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

 

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Declining, not falling. Part 1.

Two weeks from now, for the first time in sixty years, there will be no teachers in my family. I will be just another private individual, removed from the in-some-ways very public role of teacher. Apart from a GAP year, this will also be the first time that my life has not depended directly on education. Or it would be, if you discount my wife’s university-paid income that will hopefully keep us alive while I figure out what to do next.

Education is in the news again at the moment, it being union conference season – but greater distance lends a different perspective. My plan is to record some of my thoughts at this unexpected point, assuming the still-faulty brain will permit.

My book remains unpublished. I have been repeatedly told that it is well thought-out and well-written – but the people who would want to read it (i.e. practising teachers) don’t have the time, and those who do are not interested in what I have to say. I think it was summed up by one reviewer, who on the strength of only the proposal decided (wrongly) that it would be nothing more than a personal polemic, lacking in references to accepted research and government policy.

So that says it all: those who actually do education are too snowed under actually to think about it, while those who make the decisions are not interested in what a classroom teacher has to say.

I am not ruling out teaching again, but it won’t be in the immediate future. I’m still feeling very hurt by what has happened. More likely, I will find some non-classroom role, as I’ve seen that the job I have been doing has progressively eroded my health and wellbeing to a point that is no longer acceptable. But I have other directions I want to explore first.

I suppose I am looking for some kind of closure on the last three decades – though it is unlikely really to happen, as I will probably never know for sure what the actual agenda was for pushing/neglecting a committed and long-serving teacher to the point of breakdown, and then ‘losing’ them, on the basis of a couple of disputed exam targets.

Normally, I would have jumped at the opportunity for five months’ ‘sabbatical’ – who wouldn’t? But I would not recommend my experience to anyone; I also now realise that the clouds of that storm had been brewing for considerably longer than I thought. But in the interim, my life has been transformed. I suppose every cloud has its lining…. I now have time to appreciate everyday life, to nurture relations with people around me, to value the simple but fundamental pleasures of life that hitherto were squeezed to almost non-existence by the ever-present weight of Teaching. I never lived to work, but I had failed to appreciate the extent to which my work had come utterly to dominate my life.

I’ve not turned against education; I was brought up to value it, and I believe it to be a cornerstone of a civilised society. It continues to enrich my own life in very many ways, and I still believe it is one of the greatest gifts that any society can offer its members. In troubled times, it is more important than ever.

But I have become increasingly disenchanted with what formalised education has become, in Britain at least. It is no longer doing that which I described above. It has utterly lost sight of its fundamental purpose, its methods and intentions hijacked by uncomprehending vested interests. I had a simple, even naive wish when I entered the profession: to cultivate and broaden the minds of up-coming generations and in particular to share my appreciation of those fields that interested me. The educational system has increasingly diverted, even prevented me from doing that, in ways and to extents that I have largely lost interest in being part of it.

A society that has lost the understanding to educate it people, as well as house and feed them, provide for their health and allow them to have a stake in its destiny is one that is heading down the pan. As I wrote nearly a year ago, recent national events have only fuelled that perception.

But the current education scene is, I believe more part of the problem than the solution. In the next post or two I will discuss why.  This seems widely known: I have not had a single person from a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions tell me that I am making a big mistake in leaving, and I don’t think they are just being kind. They know teaching as presently configured is a fool’s (or a saint’s) job; I’m neither.

But perhaps the biggest indictment is that is it now extensively harming the basic welfare of those who go through it, whether as teachers or pupils. I don’t only mean mental health, though that is perhaps the sharp end of it.

And of that, I want no part.

Enemy of the People

“It’s all for the children”. In my experience, people enter teaching for a variety of reasons. Yet the single, most over-worked creed to which all teachers are expected to subscribe is this.

One might well ask how working with children can be for anything but their benefit. But the problem, as with so many things in education, is knowing what that ‘benefit’ actually is. What about educating children for the benefit of everyone else – so we don’t have antisocial little savages in our midst?

‘For the children’ seems to be uttered most often by those who favour child-centred approaches and by those who manage schools; in both cases it is appropriated both to justify certain orthodoxies and debunk others.

The former seem to believe that allowing children free rein to decide (or dictate?) their own learning is the most benign approach. The latter seem to think that children’s benefit is synonymous with their schools’ positions in the league tables – and spend least of their daily schedule in contact with living, breathing young people.

Somewhere in the middle are those who advocate a ‘tough love’ approach – to which traditionalist teachers (unfairly in my view) seem to have been attached.

The same phrase is also appropriated by the evangelists who “absolutely love working with children” and who are daily “thrilled” when children “connect” with a new piece of understanding. Well, I have some sympathy, but I think such people probably need to grow up.

As with much evangelism, the message is over-simplified, and not as altruistic as it claims. As fully-functioning adults, teachers ought to have more complex insight and motives. While a genuine pleasure in working with young people is clearly desirable, the over-emotional attachment of a teacher to their pupils seems to be more a matter of surrogate parenthood or their own kidulthood than anything more rational – and professionally rather suspect.

In my own case, the pleasure of genuinely helping people is real enough. Working with children can be very rewarding; some of them I actively come to like. But plenty more are indifferent, frustrating, or downright unpleasant. I try not to conflate help with either permissiveness or helicopter teacher-ing. And I feel distinctly uneasy about claiming to know what is inalienably ‘best’ for other sovereign (if immature) individuals whom I see for only a small proportion of their lives, and in highly contrived circumstances at that.

