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A critical reflection of my first year of teaching in the Independent sector: Expectations vs Reality
Introduction and context
In this assignment I reflect upon my first year of teaching in an independent school and will explore the themes of behaviour management, subject knowledge and pedagogy, and moving into a new school. I am a Psychology specialist, who also teaches English, teaching from Key Stage 3-5. Although I was trained in the state sector, I attended private school. However, this was a reasonably alternative school which may partially explain my more progressive philosophy to teaching. Furthermore, having completed my PGCE at the University of Sussex, I felt encouraged towards a more progressive look at teaching and learning, using student-centred pedagogy. I believe this is due to Sussex having a reputation for being more liberal and heavily involved with research which may lead to more innovative methods being advocated. These aspects contribute towards the bigger picture of my expectations of teaching. I looked forward to my Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) year in a small independent school; a chance to be dynamic, innovative and at the forefront of education; whilst still understanding the realistic demands of teaching i.e. workload.
Manor School (pseudonym) is a good, non-selective, independent girls’ day and boarding school, with a co-educational nursery for students aged 0-18 years, located in East Sussex. There are 334 students on roll, of whom 241 are day students and 93 are boarders. Many students in attendance are White British, however the proportion of students speaking English as an additional language (EAL) exceeds the national average. One student has an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan and 16 other students are registered as having special educational needs and disability (SEND) (ISI, 2017), although this is not higher than the national average, many students in attendance appear to have undiagnosed SEND, particularly EAL students.
The School has elements of a strong community, the motto being ‘other people matter’, founded in 1875 by Ingham (1902), a progressive educational visionary. The behaviour is mostly very good, especially on the surface: you ask the students to do something and they do it; yet there can be some low disruption which surprisingly I have found more challenging that overtly ‘bad’ behaviour. It soon became apparent that the ‘family feel’ was aesthetic, and there were insidious dynamics trickling from the top down. At my interview I had not been allowed to mix with other members of staff, this was a warning sign that I unfortunately missed. The management were fractured and inconsistent; staff felt constantly under threat and there were always many tears in the staffroom. The school has been in trouble, students and teachers alike were leaving in their droves. A new school had begun a partnership with Manor, this both shocked and partially revived the school but it still has some way to go. This has been a hugely contrasting experience to that of my training year and my own independent education; both of which I enjoyed immensely as a professional and a student. Personally, and professionally, this year has been extremely challenging, some of which will be reflected upon through my critical incidents.
There is a wealth of research associated with expectations, mostly focusing on the influence of teacher expectations of students and the self-fulfilling prophecies that may ensue (Jussim & Harber, 2005). However, only recently, following the growing retention crisis, have teacher expectations of the profession been studied; citing stress, time-pressures and lack of support (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2011). These studies overlook the potential impact of teacher expectations of their education sector. It is here that I have identified a gap in the literature and will discuss this in relation to my expectations and the reality of working in an independent school as an NQT.
Critical incident: behaviour management
When starting at the school, the previous teacher told me about a student in her English class; the words: “I hope you don’t have her in your class, she’s the worst behaved in the school” stuck with me. This student is an EAL student currently in year 9, she will be known as thirteen-year-old Maisy (pseudonym). Maisy is often disengaged and defiant. She arrives late to class, will rarely interact with teaching staff or students, refuses to complete tasks and often falls asleep during lessons. Maisy has been known to throw chairs, pens and physically intimidate teachers and as such as built up a reputation in the school. This behaviour has occurred consistently since the start of the school year, although I am told her behaviour has improved since last year.
Recently, in one of my classes, whilst already being on report for poor behaviour, Maisy threw a pen and kicked a chair at my teaching assistant (TA). On this occasion, Maisy arrived very late to the lesson; I had been informed by some of the students that she had no intention to attend the class. When she came in she ignored my questioning as to why she was late. I chose to move on from this and direct her towards the task. Choosing to pick my battles is a technique I learnt on the PGCE from Dix (2015). I have realised that I have an internal list of behaviours that I deem acceptable and unacceptable of which I try to deal with consistently through follow-up, consequences, positive reinforcement and language (Dix, 2015; Bennett, 2017). This links to expectations, as these acceptable and unacceptable behaviours may differ depending on the child, for example I believe I have lower expectations of Maisy due to her behaviour (Miller, 1995). However perhaps this may cause her to behaviour poorly: a vicious cycle of preconceptions and self-fulfilling prophecy, which may be explained by Attribution theory (Miller, 1995).
