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Smiling Underneath

It has been a long time since I wrote a blog about anything of note… but as I find myself halfway through my battle with a very particular demon of mine, actually I could use the chance to talk to myself a little, just to ease the journey and to keep myself going to be perfectly honest.

The first point of note is that this journey really means a great deal to me. Enough for me to have now written two songs about my experiences with dentists and the utterly opposite encounters I have had with them. This was very much in an attempt to further my own mental health and strength, and writing these songs has helped me immensely as a form of therapy, to the point where I could not have continued my journey without them.

First I need to explain the back story, before I explain the meaning and specific references from the two songs… So here goes:

The start of the story goes back to 1981. I was 4 years old, running around the living room like an idiot and I tripped and fell in such a way that my face landed on the metal corner of the coffee table, which went straight through my lip. I still have the scars, but the hospital visit even at that age stayed in my memory forever. I received stitches in my lip with no anaesthetic. My mum played blue murder with the hospital, as my screams could be heard throughout the emergency department. I’ve struggled with trusting surgery ever since that first experience.

At the age of 8 I was to have eight teeth out. I was blessed with too many teeth as a child, and I went in like a lamb to the slaughter. I was completely unaware of the pain that awaited me. I was put under gas, and woke some time later, eight teeth had been successfully removed but the pain was more than I could cope with as I was not given any pain relief. I was inconsolable for 2 days and in absolute agony.

Then when I was 12 years old I needed more dental work on my molars. The dentist opposite Pontefract bus station was at least a place I could get to on my own on the way home from school, and I was to have a molar on the bottom left of my mouth removed. I went in alone. In hindsight this was a bloody stupid idea. The dentist was absolutely fucking sadistic. He was short with me, impatient and passively aggressive to me, a 12 year old boy on his own. He got on with it and paid no mind to my stress and anxiety and rushed ahead. He simply pushed down horrendously hard in my mouth and twisted and I felt every crack and splinter as the tooth shattered under the pressure he had over applied. He ignored my signals and noises to say STOP. Then he spent another 20 minutes fishing around to find the bits of root that had stayed behind. I was again utterly destroyed and when I got home a piece of me had changed forever. He destroyed any trust I had and therefore I decided to never go the dentist ever again.

23 years later in 2012 and unbeknownst to me I am about to have my journey with Crohn’s disease. My teeth were in a bad way and had been causing me serial instances of pain through abscesses and teeth cracking and breaking regularly. 23 years of not seeing a dentist and not looking after my teeth had really taken its toll. I simply had to go and find a dentist. My oath to myself was always going to have to be broken at some stage, but I was in a good place and needed to take control. I went to MCM dental services in Wakefield where I met an older male dentist. He seemed OK, nice even, but I was clearly under prepared for the visit and was there under duress more than choice, and so I had to go along with it. This was the wrong situation for me to take this demon on at this time.

I sat in the chair after a good 10 minutes of procrastinating. I sat bolt upright and couldn’t sit back. I wanted to trust this dentist so much! I just had to go for it and explain my situation because I would not let him near me until I knew he understood why I was in the mess I was in and what my anxiety’s were. I wear my heart on my sleeve, always have… but this person needed to understand where I was coming from and why I was so utterly terrified. I started at being 12 years old and covered that quickly, and then went on and explained about my dad.

My dad died from cancer of the colon, which spread to his liver and that is what ended his life. However, he also experienced a tragic death that came sooner than it might, thanks to malpractice of surgery. The short version being, that he needed a TPN line putting into his artery below his collar bone. He was 4 stone, 6 foot 1, and jaundiced and was terminal. Sadly the TPN line was not secured by the surgeon and in the night he moved and the end fell inside him. The surgeons went in again the following day to fish out the end but sadly they slipped and punctured my dad’s lung. He died a week later.

I explained all this to this new dentist who I was placing all my trust in to look after me, in a 20 minute burst of anxiety and tears which was essentially a plea. Please look after me. I need to trust you.

What happened instead was that he finally got me to sit back to have a look, and as the tears were still drying on my cheeks the dentist peered inside my mouth and said “Ryan, your mouth is a disaster area.”

I was at my utter lowest. I had just revealed my most intimate fears and he kicked me mentally with the worst sentence he could have ever said to me. I absolutely fucking hate that man for doing that. So much so that I refuse to even utter his name.

What he did do, was to have a poke around and said that what needed doing first was an operation to remove 4 molars at the hospital. Then with some audacity, he tried to suggest that he wanted to be the one to work on my teeth after that operation, but unsurprisingly I have never been back to see him, because he had no empathy or tact whatsoever.

The hospital papers came through and despite being absolutely fucking terrified I went through with the operation. I woke feeling euphoric, and utterly relieved that the cause of so much discomfort for years of my life were finally removed. I went home and drank lots and lots of luke-warm tea. The only drawback was I ached all over, like I had been moved around like a giant slab of meat. I felt like I had run a marathon without knowing about it. That sensation lasted over a week.

It was actually pretty soon after that operation that problems began elsewhere. I had Crohn’s disease but wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was about to have another operation, this time on my colon, and I was really scared of the procedures I was about to undergo. It is only relevant here because after that operation I spent the next 18 months taking steroids to mask my Crohn’s symptoms, but my teeth that remained were hit hard by the steroids. Steroids weaken bones and your teeth. They make them brittle and my teeth soon started to crumble. Suddenly I realised that years of smoking were being magnified over this time and as I continued to smoke, my teeth blackened and fell apart.

One thing that kept me going though was my song-writing. After my awful experience with the “disaster area” dentist, I was hit with Crohn’s in a really huge way so it took a while before I was able to start writing music again. As I recovered from the colon operation, the reality of what he had said rattled around my brain and I simply had to get it out. While I sat, unable to walk for 6 months, I wrote “Smiling Underneath” in the summer of 2012.

 

Smiling Underneath:

 

There’s something hidden up my sleeve,

I’m taking notes about the, way I’d rather be,

In perfect harmony, the roots don’t work out…

Biting my lip through gritted teeth,

Unstable dental health, disaster area,

It’s much more scary, when the words don’t come out…

 

All of a sudden see my soul descending,

Somehow it feels just like a stone is sinking me,

I’m punctuating through a life-long sentence,

Despite what you see,

I think I’m smiling underneath.

