Who’s the Tutor?

In a recent short-lived but productive panic about money (I have them occasionally, since trading in my smattering of unsuccessful careers for life as a full-time home-maker and freelance child-wrangler), I reactivated my old tutoring profiles on a couple of websites. Within days one of them bore fruit, and last week I trundled off to the same seaside town in which I recently spent a week babysitting an adorable toddler, to conduct my first tutoring class for some years.

My student is 9 years old, a bright boy who I’ll call Livewire. His brother is 13 and his moniker can be Steadfast. I’m officially only tutoring Livewire, but Steadfast has hung around for at least part of the two lessons we’ve had so far, and has joined in our end-of-session chats. I think this is probably going to be a very useful thing, because it means the two boys can discuss what we’ve covered in the lesson and work together on figuring things out.

I was tasked by the parents to get Livewire ready for transitioning to secondary school in just under two years. They were concerned because Livewire is less quiet and studious than his older brother (hence the nicknames) and worried that he wouldn’t achieve his full potential when he did his GCSEs. I spent twenty minutes after the first lesson reassuring his mum that Livewire is a bright boy who is clearly motivated to learn, and that the fact he learns in a different way to Steadfast doesn’t mean he’ll be any less successful. She admitted that she was heavily influenced by the fact that she was taught using the head-down, textbook-open, memorise-and-repeat method and anxious about the unproven record of any other approach.

Point of interest: all my tutoring students to date have been from Asian families, their parents either first or second generation immigrants to the UK, and very eager for their offspring to achieve highly in exams. They’ve also, oddly enough, all been boys, but that’s beside the point. I did once turn down a job tutoring a 5 year old for four hours a week on the basis that the poor little mite shouldn’t have to endure extra classes after fighting his way through a full day of school when he’s very probably still in nappies at night, but on the whole I admire my employer parents’ desire to give their children a good education and am quite willing to work with their children towards their goals of academic excellence, but using my own methods.

My own methods are essentially based around three premises: that the student will get enough rote-learning and fact-instilling at school, that learning is most successful when enjoyable, and that knowledge is worthless without understanding. With Livewire, I’m tutoring both maths and English, although really we’re just discussing philosophy and the mysteries of the universe under different headings.

In our first session I got Livewire to spend 15 minutes on each of two practice maths SATs tests, to get a baseline for his knowledge at present. He didn’t complete both papers or get all the answers right, which is precisely what I expected since he won’t take the tests for real until the end of next year, and will get three times as long to do them, but he did enough for me to tell that he is intelligent and has been taught well. I identified some basic gaps in his understanding though, so that’s what we’re targeting first.

On Friday we spent nearly 45 minutes trying to figure out why the order of operations does, and doesn’t, work. He didn’t know the concept, but that didn’t stop him discovering, within minutes, that the claim I had been taught at school and parroted on to him, that you can do multiplication and division in any order and get the same answer, was wrong. You have to do it left to right, and we couldn’t figure out why that was the case.

I came home determined to ensure that I understood the underlying mathematics to the rule so that I could explain them to Livewire and Steadfast, who was also baffled by the discovery that his teachers had mislead him. I’ve spent quite a few hours on it over the weekend and have figured out how to explain addition, subtraction and multiplication in real-world terms (represented by marbles and a number line), but I’m still wrestling with division. Why is 8 divided by 4 the same as 8 times 0.25? I can dimly recognise that it is logical that division is inverse multiplication, but I’ve not managed to grasp it with the same certainty that I now have regarding subtraction being inverse addition (or rather, addition of a negative number).

I’m really enjoying this new tutoring venture, but I’m not convinced that it would be true to say that I’m teaching and Livewire is learning. Rather, we’re both rooting around to figure out why things are true, and he’s leading the discoveries at least as much as I am. I always preferred to understand the mathematical reasoning rather than simply learning the formula, but my GCSE teacher was so dismissive and critical of my questions that he completely put me off the whole thing for nearly a decade, so it’s fun to come back to it and start again from the very basics. Who knows? This time next year we might both be moving onto the sort of advanced maths I never studied at school!

Our Colourful Cottage

Welcome to our cottage! It felt like home pretty quickly, but we’ve been steadily putting our stamp on it and it’s really feeling like our nest now. As you’ll gather, if you hadn’t already realised, we’re both big fans of bright colours and pretty things. We mainly use the back door which leads into the sunroom, so that’s where we’ll start our tour.


