Half-baked

“If you want to see what education does to a country, just look at one that has none”.

It was perhaps the most convincing argument I ever encountered for doing the job that has occupied the bulk of my working life.

It also provided the perfect justification why someone like me, not a particularly outgoing person and with no children of his own, might go into that line of work. While I was perfectly prepared to support individuals when they needed my help, I never really subscribed to the view of my role as a somewhere between a pal and a life-coach, that has become the mainstream view in recent years. The job of the teacher is to be more impartial than that – a mentor, a critical friend, not a yes-person.

That is not to say that the individual is unimportant: a happy society has to be produced, as far as is possible, from happy individuals – but there is another descriptor that one might use too: Balanced. We all need a well-balanced society, not one that is simply pursuing individual self-realisation at all costs; all the more so when it is equated solely with career and income. This, I am less convinced we are achieving.

A balanced society is perhaps Wise: one that appreciates the perpetual, inescapable and uncomfortable compromise between our own interests and those of others around us. It appreciates, too, the subtle point that even self-interest is not simply a matter of who acquires the sharpest elbows and the largest bank account. It hopefully also sees that many of the things that make life worth living are not a product of ruthless ambition, nor the status that may result.

Therefore my own motives for teaching were more concerned with the role of education in creating a civilised society for all – including those without their own children – and for the transmission of the cultural and intellectual capital that is the very necessary inheritance of all. Looking after the individuals was just a (very important) part of the bigger picture.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the view (of not only, but seemingly including many teachers), that the purpose of education was to pass exams, thereby progressing to the next stage of this supposedly pre-ordained, homogenous process until wealth and influence eventually landed in your lap. It is probably no coincidence that such views were peddled most strongly by those within the profession who had themselves followed that trajectory…

My discomfort reached a peak when I was being actively being prevented from teaching in a way and using materials that I knew enhanced understanding, on the grounds that they would not specifically appear in the exam. To me, this was the pinnacle of the narrow-mindedness that I always believed education was meant to counter: a view so limited as to believe that we should only teach things, and in ways, that would supposedly enhance exam performance – at the expense of precisely the breadth of understanding and insight that exams are intended to sample. If this is so, then it is indeed true that the whole thing has been reduced to a pointless exercise in hoop-jumping.

I could not escape my unease that this outlook, which reduced the essential, life-enhancing experience of wonder at, and learning about the world to little more than box-ticking. I could not ignore the sense that is also self-defeating, because when the acquisition of something as indefinable as Wisdom is reduced to such, it does indeed become all but meaningless. Wisdom, by definition is not something that can be either acquired or exercised according to a pre-written formula – as many of the exponents of the hoop-jumping approach unknowingly demonstrated all too well.


 

These conflicts have been much in my mind again in recent times. First Brexit, and now Covid-19 have severely tested our resilience as a society, and revealed the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, approaches and mindsets around the world.

As everywhere, my own local community has been tested by this unexpected adversity. In the past weeks, people have been taking conspicuous care with social distancing, while a number of local support groups have sprung up, as one would hope. And yet it seems that a few weeks of this are as much as some people can support. There are growing numbers of people appearing in the streets; while our weekly market has done well from people shopping more locally, I find myself incredulous at the speed with which self-discipline seems to be breaking down.

It seems that now the initial shock of the situation has passed, people are increasingly cutting corners; that faced with the choice between immediate convenience and potentially fatal infection, more than I am comfortable with appear to choose the former. Perhaps they think they are invincible; I wonder how many know that we have had the virus here in this community of five thousand…

There are some here (as presumably in all societies) who seem to have a casual attitude to Risk, or who simply can’t be bothered to sustain previous efforts. This might not matter so much if the consequences of their decisions only affected themselves – but the cruel tragedy of this pandemic, is that careless behaviour is at least as likely to harm others as themselves.