 

There must be something in the air,

I’m taking special care to, find the reasoning,

The rhyming treason is the truth won’t come out…

There’s only so much I can bear,

I’m breathing easier, it’s hard to swallow but,

It’s much more shallow, when my breath won’t breathe out…

 

All of a sudden see my soul descending,

Somehow it feels just like a stone is sinking me,

I’m punctuating through a life-long sentence,

Despite what you see,

I think I’m smiling underneath.

 

I really hope it goes well,

This is my version of hell,

I’m passing control to the ones who I distrust the most.

I guess it’s time to man up,

But I’m as scared as fuck,

I’m hoping to wake up on Sunday but smiling a beam.

I guess I’m smiling underneath…

 

Is there something I need to sign?

I’m taking all my time to, read the smaller type,

Extracting all the hype, the chair won’t go down.

There’s only so much I can do,

The rest is up to you, there’s just no doubting all the,

Screams and shouting will not stop this man now…

 

All of a sudden see my soul descending,

Somehow it feels just like a stone is sinking me,

I’m punctuating through a life-long sentence,

Despite what you see,

I think I’m smiling underneath.

 

Hold my head up high…

Hold my head up high…

Hold my head up high…

Hold my head up high…

 

This first song, “Smiling Underneath” was written from the negative perspective of the dental journey. It was written to help me cope with the psychology of what had happened and therefore it was quite a cheerful tune, designed to lift me up, despite the subject matter being about things that I was mortally terrified of. I needed the music side of it to make it all better. Now, when I listen to that song, it does make me feel better, because something catchy and hopeful came out of that horrible experience, as is the way with using music as a form of therapy. I simply had to write it. Maybe my explanation of what transpired has highlighted exactly why the lyrics say what they say and those who know me and who know the song, might smile to see the truth of the matter in retrospect. This song means a great deal to me because it gave me a way to not lose hope. It made me want to get my smile back. I wanted to prove the ‘disaster’ dentist fucker wrong.

I finished the song and even made a music video set in a hospital to reflect how utterly terrified I was. I chose to have my face in black and white, to mimic how you lose the colour from your face when you are about to go through something traumatic but kept the background in colour. The people in the background are walking backwards and I am walking forwards, again another reference to being scared as your legs feel heavy as they take you closer to something you do not want to walk towards. The relief comes in the form of Seb and Reg, two sock puppets I made especially for the video, with perfect grinning teeth who are excellent backing singers. That whole experience of making the video to that song all helped to maximise the therapy from it. I needed to do it to move on from the hurt that the disaster dentist had caused me. That is how deep his comments had gone. I was finally in a position to start thinking about seeing someone to see what other options were available to me and my teeth.

Just then though in 2015 and again in 2016 my left lung collapsed in my sleep. It is called a spontaneous pneumothorax and I was diagnosed with active lung disease in both lungs. After an aspiration in 2015 that released 1.8litres of air out of my shoulder, the following year when it happened again it was necessary to go for an emergency operation. After a CT scan it was revealed to me that at 38 years old my lungs were what the main lung surgeon would have expected to see of a 60 year old man. This was a big deal. I had to wait for 6 weeks with a collapsed left lung until finally on 10th August 2016 I had a VATS bullectomy and TALC pluerodesis to glue my left lung to my chest cavity. My right lung actually has worse disease than the left and should have been the one to collapse… and the right one still might collapse at any time.

As my left lung had collapsed in my sleep when it was completely inert, it made sense that doing something as traumatic as an operation on my teeth would be too much for my diseased lungs to cope with. Even so much as a sneeze could make it collapse and that will always be the case as the lung disease will never heal. I was left simply feeling grateful to be alive because sadly my lung operation failed on the first attempt as the left lung did not fuse and as such collapsed again. My body then went into shock and I nearly passed away. My sister and best friend raced to grab a surgeon, who acted quickly enough to re-inflate my lung and between them they saved my life. I have been dealing with the impact of that ever since and I owe them everything.

So after all that I resigned myself to a life of shit teeth. An operation on my teeth was a risk that was a step too far for me to be able to take. After I realised that, my self-esteem slowly packed its bags.

Life got interesting as I tried my best to avoid all illnesses and colds. My lung issues still control every single thing that I do and they always will, but the biggest thing that I needed to work on now was my mental health. The damage being so ill did to me was much, much bigger than I ever realised. It is something that you can only truly understand if you have gone through it yourself. Going to sleep every night and not knowing whether you are going to wake up is a terrifying thing to comprehend and that changes you forever. I did not feel safe, and even now I live in a situation that is unsafe every single day. I simply had to find a way to exist with a much stronger outlook to cope with the risk that doing something stupid might make my right lung collapse. I had to get vigilant and also bring the anxiety down at the same time. I had to start prioritising my health and my mental health simultaneously.

I went into a sort of ‘healing mode’ and slowly started to get my guitar out now and again and began going for little walks. My friends and family were fantastic and are still very careful and tell me whenever they have a cold and I quite rightly avoid them if there is so much as a snivel. Sometimes I get sneeze attacks from unsettled dust which gives me one night of a nose like a tap and constant sneezes and it is absolutely terrifying. At the back of my mind was always this sense that I wanted to get back to a kind of zero point, like my own version of a base health for myself that despite my Crohn’s and my lung disease taken into account… How could I get to the best ‘I’ can be knowing, even if my best is still in minus numbers compared to others without these things holding them back? I decided I still needed to try and I am still trying every single day.

It is now 2018 and I had heard a rumour from the same best friend who had saved my life that she was enjoying going to St Michaels Dental Practise, ironically at the end of my street. I listened to her reports of how good they were there, but I stayed quiet for a long, long time. Then one day I just thought sod it, I deserve to get my smile back despite being absolutely terrified. I walked in and asked about how to register. That took some balls if I’m honest. I just did it. Scared to death, I took a leaflet and did exactly what they said, which was come back in May, which was 2 months away. I did go back, and again I had to wait longer, but eventually I got a preliminary appointment. That was a scary day, but I went in and that is the day I met Miss Connelly.