Our little cottage is a bit topsy-turvey, with the sunroom that houses our dining table and white goods (and the dog crate), a tiny toilet off that room which doesn’t have a sink so is being used as our coat room and storage, then a little galley kitchen. It has a window through into the sunroom which is an extension, so there’s lots of light.


Coming off the kitchen through the door you can just see to the left is the bathroom – I said it was topsy-turvey! – and at the other end from the sunroom is the door to the room we’ve made into our bedroom. That was the room we focused on getting sorted first, and it’s a really cosy space now. Naomi’s settee is at the foot of the bed with the blanket she crocheted. There are actually built-in cupboards behind the wardrobe but we decided we needed somewhere to hang clothes more than we needed more shelf space, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t really get at those.


I spent several frustrating hours trying to put up the curtain rail, and we had to do a mad dash to B&Q ten minutes before they closed to get the right kind of drill bits, only to discover we hadn’t got any curtain hooks so still couldn’t hang the curtains when I finally finished with the rail at midnight! Anyway, it is sorted now. You can just glimpse the edge of Naomi’s bedside table – with giraffes! It has four shelves and was a present from my dad and his partner. It’s perfect, much more suitable than the little table we were using before which just didn’t have enough space for all the totally essential things Naomi keeps by her bed…


Also coming off the kitchen is the staircase upstairs. The doors to the stairs look like they are for an airing cupboard, which is quite funny when we have visitors! We generally keep them as you see in the picture, with one door to the stairs open, the other closed and the door to the sunroom propped open so that Paige-cat can get up and down the stairs but Benny the puppy can’t follow her. They’re not friends quite yet…


Upstairs there’s a small room with a single bed, chest of drawers and wardrobe already in it, and I’ve added my bookcase, desk, armchair and a beautiful colourful rug. It will be my office once I’ve finished unpacking all the remaining boxes. There are only six or so, but they’re the ones we don’t urgently need and have gravitated into that room from the rest of the house. I’ll take some photos once it’s tidier, it’s already looking lovely with a purple bedspread and the rainbow rug.

The other room upstairs would have been the main bedroom if we hadn’t put that downstairs, so we’ve made it into a sitting room. My daybed is in there and it has already served as a guest bed when Naomi’s parents came to visit, but its day job is as a sofa. Then there’s a gorgeous red-topped desk I found in an antiques shop, with my sewing machine on it and loads of drawers for all our crafting materials. The owner left a big wardrobe in here which is perfect for keeping spare blankets and pillows for guests, and a wooden chest in which I am keeping fabric for future sewing projects. My piano is in one corner and all our Christmas decorations are tucked away in a little cupboard. We still have loads of storage space to spare, which is such a change from all my tiny flats.


Paige is mostly staying in this room (we’ve put her second litter tray, some water and her food bowl in here) because Benny isn’t allowed upstairs yet, and he won’t stop barking whenever he sees her. I’m really glad to have a room where my sewing machine can stay out, and am excited about playing my piano more now that it has a place of its own!

I only really finished the sitting room yesterday, and there are still patches of disorder in other rooms – I took the photos strategically. It’s been good to let it evolve gradually, so that things are being put in places based on how we use them, but it does mean that we still have things in odd places. If we had just spent the last five weeks on the cottage I expect it would be finished by now, but we’ve also been tidying up the garden (lots of hedge trimming, grass cutting and weed pulling, and I found an unexpected path that our landlady hadn’t ever seen!) and, of course, getting to know our new puppy. You’ll meet him in the next post.

Putting Down Roots Down South

I bet you’re all on tenterhooks to find out how the move went! I’ve been online a lot less frequently than before we moved, simply because there’s so much else to do (and also because we didn’t actually have internet in the cottage for the first two weeks). However, this evening it is raining outside, Naomi is studying statistics, the cat is in the garden, the dog is asleep and I am catching up on blogging.

That sentence gives you a peek into some of the things I’ve been busy with: we’ve got a garden! And a dog! Both of those are worthy of their own introduction, so I will write proper posts on each, but for now let’s recap how the move went. Continue reading

Facing the Future

It’s been something of a whirlwind few weeks. Actually, it’s been something of a whirlwind year!

July 2nd was the anniversary of Naomi and I meeting. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole year, and hard to believe that it’s only been a year. So much has happened, some of which I’ve blogged about, and we both feel that in many ways it has accelerated our relationship by testing it in nearly every conceivable way.

