shoulder and throbs with a burning intensity.  For a brief moment it puts me off my stride, not too much, but just enough to make me realise that this injury is throbbing away in the background like the hum of a distant engine.  Luckily it ebbs away as quickly as it came and I get back to the business in hand.  But for that briefest of seconds I am acutely aware of the irony of feeling most injured when all I am doing is exercising my mind.

The review goes well.  I’m proud of the progress that we’re all making.  Perhaps what brings it home to me most is when, after the feedback, we make our way through the hall where the last of the after-school club children are helping to pack away toys and games.  A parent is waiting at the the other side of locked door in reception.  As the door opens and his daughter emerges he asks her how her day has been.  She’s clearly smiling and replies it’s been really good.  I have to agree.

Injuries are no fun.  I miss running.  But I’m always looking for the positive and today I don’t need to look very far.  It’s not all about running, schools, half-marathons, reviews… sometimes it’s more than enough to see a smiling face to know that you’re helping to make a difference.

 

 

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Day 6 of 200 – Appraisal

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Monday 15 October 2018

It’s October.  For teachers everywhere this means completing the appraisal cycle.  We reflect upon our strengths, identify areas for development, set targets, fill forms, have conversations about performance.  The real value lies not so much in the completion of forms (although, it must be said, if this is done thoroughly it can be amazing to acknowledge just how much you really have done in the space of a year), but rather in the acknowledgement that this is simply part of a process.  Process is everything.

Like running, the outcomes of appraisal are useful for they can be measured.  But that only really tells part of the story; like running, success lies not in the yearly completion of a form, but in the daily commitment to the process of being better, of doing something better than you’d previously managed.  It’s all I can think about at the moment. Thinking about the outcome of this project is futile for I can’t even stride while walking without the telltale hamstring twinge. What I can do is think about the process of trying to do something each day that will bring me closer to my goal of getting to run again.  The process of getting to that point is more important than focusing on an uncertain outcome.

I reflected on this as I walked the dog.  Tonight it was the only thing that I could do in the process of getting back to running again.  One day the process of being injured will end…

Day 5 of 200 – Aching arms

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Sunday 14 October 2018

My arms are shaking slightly as I type this.  The first part of today’s training was a straightforward upper-body weights session.  As the gym was really quiet this afternoon I managed to keep my heart rate up as I moved from weight to weight.  Result: shaking, aching arms.

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Then it was a quick drive home to take the dog round the park for another brisk walk. After a windy and wet few days it was great to march round with the sun out. Poppy enjoyed going for a swim and I enjoyed reflecting on the fact that so many people that I know had successful days out racing.  The great thing about running is the fact that it is possible to be motivated by the success of others, even when you can’t currently run a single step.

 

Day 4 of 200 – Only the Wind

(Blackpool Half-Marathon training 2019)

Saturday 13 October 2018

I’m being pushed around the park.  The wind at my heels, in my face, on my back.  The dog is enjoying it though; she’s pretending to nip at it when it ruffles her ears.  As we turn down a path that we taken countless times before, I see that the wind has felled a tree and the pathway has become a riot of snapped branches and colour.  I use the opportunity to take a quick picture and check my step count, 8564, before mooching on.

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‘Just a little wind and the trees are falling down’

I’m walking because other than gym based work it’s the only weight bearing activity that I can do without aggravating my hamstring.  Really I want to be running on an afternoon like this. I take a moment to think about what I’ve not been able to do today: parkrun and then the first cross country race of the season.  For the briefest of moments I allow myself a second or two to feel sorry for myself.  I’ve learned that it’s healthy, at least for me, not to fight away such moments of despondency.  These days I acknowledge them for what they are, just thoughts.  And then I let them drift off into the mental ether and normal service can be resumed.  So I luxuriate in a self pitying ten seconds before looking across to see my Jack Russell bounding up a hill with a look of sheer delight spread over her face. It makes me smile.  And on I go. Just me, the dog, and the wind.

The first half of the Pet Shop Boys’ sublimely beautiful 1990 album Behaviour closes with the track ‘Only The Wind’.  The lyric discusses the aftermath of the wind rampaging through a neighbourhood replete with the sort of characters who ‘don’t lie anymore’; the whole song, at least to my ears, is a metaphor for the emotional devastation that is visited upon relationships when alcoholics stop drinking.  I’ve always been deeply moved by the short central refrain:

When life is calmer/I have no doubt/No angry drama/A storm blows itself out

The ambiguity of exactly to whom the angry drama belongs is what impresses me the most about the lyric.  The second time round the chorus offers a note of reconciliation as the orchestral arrangement grows in strength and offers a solid aural backdrop before the persona’s final words of ‘I’m sorry’.