I asked the TA to support Maisy, she asked Maisy if she had her report card, which she did not have with her and had reminded her of the four expectations previously agreed by her and the head of year. This also refers to consistency advocated by both Dix (2015) and Bennett (2017). To have whole school consistency, it is important that you have a clearly outlined policy. Manor’s behaviour policy (2017-2018) is not available to all staff, thus it is not consistently followed. I asked my Head of Section for a copy and learned that it was extremely vague both in its causes and consequences e.g. misbehaviour is listed as a minor non-compliance along with untidiness resulting in a warning; these are both subjective terms and can thus vary from teacher to teacher depending on their expectations. Interestingly, the behaviour policy for the nursery is available to all staff and whilst still vague, is more detailed than policies for seniors. This may link to expectations in that leadership believe older children are more in control of their behaviour and thus do not require as stringent a policy as younger children (Miller, 1995).
The TA and I had encouraged Maisy to engage with the task. She verbalised an answer which I told her to write down, she continued to not write anything, and so after a few minutes I went back and said that I wanted to see her write 5 lines by the time I got back in 5 minutes. This was to communicate my expectation and set her an achievable target that she could potentially exceed and receive praise for her effort (Dix, 2015), however perhaps this expectation was too high for a student with EAL. After 5 minutes she had written 3 lines, I told her to that she was doing well and to keep going: positive reinforcement (Dix, 2015). She then spent 10 minutes staring at the book; having written one word, the TA explained to Maisy that she had been on that word for 10 minutes now and to think of her report card, reminding her that it was for her own good. She then threw her pen across the classroom, presumably out of frustration, which I perceived as being directed at the TA. This caused me to react rather than act with an emotional brain (Dix, 2015) and I asked Maisy to step outside the classroom. I made this decision to both remove her from an escalating situation, keeping the classroom a safe place for all, with the aim of lower tensions and have a private one-to-one with her (Dix, 2015); however with hindsight this did not achieve the desired outcome. She would not move; I asked her again to go stand outside. With a continued lack of response, I opened the door and told her I was going to count to ten for her to step outside and to consider the disruption this had caused. Unfortunately and unintentionally, this could have been humiliating fuelling her resistance. I then contacted the Head of Section (Manor, 2017-2018); she then threw another pen and kicked the table. Contrastingly, her response to his presence was submissive and she went calmly.
The reason I chose this critical incident is because in the context of the school, this is poor and unusual behaviour and she is a pupil that I find very challenging to teach. This may be due to adopting more traditional approaches to behaviour management e.g. carrot and stick, a popular technique used at Manor. However, I think that the way in which behaviour is managed in a school needs to be both on an individual level (Dix, 2015), as a culture (Bennett, 2017) and what the teacher is comfortable with, otherwise inconsistencies are bound to occur. Furthermore, this links to expectations in that the behaviour approach a teacher adopts may be due to their own philosophy of education, as well as the ethos and policies of the institution; suggesting the importance of fitting in (Maynard, 2010).
Since Ward (1971), behavioural approaches: rewards and sanctions, have become a persistent feature of school behaviour policies to date (Bennett, 2017). However, behaviourism provides an incomplete explanation for human behaviour, accounting for behaviour that is objectively observed, and dismisses key influential factors such as emotion and motivation. This is where a restorative approach may be more advantageous (Dix, 2015). Furthermore, prescribed methods such as the behavioural approach do not account for differences in teaching style, let alone individual differences in students. Miller (1995) refers to these as a teacher’s intuitive methods and discusses the effect of teacher attributions of causality, control and responsibility on their response to difficult pupil behaviour. This has implications in practice for both the restorative approach and Attribution theory which will be discussed.
