The God of Small Things


It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just looking, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is  a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also the thing that we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

If education is about promoting well-lived lives, I am deeply uncertain that the  aspirational, target-driven approach is doing that. While young people are unsurprisingly future-orientated, the present manic approach seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good educational time to promoting the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of superb fabric.  (usual disclaimer)

The original version of this post can be found on my other blog:

Safety Announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

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.