Returning home

Julia recently returned home from living and working in Poland. She reflects on her challenging decision to move abroad. This was first posted on her site.


It’s almost strange referring to this as returning home, since I’d made a home in Warsaw for so long. A home filled with junk that I collected throughout my days, filled with the presence of friendships built from nothing, filled with mistakes and successes, and the lessons born from these. I’d lived what felt like a whole life there, only for it to become a closed chapter I can only look back on. Yet, although I may soon begin to forget some details, experiences like that never leave you. They shape who you are; from the way I now feel assured in myself to the way I now cook potatoes, my life there changed me – and here I am, the product of it all.

 Coming full circle like this is hard, back to my family home, back to the room where I spent endless restless nights imagining travelling distant places, dreaming of possibilities that felt unattainable. It’s funny being here now, staring at the untouched stack of books on the shelf, the expired vouchers stuck on the cork board, the clothes shoved in the wardrobe, all just as I left them and yet me not as I was when I did. Suddenly, these walls don’t suffocate me the way they used to. The world outside them hasn’t changed all that much, but I have… and so I guess I learnt how to climb out a window when I couldn’t see a door. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Sometimes we don’t see a way out, a way forward. At least, not an easy one – sometimes the only option is hurling yourself up onto the windowsill, throwing your leg over the edge, and carefully climbing down the drain pipe hoping you don’t fall. Equally, sometimes it’s a less-than-strategic jump, possibly served alongside a few cuts and bruises. You don’t always come out the other end as you’d hope, but at least you come out of the other end – at least you’ve moved forward in one way or another. Try things, fail at them, learn from them, and then realise that that in itself is the success. It’s growth.

In no way do I think my time in Poland was a failure, in fact I never viewed it as that. I tried my best to cherish every lesson, every experience, every novelty. I decided right at the start that this could give me so much more than it could possibly take away. Adopting that approach in itself has been the greatest takeaway from this whole experience. It allowed me to become the happiest I have ever been in my whole life, and for someone who for the majority of her life lived with anxiety and depression, this was no small feat.

I wish I could tell you just how to overcome those fears, but I don’t think there is a straightforward formula. Even when you do finally throw yourself into the situation you feared, you’re suddenly inside of it, and that comes with its own set of new and unexpected challenges. Yet, moving forward in it brings familiarity, knowledge, comfort. Suddenly it’s not all so scary. If the unknown is at the root of our fears, then it’s logical that we must get to know them to overcome them.

Before I get off as sounding too preachy, I’ll admit that I know all of this and yet I’m still constantly withdrawing into old habits of avoidance and self-deprecation. But having everything that I know now just makes it that bit easier to snap out of it and keep moving forward. Sometimes you have to trust that moving forward will be just so much better than standing still. Trust yourself and jump out of that window.

J x
Julia’s Atlas

For Your Entertainment — online platforms as a career

The internet offers hope to the isolated individual as a source of social connection and, even, income – through turning a hobby into a business and sharing their stories or expertise. However, as with many careers, I wonder if chances of success are significantly weighted towards those with socioeconomic and other privilege and the dream that is popularised by great success stories is, in truth, denied to most.

I wonder what harm is being done to those who place all their hopes on a self-made online career and what help and education is needed to help them to realise their hopes.

The writer of the piece below identifies themselves as a recent high school graduate who is entering college. They have hopes of using online platforms to pursue a career, motivated, at least partly, by their social anxiety and expectation that they will struggle to hold down a traditional job.


“Since I was 9, the idea of being a YouTuber or streamer was incredibly appealing. I could do what I loved, and still make a living. I didn’t ever have to show my face, just talk and be funny. I didn’t even have to be a YouTuber or anything—I just wanted to do something. I wanted to make an impact.

Over the years, I tried to launch my channel and a few other assorted channels or social media accounts to no avail. I hopped around 2-3 pseudonyms, recorded videos of what I loved on my potato computer, and tried to maintain a social media presence. I explored various avenues, from simple browser gaming to Minecraft skin creation to Minecraft itself. The furthest I ever managed to get was 600+ subscribers on Planet Minecraft. But the bottom line was, I was getting nowhere.”

To read the full piece, check the blog link below.