Somewhere along the way I had lost sight of my intuitive methods and restorative approach to behaviour management and needed this reminder. During my PGCE I was inspired by Dix’s (2015) approach to behaviour management. His methods are based on consistency, building emotional resilience, valuing learners, modelling desired behaviour and using calm, stepped interventions (Dix, 2015). This has influenced my practice and my ideals of what a positive teacher-student relationship looks like. I try to employ several of the discussed methods, however the most effective I have found is the ‘script’ which uses set phrases e.g. ‘I hear what you are saying…’, ‘yes sometimes I may appear unfair…’ (Dix, 2015, p. 14) to both restore the relationship and control the direction of the interaction to meet the teacher’s expectation of behaviour. The effectiveness of these methods relies upon the principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programming which cultivates a calm tone of voice, something I may have been lacking when interacting with Maisy.
Another barriers to my use of the restorative method may be due to having preconceptions of Maisy’s behaviour. Attribution theory, first introduced by Heider (1958), suggests how a social perceiver uses information to explain other’s behaviour e.g. are they in control of their behaviour? Essentially, we look for cause and effect relationships to make sense of our world. After reading Attribution theory for my masters, I realised that I had built an attribution of Maisy before I had even begun to teach her, based on what I had been told by the previous teacher. This may have implications for my practice: it could have hindered my ability to build a positive working relationship with this student as I may have unconsciously filtered her behaviour through my attribution of her. Fiske and Taylor (1991) suggested a model combining attributions of causes and solutions, these attributions are medical, moral, enlightenment and compensatory. My observations of Maisy suggest a medical attribution: not responsible for either cause or solution respectively, as she presents as undiagnosed SEND. Yet before I met her I believed she was poorly behaved but in control, a moral attribution; thus expectations may impact perception as well as behaviour itself.
Prior to Miller (1995) Attribution theory has rarely been applied to a school setting, which is peculiar considering expectations are intrinsically linked to behaviour. However, Miller (1995) used a primary school sample thus findings may not be applicable to secondary school settings where low-level disruption is a larger problem, requiring a different level of intervention. Furthermore, the attribution model (Fiske & Taylor, 1991) is rigid, deterministic and reductionist as it rejects the notion that behaviour is idiographic, requiring a holistic approach.
However, there are also issues with using the restorative approach. Firstly, although effective, the script could appear artificial or disingenuous when consistently applied which could evoke a negative response from the student. One way to overcome this is by tweaking the script to the situation but this is not always easy to do in practice, with a classroom full of students. There are still elements of the restorative approach that I need to work on to fully integrate this into my behaviour management strategy. This highlights an expectation of myself as a professional, striving to continually develop. However, its success may be dependent upon the teacher’s values, the culture of the classroom and the school (Bruner, 1963). If Manor had a more structured behaviour policy, that was consistently followed (Bennett, 2017), perhaps there would be fewer incidents of poor behaviour as, currently, the students know there are no ‘real’ consequences (Manor, 2017-2018).
Alternatively, Maisy’s behaviour may be due to her level of English. It is a common teacher perception that EAL students with low level English proficiency struggle when submerged into mainstream education immediately and would benefit from a course intensive English lessons upon arrival (Arnot et al, 2014). Subsequently, without provision, a student might enter a silent period which impacts their self-esteem and behaviour; and as a result, their educational achievement and progress. This may explain Maisy’s unwillingness to interact, though provision should be better for her in an independent school. However, she seemed to understand when she was behaving poorly as she has a higher level of English than she portrays: a moral attribution (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). This was displayed when she asked me “do you think this is my first detention?” Furthermore, her behaviour can be variable, sometimes mildly engaging with a task which I positively reinforce with praise, however this does not appear to be very effective as her engagement is not sustained, and there are no overt preferences towards different tasks; thus, identifying a pattern to reinforce behaviour is difficult. Nevertheless, these are subjective inferences, which links back to Attribution theory and my expectations of my school and students (Miller, 1995).
Personally, and professionally, I strive to separate the person from the behaviour, advocated by Dix (2015); this understanding coupled with Attribution theory (Miller, 1995) has made me realise that it is important for me to understand the cause to inform my response. However, Dix (2015) does not account for individual differences, limiting the application and effectiveness of these strategies; thus an interactionalist approach to behaviour management may be advantageous.