At least as important to me are the wider, less personal and often unspoken aspects of ‘benefit’. These include the perpetuation of a stable civil society – which requires people to both understand and actively subscribe to a social contract. It also involves the transmission, preservation, accessing and furthering of human intellectual and cultural capital. And it involves striking some kind of balance that allows each individual to grow into a responsible, well-balanced person, capable both of living a fulfilled life of their own and of contributing to the same in a societal sense. Those things are at least as much part of every individual’s interest as anything more selfish; this might be particularly apparent in a world that is as unstable as it currently seems.

Part of that balance is understanding the inevitable trade-off between rights and responsibilities, between custodianship and dominion. That is an exceptionally difficult thing to achieve, let alone develop in others – and all the more so to do in a consensual rather than coercive or confrontational way.

The indulgent culture of modern schools does not manage it. I’m afraid that the education system is well and truly infected with the Cult of the Individual – and why would it not be when the rest of society (ably assisted by the commercial sector) – is so? I do not see promoting education solely as a ‘challenge’ that pits the individual against society, that portrays it as a competition to extract the most (power/money)  for oneself, genuinely serves people either individually or collectively.

Likewise, a system that hypes schools’ own rivalries, or that pretends that classroom teachers can also have stellar careers is insidious. It plays to the self-interest that too often wins out over the interest of the Whole.

The cult of the individual also leads to perverse outcomes. Those who manage schools supposedly in the interests of the children most often absent themselves from contact with those same children. They become apparatchiks of a system whose functioning often works against the complex benefits discussed above. Balancing budgets, surviving Ofsted, hitting performance targets all become more important than individuals’ education or even wellbeing – individuals who become little more than numbers on a spreadsheet. ‘The Children’ simply become an abstract.

Such depersonalisation in turn leads to the culture that drives children and their teachers to the edge of mental illness in order to meet (literally) inhuman targets. It leads to the removal of teachers who might actually understand the complexities of education, who haven’t forgotten that successful teaching is a constant tightrope-walk between multiple conflicting needs, and who appreciate that such false-dichotomy thinking leads to poor conclusions about ‘benefit’ and how to achieve it.

I have even heard it said by a senior manager that no teacher is better than a ‘bad’ (or in my own current case possibly mad) teacher. I wonder if my pupils, who have not had a regular teacher for four months now, would agree.

The worst outcome of this mentality is the myopia that can only see ‘benefit’ in the simplest, most immediate and most selfish of forms. That is the antithesis of successful education – and the fact that there is so much of it around may say something about our success to date. Such myopia is responsible for the inability to appreciate multiple perspectives, or to compromise in the name of consensus. And it is the myopia that falsely labels anyone who tries to temper rather than indulge such selfishness as an Enemy of the People.

 

Time to Talk Day

 Much of what I have written on this blog over the years has as its background the notion of wellbeing. I fail to see how an activity like education can be about anything other than making healthy, balanced, sane and hopefully fulfilling lives for people. Unfortunately, the opposite now seems to be true: the system seems increasingly good at making both teachers and pupils stressed and worse.

In my opinion, this is about as damning an indictment of the current state of play as it is possible to make; I know it is not equally true everywhere, and that (hopefully) nobody sets out to create toxic institutions – but the fact that they have arisen despite this makes it all the more concerning.

My approach to teaching has always stemmed from the wellbeing of those concerned – and as far as I am concerned, that of pupils and teachers is indivisible. Together they make for healthy learning institutions, and without those, education will never be as productive or affirmative as it could be.

It is of course important for pupils to achieve good qualifications – but not important enough to wreck people’s mental health for. Unfortunately, my school is amongst those – I suspect many –  that talks the talk but does not in practice walk the walk. Too many other things to deal with. My years of working there have, on balance, done my health no good at all – and I am no sickly individual. My efforts to raise the issue over the years as both Union and H&S rep. have largely met a brick wall, the knowledge of which undoubtedly helped aggravate my own current condition. More I cannot say for the moment.

Having this morning been signed off for another month by my G.P., I have just discovered the significance of today, Thursday 2nd February. Sometimes such things take on amplified relevance.

If you are able to visit the website and make a pledge, please do.

http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/timetotalkday

 

Feeling nervous?

I named my blog Teaching Personally because I think there is possibly no other occupation that relies so heavily on the nature of the individual. The kind of teacher one becomes is intimately connected with the person one is – as is the impact that doing this work will have on you. It is not a job – it is a way of life.

So I thought I would follow through on the personal theme ‘warts and all’ by describing the recent turn my working life has taken. I am not doing so out of any desire for sympathy, but because I think it is important that the potential consequences of personal burn-out are known. Maybe this might even help others spot the signs. Besides, it was suggested to me that writing about it might be cathartic in its own right.

For now, the school-specifics will need to be taken as given – I am reluctant to say too much while the situation remains unresolved. But the growing stress I had semi-unknowingly been experiencing for several years came to a head in mid-November, when I ended up in a situation which both my conviction and knowledge tell me is deeply unjust.

This coincided with a period of health worry and concerns about elderly relatives. As the autumn term got underway, I found the pace difficult, despite the fact that I have done the job for so many years. Side-effects of the medication I was taking were making matters worse. It was to prove enough to break the proverbial camel’s back.

I put the uncomfortable feelings to the back of my mind and carried on, but I started to experience increasingly frequent bouts of anxiety, and my sleep deteriorated further. There was a constant circular chatter of worries which occupied more and more of my thoughts; everything was always the catastrophic scenario. I ceased to find pleasure in anything at all; it was almost impossible to concentrate for any length of time. My memory fell apart. I started behaving and reacting erratically. Life just became robotic.

