Something in the water?

It’s extremely difficult to extrapolate from individual experiences to national trends. I am enough of a statistician to understand significance testing and the difference between correlation and causality, but sometimes tendencies have the appearance of something more, no matter how flawed the theory might suggest it is.

My school is currently experiencing something of a downturn in the quality of its intake. Having been there for so long, I think I can say that with confidence, knowing that I have already allowed for the tinting of spectacles. Many colleagues agree.

We are finding pupils coming to the school less equipped with basic skills and attitudes than ever before. We are also encountering more, even aged 11, who seem actively, deliberately antagonistic. More time is being spent addressing these issues than ever, in a way unprecedented in the school’s experience over several decades.

I’m not going to fall into the number-cruncher’s trap of trying to attribute simple causality to this: my whole understanding of education is based on the view that many social and cognitive phenomena are simply too complex to deconstruct.

There are, however, a few factors that may well be part of the mix. The area now has a religion-oriented free school that is undoubtedly attracting some families and thereby changing the intake of the longer-established local schools. There have also been subtle changes to our own admissions policy, which I don’t agree with but whose aims are understandable. It is perhaps bringing to us more children who really need our help, but are less inclined than ever to accept it.

I suspect that impacts of the social media and technology revolution are beginning to be seen: there appears to be a change in children’s ability to concentrate, their ability to interact harmoniously, and their tolerance of people telling them to do anything that does not involve using an iPhone. I wonder too, whether this is narrowing children’s ability to find things interesting: it is becoming more and more difficult to catch children’s enthusiasm; many pass their lessons listlessly on auto-pilot, rarely really engaging with topics in the way that used to happen. Their default setting seems to be non-committal loafing; the old tactic of standing and waiting for silence seems to have a longer and longer lead-time. This despite my methods having, if anything, been improved and refined over the years.

I am finding more children ill-prepared with basic school equipment, and less willing to put more than the cursory effort of a couple of minutes into the tasks they are set. And above all, they seem less and less concerned about – and increasingly prepared to challenge – any instruction to the contrary.

I tried to engage my year 13 tutor group this week in a light-hearted discussion about their next steps. I used one of my stock lines for such situations: if you’re not a bit fed up with school by now, then we’ve done something wrong. But the grunts that were the habitual reply then crystallised into a torrent of resentment about how boring school has always been and how they expect university to be just the same. Nose stuck firmly on his phone, one muttered that he is only going so he can get a certain job; no amount of arguing that boring is all in the mind cuts any ice.

In between the two age-groups, I find low level disruption becoming a fact of life, and I know I am not alone. I had a discussion with some otherwise-biddable year eights whom I had had to tick off. The rather perceptive comment emerged, “I guess we got into bad habits at primary school”. If I have any sympathy it is only because my own enthusiasm for the endless round of target-setting that education now is, is no greater than theirs; has modern education actually created this ennui?

On the other hand, some of my year elevens said they were choosing my revision classes over others because I “teach the subject not just give us exam practice”.

If I were to put these pieces together and blame recent educational practice, no doubt the instrumentalist, statistics-faithful classes would accuse me of bias or weak analysis. It would be down to confirmation bias, because I am on record as opposing the grinding down of education into the dull conveyor belt that it has become. I would be over-ruled in my view that petty hoop-jumping, far from being motivating, is a dull and demoralising experience.

I might equally be criticised for my opposition to techniques that seem to have left primary-age children without the basic habits of mind to be able to cope in secondary school. I might be lambasted for continuing to believe in education for education’s sake, for trying to maintain, even enhance, the academic content of my teaching even when it was not immediately ‘fun’.

The more perceptive might accuse me of being the root of the very things I complain about, a proponent of ‘dull’ traditional teaching, without seeing that those year elevens have now come to realise that deep command of a subject is where the interest really lies, and that dabbling while lacking the basic skills you need to access it might initially be fun but is not ultimately very rewarding.

I might be further criticised for having the wrong expectations of our poor, troubled young people. But these are not the unknowing under-privileged. These are in the main children from homes where they want for nothing, who in some cases are almost sickeningly affluent and indulged. These are children who have grown up with such a massive sense of entitlement that nothing a mere teacher can tell them need be taken very seriously, children who treat their education as a consumable service, who believe they are entitled to the very best no matter how little effort or responsibility they invest for themselves. These are baby cuckoos, squatting beaks-open at others’ expense, not foals struggling against the odds to find their feet. This is the boredom of want-for-nothing wealth.

The experience is changing my views of education. Instinctively, I believe in equality of access, and I support moves to increase it for those who genuinely lack opportunity. But I am also increasingly of the view that those who knowingly reject what education has to offer have only themselves – and those who raised them – to blame. The argument that even these children are the blameless recipients of unfortunate circumstances has only so much traction when it comes to off-loading the blame for their boredom and laziness. People who live by the view that the customer is always right should have to shoulder the burden of their own poor choices.

I no longer feel much guilt at limiting what I am prepared to do for them; I don’t see why I should perpetuate their expectation of being waited on hand and foot. By secondary age, children are quite capable of making conscious decisions for themselves, and at very least of understanding the advice they are being given. If they wish actively to reject what the education system has to offer, I no longer feel that teachers or schools should lose sleep over it. Let them go out and try to make a go of their free-market lives using that grossly inflated self-confidence that so many possess – and good luck to them. They say education is wasted on the young…

Those wearisomely reading this, grumbling at another disillusioned teacher may be thinking that there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps so – but this malaise does seem to be spreading. I would be entirely prepared to accept that this is simply the product of a set of local circumstances that say nothing about the wider health of the education system – were it not for the fact that I have unprecedentedly heard of two other schools within fifteen miles of here who are finding the same thing with their Year Sevens. Hardly statistically significant – but just a coincidence? One is a grammar school.

It is no doubt easy for the educationally right-on to dismiss my concerns and to claim I have a dystopian world view. It is also beyond their abilities even to consider that the policies they enthusiastically advanced might actually be harmful. But maybe they are right.

In which case, what was in the water round here back in 2004, when those children were born?

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Straitened times

Hard times come and hard times go: that is just the fluctuating fortunes of the world, and nobody is immune to the effects. Fairness may be a great ideal – but it rarely comes fully to pass. But in a week when there have been several calls for teachers to stop being so negative and get on with the job, we might consider how reasonable this is. I am not even going near the various reports that remind us of lengths to which the powerful will go to ensure that they whom, it goes without saying can absorb shocks most easily, don’t have to.

But it doesn’t surprise me to hear that the outside world is sensing the present negativity of the teaching profession. I think I can safely say that throughout my career, I have never felt so profoundly pessimistic about the future of my profession, my own place within it, and even the society which it serves. Regrettably, I ‘serve’ a society that is increasingly coarsened, self-serving and unconcerned about fairness or other civic ideals, and as the EU debate shows is even incapable of any enlightened sense of its own relative good fortune.

I also see an education service that is decreasingly able to make any real impact on this coarsening and has resorted to fiddling with obscure technicalities while Rome burns. And as I age, I am less willing to accept a system that cannot allow  even a little for the toll that this work takes.

A well-meaning colleague recently gently berated me for caring too much about these things; teaching, he claimed, is now “just a job” and higher ideals will do nothing more than give their owner sleepless nights. But is that the solution – or part of the problem?

The reason for my pessimism is not austerity itself; as I said, life has always been a matter of taking the rough with the smooth. At present, schools are enduring straitened circumstances that mean they are paring back provision. I have seen non-teaching staff made redundant, simply because the school budget could not bear their cost. The budgets more generally are being cut: as we knew all along, the ring-fencing of parts of it was not the whole story by a long way.