I know that some of the local traders have noticed – and have not missed the irony, either, that many who are currently patronising them have never been seen before – and will probably never be seen again once ‘normal’ life resumes. Such is the superficial transience of some people’s behaviour – and, it seems, their ability to learn lasting lessons. It often seems to be the same people who show little awareness of others around them in the street, and who seem to think that social distancing means that everyone else needs to give way…


 

There as an inherent contradiction within the idea of education: by cultivating people’s resourcefulness and potential, one makes it more possible for those individuals to stand on their own feet; to make decisions about their own lives and interests that are freed from the overwhelmingly-communal concerns that still govern less educated societies, ones where community really is an insurance against adversity.

Strengthening people’s minds really does give them more autonomy – but there is no guarantee that the result will be used in an enlightened way. The process that we in Britain currently call ‘education’ taps into very strong instincts for self-advancement, even greed: its singular emphasis on personal fulfillment has downplayed the interconnectedness of us all, which the current situation has temporarily re-emphasised. It has led people to become self-focused to the extent that they fail even to consider the impact of their behaviour on others – even it seems when that behaviour can potentially cause death. Not all restraint has gone – but a virus does not negotiate; it does not make allowances for human weakness or stupidity. In fact, it exploits them.

The problem with education is this: done well, it does indeed lead to a more effective, more ‘free’ society – and one in which people might be expected to acquire more than a passing attachment to the currently-required behavioural changes that exist for everyone’s benefit. Where people are wise enough to have a sensible perspective about the situation; where they actively take considered and responsible decisions. Where lessons really are learned.

But done badly, all it does is exaggerate people’s sense of autonomy – empowerment without the necessary wisdom to appreciate the subtle limitations on that autonomy. It leads to a determination to have one’s own way no matter what the consequences; eventually it becomes so habitual that people cannot do otherwise. First Brexit and now the pandemic seem to be showing that for enough of the population to cause a problem, it is indeed such attitudes that now hold sway. No doubt the same people will be the first with the hysterics should there be another spike in infections.

This is what education as hoop-jumping achieves: giving people an exaggerated sense of their own importance, even invincibility – and a diminished sense of the many ways in which that is nothing more than an illusion. They may lose dependency – but they replace it with half-truths. Half-baked education is only concerned with what superficially seems to be the ‘right’ answer – not the imponderable dilemmas and uncertainties that a truly-wise perspective can see. And it fails to equip people to know how to change their minds.

This is where my misgivings came from – for as has been said before, a little education is a dangerous thing.

The Sound of Silence

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“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and everything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is perceived as less need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove from us the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing wall-to-wall conveyor of equally pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell, I am certain, knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfilment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. To deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfil. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students from giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than our insisting on doing it for them. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.

 

Guest post: ‘Train Hard, Fight Easy’ or How to deal with Exam Stress and become an Exam Machine – Part 1

Stress seems to be a problem that is everywhere these days. Its implications for individuals are widely appreciated, but perhaps less well-understood. In this guest post, Adam Bantick discusses the causes of exam stress, and in part 2 he will examine strategies for addressing it.

He would like to hear the thoughts and experiences of others on this subject and can be reached via the comments column.

Adam teaches History at Colchester Sixth Form College.

We all know that exams are stressful, and so if we can find ways to overcome these stresses, then we should be able to train our students to become better at exams. A frequent comment from those tasked with dealing with the stress of life-or-death situations, from the police to the armed forces, is that ‘and then my training kicked in’. This article aims to explain what Exam Stress is, how it can be dealt with, and how to train our students to become Exam Machines. Part 1 explains what Exam Stress is, and Part 2 explains how to deal with it.

The problem is that exams are stressful situations, and the human body reacts to stressful situations in particular ways. Although much has been written about students feeling stressed before exams, and how teachers can help their students to deal with these stresses, these are mostly about mental health or a ‘how to revise’ strategy. Little has been written about what actually happens during an exam and how these stresses impact on student performance. Sometimes students remember enough to tell us afterwards, but other times they appear shell-shocked and unable to remember anything about the exam.