The ‘support’ structure at my school was such that there was no one to turn to – and as I teach in an isolated room, no one to notice my difficulties.

At my GP’s suggestion I took the decision to undergo talking therapy. But then the issue at school broke; despite my warning that I was ‘fragile’ no quarter was given, though the decision was made to refer me to Occupational Health.

My G.P. prescribed Sertraline, an antidepressant. It has the longest list of side-effects I had ever seen. I kept it for the weekend. The first day I took it, my mood crashed. I ended up trembling and feeling more anxious than ever. The symptoms became worse, to the extent that I found it difficult to get out of bed. The following Monday, being in a zombie-like state, I did not go to work. On the Wednesday, I somehow dragged myself to OH, where a sympathetic woman confirmed I was not fit for work. This situation repeated itself a month later.

During that time, I spent most of my time doing nothing whatsoever; the days were spent just staring into space. I could not face other people. Having even a few others around me gave me the jitters; larger groups were impossible. I became nervous about telephone calls, knocks on the door, mail arriving. My wife set me small tasks each day to keep me moving; on one occasion, it took me an hour to find the mental wherewithal to take the three minute walk to the bottle bank. On another occasion, I walked by the local primary school during its lunchtime break, and the sights and sounds were enough to set me trembling again. I became absent-minded and indecisive – and I have barely driven, or even been beyond our village, in the last two months.

It has taken eight weeks for the medication to have a discernible effect – and not before insomnia, hot flushes, outbreaks of blisters, muscle cramps and more. I seem to be working my way through the symptom sheet – but at least the worst of the gloom has lifted and I feel a little more stable.

I am O.K. pottering gently around at home, but anything that imposes any kind of ‘mental load’ still jangles the nerves. I get anxious about even the smallest things – and the thought of taking back a full work load is so painful that I try not to have it. I am currently signed off until the start of February, so I have a little more breathing space yet. I don’t know whether the pain that thinking about school brings is the proof that that is where the root stress lies; neither do I know yet whether this is transient and my appetite for teaching will return – or whether it is permanently blown.

I am not a weakling. I do not recognise the normal ‘me’ in the description above – these things always happen to other people – don’t they? I have been teaching for three-quarters of a working life. In that time I have grown into an experienced teacher, who could cope as well as anyone does with the pressures. While I have found increasing divergence between my skills and understanding of teaching and what the system seems to want, I know that I do a good job in the humane sense of the work. Unfortunately, that divergence and intolerance only added to the pressure.

As a relatively ‘quiet’ person, teaching was always going to take a toll. But someone needs to be there for the quieter pupils. It does not have to be only the preserve of the target-meeters, team players and yes-men. But if it is made like that, we others will inevitably have a hard time.

I have mentioned the dangers of the excessive demands being made of teachers many times before in this blog. Of course not everyone will have the same experience – but I have now become my own proof that I was at least partly right.

The ‘G’ word

Our new Prime Minister seems to have ruffled a few feathers with her mention of the G-word. I have read several people in the past few days who were working themselves up into a quite a lather about the possible return of grammar schools, which while (probably) unlikely, appears closer to being on the agenda at present than it has been for many years.

One writer (source lost) went as far as to claim that there are no good reasons for grammar schools whatsoever. Well here, from someone of relatively modest background who went to one, is one – albeit in hypothetical form.

Just suppose it could be proven beyond a shadow of doubt that selective systems delivered the best educational outcomes. We can modify that to ‘best outcomes for able pupils’ or ‘best outcomes for all pupils’ as preferred.

We would then be in a situation where those who on the one hand trumpet their devotion to such outcomes but on the other vehemently oppose selective education, had a difficult choice to make. Try it: Are the best educational outcomes for individuals worth securing at the expense of (supposed) equality of access for all, or should we accept lesser individual outcomes for the sake of (supposed) social integration and equality of access?

I don’t think that dodging the question on the grounds that it is a false dichotomy is really a satisfactory response here; it is given as a hypothetical test.

The choice modifiers I offered might be important. If the good outcomes were for only the grammar school pupils, then I suspect many in education would be prepared to sacrifice that on the grounds of equality. On the other hand, if the outcomes were ‘proven’ to be improved for all children, where would that leave the objectors? If the choice is still for equality, then what price the worthy calls for educational excellence?

I am as sensitive to the issues around social exclusion and equality of opportunity as anyone else in education, and were I to let it this could give me endless sleepless nights. But when I read comments such as the one mentioned above, the suspicion reawakens that this debate is less about good education than personal/political agendas. Even as a society, we need to decide whether we prefer educational equality to excellence, and failing to make an active decision only leads to a default one. For several decades, the choice has been for equality, and given this country’s insidious, engrained privileges system, then I can well understand why. But to refuse even to debate the issue, let alone on level terms, strikes me as utterly foolish, particularly as inequality has still got worse over that period.

This is not even to consider the wider issues. For example, were I a parent, I would be facing a dilemma of my own: whether to deny my child the formal academic education I would wish it to have, or to do whatever was possible to secure it, even if that meant going private. We then face the issue of whether the absence of grammar schools has actually led to a more divisive system with more people going private, as indeed my own parents did for my sister when faced with the alternative being a very poor comprehensive. I wonder where this division too leaves the ideologues, even before challenging them to explain to me why as an adherent of formal academic education, only I should be denied the one kind of opportunity that I might prefer.

