Where have all the teachers gone?

I only have to look at the TES jobs bulletins in my inbox to see the teacher recruitment crisis. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Geography vacancies in one year before. At the moment, I have no inclination whatsoever to investigate, but in any case going through the stress of a searching interview process is out of the question at present.

I base much of my world-view on the suspicion (I won’t say belief) that there is something equating to Natural Good in terms of the human condition. We perhaps cannot know with precision what such things are, but I sense that there are certain conditions that promote or inhibit what the ancient Greeks called Eudaimonia, or flourishing.

We may not be able to measure or even define them – but that is not to say that they don’t exist. Certain conditions promote thriving in plants and animals, and I can see no reason why the same should not apply to humans. For all that we are much more complex, history brutally shows us what happens when people are deprived of their own nourishing talus.

Our nervous systems transmit information about bodily adversity or wellbeing, and as my recent experience shows, mental states are actually little different. Put a human being in adverse conditions and it eventually withers. This is, I suppose, also the foundation on which Maslow’s now rather over-exposed Hierarchy of Needs was based. My last six months has been about putting myself back in a more benign environment where recovery can occur – and that has meant, not at school. I think it shows in my face, and certainly some of my niggling health issues are much reduced. What more evidence do you need?

800px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs_svg

At a time when large numbers of people in this country and elsewhere seem to be feeling that their needs are being neglected, it’s tempting to discuss the wider societal implications. But suffice it to say that I’ve always seen the job of the teacher as enriching the ‘soil’ in which individuals can grow. Planters of seeds we may well be, but we also need to prepare the ground.

Traditionally, this involved a gentle, nuanced approach. My experience was that while the academic demands were high, the general climate was relaxed and warm. I don’t mean soppiness or neglect – but rather the way in which the pressures of growing up and passing through the schooling system were softened by the personable approach of those who delivered it. Even teachers who terrorised their classes: I recall one such gentleman who, behind a fearsome exterior, was surprisingly gentle. In their way, our teachers shielded their seedlings until such time as they judged them ready to be planted a little further out.

The chill winds that have blown through western society in recent decades have put paid to much of that. The subtlety of gradualist approaches has been replaced by an in-your-face demand to deliver. The scope for a gradual, artful nurturing of young people has given way to an unsubtle rat-race. In the obvious but wrong-headed mindset of more-is-better, pressure on teachers and pupils has been ramped up in ambitious schools seemingly with little consideration of whether this is indeed a better way of getting the best out of people.

My feelings say that it is not – and as an approach to education, it is as counter-productive as it is bleak; as an agony columnist wrote recently, if it feels wrong, it probably is. The trouble with feelings is that we can’t be much more precise than that; they are easily dismissed as anecdote – but if that is the best we have to go on, then we probably should. While there is some truth in ‘no pain, no gain’, there must come a point where a Rubicon is crossed and the discomfort becomes destructive.

In terms of working life, if people feel pressurised, rushed off their feet and anxious, this is not helpful. A little stress may be helpful, but it very quickly gets out of hand – and there is a difference between a controlled, gradualist approach to, for example public exams, and a general pandemic of ‘stand and deliver’. Which is the one thing it signally fails to do.

As Daniel Pink has observed, motivation comes from having autonomy, mastery and (inner) purpose. They are some of the natural ‘goods’ that I mentioned earlier. Without them, the incentive to do demanding things rapidly evaporates. I think they are as important as clean air and water, good diet and decent living spaces. But being ephemeral, they are easily ignored: the scrabble to deliver Results in British education has resulted in the ditching of anything that was apparently an impediment, from a large part of the extra-curricular life of many schools, even taught subjects that appeared not to contribute to the bottom line – and most certainly the measured psychological landscape in which people function well.

But if you take away the sense of community, (often by enlarging schools beyond sensible capacity) ditch the various communal events that used to punctuate the school year, and put people under such unremitting pressure, then you shift the balance between the necessary challenges of school life and the bits that soften the experience. If people are made to feel unappreciated and expendable, then it is unsurprising if their loyalty and commitment evaporates. If no slack is ever cut or compassion shown, then it should be unsurprising if people respond in kind. I think this is increasingly true amongst pupils (note the current surge in childhood mental health problems) – but it is probably the teachers who feel it most.

