I only have to look at the TES jobs bulletins in my inbox to see the teacher recruitment crisis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Geography vacancies in one year before. At the moment, I have no inclination whatsoever to investigate, but in any case going through the stress of a searching interview process is out of the question at present.
I base much of my world-view on the suspicion (I won’t say belief) that there is something equating to Natural Good in terms of the human condition. We perhaps cannot know with precision what such things are, but I sense that there are certain conditions that promote or inhibit what the ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia, or flourishing.
We may not be able to measure or even define them – but that is not to say that they don’t exist. Certain conditions promote thriving in plants and animals, and I can see no reason why the same should not apply to humans. For all that we are much more complex, history brutally shows us what happens when people are deprived of their own nourishing talus.
Our nervous systems transmit information about bodily adversity or wellbeing, and as my recent experience shows, mental states are actually little different. Put a human being in adverse conditions and it eventually withers. This is, I suppose, also the foundation on which Maslow’s now rather over-exposed Hierarchy of Needs was based. My last six months has been about putting myself back in a more benign environment where recovery can occur – and that has meant, not at school. I think it shows in my face, and certainly some of my niggling health issues are much reduced. What more evidence do you need?
At a time when large numbers of people in this country and elsewhere seem to be feeling that their needs are being neglected, it’s tempting to discuss the wider societal implications. But suffice it to say that I’ve always seen the job of the teacher as enriching the ‘soil’ in which individuals can grow. Planters of seeds we may well be, but we also need to prepare the ground.
Traditionally, this involved a gentle, nuanced approach. My experience was that while the academic demands were high, the general climate was relaxed and warm. I don’t mean soppiness or neglect – but rather the way in which the pressures of growing up and passing through the schooling system were softened by the personable approach of those who delivered it. Even teachers who terrorised their classes: I recall one such gentleman who, behind a fearsome exterior, was surprisingly gentle. In their way, our teachers shielded their seedlings until such time as they judged them ready to be planted a little further out.
The chill winds that have blown through western society in recent decades have put paid to much of that. The subtlety of gradualist approaches has been replaced by an in-your-face demand to deliver. The scope for a gradual, artful nurturing of young people has given way to an unsubtle rat-race. In the obvious but wrong-headed mindset of more-is-better, pressure on teachers and pupils has been ramped up in ambitious schools seemingly with little consideration of whether this is indeed a better way of getting the best out of people.
My feelings say that it is not – and as an approach to education, it is as counter-productive as it is bleak; as an agony columnist wrote recently, if it feels wrong, it probably is. The trouble with feelings is that we can’t be much more precise than that; they are easily dismissed as anecdote – but if that is the best we have to go on, then we probably should. While there is some truth in ‘no pain, no gain’, there must come a point where a Rubicon is crossed and the discomfort becomes destructive.
In terms of working life, if people feel pressurised, rushed off their feet and anxious, this is not helpful. A little stress may be helpful, but it very quickly gets out of hand – and there is a difference between a controlled, gradualist approach to, for example public exams, and a general pandemic of ‘stand and deliver’. Which is the one thing it signally fails to do.
As Daniel Pink has observed, motivation comes from having autonomy, mastery and (inner) purpose. They are some of the natural ‘goods’ that I mentioned earlier. Without them, the incentive to do demanding things rapidly evaporates. I think they are as important as clean air and water, good diet and decent living spaces. But being ephemeral, they are easily ignored: the scrabble to deliver Results in British education has resulted in the ditching of anything that was apparently an impediment, from a large part of the extra-curricular life of many schools, even taught subjects that appeared not to contribute to the bottom line – and most certainly the measured psychological landscape in which people function well.
But if you take away the sense of community, (often by enlarging schools beyond sensible capacity) ditch the various communal events that used to punctuate the school year, and put people under such unremitting pressure, then you shift the balance between the necessary challenges of school life and the bits that soften the experience. If people are made to feel unappreciated and expendable, then it is unsurprising if their loyalty and commitment evaporates. If no slack is ever cut or compassion shown, then it should be unsurprising if people respond in kind. I think this is increasingly true amongst pupils (note the current surge in childhood mental health problems) – but it is probably the teachers who feel it most.
Even for teachers, if schools ramp up the less pleasant aspects of the job while simultaneously ditching the bits that offer the payback, it is not surprising if people decide it is no longer worth it. Many studies have shown that particularly in high-skill work, a pay-cheque alone is insufficient reward. This was my experience: whether to struggle to get back to work as quickly as possible, or not. In the end, returning to the conditions that precipitated my problems in the first place was just not worth it. It seems I’m not alone: gone to other lives, every one.
Present-day schools may have a tight management model – but it comes at the cost of the wellbeing of many who people them.
When will they ever learn?