Reckless Educationalists

Insight sometimes comes from unexpected places. After working through John Bargh’s book on the unconscious (full review still to follow) I thought I’d have a break and read about something else, related to an entirely different project I’m working on.

Aeron Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. His recent book Reckless Opportunists is about the cynical vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. Davis has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now functions, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to merely achieving and remaining in power for its own sake.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to allow for it, and still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. Besides, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin doctors in the press or professional establishments.

But as I read, I could not help yet again seeing through educational eyes – for many of the trends and attitudes he recounts seem increasingly relevant to the education world too. Once again, sense is to be found well beyond the confines of the usual publications. I wish I had read this book several years ago (rather difficult as it has only just been published) because it suggests that much of what I have rather naively believed to be the unintended consequences of a somewhat malfunctioning system are in probably anything but unintended. That explains a lot.

Davies describes the complete lack of substance or policy behind many of those he interviewed: they appeared to have little command or understanding of the enterprises they headed. Their main objective was to do whatever immediate circumstance dictated in order to preserve their power and authority. He describes the skill-sets of those involved as being not expertise in their supposed fields, but simply in getting to the top for its own sake. In fact, Davis also describes the way in which ‘experts’ are seen as an encumbrance because they tend to have too in-depth knowledge, which makes the necessary fleetness of foot rather difficult. People who have insight and principles have no place in this world, and tend never to make it beyond the lower rungs. I will take that as a kind of back-handed compliment…

I cannot help but see what happened in the last decade to the formerly relatively civilised school where I used to work in this light. Some ten years ago, the management changed. Its first move, within weeks, was to turn the school into an academy, wrong-footing people before they had had the chance to determine trust (or otherwise). The claim that it would lead to financial advantage for the school was later shown to be false, as it was the constraints on academies that was used to excuse much later blood-letting – even while the remuneration at the top continued to rise. (I know this, having been on good terms with certain concerned governors).

Shortly after, senior posts were created and their occupants blatantly imported, thus reuniting a former team in a new location. Around the same time a number of supposedly weak teachers were sacked, a few of whom probably needed to go, but many of whom greater acquaintance would have shown did not. Morale started to fall; alarm to rise, all in a school near the top of its game.

It was ordained that students were supposedly not meeting externally-defined targets; attempts by those (including myself as union rep) to contextualise the situation fell on deaf ears – at least for several years until it became apparent that the catchment area’s culture did present certain attitudinal problems that data did not reflect.

In the following years, other schools were added to the chain portfolio, and measures were gradually introduced that had the effect of turning a reasonably ‘human’ school into a soulless production machine. There was an uncanny sense that, unlike previous incarnations, this management kept its distance, that it was pulling levers remotely, rather than integrating into its host establishment. At the same time, staff wellbeing was neglected; harsh attitudes leached down the management chain, treatment expressly justified on the basis that “it’s thee or me” – and any wider concern for the esprit de corps was lost. Those staff who raised concerns were told that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City” – an absurd comparator, given the difference in operations and rewards involved. But it betrayed a certain mindset.

The Head’s door was now firmly closed, physical access only being available by appointment, past a ‘gate-keeper’ P.A. Attempts at email contact were rarely even acknowledged, let alone responded to. The ‘executive’ of this now-corporate identity became increasingly remote; classrooms were turned into management suites, and direct contact with the children was reduced to the point that some of them did not even know who the Head was.

Let me be clear: this is not a personal attack (the school and individuals remain firmly anonymous) but the impact on the school concerned was very much as outlined in Davis’ book about other sectors of national life. More people were made redundant; wellbeing issues such as staff stress were routinely denied, even as they were ratcheted up; utter loyalty was demanded but not reciprocated.

It became clear that there was no strategic vision any more – even calls from concerned governors failed to elicit more than vague mutterings about being a ‘good school’. This had longer-term effects: with no vision, the place felt increasingly directionless, nothing was valued any more; initiatives that staff took were not always blocked, but they were clearly not appreciated either – and scepticism gradually increased about the value of the strangely emotionless thank-you letters: it became perceived that they were just another form of tokenism.

The school became increasingly caught in a quasi-feudal arm-lock, the main purpose of which seemed to be to shore up the power of those at the top – and it seemed that nothing was inconceivable if it was necessary to do that, even to the detriment of the organisation. As morale deteriorated, staff turnover increased, encouraged by a view that if you didn’t like it you could always leave; yet leaving gifts ceased. Even senior managers spoke of being routinely side-lined by the cabal in control.

A number of questionable statistical practices were introduced as it became clear that a further genuine ramping-up of the school’s production figures was not in prospect. This presented classroom teachers with the dilemma of lying or potentially facing unpleasant consequences. This badly distorted the perception of pupil ability and progress. One of Davis’ key observations – as seen so many times in the financial sector – is that power-hungry individuals at the top will often not stop at destroying the very organisations they head in pursuit of personal glory.

By the time I left, the place was a hollow, impersonal, demoralised shell of its former self. And the older pupils picked it up too.

I find it profoundly depressing that even a supposedly-principled sector such as education is increasingly succumbing to this phenomenon – for much that I see and hear elsewhere suggests that this is by far from being a single isolated example. How can we possibly claim even to have an education sector when its main purpose is no longer the intellectual or cultural development of our young, but the egotistical reward of a few ruthless, greedy, power-obsessed individuals? And it has infected the universities too.