We need to understand what exams are, as well as what happens when we take them. Exams can be defined as time-limited, high stakes (pass/ fail/ graded), and taken solo. For these reasons, they are usually stressful – which manifests itself in a number of ways such as feeling sick, sweaty palms, needing the toilet, being thirsty, unable to concentrate, unable to remember…

Our brains have evolved to deal with stressful situations, but with the consequences listed above. A simplified explanation (Horvath and Lodge 2016), is that the brain has three parts which interact together. The Hypothalamus bridges the emotions and physical senses, and connects to the endocrine system controlling the flow of hormones in the body.

The Hippocampus stores information, and is very important for learning and retrieval of facts and concepts. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is the rational part of the brain. It includes Working Memory (holding and using information in the brain), Impulse Control (controlling outward physical behaviour), and Decision Making (choosing which response to give).

When a Threat is identified, two kinds of thinking are used, depending on the threat level. If a Mild Threat is encountered e.g. crossing a busy road, the brain uses Cold Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be low. The Hypothalamus produces small amounts of stress hormones, but the Hippocampus and Pre-Frontal Cortex operate as normal. If a Serious Threat is encountered e.g. driving test, the brain uses Hot Cognition, where the brain perceives the threat level to be high. The Hypothalamus floods the body with the stress hormones Cortisol and Norepinephrine. Cortisol in the Hippocampus stops the neurons in the brain from communicating with each other, stopping memory retrieval. Norepinephrine in the Pre-Frontal Cortex prevents the neurons from working together, and affecting the ability to speak, write etc. The brain is shutting down non-essential functions in order to meet the Serious Threat. The Cold Cognition-driven Pre-Frontal Cortex has been supplanted by the Hot Cognition-driven Hypothalamus, affecting the ability to think straight, recall information, and write it down accurately – thus, poor exam performance.

The effects of Cognitive Stress are widely known, with most people familiar with the idea of ‘Fight or Flight’, where we either physically deal with the Serious Threat or run for our lives from it. As fighting a battle is about as stressful as it gets, soldiers have to confront this situation in their day jobs.

Military psychologist Leo Murray (‘Brains and Bullets’ 2013) identified not just Fight or Flight, but two other conditions as well – the ‘Four F’s’. Fight is where the body prepares for a physical encounter by using adrenaline to prime the muscles for action, by giving the feeling of extra strength and damping pain by narrowing blood vessels. Flight is where the adrenaline prepares the muscles to flee. In both cases, the body shuts down non-essential functions, such as food digestion, by re-directing blood flow to essential organs such as the lungs – sufferers feel ‘butterflies’ or nausea in their stomachs. Freeze is where the brain cannot decide whether to fight or flee, and sufferers are ‘caught like a rabbit in the headlights’, and do nothing – often appearing zombiefied. Fussing is where the brain moves on from Freeze, but not enough to do anything. The sufferer will ‘fuss’ over things that are trivial but well-learnt, such as re-checking equipment that does not need checking (micro-managing).

In addition to the Four Fs, Murray also identified Thinking Straight and Seeing Straight as problems. Thinking Straight is where the brain prevents rational thinking by cutting out new information/ short-term memory, and reverting back to older, long-term memory. In Murray’s observations, sufferers would blank out new instructions and follow older plans, despite the fact that they had been told of changes to the plan. Seeing Straight is where stress produced shut-downs of perception and senses, such as blurred vision, time speeding up or slowing down, or decrease in motor-skills. Depending on the gravity of the Stress Threat we face, we all respond in some form of the Four Fs and Thinking/ Seeing Straight, and we can see how that would play out in an exam that we found particularly stressful, with faster heart rate, feeling sick, sweating, time-speeding up, inability to remember ‘known’ facts, reversion to pre-prepared answers, going blank, doodling on the paper…

As well as the ways that stress affects our thoughts and behaviour, there are other, more education/ exam focused issues for us to consider. Dave Putwain (2008) has discussed Test Anxiety and Exam Stress, although there are similarities between them. Test Anxiety can be described as the way that we feel about the idea of exams in general.