More tests loom: in August, we will be moving house. Not only will this be the first time we’ve lived together, we’re also moving over 100 miles (or 135, depending whether or not you can fly) to a place where neither of us knows anyone yet. The process of finding ourselves somewhere to live has felt little short of miraculous. Only a few days after I had posted a desperate plea for ideas as we were struggling to find anywhere suitable in East Sussex, we received an email responding to our similar plea on Gumtree. The sender had a cottage in East Sussex, and she was moving for work. The bathroom was on the ground floor and she would be very happy for a cat and even a dog to live with us there. Were we interested in renting it? Continue reading

What Are We Going to Do?

I slept well last night, surprisingly enough. In 2008 I struggled to sleep, wondering what was happening across the pond and whether I’d wake up in a world where the most powerful person on the planet was a man who approved of the death penalty but not contraception, opposes abortion but supports embryonic stem cell research, doesn’t believe my marriage will be valid before God, and thinks autism is caused by vaccines. A world of inconsistency, illogical reasoning, ignorance to facts and the imposition of beliefs on others. Thankfully, the morning brought a different result. My sleepless night had been for naught.

Last year I went to sleep on the night of the UK general election cautiously optimistic that I would wake to negotiations between the left-leaning parties with a view to forming a coalition government. I actually woke up to discover almost the opposite. A frighteningly high number of people had voted for a party with openly racist policies. A majority of this country had voted for a party which not only admits to but prides itself on prioritising economic value above all else, including the inherent value of human life. It would be irrational (and we know how I feel about irrationality!) to suggest that the result might have been different had I kept an anxious vigil. At least I was well-rested when I had to face the horrible truth.

Over the last year the consequences of that decision by this country, my country, Britain, a country and a people with whom I have had a very complicated relationship most of my life, have become starkly clear. I was still working in the NHS when the 2015 election results were published, and the mood in the hospital was grim. We could all see the writing on the wall: funding cuts, not just to the NHS but to the social care institutions that kept people out of hospital, benefit cuts to the already-struggling families trying to overcome generations of class discrimination and income inequality, an indefinite period in which we would be “all in this together” in much the same way that all animals are equal on Manor Farm. I was in shock. I really had thought that we had started to wake up to the fact that you can’t make decisions about people’s lives based on purely economic measures. I was wrong.

Yesterday I went to sleep believing that despite the fear-mongering, the inaccurate “facts”, the enthusiastic dividing of camps and the alarming rhetoric, the knowledge that we have more in common would win out. I thought about how much of the food in supermarkets comes from Spain, France and Portugal, and how EU export laws have made lower food prices possible. I’m in favour of buying locally, and personally I try to avoid produce that’s crossed oceans to reach my basket, but not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford that choice. Without the EU, food is going to cost more.

I fell asleep after an evening during which I read over the introductory chapter of my friend’s book, about feminism in Germany since the 1970s. She’s German, but she’s lived in this country for years and worked not only in academia but also in activism, striving for peace, unity and a fairer system which treats everyone with respect. She is just one of dozens of Europeans I know who live in the UK, work here, pay income tax and VAT and council tax and contribute to the British economy just as much as if they had been born here. They didn’t get to vote yesterday, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the vote they were excluded from was crucial to the structure of the lives. Britain leaves the EU and they may have to leave Britain.

You know the punchline already: I woke up and the fear had won. That vile serpent Niggle Farridge is all over the news, brandishing his passport and crowing about independence. I wonder what his German wife feels about that? The £350,000,000 that supposedly was being sucked into Brussels out of the desperate fingers of the NHS has evaporated into the puff of hot air it always was and I want to run into the street screaming “WE TOLD YOU IT WAS A LIE!” but I can’t bring myself to get dressed and face the day. Maybe if I stay inside, in my bedroom, with my blissfully-unaware cat purring happily on my lap, I can avoid having to fully accept what has happened.

I hate change. I hate uncertainty. Even if I strongly believed that remaining in the EU was a bad idea, I would have found a Leave vote difficult to deal with. The fear and anxiety is magnified a thousand-fold by the fact that the uncertain changes that we are facing are a consequence of thousands, millions, of people making a choice based on inaccurate figures, simplistic divisions and xenophobic prophesying. Not everyone who wants to leave the EU is motivated by racism, but a frighteningly high number of them are. There’s no way to parse “Britain first” that doesn’t imply that everyone else, all those Others, come last. The UK must “take care of its own”, an alarming concept for anyone who identifies with any group that hasn’t always been embraced as part of the family: people with mental health problems, people with disabilities, people of colour, queer people, poor people… anyone, in short, who is too different from those glorious patterns of Britishness, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and our dear friend Niggle. A Turkish-Swiss American, an adopted Scot who turned his back on the Labour party, and single-issue rich boy with a German wife, German ancestry and a spectacular ability to spin reality into a tissue of deceit.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t know how we can cope. Things are going to get worse, and I don’t know if they can get better. How have we reached this point, where people genuinely believe that arbitrary lines on a map have more bearing on people’s worth than anything else?