I once described the failings of such ‘management’ as a cancer; I am beginning to think that was inaccurate, for even the most aggressive cancer is unintended  – whereas the perpetrators of this outrage know precisely what they are doing.

How on earth, in the name of real education, to fight back against this?

Footnote: I emphasise that despite the fact that I eventually became a victim of the same culture, this is not a personal attack; it is simply an account of what I witnessed, which in my opinion virtually hollowed out a previously good school – as corroborated by numerous others, some of whom could see more than I could. And it is possibly happening all over the country; the hue and cry about research, professional bodies, acceptable practice and more is nothing more than the support infrastructure of an embedded, self-interested educational elite for whom pupil interest is nothing more than a necessary, abstract smoke-screen.

The only hope is that greater awareness of the issue is a start.

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Why lesson observations reveal little

Maybe there are teachers somewhere who love them, who are such confident extroverts that they seize any opportunity to show off. I never knew any. I did know a few who were quite prepared to keep a few proven, supposedly-outstanding lessons in reserve, to be wheeled out every time an observation was scheduled. But I knew many more for whom lesson observations were a matter of great stress and uncertainty, whose effect was a major factor in destroying professional self-confidence.

I suppose we should be grateful for the fact that OFSTED has lowered the heat somewhat on individual observations, but in my experience that did not stop school managers from perpetuating high-stakes observations as one of the crudest implements with which they controlled their staff.

I remember wondering how on earth I was supposed to hold in my head every criterion on the multi-page tick-list that was used where I formerly taught – let alone doing it on a daily basis, or planning for every consideration for every lesson. It was a bully’s charter for gratuitously tripping people up.

That is not to say that I oppose lesson observations per se. It is necessary to check that all is broadly well, and in the right hands they can be a useful mirror and improvement tool. But in my experience they were rarely used in that way: for a start, doing so would imply that a two-way dialogue occurred following the observation, rather than the pronouncement from On High which was the norm.

But the main point for writing this is my growing view that the crude judgements that often result from such practices are just the thin end of a much larger wedge: for all the techno-talk which seems increasingly to be surrounding (smothering?) its practice, the teaching profession actually has a very crude, simplistic and partial appreciation of the functioning of the human mind. What’s more, it doesn’t seem hugely keen on rectifying that fact.

I’ve been reading John Bargh’s book Before You Know It: the unconscious reasons why we do what we do.  I will discuss the book more widely in a following post – but I was struck by a section on the role of the unconscious in high-expertise creativity. Bargh suggests that the essence of expertise is the ability to channel the unconscious processes of the mind into useable conscious form highly effectively. He relates a number of examples to illustrate – but I was struck by the sympathy of this idea with the notion that skilled practitioners are unconsciously competent. In other words, they are so accustomed to doing what they do that they no longer need to think about it – a bit like a seasoned driver compared to a novice.

However, I had always carelessly considered this to be a form of regression from conscious competence – or at least an unexplained development of it. Bargh suggests that unconscious competence is a way of highly efficient functioning which solves complex problems while making minimal use of our limited conscious short-term thinking/memory capacity. It is also the source of Eureka moments, and the way in which issues sometimes resolve themselves after ‘sleeping on them’.

This certainly resonates with the way I was functioning in the classroom before the end of my career – most of what happened did so in ‘the zone’ just below conscious thought: teaching had become an utterly natural process for me. I knew many other experienced teachers for whom the same seemed to be true: they functioned highly efficiently as teachers almost without having to give it any conscious thought at all. It was just ‘what they did’. This is not to suggest complacency – in fact quite the opposite. Such functioning is the mark of a master practitioner – but the educational establishment seems not to realise as much.

I always used to dread lesson observations, for the simple reason that I felt that they were a very poor representation of what happened normally in my lessons. Being towards the introvert end of the spectrum, I instantly became excruciatingly aware of being observed in a way that utterly destroyed the unconscious effectiveness which was what made my lessons work. And if the pupils didn’t detect it themselves, then I am sure the suddenly up-tight teacher in front of them probably transmitted it.

What lesson observations do is move unconscious good practice right back into the realm of conscious, self-aware thought – and the consequent self-consciousness is more than enough to destroy what makes a teacher ‘tick’. Undoubtedly it is worse for some than others, but it still seems to be a commonly reported experience than observation utterly destroys the normal flow of things.

There are many works on the nature of such problems; Bargh’s is good because it comes at it in a slightly unexpected direction, linking a number of my interest areas in a way I hadn’t considered before. This was also the basis of many of my CPD sessions while I was still teaching – and yet the mainstream educational establishment seems peculiarly resistant to those aspects of psychology that don’t reinforce its existing agenda. I wonder why…

The fact is, human behaviour is a lot more complex and oblique than the educational techno-establishment is currently prepared to admit. Doing so would destroy the clear-cut but arbitrary decisions that it likes to make (about most things). But accepting facts such as the one that says an observed lesson is unlikely to be a true reflection of a teacher’s normal practice – and then permitting if nothing else a meaningful two-way dialogue about what had taken place would be both a more sophisticated and fairer way of using this practice.

Yet on that many-paged tick-list, the feedback section lacked even the smallest space for the observed teacher to make their own comment.

Icarus

The criticism of schools minister Nick Gibb by an educational researcher for quoting a ‘mere blogger’ (Old Andrew) seems to have created a minor storm – and rightly so.