So we might pose another dilemma: would you prefer academically selective education or economically selective education? Personally, I have a clear answer to that, which is made clearer still if it is emphasised that academically selective education should be available to all, irrespective of their social or economic circumstances.

I know it can be argued that in an ideal world, comprehensives should provide as good an education as the grammar schools. But it is not an ideal world, and the experience of forty or more years suggests that in the round, very few manage to do this. If we are going to wish away the real-world failings of the comprehensive system on ideological grounds, then there is no reason not to do the same for the alternatives. We might also remember that the much-desired social mobility is relative: in order for someone to rise, someone else has to fall; how acceptable is that?

What is more, it is merely a value-judgment that education should be first and foremost about social engineering; personally, I reject that as I prefer to see it as a matter of cerebral development and cultural transmission. Much of the ‘proof’ being offered that selective education does not increase social mobility depends firstly on the assumption that that is what education is intended to do – and secondly on the means (mostly financial) by which such things are being measured.

I suspect that many who oppose selection have never been near a grammar school themselves, let alone spent long enough in one to appreciate how the culture of such places tends to reflect an entirely different value set from those that are unavoidably compromised by the disaffected or uncommitted parts of the population. Even my own highly-rated school increasingly suffers from this, despite its having in the past traded on the ‘non-selective grammar school’ claim.

Opponents of selection should perhaps reflect more on the imperfection of the world, and decide which is the least of the available evils. I am not suggesting that grammar schools are a panacea, but selective education of some form or other still features in many (though not all) of the countries that out-perform this one in international comparisons. As I have suggested before, however, one particular knot to unravel is whether opposition is really to the idea of selection per se, or the means of selection, which I oppose as much as any. There are fairer ways (at probably better ages) in which to make such choices than a sudden-death exam at a young age. I suspect that changing this process would dilute many of the tricks deployed by the more-advantaged to pack such schools with their own. I would also suggest that a failing of past selective education in Britain was the often-poor alternatives on offer – but that is another issue entirely, and is certainly not internationally universal.

We might reflect on whether the loss of strictly academically-focussed education has had a wider effect on the country. As I have mentioned before, I encounter fewer and fewer people, even amongst those who hold multiple bits of paper, who really strike me as being intellectually awake, who delight in cerebral activity for its own, entirely conscious self. I wonder whether they simply never had it awakened. And I feel that the country’s collective culture is ever more debased, in contrast to that which I see elsewhere, where commercial depredations seem to be having less of an effect. Perhaps we have abolished the values and outlooks that tended to anchor such things? And that is before the shortfalls of skilled labour and workforce productivity from which we suffer.

This leads to me to a final dilemma, which concerns another ‘G’ word. I wonder how many of those who oppose academic development based on ability are also in deep despair at this country’s Gold medal-haul in the recent Olympics. Even an utter non-sportsman like me takes a degree of pride in it – and the wider benefit for society of elite sporting success has already been discussed. The country’s massive turnaround in the past decade has clearly been a result of the much-improved resourcing for such people, even though sporting participation amongst wider society has not grown nearly as much.

Maybe we should have denied those people what they needed on egalitarian grounds that everyone ought to be able to run equally fast, or have access to equal training facilities? A similar approach to industry has been proposed in the wake of Brexit: we need to get much better at backing our best talent and giving it the extra resources it needs to grow, even if some do fall by the wayside or receive less in the process. It’s a matter of best-targeting scarce resources, as well as catering for specific needs.

It is worth remembering that the perception of exclusivity from outside supposed elites is not in itself evidence of restrictive practices to entry. So why deny society the benefits of those – from whatever background – whose high intellectual speed needs nurturing in the same way, if only for the disproportionate benefit that they ultimately bring to everyone?

The House that Jack built

The Easter holiday is proving a welcome respite. I have been doing some jobs around the house, and pushing on with a large hobby-related project. In both cases, the satisfaction gained from a job well done is palpable; unfortunately I cannot say the same about the school term just ended, which was characterised by incredulity, disillusion and upset – not just mine.

When work is hard, I usually remind myself that I could be labouring in the fields, down a mine or in a sweatshop; by comparison, the tribulations of teaching pale. I suppose we have no right to be happy at work – we are paid to do a job – and yet I cannot help but think that a product of advanced human development ought to be the removal of drudgery and the improvement of working life into something constructive. And yet, too often it feels like a punishment. In motivational terms, the pay is not enough.

I sometimes envisage my professional life as a building. I worked hard to build a structure that has integrity, the strength to bear its load, and a design to discharge its function well. I look after it well and regularly improve it. It also has all the hallmarks of my own particular taste in architecture, though as a modernist, in my world form follows function and it is as much about improving the work of the building as making it look pretty.

This is what it used to mean to be a professional. Part of Practice was both the obligation and right to build your own ‘house’ within which you then lived with care and order, but also a degree of comfort. That was both the nature and requirement of the kind of work that the reflective professional did.

And yet others around me are, unknowingly (I hope), tearing buildings down. The deep, cutting irony is that for all its good intentions, the education system in Britain is becoming more destructive by the month. For its professionals, it knows no bounds to the load it places on them; sooner or later, even the strongest of structures will fail. In the past it was the issue of teaching styles: those who used more traditional methods were at best tolerated, at worst torn down. That pressure seems to have eased – but the establishment is now scoring its biggest own-goal by imposing more demands of its own – Heaven forbid that the lessening of Ofsted’s pressures should actually allow ordinary teachers to get on with building! The most significant of these is the marking fiasco, which I see has now even made the national press.