I sat in the chair with great trepidation, but Miss Connelly was all ears and seemed properly and genuinely interested in actually helping me properly. I began at the beginning and told her all of it. Everything that you have just read, and again I was in tears by the end. This time though, I added everything about the ‘disaster dentist’. She was absolutely horrified. When I got to the end I had to calm down and get my composure back. Miss Connelly smiled warmly and asked me to sit back to have a look, but she said that at any time if I needed her to stop that I should just say so. To this day she has never once ignored a request to stop. She took an x-ray and prodded my gums behind my teeth and said some dental jargon to her assistant and then sat me back up.

“Ryan, your mouth is not a disaster area at all.”

More tears.

“I honestly believe we can absolutely get you your smile back”

“Does that mean you are my dentist now?”

“Yes!”

I got up and gave her a huge hug.

She seemed totally fine with that (not that she had much choice to be honest!) and said that we would see each other in a couple of weeks to review the x-rays and talk about a plan of action. She also said that no treatment would happen in the next visit whatsoever, and that just getting used to sitting in the chair was fine for now. We would simply talk about how to proceed in a way that I was comfortable with, at my own speed.

A couple of visits later and we have decided that I need 8 teeth out. At the time, I agreed rather rashly that it would be an operation, in a hospital just in case any issues with the lung surfaced mid-procedure and for a while I was OK with that. I was wrong. As the operation approached, my lung developed another issue. Compressed alveoli. I felt as though I was drowning and was getting stressed super quickly and had no idea why. I went back to hospital and had a CT scan and correctly cancelled the operation until we could work out what was happening to my lung. We left it a bit until my lung got a little better and then I went back to see Miss Connelly.

 

“Miss Connelly?”

“Yes?”

“Is there any chance that you could be the one to take my teeth out? I think I might be too scared to go under general anaesthetic”.

“Of course!! Are you sure?”

“Yes. I trust you completely. I actually think if I am awake and can control my anxiety that we may get somewhere instead of risking it being asleep.”

“In that case let’s do that. We’ll make a treatment plan and see you in a week to discuss how we move forward.”

The simple fact was I now absolutely trusted this amazing lady. She has never ever hurt me once. We drew up a plan and got busy doing the fillings. Every filling was a few seconds of rumbling and then she would stop, ask if I was OK… remind me to breathe and only would continue if I said OK. She really is that caring and careful.

Now, I am 2 teeth out with 6 to go. I am not scared in the slightest. Actually the fillings were probably the worst bit, and they did not hurt. The only pain has been after the anaesthetic wears off after the teeth are taken out as you would expect, and even then strong painkillers hide that for a couple of days and then I am just careful to rinse with salt water and to eat soft food on the other side until things heal.

I now KNOW hand on heart, that I can get my smile back. It is a team effort, and every time I go in to see Miss Connelly we laugh and have a good gossip and I feel completely at ease because that trust is there. She has completely fixed my trust of dentists, with just a little dash of being brave at the right time from me. She is my absolute HERO. I also have to mention the amazing Georgie and Charlene who are two of the best dental assistants you could ever wish to have… who have also kept me laughing and helped me to get my confidence up enough to keep coming back to get my smile back.

I am so heavily invested in this emotionally and mentally that I simply had to write another song to finish the story which would turn out to be the sister-song to “Smiling Underneath”. I went for a walk a few weeks ago and the title appeared in my brain. “Laughing Out Loud.”

I asked Miss Connelly’s permission to include her in the song and she seemed absolutely delighted, although she has yet to hear it. I think I will show her it once the teeth are all out and we’re closer to the end of the process.

 

Laughing Out Loud:

 

Passing broken mirrors and trying not to flinch,

Scarred with bad decisions and yellow fingertips.

A blackened smile, used to haunt my self-esteem,

I spent a while, in a haze of smoky dreams…

Time to wake up,

Never or now…

 

Trusting hope can weather the reign of many storms,

Find the strength to gather momentum through the doors,

Beside myself, are the shadows of my past,

Decide to hell, with the glances that they cast,

Bite the bullet,

Line every cloud…

 

No it doesn’t hurt,

It could be much worse,

So I’m laughing out loud…

No I won’t look back,

Chose a different path,

And I’m laughing out Loud…

 

If Miss Connelly says it will be alright,

Then I know in the end it will be just fine,

So I open wide and I hold my breath,

And the light closes in and I’m scared to death,

 

But I’ll go through the motions, I won’t fall apart,

Cos I trust you with every inch of my heart,

So I close my eyes but I cannot believe,

It’s not nearly as bad as I thought it would be,

 

And I hope you see but I’m really not sure,

But well, thanks to you I’m not scared anymore,

I’m on the way home and I feel a bit proud,

Cos I’m smiling underneath and I’m… Laughing out loud.

 

No it doesn’t hurt,

It could be much worse,

So I’m laughing out loud…

No I won’t look back,

Chose a different path,

And I’m laughing out Loud…

 

Got my smile back,

I can’t thank you ever enough.

 

And there you have it. The full story behind why I had to use music as a therapy to get me through this battle against my demons. It has been a belter of a journey, with more lows than there should have been, but the good news is that I did not let the disaster dentist win. I will get my smile back. It is already much better than it used to be.

My appointment list was 18 appointments long and I am exactly halfway through so far. I finish in early September just a week or so before my 42nd birthday. I will be smiling my head off by then. I need 6 more teeth out and some dentures putting in here and there but once the decaying teeth are removed my health should really start to improve as the decay has been poisoning me for an awfully ling time now. My self-esteem is already on the way up and August 10th will be my 3 year anniversary as a non-smoker. I refuse to let that horrible disaster dentist spoil my journey, and I am very glad to say that thanks to Miss Connelly, Georgie and Charlene and a little self-belief and determination, that it is absolutely possible to get my smile back. As you can see, I cannot ever thank Miss Connelly enough for the outstanding work she has done and for how amazing she has been with me.

