Undervalued and outcast

I have never been good at this time of year. No teacher is going to win much sympathy for coming to the end of six weeks’ paid holiday – but that doesn’t negate the difficulty of switching from one mode of life to the other. I am dedicated to my teaching, but I am not one who can’t wait to get back to work. Our profession may be important, but it is still subsidiary to the living of life as a whole.

While it is probably true that the thought of returning is worse that the doing, I nonetheless find it difficult to remain upbeat over the few days before the old routine re-establishes itself. And this year my feeling is somewhat heavier than usual because I am no longer convinced that my school values or supports my presence. Last year definitely qualified as my annus horribilis, and while the new prospects ought to be brighter, certain circumstances have created a gnawing doubt, despite the results being fine. Maybe mud sticks…

But I think the end-of-holiday sensation is about more than that. Dr. Giles Fraser summed it up well in ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio Four’s Today Programme a few days ago (can be heard here, at least in the U.K., for the next seventeen days). Even leaving aside the religious overtones, his suggestion that work is about Doing while play (and by extension holidays) are about Being sums it up neatly. Importing the workplace ethic into leisure time is fruitless: the notion that leisure ought to be professionally or economically productive alters its very nature. Or put another way, replacing its intrinsic value with extrinsic aspiration destroys it. True leisure is not about doing things that have external value, or even being loosely competitive (except possibly with oneself); one’s other obligations accepted, it is about a simple state of Being for its own sake, something akin to Flow. This is a counter-establishment wisdom worth striving for, and certainly passing on to the next generation: leisure is a valuable part of life.

I’m just not persuaded by those who imply that the sole purpose of life is to be economically productive. Were I to follow that doctrine, much of what makes my own life worth living would simply disappear. I don’t see much evidence around me that a life devoted solely to economic functioning is healthy, socially beneficial, or popular – and what’s more, the self-evident recharging of the batteries, and the visible increase in life-satisfaction that comes from leisure would just not exist.

This is why this transition is hard. But as with so many non-material things, it has become harder as the purpose of education became more economically-driven. When teachers were largely autonomous and intellect-driven, it was probably easier to import some of that sense of Being into one’s work too. But in these days of accountability and hard-headed management, there are just too many external, uncontrollable factors dictating one’s day-to-day functioning. The attendant loss of autonomy, as compared with holiday times, makes the transition from one to the other harsher, no matter how inevitable.

I am certainly not idle in my holidays: apart from time spent abroad, much has been done in terms of home improvement and in fulfilling various other roles. But the flexibility largely to follow one’s own schedule is priceless – as is the mental space it creates for an amount of day-dreaming – for which read Big Picture Thinking. These are the conditions I need for thinking about the underlying principles behind things I do, be they the next projects in my various hobbies, my responsibilities as Chair of the mutual company that runs the old building in which I live, and yes, to some extent my profession and the lives which it is supposed to enrich. There has just been the simple pleasure of doing things without too much need to watch the clock or to follow someone else’s diktat.

I have serendipitously researched a completely new avenue within one of my hobbies – and as my last two posts described, very unexpectedly got entangled in the political debate within the Labour Party.

In some ways, that last experience sums it all up: as a columnist in The Independent wrote a few days ago, the establishment backlash against Corbyn shows what happens to people who dare to question supposedly-accepted norms, of which the primacy of Work and The Economy are the sirens of our time. The out-casting of reactionaries is hardly new, but the implication that anyone who proposes something different can only be a naive idiot has, in its own right made me all the more convinced that Corbyns are very necessary. So has the implication that there are some world-views which “we all know” are now beyond thoughtful debate. Like the fact that it is possible to create a kinder society.

Corbyn is a symbol of anti-managerialism – or the view that we already have the best of all possible worlds and therefore nothing can or should ever be different – precisely the unambitious ‘realism’ of the other Labour candidates. Managerialism can afflict anyone: it is a state of mind borne from a defeatist, utilitarian view of the world where all we can do is tinker around the edges. The fact that it reinforces the status quo is of course as coincidental as it is ironic that the same message is pedalled by authoritarian regimes around the world. And the same could be said for Education, which itself increasingly functions in a similarly autocratic manner…

In a society that claims to be democratic and educated, the right to disagree has to be worth defending in its own right.

