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What do you notice?

What do you notice?

It’s a question my friend and colleague Dr Helen J Williams asks often when she’s sharing techniques to support young children develop their mathematical thinking. It’s such a great question when you think about it. Not “How many blue buttons can you find?” or “Which is larger?” But, “What do you notice?”

There are no right or wrong answers to this question, which is instantly liberating for the child. The Early Years teacher will not be unduly surprised by potentially random responses, they are after all part and parcel of working with young children. “I notice that you smell different today.” Or, “You’ve got nice hair, lady.” are answers I’ve been given to this question!

I find myself pondering this question as I sit outside on our patio, in the cool of the morning, drinking my first coffee of the day.

“What do you notice?” I notice how quiet it is. I am lucky to live in a place which is relatively quiet anyway. But a new hush has descended on the neighbourhood. Two of my neighbours work in the NHS, the rest are working from home, on furlough, or like me are self- employed and have found themselves at a loose end. The lack of traffic on our already quiet neighbourhood roads is noticeable. Now, if I hear a car engine, I’m tempted to go and look, such is the novelty!

I notice the cool of the morning. The weather has been beautiful. Bright clear mornings belie the chill in the air. I take my writing outdoors, only to find that my hands are too cold to function properly.

I notice the brightness of the blue sky, and the contrast of the spring blossom against its backdrop. It is possible to forget occasionally that we are not on an Easter break at the moment. When I sit outdoors with my morning coffee it’s possible to forget, just for a few minutes, that everything we know and understand has been tipped on its head.

We try to find reference points to make sense of the world we find ourselves in. After almost 3 decades in education I am used to having some time at home with nothing but a bit of work planned. It’s my idea of a perfect holiday, so I can convince myself that this is just like that. Except when I decide I need some mulch to go into the vegetable plot I can’t pop to the garden centre to get some, or when I think I’ll pop to visit a friend or go to the pub, the reality hits. I notice how this makes me feel, every time the true enormity of the situation strikes me. A sickening sensation in the pit of my stomach, a visceral fear for my family, friends and colleagues.

I’m reminded of the times I’ve experienced grief and loss. The bewilderment of realising that the world is carrying on as if nothing has happened, in spite of the fact everything has changed irrevocably is all too familiar. Why are the birds still singing? Why is a dog still barking in the distance? Don’t they realise that everything has changed? The juxtaposition of normality against the totally abnormal can be jarring.

 So, what do I notice?  I notice that there have been positive effects on my own life. The garden is looking better than it has in years, because I’ve had some time to get in there and give it some love and attention and this has been tremendously fulfilling. I’ve noticed that 5 am feels like the middle of the night now, even though it’s the time I usually get up for work! I’ve noticed that I have enjoyed being at home with my family, which is something of a luxury as someone who spends most of the week living out of a suitcase. I’ve noticed that I have created a rhythm to my day which suits me and that there is a balance of “work” and leisure which I haven’t experienced to this extent at any point in my life before. This is something I know I will reflect on in the coming weeks.

I notice there is financial uncertainty, I have no work for the foreseeable future, and that can be quite terrifying if I think about it too much. So, I try not to think about it and focus on positive things. I notice my privilege, I am not alone,  I am spending time with my family. My immediate family is safe and well. My sister seems to be improving after contracting the virus. My mum and my parents in law are currently well, despite finding total isolation challenging.  Although I have financial worries, we can take a mortgage holiday. I notice my privilege, we have a home which is comfortable, with enough rooms to allow us all to have our own space and a garden we can get out into. If I walk 10 minutes from my house I am in the middle of a nature reserve. The local grocers are serving the community brilliantly, which means we’ve only had to go to the supermarket twice since the beginning of March. I notice my privilege, I do not take any of this for granted.

Finally, I’ve noticed that this whole situation has shown us who we really are. Again, I go back to times in my life when I have been faced with the imminent death of a loved one. It has struck me each time, that the notion that we are in control is a bit of a myth. There are decisions and choices we make, but ultimately, we can’t stop the inevitable, no matter how hard we try. Each time I have lost someone this has struck me. That so much is out of our hands. It’s quite a terrifying thought and so we do what we can to impose a sense of control and order on our lives and to push that thought to the back of our mind.

The pandemic has taken our idea of control and order and thrown it right out of the window. Almost overnight everything changed. I’ve watched leaders and heads putting systems in place to support families and staff and I have been awestruck by their commitment, their dedication and their tenacity. They have shown that they know their communities well and have responded with courage and true leadership. Have they always got it right? Of course not. Decisions had to be made at very short notice, and the rule book they usually follow has been torn up. People were bound to get things wrong. But I have been heartened to see people admit their mistakes. I’ve also seen that some people really struggle to do this, and struggle to say “sorry” when things haven’t been quite right.  That’s a shame. But it’s human nature.

I’ve noticed that some people in week four of lockdown, are starting to get a little terse with others. They may not always think about the impact of their words, or see things from a point of view other than their own. I’ve noticed that in myself and tried to keep it in check, not always successfully. We will get irritated with each other, and frustrated. I’ve noticed this most of all on social media. People have said unkind things, perhaps forgetting that at the end of every post is a person, and we don’t know what their circumstances are or that perhaps not everyone responds in the same way to this challenge. I am trying hard to remember this myself.

I’ve noticed that already people’s minds are turning to the “return to normal” whatever and whenever that may be. Whilst I think it’s important to plan carefully for transition, and that we shouldn’t reopen schools to all pupils as rapidly as we closed them, I don’t think the constant speculation is helpful and it’s causing quite a lot of anxiety for those who will be working in and leading schools.

Whilst I would benefit directly from schools reopening sooner rather than later, I am anxious for the health, safety and wellbeing of staff and pupils. We should not rush to reopen schools just to satisfy our sense of being able to impose control and order in a chaotic world. There is too much at stake. We need to let go of the notion that our children are “falling behind”. The whole world has hit the pause button for a while, so who are they behind? As a parent, given the choice I’ll take my children alive, healthy and well rather than ahead of the rest of the world in a set of arbitrary expectations. This is the stark reality. When we count the daily deaths in hundreds it can be easy to lose sight of the reality that each one of those deaths was someone’s mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, son, friend.

Children can make up for any lost learning time later, we can look to nations ravaged by war to see how they supported students to succeed despite years of lost schooling. What matters right now is staying alive. Safeguarding is paramount and it is impossible to safeguard our children and staff effectively in school at this time if we return to normal. We need to stop and collectively take notice of what really matters.

I am ever hopeful that the strong relationships which have been forged by working together in this time of adversity will lead to a unified approach from heads and schools. Where “falling behind” comes second place to staying safe, keeping well and to securing emotional well-being. Where when we do return to school, teachers and leaders are given the resources, time and support to ensure that everyone is helped to make the transition back to school in a way which acknowledges what a truly extraordinary experience we’ve all survived, and that builds on what we have learned about ourselves as a society. Where we focus on what really mattered when things were at their worst and build the skills we needed most of all into what we do in our schools.

“What do you notice?” It’s a great question. It’s one I’ve resolved to ask myself each day for the foreseeable future. To identify the positives, and to acknowledge and deal with the fear and anxiety we’re all experiencing. Maybe if we all asked ourselves “what do you notice?” and just took a little time to reflect on these things every day, we might come out of this situation with a stronger society which has lived through a truly terrible situation and used it to reflect and change for the better.

What do you notice?

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