Here’s a 2018 remaster:

Day 3 of 200 – Alton Towers

Friday 12 October 2018

(Blackpool Half Marathon 2019 training)

Just before I take this photo my watch buzzes to tell me that I’ve walked 10,000 steps.  I pause and look up.  The photo sums up where I am with training for this half-marathon: at the bottom of a huge climb.

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My training today has been walking around Alton Towers with colleagues, checking in with students and chivvying them along at the end of a great day out with school.  There was a time when I’d have looked down my nose at the idea of walking as training.  The thing about a chronic injury is how you have to learn how to reframe your experiences if you are to maintain a happy and optimistic outlook.  There’s always something to learn. Everyday really is a school day.

Day 2 of 200 – Killing Eve

(Blackpool Half Marathon 2019 training)

Thursday 11 October 2018

Yesterday’s training consisted of walking the dog for 45 minutes.  I wanted to swim, but in a disaster of forward planning I got the days mixed up and missed the allotted swim time at my local pool.  Still, something was better than nothing and I enjoyed being outside for some unseasonably warm evening air.

You have to start where you are.  In my case this means with baby-walking steps.  There is little point worrying about the way that my fitness must have plummeted over the last six weeks.  It is what it is. Although it is sometimes hard to grasp, being injured is also an opportunity to do other things and to see things differently.

One of the other things that we’ve been doing is watching the brilliant Killing Eve, a spy drama that is darkly hilarious and equally dramatic.  Its two lead females pitch their perfectly observed characters across the globe in a tale of genre defining cat and mouse, while the viewer marvels at the uncontrived freshness of it all.  It’s spy drama not just done differently, it’s done better. Much better. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time. Thank you, injury. Take a look and see the genre differently.

I’ve also been spinning.  I’ve hardly been on a bike since Ironman, so it was great to complete a spin class at Leverhulme.  Although it must be said, anyone popping in would think it was more like a nightclub with wheels.  Music.  Lights.  Great fun at 5PM on a wet afternoon and a good way to get the heart rate up while protecting my hamstring.  I’ll be back.

Day 1 of 200 – Faith

(Blackpool Half Marathon 2019 training)

Wednesday 10 October 2019

I truly believe that within us all lies an untapped potential to be better and greater than we ever dreamed possible.  I haven’t always thought this way.  For most of my adult life I simply bumbled along and I didn’t give much time to thinking about how we are all able to grow into a different version of ourselves.  I’ve written and spoken about this many times, and there is little point repeating things here for the sake of it.  In essence: I believe we are happiest when we are living our lives in an attempt to fulfil our potential.

Running has helped me to see the truth of this.  Over the last few years I’ve felt at peace when I’ve exhausted mind and body while trying to become fitter, faster, stronger.  But here’s the problem, I’m currently injured. My hip has been aching on and off for over a year. After a painful half marathon a few weeks ago I decided to take a complete rest from running and allow it all to heal.  It’s not actually my hip that is the problem, the issue lies with my hamstring.  There is some scar tissue towards the very top of it.  This has been chronically aggravated, and therefore chronically inflamed. I can throw lots of different treatments at it, but what it mostly needs is time to heal.

Faith is what is needed and it is what I struggle with the most.  I like to maintain the illusion of control by planning my progression in my running.  It is an illusion though because our bodies (quite literally) have a life of their own.  While I was planning for a half marathon PB, my hamstring finally gave up.  So I need faith that it will get better; I can’t plan for it getting better: it will either happen or not.  There are things that I can do to help, but essentially the healing is an act of faith.  And this thought brings me to this little project.

Obviously I am disappointed that I wasn’t able to run the English Half Marathon.  I jogged around in 1:52 and even this really hurt.  I haven’t jogged a step since.  I would like to have another go at a half.  There is one in Blackpool at the end of April 2019, and by sheer good fortune, it is exactly 200 days away.  This is long enough to recover from this injury and long enough to get fit again.  However, rather than plan for how I am going to run this half marathon I am simply going to take it day by day.  In other words I am going to have a plan for each day and then have faith that things will start to come together at some point in the future.  These are my goals:

  • To complete in Blackpool Half Marathon on Sunday 28 April 2018.  (As of day 1 I have no time target, no outcome target other than to finish it without injury.)
  • To document the process in the form of a daily blog post.  The aim here is to hopefully help others to see that there are times in life when it is of far greater benefit to focus on process rather than outcome.
  • To be open minded about what the process might reveal.  (For example: it might reveal that I don’t want to run anymore! Hey, anything is possible!)
  • To have faith that things will work out as they should do, regardless of what the actual outcome might be.

