Socially contracting?

The storm is over, but the sea is still rough. More than a month after coming off the medication, things are slowly reassuming something like a more normal perspective, but they are still prone to dizzy-making peaks and troughs. The pills were a mental splint – necessary but uncomfortable and I am glad to be off them: they effectively lop off the lows – but also the highs – of your mood spectrum, leaving you with a tiny zone in the middle where you can’t do yourself much harm, but at the cost of almost all emotional movement. If you’re lucky you might get left slightly on the ‘credit’ side of zero; I think I went the other way…

So it’s good to be able to appreciate a sunny morning rather than just staring bleakly and impassively at it – but realisation is also dawning about the difficulties ahead.

Perhaps the Social Contract is a dated notion, but I wasn’t aware so: the idea that you contribute to society around you, and in return you can expect reasonable care if things go wrong. The words of wisdom from my (teacher) father when I started my career were, “Look after the kids and the school will look after you”. Well, it sort-of worked in his day. But there’s plenty in the media to suggest that society (if that is still the right word for it) no longer operates like that.

I think I can say that I took his advice seriously, was never one of those for whom teaching was a bit of a lark, a chance to avoid getting a ‘proper’ job for a few years. I approached the work with the utmost seriousness and for most of the time since entering the profession in 1987, worked a long week, doing what I believed was right for my pupils at the expense of my home life and ultimately my health, and learning and developing as a teacher. I recently had some feedback from a former colleague who subsequently rose to a national position within the profession, reinforcing that view, for which I was extremely grateful.

But times changed. Others came into school leadership, people with whom I am ashamed that I share the same generation. Who knows what downward pressures they experienced – but the relish with which they adopted a much harsher attitude can only have been of their own doing. When I was no longer any use to it, ‘Society’ in the form of my state-sector employers showed itself either ruthless or incompetent enough to stop at nothing in order to get rid of me. The terms weren’t entirely unfavourable, but it is now clear that my hope of a modest but secure later career/life is looking decidedly shaky.

I’m no great consumer, but I do like a degree of comfort; my background in a teaching family I suppose led me to think it was a reasonable expectation that by one’s fifties, there should be enough capital accumulated to have a dignified and enjoyable life with a few of the comforts that one wouldn’t have afforded at an earlier stage.

Well, that accumulated capital won’t last long. Present calculations suggest that if I remain incapable of work beyond next spring, we are going to have to cut our cloth in a way that would have made the pips squeak even back when a student.  Hopefully the waves will subside enough, that I can find something else meaningful from which to earn a crust. Failing that, my wife’s income will just about cover our commitments – but everything else will have to go: no meals out, no holidays, no money for hobbies, nothing. We may have to get the cat out on the street to sell his body. There’s little to suggest that the social security system will see me as anything like a deserving case, and I’m several years too young to claim my pension,  In fact, I’m currently skipping contributions to it…yet we still have a mortgage to pay.

We will do it; as people keep saying, something will come along. I have some ideas which may by then come to fruition (and my book is still slowly chugging its way along at my publisher). I am not writing this because I want pity – that’s not my way – but am I angry? Most certainly. Neither have I forgotten that there are many deeply worse off than we – but I simply never expected to have to deal with this: teaching is secure, isn’t it?

But for all those good-hearted people labouring away to educate the nation’s children, and to those considering entering that profession, I urge you to look extra-hard at the financial implications of working in a job that rarely allows you to accumulate sufficient resources to cushion a severe blow. And don’t expect your employer to be able to be generous either. I would caution you against any tendency to believe that three or four decades of hard, socially-productive work ‘entitles’ you to anything whatsoever – no matter what the myths we still peddle at children regarding the value of hard work.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer with his umpteen “jobs” probably doesn’t blow his nose for the kind of amounts we are talking about here; but that’s the kind of inequality that is acceptable in this country these days. Likewise, while I have no envy whatsoever of my more fortunate friends who, in their fifties are thriving, I can’t help wondering what I’ve done to ‘deserve’ this; the only answer  I can find is is nothing.

I sincerely hope that my experience is not typical, and that most schools would treat a situation like this more supportively – but in the current economic climate, I wouldn’t bank on it.

Still I can rest assured that I am still doing my bit for the nation: having supposedly become dead weight to the school, at least I can take comfort that I am a “cost saving” for our increasingly cash-derelict education service. Huh.

 

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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.

Introvert-extrovert?

There’s a girl who sits in one of my classes – and has done for a couple of years – who says almost nothing. She works hard, indeed is one of the best in the class, but I can’t get her to say much at all. Even direct questions elicit only the shortest of replies, albeit clearly and confidently given.

She’s by no means the only one I’ve known over the years, and I’ve always worried that I was in some way failing those pupils by not drawing them further into the class activities. This has been reinforced by professional wisdom that one should draw out such people because introversion, quietness even, is it seems, a weakness that needs tackling.

There’s an interesting link on the Huffington Post to an article that has made me think again. While it may be true that quietness can result in your being overlooked, it should not mean that being outgoing is necessarily ‘better’. That’s simply a social value-judgement dictated by – well yes, the Group.

Kate Bartolotta’s article makes the point that introversion is not, for a start, the same as shyness. It simply means that some people draw inwardly for their strength, rather than on that of a group. It may also imply a greater sense of independence and resourcefulness, and more confidence simply to be themselves. The skills they develop may be at least as useful as those of extroverts, though as Bartolotta says, society tends to value extroverts more. I am thinking about the preconceptions of those conducting a million job interviews for a start…

There’s a link to an informal test on the Huffington page, which I took and came out as fairly introverted. No surprise there.  It’s worth doing, as the questions clearly point up the advantages of being more inwardly-focused. But my students would never call me shy; I can certainly act the life-and-soul in their lessons – though they do seem to recognise and apparently value my reflective disposition. (It did however take me some years initially to gain full classroom confidence – partly, perhaps, because I was trying to conform to extrovert expectations).

Despite that, it is extrovert qualities that are apparently prized in a modern teacher – outgoing, ‘fun’, energetic, the visibly busy team-player, up for all the end-of-term daftness. Introverts, it seems, are less wanted, even though those reflective qualities might suggest they could cultivate students’ similar aptitudes more effectively than someone who is always bouncing energetically but perhaps superficially round the classroom. Even class control is largely seen as an extrovert matter; on that front, years ago I found much more success when I stopped trying to be outwardly ‘strict’ and started developing a quieter form of authority.

Bartolotta also observes that forcing people into dispositions that they don’t feel comfortable with can be distressing for them. So, as a fellow introvert, maybe I’ll stop worrying so much about the girl in my class and just let her be; after all, she is clearly learning well, and there are plenty of roles  for which quiet people are suited.

Maybe she, and the others like her, could actually do with a few more introvert teachers…

http://www.ted.com/talks/view/lang///id/1377