For Your Entertainment — OurThreeSeas

The education system is… – reflections on rote learning and exams

The piece below, by a teenager in the UK school system, challenges the damaging effects on children of the “call-and-respond” exam and education system. It was first published on their site, TabletandStylus.


** Conversation between me and my friend over a Teams chat on 20th January 2021 **

[10:24] (My friend) I don’t get why it’s [exams] getting harder every year. Like what is the point, we’re not going to remember much. My mum doesn’t remember anything about school. Why do the government make it harder each year for us. We’re doing GCSE stuff our parents did in A-levels.

[10:28] (Me) It’s just so dumb, they act like teenagers have some weird capacity to do an immense amount of work, with little relaxation time and not complain/have a breakdown.

[10:29] (My friend) They always talk about mental health and how it’s important but then they do this to us, acting like none of us have mental health issues or problematic families.

​[10:29] (Me) WHY do teenagers complain about exams? “Because they’re teenagers” isn’t an answer, it’s an evasion.

[10:38] (My friend) So 2 days ago I was doing my chores right after online school. I vacuumed and mopped the house, I washed and hung the clothes, I washed and dried the dishes, I also changed my bedding. After that I had to finish one of my art pieces to show my teacher that I was actually doing work. While I was in the middle of completing my art work someone called me to go and change their bedding. I don’t know what happened and why it happened but I started to cry while changing the bedding. I didn’t understand why, since I wasn’t necessarily sad. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.

[10:40] (Me) Of course there’s nothing wrong with you. Not to be that person, but everyone is feeling like that these days. We’re all stuck in this one place and it sucks, and things that were normal just keep getting harder, and life is just tiring, and things that were fun, aren’t so interesting anymore, because you’ve thought the same thoughts so many times they’ve become stale. So you want to run away, breathe some different air, do a different thing ​and get out of this cycle, but you can’t.

[10:43] (My friend) When I went to bed I used to think of the fun things I’ll do in the future or like create fun scenarios in my head to make me fall asleep. But now when I think of them, it’s boring.

[10:45] (Me) It used be so easy to use our imaginations, and now I’m stuck getting my serotonin boosts from YouTube videos. Reading tires me out, imagining scenarios doesn’t work like it used to; I just want to not use my brain, because my brain feels overused. But the thing is, this is so normal that everyone accepts it. When did everyday contentment become an unattainable dream and a goal in life, instead of being a part of living?

Of course someone might think that I made this up, but I promise I did not. And that’s why I wanted to include it in this blog. Typically, as teenagers, the stereotype is that we talk about trivial things, and complain too much. This kind of conversation? Damn you’re the nerds in school. That’s the stereotype.

But that’s just not realistic. As we progressed through the school, this kind of conversation became more normal amongst everyone. I mean, yes we talked about our favourite songs and celebrities, and Tik Tok and Netflix etc. etc. But a prevailing topic was always how stressful the exams were, even 3 years before actually doing them.

When my second oldest sister was at school, the exams were modular. Do a topic, revise the topic and key areas. Do the exam. Move on. This enabled teachers to spend more time focusing on the key information, and students were able to complete the exam without having the pressure that they must still remember this whole unit of work for another 2-3 years. The recent exam style shows only the capacity of a student’s memory, and the amount of mental strain that they can take, rather than how intelligent they are. Why it ever changed is beyond me (cough Michael Gove cough – I mean why are the decisions always implemented by people who never have to face the consequences???) 

The preferred pedagogical approach to helping students pass their exams, now seems to be inputting the ability to call-and-respond when faced with a certain question. This does not necessarily mean that teachers have particularly terrible methods, but with the amount that students must get through, it is easier to have them memorise a process than understand a concept.  In recent years the end result has become more important to the government and therefore more important to teachers and students alike.

As a student myself, I know that me and many of my peers are more focused on remembering certain facts in order to achieve good grades at the end of Year 11. Essentially, education has become about crossing the finish line rather than running the marathon, when the grade or diploma received should be a prize of hard work and skill, rather than the ultimate goal. 

There are many questions we could ask about the education system, which is aimed at helping the younger generations achieve a better life, but instead have become a process of repeating years of work in one exam. With the UK curriculum we have today students go to school, memorise any facts they may possibly need, and recite them just to pass. 