That ‘mere blogger’ happens to be not only a practising professional teacher, but also one of the most incisive voices in the British education world today. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that he has helped to bring about substantive change in the educational landscape. But beyond any personal slight is a more far-reaching point. Blogging happens to have become the major vehicle by which grass-roots teachers are able to communicate their thinking and experiences.

By seeking to invalidate such media, those in the educational research (and sometimes management) realm are in effect trying silence anyone who does not have access to the supposedly-superior educational macro-data that they do.

My own (now) rather cynical voice has been honed by similar experiences: while still teaching full-time, my attempts to contribute to the wider debate and development within my school were repeatedly ignored by management seemingly because they did not come from an ‘appropriate’ source – and because they sometimes contained difficult, but necessary and well-meant truths.

Yet as with OId Andrew, my contributions found much favour amongst my teaching colleagues, as a huge pile of enthusiastic CPD feedback sheets shows. Those in charge must have seen them – but on no occasion was I able to persuade any of the school’s senior ‘leaders’ to attend. On the sole occasion that one of the lesser minions did appear, he described the session as the most thought-provoking CPD session he had ever attended. And still none of the others would come.

I apologise if this sounds a little like gilding my own cage – but the fact is, while it has become easier for the grass-roots teachers make their thoughts known, if anything, those in control seem to be shutting their ears ever more firmly to what is being said. My book (the publication of which by John Catt is hopefully a reasonable validation of its content) has also encountered scepticism from the same quarters that it might contain anything that those who make the decisions need to hear.

We have in Britain an education system that is becoming more like a regular branch of autocratic commercial activity by the month. The behaviour is strikingly similar: those at the ‘sharp end’ are treated with visible contempt, while those in charge continue to feather their own nests even at a time of crisis. The effects are the same everywhere: given my own experience there, it was with some schadenfreude that I learned recently that my former school is struggling to recruit humanities teachers to replace the several that it seriously disaffected in the past few years. Had they listened when we tried to speak, this might never have happened.

The ‘executive’ arm of the education system is increasingly becoming what in my book I called ‘management cancer’: not merely is it making life more difficult for the regular functionaries, but it is actively eating away at the system it supposedly serves. The dismissal of practising professionals as ‘mere’ anything is an expression of an attitude that sees education as either some kind of high-handed abstract apparatus for social intervention, or an under-handed personal career opportunity for a few – rather than a crucial personal-intellectual process that shapes the actual lives of real people. The punters and the labourers are little more than the necessary grist in that mill.

Emeritus Professor Michael Bassey asked in The Guardian a few days ago whether “school standards, teachers’ morale, young people’s wellbeing and parents’ aspirations are being held back”. The answer is yes they are – not in the main by classroom practice, but by the vast, stifling thicket of management ideology and so-called research which claims to be powering the system – but in actual fact is doing much to damage it, while uttering the usual platitudes of executive parasites everywhere about how essential they are for the smooth-running, indeed mere existence of the whole edifice.

 

I should, as always, temper my comments with the acknowledgement that there are undoubtedly many school leaders everywhere who are doing a decent, genuine, unsung job of running their schools as humanely well as they possibly can. It is not them who I am criticising, but those with the sharpest elbows and loudest voices who have acquired – no, seized – disproportionate influence in education. I have sources from enough schools around the country to know that this is not just an isolated problem. A tellingly-anonymous article in The Guardian over the weekend which described experiences and sentiments amazingly close to my own might suggest the same – and is worth quoting from:

“…Then there was the endless river of snake oil flowing from educational consultants – mountebanks who promise they can solve all your educational ills if you follow their five-minute fad. And while you’re at it teachers, solve the problems of society! Teach kids to avoid drugs, underage sex and radicalisation.

So how should things be? Let teachers get on with the job; stop politicians interfering in education; allow good teachers the freedom to inspire their pupils. This is not going to happen. No wonder the average length of service for a teacher in the UK is five years. No wonder I left after 30.”

I also accept (as should we all) that due allowance needs to be made for ‘unknown unknowns’ when criticising the actions of others. It would be good if the same allowances flowed more often in the opposite direction too… We should probably also throw into the mix the fact that in a field like education, a single, stable, universally-applicable consensus is probably a dream too far – but all the more reason to accept and respect all parties in the debate.

I see a corporate culture whose hubris shows no sign of abating – to the point that its subscribers are no longer even ashamed of decrying their front-line practitioners in effect as ‘mere teachers’, whose views and needs can reasonably be ignored and even publicly dismissed. It is becoming more autocratic by the month and as some high-profile cases have shown, some individuals will not even stop at bringing the profession into disrepute in the process of furthering their own interests. How can this possibly be good for education?

Like the writer of the Guardian article, I have no doubt that these people will continue to fly higher and higher, to the detriment of the rest of the educational system. Indeed, I hope they do, for I have a new name for them: Icarus.

We need to discuss management openly – while dodging the bullets.

If one sticks one’s head above the parapet, one should expect to encounter some low-flying ordnance. Parts of The Great Exception do seem to be causing controversy – which is good.

I expected my critique of ‘Big Management’ not to go down well in some quarters, though most school managers will no doubt be far too thick-skinned to be riled by comments from the likes of me. In any case, I hope it is possible to separate the issue from the people. Over the years, I did encounter a few managers whose behaviour was truly despicable, but they were very much the minority, and I have many friends and former colleagues who are or were managers: this is not personal.