If you struggle with dentists too, and you are scared to move forward, feel free to get in touch with me. I will advise and help you as much as I can, if I can. It would be my pleasure and honour to help.

 

Believe me, if I can beat it, then you really can do it too.

 

Ryan Mitchell-Smith (Smiley Ryan)

Valentine Poem

The thing about Roses? They have many thorns.

And Violets are hay fevers’ mistress with horns,

It’s not about writing in four rhythmed prose,

I mean who really cares and has time for all those?

The point is I love you and that’s all that matters,

Much more than those cretins and other mad hatters,

So have a fine day with oodles of luck,

And I’ll see you later so we can just…. Cuddle.

<3

Ryan Mitchell-Smith 2019.

Loneliness

To exist in the here and now can be extremely difficult, especially around Christmas and for me it is the dark nights and cold air that really triggers it even more.

 

I currently struggle with different forms of loneliness.

 

The first form seems to take hold when it is late at night. I am lying in bed alone, and my heart sinks. I feel swells of emotion as I realise that I have no one to cuddle, and no sign of that scenario changing any time soon. That feeling seems to linger and it takes all my strength to re-communicate to my heart that one day everything will be ok again and that one day I will meet someone to share my life with. That thought process takes all the strength I can muster to return to “OK”.

 

The second form is a bit more wibbly and hard to describe as a solid form. It is an overwhelming sensation that I am a burden and that I do not feel comfortable taking up people’s time with the stuff that goes on in my head. It is like complicated orchestral swing music is playing in my mind, but without having any speakers to be able to play it through. Not only do I feel like a burden, but I also feel like everyone is too busy (even when they are not) and that my thoughts and feelings are not important enough to pick up a phone and trouble anyone else with. If I do end up speaking to someone on the phone, I feel like I am trying to cram 5,000,000 words into 3 seconds because I have spent so much time on my own with my own thoughts, and then halfway through explaining what is happening with me I suddenly feel extremely guilty and like a huge burden again and then try to side-track and focus on the person I’m speaking to. It feels like I never get to the end of the song and instead play just a quarter of 8 different songs because I feel like I am going to run out of time before I can say what I completely meant to say. Then I feel guilty for feeling like this and go back into a world of not saying my thoughts again until I am accidentally talking to someone else, and then I hope dearly that it is someone I know well enough to be able to be honest with and get all my thoughts out to, and that the person knows me well enough not to judge me for clearly defragmenting my brain in their company because I am so obviously spending too much time on my own.

 

See what I mean?

 

The third form is when I am finally in the mood to be in others company that I still have a sense of feeling alienated and feel uncomfortable and like people are struggling to understand exactly what I mean, and so I often just say “I’m fine” because it is easier and people I don’t know so well will hopefully not judge me for clearly being lonely.

 

I abhor asking for help.

 

I hate being a burden.

 

I enjoy my own company, but I despise not having someone close to talk to.

 

I feel alone and unsafe with a brain that goes at 2 thousand miles an hour.

 

I do stupid things like watch Love Actually whilst on my own.

 

That was a fucking stupid idea.

 

Anyway.

 

If you feel anything like I do… truly… you are not on your own. Hopefully, neither am I.

 

I just wish loneliness would… well… jog on.

 

I guess I am trying to say, it is OK not to be OK.

 

Here’s to carrying on.

 

All my love as ever.

 

Ryan.

 

 

 

World Mental Health Day

People often say to me…

“if you are feeling a bit low then give me a ring!” .

The thing is… When you are feeling down and struggling with depression you do not want to be a burden on anyone. In fact, the thought of ringing someone does not even enter your head. It is as if there is no space for those thoughts while the depression is at its height. You might recognise that you are down but you cannot temporarily put it to one side while you remember how to socialise all over again, and talking to others often means putting a face on that you couldn’t be further from being able to put on.

What I’m trying to say is… if you notice that someone you care about is quieter than usual… then maybe consider being the one to give them a ring. Just out of the blue. Just something as simple as “Do you fancy a coffee in a couple of days?” can really help to pull someone out from the cloud… because it allows a bit of time to psyche up to getting out.. but it also beats the issue of not even thinking about speaking to anyone. Sometimes all we need to do is sit and talk about utter bullshit for a while, when the reality is someone cared enough to ring… and that counts for a million conversations. This is not a case of “Just get over it.” That is the worst thing anyone could say to someone struggling with depression. It is a case of reminding someone that they are worth something.

Mental health is one of the meanest and loneliest illnesses there is. I struggle with it now and again, sometimes more than others. I bet you do too. Spread the love and consider phoning a friend who you think might need a hug. It might be the best thing you do all day. 

#WorldMentalHealthDay

#TenthOctober

Take A Knee

 

If your father strikes your mother, should you be proud of him?

Take a knee.

If your Mother beats your baby brother because he spilled his orange juice, should you protect her?

Take a knee.

If your movie hero sexually assaults someone, should you ignore it?

Take a knee.

If your police force persecutes minorities with violence, should you respect them?

Take a knee.

If your religious leaders sexually abuse vulnerable children, should you forgive them?

Take a knee.

If your president is a racist bigot who separates children from their families and seeks to enforce inequality, should you follow him blindly?

Take a knee.

If your flag is flying full mast when a war veteran has died, should you respect the people who fly the flag?

Take a knee.

 

 

If you have the strength to hold the people at the top accountable for their mistakes…

Take a knee.

If you see the world with your heart and your eyes wide open…

Take a knee.

To kneel is stronger than to stand…

Take a knee.

To cry is stronger than to pretend you are OK…

Take a knee.

If you want to stand but the weight of the corrupt is too much to bear…

Take a knee.

If you want to save the vulnerable…

Take a knee.

If you want to change the world…

Take a knee.

If you want to be free…

Take a knee.

 

 

Words And Pictures

At primary school I remember the teachers who told me off.

 

At high school I remember the teachers who believed in me.

 

At college I remember the teachers who inspired me.

 

At university I remember the teachers who taught me how to teach myself.

 

These sentences crossed my mind randomly the other day and it made me wonder why I remember my educational upbringing in this particular way.