The suggestion that people who put their principles first are somehow naive or otherwise unrealistic is a criticism that has come my own way more than once. But the view that contemporary politics, education and indeed life, can be about nothing more than bland, unimaginative pragmatism creates a false dichotomy – vested interest wrapped up as supposedly hard-headed realism; whether of the Left or the Right barely matters. This is not an inspiring message for the next generation, so it is perhaps not surprising that many of Corbyn’s supporters are young.

It is not as though the current incumbency (in education or politics) has delivered bounty to all: the narrowing of acceptable values, priorities and occupations has hardly made for an inclusive, democratic society; one might have expected that the realists would have spotted that exclusion is the surest way of breeding rebellion, of pushing moderates towards the extremes – but that is clearly an abstract too far…

Ideals are a much-undervalued asset. They are the soil within which tolerance should grow, where day-to-day actions are informed by bigger intentions and insights rather than the unquestioning ‘busy-work’ demanded by small-minded managerialsm. That is equally true in politics, day-to-day lives – and education.

Its enforced loss reduces potentially rich lives to mere existence – we all need greater and more humane things to strive for, however incomprehensible they may seem to our critics. Destroying them is counter-productive: it is in such situations, where people no longer feel they have a meaningful stake or purpose that they turn from would-be loyal employees/citizens/members into sceptics, if not cynics. Of all the professions, Teaching ought to understand that.

In the final reckoning, the end-of-holiday blues comes from the knowledge that the Being of the last six weeks now has to go back in the box, to be replaced by the Doing of a system that (like the political system that directs it) now largely involves the ideal-less busy-work of managerialism. As though there were no alternative.


17 thoughts on “Undervalued and outcast

  1. It makes me sad to think of you loosing your autonomy because a system rules over people. I was recently interviewed by the FutureTrack survey people for 2010 Midlands uni grads and it was amazing how much they relaxed as soon as I reassured them that “I’m highly employable”. They immediately wanted to know how other people can be ‘highly employable’ too… my answer; “Do everything our education system says”. They then asked what my ideal job would be, I laughed and said: “No job exists that is better than what I can create myself and, if I can possibly help it, I’ll never be employed by anyone ever again.” She had no box for that answer. If this education system doesn’t want you ijstock, that’s fine, because you’ve your own mind and can create your own thing like I’m doing. If this system doesn’t want students who are less than perfect, that’s fine too, because what I’m creating is a place for them.

  2. It is a shame you feel this way and to some extent I would echo Leah’s sentiments here. I left in January for very different reasons though and I feel that ideals should guide but never be placed ahead of actual human beings. That is when the real tragedy happens. Corbyn is entitled to his views but he knows the failings of all this and seems to be ignoring political reality. Recruiting naive and the young is for cults.

    As for your place in the education system – it seems strange that despite the results being well you feel like this. I am sorry you do as I understand the same feeling. I do think an element of choice would ease the situation but that’s considered marketisation. The alternative is that all sch’s be uniform be that trad or prog (and I don’t believe the fact that the latter don’t state it explicitly makes it any less real).

    • Thank you both for your supportive comments. Unfortunately, there is only so much I can say by means of explanation since much is specific to my place of work. I don’t think it is appropriate to discuss such things in a public place, but it is possible that ‘someone’ does not like the views that I express on this blog, and may be taking them more specifically than is meant.

      Maybe paranoid, maybe not – but when all of your prized ‘A’ Level teaching, for which you are known and respected, after 25 years suddenly disappears from what you thought was an agreed timetable (not long after a post when you publicly rejoiced in that teaching), and is replaced without explanation with wall-to-wall KS3, you do wonder what is going on.

      Leah – I admire your optimism, but as one ages it is, I am afraid true that your options decrease. As a classroom teacher in my fifties, I am more expensive than most schools would consider, especially in the current climate.

      As for Corbyn, maybe he is dangerous, maybe he is not. In my view he can’t be much more insidious than the vested interests of another persuasion that seem to have our country by the b**ls. You need to be of a certain age to see how things have changed, and by no means always for the better. The way teachers are being treated is just one example.

      I hope Corbyn is wise and skilled enough, if he wins, to know that he needs to engage a wide range of opinion. I am going to hear him speak tomorrow, so perhaps that will make it easier to see round the media ‘spin’.