A Test Anxious person will see exams as a Serious Stress Threat. The sufferer will fear failure, and being judged by others as a failure. This fear of failure will transmit to fear for the future, where no exam passes = no job. This fear will result in a negative spiral of self-doubt and self-fulfilling prophecy, and so the sufferer will procrastinate to put off the inevitable failure. Exam Stress can be described as the way we feel about the current exam or round of exams.

The Exam Stress sufferer will face having to do lots of exams in a short space of time, exam season will impact on social life/ eating and sleeping patterns, this particular high-stakes exam fear (‘If I fail this exam I will be thrown out of 6th Form’), and judgements from peers, teachers and parents. Putwain says that Test Anxiety and Exam Stress have particular effects on individuals.

‘Catastrophising’ is where the sufferer cannot get a sense of perspective about exams, and the slightest problem is seen as a catastrophe e.g. ‘I cannot answer Question 2, so I will fail this exam, then I will not get a job and I will die in a ditch’. ‘Selective Abstraction’ is where the sufferer focuses only on the negative things, and ignores what has gone well e.g. ‘I may have done Question 1 ok, but I’ll fail Question 2’. ‘Behavioural problems’ are where the Hot Cognition problems kick in, and ‘Personalising’ is where the sufferer feels that failing exams is just another thing that they fail at in life e.g. ‘I am the most stupid person in the world’.

So far, we have discussed why exams are stressful and how they affect our performance. In Part 2 we will discuss what we can do about these stresses and even turn them to our advantage to perform better.

Still standing…

Some weeks ago, I was asked to stand in for an ‘A’ Level Politics teacher who was having an operation. It felt like a huge step, particularly as I had vowed I would not go back into teaching.

Two weeks – which felt like two months (in a good way) – further on…

The new chapter of my career in education is written: no longer is the ending that ignominious crash, but a successful (if brief) return to the classroom three years later. I apologise if this seems over-dramatic, but it is an important matter for someone who always took his profession seriously and with a degree of pride.

I suppose I should be less surprised at how easily I dropped back into the classroom routine – but I am no less delighted, having been given the opportunity to prove, if only to myself, that I am still an effective practitioner – and that the questions raised three years ago were as groundless as I believed.

Does mental illness change people permanently? Perhaps. I found the daily ‘cognitive load’ greater than it used to be – but that may equally be a simple lack of practice (and it certainly got easier). I was wary of the fact that I seem to have a somewhat shorter fuse these days – but thankfully the students were so docile that it was never an issue. I think I am also more inclined to optimism, having been in a position where I was simply unable to experience positive feelings about anything for months on end. And I think I am also more understanding of other people’s imperfections and weaknesses too.

Equally, an important practical point has been made – it is possible to get back into work and cope. Until now, this has felt like an impossibly huge step. Indeed, it felt strange this morning not to be going to work again. I previously felt that I would never go back to the world of education – but now that is much less certain.

Having watched the other staff dealing with the usual heavy marking and administrative load, I don’t think I want to go back full-time: there are too many other things I am now involved with, that I want to keep up. It is true that work robs us of the possibility to have wider lives.

But the chance to go back into the classroom and just teach has reminded me that I really do enjoy doing this, and I seem to get results. The positive reactions of the students (seen not least in several leaving cards after just two weeks with them) suggests I am not wrong about this. And yet I still hesitate on such matters: the legacy of years of working in a place where one’s competence was implicitly and perpetually called into doubt runs deep. There again, a (small) amount of professional self-doubt may not be a bad thing…

The question is how, if at all, it can be done on something approaching acceptable terms.

But most of all, it felt good to work in a place where the vibe is positive, and where my colleagues were friendly and supportive – and who clearly retain views, qualities and practices that have gone a good way to restoring my faith in the profession. Thank you all.