Is it that I was mischievous at primary school but got better as I matured? Is it a map of my educational self? Is it an image of my schooling history from my point of view? Or is it environmental? Is it psychological? Is it the same for everyone else? A reflection of the stages of learning that we all go through? Does it shed some light as to what we are capable of and at what age we are capable of it? How do we perceive ourselves as we start and continue to learn?

 

“At primary school I remember the teachers who told me off.”

 

I was a good kid. A bit cheeky with the odd pretend loud fart noise here and there but I listened. I thought hard, daydreamed harder and I practised the things I was told to practise. I have a vague pleasant memory of Mr Latham. He was the geography teacher who took us to a Chinese restaurant when I was 9 years old. We had spent a whole term studying Chinese culture and had to make a huge poster (about A3 – I was LITTLE!) about its history and culture and its food! He was a lovely man, but I only remember images of a big moustache, and sitting round a red table with a spinney middle that entertained me for the whole meal. It was a fabulous way to finish the project and I remember having sweet and sour chicken and lot sand lots of fried rice.

 

At the age of 9 I was an average achieving student. I was often discovered gazing wistfully out of the window. My picture of the world then was safety based. Am I wrapped up enough? Can I get home without being seen so that “Greenie” doesn’t beat me up again? I learned all the secret ways home. My cognitive thinking was developing nicely but I was better at working out how the black and decker drill worked than I was at reading roger red hat.

The learning I did at primary school was helpful but not ground-breaking. This was 1986. Teaching then was at the height of its standing at the front talking stage. It lasted too long. My head was in the clouds though and the concept that I was there to learn was irrelevant and unimportant to me. I didn’t know what the word “learn” meant. Back then proof-of-learning was non-existent.

 

“Do you know what the word learn means?”

 

“Yes.”

 

*tick*

 

I find it hard to believe how old-fashioned it was even in the open-minded eighties. I would love to write that I don’t have any regrets about primary school and all the incidents that occurred there, but I do. I regret that teaching and learning were simply not co-existing in the same classroom, indeed, the same county. There was no proof of learning and the teaching methods were simply talk at the students for most of the lesson and force them to be quiet or else. This meant I was totally unprepared when I got to high school to understand Maths and English at the level I should have been able to.

 

It seems to me that this is all the wrong way round. If primary schools focussed on teaching you how to teach yourself like Universities do, then I believe my education would have been *much* more productive for the rest of my learning career. It felt like someone gave me google on the last day of my education.

What actually happened though was that I was given a fish when I needed a fishing rod. The teacher kept their fishing rod to themselves and kept telling me how they thought I should use it without actually letting me have a go on it.

 

I remember some things infinitely better than others. How is it I ask myself, that my memories of a simple TV show, that was designed to make me do things without even being in the same room, managed to teach me how to write neatly and to be proud of trying to make things look nice and neat?

Words & Pictures was an eighties children’s learning show. It was a spin off from its older cousin Look and Read. The difference was that Words and Pictures used puppets to tell the stories instead of famous grown-ups. It focused on storytelling, and on phonetics, and on the building blocks of letters. It applied cognitive thinking to problems and invited you to want to solve them. It invited you to ask questions, and then answered those questions without you having to have asked them out loud. Amazing. Truly. It was aimed at younger children than Look and Read and even now stands out as one of the most viewed children’s TV shows of all time.

For a learning TV show like that to achieve that impact was amazing but very simple. Back then, it wasn’t as important to justify creative ideas. Someone just came up with a good idea for a show, and then someone took a chance on it. Risk-taking. The legacy of the best learning there is.

 

“At high school I remember the teachers who believed in me.”

 

When a high flying senior leader comes along and starts saying “take risks in the classroom!” I get all excited and think “Yes! Finally!” but then I quickly realise that there is a sub-text and that what is actually meant is “do what you’re told and do not make any mistakes under any circumstances.” Leaders want to stand at the front of their staff and sound positive, to look like they are open minded and that they are not hindering you and they want to look like they encourage you to do things your own way because they want to come across as popular and free thinking. But the second you go into the classroom you get an email that says completely the opposite of what the leader just said and it all comes crashing down. “Don’t take risks when the Ofsted inspectors come in, obviously!”

So people end up being apprehensive about taking risks or reassessing their own actions. People sadly, are more scared of making mistakes and more scared still, of being told off. It means we get trapped in a cycle that exists because the people at the top keep repeating the same message in different disguises that *something is happening*, so it *must* be happening? Right? Wrong. The same thing is happening over and over again, but it is just disguised in different words so that the new leader of Sixth form can make an impact and earn those extra management points.

 

The fact that minor victories make it through now and again is a saving grace. Occasionally someone with great ideas turns up and makes a difference to a group of students despite the overwhelming tide of rules that the school forces upon its learning environment and that is too few and far between. Imagine if we all could actually take risks? If we all felt guilt free to take risks and make informed active choices that we believed in to teach the children we *know* who are sat in front of us?

 

And another thing… Why the hell are the students sitting down?

Asking a child to sit down and NOT learn is like asking a grizzly bear NOT to eat the honey you just placed in front of it. Is it really that important? To observe authority enough to allow it to curtail inspired learning for so many years? We ask students to sit down because we want them to be behaving when our boss walks in. Let’s ask them to sit down when they’re tired. That’s my point.

 

High school itself really felt like a factory to me. I was extremely lucky to have some amazingly inspirational people around who believed in me, and showed me how to succeed if I believed in myself too. The fact that I wore a uniform didn’t change me one jot. The fact that I was proud of my school badge did.  It gave me a sense of belonging and that was nothing to do with a uniform. Imagine if schools implemented a code of conduct instead of a uniform? Imagine if it was just a school badge that could be sewn into a jacket or a school bag? Maybe there are some positives to wearing a uniform that I cannot see, but as yet I’m failing to see how allowing children to express their own individuality through wearing what they choose is not infinitely better. I cannot see how making everyone dress the same way is positive in any way. Children learn authority through their interactions with parents and class teachers and PEERS. I know I did not become a more disciplined person because someone ensured I stood in line during assembly or because I wore a uniform. ALL of my discipline came from learning conversations, and strong relationships with people I respected.

