When good begins to grate…

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Shortly after Christmas 2013, an off-duty rail worker, Matt Lenton noticed a man behaving oddly at his local station near Brighton. He engaged the man in conversation, and his suspicion was confirmed – that the man had been about to throw himself in front of a train. They talked, and Lenton then drove the man to a nearby garden centre for a coffee. Several hours later, and after having passed on the Samaritans’ phone number, Lenton took the man home, giving him his own phone number in case he ever needed ‘non-helpline’ help.

This incident would never have been known if it had not been for the man contacting Lenton’s employer, as Matt Lenton himself said nothing. He was recently given an industry award for his actions.

The significant point here is Lenton’s subsequent actions: he just went home and said nothing to anyone. The citation at the award ceremony said that he didn’t feel he had done anything that anyone would not do under the circumstances.

One of the key components of a vocation such as teaching is that it is done selflessly. Just as Lenton just went home at the end of that day, so teachers and those in other caring professions should do the same. There is no need to trumpet what one has done; even if one can be certain of one’s effect, the purpose of causing it is simply the knowledge that good has been done, not any benefit that might accrue to us from doing so.

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I always buy my wife amaryllis for Christmas, and I too am very fond of them. Their deep red is the symbol of Christmas, and their shamelessly sculptural shape is striking. They sit very nicely as a bold table centrepiece in our modern interior.

There is no point in analysing a flower any further: one cannot quantify beauty, or the pleasure it brings. It is meaningless to try to score it; and pointless even to ask how beautiful it is, let alone to attempt to compare different flowers in anything other than an utterly subjective way. Trying to quantify them in terms of value is fairly pointless too: while flowers clearly do come at a price, this is only in part a reflection of their desirability. One also needs to factor in supply-side considerations, their seasonal nature and the avarice (or lack of it) of the retailer before one reaches a figure. And this has little, if anything to do with the inherent beauty of the object.

There is a large amount of Life that also ‘just is’. Like Lenton’s act, and like the flowers, any further analysis is simply pointless, in the sense that it adds nothing, and may even detract. Yet we seem to be losing sight of this fact in the great quest for quantification and accountability. It seems that we are no longer content to appreciate inherent value: what we need to know is the price and our consequent ‘greatness’ relative to others.

This turns everything it touches from something of inherent to contingent or relative value, and we are doing this not only to objects, but to the acts of living and doing too. Evaluative self-scrutiny – the measuring of one’s social capital – has become such a widespread phenomenon that we risk spending more time on it than on doing things in the first place. Social media must take a lot of the blame, as must the pressures of accountability: actions risk becoming validated by the response they receive rather than by the doing of them in the first place. The depressing effects of social media on people’s self-perception are becoming more widely known, and I think the same phenomenon is having a wider effect on modern life in general. The self-conscious notion of ‘lifestyle’ becomes the enemy of the fulfilling life it describes; the concept of ‘career’ the opposite of a job well done.

Professional practice in many walks of life risks falling into this trap, but perhaps none more so than in the public services thanks to the scrutiny agenda. In education, the focus on ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ is part of this. Quite apart from the inescapable subjectivity, nay meaninglessness, of such terms, obsessing about these matters simply diverts attention from our core purpose. And yet this is has become a significant part of educational activity: institutionalised navel-gazing, the purpose of which is ostensibly to guarantee quality and hoist-up minimum standards. But its real intention is self-aggrandisement.

Developing from this is the burgeoning number of conferences, research activities and publications. Watching ourselves is becoming bigger business than doing what we’re meant to be watching in the first place; being seen to be good is more important than just being it. Books with titles like “Teach like a Champion” and “From Good to Great” are predicated on the assumption that there is some kind of meta-knowledge that we can eventually attain which will transform our effectiveness. But the cynicism and manipulativeness implied by such titles are beginning to grate with me.

I’m not suggesting that a degree of self-awareness is not a good thing – but this is rather different from the whole infrastructure that is springing up to impose others’ understandings of it on us. Yes, there are things to be learned from reflection, but we risk over-formulating the practice of teaching – and most other aspects of modern life – at the expense of simply getting on with it.