I’ve never been proud to be English. For a start, that would be a betrayal of my Scottish heritage which has shaped my identity a dozen ways. I think “English” and I see drunk football thugs throwing bottles, skinheads hurling abuse and talking about racial purity, red-coated aristocrats galloping across fields to slaughter animals for sport. But I did used to be proud to be British. I grew up in the north of England, where immigration is a decades-old tradition which has enriched the culture, boosted the economy and broadened the minds of generations. My best friends, the three women who were designated my bridesmaids long before I knew the name of the bride, are all the children of immigrants. I speak three European languages, understand a smattering of three more, have lived in and visited a dozen countries and can’t think of a single area of my life which hasn’t been improved by people making use of the freedom of movement. Now that is in jeopardy.

This is a rambling post and I don’t really know how to end it, because this is only the start. No one knows what is going to happen next, but I predict it won’t be a sudden upswing in the welfare and prospects of the British people. Whoever they are. It won’t be a better-funded NHS, lower unemployment, cheaper food, fewer terrorist threats. I’m scared.

The Trials and Tribulations of Moving with Wheels

So we’re pretty much up to date around here: Naomi’s got a place on a doctorate, we’re moving in together for the first time, and we’re moving aaalllll the way south. Great!

Sadly not currently available to rent

Except not quite so straight forward as that, of course. I’ve been incredibly fortunate when looking for places to live in the past. I took the first place I saw (twice!) in Birmingham, and then did have a bit of trouble finding somewhere in Cambridge until my school-friend popped up and said, “Hey! Fancy living in our spare bedroom and paying a frankly ridiculously low rent and we’ll feed your cat on the numerous occasions you’re away and not complain too much about the smelly litter tray?”. Turns out this isn’t because I’m an expert flat-hunter. It’s because until now, I have been incredibly uncomplicated to house. One room, running water, a roof, electricity and heating, I was good to go. Not any more! Continue reading

A Magnificent Return

Well, it’s been a fair old while, hasn’t it? For a while I thought I’d just stopped blogging entirely, but lately I’ve been having a few thoughts about blog posts I want to write – or more accurately, blog posts I wanted to read except that they don’t exist yet. Life has been taking interesting twists and turns, causing me to learn and grow in ways that might be useful, or at least entertaining, to other people. Continue reading

Boing, boing, boing, bouncing around the country!

Greetings from… Cambridge, again! A lot has happened since my last post. First, the family who I had been nannying for all year decided to fire me for reasons I continue to think were unfair and baseless (I won’t go into details, but I felt very hurt and betrayed about it for quite a long time). Then the nanny share fell through, as the first family decided to send their child to nursery instead and the second family, after initially wanting to continue without a share, eventually backtracked and found a childminder.

I carried on looking for nannying work but I also started looking at other jobs, mainly along the lines of being a family support worker. I hadn’t known this kind of job existed! Essentially it combines what I most loved about midwifery (working in the community to support families) with a lot of the skills I’ve gained through nannying, and also uses my law degree a little bit and essentially sounds like my ideal job.

At the start of July, I went down to Cambridge with my friend Nicola to help her get her electric wheelchair serviced, and she invited a few friends to dinner while we were there. One was a woman called Naomi, who Nicola had mentioned she thought I would get along well with. Continue reading

Another New Direction

I really wanted to be a midwife. As soon as I stumbled across the idea, I knew it ticked all the boxes for what I wanted to achieve and what skills I had. My plan was to complete my degree, and either work a few years as a midwife or go straight into a health visiting course.

The problem is that I am not good at hospitals. The NHS, at least from the perspective of someone who works on the ground as it were, is run as a tight ship with strict hierarchy, lots of policies and guidelines, and shifts that seem specially designed to make it almost impossible to live a normal life. Perhaps some people thrive in an environment like that. In fact I know they do – I met dozens of them on placement; women (mostly women, although some men) who breeze through a thirteen hour shift giving endless amounts of energy and care and achieving more than would seem possible without ever complaining, and then coming back in 10 hours later to do it all again.

This sort of silliness does not go down well in hospitals
This sort of silliness does not go down well in hospitals

Continue reading