Zaphod Beeblebrox was the only person ever to survive the Total Perspective Vortex for the simple reason that he genuinely believed himself to be far and away the most important person in the universe.
The teaching profession sometimes appears to suffer from the same delusion, as I have discussed before – and it is doing us no good.
I’ve been doing rather too much reading of various other teachers’ blogs over the weekend. It’s interesting to see what others are saying – professional life beyond the boundaries of one’s own school isn’t always readily knowable. But it saddened me to read so many people who are dissatisfied, stressed, frustrated or demoralised. I think I’ve gone through all of those emotions at various times, and I’ve found that the most sustainable solution is simply: not to take it all quite so seriously.
I know that sounds like the most unprofessional statement imaginable for a teacher – but that’s the Beeblebrox Complex again. We collectively hype up our own stakes until we feel the only way not to fail is to grind on. After all, children only get one chance don’t they? So we daren’t let them down. Maybe – but in the bigger scheme of things on this Earth, so do we. I’m not for one moment suggesting that we should abdicate our professional duties – far from it – but I think that having the ability to step back and see it for what it is can be helpful, even if it’s something of a momentary self-delusion. I’ve heard colleagues say, at moments of extreme stress, “It’s only a job…”
I think that’s as much a matter of creating a little mental space as anything more deeply-meant. And I do think that a lot of the burden in modern teaching is actually work for the sake of it that can safely be seen in this way without jeopardising anything more profoundly important for our pupils – especially if that 70-30 heritability-nurture split is anywhere near accurate.
The following are a few sound bites lifted from a recent Guardian blog that I also read last weekend:
“…one of my PGCE students said to me recently…her only regret [on completing her training year] was that she hadn’t enjoyed it more.”
(Amanda Bailey, associate principal of the Bright Futures Educational Trust )
“I think a large number of teachers (myself included) are complete control freaks.”
(Susan Davis, senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University)
“Remember, you may enjoy it, but school is work. It’s great to enjoy your job…But if you keep on putting that extra effort in, you will start to resent it, and so will the people around you.”
The supreme irony is that modern life relentlessly instructs us that our work should be the defining activity of our lives; we should want nothing more than to spend as much time as possible doing it, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. I know real people who apparently really believe it.
If we’re not careful, we too buy into the myth, and pass the same message onto our students. What kind of an example do we set? For all the collective consciousness, modern working life for the individual often seems to be a source of stress, anxiety, frustration and dejection. We take it all so seriously that any inherent rewards to be had from it are squeezed out, let alone those to be had from living a more balanced life. The sceptic in me also harbours an uncomfortably persistent suspicion that the high priority accorded to our work is ultimately of most benefit of all to those who constantly tell us how important it all should be: our masters whose meteoric careers and large salaries depend on it, increasingly in education as in business.
We teachers mortgage our own lives to our work, so that the next generation can go out and do the same thing all over again. If we’re not careful, we wear our work like a hair shirt, taking a kind of perverse pride in how hard-done-by we are. We feel guilty for taking a break – though I am quite clear in my own mind about the strong correlation between the quality of my work and how mentally and physically refreshed I am feeling – let alone up-to-date with my sleep.
Somewhere in the equation, something is being lost: there has to be a dividend that makes it all worthwhile – and being humans before we’re teachers, we’re entitled to our own fair share of that too. Were that not the case, I really don’t think I could continue telling the next generation that ‘it will all be worth it in the long run’. I’d go further: to neglect to live our own lives to the full is the ultimate admission of futility – by failing to do so, we in effect negate the efforts our own teachers made on our behalves, that we might have good lives.
Despite all that, I still count myself fortunate to have a career that is never boring, that challenges me in at least partly positive ways, and that is contributive rather than subtractive in society. I’m going to return to the issues of time and sustainability in later posts, but for now I think it’s worth remembering:
Don’t take it too seriously. Education serves life, not the other way round.
Don’t let the life balance get completely out of kilter.
Self-preservation is a professional duty, not a personal crime.
And don’t be your own worst enemy.
(Another contributor to The Guardian blog mentioned using Mindfulness to counter stress. I know there’s a degree of scepticism out there about it, but personally I have found it very helpful. So I’ll cross reference to this in case anyone who missed it might also find it helpful.)
For a colleague who seems to be particularly overdoing it at the present time, to his apparent personal detriment.