That’s it!  I’ve always set out at the start of a project with a far clearer idea of what an outcome should look like.  This approach just simply wouldn’t work this time as I can’t even say with any certainty when I will actually be able to jog without pain!  Writing that and believing it requires faith.

 

Is there a different way?

This blog starts with an email.  It is sent to me.  I read it and it asks me to do something at a specific time.  This action is something that I frequently do anyway, so it’s no big deal.  I’ll definitely complete what I’ve been asked to do for it’s neither difficult, time consuming, nor unreasonable.  In fact, it’s the very model of reasonableness and it’s similar in content and tone to so many that I too once used to write.  Emails in which I too would ask others to do things that, perhaps, they already were doing.  It’s how the world goes round.  We ask.  We do.  We follow the instructions.

—-

If I’m honest, I’ve felt a bit lost of late, creatively speaking that is.  I’ve not updated this blog, not written a podcast, not given vent to the more imaginative aspect of who I am and what I like to do.  I’ve not filmed anything; my camera roll is looking thin.  I’ve managed to write fragments for an ongoing project.  And I’ve deleted plenty too.  So yes, I’ve felt a bit creatively lost.  It’s like there is something that I want to say, something that I need to get out of my system before I can draw a line under this feeling and move on.  I need to move on.  I’ve not enjoyed feeling creatively stuck.  Several weeks ago I thought that the depression that plagued the earlier part of my life was returning.  I have the tools now, the learning, the knowledge, the experience to be able to take a step back and analyse this for myself.  In truth, it hasn’t returned.  I’m not depressed; I’m frustrated.  I’m not depressed; I’m stuck.  I’m not depressed; I’m following the instructions, and to be honest I’ve had enough of doing so.

We’re all sold a story, a narrative of progression if you like.  At heart it is simple: do this; earn that; buy this; you’ll be happy.  And, get busy doing it.  Now, on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this.  Everything that I have ever achieved has been as a result of being functionally busy, of doing the work, of getting things done.  And this has served me well for most of the time.  Most of the time being busy has been the default setting that has enabled me to get a grip of myself and therefore complete what I’ve set out to do: teach well; an Ironman; marathons; an MA; family life. Great.  Busy is good.  Or busy is good until you reach the point where your busyness is simply made up of responding to others’ needs, wishes and whims.  Busy is good until it starts to crowd out the lonely voice nagging away at the back of your mind…

And that voice is clearly asking one of life’s more difficult questions: is there a different way?

Schools are a testimony to the difficulty of the question.  Despite the obvious technological and societal changes of the last 150 years, a Victorian wandering into a modern school would still recognise it as such.  From classrooms to staffing structures, assemblies to lessons, essentially things have stayed the same.  We follow the rules.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  If I go and see the doctor, I want her to follow the rules.  When I trust a school with the care of my children, I want them to follow the rules.  Following the rules has given me opportunities enough to be able to live a life that is acceptable to me.  I’m grateful that I have learned the rules successfully enough to be, well, successful.  In recent years following in the footsteps of others has enabled me to relearn how to live more calmly, more responsibly, more acceptably.  But here’s the thing that I’ve been struggling with and slowly accepting: following the rules will only get you so far.  If you want to go further, you’ve got to write your own.  If you want to truly express yourself creatively, you have to take that leap of faith and you have to ask yourself that most difficult of questions for yourself and by yourself.  In the words of James Althusser, you have to ‘choose yourself’.

In my own profession there is a very clear route that we might want to call career progression.  It’s easy to see the map play out from where you currently hone your craft to where you want to be.  If you learn the rules and follow the instructions it’s perfectly possible to tread the path.  It’s the road well-travelled.  But it’s also a road that narrows.  The further you go, the more rules there are to be cognisant of because, at heart, that is what responsibility looks like.  As a school governor I’m acutely aware of the legislation and guidance frameworks within which we operate, and mostly these serve a purpose because they define our common purpose.  But however valid these rules are, however developed my understanding of these becomes, it doesn’t stop that nagging voice from pecking away at the back of my mind: is there a different way?

And then the answer hit me.  Reading that email brought it all into focus.  There is, and it’s been there all along.  I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.

