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The fifth Smith - but which one?

The fifth Smith – but which one?

Below is the text of an email I received, completely out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago. Feels a bit ‘showy- offy’ to put it in a blog, but in the post-modern world of blogs and twitter this sort of self-congratulatory stuff isn’t just OK, it seems to be positively encouraged. So in that spirit . . . my email from ‘Barry’ (Class of 1987!!):

Hello Mr Stevenson,

This is a blast from the past.

You taught me Economics to A Level in your first year at Hind Leys.

I am now an MD of a UK toy company and had reason to think of you this morning whilst driving into work and contemplating the Brexit effects on our business.  I started thinking of where I got the understanding of the inter relationships between exchange rates, cost of imports and exports, interest rates et al and thought of how you made it interesting and comprehensible back in 1987/8.

I then saw a post about “remember your teacher day” and thought that too much of a coincidence to let pass.  With it being the end of a school year and thinking about my own children’s teachers losing contact every year with their charges, I felt compelled to find you, write to you and thank you. 

Much to my surprise it was very easy to find you despite what I assume to be not a uncommon name on these shores.

So here goes.  I went to the University of Liverpool to study Management and Business Economics after Hind Leys where being lectured to by the likes of Patrick Minford was a real culture shock.  Anyway I had a great time in Liverpool, dj’ing, putting on bands and doing little studying and finally scraping a degree.  I stayed on in Liverpool for a few years after Uni, then moved to Manchester.  Got a proper job in London, moved to Bucks and now live and work in Shropshire.

Hope you have had good life since 1987 and thank you again for the fantastic work you did in that one year with me.  It is greatly appreciated and had a big impact on my life.  

Yours

‘Barry’

P.S you told some of us that you preceded Johnny Marr or Andy O’Rourke in The Smiths, (can’t remember which) in that first year but I now wonder whether that was rookie teacher trying to impress his young sixth formers.  You can tell me the truth now!!!  

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Since I received this email I have corresponded a bit more with ‘Barry’. I have confirmed that I was a contemporary of Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke (The Smiths) at St Augustine’s School, Sharston, Manchester in 1974-79. We hung out on Hollyhedge Park during break times and I think he still owes me a cigarette. However my claims to have been the ‘fifth Smith’ involved some poetic license. That said, adding a saxophone break on ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ would surely have made a great song a timeless classic. In my dreams I was the person to add that sax break. Listen and I’m sure you’ll agree there is something missing . . .

On receiving this email from ‘Barry’ I was minded to reflect on a few features of my experience as an NQT in 1987:

  • Things were far from perfect, and many things in schools are done much better now. In the year I taught Barry as an NQT I was observed once. My observer was one of the most wonderful teachers I have ever seen (take a bow Peter Heath) but he watched me once, wrote a one page report and that was it – I’d passed my NQT year. I could have learned much more from Peter, but we weren’t great at doing that then.
  • I’m glad Barry thought I made a decent job of teaching him International Trade. At the time I didn’t think I understood any of it in a way that I could actually teach it (2:1 Economics degree from LSE didn’t equip me to teach what I knew), It took me a PGCE and at least 10 years to get to the point where I thought I was teaching this well. Today, huge numbers of teachers have already left teaching by this point (thanks also to Barry, by the way, for reassuring me subsequently that I had more impact on his economics world view than Patrick Minford – thank God for that!).
  • The school had no uniform and no staff dress code (heaven forefend!), there were no separate staff toilets and students called me by my first name. Hard to imagine, in such anarchic circumstances, how any learning took place at all.  But as Barry’s email testifies – this was still teaching that changed lives. And to think that this was even possible before Teach First arrived  hard to believe really.
  • Hind Leys was a wonderful place to work. As I said, far from perfect, but it did so many things so well. Certainly it was radical, innovative and dynamic – where teachers worked together and schools worked together. The level of curriculum development was far more exciting than anything I see today. This is important to remember. We are repeatedly told that academies and free schools are required to inject ‘innovation’ into our school system.  My memory is that Leicestershire was such an exciting place to teach and far more creative than anything which today claims to be ‘innovative’ (and if putting poor kids in lunchtime isolation is what today passes for innovation I want no part of it) . We were a local authority school (Conservative controlled!) and highly and actively unionised. Neither were an impediment to dynamism – they just meant change was community driven and the teachers’ voice was always heard when change was contemplated. That’s a history lesson that needs re-learning.