Ultimately, I have learnt that Attribution theory (Miller, 1995) may have implications for my practice due to my psychology background and a reliance on my intuitive methods to perceive social situations. However, if I am striving to separate behaviour from the person, why should it be important that I understand the cause? To provide knowledge and understanding for future interactions? Furthermore, it begs the question whether my attribution matters in the wider context; I am just one teacher in one school, if my attribution fits within that culture does it matter? Dix’s (2015) methods are focused on the individual teacher, but Bennett (2017) suggests that behaviour management needs to be a whole school approach and emphasises the importance of strong, consistent leadership. Therefore, if there is poor leadership how does one teacher navigate a top-down system to affect change? Perhaps the most pertinent consideration here is congruence between teacher and schools expectations (Maynard, 2010).
Critical incident: subject pedagogy
Whilst flipped learning is a pedagogy I employ that is closely intertwined with my teaching style and thus will be discussed synonymously, my teaching style is far greater: encompassing my beliefs, behaviours and qualities used to transform information into knowledge in a teaching and learning exchange (Heimlich & Norland, 2002); these stem from my expectations and how I perceive education (Miller, 1995). Flipped learning being a part of my teaching style poses a larger issue that I may not fit in with Manor’s culture (Maynard, 2010; Bruner, 1963).
Arguably, many people can be credited for the development of flipped learning, however the largest turning point could be considered Lage, Platt and Treglia (2000). They suggested the use of flipped learning as a means of appealing to a broad spectrum of learning styles and fostering independence. Although this may appear a recent occurrence, flip has been bubbling under the surface ever since Piaget’s (1952) push towards active, independent learning. The constructivists emphasised the importance of learners being provided with challenges, building knowledge through experience and teachers to nurture inquiry: a student-centred approach (Piaget, 1952). Although critics of a student-centred approach argue that it is entrenched in political crossfire and suggest that the ingredients of constructivism are opposite to effective teaching and learning (Peal, 2014); these are not founded upon credible empirical evidence.
Due to the challenging demands of new specifications (GOV UK, 2015) and a personal motivation to innovate, I use a ‘flipped classroom’ model. This is part of what I bring to the classroom, referred to as habitas (Kansanen, 2009). This model worked well in my previous institution, a large successful college that upheld a culture of fostering independence and resilience (Bruner, 1963; Piaget, 1952). When I started in my current school, senior management were invigorated by the idea of flipped learning and had tried to bring it in by way of continual professional development back in 2012 to no avail. However, when put into practice, there was a change in opinion due to a rift between students. Even though all students were making good progress using this model, the personal distaste towards independent learning and the comfort and familiarity of a ‘teacher-led’ approach was decidedly the beginning of the end for flipped learning. French (2017, p. 10) provides an explanation ‘the use of innovative, challenging and/or unfamiliar teaching strategies often leaves them feeling uncomfortable and… affects their willingness to evaluate such learning experiences positively’.
The critical incident occurred when I was told by the Head of Sixth Form, as well as the Head of Teaching and Learning, to stop flipped learning; I unwillingly obliged and redesigned the A Level course to fit this new way of teaching. As well as time-consuming, this was hugely disappointing on many levels, and when independent learning was removed, the loss of skill, independence and resilience of the students was clearly apparent, as well as my loss of identity as a teacher. The way in which I trained and choose to teach my subject discipline had been markedly changed: my pedagogical content knowledge, as well as my subject-matter knowledge: my expertise seemed no longer all that necessary (Kansanen, 2009).
The reason I chose this critical incident is because I believe in the importance of students experiencing a variety of teaching styles within a single school (Lage, Platt and Treglia, 2000); this is a way in which teachers can reclaim the curriculum and add to the richness of a restrictive system as well as motivate and engage a wider student population (Bruner, 1963). Furthermore, it highlights the conflict in culture between teachers, parents, students and leadership as well as an inconsistency in their own Learning and Teaching policy (Manor, 2017-2018). However, the majority of research explore the use of independent learning in Higher Education settings (Lage, Platt and Treglia, 2000), therefore it could be argued that it is not appropriate for sixth-form; yet these are skills required by the new A-Level (GOV UK, 2015).