I’ve been looking around for different opportunities over the last year.  I stepped away from departmental and school leadership in 2014.  Since September of 2015 I’ve taught English in a wonderful school that continually recharges and energises me.  As such I’ve felt ready to get stuck in again, to progress.  To this end I’ve sought out and been involved in experiences that I’ll be able to press into service when I’m ready to apply for a new post.  Some of the these experiences have been school based (such as governance) and and others are things that I’ve dipped my toe into to widen my professional skills base: podcasting, motivating, coaching, writing.  All the while I’ve been trying to reconcile school-based experiences with the other professional activities I’ve been pursuing.  All the while I’ve been looking for the ‘best-fit’ role, for there must be one out there.  All the while I’ve been asking myself: how can a message of being happier work for schools, for teachers, for children?  How can motivational speaking have an impact on wellbeing in schools? How can coaching in schools transform outcomes?  And, most of all I’ve been asking myself: where is the role that unites these?

The email indirectly contained the answer: there isn’t one.  I’ve not just been looking in the wrong place; the reality is it doesn’t exist.  The email had inadvertently solved the puzzle for me by pointing out that unless I take action to create my own pathway I’m going to enter my fifties still being asked to do the most basic of tasks.  I’m not willing to accept that this is where my life is heading.

Of course, the email didn’t directly speak to my current situation.  Instead, through its polite requesting that I do something that I ordinarily do anyway served as a prompt, a reminder that unless I start to really exercise my own creativity I’ll be destined, solely, to follow the rules and instructions that have already been written for me.  That email jolted me back to the present.  It brought me back to a present in which I feel empowered to wholeheartedly create my own roles.  Now is the time for me to create my own portfolio as teacher, coach, writer, governor, runner, film maker, photographer, creator, podcaster.  This is my manifesto for change.  Instead of waiting for the opportunity to arrive in which I can unite these overlapping skills and experiences, I am going to create it.  Quite what this looks like, I don’t know yet.  I haven’t planned out all of the details, but I have liberated myself from the notion that the only way we make progress in our careers is by following the instructions and the rules that someone else has written before.  It’s time to choose myself.  I know that I want to continue to teach, and to teach as well as I possibly can.  But I also know that I am called to spread the word about how important our own happiness and mental health is.  We get one life.  My purpose in mine is to help others, both children and adults alike, to live it well.  Both inside and outside the physical constraints of the classroom I feel compelled to help others to realise their untapped potential to do so much more than they ever dreamed possible.  I’ve written and produced podcast episodes and created content on YouTube, I’ve written blogs and coached.  I want to do more of this.  I enjoy the feeling that I get when someone takes the time out to say that, in some small ways, it’s helped them out.  Now is the time to say that small is not enough. I want to go all in.   I’ve had enough of cautiously dipping my toe in the water while waiting for someone else to come along and approve it.  I am going to create my own version of a life in which these skills and experiences unite and inspire others to take action, to encourage others to strive for their goals, to succeed in school and in life.  That’s the life role I want to create for myself.

It’s been on my mind for a while now.  A few weeks ago we had a family day out.  We’d travelled north to the seaside town of Morecambe to a water-based play area in a municipal park.  We needed to.  The weather had been glorious for what seemed like weeks.  Summer, although not fully underway, seemed like it had already been with us forever.  The air was warm.  The sun was strong.  The sky was blue.  Life was good.  We had a few hours to kill before our allotted time in the waterpark, and so, lunchtime being not far away we found ourselves seated in a lovely little cafe watching the world go by and ordering some food.  I’m nosey so I had a good look around the place.  I quickly realised that all of the patrons appeared to be drawn from the same archetype:  late middle age, shuffling from table to door and from door to counter.  They were all overweight, the men massively so.  Every.  Single.  One.  I could no more imagine any of them enjoying an active life, let alone running, than I could imagine any of them eating healthily.  Each was tucking into some form of stodgy food: pies and chips seemed to be a particular favourite. It is no exaggeration. I’m not creating this scenario to serve the point of this blog post, and I’m certainly not passing judgement.  I’ve previously struggled as much as the next person when it comes to making the healthier choice.  There is no moral value attached to my observation.  Here is the point though: I thought to myself that it can’t be by chance that each of these people have found themselves slipping into retirement wearing the same elasticated clothing.  They are simply following the rules: we age, we gain weight, we become less physically active.  And the rule is a lie.  The instruction is flawed.  Perhaps the ‘inevitability’ of ageing, and our culturally defined acceptance of it, is the greatest testimony to our ability to blindly follow the rules and follow the instructions regardless of the consequences.  It appeared that not a single person tucking in to their food had the imagination to follow a different path.