Even for teachers, if schools ramp up the less pleasant aspects of the job while simultaneously ditching the bits that offer the payback, it is not surprising if people decide it is no longer worth it. Many studies have shown that particularly in high-skill work, a pay-cheque alone is insufficient reward. This was my experience: whether to struggle to get back to work as quickly as possible, or not. In the end, returning to the conditions that precipitated my problems in the first place was just not worth it. It seems I’m not alone: gone to other lives, every one.

Present-day schools may have a tight management model – but it comes at the cost of the wellbeing of many who people them.

When will they ever learn?

Another one bites the dust

So that’s it. I am told that today is officially my last day of paid employment as a teacher, at least for the time being. Although the paperwork has not come through yet, I must mark the day in some way. I was 23, not long out of university when I joined the school; now I’m just a few years off retirement. Sixty percent of my life spent with teaching as (time-wise at least) the dominant waking activity. I now join the growing ranks of EX-teachers: how many more can the system afford?

Many people comment about how stressful it must be working with kids. They assume that is what did for my health. It wasn’t; it was the continual fight with The System to keep the job sensible. We are paid to deal with immature people, and they are mostly manageable – but not so an immature education System. In the end it was the ‘friendly’ fire that did for me, from a system that would apparently rather have no teachers at all, than ones that know their own minds and who adhere to their own sincere and justifiable principles.

I tried to interpret Teaching in a liberal, humane sense. I have no issue whatsoever with intellectual or personal rigour – but I cannot accept that that means nothing more than a Sisyphean chasing of targets. I note a husband-and-wife couple who managed a very successful primary school have recently decided the same thing.

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/apr/28/headteacher-and-deputy-send-resignation-letter-to-parents-longparish-primary-school-hampshire

Education is ultimately about developing human beings, not robots, communities not corporations – and it requires a wide perspective on what it is to be human to do that. I believe I have that perspective and I developed my skills to match; in its wisdom, the system has decided it can live without them.

There is not much more to be said. I did my best.

I have no plans to close this blog for the time being; it is possible that in due course it will morph into something wider – but my observations will inevitably be coloured by my new remove from daily life in the classroom. It seems like an appropriate point to thank my growing number of ‘followers’ for their interest and supportive comments, especially over the past five months. Keep watching this space!

Declining, not falling. Part 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of that, I want no part.

Different worlds

The Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that poor performers simply don’t realise just how deficient they are; in order to evaluate one’s own performance, one needs skills and insights that unskilled people by definition do not have.

Conversely, able people possess the insights that can cause them to identify their own limitations and perhaps be unduly self-critical. According to Bertrand Russell:

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wise people so full of doubts.

Or as John Cleese says:

 

 

The sting in the tail, of course, is that no one is in a position to judge whether we are as truly clever as we might think we are…

Even though I did not take full advantage of it at the time, I feel that my own education has served me well. Perhaps that is a useful position for a teacher to be in, and I have tried to pass on the best of my experience, while avoiding the pitfalls. Messrs. Dunning and Kruger might reply that I am in no position to judge!

In my experience, educating people is fundamentally a humane process. Certainly, intellectual and personal rigour is required – that goes without saying. Society rightly expects people to emerge from education with formal qualifications by which to validate the process – but the ultimate goal is surely to develop people in the round. That requires wisdom, humour, curiosity and compassion to cultivate people’s more complex senses and perspectives, to take them to the higher levels of civilised human life – and as a result, to further human society and the individual experiences within it.

The more I taught, the more I realised that my prime asset was simply being a balanced human-being myself, able to respond to any situation in an appropriate, compassionate and hopefully wise way. Important though they may be, the hard specifics of subject disciplines are best delivered by way of the soft skills that simply come from being an authentic human being. The hard-headed striving will only ever be an imposition if not delivered with kindness and conviction. My experience says this works; The System fails to understand.

I remember a deputy head once telling me that I was being too idealistic. “There is no way most people will ever attain that,” he said. “The most we can expect is to turn them into useful workforce.” That from someone who subscribed to the cults of egalitarianism and meritocracy…

The system I have been trying to work within has become increasingly removed from my own values. Exam results have become the end in themselves – but more for the benefit of the schools than the children within them. Schools have become fixated with figures, and have lost sight of any meaning behind them. All the ‘research’ is driven by the same lust for results – without any apparent appreciation that real education does not have a singular ‘result’ as such.