But here is the rub: if, as an individual my circumstances change for the worse, I have to accept that I will need to make compromises,  perhaps defer things I want to do, and be grateful for small mercies. What is not fair is to try to externalise those difficulties onto blameless, especially well-meaning others. And yet, it seems to me, this is precisely how the country and its education system seem to operate.

At times like these, more may need to be asked from people like teachers. I, for example, have been required to step vastly outside my comfort zone at short notice and teach some Year 7 Maths. I am doing consolidation work with the less able, so it is hardly intellectually challenging – but it is still requiring serious thought, particularly as so many approaches have changed since my day.

Likewise, recruitment issues have meant that an increasing number of classes have been split between teachers. This also creates extra work to ensure that pupils’ education is affected as little as possible. It makes the planning of lessons more difficult and it further constrains flexibility with marking. Less contact with more pupils means that one cannot get to know them as quickly or as well, which brings its own problems.

All of these things are bound to have an effect on the quality of the service delivered. This is not of teachers’ making or asking – it is the cost imposed by a system that is paring back. And yet that system seems incapable of accepting that as a result it needs to compromise on its own expectations. I find emotional blackmail about the impact of teachers’ actions on pupils’ prospects unacceptable at the best of times – but when the system itself is doing far greater harm to those prospects than any single teacher can, it seems deeply unreasonable, not to say unrealistic to expect educators to deliver the same standards as before no matter what the personal cost.

This is not a criticism of my school, which has, for example, accepted that people teaching away from their specialism are inevitably compromised. But the system as a whole seems to churn on regardless with reforms to examination syllabi or the organisational framework of the service or demands for increased depth in marking. At individual school level, it would still be welcome for a review of the overall impact of the situation on teachers. The demand for deep marking, for example, is simply an unaffordable luxury at present, and should be shelved at least until resources improve.

Into the same boat should be thrown the more overblown expectations of lesson observations, and indeed much of the peripheral activity of the teacher’s job. At a time when it is all hands to the pumps, we should not be expected to worry about what colour the ballroom is painted.

I do understand that basic psychology dictates that it would probably be unwise for either schools or the DfE openly to say they were lowering expectations – but at very least they could ease up on the marginal demands made on us. I am quite clear that this year the situation has compromised my work in a hundred different ways; I am not happy about this because it is not the way I wish or choose to operate.

Teachers have long been criticised for their pessimism. But it seems to escape the notice of those who criticise that teachers largely do sterling work with perceived shortcomings more to do with the unmanageability of the job as demanded than real inadequacy. And if, at times when the profession is busy absorbing the extra stresses of an austerity policy, morale is down, and even militancy somewhat up, even if they can’t cut us much slack, the very least the managers and politicians could do would be to SHUT UP.

 

The Tragedy of Commons 2: Learning my own Lesson

Monday morning. I got up at 06.30 as usual. Had spent much of Sunday afternoon struggling through school preparation despite feeling lousy, and intermittently coughing my guts up.

Dilemma: to go to school or not? Head said yes, body said emphatically, no. I had awoken early with more bouts of extreme coughing…not a good sign. And yet, guilt drove me to get up, make tea, eat breakfast, start getting dressed. More coughing; could barely drag myself around the house. And then a penny dropped: the pressure to work when unwell is also a Tragedy of Commons.

Some time ago, my school introduced a reward for 100% attendance. It’s hardly a revolutionary practice, but I know for a fact that coupled with ‘return to work’ meetings it has pushed the absentee rate down significantly. Clearly a way of upping the ante. And it was contributing to my guilt at taking one measly day off, for the first time in several years, even when I was clearly not fit to be working. All for a bottle of cheap wine.

It’s a clever trick – and the few hundred quid that it costs no doubt saves the school much more in cover costs and general hassle. But it is a wise policy? Has that increase in attendance come from people who were winging it – or those who should really have stayed at home? I see plenty of people at work who probably shouldn’t be.

I will be clear: this is in no way an attempt to justify unwarranted absence; there were a few (now largely departed) whose absenteeism was shocking. My own absence rate is very low. Neither is it a criticism of schools for needing to keep attendance rates high: good supply teachers are scarce, and cover adds an unwelcome extra burden to colleagues. But in fact, schools and colleagues too may be losing out if they are getting this wrong. Here is another example of a well-meant, apparently sensible policy where the solution is potentially worse than the problem.

My head began to have second thoughts: need to listen to common sense. Any sane person would listen to their body telling them that they were not fit for work. No class is going to appreciate being taught by a guy who keeps doubling up at the front of the room. It will affect not only the quality of teaching but perhaps also my authority longer-term with those classes, if things are allowed to slip. And it isn’t good for my professional dignity either.

I am probably past the infectious stage – but in the round, it ought to be obvious that dragging people in from their sick beds, so that they can pass germs around their pupils and colleagues is hardly the best way to manage the matter; far from reducing absence, it may even increase it. Struggling when unfit may also delay recovery, leading to more absence, or at least ineffective ‘presenteeism’. It is certainly unlikely to result in high-quality teaching – and having unwell people around is hardly uplifting for the morale of the rest, either. As for extra cover – well, it’s a nuisance, but try thinking of it as the price to be paid for the ability reasonably to take a day off yourself when you’re unwell. I’m sure my school would say that the 100% policy is not meant to deter genuinely ill people from taking time off, but that is nonetheless its effect. Maybe that’s reasonable. maybe not.

This is why it is a tragedy of commons: a superficially sensible policy to encourage high attendance risks having a collectively detrimental effect. Apart from the impact on teaching quality, the human cost is high. Perhaps higher than we realise. People struggle into work when they really should be resting and recovering – and then there is the guilt that is added to the misery of illness. What’s more, there is no telling to which vulnerable people elsewhere those germs could be exported. One should not need to feel guilty about taking time off for genuine illness; after all, guilt is probably the last thing being felt by those who do abuse the system – so dangling attendance incentives could, in any case, be targeting precisely the wrong people.

Our work is important. But it is not as important as health – and poor health will only compromise our future good work. If we are unwell, we should be sensible about taking time off; the feelings of worthy martyrdom from struggling in are really not worth it, and certainly should not justify it. And from the school’s point of view, can we be certain that the policy really was introduced in the belief it would maximise educational benefit – or simply minimise logistical difficulties? If the latter, the off-loading of such ‘risk’ onto the individual is not only a dereliction of care towards one’s employees, but it may be counter-productive for the institution too.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Tragedy of Commons is endemic in society: the scenario outlined above is by no means peculiar to me, my particular workplace, or even only to schools. It seems pretty universal – but here is where Irvine’s claim that the antidote is in understanding the dynamic. Once one does, one can make a more balanced, considered decision.

So I decided to learn from my own wisdom: DON’T CONTRIBUTE TO MAKING THE PRESSURE WORSE FOR OTHERS!

I sent in my cover work, made the necessary phone calls – and went back to bed.

 


 

After a week of illness, two days off and still feeling rough, I went to my G.P. who diagnosed a viral infection with fever and signed me off for the rest of the week. Only now, on Thursday evening is there a glimmer of an improvement. I think I made the right call…

 

(I should add that my school has been completely understanding about my absence – but that does not negate the wider point).

What if they’re right?

What if I’m wrong? I guess it’s normal occasionally to be given to bouts of self-doubt. I’ve made the mistake of browsing a number of eminent speakers expounding on YouTube about the Holy Educational Grail, and this really is a bad move for anyone feeling the need to swim against the institutional tide. Especially on a  Sunday. Still, I reassure myself that all good thinkers should self-critique from time to time. I wonder how many of them do. I suppose it’s a good thing to expose oneself to the full force of the counter-argument, though I feel I’ve actually had it thrust down my throat daily through L&T meetings and the general prevailing culture.