We need to ask this question – because there is no reason whatsoever why management should be any more virtuous or above reproach than the rest of the system. Indeed given its huge influence, it has the capacity to cause far more harm to education than the inadequacies of mere individual classroom teachers – and that is without considering the huge costs that big management imposes on a cash-strapped system.

The worst thing to do would be to dismiss criticism out of hand, which would rather prove the point about the risk of hubris.

I am more concerned with the system that is being operated than the people enacting it, most of whom have to operate within frameworks over which they no more have complete control than anyone else. I am confident that most people in such positions are genuinely acting in what they believe to be the best way. But that is not to say that either they – or the system – are always getting it right: outside pressures can result in very perverse behaviours, especially as people move further from the grass-roots classroom experience. Neither is it untrue that self-interest sometimes clouds their judgement. Yet it is worth re-stating that no-one is forced to take such posts, and I would not wish some of their dilemmas on anyone.

For all that education has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, nobody seems to have stopped and asked whether ‘big management’ is actually helping. It seems to be taken for granted that it does (even when that flies in the face of experience) and I do not get the impression that the alternative views presented by highly-experienced managers like Margaret Heffernan, Daniel Pink and John Kay are widely known (that is why they’re in the book…). One manager I persuaded to read Daniel Pink described his book as “a revelation”. I’m afraid to say that plenty of conversations I have had with managers over the years betrayed nothing so much as a certain tunnel vision.

It is not sufficient for management teams solely to self- or peer-appraise; this is not acceptable for classroom teachers, and neither is it reasonable to dismiss the comments from those lower down the ‘food chain’ on the grounds of incomplete insight. If that were the case, we would stop all ‘pupil voice’ exercises today.

It is undoubtedly true that the situation is not the same everywhere: while I focus on many of the generic pitfalls of the management process, this is not to imply that practice is universally bad. But I also know from direct experience that the actions of management in certain circumstances can be responsible for a great deal of difficulty, distress and over-work. Over the years, I have been variously told that I was “naive” to call for more compassion in the workplace, that management should be “bullish” and that “things would be a lot harsher if we worked in The City”. I was told it was “insubordinate” to question a particularly difficult manager. None of this is remotely helpful. I would hope that well-meaning managers would acknowledge this and be concerned about it: why would they be otherwise?

This issue needs to be discussed in the open: there is a crisis of recruitment and retention in the profession – and it is not true that it is solely caused by low pay or the behaviour of the children. ‘Management’ is responsible for creating the climate (and many of the pressures) in the educational workplace – and there is plenty to suggest that it is not always good. I have repeatedly seen this with my own eyes – and I know that it is not always taken seriously. What greater own-goal could the profession score?

If it is true that poor classroom teaching needs to be addressed without much compunction, then the same is surely so for poor management – and the ability of those in senior positions to close ranks and insulate themselves more from adverse situations should not prevent that. Hypocrisy is destructive – and if managers feel uncomfortable about being criticised, then perhaps it will remind them how regular teachers feel under similar situations, many of which are management-instigated. In fact, I would much prefer to see a more consensual, less confrontational climate all round.

My book is not mainly aimed at new teachers as one reviewer suggested: I will be only too pleased if senior managers read it: some at least need to.

But I also hope that the (necessary) coverage of these issues will not distract from the more positive sections on good practice later in the book. I take the view that all in education have largely been co-victims of outside pressures, and my intention was to offer a constructive view of a more realistic, sustainable and humane way forward.

Getting that right would be one of the surest ways to improve the sector for everyone.

Putting the soul back. Part 1.

I was greatly uplifted by Geoff Barton’s recent call to return the ‘soul’ to teaching. That is probably the only thing that would make me consider setting foot in a classroom again. In my experience, the whole profession has been shorn of precisely those things that made it worth the effort, while the unwanted, unneeded hassle has correspondingly increased. The condition of ‘being a teacher’ (as opposed to the act of teaching) had indeed become  soulless. And they were hacking away at the classroom experience too.

My concern, though, is that it has been this way for so long now, that returning the soul may be nigh-on impossible. Like many cultural assets, this is hard-won and all too easily lost. We have several generations of teachers who, having no alternative experience of their own, may lack an appreciation of what it means – and if they don’t know, there is no way we can bring it back.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am giving consideration to this kind of issue, that has been shoved so far to the back of working teachers’ consciousness by the overload of more pressing practicalities, that it might need someone at a slight remove to highlight them. I hope I can be of some use in that respect. I have serialised the following intentionally rather provocative piece, and will post it in five short sections at intervals of a few days. I will be delighted even if it only provokes dissent!

Part I

I suppose we’re all, to some extent prisoners of our value-systems. Coming from a teaching family, it was probably inevitable that for me, education has never needed any external justification: it was enough of a self-evident ‘good’ for that to be all the reason needed.

I have always dismissed the functionalist view that education needs to be ‘for’ anything in particular – let alone just the gaining of employment. Its effect on people, in my experience is always very significant so long as it is congruent with those people’s innate potential. Often, however, for a variety of reasons that is not the case – and I would suggest that education fails more often because of this, rather than either poor teaching or a lack of ability or commitment by the teacher or student. I would add a caveat to that, however, namely that as an investment in a person’s future, a pupil’s current preferences should not be to only consideration for the form that education takes. This is why the guidance of an enlightened adult is so important – by which I mean someone who has developed a mature perspective of their own, on life.