      Can principles hurt people if undiluted? Yes, of course they can – just look at the effects of neoliberal free-marketism. Can the alternative be worse? Well possibly, but I’m not convinced that this isn’t all part of the misrepresentation: he is saying things that threaten too many vested interests. Hopefully, Corbyn knows better than that too – having looked a little deeper, it seems he is being widely misreported – we need to be careful over what is true and what is smear.

      Many people are talking about a ‘correction’ after the events of 2008 but where is it? And we need a similar ‘correction’ to the marketisation of education too – but do you see it happening?

      • ​Those my age could live till we’re 100, so I’m not going to let anyone say people are ‘done’ at what is essentially the half-way mark. If anything, by the time I’m 60 I’ll be wiser, more aware and more connected than I’ve managed to get myself in this last year since doing my own thing. Please don’t write yourself off just because a systems does. ​Feel free to reach out via the contact on my website, or twitter @LearntSchool if you’d like to catch up.

      • No, Leah – I haven’t written myself off – I understand more about the learning process by the year. But I can’t influence the financially- or ideologically-driven decisions of others – and I still have a mortgage to pay!

    • Teachwell, I have just re-read your comment. I don’t know anything about you, but you appear (relatively) young…

      >> I do think an element of choice would ease the situation but that’s considered marketization

      We seem to have diametrically opposed understandings here – maybe a generation thing?

      I appreciate your apparent dislike of central control (precisely what I argue against) – but are you really saying that the corporate culture being bred in so much of British society, including schools, is really any more tolerant of pluralism? That’s not my experience – you need to be on-message the whole time, or you just aren’t acceptable.

      That seems to be Corbyn’s experience too.

      • I am not very young!! I am hitting 40 soon enough so do understand that the current system is not good for teachers who are experienced. In my, admittedly only decade long, experience, it seems that ‘on message’ for Ofsted has been used to be incredible cruel to a lot of people. It did not help that many Ofsted inspectors have had their own agenda, hence ever changing goal posts of what is expected.

        I was thinking marketisation for someone like me who is very trad in my teaching and butting heads constantly with those who aren’t.

        Thing is I have worked in the private sector for as long as I worked as a teacher. In all honesty what education has taken from it are the worst practices without any of the benefits. It’s all the bullying and harassing, threatening, Chinese Whispers which are destructive whereas the ease of moving on, flexibility about who gives you a reference, etc are not there. These are just some examples. Also IME you are more likely to end up with a manager who is good at managing – that is what they do – they are not a teacher who ends up managing because its the next step of the ladder. That’s not to say that we need external people, just that not everyone is suited to the role, and even when this is obvious it is the teachers rather than the managers who leave…

        I worked as a recruitment consultant and in all honesty as long as I met my targets they left me alone. I never had that as a teacher – I was constantly nit-picked even when I was doing my job well. Good and outstanding mean very little and have been used so politically that I just see them as adjectives alongside requires improvement and unsatisfactory. No graded observations are at least a step in the right direction but how long before they are implemented?

        As for you current situation – can you not speak to the union? It doesn’t sound right that they would change the timetable without consultation and I would smell a rat, so I understand what you are saying. The other thing I would say is that people can and do get other roles.

        Teaching is the only job where I have heard people ask ‘what else would you do?’ – this is not healthy for the profession.

        I did mean to empathise with your situation and do really feel for you as it is scary whenever that happens but I appreciate why you would feel so more at this point. Anything else was opinion but does not take away from the fact that I think you deserve to be treated better.

      • Thanks for your additional comments – I was not intending to be excessively critical. One of the big philosophical disconnects is that ‘choice’ sounds very good from the perspective of the consumer – but its effect on those who provide for those consumers is to diminish their own choices in the process. And in the long term that affects the service the customer receives. Furthermore it often denigrate those providing that service. ‘Someone’ needs to ensure that a fair trade-off between those competing interests is maintained.

        Meeting targets is an understandable aspiration for any good employee – but it does not consider the fact that those targets may be imposed without any realism or negotiation. In education, of course, the real outcomes are so complex as to be unquantifiable, so any targets are inevitably pretty nebulous when it comes to the real control we have over our meeting them – which can leave the way wide open for any amount of ideological or personal offensives that people feel like going on.

        On of the reason I linked this situation to the political issue is that the status quo has eroded the ability of unions and other organisations to represent their members. On making informal contact, the response was muted – and I suppose they are right: the individual teacher has no entitlement to expect anything other than what their employer requires them to teach. Such is progress.