To be brutally honest, the weight of argument is on their side – always assuming it is reasonable to group the range of people who apparently constitute Gove’s Blob as a single entity, and that I’m not manufacturing a false dichotomy here. For a start, there are more of them than of me – and they have the resources and credibility of the educational establishment behind them. There are many highly-intelligent people out there trying to make education work, in whatever terms they understand it. That deserves respect – even if they’re wrong. Many have risen to senior management and beyond – which I have to concede gives them a perspective I don’t have, albeit one that deals in aggregate phenomena rather than the concerns of individuals. In some cases, they are academics who, one assumes, are in possession of the intellectual and research skills that that would imply. So how much chance does this David really have of being Right?

Assuming for a moment the answer to that is ‘very little’, then I suppose it really does make me one of the supposedly-embittered, change-resistant Old Guard that such people detest. Perhaps I really am an ‘enemy of progress’; maybe I am more jaded and set in my ways than I realise. By definition, I simply don’t know what sparks from these visionaries are going right over my head. Maybe macro-scale analyses really can determine what is good education and what isn’t? Maybe I even do less good in the classroom than I like to believe…? Such, alas, is the nature of self-doubt.

Except that doesn’t add up – either with my more regular self-perception, or more importantly the reactions of those around me, both colleagues and pupils. And  I simply can’t make all this edu-speak add up with my own experiences of life in the classroom. I am not an educational zealot: for all my sense of vocation, I do have my limits and jealously guard what’s left of my private life; I don’t evangelise about the supposedly limitless powers of education to turn sows’ ears into silk purses. Yes, I am sceptical about the motives of a lot of the educational hierarchy and their pet theories. Yes, I have eschewed the heights of power in the interests of self-preservation and remaining where I feel I have the greatest impact. But I don’t think any of that necessarily makes me wrong – let alone a Bad Teacher. It doesn’t alter the generally favourable reaction of those around me – and it certainly doesn’t somehow invalidate the power of my own intellect to interpret and understand what I see. And as I said right at the start of my blog, it liberates me from the vested interest to conform. The ability (and right) to think and speak clearly is not a function of seniority. Indeed, as says an untraceable quote that has stuck in my mind, neither is Leadership.

I suppose what I’m doing is trying to justify my dissent. I’ve never considered myself a reactionary, though even in my P.G.C.E. days, I came into disagreement with the course tutor for not subscribing to his highly-politicised view of education – to me it just seemed inherently mistaken. That was only one subjective opinion against another, of course – but I didn’t think that significant political bias of any sort was compatible with giving people a representative introduction to teaching. I wasn’t the only one – and it was noticeable that the grades awarded during that year seemed to correlate  most closely with how aligned their owners’ views were with his. Hardly an experience designed to instill confidence in the objectivity of the system.  One of the bizarre side-effects of the in-built assumptions of the educational establishment seems to be to re-cast the more conventional thinkers as the radical outsiders.

What all of those eminent speakers have in common is a belief in the System of education. Whatever their own particular views, they all argue that the thing can somehow be controlled, regulated, predicted and evaluated. They all assume that the way to be more effective is to manage what people do more closely. And, in the light of my recent reading of Philip Roscoe’s book, they may all be making the same error – of talking about the economics of the education system, rather than the actual process by which people come to think more effectively for themselves. But then they would – they all have vested interests for doing so.

I’m certainly not so bloody-minded that I don’t accept one can learn from others. Presumably that goes for teaching too. But the idea of the wholesale transferability of good teaching practice from one individual to other flies in the face of experience and so seems an assumption too far. The vast majority of what I have been ‘taught’ as a teacher has been of almost no enduring use in the classroom. To hark back to my posts about introversion, most advice assumes that teachers are extroverts, for a start.

Yes, I have borrowed individual tips from colleagues, and been influenced by things I have seen that seem to work – but the most pervasive and persuasive of those was simply knowing and watching people whose unique style I admired, and who in consequence subtly nudged the direction of my own development – a serendipitous process that by definition is difficult to systematise. We come back again to that analogy of teaching as skilled craft – we learn simply by watching the masters at work – and then begging, borrowing and stealing to make our own.

This is why I am constantly spooked by eminent people who talk about Learning as though it’s a product; Roscoe’s comments on the commoditisation of education ring true again. Most of what I have learned in my life has been done magpie-fashion – and I think that’s not unusual, perhaps even normal. I have of course been in many formal learning environments, but that was no guarantee in itself of what I managed or failed to learn in them. I was lucky to have some good teachers – but even they were not sure-fire causes of my learning, day in, day out. It depended as much on me as them for a start, and much of what I learned happened because of other factors entirely – in the case of music, a combination of early exposure and individual receptivity (which may be a genetic inheritance as there are musicians among my forebears); Geography initially as a result of a fascination (pretty much from birth) with railways; my view of Learning – in the sense of being Learned – subliminally from the role model of the several teachers in my family, and those among my own teachers who were thereby family friends. I suspect that quite a lot has also come from the self-critical observation, from a surprisingly early age, of my own mind at work.  Much of my more recent learning has been through the conscious decision to explore certain fields through self-direction of my reading.  All in all, a rag-bag of experiences.

One of the speakers I watched was Prof. Robert Coe (thanks to e=mc² and all that for the link). Coe at least has the temerity to question some of the establishment orthodoxies by, for example, suggesting that learning is invisible and therefore can’t really be measured, and that lesson observations and CPD as currently configured are an unproductive waste of time. He then goes on to suggest that learning is best effected by making people think hard; well, full marks for that – but he then fails to suggest how that can be systematically done. Maybe it can’t. And if learning in indeed invisible, I wonder how he knows, except by recourse to the same tired old proxy measures that everyone uses.

Actually, I think I know: it is by having teachers who themselves are autonomous, reflective individuals whose own curiosity, thought and knowledge range far and wide; in other words, good, learned  role models. Quite how Coe proposes to deliver this in the 15 hours of CPD he says are the minimum necessary to embed good practice, I’m not sure. In my experience, it takes half a lifetime. That is the dynastic effect of learning as cultural legacy – both content and technique; once the link between generations is broken, as it has been by decades of misguided ideology, it is all but impossible to re-establish. This legacy is embedded in each and every individual who learns to use their brain, to assimilate, filter and evaluate information through the process we call learning; it is the ultimate in crowd-sourcing, a form of collective consciousness, that no bureaucratic diktat or scientific research can either define or command.

This is the foundation of my belief in ‘educational anarchism’, which I mean in the second literal sense of the word.

Despite all attempts to the contrary, I see little evidence that these grands projets are actually working. If they were, we would be experiencing a blossoming of enlightened thought. People would be increasingly engaging with thought as the powerful process that it is; we would still have some shared cultural debate about where we as a society are heading, rather than the grubby, narcissistic, myopic materialism I actually see around me. There would be evidence of increasing levels of discourse, knowledge and critical thinking in the population as a whole – reflected in both the topics of everyday conversation and the national media through which ideas are disseminated. People would be confident in their knowledge, rather than perpetually apologising for their lack of it. We might even be seeing the emergence of more enlightened attitudes towards issues like the environmental crisis.

Forgive me, but I see almost none of that. Technical proficiency may have improved – but the level of collective ignorance seems only to increase; the preoccupations of everyday life even for the supposedly-educated part of the population seem more mundane, egocentric and materialistic than ever – and the media is progressively removing the need for even the smallest of cerebral demands in order to ingest it –  and not only at the tabloid end of the range. Yes, there are awesomely intelligent, educated individuals out there – but there always were.  ‘Society’ as a whole seems to be getting more crass by the year.