Even Increasing Opportunity seems to be couched only in these terms; education is being used more and more as a form of social engineering, but there is little understanding of what that really means. Other than accessing the next level of education, nobody seems to know what the ultimate purpose is for the recipients. This is not surprising when the only real answer can be ‘to live a fulfilling life’. But it is far removed from merely having qualifications, let alone being a ‘good worker’. So the system has avoided the issue by increasingly looked inward to its own interests.

So I have found myself working in an environment where I was increasingly at odds with the organisation I was serving. It has a largely utilitarian view of teachers’ work – to maximise exam results no matter what the cost or the even moral implications of Just Deserts. It wants teachers to operate in an almost purely technical sense – the mechanics of children’s exam performance, ‘intervening’ as and where necessary based solely on numerical information, and with the sole, naïve intention of improving those numbers. Even the motivational talk is focussed on maximising grades; very little about the pleasure of learning or its wider rewards: the classic definition of an exam factory. The role-model is the similar factories of eastern Asia, rather than the liberal views of continental Europe.

No doubt schools would claim that personal benefit was implicit in this process, but I’m not so sure; over the years, wider personal development has been mentioned less and less, in line with the abandonment of many opportunities to deliver it. Any sense of moral compass, except in the widest, most nebulous sense has been sacrificed to a bums-on-seats technocracy.

I should emphasise that I am not making school-specific criticisms; mine has only done what its masters bade or permitted. It has been very successful, too, in those terms. But in my opinion, like many it has lost its soul in the process. School life is now more pressurised, depersonalised, manipulated, mercenary and humourless than ever before – the antithesis of the warm, considered, tolerant, diverse, compassionate place I wanted to work for. Good education it is not; good training, maybe – but that’s not what I do…

My understanding of education, and what The System now says it wants have moved so far apart that I no longer feel prepared to work within it. The quality and breadth of what I am allowed to offer has withered – and the quantity of mindless, time-pressured compliance ballooned. What it permits me to do as an individual, intelligent professional, and what it expects me to deliver are so at odds with my expectations, let alone what is realistically possible – that I am leaving.

I have had enough feedback over the years to know that pupils did identify and appreciate my qualities as a teacher, even if it sometimes took them a while to do so; that was part of the plan. I was told the other day that my ‘problem’ is that I have developed too complex a view of education for an increasingly crude system to value. Be that as it may, those who wish to run education on production-line principles simply do not see what they are missing – and they have never given the likes of me a chance to argue. Such closed-mindedness is not the mark of educational success.

On my own terms, I succeeded as a teacher over a period of thirty years. After a hesitant start, I developed my skills and understanding to become the unique teacher that each individual can only be; not something valued in a corporate age. The System has judged me less favourably because I was not able or willing to confine myself to blinkered and often self-serving agendas.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect makes it impossible to know who is ‘right’. But the manifest contradictions in much of what the present system claims to be trying to achieve – that many people seem simply to ignore – speak to me of something much less considered or coherent than it claims.

So let’s just say that there exist two educational worlds, one like mine – and The System, which increasingly do not mix. I think mine works and can be intellectually supported – but if it’s not what this utilitarian, materialistic, increasingly harsh – and uneducated – country wants, then who am I to argue?

 

The Eurostar of teachers

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There seems to be a tide in the affairs of my life whose flood I have no choice but take: several of its defining moments have been unexpected and opportunistic to say the least. I doubt that’s particularly unusual – but it shows the folly of believing we can plan our lives with much certainty at all.

The recent particularly high tide has left me well and truly beached; four and a half months now and counting, since I did any teaching. At long last there have been some signs of more substantial improvement in my state of mind, though it’s by no means stable or consistent yet. Life has assumed a sort of non-routine in which the mornings remain largely useless and the afternoons consist of dabbling with small activities and doing some of the household chores.

But it’s not coming before major changes in my working life. It looks increasingly as though I am headed for the exit door from my school, after almost three decades. The fact that I am struggling to get my head round this probably shows just how necessary change is.

I am under a cloud that I fervently believe is not of my own making. There is probably not a teacher left in the country who would admit to being less than ‘good’: you can’t afford to admit human weakness these days. I don’t have difficulties with admitting my own real shortcomings – but despite that, I know my work has been good. I don’t need anyone with a tick-sheet to recall the positive effect had on many young people, the opportunities I devised for them, the relationships nurtured, the humour shared, the growth witnessed.

