The Pumice Stone

(*Dearest reader, this post is longer than originally intended so you might want to wait until you have 10 minutes and a cuppa before reading.  The length, I hope, will be worth it.*)

Recently, I complained to my mum about some hard skin on the bottom of my feet and a few days later, she kindly presented me with a pumice stone, which I’m pleased to report, did the job.

Why am I telling you this, you might wonder.

Why on earth is she banging on about her feet, I hear you cry!

Well, because as I was using aforementioned skin remover, I recalled a lesson that I learnt during my two years’ working abroad and it goes a little something like this…

The year was 2012.

I was teaching at an International school in Dubai and the inspectors were in town.  The word ‘Ofsted’ sends a shive down spines of the most nonchalant teachers and as I am anything but nonchalant, it was a stressful time.

I realise now that I have always been an overachiever; during my time as a teacher I excelled and yet, I always thought I needed to do more. Nothing I did, in my eyes, was ever enough.

I was in a relatively new role as the English leader.

As with most class-based promotions in teaching, the pay rise was minuscule but the job role was ginormous. Not only did I now have to teach, assess and plan lessons for 30 7-year-olds, I also had to fit in leading over 40 members of staff towards the best practise for reading and writing skills.

Basically, like most us, I was overworked and underpaid.

So, the ominous Ofsted were lurking around the corridors and generally putting the fear of God into everyone.

And it was only natural that the inspector who specialised in all things literature would want to see a lesson of mine.  I was, after all, the person being paid to model the best way to teach it.

My anxiety was through the roof.

By the time the lady, let’s call her Mrs English, stepped into my classroom, I was a nervous wreck.

I had planned the hour to the absolute T and despite knowing that the best teaching and learning happens in a free flowing environment,  I had found that the only way to stop myself from falling into a hole of panic and despair was to cling onto a structure that was steadfast and sturdy.

How wrong I was.

Needless to say, the lesson died a sudden death – I spent the hour running around like a headless chicken whilst my 30 little darlings looked at me quizzically.  Their eyes said ‘Who the hell is this crazy teacher? and where is the Miss Bailey that we know and love?’

Poor things.

Thankfully, Mrs English eventually left the classroom and I could breathe again.  I was both physically and mentally exhausted and, as was the way in those days, terribly upset with myself. I had spent hours of preparation on that one lesson and it had all gone to pot.  Thankfully, my God-send of a teaching assistant, Sarah, showered me with coffee and pastries for the rest of the day and well, let’s just say, I was glad it was over.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Although I was deeply embarrassed and sure that someone would walk into the classroom with my P45, the next day I got up, I got dressed and showed up for the kids again.

Enter the pumice stone.

Enter Anna.

Anna was a shy, reserved girl in the group of 30 and maybe, because of this, her listening skills were impeccable. The science topic at the time was ‘Rocks and Soils’ and the week before the inspectors had descended, I’d taught a simple yet successful lesson about rock formations.

The kids were looking forward to the next lesson – they would be handling different types of rocks and doing scratchings to test for durability.

And when the lesson came around, only a few days after the disastrous English lesson and coincidentally, on the very last day of the Ofsted inspection, I was exhausted.

That morning, I received an email from my boss to say that the head inspector, who was a science specialist, needed to observe a science lesson and as I was the only one timetabled to teach science that afternoon, would I mind if he dropped in?

Code for: he is going to drop in!

My heart!

My head!

I read somewhere that the brain actually temporarily shuts down when it meets it’s capacity for stress and well, it seems that’s what happened.

But bare with me, (man this is longer than I thought!) because as I said Anna saved the day.

I was told that he would be arriving at the classroom door at 2pm so I gathered the class the carpet at 1:50pm and tried to keep breathing.  I had got them settled (they were fantastically well behaved kids) and was about to launch into my lesson when right on cue a very solemn faced inspector let himself in.

Sarah showed him to the chair we had placed for him at the back of the room.

He took his seat, gave me the nod and then just as I was about to launch into my introduction… Anna raised her hand.

Still my beating heart.

Not now please, my mind screamed, your question is not a part of my plan.

I tried for a few seconds to pretend that I hadn’t seen her.

I gave her the teacher look, the one that says, please put your hand down, please ask me later.

But there was no escape – she was wide eyed and eager, and by now waving her hand excitedly.

I let my eyes drift over to Mr Science.

He raised his eyebrows, tilted his head, and silently communicated, ‘Well, aren’t you going to let her speak?’

‘Yes, Anna?’ I beamed, totally unprepared for what she might say.

‘Miss Bailey, you know how you said about rocks and soils and stuff and how we are learning about where they come from and how they are made and how you said that we should look around our house to see if we can spot anything made of rocks and soil?’

(Literally all in one breath.)

And I said, ‘Yes Anna?”

‘Well, I have got something in my bag to show the class, may I get it please?”

Oh god.

No.

The terror was real.

What on earth was she going to show us?

What on earth is going to happen?

This wasn’t on my plan.

(Side note here: Given any other ordinary day, I would have welcomed this question. In fact, I used to pride myself on letting the kids lead their own learning. Here is a shy little girl who has asked to stand up in front of her peers and my teacher brain usually goes ‘Amazing! I’m so proud! Come on up!’ but not that day, not with Mr Science watching.)

And so, well, I had a choice to make.

Go with the idea that the plan must be stuck to, or go with the flow, and let this brave little girl do as she has asked.

I went for the latter.

Anna trotted off to the back of the classroom, rifled through her plastic tray and came to stand at the front of the class. She smile, took a deep breath and from behind her back produced a pumice stone, holding it up for all to see.

She then proceeded to ask, ‘Does anybody know what this is?’

I felt my shoulders relax, my knuckles unclench and my breath, which I had been holding, regain its rhythm.

What followed was an incredibly engaging and highly educational 10 minute Q&A style intro by a 7 year old girl to a group of her peers.

It was pure brilliance; not only did she have a pumice stone to show them, she also had prepared some facts to share and confidently led the class towards the answers!

The atmosphere was filled with learning and as Anna sat down, pleased as punch with the success of the risk she had taken, and I set the class onto the task of scratching and exploring various rocks and worksheets to make notes, Mr Science asked me to step outside the classroom for two seconds, with a smile on his face.

Looking back, I had no clue what was coming; I was still giddy from Anna’s bravery but I knew already that the lesson had gone much better than the English one.

We stepped outside, his face softened and he said, and I will never forget his words, “What you are doing in there is high class teaching, Miss Bailey.  The environment you have created for those students is one of allowing learning and what just happened right there was more than outstanding. Well done, you should be very proud of yourself.”

BLOWN AWAY!

It was Anna really, she did it, she took a risk but on reflection, and because I am being kinder to myself these days, and also because I am honouring a word given to me by a wise friend of mine earlier this week, it was an exchange.  She had something to share and I stepped back from taking control.

And here is what I, and hopefully, dear reader, you to take away from that experience:

Sure, making plans is important but remember this, if you expect the unexpected, you could just get more than you ever imagined!

Keep shining, keep writing,

Love Lindsey xx

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