Meanwhile, despite their obvious intellect, those in control seem ever more preoccupied with retaining power for its own sake – what else are professional politicians to do? Indeed, the powerful of all sorts seem more and more preoccupied with their own material hegemony – and through electoral inertia, the rest seem relatively content to leave them to it. All of which are the antitheses of the characteristics one might expect of a progressively better-educated population. This is not naive idealism; did I mention the fact that I know another society which is still markedly different?

I’m not even suggesting that past educational mistakes are the cause of all this; my experience both here and  in Switzerland suggest that there are far more factors at work  for better or worse (the blatant dumbing-down effects of electronic media being one), which go far beyond the influence of any educational guru. Most result in behaviours that individual people choose to enact – or not – in their autonomous everyday lives, irrespective of the effect of education. What seems clear, however, is that no amount of technocratic tinkering is making any discernible improvement in the collective intellectual well-being of our nation – so we might be wise to conclude that a different approach is needed.

I don’t accept the view that the fundamental nature of education has changed so much from that which has served humanity well for a couple of millennia, that time-tested approaches are no longer useful. And neither do I accept that the needs of the less-intelligent part of the population are fundamentally different from mine. Tailoring provision to the supposed needs different groups is the great social-engineering catastrophe of the well-meaning Left, which simply entrenches people where they fester. It’s all a matter of exposure and expectation.

The only thing that has changed about education is the appropriation of people’s individual birthright by a politico-economic elite, which makes generalised macro-scale assumptions about its functioning and purpose. Globalisation is often cited as the cause of this – but the reply to that has to start by empowering individuals to respond in a myriad of ways, not by disempowering them further. Monocultures are vulnerable to pandemics; poly-cultures less so.

The only way to rebuild that broken cultural wall is one brick at a time, individual by individual; the notion of a perfect system is just a huge straw man – itself merely a proxy for the one thing we really need in teaching – deeply thoughtful individuals. I am fortunate to have a number of highly-intelligent, thoughtful colleagues who have a clear view of what it means to be educated – these people thankfully do still exist. I think it is no coincidence that many of them hold similar opinions, and teach in similar ways. What is needed is a ‘non-system’ that allows such people the freedom to educate each in their own esoteric way, free from the diktat of management or the fear of ‘failure to deliver’. In practical terms, teaching is a timeless and simple procedure, by which the activity of one brain ignites another. It requires no complex technology, gimmicky deception or intricate management – just that the first brain is already well alight. Not that this means it will always succeed, of course – especially where the raw materials are fire-resistant – but just how much of society’s woes do we reasonably need to take on our own shoulders?

When it comes to CPD for example, my own sessions have only one aim – to stimulate people to think independently about the issue at hand; I do it by the simple means of exposition and discussion. The fact that they often remain well beyond the allotted time, deep in that discussion, suggests that this works in a way top-down imposition doesn’t. I aim to teach similarly.

Only by giving young people unique experiences will they hopefully be inspired to emulate their own role models – namely us – and rebuild that cultural fabric. Personally, I’m not really bothered what pupils learn in my lessons. No – I’ll rephrase that immediately. I am very ‘bothered’ by what pupils learn in my lessons, in that I want it to give them a hunger for real thought and knowledge, not some bland, pre-digested facsimile called ‘Learning’. And I simply don’t agree that the over-planned, over-documented, prepackaged way that the system has in mind is the best way to do that. Of course learning (verb, not noun) is better than not learning – but what is really important is not some kind of quantifiable ‘product’, but the process by which they get there: that of engaging and fuelling up a mind such that it will then do its own learning, in whatever way it sees fit. And yes, that kind of learning does include knowledge-assimilation, for one can only think when one has things to think about.

Talking of which, here in the U.K. it’s spring and the sun is shining. The last umpteen Sundays have been work days through and through; today I’m going to clear it quickly and get out into what I optimistically call the garden. The sun will hopefully lift my Sunday-mood, though I’ll probably still be mulling Monday internally…

Just maybe (like my garden) Small is still Beautiful. The specific is at least as valuable as the general, and more meaningful to the individual who experiences it. As any good critical thinker knows, the quantity of evidence is not the same as its quality. Maybe this small voice does yet have a point.

Methink he doth protest too much*

When I linked to The Spectator article by Anthony Seldon in my previous piece on personal qualities, I actually used an article I hadn’t seen before, the content being the same as that reported elsewhere. It repaid further reading, and is worth quoting from here:

“I pay absolutely no heed to whether someone has a teaching qualification or not. What I do look at is whether someone has the human qualities to make a great teacher. They need energy, passion for their subjects and for teaching, a readiness to learn, an altruistic nature, integrity and intelligence. Some eccentricity definitely helps, though is not a necessity.

Lack these qualities and you will never be a great teacher, regardless of how many years you have spent in training. Those who do have them may be raw and naïve. They may have a difficult first year in the classroom – the best teachers I know often had a difficult start, because they are sensitive and vulnerable, and they had the courage to be themselves in front of the children, as opposed to retreating into a safe and manicured persona. They learn how to retain their own characters and vulnerability, while not letting themselves be squashed, and the children love them for it.”

My confidence in his argument began to grow, and I even felt some latter-day comfort as I did indeed have a difficult start in teaching, yet consider myself to have become at least an adequate teacher and hopefully reflect those qualities. Note the phrase, “An altruistic nature”.

Altruism is a difficult concept, but it has practically become the Nicene Creed of teaching. It is a sine qua non to be ‘only here for the children’, to be ultra-dedicated to one’s work, to place it above all else in one’s life – and to say so at every opportunity. Particularly if you want to get on.

To my mind, this didn’t always ring true, the more so as I married, and have aged and tired a little. I think Anthony Seldon  realises this too. What’s more, such messianic dedication – if that is what it is – comes at a sometimes self-defeating price, as the ever-reflective John Tomsett has recently realised. Apart from anything else, as with all cult mindsets, you eventually start to believe it yourself.

The scope for double, triple and quadruple-think here is mind-boggling . But I’m not setting myself as any kind of enlightened Buddha. The fact that I quietly give thanks most weeks that I have never ascended the staircase of power does not mean I claim any prescience in that respect. As a young teacher, I too applied for promotions, got interviews and received good feedback – but somehow it never felt like the right thing to do, and I know from that same feedback that the uncertainty showed. It has only been in the last few years, not least while watching colleagues of my age bending under the pressure to deliver initiatives I knew they didn’t agree with, being moved further away from the class teaching they loved, sometimes getting the wrong end of bad career moves, that I felt that such relief not to be part of it. If nothing else, I have retained the relative ability to remain true to my own values and motives. It also made it (marginally) less guilt-ridden to take a day off on Friday for the first time in terms, when I had a bad stomach bug; s*d the bottle of cheap wine for 100% attendance…

It also means that I feel no shame in saying that sometimes I get sick of teaching itself. It’s just the sheer intensity of it all, the way it infiltrates your every waking moment – and when you wake at four in the morning – on a Sunday of all days – with a lesson plan in your head, you know something is out of balance. Not that thinking about writing an edu-blog helps in that, I should add.

But this does not, in my honest belief, make me a bad or uncommitted teacher. It is a simple recognition of the fact that everyone needs a break from the coal face, and to deny that is at best unwise, and even damaging, as Tomsett has had the courage to admit. Obsessiveness tends not to be healthy.