But I can’t deny the fact that modern schools only seem interested in pumping out exam results, and you really are only as good as your last figures. No matter that experience suggests my results were in line with the children’s abilities – a single, abstract figure, a computer-derived target missed, I believe due to its gross inaccuracy, looks as though it will be used to end my time at the school. And that single figure is enough to raise institutional doubts about my efficacy as a teacher, no matter what the mitigating circumstances.

There is no point in arguing; if that is what the system thinks it wants, then I guess it is entitled to do so. For my turn, I have never taken targets as anything more than a guide. Life is not simple or certain enough to do otherwise; all we are doing is creating hostages to fortune.

I could not accept that it was the rightful job of a teacher to force unwilling kids through a sausage-machine that left decreasing time for other aspects of learning or personal development. It is not fair on the willing ones either. Nor that that is all there is to education in any case.

Bringing out the potential in people is one thing –  that does sometimes require ‘gentle’ coercion – but there is a difference between that and the compulsion that now seems the rule. It’s also a long-term process, like playing a strong fish on a line – not a drag-net for bulk small fry.

I cannot be part of a corporate machine that seems intent on ingesting people at an ever earlier age – for what? It’s hardly as though the evidence of a thriving society is all around us.

I still consider that the role of the teacher is fundamentally a job of cultivation; my recent experience is not going to change that view. I don’t see education as a process of stamping conformity on people – in fact quite the opposite. The freest societies are those that allow individuals to follow their own paths, by breaking the mould if necessary. In the process, one hopefully builds a society good enough that people choose to opt back into it.

I have my suspicions about the real agenda. Top of the list has to be the disposal of expensive teachers in the least expensive way. But it is both cowardly and cruel not to do the right thing by people who have given good – and long – service: to throw them on the scrap-heap simply because it’s the cheapest thing to do. And doubly so, if my suspicions are right, to engineer situations by which to ‘justify’ those actions, to the extent of exploiting people’s weaknesses or misfortunes.

The worst part is that I will not have the opportunity to clear my name. If my departure does come to pass, I will go down on the list of ‘necessarily removed failures’ rather than much-missed assets. I know this is deeply unjust – but it will probably still be the case.

I am unclear what the future holds. At 53, I am hardly at peak employable age; I will come expensive to any school that might want me. I am the Eurostar of teachers – the latest thing in its day, now mid-life but good for plenty more, given a bit of T.L.C. But now being prematurely scrapped because big business thinks it costlier to refurbish than replace. What a waste!

In any case, I am not sure I have much left to give: at present, this experience feels as though it has drained what was left of my will to work in education.

I look at those glossy adverts for teaching and want to shout, “Don’t do it – if only you knew…!” Not because teaching is a bad job; on the contrary, it is an excellent job. But it has been turned bad by a system that has lost sight of what it is actually for, that needlessly makes teachers’ lives so difficult that almost no one feels as though they can do it well and stay sane.

And then, when it has had enough of you, that same system actively helps you to feel even worse about yourself.

The solution to the teacher shortage is not glossy adverts; it is about creating a system that is realistic in its expectations, manageable in its demands – and doesn’t burn people up in the process, because I know I’m not the only Eurostar teacher.

 

Disorientation

Why am I publicly documenting my mental health problems? Partly as catharsis – but mostly because those glossy adverts for teaching enrage me so much. I think it is necessary to record the potential risks of falling for them…

A new routine has almost established itself; it doesn’t involve getting up and going to work every morning. The last four months are a blur, and I can’t quite believe that the spring flowers are already appearing. A sense of disorientation is setting in, and good though it is not to have to drag myself out of bed at an unearthly hour, it’s worrying.

There are days when I feel like my old self has almost returned – except for the wearying, racing mind, like a car engine revving in neutral. On the other days, it feels as though someone has thrown sand into the closely-meshed gears of my mind. And then there’s the fatigue and the disproportionate angst about every small thing. Such polarity is not yet a recovery, for all that I feel like a fraud on the better days.

The temptation is to make up for lost time when the brain permits, to resume some of the actions of a fully-functioning adult – with the predictable consequences a day or two later. And the unspoken opinion of others seems to be that I am not being as coherent at it feels. A rather fraught session with my talking therapist yesterday suggests that may be right.

It also seems as though my hopes of getting the assurances I need from School are receding; it was pointed out to me that to concede what I need them to would risk opening themselves up to legal action, were I so-inclined (I’m not). Such is the cynicism of modern employment law.