The burdens imposed on my colleagues last term had the makings of the final straw. Suddenly, the insatiability of the system was thrown into sharp focus, and in many cases, I witnessed a hardening of attitudes amongst people who have done their utmost to make the system work. As I commented in previous posts, the demands of the new marking regime are so utterly unmanageable, and so educationally unnecessary, that many are simply refusing to implement them. It’s not (just) a deliberate stance: there simply is no more time, no more energy. The tank is finally empty.

The more I look, the more I see where the system is defeating its own ends. If the approaches of the past few decades had been successful, we would by now be seeing significant growth in both the intellectual pitch and personal motivation of up-coming generations. Yet my experience both in school and beyond suggests the opposite; many pupils are less skilled and less motivated than ever. This is not the singular fault of the education system of course – but recent evidence has tended to confirm my suspicion that we are doing as much harm as good – and certainly are making little of the headway we are supposed to be making. The pupils detect – and do not like – the harsh, depersonalised, target-driven conveyor belt that is their school experience. It is often this that is not enthusing them, not poor teaching.

There are other things. Some years ago, I was involved with the Healthy Schools initiative. I spent many hours in meetings while the great and good blathered on about which boxes to tick and which accreditations to gain. And what is the legacy? Perhaps some residual improvement in school food – but little, really, for all that effort. Simultaneously, in the name of more in-class engagement schools like mine moved to a 4-1 day, with lunch so late that the school day misaligned itself with normal meal times, leading to more snacking. Net result: more harm than good. Cause? Lack of a wider perspective.

Those with hard decisions to make may point out that we do not have the luxury of choice. The expense of an architect is, they say, unaffordable when we need to focus on basics. At face value, they may be right. When the ‘climate’ seems so far out of kilter that government can both be facing a teacher shortage and simultaneously adding disincentives to teach (whether through pay freezes, enforced academisation or booting non-British teachers for not earning enough), then survival may indeed be the name of the game. But when you have stripped out the furnishings, only the walls are left.

What has most effect is what happens at grass roots level. As far as I can see, the marking debacle is entirely self-imposed. The failure to manage teachers’ workloads more generally is at least as much a school issue as a national one. Management blindness adds to the problem – even they cannot wish morale problems away – but the retort that we have no choice is not the right, or only solution.

It is during a storm that strong buildings are most needed. A system that methodically pulls down people’s buildings as fast as they can build them does no one any good, least of all itself. People need to have the scope to construct professional careers – and there has to be a reasonable pay-back for their effort. No, the salary is not enough, and there is only so much austerity that people will bear; a little TLC might in fact be more productive.

Personally, I resolutely continue adding to my building – but I wonder for how much longer I can keep it up: the rate of demolition is rising – and I have no intention of living the last quarter of my professional life homeless. At some point last term, something structural finally snapped – and not only for me. The buildings have not yet collapsed , but they are not as strong as they were. Whereas once, I would have tried to absorb the new marking load, now I am simply neither willing nor able to do so. In fact, I need to spend some time shoring up the damage instead.

I have always tried to build well for education in Britain – but there comes a point when you wonder whether it is worth it; this has become the ultimate Sisyphean task. A would-be architect amongst my older pupils told me the other day that my teaching had moved him in the direction of sustainable building; what better success indicator does one need? The irony was not lost on me…

When times are hard, you need to draw on your staff. If their buildings are already rubble, those who need them may find there is precious little shelter left – especially if it was you who swung the wrecker’s ball in the first place.

Safety Announcement

John Tomsett wrote a thought-provoking post a few days ago on the vulnerability of the teacher. I think he has a point: one of the unique things about teaching is that it inevitably becomes so intertwined with the practitioner as a person that it is difficult to know where the boundary lies. My impression gained from acquaintances who work in other fields is that there remains a greater degree of emotional separation between them and their job; while people of all sorts of course invest personal feelings in their work, there are perhaps few activities where it becomes quite so inextricably bound up with the person doing it.

I suspect The Quirky Teacher would not approve of this touchy-feely-ness so I hasten to add that I don’t see it as an excuse for a lack of rigour. It is essential that children experience environments that develop their higher intellectual faculties, and that involves going beyond the instinctive, emotional state of the mid-brain. This is why it is important that teachers are mature, intellectually-developed people who are able both to do that for themselves, and model it to their pupils.

But I don’t think this removes the sense of insecurity that being a teacher can provoke: I’m not sure that denying the existence of an emotional self is the mark of an intellectually developed person, in fact quite the opposite. I suspect that a fully-functioning intellectual mind simply becomes more aware of the fundamental tensions, contradictions and sheer unknowability of the educative process, and of life itself. The fact that the ultimate effect of a teacher’s work is so invisible pretty much guarantees, in conscientious people to breed a sense of insecurity.

This is all the more so in a climate where so much hangs on the observed so-called outcomes of the process. I can understand why people have increasingly grasped at children’s small, identifiable steps that can sometimes be seen in the classroom – but that can still not deny the bigger truth that the process and effect of learning are so broad and amorphous as to be invisible. I’m afraid the impression I have gained of those who prefer discernible ‘progress’, and toughness to emotional sensitivity, is that it is an expression not of intellectual superiority but of an inability to grasp the subtler, indeterminable truths.

Thus, while I completely support the view that teaching should be a rigorous profession, I am unconvinced that this means abandoning or ignoring the emotional landscape. While we should of course push children intellectually to achieve the best of which they are capable, this must be accompanied by an emotional literacy that understands their immaturity, both personal and developmental. It means being able to respond to children as individual people, not just as exam-machines.