So it came as something of a surprise, some days ago, for a long-standing former colleague to demur on this point; in his view, for the majority of the population, gaining employment probably does constitute virtually the sole reason for being put through – or putting up with – school.

I’m not in a position to dispute that view; experience suggests that in terms of current social attitudes it may well be correct – but that does not in itself make that position either tenable or justifiable. It should even less define what education professionals decide to make school ‘about’. Attempts to define education as being ‘for’ anything in particular come up against all sorts of philosophical and indeed practical difficulties, and the increasing attempts of society to do just that have arguably corresponded with a period in which the education system has lost sight of its some of the many domains in which it can have an effect.

Most fundamentally, education is a speculative investment in people’s future lives – lives that neither they nor anyone else can anticipate in detail. While there are certain known ‘likelihoods’, there is no way of knowing the specific future needs of any one individual. Therefore attempting to second-guess what individuals will need in future is problematic at anything more than a very general level. The other risk here is that future-anticipation becomes self-fulfilling. For example, if we strongly promote education on its economic benefits, it is likely that the recipients will believe what they are told; as a consequence it is even possible that they will prioritise its economic benefits and neglect the other things that a more diverse education could have offered. But given that education is an investment, to me it makes little sense prematurely to limit its potential by making closed decisions about what is ‘suitable’ for certain people. Surely we should give them all the opportunity to access the best our culture can offer? If they then reject it, at least they have had their chance.

I think there is much evidence of such limiting behaviour having happened – even to the extent of having shaped teachers’ thinking about the purpose of what they do, as my former colleague’s comments suggested. The potential consequences of this are more far-reaching than might at first seem possible. To be blunt, the emphasis on employment in education is a euphemism for the acquisition of money – whether at one extreme the millions to which the would-be rich aspire, or at the other, the minimal self-sufficiency that the State requires in order to keep people off the social security books.

I am not going to suggest that this is an unimportant aspect to education – but I would suggest that it is insufficient in terms of life-enhancement. Money is only as good as the people who spend it: there are plenty of recorded cases of multi-millionaires having a demonstrably poor quality of life, and equally those of people with limited means having the opposite. I will discuss why that is so in a subsequent post.

A more cynical view might claim that the emphasis on the economic aspects of education actually represents an abandonment of the individual as a locus for concern; while it is possible to sell the dream of wealth and life-fulfilling employment to every child, the reality is that only some will achieve it. What is more, the current thrust of economic development suggests that it may deliver to fewer and fewer people in future. This is without the increasing body of evidence that poor working lives and poor life-balances do significant harm to people’s health; surely education should not be promoting situations that lead to decline?

In a system where management priorities are so dominant, can we be sure that ‘education for employment’ is not just a new inversion of the intentions of the national elite over several centuries – that the masses should be employable not for their own sakes, but for those of their bosses? If so, the risk is that we are dangling prospects in front of people which are largely illusory; they may ensure the compliance that educational managers desire in order to meet their own targets – but that is very different from guaranteeing an experience that provides a meaningful legacy for those who undergo it. Were this correct, it would not be unreasonable to claim that the education system was morally bankrupt.

There is a plausible case that we should increasingly be educating people to help them find fulfilment in places other than the work that for many, may in future be both increasingly dreary and in short supply.

The fundamental mistake is to assume that money provides the means to acquire a fulfilling life – this is not necessarily so. By focussing on certain specific, mechanical goals such as these, education may be harming its own opportunities for providing a more meaningful life-experience for individuals and society as a whole.

Un-managers wanted.

As my day-to-day classroom experience recedes, I will be focusing occasionally on some of the wider perspectives that I feel teachers and schools need to have – and which in my experience have been squeezed virtually to extinction by the pressures on the modern profession. (At the risk of labouring the point, further discussion of many of them will also be found in – ahem – a certain forthcoming publication…)

It seems that the current recruitment and retention crisis is focusing minds.

John Tomsett wrote a thoughtful and honest piece recently in response to the growing teacher shortage. He is right to conclude that classroom teachers’ lives need to be made less intolerable. That is what some of us have been saying for years!

He also cited an inspirational piece of writing by Geoff Barton, calling for a reinvention of the profession of teaching in all its cultured and humane glory.

https://johntomsett.com/2018/01/05/this-much-i-know-about-how-as-school-leaders-we-have-to-solve-the-recruitment-crisis-ourselves/

https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/2018-lets-reclaim-career-teaching-what-it-can-be?

Again, this is what some of us have been trying to perpetuate for decades. In some ways, it harks back to what teaching was – and who teachers were – in the days before the intrusion of Big Management. But for all I knew it that worked on its own terms, my own small part of the education system disapproved, and eventually pressed the button marked ‘Reject’. Why would they not: I was (in their eyes only) resisting their direction. But their chosen alternative does not seem to be getting the education very far either, it would seem.

John faces a problem: for all his good intentions, he is (now) a manager; even in his recent piece, the current difficulty is seen through the prism of the manager. His proposed solution to the problem is a management one, albeit involving wider consultation; how could it be anything else? But as in many fields, a significant part of the problem in schools is excessive management: what we need are un-managers.