What’s more, as a perpetually-inquisitive person (which I would hope is considered a good product of education), my interests don’t stop at the school gate. (My wife says ‘driven’ is a better word). I am just as active in a whole range of other fields: several full-on hobbies and a number of personal intellectual and practical interests. I have been published and have even fronted commercial DVD’s in one utterly trivial field and am reasonably accomplished locally in another. I say this not through hubris, but because they are the kinds of things that one might expect many supposedly educated people might do – in other words, take their roving, energetic minds well beyond their work. That – surely – we could count as a success for education. One school I applied to some years ago published mini-biogs of its leaders on its website; one deputy also led the local county orchestra. I wonder how many teachers – especially senior ones – do such things today. I also remember that my old head of History was working on the county’s Victoria History, while the Head of Music was also choirmaster and organist at the local (large) parish church. To me, these activities were just as altruistic as their classroom commitment – and again, I suspect that Seldon knows this (after all, he has many other irons in his own fire, not least as a biographer of Blair, writer of other books, and pro-social activist).One might even hope that schools would still recognise all this as good role-model stuff.

What none of these people did was fly their colours from their personal battlements at every opportunity. As I have said elsewhere, maybe this is where I was too naive. I assumed that ‘quality would out’ – without the uncomfortable need for self-promotion. But this was not so. I can say hand-on-heart  that Career was never anything I did for self-aggrandisement. If I’m honest, given the means I would rather spend my time pursuing those other interests – but I need to eat, and therefore I wanted to do a job that was also contributive, socially useful and not damaging in a societal or ethical sense. I also wanted professional responsibilities and some intellectual self-esteem. But that’s all.

Mr. Chips-style old-school teaching was seen by many as a dead-end job – but that was not necessarily so, if your priorities accorded with those outlined above. What you didn’t expect was a meteoric rise in power and influence with a salary (but also stress) to match. In some implicit sense, you traded those things for the sake of your pupils’ education (you were genuinely there for them) – and to some extent your own ability to be relatively self-directed.

I fear that a combination of social change, the machinations of Affluenza, and the particular pressures that have been put on the teaching profession have changed this forever and rendered people like me dinosaurs before our time. But it may also have perverted the notion of altruism in the process. There is one thing that no present-day  ‘successful’ (for which read senior) teacher in the country has sacrificed for their pupils – and that is their career.

With the promise of great career progression, (always accompanied by lots of adverts with good-looking young teachers leading classes of equally good-looking and racially-representative happy young children) – and, without apparently seeing the irony, management progression within just a few years – teachers’ loyalties were instantly divided. A conflict was set up between what the teacher wants from the situation (i.e. rapid career success, more pay) and what the pupils might notionally want (i.e. caring teacher/role-models and a stable, well-founded education). While that tension was always there in the background, the outcome of any educative process is now just as much about the teacher (and the system) demonstrating their own efficacy as what the pupils get out of it. This is seen in both the need to demonstrate spurious results from each lesson or class, no matter whether the actual impact will be many years more in showing (when the teachers have moved on and up, of course) – and the need to trumpet your own amazing, undying, martyr-like commitment to being the personal champion of your pupils at every opportunity. I’m simply not convinced that this is the win-win situation that is suggested by those adverts.

To my eyes, the level of self-absorption of some teachers is quite alarming – almost as though they are the ones on test, which in career terms, of course, they are. Their lessons and indeed many other interactions with pupils are designed to demonstrate ‘good practice’ as much as a genuine interaction between two admittedly unequal people – and to be seen by others to be so. I don’t blame them for this, least of all in any individual, personal sense – it is what the system has demanded of them in return for the promised golden egg. But whether it delivers altruistically good effects for pupils is another matter. Apart from anything more substantive, I suspect most people, children included, can sense when others are being genuine and when they’re being manipulative.

I also happen to believe that you should aspire to a job because you are suitable for it, not vice versa. Maybe my early lack of self-belief accounted for part of my own experiences in that respect. But when people talk about getting a new job in the sense of getting a new car, I fear that it is just another exercise in commodification, just another trade-up and suitability, let alone altruism, doesn’t come into it. A one-year driver can, in theory still buy a Ferrari. This is all the more so when you hear of people covering their own weaknesses or inexperience by getting others to provide not just the odd insight but whole blocks of the application form, or covering up weak written English by getting others to deep-check it. That’s trading-up using a dodgy credit card. If you get a job, in my humble opinion, you should get it on your own merits, warts and all, and for a teacher poor English is a pretty big wart. Even here, I don’t really blame people for doing this; after all, the rest of the educational system is gaming just about everything else it can, it’s possibly just the wider culture anyway – and when the system is gaming you, why not try to get your own back?

But whether it does much for the notion of true altruism is another matter entirely.  Certainly, I know a good number of younger teachers in several schools who claim to be in teaching simply because it suits them – and they say they will be perfectly prepared to walk away as and when it ceases to do so. Whether they mean it is another matter of course. Again I don’t remotely blame them – it’s the way they have been forced to be – but again altruism, as a quality, is the casualty.

And does the system reward such altruism? Well, martyrdom is nearer the mark from what I can see – read John Tomsett again. In darker moments (like recuperating from illness) I am uncomfortably reminded of a scene in Gandhi (the 1982 Ben Kingsley film)  It’s here – if you can bear it:

To summarise, I believe that altruism is connected with honesty; it is what is done unseen, and certainly should not be conflated with martyrdom, least of all when the quality actually on show is intended to be neither. The altruism of the teacher is towards society, not just a particular group of children –  not forgetting that the teacher, too, is part of that society. In some senses, even a teacher’s charity should begin at home – but quietly.

*which is know is a misquote…

Groucho was Right.

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.” (Groucho Marx)

The ripples of implication from reading Susan Cain’s book on introversion are still resonating through my mind. Rather to my wife’s incredulity, this was the first time that I had considered the issue in any systematic way, and it’s certainly not something that receives a lot of coverage in the professional arena.

The matter of introverted pupils came relatively easily to mind, having come across my share over the years, and a lot of what Cain has to say about both the difficulties faced by such people – as well as their often-unsung strengths – made a lot of sense. What was more challenging were the implications for being a teacher.

If Cain’s assertion is correct, between a third and a half of humans are at the introverted end of the scale, and this implies that there are a lot of introverts in teaching. It is possible, however, that they are under-represented due to the misconception that one needs to be outgoing in order to stand in front of a class of children. In my case, it came as no surprise, having read the early part of the book, to find myself at the introverted end of the scale.

This is not to suggest that I am some kind of timid mouse (after all, I’m reasonably comfortable not only in front of a class or taking an assembly,  but also playing music in front of a crowd), but it was nonetheless instructive with regard to some of the challenges that I have faced during my time as a teacher. What was most interesting was the realisation that issues which I have largely tended to attribute to my own individual shortcomings may not in fact be that, nor indeed failings at all, but simply the poor interface between a certain kind of temperament and a system that is not configured for it. This is not a way of offloading responsibility for such matters, more a helpful way of attributing a fairer causality between the parties.

So this post may seem somewhat self-indulgent (heck, my blog’s called Teaching Personally!) but it’s offered in the hope that others of a similar inclination may find it instructive for their own development.

I initially read Cain’s book with growing alarm; apart from the rather uncanny experience of having your own personal foibles identified and analysed in a book, it initially seemed as though her analysis was pointing towards that part of me that has always doubted whether I have the ‘right’ temperament to be a teacher. The shared wisdom of recent decades seems to be that teachers need to be outgoing, extrovert, reaching out to their pupils – and simultaneously prepared to be permanently on their backs, overtly running every aspect of their school lives in order to get the best out of them. This was reinforced by the sight of such ‘dynamic’ people gaining the promotions and the approbation of the school leadership. My own understanding that if you are any good, you will be recognised and rewarded without the need for self-promotion has proved hopelessly and sometimes painfully wrong. That said, it did help me understand why I have never felt any great desire to manage my colleagues – or have them manage me.