And it should not just be confined to our pupils. A good colleague/friend and I encountered this week an emotionally-charged situation involving another colleague; he later admitted that it had taken him a few critical seconds (longer than I) to register the emotional context, and he considered this to be a weakness. I hope he would forgive me for agreeing with him, though I should add that he is an excellent teacher in very many respects. But as someone with a professed desire to climb the promotional ladder, I hope he will work at this emotional sensitivity, and accept that it need not be seen as a weakness when expressed outwardly.

When teachers invest so much of themselves in their work, those who attain seniority need to remain aware of this fact. So much of the contemporary educational climate emphasises the toughness of the profession and the demands that this places on people; so much is made of individual accountability, the consequences of perceived failure, or of being seen to be ‘soft’ that we have trampled on the emotional landscape that is still there, just beneath the surface and in some cases feeling quite raw.

Criticism of one’s teaching is so close to being a criticism of one’s self, personality and intellect that it is hardly surprising when teachers react deeply to it. Being made to subvert one’s personal modus operandi to that of an increasingly assertive corporation may be difficult to accept in any walk of life – but it is particularly the case when one’s basic functioning depends so heavily on one’s personal characteristics. Given the emotional investment that this job extracts, it is unsurprising that loyalties to schools as institutions sometimes develop further than many perhaps feel to their places of work – so consequently, schools should perhaps be all the warier of trampling on their employees’ feelings, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Tomsett seems an icon of success in avoiding this, which others would do well to emulate rather than playing tough.

One would hope that this is an evident case of enlightened self-interest for schools. I cannot conceive how one can expect teachers to function at their best when their own emotional state is in turmoil. The argument that being a professional means being tough enough to over-ride such concerns may today be the preferred, macho response – but I challenge anyone to ignore deep-felt internal discord completely or indefinitely. The call to be tough is little more than a sop for treating people inconsiderately. In my view, this lies in direct contradiction to the qualities one might seek in a teacher in the first place, and which we might counsel with respect to our pupils. But one must first secure one’s own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.

Personally, I like to think that sensitivity is a quality I bring to the classroom. It provides almost a sixth sense with respect to those needing attention, and it generates the enthusiasm that fuels my teaching. I have been repeatedly complimented on the relationships I build; it means drawing out the goodwill in people, rather than bludgeoning them into compliance.

But I’m not sure it’s possible to be sensitive and thick-skinned simultaneously. It also painfully exposes me to a sense of failure, makes criticism cut deep. It took many years to build inner confidence in what I do, and to accept the positive reactions of my pupils as validation, even when those in charge appeared less than happy with my approach, which was not always procedurally what they demanded. It means that although I’m reasonably resilient (and I have the years to prove it) it has taken a year even to come close to healing the deep wounds of last autumn, when my practice was called into doubt – even though the individual most probably responsible for initiating that has now been discredited and has left teaching. Was this really the wisest way to treat a teacher?

I would draw two conclusions from this. One derives from Tomsett’s post: the most appropriate way to engage in professional development, support (and critique) is peer-to-peer. This retains a level of empathy and trust that very few top-down structures can match. It does imply a more eclectic and serendipitous process, allowing the less useful temporarily to co-exist with the more, and permitting people to sift for themselves. This has been anathema to those who prefer to wield direct control – but I hope the foregoing explains why it may still be a wiser approach. I would only differ with Tomsett inasmuch as he seems to think it is a new idea; I would argue that it is what teachers have always done.

And secondly, in a time when tough decisions are being faced by institutions as austerity begins to bite, I would caution macho-managements everywhere when it comes to trampling on their staff’s feelings. Goodwill is something they are going to need a lot of in the near future.

The weight of numbers

I’ve never been one for crowds. I even find returning to school hard work for a while, simply because I spend much of the summer in the company of only a few people. I also find it difficult to reconcile my own earnest views with the compromise necessary to achieve a consensus – it’s the dilemma of when to defy the party Whip.

I do dislike the fact that the strength of numbers often means minority views are never really heard. It is not uncommon for numbers to silence those who differ, even when they have a point. I’ll go further: the peer pressure of groups often leads to situations where being on-message becomes more important than being right, where rational discourse is subjugated to the mere weight of numbers. The effect of group-think has been well-documented, and I wonder how many valuable insights go neglected because of the fear they might not meet acceptance.

A problem for those who would challenge this situation is that they inevitably sound as though they are perpetual nay-sayers. I resolved not to mention the name of a certain, currently-newsworthy politician again, but it seems to me that the reaction of those who disagree with him has been to drown what he has to say in a torrent of alarmism, rather than anything more constructive. That instinctively makes me want to listen more closely, not less, and I don’t think that this makes me just a permanent rebel: it’s just that quiet voices can contain their truths, unbridled by the desire to be popular.

I feel the same about my profession. The emphasis on professional obedience has perhaps never been stronger – despite the ongoing obsession with individual performance. This might not be a problem, were it not for the weight with which the majority/establishment view is invoked to define success: given that the absolute truths behind education remain as elusive as ever, using consensus to define what works may be flawed. Making a mark on one’s pupils is so much more subtle and diverse a process than any ‘consensus’ is likely to be able to define.

For example, in a profession that seems to consist largely of individuals whose expressed purpose on this earth is to be personal trainers for the young, it can be hard to argue that it is in everyone’s interest to draw limits around one’s work. No matter that experience suggests that rest makes for better teaching or that is entirely reasonable for those who wish to have a life of their own: to those for whom enough is never enough, this is easily portrayed as inadequacy, no matter how wise self-preservation might be in the long term.

