The difficult second week

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat down to write and re-write this post. This week has been *hard*.

I think there’s a belief amongst people who aren’t teachers that the hardest part of the job is dealing with belligerent children all day, but it’s really not. The hardest part is dealing with the systems, the culture, the expectations placed on you by society, the government, whoever it is who happens to be writing education policy that day, or the particular member of senior management who decides a school-wide writing policy is the thing that’s really missing from my Year 8 music lessons. For me, the hardest thing about teaching isn’t the children – it’s the adults.

This is apparently true even at the School of Mum and Dad. Alex is not the problem – it’s me.

I know what you’re going to say; I’m too hard on myself, I expect too much, set myself impossibly high standards. GOOD. I’m glad that I do, because this is my child’s education, they deserve the best I can give them. That is my firmly-held belief and it’s not going to change in a hurry; but let me explain why it’s become a problem.

Firstly, I’m trying to do everything at once, and I’m trying to *be* everything at once. I’m essentially trying to recreate ‘school’ in our house. This is a problematic approach not least because it requires me to be a teacher of English, maths, history, geography, science, and anything else that I want Alex to learn – but that’s not the biggest issue. The thing that ought to have been staring me in the face from the word go, is that we now have four years (minimum) of strong evidence that ‘school’ simply doesn’t work for Alex. We’ve already tried recreating school in a home environment with the online school. It was better, at first, but ultimately – I have now realised – it did more harm than good. The other day I asked Alex what they wanted from their education, and the first thing they said was to learn in an environment that actually cares about their mental health. When your thirteen year old says things like that to you, you’ve really got to listen.

Alex’s years in school have left them bruised and battered, convinced that the purpose of education is simply to work through the prescribed curriculum and get through the exams as best you can, until you don’t have to any more. Which, I guess in the current system it kind of is. But where does that leave the child as an individual? As a creative, independent learner? Where does it leave the child who can’t read well enough to access the science curriculum? The child who is too worried about where their next meal will come from to focus on school? The children who are bullied, at school, at home, children who are ‘different’, children who are worrying about things far bigger and more important than whether they can remember the first twenty elements of the periodic table? And where does it leave the children who’s brains work differently?

No, ‘school’ demonstrably does not work for Alex. So I need, somehow, to disentangle myself from what I think education looks like, to throw off the shackles of ‘Well this is how I had to do it at school’ and peel back the layers of ‘This is how you keep a room of thirty children quiet for long enough to teach them something’ to find out what actually works for my young person. And not only that, I have to do it in a way that my own neurodivergent brain can manage. That’s what’s worrying me, I think – am I up to the task?

I’m autistic – following THE RULES is a way of life. Not least because I often haven’t quite understood THE RULES as much as the neurotypicals think I have, and consequently the neurotypicals get exceedingly cross when I don’t behave as expected. I don’t like it when people get cross. I just want to do my best all the time and make people happy; so I stick rigidly to THE RULES because they are the only guidelines I have in how to navigate this baffling world in which I live.

Am I brave enough to throw the rules out of the window? Am I strong enough to stand up to the educational dogma that says Alex should be learning trigonometry, and simplifying fractions, and how to find the value of x? Am I educating Alex properly if I have neglected to teach them how an ox-bow lake is formed, or how a blast furnace works, or that speed equals distance divided by time?

It’s not like I particularly object to Alex learning any of these things; I always quite enjoyed maths, although I can’t say the ox-bow lake thing has ever been particularly useful. It’s just that if I go back to my core questions of what I want Alex’s education to achieve – confidence, curiosity, a love of learning, and an understanding of how to learn – then the system that I have been entrenched in my whole life (as have pretty much all of the people around me) simply isn’t going to be up to the task.

This is something I’m going to have to work out for myself. There are no books I can read to give me the answer. (Although if you happen to come across a book called “What to do when your incredibly bright neurodivergent child can’t access the school curriculum because their brains are so full of enormous thoughts about social justice, discrimination, ableism, gender inequalities and how everything is basically a social construct that labelling the parts of a plant cell seems ultimately pointless” then please let me know, as this is exactly the sort of thing I’m after.) I’ve never minded moving against the tide – it’s not always comfortable, but it’s always felt right that I take my own path. This however feels less like ‘forging a new path’ and more like ‘setting a box of dynamite to demolish a mountain range because THAT’S the way we’ve decided to go’.

I very much doubt this will be the last post I write in this vein. This feels like a very long journey of learning for both me and Alex, and it’s going to take some time to work out.