The minutiae of Cain’s observations, such as the fact that introverts need quiet space to recharge their batteries after social interaction neatly explained why I intuitively seek the quiet of my classroom for ten or fifteen minutes each lunchtime, why I feel the need to head fairly quickly for home at the end of the day and do my work there, and why I have always found training sessions that required group work and stranger-interaction particularly painful. And it explains why I hover uncomfortably round the edges of large gatherings of colleagues.

It may even show why I have had such difficulty accepting the more batty diktats from On High, that ranged from the merely daft through the surreal to the (occasionally) downright unethical. It explained why Doing what the Boss Tells Me is not enough, as it seems to be for the majority – and why they (as extroverts?) have on occasions perhaps failed to understand that I wasn’t simply being bloody-minded. While I have had some modest management responsibility, my own style – of largely leaving people to do their own thing unless help was sought or intervention clearly needed, maybe didn’t meet official approval.

But all this rather seemed to be increasingly pointing to the fact that temperamentally I’m simply not cut out for this job…

Perhaps more helpfully, Cain explains why intrinsic motivation is so important to me. Especially when it comes to donning the extrovert’s mask and bearing a degree of mental discomfort, it is absolutely essential that one fundamentally believes in the reason for doing so. I find this with my music too – for me, performing is not about showing off or merely entertaining, but the expression of what I believe to be a valuable but lesser-known form of culture. Take that away, for example by changing the music, and the effort simply wouldn’t be worth it. This also suggested the reason why I need time to recharge with my other interests – the more overbearing the professional workload becomes, the more I need a break from it – unlike some others who seem to have an infinite capacity to grind through it, no matter what the cost to their wider lives or sanity.

I think the same is true in the classroom; I am perfectly able to manage a class successfully, and indeed larger groups as when leading an assembly – but all the time my instinct is to shy away from such large gatherings and seek either my own company or that presence of a smaller group of individuals. It explains why I best like teaching smaller, sixth form groups, and tutoring individuals. It is certainly where I feel I excel, and the fact that students seek out my help in such settings may bear testament to this. With larger groups, I have found my own esoteric style – certainly not found in any teaching textbook – that involves a rather oblique humour and (probably not coincidentally) a degree of self-deprecation. I am definitely a horse-whisperer rather than a lion-tamer.

It may also explain why I instinctively prefer the quiet, more self-contained, more ‘individual’ pupils who to my surprise are sometimes dismissed as recluses or ‘anoraks’ by more outgoing colleagues. I find it easier to understand them on an emotional level, and I find the brash, outgoing types particularly wearing. In the past I had much work to do to inure myself to the more hurtful comments and behaviours that pupils can sometimes display; it took time and effort to realise that it wasn’t personal and that the correct response involved H₂O and a duck’s back…

Finally, it also explains why I have been most comfortable at a remove from the establishment – I need that space to function. Schools, and this profession, are interaction-intensive places but I have always felt the educational establishment to be The Other, nothing to do with me. I don’t like subsuming my own self into the larger Team, be that the school workforce or the more abstract sense of the Profession. It matters greatly that they often don’t represent my views and values; I know my own mind, what makes me tick, what drives my work – and in some cases, I feel I have insights not achieved by others who have nonetheless had more conventional success. Not that this is to say that I am contrary for the sake of it – where congruence is achieved, it is no difficulty to go along with it – but too often group-think seems to involve the sacrifice of things that are too important or too precious.

—————————————————-

All in all, the balance-sheet didn’t look too positive: lots of explanations for things that I took as my own weaknesses, but a seemingly lengthy list of problems. But with my brain in overdrive, it didn’t take me until the latter stages of the book to realise there was another side to it.

The most obvious counter-argument is that introverted children need their own champions – perhaps more than most, and trying to drive their introversion out of them, as extroverts are likely to do, is not helpful; indeed it may even be cruel.

Then there came the realisation, as Cain outlined, that introverts actually possess many of the skills required for deep learning. This is not to say there is nothing to learn from collaboration, but at one level it is a truism that we are alone on this Earth – and that is perhaps most of all the case inside our own heads. Deep learning is ultimately something everyone has to do for themselves, and the distractions of frenzied social situations may only make it more difficult. Teachers who realise this, model such behaviours, and promote such skills and insights are arguably all the more essential in an extrovert-dominated world. I think I can say without undue immodesty that this is something my pupils do, in time, come to value in me.

My instinct to draw back from pupils, to allow them their own space may have its uses too. The excesses of helicopter parenthood and teacher-hood seem to be creating a generation who have never had the need to be self-reliant, let alone the space to discover their inner selves. We seem to be developing Learned Helplessness to an alarming extent, and the in-your-face extroversion required from the conventional teacher-model really isn’t going to help. Being ready in the background with the safety net if needed, is no bad thing in itself; being less inclined to jump in where you’re not needed may be more helpful to young people than it first appears.

What’s more, if one considers teaching still to be a vocation, introverts are more likely to possess those intrinsic motivations that energise them to do the selfless thing. They are more likely to be in possession of a clear professional ethic than less self-aware people, and as such may be more self-regulating in both their professional behaviour and personal conduct. What they don’t need is overt micro-management that takes them away from this.

So here is an attempt to summarise the balance-sheet for introverts:

Introverts  are: Introverts aren’t:
Self contained –they have most of what they need already on board. Their energy comes from within, and groups tend to drain them. Antisocial – they make deep friendships, but normally fewer in number. They need wider society only sparingly.
Self critical – they know their own faults all too well. Team players – they prefer their own ideas
Self regulated – the self-reflection makes them more self-conscious and more likely to check false moves. Competitive (except against self)
Reflective – they tend to think and be affected deeply by what they do or experience. Self-promoters. They don’t need external recognition, and feel uncomfortable blowing their own trumpets.
Deep thinkers – they often seek theoretical understandings and patterns. Inclined to do what they’re told if it doesn’t align with their inner motivations.
Self motivated – they are fully driven by intrinsic reasons. Impressed or motivated by status. Inner success is more important.
Better dealing with individuals and small groups. Multi-taskers – they prefer focussing on one thing at a time – deeply. This can give problems with the scale of modern workloads.
Often able to develop stage personae to hide their more retiring instincts – but only if the cause is just Comfortable with small-talk. They prefer to discuss weighty matters, which others may find too intense.
Empathetic, emotionally aware, even vulnerable.
Focused hard workers – when allowed to be self-directed
Quietly inspirational thanks to their determination and profound beliefs.

So where does all this leave us? The System seems increasingly to ape the transatlantic corporate model, where to be a good teacher-employee is to conform and do what the organisation says, and not ask too many questions. In this case, it seems to think it wants lots of extroverts – that is what ‘common sense’ now suggests a teacher needs to be, the more so now that education is supposedly all about the skills that will get you advancement in the workplace. Of all of these, the ability to talk yourself up seems paramount. Society in general, at least in the U.K., does indeed seem increasingly to value style over substance, and this does not sit well with introversion. What’s more, as young people increasingly demonstrate such behaviours, it may be more and more difficult for introverts to connect with them.