Heimlich and Norland (2002) suggest that there are five elements to an educational exchange: teacher, learner, group, content, and environment. The relationship between these elements varies, partly due to the way in which the teacher’s own beliefs influence the importance they place on each variable which resonates Attribution theory (Miller, 1995). Many educators understand that students learn in a variety of ways, or rather have different learning preferences, and the body of research literature to support this is vast. This would suggest that a plethora of teaching strategies, such as flipped learning would be ideal. However, few reflect upon the interaction between the beliefs of the teacher and learner within the exchange, as well as, perhaps more importantly, the congruence between those beliefs and values (Heimlich & Norland, 2002). Reflection on teaching style differs from reflective practice in that it is not just about behaviours and further differs from educational philosophy in that it is not just about beliefs: teaching style is about congruence. However, it has been argued that some students only learn through selected teaching methods and thus teachers should respond to meet that need (Dunn & Dunn, 1979). Still, the reliability and validity of learning styles as a differentiation tool can be questioned.
Beere (2010) cites opportunities for independent learning as a key ingredient in ‘the perfect OFSTED lesson’ suggesting its importance in students’ progress. This is supported by OFSTED (2018) as they refer to independent learning skills as an assessment of the effectiveness of the teaching and learning; however, ISI do not directly refer to independent learning but do elude to aspects of it as shown by ‘their attitudes towards learning, including their ability to demonstrate initiative and independence…’ (ISI, 2016, p. 9). This was only discussed in association with group work and leadership which is not necessarily congruent with student outcomes due to individual differences. Moreover, this would suggest that OFSTED place more focus on independent learning than ISI and thus may be more forward-thinking, further dispelling any notion that independent education is more progressive than state-funded schools. However, Manor’s Learning and Teaching policy (2017-2018) refer to ‘an ability to be an independent thinker’ that takes ‘responsibility for their own learning e.g. through independent study, self-assessment and setting their own targets’, all skills acquired through independent learning; yet this was not well received as a mode of pedagogy.
Furthermore, Gibb (2017) stated that individual teachers will no longer be graded and are free to use the teaching methods they consider most effective, rather than being bound by an OFSTED teaching style. Despite, Gibb appearing to give power back to teachers as professionals, many still believe they are being graded. This relates to the culture within schools (Bruner, 1963), as grading can highlight expectations of teacher performance and are still judged as such in Manor school. This is a summative assessment, but should professional development not be formative? Why do we promote a growth mindset for our students but not for our teachers? This goes beyond the scope of Manor’s culture and concerns a larger debate on the value placed upon teachers.
Correspondingly, the appropriateness of the role of subjects and value of knowledge in an ever-changing climate were raised by Hopkin (2012). In a time when knowledge can be accessed at the click of a button, is there still a place for disciplined subject knowledge? This supports teaching as a facilitating role, echoing constructivism whereby the key role of the educator is to observe and guide (Piaget, 1952). Pure constructivism may be more alternative than the national curriculum allows, but with the expansive influx of sophisticated technology and the need for modern-day skills, required for transition into A Levels and beyond (GOV UK, 2015); flipped learning may be a pedagogical technique that can achieve this aim. However, it could be argued that specialist subject knowledge is still important as how do you distinguish truth from hearsay otherwise?
Kansanen (2009) discusses the difference between subject-matter didactics and pedagogical content knowledge. The former is a traditional approach to teaching specific subject disciplines, whereas pedagogical content knowledge is more research based and refers to the ways in which a teacher transfers knowledge through their pedagogy. This echoes the dichotomy between traditional and progressive approaches to teaching and learning, the former more widely used within the independent sector.
However, is there truly a distinction between these concepts, or rather, should there be? These have commonly been discussed separately within research literature, however Kansanen (2009) suggests that combining the two concepts may lead to new a perspective on education. This appealed to me as professionally I strive to be forward-thinking, something I expected from the independent sector. Germany’s innovation and success in industries such as Automotive demonstrates an elevated level of creative thought rooted in future, forward-thinking. This could be due to the German education system valuing both academic and vocational routes, including a curriculum that provides breadth up to the age of 18. However, from my experience in the English independent sector, the drive towards academic routes is prominent, even in a non-selective school such as Manor. Perhaps students would be more successful if they felt all routes were equally valued rather than those considered elite.