Sadly though some people in my school often came across like this…

 

“Respect me!”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I’m telling you to!”

 

Sadly every school has good and bad teachers in it.

 

As a teacher I often struggled not to fall into certain traps. I would do things very much differently now if I could. The most common mistake I made was standing in front of a class for twenty minutes, even half an hour before the students in front of me genuinely started to learn anything.  As teachers we are doing everything we can to optimise learning, but often it does not come across that way to an observer because we start to waffle and distract ourselves from what we were supposed to be learning today, especially if we are still learning how to be teachers and have not filled ourselves full of confidence yet. It is easily done, we try our best but everyone has bad days and life has a habit of slowing you down. It’s hard but as teachers we have to strive to be our best at all times. I made this mistake so often, but I can’t remember the last time someone told me half an hour of instructions where I then successfully went away and remembered every single thing they had said, so WHY did I used to do it and expect my students to remember so much? Why didn’t I just teach in smaller stages to make it easier for all of us? Maybe we are fashioned into doing it a certain way by our own learning experiences, without reassessing whether it is the most efficient and learning friendly way of doing things. I am much older now and I would teach SO much differently now if I went back into teaching.

To stop and start and have enough control in a classroom to physically organize and inspire and teach 30 young adults is an incredible expense of energy. It makes sense that it would be easier to leave them sitting where they are but surely that is not dynamic? Surely it’s about learning for yourself as a practitioner how to have the confidence and energy to take complete control and to feel free to move your students around and stop and start sections of a lesson according to what is needed rather than according to the how much energy you happen to have on that day. That is what I would strive for if I was a teacher now.

It’s got nothing to do with laziness. Teaching is simply one of the hardest working professions there is and it is the way that it is for many reasons. Just because things have been done in one way for so long does not mean we shouldn’t break the mould and attempt to do it in a brand new way for the sake of teaching our students in a much better way.

What if teachers were allowed to NOT deliver a three part lesson? What if a teacher had the power to actually teach in the way they thought was best for each student? What if a teacher could teach in a way that was not designed to impress an OFSTED inspector should they have a random observation with no notice? It fascinates me to daydream about how much further a student might develop if teachers were not hindered by conventional teaching expectations and rules. I think it would be fantastic and I think one day long into the future that it will have to happen eventually.

 

At the moment education is all about money, statistics and the hold that the industrial revolution has over the world of education in our country. It shouldn’t be. It should be about our children. Our children make better newspapers than us grown-ups, our children make better committees than we do, they debate arguments better than we do, and they have another huge, rather overwhelming advantage over us too.

 

They learn better than we do.

 

Children get things done. It’s time to listen to them. And learn.

 

Our current system piles extra pressure on our students. Schools disrupt students learning when they are approaching their GCSE’s. The do this by removing them from what is considered to be unimportant subjects and redeploying them into intervention sessions that try and fill the gaps in their knowledge that they need to pass their maths and English exams. This is the end of a journey that started with a target that was set for them 5 years before when they left primary school. FFT and grading pathways are still ruining our children’s learning and holding students back. When are we going to start breaking down this ridiculous framework that still has a grip on our schools? We should be removing league tables and treating each school independently due to its background, position and situation. Value added. It’s the only way forward in terms of how to correct this ancient beast we call teaching in my opinion.

I think we need to lose the targets framework altogether. Jimmy started at level 2. If he gets to level 3c, brilliant. If he gets to level 7b, brilliant. We need to stop putting a cap on it. Why? Because the current system still assumes wrongly that if you are good at English, that you ought to be good at maths, and that if you are good at music, then you ought to be good at Art or Drama, or maybe maths too if you’re a classical music student. It’s all wrong. You cannot paint children into those boxes. If you do, the system determines their decisions, not themselves.

Jimmy happens to be a Musical prodigy. He is utterly rubbish at Maths and pretty average at English so far. Isn’t it lovely that because this school needs to meet a pass rate, that Jimmy is taken out of Music in Year 11 for nearly a third of the year because of his Maths intervention? Jimmy is easily equipped to take on A level music, but he is now forced into an Maths intervention program because he went from a D to a B instead of a B+, but the cost of that is Jimmy gets an A- in GCSE Music instead of an A* because the school needed him to get a better maths grade. Jimmy doesn’t really want to do Maths but he is obedient and does what his parents tell him to do. Now Jimmy is waiting for his maths result to see if he will be a better Accountant because everyone tells him that is what he should do when he secretly wants to be a concert pianist and tour the world. It is insane.

 

We need a learning revolution.

 

Education needs a democracy installing, not a clueless dictator who has never been an education secretary before.

I wish we could put a team of five or six specifically chosen people in place, to hammer out the new frameworks in which learning should occur. One that allows a template which has moveable parts, so that each school is catered for under its own merits and circumstances, as well as the students learning methods being appropriate to the background and geographic area of the school. Teachers should be deciding what lesson content is, and they should be taking risks and experimenting, learning how to teach each class and student as a unique entity through what they know of the student and the surrounding community.

We need the people who are at the fore of creative learning progress. These people (such as Sir Ken Robinson) know what they are talking about. We need a super-group of learning heroes who understand the flaws in the system but who also have the means between them to redesign the system for the new age of learning. We need to change the paradigm.

We need to get rid of the school bell and to flush out the effect that the industrial revolution has had on the structures and frameworks that have held back our children for so long. I’m not saying by any means that this is the only way to fix the education system. Some of it is not broken and works just fine. There are many ways in which this new structure could exist, and my suggestions here are merely that. A suggestion. An idea. But surely it is time we started looking at the options which are on the table. My point is that we should have creative leaders who understand learning in position to setup a new framework that empowers teachers to teach what they know to the students that they know. We need to think about individual learning, and personalised pathways.