On the other hand, this is precisely why a balancing model is all the more necessary. There are still plenty of quiet kids out there, and they may be getting an increasingly raw deal; someone needs to be there for them. Someone also needs to stand up for those quieter, more empathic behaviours that are, in the final reckoning more socially constructive than me-first extroversion. There is a case that the classical model of teacher as an impartial conduit for knowledge, one who has the ability and modesty to take his own persona out of the equation, may still have value.

This is not to say that extroverts aren’t needed; Cain is at pains to point out that the relationship is symbiotic: what is needed is a good balance of the two. But at present that may imply a rebalancing in favour of the quiet people.

However, it is important to realise that the system doesn’t really function in favour of introverts, and this isn’t likely to change. As teachers, introverts have many very strong qualities, which in former times were probably more recognised than they are today. But they also have a long list of things that may in the current climate be considered handicaps. As I found myself, these require a lot of work to reconcile, and the introvert may find it harder to make progress developing their professional practice than an extrovert. Above all, it is necessary to cultivate the ‘front’ that allows you to override the instinct to avoid large social groups. It is perfectly possible to do this, and to sustain it long term – but it is also true that this will probably exact a price in terms of both stress levels and perhaps perception by colleagues; this I can also vouch for. Cain goes so far as to suggest that long-term denial of self can result in more serious health problems. In the end, developing the confidence to do it your own way – provided it works – is more important than mere self-indulgence.

It could be argued that more could be done to ease the way for introverts – this remains very much an unknown minority – but I can’t say I’ve witnessed any overt discrimination. Quiet people are still appointed, even though first impressions at interview may not always be the best. Anthony Seldon may be right in appointing people who his gut instinct says can become great teacher – given sufficient time, and some may take longer than others. Maybe we simply don’t see all those who never make it… But  I certainly think the issue of introversion needs wider exposure, so that individuals can recognise both themselves and their peers in this respect, and so that institutions identify diverse strengths wherever they lie. It may mean a greater tolerance to allow people to find their own level, without being too judgmental. For that reason, Cain’s book does a great service and is heartily recommended.

My final thought is this: Cain suggests that many great leaders have been drawn from the ranks of introverts; despite their lack of overt leadership skills, their quiet determination and greater diplomacy can shine through in the end; Ghandi comes to mind. Introverts by no means need to be pushovers; once, a quarter-century ago, I was fortunate to be briefly in the fairly close presence of Nelson Mandela. Despite his reputation for a fiery temper, my overwhelming impression was of an innately Quiet Man.

The Beeblebrox Complex

Zaphod Beeblebrox was the only person ever to survive the Total Perspective Vortex for the simple reason that he genuinely believed himself to be far and away the most important person in the universe.

The teaching profession sometimes appears to suffer from the same delusion, as I have discussed before – and it is doing us no good.

I’ve been doing rather too much reading of various other teachers’ blogs over the weekend. It’s interesting to see what others are saying – professional life beyond the boundaries of one’s own school isn’t always readily knowable. But it saddened me to read so many people who are dissatisfied, stressed, frustrated or demoralised. I think I’ve gone through all of those emotions at various times, and I’ve found that the most sustainable solution is simply:  not to take it all quite so seriously.

I know that sounds like the most unprofessional statement imaginable for a teacher – but that’s the Beeblebrox Complex again. We collectively hype up our own stakes until we feel the only way not to fail is to grind on. After all, children only get one chance don’t they? So we daren’t let them down. Maybe – but in the bigger scheme of things on this Earth, so do we.  I’m not for one moment suggesting that we should abdicate our professional duties – far from it – but I think that having the ability to step back and see it for what it is can be helpful, even if it’s something of a momentary self-delusion. I’ve heard colleagues say, at moments of extreme stress, “It’s only a job…”

I think that’s as much a matter of creating a little mental space as anything more deeply-meant. And I do think that a lot of the burden in modern teaching is actually work for the sake of it that can safely be seen in this way without jeopardising anything more profoundly important for our pupils – especially if that 70-30 heritability-nurture split is anywhere near accurate.

The following are a few sound bites lifted from a recent Guardian blog that I also read last weekend:

“…one of my PGCE students said to me recently…her only regret [on completing her training year] was that she hadn’t enjoyed it more.”

 (Amanda Bailey, associate principal of the Bright Futures Educational Trust )

“I think a large number of teachers (myself included) are complete control freaks.”

(Susan Davis, senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University)

Remember, you may enjoy it, but school is work. It’s great to enjoy your job…But if you keep on putting that extra effort in, you will start to resent it, and so will the people around you.”

(Stressinteaching, contributor)

The supreme irony is that modern life relentlessly instructs us that our work should be the defining activity of our lives; we should want nothing more than to spend as much time as possible doing it, to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. I know real people who apparently really believe it.

If we’re not careful, we too buy into the myth, and pass the same message onto our students. What kind of an example do we set?  For all the collective consciousness, modern working life for the individual often seems to be a source of stress, anxiety, frustration and dejection. We take it all so seriously that any inherent rewards to be had from it are squeezed out, let alone those to be had from living a more balanced life. The sceptic in me also harbours an uncomfortably persistent suspicion that the high priority accorded to our work is ultimately of most benefit of all to those who constantly tell us how important it all should be: our masters whose meteoric careers and large salaries depend on it, increasingly in education as in business.

We teachers mortgage our own lives to our work, so that the next generation can go out and do the same thing all over again. If we’re not careful, we wear our work like a hair shirt, taking a kind of perverse pride in how hard-done-by we are. We feel guilty for taking a break – though I am quite clear in my own mind about the strong correlation between the quality of my work and how mentally and physically refreshed I am feeling – let alone up-to-date with my sleep.

Somewhere in the equation, something is being lost: there has to be a dividend that makes it all worthwhile – and being humans before we’re teachers, we’re entitled to our own fair share of that too. Were that not the case, I really don’t think I could continue telling the next generation that ‘it will all be worth it in the long run’. I’d go further: to neglect to live our own lives to the full is the ultimate admission of futility – by failing to do so, we in effect negate the efforts our own teachers made on our behalves, that we might have good lives.

Despite all that, I still count myself fortunate to have a career that is never boring, that challenges me in at least partly positive ways, and that is contributive rather than subtractive in society. I’m going to return to the issues of time and sustainability in later posts, but for now I think it’s worth remembering:

Don’t take it too seriously. Education serves life, not the other way round.

Don’t let the life balance get completely out of kilter.

Self-preservation is a professional duty, not a personal crime.

And don’t be your own worst enemy.

(Another contributor to The Guardian blog mentioned using Mindfulness to counter stress. I know there’s a degree of scepticism out there about it, but personally I have found it very helpful. So I’ll cross reference to this in case anyone who missed it might also find it helpful.)

For a colleague who seems to be particularly overdoing it at the present time, to his apparent personal detriment.

Eyeore 0 – Tigger 1

I think one mark of truly reflective practice is a preparedness to seek and find solutions wherever they may lie. This is not always easy, as it can involve going well beyond one’s comfort zone and maintaining an open mind with regard to whatever one finds.

Last winter, I was caught by a particularly nasty infection that not only laid me very low for the entire Christmas holiday, but also lingered several months into the New Year. Indeed, I am not fully free of the after-effects even now. While I was able to stagger into school for the new January term, there is no doubt that my teaching was affected over a period of months, and this naturally led to anxiety. To compound the matter,  I have a tendency to be one of life’s Eyeores, my sometimes over-analytical mind all-too-easily seeing the problems before the benefits. As the months wore on, I also began to wonder whether there was something more profoundly wrong, health-wise.