Management is much of the problem: it is very largely an invention of post-industrial societies for the employment of people whose more productive options have been exported or otherwise disappeared. Its very existence creates certain operational and cognitive difficulties for organisations. Management is parasitic: it produces nothing of itself: its whole point is to intervene (interfere?) in what other people are doing and control the way in which it is done. This might be a little less problematic if it didn’t also suck so many resources out of the system. If management stops directing, then it becomes too easy to ask difficult questions about its necessity, and as we all know, turkeys don’t vote for festive seasons.

Even when the motives are entirely good (which is not always), the immediate effect is to compromise the autonomy which is such a significant part of people’s motivation. That in turn can severely alter not only the practicalities of how a person operates, but also their sense of purpose about their work. In my case, I experienced both: the insistence of managers that I should work in a way that suited their priorities and preferences rather than my own – and the erosion of my self-professed motives for my work. It was the reluctance to accept this that caused some of my recent difficulties.

Teachers are intelligent and skilled people; they work in complex environments deploying subtle and sometimes barely-defined cerebral skills. They need at all costs to retain sufficient flexibility to preserve the choices and values that make them persevere with their work. Most of them are experts at self-management (by comparison with many outside of teaching) – and they do not need other people telling them what to do. Unfortunately, telling other people what to do is the key premise of the vast majority of managers. The conflict is irresolvable – and the effects on the teaching profession are all too clear to see.

This is not to say that we don’t need managers: schools don’t run themselves. The mistake is believing the same about successful people, who often do. The immediate effect of management presence in my lessons was tangibly to make me less effective: it’s called the Hawthorne Effect! Others played the system by putting on show lessons; neither makes for good classroom practice – or a sense or professional pride.

There are other models of management that are less intrusive, less threatening, and more supportive – but the education system does not seem widely to cultivate them. What is more, in the drive to make schools conform to management priorities, many of the skills, attributes and attitudes referred to by Geoff Barton have been extinguished in favour of a more utilitarian, technical approach. And that does not work either: it removes much of what makes for a truly successful teacher.

I would like to suggest to John and concerned others, that they don’t formulate yet more management solutions – because solutions they are not, simply another iteration of the same problem. What we need is un-management solutions. In the words of what now seems to be an apocryphal saying: “Hire good people and get out of their way”. And be ready with a helping hand – if and when it is requested.

The kids are alright

I had not planned to follow up my last post with another on the same theme – but a rather lump-in-throat inducing session in my on-going talking therapy got me thinking – and then Bottomsbray’s latest post tipped the balance…

https://bottomsbray.wordpress.com/2018/01/03/it-takes-one-to-know-one/

The story of ‘Andy’ appeared to resonate, showing as it did one case where the claim that children’s futures lie entirely in their teachers’ hands was busted for the damaging myth that it is. While there are of course vulnerable and deprived children for whom school may be a salvation, the numbers of critical cases are, I suggest, relatively small; small enough not to predicate the entire system on them.

In any case, during my years teaching, I knew barely a handful of teachers who did not do their utmost for the children in their charge – and yet for most of those years, we were subjected to an unending barrage from a school which self-identified as “bullish” – of how much ‘better’ we needed to be, how we should never be satisfied with ourselves (a mentality perpetuated by some of the biggest voices in education), how there was always so much more we could and should do – and above all, how targets were therefore inviolable. Most people responded, and the levels of stress in the school were, on occasions, horrific. Despite this, most children went out to successful futures – while the staff were horsewhipped ever harder by successive managements to push the headline figures up into the mid 80’s and the school to a multiple- ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted grade. And when the figures finally dipped, as they always eventually do, the only response they could come up with was more of the same.

One day a couple of weeks before Christmas, my state of mind suddenly spiralled rapidly down into the pit again; we were out shopping, and bizarrely, by the time we got home, the various physical complaints that I had experienced for many years (but not for the last, medicated one) all suddenly re-appeared: muscle and joint aches – to the point I could hardly get out of the car, headache, extreme lethargy, digestive upheaval, to say nothing of the mental fog that closed off my ability to focus on anything. It got progressively worse for the rest of the day, until I turned in. By the following mid-day after a long sleep, I was virtually back to what currently constitutes normal. I was mystified – and went in search of information. I discovered that all those problems are known symptoms of depression. While I knew that physical pain could cause low mood, I had never before considered the opposite. Nor, apparently, do quite a few G.P.’s who, when presented with unexplained symptoms (just as I had done), tend to go in search of physical causes first. It seems that it is far from unusual for depressed people to experience physical symptoms even before any mental disturbance becomes evident.

This presented the possibility that the numerous ailments of just these sorts that I had been accumulating for perhaps ten years were in fact growing signs of a longer-rooted depression that had eventually got me. Hence the reason I am writing this: I wonder how many other teachers are out there are in a similar situation, not realising where they are heading. Not all may suffer the full consequences – but it is worth pondering.

And how many school cultures are causing it? I clearly remember the depressing effect – not just on me – of the constant message that we were never good enough, that we would damage children irrevocably if we did not do as we were instructed, the outright fear of being found wanting. The message was always that to be a teacher, you first need to be tough – and that meant taking, uncomplaining, whatever the school threw at you. The message was also that schools start from the assumption that their employees are lazy and feckless. But being tough is not, in my experience, the most important quality of a teacher: being sensitive to other people’s needs is. And being sensitive (and conscientious) makes you all the more likely to take seriously what your managers tell you they want.