I wonder what ideas a creative team might come out with… I’d have faith in the ideas they might try… there is no such thing as one big fix, or one way that is better than another. We need concurrent and flexible ideas to enable our learners. All I do know for sure, is that we simply have to stop teaching them by intervention methods and filling in the holes before an exam in the hope that the students parrot their way to success rather than actually learning the material and being able to reuse the learning later on in life. As it stands, students have the knowledge to pass the exam they are about to take, whereas too many do not have the knowledge to apply their learning afterwards in the way they should. The point is to pass the exam, rather than to learn Maths or English in a way that benefits them further down their learning journey. Something has to be done. We’re giving out Mars Bars when we need to be giving a balanced diet, and it’s making our children bewildered when they move on from High School.

 

 “At college I remember the teachers who inspired me.”

 

By the time I got to College I had only just realised that I had developed a small personality. I was extremely shy and I remember on my first day just how nervous I felt without the structures that had given me such a safety net at school. I not only had to assess my own learning, but I now had to CHOOSE whether I wanted to learn something. I did not have to be there.

 

That dynamic changed everything for me. Not being forced to do subjects I did not want to do suddenly opened up a passion for learning that I had never felt before. At school, I had barely passed my music exam, getting a C amongst my other 5 C’s and 3 B’s. I was an average school student. Conscientious was always thrown round, but I was also a daydreamer. At college, I was a do-er.

The difference was that I realised through the passion of my new set of teachers that I was an individual and that I had the power to decide whether I wanted to learn something or not. I started not only to get above average grades, but I started to know that I was going to get them. I learned that you get what you work for, and that I was not a standard learner, I was someone who had to work harder to learn something, and at college, my teachers inspired me to want to improve myself and to work hard.

The change in thinking and the leap in knowledge between GCSE and A Level is way too big. There is almost an unbridgeable gap that exists at the moment, which leaves students approaching A levels with a serious disadvantage at the very start of their college careers. They believe it still works in the way it did at school. It doesn’t.

 

When I left school I struggled to understand why my knowledge was as deficient as it was. I had felt as though I had worked pretty hard, but that was always going to get the average results that I did. I was happy that I had passed everything sure, but it had made no sense to me, why I had to get a C in French, when I wanted a B or above in Music. I KNEW at that age that music was going to be my life. My education was changed to suit the school and I like everyone else had to parrot my way through my weaker subjects and learn how to pass exams without understanding what I was actually writing.

 

I was left without the Music theory knowledge I needed to get into College. I got a part-time job and paid for extra lessons through the summer to train me up for the Grade 3 Music theory exam that was my hurdle to getting on my chosen course. I did OK, working hard, but I couldn’t click with it like I knew I should be able to. Something was missing.

I walked into that entrance exam without any knowledge of whether I could pass that exam or not. I got 65/100. I needed 66 to get in.

The course leader let me join the course with the other 24 students. That opportunity changed my life. I worked *so* hard. I started to learn the things I had always wanted to learn. After 2 years, I was one of only 4 people to pass the course. I got 4 distinctions, seven merits and a pass. I was delighted, not because I had passed, but because I had learned that hard work pays off and that I was able to learn so much more efficiently than I ever had before.

This was my tutors fault. They taught in a way which showed through their body language that they loved their subject and loved teaching. They were truly inspirational, taking lessons out of the classroom and teaching in unconventional and creative ways, finding tricks to reinforce learning so that we KNEW the answers to things, rather than just thinking we knew. It was a revelation of epic proportions. The difference was that the tutors had control of the learning, and rather than prove the learning being the focus, the focus was individual learning, about getting everyone to understand, not just the people who you thought ought to understand. The 20 people who failed knew the information that they needed to know. They should have passed. The reason they didn’t, was because they didn’t care about actually getting the qualification, they went to college to drink and have fun too, which was fine for them. I wanted to fill my head with information and get into University. So I beavered away late into the nights just to get my head around the next assignment or performance exam. That entire cohort went on to succeed in huge bands, or succeeded as music teachers and everyone achieved great things in their own way. It was about value added. The tutors took a set of misfits, and moved every one of us forward in a way that was personalised and appropriate to each one of us. I left college feeling inspired.

 

“At university I remember the teachers who taught me how to teach myself.”

 

During college I had a personal tragedy. My father passed away during my final year and I broke my hand during an A level Art course but I still managed to draw enough to get a B despite drawing with a pot on my arm. I had learned how to play a piece of music on guitar and my plan for some years had been to go to Derby University. I went. But I went a year after I had intended.

I arrived for the audition and played my guitar. I played the piece ok, but the rather formal and cold teacher who judged me told me that another 400 guitarists had applied and that only the very best had a chance to get in. My audition was average. I was nervous because I knew I hadn’t applied to anywhere else because this was my *perfect* course. All my eggs were in one basket. I didn’t screw it up, but I didn’t *own* it. I didn’t get in.

I went away for a year and worked part-time whilst helping my Mum to get over my father’s passing away. I picked up a bass guitar instead and set about learning a brand new audition piece. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” by Duke Ellington on a solo bass. This time I nailed it. Only 200 bassists had applied and due to my obvious determination, I had a very different response at Audition 2.

 

“You’re in.”

 

Brilliant.

 

I spent the first year with my ears wide open, taking in everything I could.

I spent the second year treating it as if it was my third year, and that was when everything that could go wrong, did. I damaged my hand again and failed an exam as I couldn’t write. I got a 2-2 for my second year.

In year three I learned from my mistakes. I listened to my tutors and began to use them. I began to talk to my friends and started targeting what I didn’t know, and I opened up my mind. It worked.

In my final year I utterly changed. My tutors knew who I was because I pestered them… a lot! I got 6 A- and 2 B’s and played my final performance exam as though it was my last ever performance of anything ever. I went for it and finished my degree playing my harmonica with the performance of a lifetime.

I got a first class honours degree in popular music with music technology. At the time, I was only the 3rd person in the courses fifteen year history to do so.

I managed this because my tutors believed in me, and empowered me to teach myself. They showed me, not only how to find out something I didn’t yet know, but also how to use it properly when I found it. This was teaching and learning at its very best and those teachers, mixed with my own passion, made me learn how to teach myself efficiently. They gave me confidence, and taught me that wisdom comes from those who admit when they do not know something, and have a backup plan of how to find out and to never give in. You don’t get a first without some serious determination.