During my searches for antidotes, I came across several websites that recommended meditation for such situations. Visions of incense and yellow robes spun before my eyes – and that is not an identity that sits easily with my self-perception, to say the least. But in said spirit of open-mindedness, I looked further, until I came across a website recommended by a number of august institutions including the BBC, The Guardian, The Times and The New York Times: www.getsomeheadspace.com/

This claims to offer a modern, secular approach to meditation based around the benefits of mindfulness to modern life. The co-founder, Andy Puddicombe has since given a TED talk, which can be seen here. Sceptical to say the least, I decided to give the free trial a go, and was highly surprised to find that the basic relaxation exercises therein brought an immediate and noticeable sense of stress-relief. Consequently, I decided to explore further, and after eight months of rather up-and-down progress, I have begun to suspect there really is something in it – and not only for moments of extremis.

My wife says she has noticed a shift towards a more positive ‘centre of gravity’ – more Tigger and less Eyeore. I would add to that a noticeable change in my professional disposition: I feel less stressed in the classroom, more patient with my pupils, and more resilient when dealing with the trying ones. I think it has also improved my relationships with those around me – a major emphasis of the programme. What’s more, my current programme focuses on creativity, and I am left wondering whether this is partly responsible for the burst of creative thinking that has resulted in this blog.

Ever the sceptic, and aware of the perils of auto-suggestion, I am reluctant to say the word ‘definitely’; I certainly didn’t have any kind of transformative experience, more a gradual shift in my mental centre of gravity. That said, the effects feel quite tangible. Some months ago, BBC Horizon’s Michael Mosely explored the issue in the programme The Truth About Personality that included Puddicombe. Analysis of his brain activity appeared to suggest that practising mindfulness, amongst other things, could have an effect.

As Kate Mather wrote recently in The Guardian, sometimes extreme events make you re-examine the balance of life. In the case of teaching, anything that might offer a means of managing the sometimes extreme stresses has to be worth consideration.  If nothing else, Mindfulness provides a welcome technique for de-stressing at the end of a busy day.

An amount has also been written about using it as a technique with children, something I am curious about but have not yet had the chance to try.

Take the log from your own eye…

“You hypocrite, first take the log from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:5.

In her book Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich dismantles the cult of positive thinking. In modern society, it is just not done to be critical – one is expected to be unremittingly positive, upbeat and optimistic; if you’re not, it’s because you’re bitter or a loser. Ehrenreich says that this is foolish because it causes people to ignore the nature and possible seriousness of underlying problems. She should know, having written the book while being treated for breast cancer.

The education world suffers from the same syndrome. I suppose that’s not surprising – after all, its raw material is the eternal promise of young people’s futures. But we also seem to suffer from an inability to divest educational practice of the social and political happy-agendas that only constrain thinking. We too are required to be relentlessly on-message, whatever our misgivings. To differ from the official line is merely to confirm one’s unsuitability, and this is becoming progressively worse the more forcefully officialdom imposes its monolithic, top-down view of what is educationally ‘correct’. The current Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has reportedly said that if you don’t agree with him, you’re an “enemy of promise”. The educational gurus, management fixers and unions have a different, but equally entrenched position and could probably use the same strap-line with equanimity.

It’s not easy, swimming against such a strong tide. The consequences of being a nay-sayer are too great for many, be that in terms of the general effort required, the disapprobation of the peer-group or more pragmatically the risks to one’s career progression. And the higher one goes, the greater the risk.

From time to time, I am given to wondering whether it really is me who has it all wrong. After all, 10,000 lemmings can’t be wrong – can they? When one spends the larger part of one’s working life in an environment where the basic assumptions being made seem to conflict with one’s own, it is only logical to wonder where the error actually lies. All the more so when one acknowledges one’s own latent Eyeore tendencies.

This is where a book like Rolf Dobelli’s can be helpful. I have known about cognitive biases for some time through my teaching of Critical Thinking, but this work examines them more thoroughly than I hitherto had. It helps one to do what I believe any thoughtful professional should, namely to question one’s assumptions. For example, the confirmation bias makes it likely that one will always interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s existing preconceptions. Couple this with the clustering illusion, and it is easy to create a coherent narrative from what are actually random occurrences. The over-confidence effect means that one likely to over-estimate one’s ability to be right, while outcome bias means that one is likely to be taken in by self-fulfilling prophesies, thus misidentifying any real casuality. I could go on.

You risk ending up feeling intellectually paralysed – not a good situation, one might think. But while one should of course treat cognitive biases themselves with care, this process reminds one just how difficult it is really to understand the true nature of reality, and no amount of ignoring the fact will change that.

In my case, the brick wall that I come up against stems from my considered belief that education should be an end in itself. It is a process whereby one attempts to develop people’s faculties for understanding the world around them, and responding to it in a wise, considered and hopefully compassionate way. It is about encouraging people to engage in thinking for its own sake, both for the rewards that can bring and as a transmission mechanism for our cultural and intellectual capital. It is therefore a serendipitous, unique and open-ended process that tends to defy constraining laws and systems. That for me is a timeless truth.

The educational system in which I work sees education as a socio-economic tool, which exists in order to induct people into a societal game, and which is therefore infinitely transmutable depending on the nature of the game it is serving. In that sense, education is simply a means to an end, and one that, through its emphasis on employability is increasingly defined in terms of wealth and power. This is why it has no difficulty couching ‘success’ in terms of hoops jumped through and targets met. It has no problem with closed thinking, as it wants people to arrive at pre-ordained answers rather than original solutions.  It is not especially concerned about the impact on the individual so long as the rules of the game are thoroughly instilled.

In my view, what results is Training, not Education.

I find this view intolerable; it is dehumanising and it diminishes people’s ability to make their own way through life.  It narrows the scope of education and the methods that might be used to deliver it, and it arguably demonises those who dare to differ. There is good evidence that the values it instils are psychologically and even physically harmful to those they touch. I certainly see plenty of signs that young people going through this process aren’t ending up better able to think for themselves or to know the world around them – or even to want to know. Curiosity is one of the first casualties of education-by-targets.

A couple of years ago, I sent a book manuscript on this theme to several publishers. None accepted it. Eventually some feedback was forthcoming: it was not that the book was badly written, or poorly researched, nor that the case wasn’t plausible. The view was, “This is not what the Education world wants to hear at the moment”. A more unprofessional, uneducated response I cannot conceive of.

Now, cognitive biases could suggest that I might well have this all wrong, and that modern target-based education actually delivers far better life-experiences than my more holistic, bottom-up alternative. Maybe I am indeed bitter or a loser, but my own well-reflected-upon experience of life begs to differ. But if nothing else, the educational establishment would both validate and develop itself more successfully if it bothered to answer its critics rather than just criticise or ignore them, while continuing to spout whichever guru’s pet theory happens to be fashionable this week.

I would have more confidence in the establishment’s view if I saw it practising the same kind of rigorous self-scrutiny that I do; I wonder how widely known concepts such as cognitive biases are known in the education world. I also wonder what approach the erstwhile National College of School Leadership was taking, that we now have such homogenous school management policies across the sector – or is it just the fear of Ofsted?

At present, the bulk of the profession seems content meekly to do what it is told. This is not a climate guaranteed to retain intelligent, reflective individuals in teaching – they tend to be independent-thinkers, not corporate doormats. That doesn’t mean that everyone actually agrees (see the dangers of group-think), but several colleagues have advised me to give up my case: “You won’t win, so why bother?” is the usual argument.

Apart from the fact that this is not a matter of ‘winning’, the more this mentality prevails, the less likely grass-roots teachers are to be heard, and the less likely we are to have a genuine, open and thoughtful debate about what precisely education is for and how it works, free from the dogma of Michael Gove – and the happy-clappy educational establishment that just as mindlessly opposes him.