Never say never again

When I awoke on Wednesday last week, I had not the slightest thought that by the end of the day, the profession that had so unceremoniously ejected me in 2016 might have called on me again. The view from the ‘outside’ has showed me just how much of a person’s life teaching steals, and I had decided that it has already had quite enough of mine. It was never that I disliked the actual teaching; in fact quite the contrary – but the whole package of what is these days imposed on the profession has tipped the balance too far to the negative, and its impact on my mental health had made that all too evident.

Over the past three years, I have found plenty of other rewarding and varied things to do with my life; since I managed to shake off the worst of the mental health issues that were the profession’s most immediate legacy, there has rarely been a dull day.

So the call from a former colleague, in need of someone to cover for a medical absence put me in something of a quandary. The local sixth form college is one of the few places that would still attract me; sixth form work was always my first preference. Such places also tend to be rather more grown-up in their outlook, and perhaps less condescending to those who work for them.

Despite the jangling of background nerves, I paid them a visit on Friday, and found the experience surprisingly comfortable. Once a teacher, always a teacher, I guess, and there was certainly none of the feeling of strangeness that accompanied the interviews I have had in other workplaces in the past couple of years.

So, if all goes according to plan, I will begin work on 5th November, just a week short of three years since my last time in the classroom – reincarnated as a teacher of ‘A’ Level Government & Politics, albeit just for a short while. We’ve been able to settle on some subject matter that is very comfortable too, and I’m actually quite looking forward to getting on with it.

I have no expectation of this leading anywhere; in any case I don’t want to return to the long hours of full-time teaching. But it has since occurred to me that this is nonetheless quite important: even if I never go near a school again, it will provide a different ‘ending’ to a story that so far finishes with my ignominious crashing out of my chosen profession in 2016. And that can only be good.

Truth being spoken at last.

At last, someone is talking about the elephant in the room.

Teachers held at gunpoint for meaningless data

What the writer underplays is the fact that some schools actively welcomed this approach, because it was what allowed their managers to big-up their careers and salaries. I worked in one.

You can only deal with the conflict between doing what you know to be educationally right and necessary and that which a gun-pointing system is forcing you to for so long before something has to give.

The more seriously you take your vocation, the more damaging the consequences of such conflicts are likely to be.

A momentous day (to bury good news).

I’ve now run two evening classes for a small group of local adults in my home, where we are covering the rudiments of Critical Thinking. The experience is doing me a lot of good: it has brought back some confidence that not only can I still teach, but do it well enough to enthuse and inform my ‘pupils’. (Yesterday, by word-of-mouth my class voluntarily grew in size). Two years on, it is starting to reassemble something from the debris of my professional self-esteem.

I make no apology for continuing to document my mental health experiences. My wish is to do what I can to communicate the severe impact that stress and overload can have on teachers, and people generally, in the hope that it will be both a support and a warning. Some of my posts have been re-used by those raising the profile of the issue elsewhere. Perhaps less honourably, should any of those who caused the situation happen to read, I want them to know the full repercussions of their actions on this erstwhile long-serving and conscientious member of their staff – not that I expect it will cause them any lost sleep.

However, the issues are still ongoing, and our current means are extremely tight. Last November, I secured an interview for a basic administrative post. During the associated test, my anxiety kicked back in, I froze – and failed on that count. So things are still not ‘right’; I won’t be going near a classroom any time soon.

But I don’t mean to wallow. The Guardian this morning is reporting that on this politically momentous day, Ofsted will formally announce major revisions to its inspection regime. This has been in the offing for some time, and can only be good news.

At long last, official recognition is being made that the quality of education is not synonymous with exam data. Amanda Spielman will apparently say that “we have reached the limit of what data can tell us” – a diplomatic way of accepting the flaws in decades of policy.

But what damage has been done in its name! Not only off-rolling (excluding children whose results will harm the school’s data) – but also a host of other policies which have brought the ethical standards of those who run schools into serious disrepute. Gamesmanship should have no part whatsoever in a principled activity such as education.