As numerous recent events worldwide would suggest, while we never know how many disasters never happen, the fact that calamities do still happen suggests that it is impossible ever to second-guess the future.We will never escape the raw fact that life has to be lived as it happens, and that shifting our eyes from that fact to meta-analyses simply takes our eyes off the ball, as a result raising contingent stakes in a way that can actually make matters worse.

I wonder how Matt Lenton’s experience could have played out differently if it had been possible to anticipate it. It is possible that as a Rail Neighbourhood Officer, Lenton has received training in how to deal with suicidal people, but even if he has, it is questionable how useful it was on that day a year ago. The fact is, every event is unique, and attempting to deal with it as though it were simply part of a larger pattern may be self-limiting. Treating vulnerable people as ‘just another case’ is close to the worst thing to do.

There is the fact that the incident happened when Lenton was off-duty; one wonders how his being on duty would have changed things. One cannot schedule suicide attempts to coincide neatly with the duty-turns of those who encounter them, but one wonders whether Lenton’s mind would have been less focused solely on assisting that individual, or whether he would have been preoccupied with following protocols and guidelines – and whether his actions might literally have been fatally flawed by that fact. For it seems that the defining element of Lenton’s heroism was precisely his authenticity, and it was his sincerity that changed the man’s mind. Had he appeared as merely the face of officialdom, the effect may have been very different.

He may also have been aware of the need to report his actions afterwards, of the need to fill the inevitable paperwork, and the fact that this could conceivably contribute to his personal advantage. He undoubtedly could not have just gone home and said nothing: his interests would inevitably have been divided between genuine compassion and his professional obligations. I suggest that Lenton’s freedom to operate purely as he needed was the crucial element in the outcome that day; that the constraints of professional accountability may have fatally constrained his actions.

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There is little point in trying to specify what makes flowers beautiful; they just are. Musing on this over breakfast the other day, while admiring our Christmas amaryllis, did not get me far. Apart from the aforementioned qualities of colour and form, I was reduced once again just to enjoying them for what they were. Colour and form may be useful concepts, but they do not embody those qualities, only describe them. The only way to appreciate the flowers fully is just to take them for what they are.

The modern tendency for meta-thinking will likewise only get us so far; just as identifying procedures for dealing with would-be suicides or knowing that flowers beautify a room is not the same as doing or experiencing them, being able to identify certain qualities that make for successful teaching is an entirely different prospection from delivering them, let alone guaranteeing them. Yet one is left with the sense that, if only we can define these things, then that in itself will be enough to guarantee both their use and effectiveness. Why else the obsession with pinning it all down so far?

But it is not so; life will still need to be lived in the moment, as much in the classroom as anywhere else. Equipping people with meta-knowledge about what they are doing may not be without its uses, but I suspect that it is much less useful than is currently being claimed. I am also suspicious that the claims made for such meta-knowledge, with labels like ‘good’ and ‘great’ are of less relevance to actual classroom practice than to the self-promotion of those applying them to themselves.

The salient factor about Matt Lenton’s story is that he just went home and said nothing. The important thing was the doing of the deed, not the acclaim that could have followed afterwards. In fact, thinking about the latter may well have led to an entirely different outcome, as his employer later recognised. The important thing about amaryllis is that they just are, not why they are. Both Lenton’s action and the effect of amaryllis in our Christmas home are indeed great – but their greatness is merely a by-product of their being what they are. In both cases, setting out to be great (if flowers had consciousness…) would actually diminish the effect. It would just turn to narcissism.

Teaching and learning are just the same: they are best done unconsciously, just for the sake of it. The modern obsession with form over function risks getting us nowhere fast, and using it to self-label, whether as good, great or anything else is creating a hostage to fortune. We need to just get on with teaching as best we can, each moment for itself – and let go of the obsession with greatness.

This is not to say that there are not great things in the world – but as  both Matt Lenton’s story and my favourite Christmas flowers show, while greatness does indeed derive precisely from the subjective acclaim of others, it is really only earned by authenticity, not acquired by the self-conscious seeking of a deluded form of greatness for its own sake.

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