  3. Sorry to hear that you are feeling undervalued. If it’s any consolation, as a new teacher, I have always found those teachers with lots of experience to be far more helpful and informative than any consultant, CPD leader or SCITT tutor. I am saddened when I see how many older teachers feel undervalued and I think it is wrong that so many are forced out of the profession.

    I do find that the experience of being micro-managed is very much associated with the public sector. The experience of inherent lack of trust and inability to be autonomous (or even to be allowed to air one’s opinions) seems to be endemic in education, particularly for front line staff.

    Best wishes


    • Thanks for your comment. As someone who has delivered CPD from the slant of ‘lessons learned from experience’, always to a very positive response from those who attended, I can see where you are coming from. It’s what I would like to think I can contribute.

      Today was our first day back; despite attempts at optimism, by mid-morning, the full onslaught of micro-management had swept it away. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that; why is it so difficult to appreciate that people do not respond well to overload, loss of autonomy and implicit threats of ‘consequences’?

      Regrettably, I suspect this experience will be pretty common over the coming days as schools return.

      • I know what you mean. Dare I say it, perhaps school management could do with spending some time shadowing business leaders in order to learn how to manage people without driving them insane/out the door. Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact we have such long notice periods, I reckon turnover would be far greater. I constantly toy with getting back into financial services, but no employer would consider someone with up to a 6 month notice period!

  4. Most importantly, TP, sympathy, fight-the-good-fight, good luck for the year(s) to come.

    In terms of why it’s got this way, I suspect that you and I might use different mental models to make sense of the last few years in UK education. I think the big, disturbing thing that has kicked in has been the combination of an idealistic rhetoric (“we change lives!”) and a transactional behaviour (“get these results or bad things will happen!”). Either by itself is coherent, and pragmatically, I’m not convinced that the outcomes (broadly defined) are that different (I look at data, I put the error bars back on, and there’s not much variation out there). The combination of the two- like two discordant notes- is increasingly hard to put up with.

    I think there’s a lot of truth in the idea of “public choice economics”- that people are pretty good at rational choices, but that those choices aren’t just about cash. Teachers trade salary- partly for longer breaks, but also for the intrinsic worth of what they do. The big hit teachers have taken since 2008 or so hasn’t been in cash terms, so much as the increased nastiness and nonsense. “Management” haven’t behaved that way because of government pressure, or liberal economics, but because they could… simple will-to-power.

    I may be being crazily over-optimistic, but a teacher shortage feels like the last best hope for improvement in things in general. If there is a teacher shortage heading over the mountaintops with the inevitability of Hannibal’s elephants, there’s not going to be any cash to buy teachers off with. Schools are going to have to think about their conditions and attitudes- aren’t they? Because if the relationship is purely transactional, the transaction is going to stop working for staff, and enough staff are going to clear off to cause real problems.

    • Interesting comment R.I. – thanks for that.

      I think one of the problems is people not seeming able to accept the limits of the possible – most of all when it comes to their own abilities. Do we change lives? Undoubtedly – but only rarely to the extent that some/many in education seem to believe. Do we ‘get results’? Well yes – but it all depends on what those results are. They are purely a construct, and a badly thought out one at that. How much of what we do (as in the rest of life) is simply the product of wider circumstances and little to do with our intervention at all?

      Rational choices? There are very many books out there suggesting the people aren’t very good at rational choices at all – but I do agree that the reason it may look like this is that the real rationales for people’s behaviour are often not the simplistic economic one being provided. Behavioural Economics has a lot of potential to divest us of some of the more unrealistic assumptions.

      I’m less confident about changes to teachers’ conditions, simply because we’ve been here before. Yes, there have been fluctuation=s but they have only ever been minor, and more often the preferred answer simply seems to be ‘make the blighters work harder’. I’m not confident those who enforce that have either the scope or (in some cases) the imagination to come up with more constructive solutions.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You’re right about the fetishisation of exam grades as a massively imperfect proxy for learning. I also suspect that some of the “life changing” rhetoric is overblown by teaching communities as we try to persuade ourselves that the bad times are worth it.
        I don’t know for sure how school leaders will respond to a changing environment. Some (possibly lots) will struggle with the vision/imagination thing. It does seem pretty clear that, if people able and willing to teach are in short supply, it might be worth being nicer to the ones you have.

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