#teacher5aday29dayswriting Part 3

So, for the last month I have been engaging in the #teacher5day29dayswriting challenge of creating a blog post for every day of February.

It has not been easy but I have been posting on staffrm and so far have managed every day: http://staffrm.io/@lenabellina

I thought it would be useful to put all the posts together on here, too. Below are the third week’s worth:

Musicals, magic and maybe



Directing school musicals has brought me more pleasure during my career than perhaps anything else.

It has also taught me a huge amount about how best to lead and manage teams.

Taking a group of pupils and staff on a journey from the initial concept to the final production requires a wide range of skills and qualities:

Sharing the vision of producing the best possible performance and re-visiting that vision constantly;

Creating and sharing a schedule of rehearsals, production team meetings and publicity events and reviewing and revising that schedule as necessary;

Communicating effectively in a range of ways with a range of people;

Inspiring those who think they can’t to realise that they can;

Taking the lows with the highs and remaining confident that it will all work out;






There is always a bit of magic involved too and a need to believe in that magic. The magic that stops anyone being ill on the night, that makes the performance better than any rehearsal ever was, that gives everyone involved a sense of joy, love and amazement at what they can do.

There is a song in ‘Annie’ called ‘Maybe’ that is one of my favourites from any musical. It is a song about possibilities and hope….. A song about the ‘maybe’ of a better life. I recently did some training in solution focused therapy which involves encouraging the person with a difficulty to imagine an ideal tomorrow; it is an ideal future that Annie sings of.

But being involved in a school musical is no imagined ideal. It is a real-life, practical experience of working in a team to create something wonderful.

That’s why I love it.

Needs, now and nukes.



As austerity really bites and we tighten our collective educational belt by one notch more, the issue of need inevitably comes up for discussion.

There is a danger, as we are forced to allocated limited resources, that the needs of yesterday have become the wants or luxuries of today. Years of promoting early intervention because it prevents escalation of need seems to have become irrelevant because we have to make savings now and only the highest need can be prioritised. The fact that early intervention also saves money by avoiding higher cost interventions further down the line has been forgotten in the panic of reducing spending today.

One day on the news we are hearing about the cuts to CAMHS and the paucity of mental health services for children and young people and the next we are throwing money at instantly providing more services for adults. Whilst I fully support ANY awareness raising around mental health and ANY spending to improve services, there just doesn’t seem to be sense in cutting proactive interventions for children and young people whilst spending reactively to support a crisis amongst adults.

Where is our future planning? Where is the 15 year plan advocated because it is the length of time that the average child spends in education? When put like that, doesn’t it seem mad that priorities and agendas can change so drastically within a couple of years because they are politically driven? And that we can’t be more sustained and committed to values and evidence-based planning?

Need is clearly a complex issue. My needs are not those of a mother living in poverty in Africa and my children’s needs are not those of children in inner city poverty in the UK.

But can we not agree that within the education system of a developed, first world nation, need should be easy to define and that definitions should not be changed at the whim of budgets?

Is it now a luxury for an autistic child not to have to travel for hours to get specialist provision? Is it now a luxury for a child with significant physical disabilities to have swimming as part of the curriculum? Is it now a luxury for a child who has experienced significant neglect to have drama therapy?

Let’s say not; not now, not next year, not next decade, not ever?

We can try and justify cuts by saying that inclusion is about mainstreaming, not stigmatising and treating pupils with additional needs just like we treat their peers.  It’s all about equality, right?

But those of us who really know see that as the excuse it is, don’t we? We need equity, not  just equality. The chance for all children to thrive and achieve their potential equally, where necessary giving those with greater need extra help to do so.

Sadly I have run out of words to discuss the final ‘N’ in depth, so I’ll just drop the bombshell and let the reader decide…..

Are nukes a need..?

Optimism, options and opportunities



So yesterday my story was perhaps a little pessimistic. On Twitter, a lovely voice said ‘need to keep in mind that we continue to do the best with the resources we have’. And that is so true. Because everything is relative and actually we do have a lot, in many ways. There are almost always alternative options to be explored and more efficient ways of doing things.