This becomes a problem when narrowed judgements are made about individuals based on such premises. It is understandable why, for example, a school management would preference the person who never says No even if they will burn out within a few years – but it may not be wise. Is it more important that a teacher resonates with his or her pupils using their own techniques, or that they use officially-sanctioned teaching methods even if they work less well? Regrettably, my experience over the past decades is that those who do not sing from the approved hymn-sheet often suffer simply for being different, no matter how effective they might actually be – and I don’t think this is getting any better.

This long preamble brings me to the main point of this post. For all that I observe the undoubtedly genuine enthusiasm of those who can never get enough of this job, whose very being seems defined solely by their determination to be ‘better and better’ teachers (whatever that means), whose undying optimism transcends whatever happens to them, who believe that there is no such thing as luck, and who have an unswerving confidence in their individual ability profoundly to change the world, I cannot help but get a deep but sincere doubt in the pit of my stomach.

This may be a popular view – but is it really an accurate take on the world around us? Are humans really as in-control as such people seem to think? Are the things for which they claim credit really as much in their gift as they would have us accept? (And if so, why are bucks so quickly passed for things that don’t turn out so well?) And is even their vocation really best-served by early burn-out and the neglect of their nearest and dearest?

I have a nagging sense that much of what is being done in the name of our pupils is actually little more than an inverted form of the egocentrism that dominates the rest of society. Can we be sure that being ‘even better’ for our pupils is not really ‘even better’ for ourselves? This seems to me just a form of insatiability; is well-grounded satisfaction never enough?  It seems illogical to me that teachers invest so much of their pupils’ interests in the cult of themselves. Can we hand-on-heart say that this is not more about careers and professional profiles than real pupil welfare? And even if the answer is Yes, how is it possible to define ‘better and better’ in a way that has any useful long-term meaning for those pupils – as opposed to those teachers?

It seems to me that those who genuinely want the best might be more critical in their evaluations than that, more nuanced (dare I say mature?) in their understanding of the world and less prone to glib sound-bites. Similarly, the undying optimism of those who refute luck seems to me little more than an ostrich-like denial of the true complexity/randomness of the world, a hyper-narcissism (or naivety) than reduces the wider world to little more than a bit-player in one’s own life.

For me, public servants – teachers, politicians or whatever – should be self-effacing. This is neither pointless idealism nor defeatism, but it does mean that we are honest about what is self-interest what genuinely is not. Neither is it a position of total self-sacrifice – in fact quite the opposite. It recognises the limits as well as the potential of the obligations we have for each other, preserves the ability of the teacher to exist as a private individual in their own right – but also to use that individuality in the service of others. It means having a realistic view of the smallness of each of us, rather than the hyped opposite, and of the value in exploiting the esoteric in human nature rather than pushing group-think for ulterior purposes.

It also means accepting that I am not my pupils’ saviour, for all that I can have an important effect on them and society as a whole. But I see my pupils for less than one percent of their lives – and there are far stronger currents in those lives than me. Those lives have aspirations, time frames and definitions of success that stretch beyond anything which I can fully control. I can attempt to influence them – but not merely by conditioning them to jump through hoops.

This view certainly sees educational success as more than the exam results by which teachers are now routinely judged. Important though qualifications are, defining ‘outcomes’ in those terms is, I fear, little more than the hubris that I mentioned earlier: a shortened perspective on what we do that is of more direct use to teachers’ and schools’ prospects than the full lives of young people. And if that is so, I think I know why that pit-of-the stomach feeling is there: we have turned the language of altruism into little more than double-speak for self-interest.

Deep thought is not a defining characteristic of populism – but drowning out the quiet voices risks missing something valuable, for all that they may be superficially unwelcome: challenging ideas often are. But at very least we should allow them to follow their own course.

I doubt many will agree with me on the foregoing; several conversations had within the last week have done little more than reinforce my belief that unashamed self-interest is now so embedded as the prime-mover in British society that it will never change; why would teachers really be any different? Those who live it do not even recognise it for what it is – and the fear of confronting it will make them shout down those who dare question. A bit like what has happened to Corbyn.

Damn, I’ve mentioned him again.

The Golden Watch

Some years ago, we used to use an exercise called The Golden Watch as an ice-breaker at sixth-form induction. It established a moral dilemma over acting honestly in a workplace situation. There was clearly a ‘right’ solution, but my abiding memory is of the significant numbers of students who failed to choose it. On more than one occasion, the view was voiced that it’s only wrong to cheat if you get caught;  well, I suppose this is an area where many parents work in The City…

But in my naivety, I was repeatedly shocked at the number of (one might hope idealistic) young people whose moral compass appeared so different from my own.

I have worked my entire career in a climate of Thatcherite neo-liberalism – and in close proximity to the national (if not global) hub of it all at that. On turning eighteen, I voted for Thatcher during her first two terms – having grown up during the retrenchment of the Seventies, the bright new ways of the Eighties offered a shiny optimism I hadn’t experienced in Britain before. I also remember on entering the teaching profession, a number of colleagues struggling even to make themselves speak to me once this news was out.

Yet, I find myself this weekend in the somewhat surprising position of being labelled (by proxy) ‘Hard Left’. Yes, I am one of the several hundred-thousand who have affiliated to the Labour Party to support Jeremy Corbyn, the left-winger unexpectedly leading in the leadership contest. Ironically, I suspect that it is now some of my younger colleagues who are going to refuse to speak to me on the outing of this news – and I thought one is supposed to become more conservative as one grows older…

I have always had reservations about teachers being politically active; it is within their personal rights of course, but the conflation of teaching with political indoctrination has always been rather close for comfort. I certainly remember some teachers who did not always stay on the right side of that line.