Finally, my thanks again to Barry. As teachers we don’t often get to hear we made a difference. It is nice to know, after all this time, that maybe I wasn’t such a tosser after all (which is rather how teachers then, and now, are made to feel as the constant discourse of derision saps collective morale). The email more than made my day. It also reminded me of something I read in a book by Tim Brighouse and David Woods when I was working at Hind Leys:

‘Teachers affect eternity: nobody knows where their influence stops’.

Worth remembering on the dark days when you don’t think you’ve made a difference, when nobody has noticed what you’ve done and the Secretary of State has just imposed another major curriculum reform without asking for your opinion.

[I thought long and hard about this blog title – but on twitter I have learned what is needed to get attention . . . ]

Where are they now?

January 1, 2016 — Leave a comment

Keleti Station

I took this photograph on 10th September 2015 at Keleti train station, Budapest as this mother with her child waited for a train to Germany.

Whenever I look at it I wonder where they are now.

I hope their 2016 is all that they hope for, and more.

 

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Due Torri

When I was young lots of people I knew used to talk about Bologna. It was mostly talk about politics.

Despite the talk, I never visited and it wasn’t until late last year that I visited for the first time.  In the short time since I have revisited the city on three further occasions.  But from the first time I visited, the love affair began.

The city is beautiful, if not classically beautiful.  There are certainly more classically beautiful cities in Italy, but none more genuinely beautiful than Bologna. (Some of my photos here).

There are lots of different things, that taken together, make the city beautiful – the red buildings, the fantastic food, the university’s delightful rejection of the increasingly bland experience that is the modern English ‘student experience’ or maybe just a beer in ‘La Linea’ – the bar in Piazza Maggiore with its walls plastered with left wing posters.

It is true that Bologna in 2015 is not the quirky communist municipal stronghold that it was 50, or even 30, years ago (although it still retains its very own Via Stalingrado!).  But Bologna remains a fiercely political city.  Protests, strikes, street art, peeling posters everywhere – the signs are ubiquitous. For all it’s contentious modern day politics (the ruling centre left Democratic Party is currently raising revenue through privatisation programmes) the city remains one defiantly characterised by resistance.

And it is resistance that brings me to write this short blog.  Today is the 21st April 2015 – it is 70 years to the day that Bologna was liberated from fascism.  It is simply not possible to understand Bologna without understanding its experience of resistance and liberation between 1943 and 1945.  Everywhere in the city there are the visible signs of that struggle. The extraordinary Shrine of the Partisans in Piazza Maggiore is conspicuous and striking, but all over the city is the evidence of those who struggled against fascism, many paying with their life (and indeed many others paying in later years as a result of terrorist attacks that have also scarred the city). Just outside the old city walls is the huge cemetery with its monument to the city’s Jews killed in WW2, and also the Ossuary for the partisans.

It is impossible to visit Bologna and to not be affected by the legacy of that experience.  More than 2000 people of the city died in allied bombing and fascist reprisals, and over 2000 partisans were killed in the struggle for liberation.  The city marks all these deaths, but one illustrates the heroism – the story of Irma Bandiera whose memorial is located near to the city’s football ground. (Her birth, 100 years ago this month, marked in a ceremony with school children here).

This history, and the spirit that keeps it alive, is why Alexis Tsipras, when he visited Bologna in 2014, referred to the city as ‘il cuore della sinistra’.

Tonight in Bologna they will mark the anniversary with a concert in Parco Montagnola.  The Emilia-Romagna band Modena City Ramblers will play their version of Bella Ciao, the song of the Italian partisans which 70 years later has become an international song of freedom – from Athens to Tehran. I won’t be there, but I will be happy that my daughter will be, and we will both remember the courage of those everywhere who refuse to accept tyranny – then and now.

[If you’d prefer a contrasting version – then Paulo Fresu’s take here is superb.  It could not be more different – but the message is exactly the same and no less powerful].