If I made a mistake, it was precisely this: mortgaging my own sanity in order to do what they demanded. While I did express my doubts, I nonetheless worked unremittingly, under a constant cloud of worry about whether I was doing ‘enough’: that sounds very familiar in this profession. It was only recently, when the demands spiralled ever further up into the deep blue yonder of management fantasy, when they became clearly unworkable – and when they started denying that the school even had a stress problem –  that the whole thing really appeared as the sham that it is, and I eased up.

This is not about children’s welfare; it is about management hubris – or fear. The only rationale that can justify what is now being foisted upon teachers is the insatiable lust of some school managers for advancement for themselves, or (perhaps more likely?) the protection of their own positions. No rational understanding of child wellbeing or of furthering education is sufficient to justify the absurd amount of largely pointless work now (as E=mc²andallthat said the other day) being demanded of teachers, and which even Ofsted does not require. It is the regime of zealots and ideologues, who care nothing for the practical consequences of their own increasingly barmy mania.

https://emc2andallthat.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/markopalypse-now/

I am left with the possible conclusion that my difficulties were a lot longer-standing than I had considered; hence perhaps, why recovery is also taking a long time. Most of it was nothing to do with teaching children, so much as the entirely avoidable demands of an out-of-control system – a system which in the end applied such intense pressure to precisely my weak spot (my professional conscience) that I crumbled. My mistake was to be conscientious enough to take them seriously in the first place.

Meanwhile, plenty of kids like ‘Andy’ come out of the system none the worse for wear. Perhaps schools don’t always succeed (on their own terms) with them – but as ‘Andy’ shows, many are capable of making successes of themselves anyway, as they always have. He is not the only one I have encountered. In fact, the diet that schools force at such children is, in itself, perhaps counter-productive, even damaging: there was no way ‘Andy’ ever wanted – or was going – to be an academic. As a resolutely academic teacher, much of what I could offer was of little use to him; what I did provide – as he fondly remembered – was a patient, consistent, supportive adult. And even on that score, despite my suspicions that other role models may have been more appropriate, I think in a small way, I succeeded.

But school managements are not judged against people like him, or the kind of encounter that he and I had. And because of that, they apply pressure to people like me, who internalise it to their own cost, to do ever more work, the only Sisyphean rationale for which can be to cover management arses.

In a way, my experience is the price the education system now exacts from teachers for ‘Andy’s’ success. It is too big a price – made all the worse by the fact that it is largely needless. Based on the witness of those I know who are still teaching, I wrote something yesterday about the education system to a former colleague that I would never previously have contemplated:

“It is no longer worth sacrificing yourself for”.

Andy was O.K. anyway – and such is my enduring fragility that the realisation that much of that system-induced stress was actually for nothing, was indeed enough to induce a large lump in the throat.

‘Andy’

Here, to start the year, is a good news story about something other than my own recent travails…

In the late autumn, we needed to have some interior works done. I contacted a small company that was getting good reports on my town’s local Facebook page. In the days before the owner visited, I pondered the name, and gradually came to a certain suspicion. When the young man called, my thoughts were strengthened, and in the following email negotiations, I established what I suspected. He was a former pupil of mine, now aged thirty and operating in an area some way removed from his childhood home.

The boy – we’ll call him Andy – had been in one of the lower ability sets when I taught him in Year 7 and 8, nearly twenty years ago. His extended family was one of the more troubled local families, whose offspring had caused some difficulty. He himself was a more likeable lad, but susceptible to wind-up from other pupils and sometimes hyper-active in class. I nonetheless patiently built up a good relationship with him, and he worked well for me for two years, before moving to a different school, and then another. From what I can gather, this was because he was increasingly in need of new starts, and in time the family moved to a different area entirely. I don’t know how he did in his exams, but in his own words, “I was not exactly one of your all A* candidates was I?”

Andy did three days’ good work for us, during which a little more of the interim came to light. On leaving school at sixteen, he had eventually gained work refitting London Underground stations – mostly on night shifts. He did this for nearly a decade, while putting himself through five years in college during the day, to gain City & Guilds qualifications in three trades, and saving hard to set up his own business.

In the past few years, this is what he has done, and he now employs up to ten people in varying capacities. He has a smart van, branded work wear, a growing reputation – and as much work as he wants, without even needing to advertise. He has taken advice from his accountant on financial management of a company and is also gaining a lot of insurance repair work. I would call him a resounding success.

As E=MC²andallthat recently mentioned, recent research suggests that the ‘teacher factor’ in children’s life chances accounts for between 0 and 14% of educational outcomes – not the 100% that teachers have repeatedly been told. In the case of ‘Andy’, the total teacher factor amounted, I would suggest, to not very much at all, beyond basic literacy and numeracy. In my own case, I strongly suspect that any effect I had was personal, not academic. And yet the guy is doing really well for himself, and in his own terms (and mine) is a success. Years of ear-bashing by educational theorists from Hattie to batty (who was on SLT at my former school) insisted that we teachers were the lynchpin of children’s future lives; that they “only have one chance” and that failure in school will inevitably lead to a life condemned to the eternal damnation of not being ‘people like us’.

Well, ‘Andy’ is the living proof that this ain’t necessarily so – and that most of what we were told was nothing more than further emotional blackmail from management to get teachers to do what they were told. Education would be well-rid of such ridiculous hubris: to claim entire sovereignty over and responsibility for the outcomes of people’s lives is beyond arrogant: it is preposterous – and the main effect, I suspect, is nothing more than to pile further emotional strain on teachers. Because I have met very few pupils (and even parents) who ever believed it.

