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?

25 responses to “What do you notice?”

  1. Ruth Swailes avatar
    Ruth Swailes

    Thank you Sue!

  2. sharon Skade avatar
    sharon Skade

    Great reflection on where we are, agree the rush to “normal” is worrying, I too am self employed mainly nurseries and not sure whether to pick it back up.
    Thanks for taking the time to write this

    Sharon Skade

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thanks Sharon

  3. Tina Beddoe avatar
    Tina Beddoe

    I’ve just read this drinking my morning cup of tea in the conservatory Ruth. It echoes so much of what I have been thinking and feeling and you have written it so eloquently.
    Thank you.
    Take care,
    Tina (ex head teacher)

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you Tina

  4. Kate Owbridge avatar
    Kate Owbridge

    Brilliant piece Ruth.
    I particularly like the part about not worrying about the children catching up lost learning. It’s not bothering me at all but seems to be bothering so many others.
    Keep up the “noticing”!

  5. Mary Berry avatar
    Mary Berry

    A beautiful piece Ruth. You have really hit the nail on the head,
    This resonated with me. I will be using ‘what do you notice?’ when we get back to school. Thank you.

  6. Helen Lambirth avatar
    Helen Lambirth

    Thanks for writing this Ruth. It actually made me well up a bit as the enormity of what is happening rose to the surface again. As you rightly acknowledge, the big fear is schools opening too soon and for the wrong reasons. I feel the economy may be the reason. I don’t want to put the children or my staff’s lives at risk for the economy. It’s just not worth it. Social distancing in an Infant School is frankly impossible. This gives me the biggest fear – and that it is out of my control.

  7. Lydia avatar

    In total agreement Ruth. I miss my class and school community immensely but care enough about them to hope that when the time is right, we return with great care. My focus will be on gentle tlc. Not to be found in the curriculum but most needed! Thank you for writing this piece.

  8. Nicole Fowles avatar
    Nicole Fowles

    A considered, thought-provoking and important blog. Really resonated with me and that is one of my all time favourite questions.
    “The mind resists commands and responds to questions.” Nancy Kline.

    Thank you for this blog, Ruth. Stay safe and strong

  9. Julie McAllister avatar
    Julie McAllister

    Thank you Ruth your words really struck a chord with me. I too have done a lot more noticing – of my family, my garden, my beautiful local area and I am so grateful.
    Yes we must continue to notice more. As we get older we tend to do it less and less to have this pause on life has been a reminder to stop and ask that question. The young children we work with are true experts at noticing, our role must be to nurture and nourish this and not to rush.

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you Julie, I hope we don’t forget what we’ve learned from this experience, once its over.

  10. David Cahn avatar
    David Cahn

    Wonderful wonderful blog!!

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you

    2. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you David

  11. Emma Hough avatar
    Emma Hough

    You have said all that I have been thinking just brilliantly! I’m always inspired when I’ve heard you speak at events. Thank you for taking the time to share this with us.

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thanks Emma, you’re very kind.

  12. Emma Hough avatar
    Emma Hough

    This speaks volumes. Brilliant.

  13. Anne O'CONNOR avatar
    Anne O’CONNOR

    Thanks Ruth! I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this notion of children ‘falling behind’ and completely agree with you. Falling behind what? The totally arbitrary ‘milestones’ and ‘goals’ that are used to judge our children and our schools, that have largely been created by people who pay little attention to what we know about children’s physical, neurological and emotional development? Am reminded of the little boy in my nursery class who was showing signs of being borderline genius at the age of three, despite a physical disability and learning English as an additional language. Half way through the year, his parents realised we had been given the wrong information about his birthdate – he was actually a whole year older than we had thought. He went from being a ‘genius’ to being ‘average’ over night, just because we viewed his achievements differently. Same child, same achievements, different criteria. Different outcomes for the child? Hopefully not – as we learned an uncomfortable truth about ourselves as well as the educational system. Our judgements can make a huge difference to a child ( and their family’s) self image and we needed to think about how we showed our unconditional regard for all our children, regardless of their place on the wide developmental spectrum that gets labelled ‘ability’. That’s why I can’t help thinking how great it would be if children returned to school,ideally, no sooner than September and as though they were all the age they were in Sept 2019. Obviously, I am holding out for a full scale revolution and total ‘re-imagining’ of what education can be (goes without saying????) but even if we don’t come out of this with the educational change that’s needed, then at the very least, starting the year over would bring some of those unrealistic goals more within the developmental grasp of all our children. It might help the powers that be see there is little advantage in rushing children into academia – and we can maybe shift the school starting age while we are at it! Thanks again Ruth for writing this and for kick starting some ideas of my own that have been fermenting during this forced ‘downtime’ …might just have to start blogging again now there is no-one to rabbit on at on a daily basis! All the best and keep safe & stay well,
    Anne x

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you Anne, there’s certainly a lot to consider and we have the time to do it. Great change often follows adversity, the NHS post WW2, The McMillan sisters’ outdoor nursery as a response mass industrialisation and its impact on children and the impending war. Malguzzi’s approach to ECE after Fascism.
      Perhaps now the time is ripe to rethink the way we work with our youngest children.

  14. Emma Clarke avatar
    Emma Clarke

    I love this question! Thank you for writing this.

  15. Lisa Fern avatar
    Lisa Fern

    Thanks Ruth
    This resonates so much with me.
    Such an honestly written piece that has certainly made me reflect on a few things.
    Take care and stay Safe

  16. Lisa avatar

    Read this while having a coffee and looking out into my garden. It’s raining today and while that could be seen as a shame as the sunshine has been such a wonderfully positive thing these last weeks, I prefer to see the beauty in the change of weather and it makes me notice other things too.

    I love the idea of taking those moments each day – for me as for many – the early morning peace is the best time of day for this.

    I notice my own privilege. I live in a comfortable home and have my family safe around me. My eldest, who lives in China, has come through the quarantine there without falling ill, for which I am immensely grateful.

    My role as safeguarding lead in a secondary school has been thrown into disarray and we are having to find new ways of working and supporting our vulnerable families. We lost the mum of one our students this week and it’s made me think how many lives are going to be irrevocably changed by the time we go back to school.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts they resonate deeply with me and I will strive to notice more each day. I hope you and your loved ones keep safe and well.

    1. Ruth Swailes avatar
      Ruth Swailes

      Thank you Lisa.

  17. Janet Hogg avatar
    Janet Hogg

    A lovely blog that I have just picked up on. It is almost as if you have read my mind Ruth. So many of us must be thinking the same , being bombarded by the media with a variety of their ideas but not really thinking of the impact of their words.
    I for one will ‘keep on noticing’ and feel blessed for what I have.

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