Police move in -Taksim Square September 2013

Police move in -Taksim Square September 2013

Earlier this year I witnessed the Turkish police suppress protests in Taksim Square in Istanbul.  I blogged about that experience here. At the time it was shocking to see a police force prevent any attempt to express dissent. Any attempt. At all.  When I left Istanbul I wondered how long a government would be able to suppress popular protest in the the ways I had witnessed. Of course there are many places where dissent is routinely suppressed – and has been for a very a long time.  But somehow, in Turkey, what I witnessed looked and felt like something that could not, and would not, be contained for much longer.  I have nothing of substance on which to base that assessment – other than the protesters I saw in Istanbul, the academic colleagues I met and spoke with there, and an optimism that the ideas and values of democracy must triumph over tear gas and rubber bullets.

As I write now, just before the start of a new year, protesters in Turkey are once again taking to the streets.  In Turkey, such actions require extraordinary courage.  Police tactics are intentionally aggressive and frightening. They are also dangerous – there have been deaths in previous demonstrations.

At this point I am not sure what to do to demonstrate practical support – maybe that will emerge in the next few days. In the meantime my simple gesture of solidarity is to post this poem.  It was written by Nazim Hikmet – a radical Turkish poet and author/playwright. I was sent the poem a few days ago by a Turkish teacher and teacher trade unionist. The message was sent as a New Year’s greeting, and expressed her hope for the coming year. It maybe that the current protests bring her hopes a step closer to realisation. I certainly hope so.

THE GREAT HUMANITY

The great humanity is the deck-passenger on the ship
third class on the train
on foot on the causeway
the great humanity.

The great humanity goes to work at eight
marries at twenty
dies at forty
the great humanity.

Bread is enough for all except the great humanity
rice the same
sugar the same
cloth the same
books the same
are enough for all except the great humanity.

The great humanity has no shade on his soil
no lamp on his road
no glass on his window
but the great humanity has hope
you can’t live without hope.

Purchased in 1985. The only mug I ever bought with a successful outcome!

Purchased in 1985. The only campaign mug I ever bought with a successful outcome!

In the coming days it is hard to imagine anything that could be said about Nelson Mandela being left unsaid.  I cannot claim to have any great insight or observation that will not be said better by someone else.  But I still want to say something – because Nelson Mandela, without equivocation, has been the single most important political figure in my lifetime.  In a way that I cannot say about any other political leader, he touched my life.  His contribution, his influence and above all his inspiration towers far higher than anyone else.

For many people my age, becoming political adults in the late 1970s and early 1980s the issue of Apartheid was the international struggle of our time. Of course there were others – but it was always the struggle against Apartheid that mobilised more, and inspired more, than any other.

As a student in London I can remember clearly the marches, the benefit gigs, the ‘socials’ at Dave Cook’s house in Brixton, and the boycotts – to this day I can’t bring myself to use a Barclays ATM.

It was a lesson in politics that, for me, has been enduring. I still believe that it is movements of people that create change, and that for those without the power of capital, our only weapons in the fight for social justice are hope and solidarity.

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I am writing this blog 40 years to the day after the military coup that overthrew the Allende government in Chile – for reasons that I hope will become clear, that feels significant.

There have been previous occasions when a business visit overseas has jolted my thinking, and I have resorted to blogging to make some sense of it, but I didn’t see my visit to Istanbul for the European Conference of Educational Research impacting on me in quite the way it has. Maybe it should not have surprised me – but 24 hours after the events I shall recount, I certainly remain affected by them.

On Tuesday 10th September the network of which I am member presented a symposium on Social Justice Leadership: International Perspectives. The symposium presented case studies of school leaders from Turkey, England and Israel. As chair of the session I departed from the programme and imposed on a Turkish colleague to provide an overview of life for Turkish educators, in schools and universities, after the protest events of May this year. He talked briefly about the fear experienced by educators with regard to the democratic discussion of ideas, but also the hope that had been represented by the occupation of Gezi Park. He argued that this was seen as much more than the protection of an open space. The park has high symbolic significance in Turkey and the occupation had represented a visible resistance to what is seen as increasing state control of personal lives. This notion of freedom from state control was an issue felt particularly keenly by educators and scholars.