One example of the somewhat elitist system can be the impact on future prospects; the practice of separating students into higher and foundation levels can have many consequences. One of my other friends has said that being in foundation for Maths means that even if she gets 100% on her exam, the highest grade she can receive is a 5, and it is only the grade which employers or universities will look at, not that she was able to get every question correct. More personally, I have been told by maths teachers that I would find foundation work too easy, but struggle with the higher-level tests. This means that I can almost be guaranteed a pass in foundation, whereas in higher I have a better chance of good grades, but also an increased risk of failure. Both my friend and I are limited because of the idea of selective education.

I remember reading about Finnish day care centres, and I was shocked. But then I thought, why was it so shocking, to read about a system which focuses on the kids and not what they will one day contribute to the economy? Finland isn’t a different world, galaxy, or dimension. It’s right here, on our earth, and yet I cannot get past the fact that children there are cultivated and nurtured into academic success.

In Finland, day care is to help them develop good social habits, and play is carefully organised to help develop qualities such as attention span, perseverance, concentration and problem solving – strong predictors of academic success. The education system outlaws formal examinations (until the age of 18) and streaming by ability. Competition, privatisation and league tables simply do not exist. The idea of teaching in preparation for a standardised test is an alien concept, which means that less pressure is put on teachers in order to cram all knowledge of a subject into the student’s head.

So why are young people being taught to behave like robots? If the government wants students to be prepared for life in the workforce, surely, they must learn to be socially skilled, creative and critical?  While I am at secondary school, retaining information is much more important than understanding content. The enormous pressure of being repeatedly told that my exam results are the defining moment in my life, and will dictate all my future success, does nothing to help with the fact that I simply learn how to do a process, not why I am doing it.

With the response to Covid-19, I believe that the issues with the UK education system have been further revealed as critical flaws.

At first, schools were suddenly closed as the entire country was plunged into the first proper Lockdown last March. I was glad for this, since infection rates were steadily rising, and I still think it is the right decision.

But many schools were not prepared. Mine certainly wasn’t, and I spent six months working to my own schedule, since there was simply work set online that had to be completed each week. Take notes and answer questions. Upload to ClassCharts (the system my school used to set work). I had little contact with my teachers, until we neared the end of the year, and they finally managed to set up Teams meetings. They didn’t know how to do a whole class and set work etc. but it allowed for 5-10 minute one-on-one sessions where the teacher checked your progress, asked how you were and then see you next week!

I appreciated these sessions since it helped me to know that my teachers saw what I was doing, and also let me know what else I had to do. I managed to teach myself a lot considering, and I also managed to retain quite a bit in, for example, History. But this didn’t mean that all was fine.

When I went back in September, exams had not been cancelled, and were expected to go ahead as usual. A little further into the term, and the government realised that might be a tad unfair since most of the student population had missed like half a year of critical schooling. So they allowed for some formula sheets etc. to be taken into the exams, which would have completely fixed the problem I’m sure.

Then, in January, another lockdown. Schools closed, only this time we could actually have lessons. So back to online school, but with teachers. And then, suddenly, it seemed they realised that exams would still be unfair. I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. Maybe since most students across the nation would collectively be the most unprepared for their exams as had ever been seen?

Sorry. It’s been a month since I left school, but I’m still a bit annoyed about how things went. Actually very annoyed.

I won’t go into how stressful even my smaller exams were. Seven weeks of tests, most of us were burnt out by the end. But because of lockdown, all our mocks had been cancelled, so we have no idea what it’s like to take exams, sat in a hall, with invigilators, and separate desks. However bad the testing was, I won’t complain now. It’s over, and at least we didn’t have to do the full exams in an unfamiliar way.

But here’s how all of this exposed the flaws.

If we still did modular exams, most of us would have completed a lot of our units after we finished learning them. This would mean there would be less to do ourselves the first lockdown, and less for teachers to teach and revise with us, because a lot of the exams would have already been done.

And then, this education system of robotic memorisation – deemed to be the “fairest way” – does not take into account effort or behaviour, or the fact that some students find exams difficult compared to ordinary classwork. One bad day can ruin everything with this system, which is just completely unfair. The idea of allowing formulas should be normal. Exams should be open book; students have the information, and must showcase their skill in answering a range of different questions. Simple, logical, effective. Unless the government makes exams harder each year because they want more students to suffer intense stress, and have an increased area of failure. Which it seems to. Just saying.