To suggest that teachers have complete lives in their gift is absurd; the best they can hope for is to dip a paddle judiciously into the current of people’s lives as they pass, and create some beneficial eddies. In ‘Andy’s’ case, compared with his own achievements, I am not sure we even did that. For him, the best lesson of all was learned though the struggle he had, and determination he invested to make a success of his own life, well away from the meddling of teachers and their academic targets.

On the score-sheet of his/my former school, and formal education generally, I suspect ‘Andy’ is chalked up as a ‘fail’ – but that he most certainly is not. It makes me all the more pleased that he is doing so well.

There’s a long way to go

I discovered rather late that today is World Mental Health Day.

I am not going to bang on further about my own issues, except to say that after nearly a year I finally hope to be off medication soon.

But I will describe a situation encountered perhaps two years ago.

I was present in a meeting with senior managers as the staff Health & Safety Representative. A governor was pressing for a response from the management regarding Stress Policy.

The member of the senior team responsible for personnel issues responded, “Stress is not an issue at this school. There are no teachers who are stressed except perhaps a few weak ones. We do not need a Mental Health Policy and will deal with any cases on their merits”.

Enough said.

 

Notes from beyond 4: Are we all together in this?

If Gaby Hinsliff is to be believed, it seems as I’m not so much on the scrap-heap as in the vanguard of a revolution against the long-hours culture. If she’s right, people are tiring of the amount of time they are being required to give to their employers. Of course, there’s more to it than that, particularly in a vocation like teaching – but it is possible that a combination of stagnant wages, the country’s ever-growing wealth disparity and the sense that those in charge really don’t care very much really is causing the blinkers to fall.

In my case, I put my all into my career for thirty years, to an extent that is really only apparent now that I have stopped. It is what we were told we should do – by people whom, it turns out were offering illusory rewards, and who were interested in no one’s benefit so much as their own.

When, as a public sector employee one was then expected to endure pay restraint in order to bail out the bad boys of the financial sector who themselves largely escaped scot-free, one might start to ponder the distinction between having a vocation and being a mug. A few years ago, I listened to my local M.P., (herself formerly a highly-paid lobbyist for the tobacco industry) answer my question by lecturing that the public sector ‘has to bear its share of austerity’. What kind of fools do they think we are?

When one then sees those who manage (but rarely teach) not only preserving their own jobs at the expense of those in the classroom, but also awarding themselves (nationally, in percentage terms) an increasing share of the education pie, the impression can only be that the same insidious greed has infected our education sector too. “We need more!” was their ceaseless call while I worked for them; at no point did they make a serious effort to examine the impact on their employees’ wellbeing, let alone life-balance. It’s easy to emotionally-blackmail teachers, and they shamelessly used it to extract more and more from people. Eventually they exploited my own ill heath to save on the salary bill.

If it is indeed true that such experiences are widespread, then Hinsliff may well be right: especially at a time of national cynicism, people may (and should) be asking themselves significant questions about what they are doing with their lives. Just why should we be expected to accept that we foot-soldiers should do ever more now that it is increasingly apparent that the main beneficiaries are only the few at the top?

The impact of living to work is serious in less obvious ways too. A few days ago I was describing my new-found involvement with my local community to a former colleague; his reaction voiced something I have long felt: “Our society is suffering from the inability of people such as teachers, who have initiative and energy, to use them for the wider good because they have been so screwed down in their workplaces”. The live-to-work culture sweeps all before it – for what?

Hinsliff claims that vast numbers of people are doing huge amounts of unpaid overtime; why should they, when they seem decreasingly likely not only to see any benefits from this, but not even not to be treated harshly should the boss deem it necessary? I can well understand if people are starting to feel that loyalty should flow in both directions.

Hinsliff’s article reports on the growing number of people who are foregoing extra income (even at relatively low levels) because they are finding that time and quality of life are more important. Perhaps the current debate about mental health issues in society wouldn’t be so urgently needed, either, if this society itself were not so effective at making people sick in the first place. That is not an over-dramatic claim: as regular readers will know, it is my own experience.

These points all echo my own thoughts, for all that my situation was enforced. In some ways it feels rather selfish to be saying, “Enough – I want more time for me!” but at least I have already done three decades of public service. It is increasingly apparent that unless you are one of the privileged (and hypocritical) few, the current model will chew you up and spit you out with not a second thought for the fact that your life is as valuable as the next.

Medication side-effects aside, I now have the time available to attend to my own personal life first, for once. And to give better attention to the relatives, friends, neighbours and community with and in which I live. My daily routine is now such that people are commenting how much better I look; the body does not lie about such things, no matter whether it is likely to compromise corporate targets or not.

And in a world where some people have too much work while others don’t have enough, it ought to be easy enough to resolve this issue – were those in charge really at all interested in doing so. As one of Hinsliff’s (teacher) interviewees says,

“People want to have a family, or they want to have a social life. They don’t want to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Would anything persuade him to return full-time? “I think things would have to change significantly, in terms of the expectations of staff.”

The deceit has gone on long enough, but I am afraid this country is becoming more, not less hawkish in its attitude to the world as a whole; those in charge (at all levels) very often seem not to give a damn.

In which case, the only person do something about this is us, each one our self.

https://www.theguardian.com/money/2017/sep/16/part-time-working-revolution-people-want-family-social-life