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Dear all

This blog is a rather public and post modern, but still deeply personal, way of saying thankyou to all of you who made the effort to travel to Westport on Saturday evening for dinner at the Knockranny.  I know some of you travelled some considerable distances. I appreciate it enormously.

I think (I hope) what I said on the evening conveyed all I wanted to say about the ‘Mayo journey’ (as many of you refer to it) and what it has meant to me.  Therefore this is just to say thankyou for making Saturday evening such a wonderful and memorable occasion.  It should be no surprise that an event organised to celebrate a bit of the ‘Mayo magic’ should itself turn out to be magical.

It was great to see everyone and enjoy a fabulous meal in such good company. If you had any hand in organising it at all, then a very special thanks.

A particular thanks also for the gifts.  I now have my own bit of Mayo bog sitting on my desk – and rarely has a bit of bog meant so much to anyone. To Art – a truly inspired gift, thankyou for crafting it. It could not have been bettered.  But thankyou also for the collection of Heaney poems, and all your kind words contained in its pages.  They are precious words to me.

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To those of you who did not stay until the evening’s end (and the morning’s beginning), then you won’t be surprised to know that there were several hours of songs and stories.  What was surprising is that it took an Englishman to start the singing off (that I was willing to do any singing at all, let alone in public, is perhaps as good an illustration as any of how the ‘Mayo magic’ has seeped under my skin). Fortunately, there were many others to take up the musical baton and the evening was a treat of fabulous song and story (I will always remember when, in an almost empty bar at 3 in the morning our collective rendition of ‘Black is the Colour’ ran aground on the rocks of verses not known – at which point a stranger’s voice struck up from the other side of the bar to help us out.  We got to the end of the song with our mystery singer (beautiful voice, inevitably) doing the verses whilst we chimed in with the chorus. It could only happen in Ireland . . .).

So . . . if you were there on Saturday night. Thankyou for making it magical.

Finally, to those of you who heard me mangle this Jimmy McCarthy song, then here it is, as it should be sung . . . in my view Christy Moore at his absolute finest, and the only song for which I have ever known all the words.

DSCN0195At the time this post is launched it will be one year to the month, day and hour that my dad died.  The day after his funeral I posted this blog, and re-posting it now helps me remember how we all felt at that time.  Relieved his pain was over, but grateful that he had had a wonderful life, and for what he had meant to us.  A year later, his legacy is undiminished.

What I wrote one year ago . . .

On 16th January 2012 my dad died.   He is pictured here meeting his cousin Mario for the first time in 40 years, during a family visit to Maniago, Italy.

He had battled Motor Neurone Disease with extraordinary courage and dignity for nearly three years.  Yesterday, was his funeral and I was fortunate, with friends and family, to be able to say some words that tried to capture what he meant to us all.  What follows is what I said, or tried to say.  It is constructed after the event from some rather scratched notes – the words were always more in my head and my heart than on paper, but this is an attempt to put those words back together.  Not grammatically perfect, but an attempt to write them as I said them . . .

As I have written them I have been listening to Faure’s Requiem – the music Dad had requested for the Mass.

What I said . . .

It is difficult to find anything positive to say about Motor Neurone Disease. It is vicious. It is vile.  I am not sure anyone defeats it – not even our Dad. And to me, he was always indestructible.

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Homelessness in 2013

Homelessness in 2013

I wrote this following a visit to America before Christmas in 2012 and have taken to tweeting the link at this time every year since. (The music is worth a listen too . . . ) I never tire of reading, watching, listening to A Christmas Carol, and so this is my effort to cannibalise it. Dickens’ message was always powerful, but seems more so as every year passes and the attacks on the UK’s welfare state appear so relentless.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that in the UK we are retreating into a US style ‘welfare’ system, in which the most vulnerable pay the price for the bad decisions of others.  Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than by the emergence of #foodbankbritain.

Unfortunately, this year I have lost contact with Megan and Eric. I am hoping they have only temporarily ‘gone off the radar’  and they’ll be back in touch in 2015.  Life is precarious for them and wherever they are my hope is that the family is safe and warm this Christmas.

The Story . . .

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