But the racing mind cannot help but chew endlessly over the future; a resolution must happen at some point. The advice is that any return to the classroom would inevitably involve the scrutiny that I know is so unjustified, which triggered the current impasse. I cannot conceive of going through the stress of that process again, even without the feelings of injustice that accompany it. And yet no one remotely seems to think that the result can be annulled, for all that my colleagues keep telling me I have been harshly treated. I am not prepared to have to keep justifying myself in this way, least of all with one hand tied behind my back. Not when the actions of others were so unjustified.

I’ve never been particularly motivated by money, though I do enjoy my comforts. But cutting our household income in half is not an appealing thought, for all that health has to come first. Maybe there is life beyond teaching, but I can’t yet see what it might be. It’s a tough but reliable job, and that has to count for something in uncertain times.

On the other hand, a quick calculation arrives at the top figure under £15 per hour post-tax for my actual  hours worked. Somewhat over double the minimum wage – and I’m expensive for a teacher. One should allow a bit for the extra paid holiday, but it’s still unimpressive. My therapist charges £35 an hour; my G.P. earns double what I do. I don’t begrudge her a penny of it – but she still doesn’t have the unique pressures of the classroom to deal with.

£15 for every lesson taught. 50 pence per pupil per hour. Well, I guess it’s financially efficient. I don’t mind teaching for that; it provides enough for the life we want. But £15 an hour for all the other c**p that the job now involves? For the bullying and micro-management? For the stress of recent years? For the particular upset of the last four months? For the hours of personal and family life given up for the job? For the lack of appreciation and trust? For a totally avoidable broken brain?

Nowhere near enough.

Know your enemy

 

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements? x
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel? x   erm, well maybe…
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?

What causes job burnout?

  • Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect your job.
  • Unclear job expectations. If you’re unclear about the degree of authority you have … you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully….or your boss micromanages your work or treats you unfairly.
  • Breakdown of Community.  …there is no mechanism for conflict resolution, or feedback is non-existent. 
  • Insufficient reward. You feel undervalued or under-rewarded or you lack recognition for your effort.
  • Mismatch in values. If your values differ from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch can eventually take a toll.
  • Poor job fit. If your job doesn’t fit your… skills, it might become increasingly stressful .
  • Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort …you might burn out quickly.

Who is at risk of job burnout?

  • You lack a reasonable balance between your work life and your personal life
  • You try to be everything to everyone
  • You work in a helping profession, such as health care, counselling or teaching
  • You feel you have little or no control over your work

 

I have been doing some research on the causes of workplace burnout. Burnout is a precursor to more serious problems. The list above is a composite assembled from two sources, but there are many others that largely say the same thing.

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pressure-proof/201308/six-sources-burnout-work

I have ticked those that I believe were my workplace experience over the past few years. I was not consciously aware of all of them at the time, nor the fact that they were piling up to the extent that they did.

Some might consider the tone of this blog to be ample evidence of a ‘disaffected’ individual, and it has certainly plumbed the depths on occasions. But I have a strong professional ethic which, while it certainly does not represent the only way,  is not so ill-considered one should in effect be forced one to abandon it. The blog has been a well-meaning vehicle for developing ideas that were apparently unwanted elsewhere.

I suppose an employer has a (n absolute?) right to stipulate what they want from their employees, but a canny one will know that there is no alternative to harnessing the genuine motivations of their employees rather than forcing them to deny them. They should also be wary of moving the goalposts so that existing employees become disenfranchised.

My school is no worse than many, and certainly better than plenty. Other factors making for a harsher climate are but the effects of national trends. But in the lust for league-table prominence, and dizzy from Ofsted success, like many it has sometimes neglected the machinery that produced that success. Officially it’s all ‘for the pupils’ of course – but if their welfare is as important as is made out, then why are some of my classes still languishing without a proper replacement teacher?

I still genuinely struggle to understand how any organisation, let alone a people-based one like a school, can not only to neglect these considerations but actually pursue policies that risk making them worse…and yet that is precisely what parts of the education system are doing.  A good workman does not abuse his tools.

My G.P. had no hesitation in signing me off for another month. My spirits have improved somewhat recently – but I likened the situation to building a tower of playing cards – and then trying to rest a brick on the top. It’s not teaching, or even school per se – it’s just that anything requiring significant current to flow through the circuitry ‘up top’ trips the fuses again… The concentration and memory is often still shot. It is clear where the root cause of those difficulties lies.