Finally, the reason why it should be open book is because, in this day and age, everything is progressing so quickly that it is one of the simplest matters to search up a formula, or a quote, or anything you need. This system is outdated, because these technological advancements exist, and using them to one’s academic advantage should be encouraged. We embraced calculators didn’t we? Why are any other inventions not then as useful? Without them, none of us would have been able to continue studying, or been able to have lessons with our teachers online in the past year and bit.

And if, perhaps, I was stranded somewhere remote, completely alone, with no access to the internet, I think I would have bigger problems on my mind than what was that quadratic formula involving square roots and division?

TabletandStylus, 28 June 2021

How teaching changed my life

Lucia Rotheray, based in Switzerland, reflects on the significant personal growth and satisfaction she has experienced through pursuing a career involving teaching. The piece was first published on her site.


For many academics, teaching is something we’re made to do in order to pursue our dreams of research. We’ve all heard (or been) people complaining about how preparing lectures or exams or holding office hours is taking up time in our already busy schedule.

But while it might not have been our main career goal, teaching does become a rewarding part of a difficult job for many academics. In a twitter poll I posted through @realscientists, I was pleasantly surprised to see that 54.5% of respondents enjoyed teaching and another 23.7% wanted an opportunity to teach – meaning that only 21.8% actually felt negatively about it overall!

I started teaching a few years before I gave my first maths lecture, and I’ve tried all sorts from music classes for kids to business English for employees to undergraduate maths lectures. All of these experiences come with their stuggles and stresses (except maybe music for kids, that’s just cute) but they all also taught me a lot both professionally and personally. Today I’d like to share some of the best things that have come out of teaching for me, and maybe inspire some of the teaching-weary to take a new look at this aspect of academic work!

It taught me how to take charge of a situation

The perfect class of students who are all motivated, helpful and focussed….probably doesn’t exist. When we teach we have to learn to deal (in our own ways) with people who are unfocussed, distracting or combative. We have to get comfortable being in charge of a room and having some authority, even over people who would have authority over us in other situations (for example when we teach people who are older, more professionally experienced or from a “higher” social class).

This experience has changed the way I view myself and given me a kind of confidence I could never have learned from a book or theoretical course.

It taught me communication skills I can use in everyday life

As a teacher or tutor it is important to recognise students’ individual strengths and work out how to communicate the same ideas to a variety of people. This has taught me how to be more patient and try to see the strengths and values of different people I interact with.

The sensitivity training of CELTA and the experience of helping students through stress and exam nerves has also made me more comfortable, calm and hopefully patient when talking to people about difficult topics.

Teaching English and German as second languages has also made me more aware of how I speak and how I can modify my language to communicate with people at different stages of learning. This can be difficult, but it also encourages creativity and trying new ways to express myself.

It improved my language skills

The day I taught my first class in German was the day I realised I was definitely not fluent. But of course I had no choice but to keep going, and the experience of teaching provided both motivation and practice to help me improve my language skills. Encouraging the students to (politely!) correct my spelling and grammar also provided a way to get them talking to me more in class: win-win!

It taught me how much I value human connection

For a long time I thought of myself as a loner, an introvert, a people-hater. Teaching has taught me that this is not the case. The part of my job which involves engaging with and helping people is the part I enjoy the most, even though it is time consuming and sometimes draining. Now as I look for my first post-PhD job I know that I want in-person engagement to be a big part of it, so that even when I’m working hard I know I will feel rewarded and nurtured by the people I work with and for.

Let’s be clear: I’m not claiming that I am now a perfect person. But I am better at accessing my calm, open, engaged side and this has postively affected my life beyond the classroom.

Notes

My teaching experience includes private tutoring for sciences, languages and music, language classes for teens and adults and lecturing and tutoring maths at undergraduate level. They all feed into the above discussion, but lecturing and tutoring have dominated my experience.

CELTA is a training course for English teachers which is regulated by Cambridge University and runs all over the world. I took it in 2015.

by Lucia Rotheray, 8 July 2021

Edelweiss, Zermatt (Pixabay, Creative Commons)