Conversely, the incident I faced may be more connected with Manor’s leadership and the national picture of accountability. Firstly, being an independent school, it is a business, thus there is a customer and service-provider exchange occurring; if the children are mildly dissatisfied, the parents will complain and that is not good for a struggling school, especially since success for both schools and teachers is measured by exam results and data (Moore, 2012). If I flip content for homework, am I doing my job if I am not marking them, but they are assessed against them in class? OFSTED (2018) state that they do not expect to see any particular frequency or volume of marking and that marking should be in line with the school policy; however, this is not mentioned by ISI (2016). Manor’s assessment policy (2017-2018) discusses different modes of assessment for learning as crucial for progress; this is fulfilled by flipped learning as teachers can easily assess, adapt and support the acquisition of challenging skills. The policy calls for explicit, detailed teacher feedback, contradicting popular theory (Black & Wiliam, 1998); with the frequency of marking ranging from daily to weekly, creating unnecessary workload (GOV UK, 2016). Perhaps it is about creating evidence that we are doing our jobs? Education has become data driven: collecting information to inform leadership. Thus, validating actions taken; rather than assessment.
Ultimately, I have learned that Independent education is more about elitism than ‘better’ quality or progressive teaching and learning, which is ironic considering Independent education was originally built from a position of providing better education. Independent schools are a business, like many schools now: academies. As a result, more credence is placed upon the student and parents comfort than the teacher’s expertise thus I may be better suited to a more alternative education.
Expectations are an integral part of education. As teachers we have expectations of the government to provide effective policies; Bennett (2017) proposes a strong framework for a whole-school approach to behaviour management, echoing Bruner (1963). However, this must be integrated into the culture to be effective, which must be implemented from the top down, consequently rendering a classroom teacher powerless under a poor leadership team. Thus, Dix (2015) proposes methods for the teacher rather than the school, however this is based on a restorative rather than behaviourist approach which may be incongruent with the conventions of differing institutions. Furthermore, we are affected by the governments educational philosophies which could be argued to be more traditional (Peal, 2014), despite Gibb’s (2017) promise for teacher pedagogical freedom, progressive methods may still be disfavoured. Additionally, the government could be considered pro independent, due to their autonomy: less regulation and funding; whilst potentially holding the belief that independent provides a ‘better quality’ education and elitism, which is ironic considering they do not directly manage them. However, curriculum changes including high content syllabus’s make independent learning approaches essential to teaching practices (GOV UK, 2015), with increased teacher workload and rising mental health issues: pedagogy has implications for the economy. Thus I have learnt not to underestimate the impact of the national agenda on my own practice. Unfortunately, unlike Bennett (2017), many prominent educational theories are devoid of a political dimension (Moore, 2012). Bruner (1963) gave a much-needed cultural context to education. Considering these perspectives and layers has made me a more reflective practitioner.
We have expectations of our school to foster our professional development, effectively lead the school and outline thorough policies that can be used as a supportive, consistent framework. Manor’s policies are vague and thus not consistently followed creating a disparity in methods used for both behaviour and pedagogy, with a leaning towards traditional approaches. However, if pedagogy is a tool, as suggested by Bruner (1963) why can it not be deployed by individual teachers within an institution following a more traditional approach, if it is an effective teaching method?
We have expectations of ourselves to be the best educators we can be, sometimes pushing ourselves to our limits. This is reflected in our practice through our ‘habitas’ (Kanansen. 2009), for me these are restorative behaviour management and student-centred pedagogy e.g. flipped learning (Piaget, 1952). These did not fit in with Manor’s culture, ironically, despite the school’s progressive foundation (Ingham, 1902; Maynard, 2001). Furthermore, we have expectations of our students to hold positive attitudes to learning and behaviour (Miller, 1995; Dix, 2015). This has implications for both pedagogy and behaviour in that, we believe older children have more control over their behaviour and thus attribute poor behaviour to personality factors. Likewise, Piaget (1952) believed in a developmental trajectory, these incremental stages indicated the capabilities of a child in that age group, which could impact the way we treat, as well as teach a child.
Lastly, we have expectations of parents to support us in the education of their children. Student perceptions of teachers appear to be largely negative; I expected to not be respected by the government, by parents and to some extent school leaders but not students. Have societal views of teaching impact the way in which students’ attribute teachers, thus impacting their behaviour and interaction with pedagogy? Or are these attitudes associated with privilege, because they are paying, do they have more ‘right’ to argue when dissatisfied with the service they receive? It is difficult to untangle these factors; however, I have learnt that expectations are all around us; indeed, institutions and individuals have expectations of us too and when these are incongruent with our experience, issues can occur. Yet, perhaps my expectations of these parties were, in fact, never realistic at all.
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