So, this is it.  I can’t afford to waste anymore time waiting for the opportunity to come along in which these disparate strands of my own life come neatly packaged together in a job description that someone else has written.  It’s time to write my own; time to tread my own path.  I don’t mean this as a defiant act of rebellion.  I will always defend the standards that teachers should and must hold themselves to.  I’m not a maverick; I have a role and I will continue to do it as well as I possibly can.  But I am at that point where I believe that my personal version of progression lies within the wider professional skills that I’m developing.  I know I can be of greater use, of greater service, of greater help to learners of all needs wherever they may be found on their own journey through life.  That’s where my own journey has taken me, and that ordinary email helped to realise that this is just the start.

Hills, etc.

It’s a glorious spring Saturday afternoon.  I’m walking round the park with my family and dog; we’re all enjoying the first really warm sun of the year.

I’m in a good mood.  My hip, so very painful since last weekend’s Manchester Marathon, feels ok.  It’s not grinding, not burning, not aching.  It’s stiff.  Stiff I can cope with.  Stiff is ok.  Stiff is a gentle reminder to get stuck into the rehabilitation exercises that I started this morning after jogging to parkrun to cheer on my friends.  Stiff is the nudge that I need to stretch.  Stiff is the alert needed to get my foam roller out and gently roll away at the scar tissue at the top of my left hamstring.

Our walk takes us round the parkrun course and to the bottom of a hill that I must have run up close to a thousand times in my life.  Training runs, hills sessions, parkruns – it’s a lot of times that I’ve made the trip from the steps at the bottom to the crest of the hill.  My boy, just six, starts to sprint ahead with complete disregard for his clearly unsustainable pace.  He turns and shouts back, ‘Is this how you run up here, Daddy?  Watch how fast I can go!’  It’s a moment of joy.  His face beams with the sheer pleasure of moving forward under his own steam; he really doesn’t care that he’ll have to stop to catch his breath before starting all over again.  For that moment in time, all he wants to do is run – and he loves it.

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It’s a moment of joy for me too.  It’s yet another timely reminder that despite the disappointment of last Sunday’s Manchester Marathon, despite the fact that I will need to devote a long time to rehabilitating my hip, running is a gift.  And it’s a gift that I don’t want to take for granted anymore.  I don’t want to turn up to races just for the experience of completing them anymore; I want to race and see how fast I can go.  I don’t want to waste the gift of running by simply running; I want to train methodically, with an aim, an objective, a purpose.  I don’t want to waste the gift of running by doing the same things that I’ve done up to this point: the same runs, the same routes, the same pace.  All of these things have left me with a chronic injury that is getting in the way of being able to enjoy the simple gift that is running.

And so, as my boy sprints his way up the hill, and as I walk up behind him, grateful that I’m no longer in pain, I vow to myself that the next time I run up here it will be to find out how fast I can go too.  At the bottom of the hill I’m faced with a reminder that I can continue to run in the way that has got me this far, or I can take a step back and learn what I really need to do to get faster, stronger, less prone to injury.  I can learn what to takes to become a different type of runner.  That’s the gift I choose to give to myself from this point on.

Parents’ evening

We just had two parents’ evenings in the space of eight days.  They are one of the most valuable things that teachers can do.  All teachers should have an explicit goal: do them well.

I’ve always enjoyed them.  I like being able to put faces to names.  I like talking to parents about what their children have been doing with their time, how they are making progress, how they can continue to do so.  I suspect they appreciate it, I know I do.  When I ask my own children about what they are learning at their own school (or I slip in one of the indirect questions intended to elicit a response, I’ve learned through experience to vary my questioning!) I’m often met with a shrug, or a tale so convoluted that it’s hard to get a handle on exactly how they are progressing.  Not that it matters too much as I trust their teachers.  Why?  Well, for one reason, because I go to parents’ evenings.

And that’s the beauty of parents’ evenings.  We get to know each other.  Schools have always been in the business of people.  If they’re not, they should be.  People matter.  Children matter.  Nothing says this more powerfully than taking the time to sit down with parents and talk to them about their children.  Tell them about progress and targets, sure.  But also talk about what makes them a unique part of your classroom.  Tell parents about the joke you’ve shared with their child, the book that they’ve recommended, the way that they always say thanks when you hand them their work.  If your students don’t do those things… ask yourself why.  And then promise yourself that you will make room for those conversations on your next parents’ evening.  I promise you that, if you go beyond the usual chat about targets and grades, you’ll see far more clearly why we do what we do; and of course, you’ll see just why parents’ evenings are so valuable.

Do them well.