The ruthless quest of incentive-driven senior managers for compliance at all costs cares little for the impact of that selfish myopia on others.  As well as off-rolling, it has been the primary driver of curriculum-narrowing, the wider neglect of non-core subjects, the deprofessionalisation of staff – and worst of all, the ‘spike’ in mental health problems amongst both pupils and their teachers. The quest for ‘maximising opportunity’ always was nothing more than a thin veil for self-serving institutionalised lust. Hence perhaps the current alarm at this reform in some managerial quarters. It is a sick irony that a supposedly caring profession has been driven by those who often publicly profess to ‘care’ most deeply of all (Ofsted included), severely to damage the very wellbeing that it claimed to promote.

Not long before the end, my school’s union reps (of which I was one) were mandated by their members to approach the management with severe concerns about morale. We were hardly the only school where this was a problem.

But we had just such a ‘driven’ management, which not only ignored the representation made at that time, but also my personal attempt at back-door diplomacy when it failed. But then, it also ignored numerous other manifestations of the harm that its data-craziness was causing. I cannot be sure that this did not contribute to an agenda that did not stop (whether by conspiracy or cock-up) until it had played a large part in badly damaging my mental health. Just one casualty amongst many.

Today’s reforms by Ofsted should be welcomed with open arms. If they can be successfully implemented, they should play a significant part in restoring the balance and perspective that has been lost in education. They are also an explicit recognition that good education cannot be wholly quantified, and that it was a mistake to think otherwise. With any luck, they will also reduce some of the pressure that was brought to bear on those of us who are/were in pure educational terms perfectly competent practitioners, but who were vilified for refusing to sell our souls and accept the Long Winter.

It will no doubt take a long time to change a culture where so many influential people are invested in the outgoing mindset. Long enough that it will more than see out the years I might have had left in the profession. But it needs to be done. The tragedy is that the collateral damage has been so great.

A letter to my old school (and the many others like it)

So how do you feel now? I’m talking particularly to those who (have) run the place. How do you feel now that the Head of Ofsted no less, has confirmed her intention to remove exam data analysis from school inspections?

She says it distorts educational priorities, even damages children’s interests. Some of us could have told her that a decade or more ago. But it is what you built your whole institution upon. You are the people who were proud to admit that you ran an exam factory. Are you experiencing a sudden loss of purpose, since your whole rationale – if that is not too fancy a word for it – was built for years on the macho extraction of results data from pupils and teachers alike?

In a way I don’t blame you for what you did: it was only what you were told to do. But you still took it much further than you needed to, drunk on edu-corporate bullishness (remember that word?). There were too many glittering careers to be built in going along with it. You discovered that by bleeding people dry you could harvest data which impressed the inspectors, politicians and local public, which justified your management strut, which treated ordinary teachers as machinery and pupils as data fodder.

I don’t think the ‘customers’ were actually unhappy – but the bonhomie in the school existed despite the management not because of it. Even though you claimed all the credit. They are not a particularly enlightened bunch, the ‘clients’ in this area. A passport to a high salary for their children was all they mostly ever wanted. The fact that you paid yourselves handsomely while making front-line staff redundant no doubt impressed them too, since many were probably doing the same in their own lines of work.

You also figured out how to please the inspectors and accreditors; that was far more important to you than the happiness or well-being of your staff. You refused to implement even the most basic workplace guarantees where you could get away with it. I was in the room when you refused to countenance an H&S stress policy. Only bad teachers get stressed, you said. You always said we could go elsewhere if we didn’t like it; many did, and not for the reasons you claimed. That’s how much you valued us.

Playing the corporate game served you well. You had your fancy holidays, your flashy cars and your smart clothes, far out of reach to those who did the real classroom graft day in, day out. Some of you barely taught a class in years, and when you did the results were often no different from those you pilloried for what in their case you called ‘failure’.

I have no doubt you have clear consciences. In fact I genuinely think you did what you believed was right at the time. Who can ask for more? And the fact that the system worked for you only proved you were right – didn’t it? But you still had to sell the soul that any honest educator would find far more difficult to do that you did.