I am generally prone to pessimism and negative thinking. I know that would surprise a lot of people and in fact a recent 360 degree review of my emotional intelligence by my colleagues showed that they view me as positive, energetic and inspiring. The results and comments made me think of a swan….graceful above the surface but paddling like hell underneath to keep things going.

The people who know me closely would probably acknowledge that I tend to be a glass half empty person and prone to self-doubt. But I have to say that of late, I have been trying to turn things around with positive self talk and mindful thinking. I think it comes above all from not wanting to pass on a negative mind-set to my own children. I have on occasions recently heard things come my daughter’s mouth that are the kinds of self-critical comments that run through my own mind and sometimes escape my lips. So I am really trying to model positivity and a more optimistic attitude. One thing that has helped me is the opportunity to train in solution-focused approaches recently. The idea that we focus on solutions based on what has worked in the past and do not dwell on past difficulties is very empowering. The approach is equally relevant to life and work situations and makes difficult conversations and meetings much more focused and productive.

Can we learn optimism? Or is there a sense in which being an Eeyore type personality is inevitable? I used to believe that it was but recently I have felt differently and that optimism can be cultured. I was interested last week to hear the wonderful Dame Carol Black say on Desert Island Discs that it took her until her fifties to really get into her stride. I felt incredibly inspired by that and I hope that for me, my forties is the decade where things really come together. But I also hope that I can use solution-focused thinking and optimism to help the girls and young women in my life and work to cut out the middle man of self-doubt and negativity and jump to the bit where the opportunities are there for the taking and enjoying. Because really, life’s too short……

Perceptions, politics and politeness.


A while back I had a conversation on Twitter (I think involving @suecowley and @jillberry ) about how the real world does not always live up to one’s virtual world. When Facebook and Twitter pals are humane, socialist and values-driven, it can take something like a general election to make you realise that you might be in a minority.

Sometimes things happen in my day to day life which re-enforce the idea that my perception of things is not always shared by others. Yesterday I mentioned the fact that I did a 360 degree emotional intelligence review recently. One of the results of it was an indication that I don’t always pick up on the politics behind situations and I think I get this; I find it very hard to understand why anyone in education would be driven by anything other than wanting to create an environment where the learning needs of pupils can be met in the best possible way.

I do get upset by things and often disagree with others as part of my professional life. But when that happens, I try above all to challenge with politeness and evidence-based arguments. And above all with arguments that have the needs of children and young people at their heart.

I recently read that having an over-developed sense of morality and justice is a characteristic of girls and women on the autistic spectrum. So am I neuro-atypical?

Possibly. But I’d rather be that than work in a values-based profession without the values needed to make a real difference.

Then again, if anyone wants to challenge my perceptions, I’m more than happy to listen and learn….


Quality, questions and Quatsch



When I was younger, my dad would frequently say to me “stop asking so many daft questions!”

I was quite probably an exasperating child to parent. Years later I remember hearing the claim “there’s no such thing as a stupid question….and feeling slightly vindicated. There are, of course, many stupid questions such as “shall we keep all Muslims from entering the US?” but in my late teens I liked the idea that I was perhaps not as daft as all that.

Years later again and there was a big focus in teaching around asking Quality Questions which would elicit the right kind of answers from pupils.

The opposite of a quality question would be what the Germans refer to as ‘Quatsch’. When I teach German, I like to highlight to pupils those German words which give utter pleasure just through the speaking of them. For me, the greatest of those is ‘Meerschweinchen’ which means guinea pig. But close behind is ‘Quatsch’, and specifically when it is in the phrase “Das ist ja Quatsch!” (‘that is just nonsense!’) which would sound: ‘dass ist ya kvatsh’, with a heavy emphasis on the final syllable. Try it out….

See? Don’t you feel great?