Everyone is different; nobody really knows how well they will cope with sustained stress until they have to. It is no sign of personal inadequacy to discover you don’t cope well. Arguably the thoroughbreds the system says it wants will be more susceptible than old nags.

And the consequence of five (or thirty?) years of repeatedly ticking all those boxes isn’t going to be repaired overnight.

 

 

 

Feeling nervous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For what? (part two)

zeller_hallenbad-radonbad-in-menzenschwand-3Teacher de-stressor (not available in the UK.)

It seems to me that in Britain, by comparison, there is a sense of disempowerment – that people have less real control over their lives, that there is less active engagement with living a good life. I contrast this with the very passive act of consumption that seems widely to dominate people’s attention.

I’ve never really been able to separate the extent to which that might be caused by the legacy of a hierarchical society, or because people have willingly devolved responsibility for their lives to the political or commercial sector. Either way, one might argue that one of the purposes of education is to equip people to resist the forces that diminish their autonomy.

If I am correct, this passivity is precisely what one might expect a lack of education to cause. Clearly the U.K. does not lack education – but perhaps it is failing to deliver in this critical respect. I can see no other reason why so many people are prepared to live insubstantial, pre-packaged, cloned lives at the expense of any sense of their own individuality. “Because I’m worth it” has been misappropriated from being an inward expression of personal substance and turned into the ultimate in lazy consumer indulgence. Ironically, the more out-sourcing of life goes on, the less what is left might be deemed to be ‘worth’ much at all.

There will always be differences in society of course – but as far as I can tell, like-for-like people in the U.K. somehow seem more resigned and cynical than their continental peers; the greater passivity in their choices of lifestyle betrays something.

I am not trying to suggest that there is only one type of, or path to, a good life – but perhaps the things that evidence the lack of one are rather clearer. While one might argue that people are happy if they think they are happy, it is not always true that the stressed or depressed realise it at the time. All species, when put under pressure, exhibit pathologies of which they may not be fully conscious. The willingness or resignation of many British to believe that life is hard and dull and that there is nothing much that can be done about it, may be one such pathology. The grudging, aggressive or antisocial behaviour one sometimes encounters in this country may be another, the need for constant novelty and escapism a third. Yet for all the politicians and gurus talk about empowering people, very little really seems to change…

Only those with heaps of cash seem able to escape the general precariousness of daily British life; for the rest the sedentary dependence on junk culture, shoddy goods and the dream of unearned fame is an expression of the failure of a society to come up with anything better to live for, rather than evidence of how well we are doing. And the very urge of the rich to buy their way out of wider national life in itself says a great deal – a phenomenon that seems much less marked on the continent.

Most concerning, it seems to apply as much to the educated as anyone else; the present educational direction seems intent on tying people ever more tightly into that world-view rather than liberating them from it. Again, perhaps the significant point is that (externally applied) education alone cannot a good life make. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts. The only other way to escape is to retire – and the expressions of utter relief from those I know who have done so recently itself says a lot about the experience of their working lives.

One encounters many people who are highly-qualified; some of them come from relatively privileged backgrounds, others much less so. But what so often strikes me is that there seems to be no correlation whatsoever between those individuals’ levels of education and their general outlook – except, perhaps, for the absence of severe hardship. For the dullness and pressure of even many professional-grade lives in the U.K. can only say even more about what it is like ‘lower down’.

Above all, there seems to be very little cognitive impact of their education: some of those people do have knowledgeable, enquiring minds – those who are ‘individuals’, who are great company, inspirational even , not because they all match but precisely because they each have something unique and engaging about them. But I encounter more of their type on the continent; in more cases here, the experience of becoming educated seems to have almost no real impact on lived lives at all – except (sometimes) the amount of money in pockets. Many seem still to have narrow perspectives and horizons, even on any perceived ‘purpose’ or context for their own lives. Where is the personal impact of all that education?

I am not entirely exempting myself from the matter either. I like to consider myself a thoughtful and reasonably knowledgeable person – but I attribute that largely to my upbringing and innate curiosity, and cannot say with certainty that my schooling had any more than a reinforcing effect. In that sense, I am no different from those others I may appear to be criticising. But I’m not really seeking to criticise people for the lives they choose to lead, so much as suggesting we may be wrong to believe that the key determinant of the quality of those lives is formal education.