Yet your failure was even deeper than that. In your dismal, mundane world you utterly failed to see what Amanda Spielman has now accepted: that the important thing about educational success is not the grade, but how you reach it. It is the educational experience that is important, not the letters that it generates on a spreadsheet.

In the process, you sold out, too, on the real ethical purpose of education – which is not to help school managers to preen themselves. You didn’t care less about the breadth of the curriculum, or even whether the experiences children were having in classrooms were genuinely educational, let alone motivating, so long as we all pumped out the A grades.

When a hole appeared in the ‘A’ Level results, you chose not to consult the one group of people who knew why: the classroom teachers. We could see that grade-priming was coming at the expense of genuine learning, we could all see students coming into the sixth form without properly-embedded prior knowledge – that too was sacrificed to short-term grade gain. Those students were drained of enthusiasm by the bleak target-slog that you made of GCSE, ever to come back willingly for more: most were only there because they felt they had no choice. It was the educational equivalent of a property bubble: currency backed by no wealth – and now it has burst.

We could feel that it was making the job of teaching children more difficult and less effective. But you over-ruled us every time: you knew best, we were ‘anecdotal’ idiots (remember that word?), not the “experts in their field” that Spielman now accepts teachers are.

Publicly, you will probably say that you welcome the changes – but your behaviour over the past decades went far beyond  doing unwillingly that over which you had no choice. Much of the damage done to the education of British children – to say nothing of the teaching profession – came directly from the offices of school managers. No higher.

So how are you going to function in a world where you may no longer be able to blather your way through, hiding such inadequacies behind reams of meaningless statistics? How are you going to deliver a service that actually requires people to be properly educated? Which requires a school to be a place of learning, not just data mining? Because here is your real failing: you epitomise the emptiness of that approach – people with the right credentials, but nothing behind them. You didn’t understand what we were saying about the priorities and processes of genuine education – because such things were all too evidently a closed book to you too.

Your most abject failure was a glaring lack of leadership – despite the re-branding of management as such. You didn’t lead us anywhere worth going. You and your ilk failed to challenge the powers that were pushing education in the wrong direction; not easy, I know – but presumably that is why you call yourselves Leaders. To do the tricky stuff. But no: there was too much to gain from sucking it up.

You failed, too, to challenge those limited expectations amongst the local populace – to show them that real education is not just an exam grade. But no – that would have required the vision and courage to tackle entrenched beliefs – something you utterly lacked. You never backed those of us who tried to argue otherwise; instead you narrowed the curriculum simply to maximise data outcomes. That is not good education. Education is not about giving people what they want, even less what they already know: it is about challenging them with things they don’t even yet know they need.

So please don’t begrudge those who resisted our current wry smiles. Those whom you didn’t even deign to acknowledge when we passed in the playground, to whom you could be so unpleasant when it suited you. Those whom you hustled out of the place at the first opportunity for daring to stick to our own principles and for not buying into your narrow remit. Educational principles we knew were right. We could see what was really going on.

In some cases, our entire careers were defined – blighted – by this utterly pointless obsession with meaningless data. Spielman has said as much: “Teachers have been forced to become data managers”. Too right they have – forced to game the system and mortgage their own well-being purely to massage the egos of managers – and too many have paid with disillusion, their health and their livelihoods.

Spare a thought for the time I sat at a computer facing a dilemma over whether to falsify so-called achievement data in order to keep you happy, or whether to stick to my principles and record the reality I could see, knowing how unpleasant the consequences might be. I am proud I did the latter, even though it helped to kill my career.

So forgive me for having the last laugh. While you kowtowed to your superiors, some of us were trying to do the right thing. For us small fry, making a stand on a matter of professional principle was important, even when it did us harm. Not an approach shared by you, our ‘leaders’ for whom compliance, even collusion was a far more important consideration than anything that required the courage of conviction.