I just can’t not question. It is something which sometimes lands me in trouble because I have a habit of asking the awkward questions that create challenge to the status quo. In meetings, there will often be a moment, at the end of a discussion where a deal has almost been sealed, where I’ll tentatively pipe up “…but can I just ask…?” It is generally not what people want to hear. But if there is just a chance that we are going to make the wrong decision in relation to the life or future of a child or young question, isn’t it a question we need to ask?

It is not always an easy thing to live with. The early morning wake-ups, worrying about whether I have done the right thing and whether there has been a question left unanswered in a situation, or one that could have been answered differently; they lead to fatigue, self-doubt and irritability in the morning.

But nowadays I live more comfortably with my questioning mind. I am more able to accept that there are some questions to which there are straightforward answers and others to which there are not and which need constant revisiting.

Writing blogs has helped. The enforced ritual of reflecting each day has given me a huge sense of satisfaction and allowed my brain a structured time to question. The fact that people have been interested in some of my ‘Quatsch’ has been a huge bonus and I am very grateful. I sometimes wonder if it is a self indulgent task but then remember that people are perfectly free not to read what I write if they so choose.

I am not sure that I will be able to carry on every day once February ends. But then again, who knows?…

Reality, reflection and relativity.



We have not had half term, so I am just on a Friday/Monday long weekend.

There is a funny thing in our household that holidays are never quite what they are built up to be. Something always seems to happen to complicate issues and stop them from being the much needed break they should be.

But I guess that’s really just about the reality of life, as opposed to the shiny happy images created by the Thomas Cook or Center Parcs adverts (other holiday experiences are available….)

So this weekend is no exception. A combination of factors have transpired to mean that I feel short-changed and need to take some time to reflect, review all the incredibly positive things in my life and rise to the challenges ahead.

I read this yesterday and need to keep reading it as it certainly gives perspective:


There was a piece on Woman’s Hour this week where the guests including Flic Everett from the Guardian were discussing the Facebook motherhood challenge. They were challenging its premise and asking that we don’t promote the concept of the ‘awesome mum’ because it creates such a sense of inadequacy in those who struggle to feel awesome.

So, reality is a bit rubbish sometimes. But it is also relative…and stopping and realising that is important.

You don’t need to comment or ask if I’m ok because I will be.

Cue theme song:


Songs, singing and salvation.


Songs are amazing. Without wanting to sound like a character from the Fast Show, I could extol the virtues of songs for hours. The power of music to change our feelings is well documented and it is known that those suffering depression can be shifted out of low mood states by listening to well-chosen songs.

One of my favourite TV shows ever was Ali McBeal and one of its main sources of appeal was that the characters had ‘theme songs’ to inspire them through challenging times.

In our generally repressed and stiff-upper lipped British society it is through songs that we have historically been able to connect with others and share universal emotions. Before blogging, the way we knew that others felt like us during difficult times was through songs like ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. We were not alone. Sure, books also connect us with the universal but it is the combination of words, melody and rhythm in songs that allow a connection that is physical as well as cerebral.

Songs can be used with amazing effect in teaching. In Drama I use songs as stimulus for devised pieces, in MFL I often use YouTube songs to re-enforce vocab and I understand that there is a song about the periodic table that livens up  chemistry labs throughout the land.

Singing is also a vital way of connecting with the universe. I love singing and I have been blessed with what others consider to be a half-decent voice. I know that, whilst almost everyone can connect with songs and enjoy listening to them, not everyone enjoys singing.

I adore it, though. There is not much in life that thrills me as much as singing in 4 part harmony. That connection with others is spine-tinglingly something else.

Singing promotes health and once again there is plenty of evidence of the power of singing to enhance wellbeing.

Having led school choirs, I have been overwhelmed by the transformational power of choral singing to promote team work, self-confidence and creativity. Gareth Malone is an absolute living legend.

I was very unwell in the late eighties and can say that I literally sang myself back to health, on a journey that started with Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ and ended with Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd’.

Singing as salvation. Whilst it may sound over-dramatic, it wasn’t.

My current theme song is ‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten. What’s yours?


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