It seems utterly ridiculous to me that it is only by the time we get to University that we fully understand how to learn and how to teach ourselves. Surely we should be installing the means to teach ourselves at the other end of the journey!?

 

“If you don’t get these results… OFSTED will come sooner…”

 

The above sentence is the sub text of what threatens our teachers all the time. It leaves nothing but an air of scare tactics and stress hanging over the heads of our teachers, who are being told to take risks, but are held accountable and told off if they make a mistake. It’s un-tenable. It has been for years. Education is a bigger beast than the Government accepts.

I know my own opinions in this article are flawed; I certainly am no expert on education. I have just had a rant and mentioned some ideas that ideologically I would love to see come to fruition because I genuinely care about the state of education in this country. I am merely an observer with a creative mind. All I’m trying to do, is suggest that there is another way, not even my way, a way that is right and appropriate to the times we are now living in. I am waiting with baited breath for someone with all the answers to come in and sort it all out. It’s time for the people who ARE the experts to sit down and hammer out a new way. That’s my point. Get a team of experts in.

It’s that, or we’ll be back here in the dark ages of the industrial revolution forever more, filling in temporary holes in our children’s’ knowledge, instead of challenging them and having them actually learn stuff properly.

 

 

The Dynamics of Teaching Quietly

“All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” – Generic but relevant disclaimer.

 

Teaching, or more accurately “getting the buggers to learn”, is a topic that *always* generates passionate opinions and as such merits the generic disclaimer plonked rather obviously at the top of this post. I am not here to start fights. I am here to share my ideas and opinions to promote positive discussion and that is my only agenda.

 

Too many lessons these days still seem to be governed by the confines of the rather dated three part lesson, or more accurately, the two part lesson, with 2 minutes to pack away and get them out bolted on at the end.

 

The first half of the lesson (used to be known as the 5 minute starter) involves the teacher standing at the front of the class making some attempts at engaging the pupils, maybe with the reading of a list of pupils names to make sure that they haven’t gone missing so the establishment don’t get sued, and then it’s time. Time for the list. The list of all of the things. It sometimes might unfold like this…

 

“Here is all of the things that you are going to do today, in the order you are going to do them in. Do you understand what I mean by this bit? Good, don’t do this bit before you’ve done that first bit, and then after you’ve done that bit, do the second half of the following bit. Got it? Is that clear? Now go and do everything I just said in that precise order and remember it all without making any mistakes or I will shout at you.”

 

“What time is it?”

 

“It’s twenty-five past sir…”

 

“Damn… right. This is a slightly smaller run down of the big list I’ve already said that you’ve got to do and remember. Have you all learned this? Have I said it slowly enough and repeated myself enough? Tell me that you’ve learned it! Answer this question!? I’m now going to tell you off and raise my voice because you are not putting your hands up and answering my questions!”

 

One student attempts an answer.

 

“Thank god! That means you all clearly understand what I said. Right… get going!”

 

Madness ensues…

 

Some pupils do some of the things that were in the list.

 

Five to.

 

“Right! That’s it! IT’S THE END OF THE LESSON!!!! Everybody pack away!!!! Quickly!! Or else you’ll be late to your next ‘lesson’!!”.

 

This is an honest reflection of what often happens in lessons when you are learning how to be a teacher. This is happening in one form or another somewhere right now. There’s a good reason for it too. This is the default. This is the safety net, this is what the lesson often turns into despite what you planned. If you find yourself saying “I don’t have a default” then this is what you are most likely doing in your classroom.

 

The reason is this. We are human and we all want to get home. The staff and the students. We do not want to do as little as possible, but often we want or need to do as little as what makes us not appear to be un-professional or un-caring. It is the amount of effort required that means that everyone that needs to be happy is happy. From the first year 7 that walks through the gate, to the last turn of the keys as the caretaker locks the gate. It’s human nature. This default is not our fault. It is life, and it is not helped by the confines of the factory regimented institution style boundaries that we are forced to stick to. It’s that fucking school bell! Because we HAVE to have a school bell… right? We have to have a three part lesson right? We have to have uniforms and subjects with sets dividing classes right?

 

The simple truth of our system these days is that the people facing the public paint a picture that their school is not a factory focussed on mass-producing great numbers and statistics, and yet the majority of educational based decisions rely upon things like performance related pay targets which, you guessed it, have recently become more and more focused upon teachers showing evidence of meeting percentage pass rates and student numbers for the A Level course they want to run next year and that if these targets are not met that the par rewards are refused. Performance related pay?! Why not increment rewards that are productive and essential, like lunch duties or running extra-curricular *enriching*activities for financial perks at break time? Surely that would be better than distracting the workforce with meaningless targets and tasks to evidence under the threat of less pay? How on earth can workforce moral have any chance of surviving if the focus is on how the school is portrayed over the welfare of the students?

 

On top of all this the pastoral role within schools and academy’s is dying and is nearly non-existent. Now teachers have barely any pastoral time and are forced to do a tiny amount of pastoral care and enrichment within the ridiculously short time that is known as registration. The hugely important opportunity children deserve at school to have a sense of family which used to be called “form time”, where a little routine and a friendly start to the day with a chat with your form tutor helped to keep many children coming back to school on time instead of trapesing in full of Taurine and square eyed at 9am after a 3am COD fix. It would massively impact a child’s mental health at the start of the day and actually prepare them to be more prepared and ready to learn too, yet this has been cut to taking a register and get to your first lesson. It’s not right.

 

What’s left is a small army of amazing teachers and role models who do their best in a ridiculous situation that needs updating and reworking so that it works for the students and teachers instead of for the Principal who leaves the school premises in a lovely beamer whilst looking forward to the outreach trip to Malawi that the school community funded so they could look good. They sun themselves and shake the right hands while the rest of us try to teach in a culturally enriching way despite the restraints of the Government which keeps spouting forth ridiculous opinions and rules to be changed at their whim just because someone who has never been an education secretary before decides to do something that might possibly make them be remembered.

 

I have said it before and I will say it again many times. This is not good enough.