In some cases, it damaged us personally – but we knew we were right, every time you ignored or over-ruled our input and views. I may be beyond the professional grave now – but I feel well satisfied by what Spielman appears to be saying. The principle we were defending has now been recognised for what is it – and the damage done by your false gods called out, despite the scorn which you poured on us when we tried to speak up.

It was us that kept the true spirit of education alive, while you were busy selling out to the gods of educational mammon. What will you do now?

The kids are alright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is no longer worth sacrificing yourself for”.

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

Unfinished Business

Thanks to Old Andrew for flagging-up the continued existence of this ‘blogging legend’ on Twitter. I try to limit my social media activity (it takes up too much of life as it is) so I only notify on Twitter, rather than participate. I am always very pleased to receive comments and correspondence via the blog itself, though, or at: blog [at] sandistock.plus.com.  I rather wonder whether a “legend” is something very old, imaginary and probably redundant…

I had been wondering again whether the blog warrants continuation. I’ve now been out of the classroom for well over a year, and the immediacy of my experience is fading. That said, I still keep more than a weather-eye on the education scene, and still read others’ blogs reasonably frequently.

The future here is still not very clear, other than the fact that a crust will somehow need to be earned again from early summer, even though ‘the head’ is still far from right; dilemma – and one that what’s left of the welfare state in this country doesn’t seem unduly concerned about. At least I’ve kicked the drug habit, so there’s a clearer view of the real situation. Salutary lesson: anyone who thinks antidepressants are an easy answer should think again.

There are a few irons in the fire, some in education, some not. One may involve becoming a student again for a while. But without implying criticism of those who have helped me, I don’t think anyone should be under the impression that there is a lot of support out here for people in difficulties. Any hope of ‘obligation’ borne from years spent in public service is pie in the sky. Regrettably, I include my Union in that: I guess that regulation and legal constraints perhaps prevent them from doing more than offer very general observations. Which is all very well – but not especially helpful just at the time when one could do with a stronger lead.

One of my long-time correspondents has urged me to keep the blog going, so that is what I will do, albeit probably on an intermittent basis as and when something comment-worthy comes up. As he put it “There is unfinished business with the toxic culture in education.” Yes indeed: I now know of six people even in my small pool who are signed off/medicated for teaching-associated mental health problems, and many more who are at varying stages of unhappiness or distress with what the job is doing to them. This is not right.

I suppose it is unsurprising that a forceful personal experience makes one more aware of ‘issues’ but once there, the situation seems obvious. Even amongst the zealots who often manage education, it must take a particularly callous person not to be concerned for the mental health of one’s staff. Which is not to say they don’t exist; how they manage not to see either the damage being done to their own institutions or the massive irony of the supposedly life-affirming education sector being toxic to those within it, is beyond my understanding. Of my original group of close colleagues, the last one left the school in question at the end of last term, for largely similar reasons. One might hope that those in charge would reflect on why they are losing good teachers – though I suspect they won’t. Management blindness is too self-confirming for that.

But we should also remember that there are those such as John Tomsett who have been rightly recognised for taking a different approach with regard to wellbeing – though it is informative that Ofsted felt it necessary to tell him that his school’s ‘Outstanding’ came because of his compassion not in spite of it.

Unfinished business there indeed is: not from any need for retribution, but simply because the sector is too important to be allowed to continue in its current unsustainable form. There is plenty of evidence around to support that view, quite apart from my own that much of what education is currently doing (or is perhaps being made to do) is entirely counter-productive to its supposed aims. Damaging entire generations is too high a price for politico-economic dogma…

…which leads me to offer an up-date on my book for those whom I know are already interested – and as a shameless plug at those who aren’t (yet…?). Titled ‘The Great Exception: why teaching is a profession like no other’ it is one teacher’s view of the reasons for education’s intractable problems, and a proposal for a more sustainable model. It is about to go to print, and should be out fairly early in the New Year. More details as they emerge.

Unfinished work – indeed. At which point I will wish everyone a happy and prosperous New Year.