Cut your own cloth…

I am returning to the vexed topic of teachers’ workloads. Sam Burton’s article in The Independent prompted many follow-up comments today from teachers who were experiencing similar burnout, and some who had already departed the profession. I know many more who would also echo the same experiences of vast working hours, management pressure and personal guilt.

One writer emphasised how much more balanced things are at the overseas international school where he now works. My acquaintance over eight years with our Swiss partner school has shown the same thing: teaching does not have to be a macho exercise in production-efficiency. It does not have to chew people up and spit them out. It does not have to be pain above pleasure, all-or-nothing stakes, constant rounds of exhaustion, anxiety and disillusion.

It is just that it has become that in the materialist, cost-of-everything-value-of-nothing, dog-eat-dog country that is modern Britain. The root of this is clear to me: the culture that hypes supposedly high standards, and believes that manipulation and bullying is the best way to achieve them, and that has no regard for the impact on the people on the receiving end. I probably don’t need reiterate all of the usual suspects who have contributed to the creation of this culture, nor the reasons why it is counter-productive. If nothing else, the numbers leaving would suggest that it is not sustainable.

But I think we also need to see ourselves as part of the problem. As I suggested in my previous post, I suspect that some of Sam Burton’s problem is his own. And it is a problem shared by many other (particularly younger) teachers I encounter. They seem to see life as something akin to a reality game show – a kind of obstacle course where the only way of validating yourself is by the extremeness of the pain you can endure, where everything needs to be seen as a personal ‘challenge’. They also seem to see it in stark black-or-white tones, where if you’re not a winner, you’re clearly as loser; if you didn’t ‘succeed’ then you clearly didn’t try hard enough. It strikes me as a terribly destructive mentality.

I think it is clear that the educational establishment has capitalised on this – after all, we have been peddling this message to school pupils for a couple of decades now (as indeed everyone else in British society) – so it’s not surprising if recent generations of adults, including teachers, now believe it too. And it has been used to inflate the expectations being transmitted to teachers. It is instructive that many of the recently-published comments have been made by people only a few years into their careers; we hear much less from those who have already survived several decades – of whom I am one – though this is not to say that we don’t feel the same pressures too.

If this is a problem (and it certainly sounds like one) we need to ensure that we are not making it worse for ourselves. We need to be certain that the expectations we have of our work and ourselves are realistic, and we need to inure ourselves to the demands from others to deliver the impossible. This is far from easy, especially when the emotions kick in, be they guilt of how we are ‘failing’ our pupils or the fear of ‘what might happen’ of we don’t do as our masters command. But it is the only way to survive for more than a few years in this job.

While it is true that I have previously worked through a period somewhat less febrile than the present, it is also true that it was still never easy; those pressures have always been there, as have inept and bullying bosses. It is essential that we find a way of reconciling these conflicts, and that includes managing to live a reasonable personal life too. The System is not about to do that for us – so we need to do it for ourselves.

So, from the lofty position of my twenty-eighth year in teaching (if nothing else, I know about survival…) I would offer the following thoughts:

  1. Accept that there is no such thing as the perfect teacher. ‘Outstanding’ is a myth that has messed too much already with teachers’ self-perceptions. You can always do more – but there IS such a thing as Enough. I would argue that mature teachers are those who have a balanced perspective on their work, their pupils and their own lives, on where real responsibility lies for what – and who know the limits of their own powers. Also, accept that it will take a decade or more to become a fully-fledged teacher: this is not work for those who want quick wins.
  2. Be rid of the zero-sum view of education. You, personally, are (almost) incapable of terminally messing-up a child’s life – and equally incapable of being its salvation. We simply do our bit to offer opportunities for young people to take or not. We are not ultimately responsible for what happens next, no matter what some might claim. The impact we do have is collective and long-term – so stop shouldering the whole thing yourself, and stop taking the short-term view of ‘what works’.
  3. Accept that guilt is a natural part of the job – and get over it. It will always nag away, but you can learn (almost) to ignore it.
  4. Learn to tactically-ignore that which does not work for you or which you cannot reconcile ethically or philosophically. Much management has nothing to do with good education and everything to do with power play and the perceived effectiveness of managers themselves. It will not damage children if you do not do everything you are directed. The fear of ‘consequences’ is always real – but experience suggests that unless you are blessed with a thoroughly vindictive manager or you do something seriously bad to a pupil, not as much will ‘happen’ as you fear. In the final reckoning, no school can afford to lose fundamentally good teachers, nor alienate them too much, nor be seen to suffer from a very high staff turnover. And if something does ‘happen’, learn to shrug it off. Easier said than done (I know from experience) – but time perhaps shows you a perspective on these things. And if all else fails, if at all possible, have the dignity to walk away.
  5. Unless you are rabidly ambitious, ignore the siren calls of career progression. The further you rise, the more call others legitimately have on your time and loyalties. You may be required to implement things you don’t agree with, and treat people in ways you would rather not – and that can be seriously demoralising. You will of course also be doing less of what you presumably became a teacher to do. What is more, the constant moves of school required mean you will never build the personal capital that accumulates if one stays where one is known. If you maintain high personal and professional integrity, act impeccably ethically, build good personal relationships and establish a good reputation with colleagues, managers, pupils, parents and governors, this is goodwill upon which you can draw that will offer a reservoir of latitude when times are tough or you need to make uncomfortable compromises. If you are ambitious for management and do come to manage others, accept that they may have different life priorities, but that does not make them inferior teachers or employees, let alone inferior people.
  6. Maintain a healthy and active outside life. Lively minds need more than their paid work; stimulating teachers need to be more than wage-slaves. Teachers need to live fulfilled lives in order to model them. People need to be refreshed and rested to be effective teachers. Time spent not working is NOT a wasted opportunity or a dereliction of duty: quite the opposite.

None of the above is remotely easy; I have experienced enough of the angst myself to know that; some of it simply comes by ‘doing the time’ and acquiring perspectives that can’t come quickly. The first years of one’s teaching career always were tough, though perhaps more now than ever. But in some ways it gets easier, partly because one’s personal experience grows, but mainly because one acquires the confidence to draw one’s own boundaries, and accept that others will not always like that.

Teaching is not about mortgaging one’s own life for some abstract notion of others’ benefit: it is about doing what we can to widen young people’s perspectives and  increase their life-chances, but this is not a perfect world, and accepting that is the only way to survive long-term in this profession. There will always be a trade-off between the needs of a teacher and the so-called ‘needs’ of their pupils – and it need not always be the teacher (read adult) who comes second. (We might also ask how many of those needs are real and how many manufactured by self-flagellatory, over-indulgent elements within the profession itself).

Preserving yourself for the long-term in the profession (let alone your own life) is not wrong. But no one can give you a target or policy for these things – it needs to come from within.

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5 thoughts on “Cut your own cloth…

  1. Thank you so much for these valuable words if wisdom! The one about doing ‘enough’ really resonated with me. I might have to print it and put it in my cupboard to read when feeling overburdened!

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