But I also consider that I have a wider societal responsibility as a supposedly- educated professional. I have seen the changes wrought during decades of free-market doctrine. I’m not suggesting that these were solely caused by specific political policies – but there can be little doubt that this country’s chosen path has made it more possible for certain trends to emerge than might otherwise have been the case. The worrying thing is the self-perpetuating consensus that has taken hold that there is no other way, and which is endlessly repeated by commerce – and all of the mainstream political parties. As impartial educators, we have a duty to encourage the questioning of such claims.

I know other even wealthier countries, and have observed numerous cohorts of their young from close quarters. I know that the values the students expressed in The Golden Watch are by no means equally prevalent everywhere, and while increasing wealth does not inevitably bring greater social responsibility, it does not have to bring greater amorality either. It’s more a matter of the thinking that is encouraged about how that wealth should be made, and how it should be used. As one writer to The Independent put it, it’s about whether we want to become more like Denmark or the U.S.- and this is, to my mind, clearly an educational question.

I no more have an answer than anyone else to the deep philosophical conflict between social solidarity and individual opportunity, but I am certainly not ‘intensely relaxed’ about living in a society where the few are ‘filthy rich’ (to quote New Labour’s Peter Mandelson) – at least while inequality is a great as now. The privatised market-economy simply has not delivered what was claimed – and if anything has decreased opportunity, increased costs and coarsened life for the majority. Utilitarianism – whether from politicians or sixth-formers – may appear to be a practical answer to modern problems until one realises that ‘ends justifying means’ effectively unleashes a race to the bottom in terms of the moral and democratic benchmarks of society.

I find it difficult to support the rampant individualism pedalled by my (as no doubt many) schools, when it leads young people to have no higher principles than those I described earlier; this is a product of an Affluenza mentality that promotes self-interest (even in academic performance) as more important than anything else. But I work in education to further a fair and just society, where honesty, authenticity and the life of the mind are valued – not the kind of debased dog-eat-dog, society-as-market-transaction that has now taken hold. Many of the people currently ringing the alarms about the supposed resurgence of the hard left themselves seem so deeply saturated in market values, that they simply cannot conceive of anything else. And it is just not acceptable for people who dissent from this not to be able either to advance their arguments or to expect to be represented.

Corbyn is simply expressing values that I agree with, and he has a plain-talking sincerity that other glossy, career-politicians clearly just don’t ‘get’. I admire his refusal to engage in negative campaigning – and I would have been attracted to this no matter what party he represented. The crude, false-dichotomy terms in which much debate in British public life is now couched must itself raise concerns for the skewing effect it has on public understanding and debate. More than ever, we need an educated population that can cut through the c**p. It is not true, for instance, that all of Corbyn’s supporters are Militant Tendency cryogenes – some like me are just people who are fed up with a non-choice of self-aggrandising politicians and their unvarying diet of pulp commercialism.

Neither is it true that there is no alternative to the market society – it exists quite comfortably just across the Channel; is it a coincidence that those more ‘socialist’ societies are in many cases more stable, tolerant and outward-looking than our own? As a teacher, these are issues that deeply inform my professional purpose.

I do have concerns that the far-left would reassert progressive education, but hopefully the traditionalist genie is too firmly out of the bottle now to be put back. And this is certainly no more concerning than the deep damage that has been done to education by the imposition of market principles on what should be an impartial provider of social capital.

Corbyn’s actual electability is, in a sense, beside the point: what is important now is to create a wider choice within the British political system. The obsession with election-winning is understandable, but it also shows how far politics has moved away from the principle of democratic representation towards the sheer exercise of power. But people cannot vote for an alternative if one does not exist – and the overwhelming sense at the last election was that it would make no difference in the end who won…

In fact this surge of interest is precisely what good politics should be about – a genuine movement of the electorate wishing to express their views. The fact that the Party and the media are united in telling people that they are ‘thinking the wrong thoughts’ demonstrates the degree to which the tail of what is left of our democracy now wags the dog; as an educator, that is also something that I need to take seriously. On a more personal level, I am simply seizing the opportunity to express a preference that our broken electoral system denies, by virtue of my living in a ‘safe’ constituency.

I don’t apologise for being political here – it is a truism that politics affects education, and not just at a policy level. Both are fundamental forces that shape how we live, and the society of which we form part. This issue also shows how we need more complex insights than a simple Left/Right shouting-match. I see no conflict between my conservative-traditionalist teaching and my more liberal social views; I am certainly not ‘hard-left’ and even the label ‘Socialist’ does not sit easily. It is more complicated than that – for a start, old-school conservatism actually shares this sense of social responsibility.

The irony is not lost on me that in the process I seem to have ‘gone native’ as a teacher more fully than I ever expected. But how can one do this job without some sense of social idealism? And how can that square with a view of life as being just one long commercial transaction?

Education has an essential role to play in developing more complex insights in people, and at times like this, these are sorely needed. In other ways, we are witnessing the political system struggling to cope with the more complex motives and loyalties of ‘thinking people’.

I used to play a fuller part in this by teaching ‘A’ Level European Studies and Critical Thinking. But both courses have been scrapped or downgraded – you guessed it – thanks to (privatised) exam-board ‘market forces’.

No alternative to cheating unless you get caught? I don’t think so. Principles are important.