But if this is so, one wonders why we are so mistaken – and how it turned out so differently elsewhere. What is lacking in the culture of this country that results in such a hang-dog approach to life? Maybe we are hoping that external ‘training’ can make up for the lack of something much more inherent and personal?

In many ways, ‘ordinary people’ are the same everywhere; they largely have similar concerns and problems. Except that some of them are fortunate not only to live in beautiful surroundings – but also in well-made buildings, in settlements where people clearly take a pride in their communities and in their relations with others, where civic institutions are strong and there is at least something of a social safety-net. There remains an unassuming sense of the good life, that life is worth living, an opportunity to be seized, that can be seized. It was expressed by the sense of general conviviality present in that restaurant the other evening, by the way each new arrival was generally greeted and each departure bidden goodnight – visitors and locals alike.

But those things did not happen by accident: they are the product either of people deciding those things are important and behaving accordingly – or of making it clear that they will not settle for less.

In the U.K., it seems that no amount of educational progress ever delivers to people anything more than a sense of the inescapability of the rat-race, of the need to gain at others’ expense, of the need to calibrate life in a way that still rarely delivers any tangible benefits. It’s about quantity, not quality. It does not deliver us better homes or roads, it does not improve our indifferent towns or environmental record.  It does not improve the quality of our national discourse or widen the availability of our culture. And if the continent is not entirely Paradise, then the grim bits of this country, and the lives lived there, seem to out-do much of what at least the west of the continent can offer.

‘Opportunity’ seems to be conceived as little more than the ability to work harder and spend more. It certainly seems to do little to enlighten people’s thinking about the things that transform the treadmill into a life well-lived. I know that is not the entirety of life in the U.K. either – but the prevalent mood here often seems to be a sense of weary resignation.

As I said at the start, perhaps education delivers the opportunity for divergent thinking – including precisely the ability to disagree with arguments like mine above – but I still do not understand why so many people here seem never to take their eyes off the ground and look to the stars, even when highly educated. The good life is not a matter of extravagant special occasions or the escapism of behaving badly – It is not a matter of shiny-eyed Panglossian over-optimism, so much as attending to the quality of ordinary everyday life. Our education system seems unable to help people to appreciate that – indeed it seems to be sending them in the opposite direction. But maybe realising such things is not a matter of formal education anyway.

In which case, one is left wondering what on earth all the pressure is actually for.

For what? (part one)

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I’ve heard it said that if you want to understand why education is so important for a country, then just look at one that has none. It’s a point that is hard to argue with – and yet the connection between the life-experiences of people in various parts of the world and their educational experiences is anything but direct.

Empowering people to make more considered decisions about everything from their birth rates to their economic activities or their use of leisure time seems such an obvious thing to do, and it is clear that in aggregate terms there is an effect – even though what we teach rarely relates directly to such trends. Yet education also implies empowering people to make increasingly divergent decisions about their lives, rather than following patterns stipulated by others. There is a pretty significant contradiction here.

What’s more, when one looks at widely-educated nations, the connection between education and life-choices seems to diminish. Putting my curmudgeonly hat on for a moment, the harder I look at life in Britain, the less certain I am about what it is that the increasingly-urgent imperative for more and more education is actually meant to be bringing. When it comes to the norms of British life today, I find it hard to see where education’s effect actually lies.

This comes into sharper relief every time I travel to our near-neighbours on the continent. To be blunt, ‘Here’ I see many supposedly-educated people for whom that experience seems to inform their lives almost not at all; ‘There’ I see by comparison an attractive way of life for which formal education can presumably only be a partial cause. And I know those countries well enough for it not all to be just rose-tinted spectacles.  If the point of education even in developed countries is supposedly to improve the quality of people’s lives, are we looking for the wrong thing in the first place? And if it is not that, once the basics of life have been addressed, then what?

Like most (all?) teachers, I choose to believe in the transformative effect of education – in its ability to change lives substantively for the better – even if I also see it as the only alternative to remaining in savagery. If this is not the case, then just why is so much effort invested in improving ‘opportunity’ for those who supposedly do not already have it? But what does that opportunity consist of? Are we deluded to think that a more educated mind – let alone more bits of paper with grades on – really can make much real difference to people’s time on this planet?

I rather fear that it actually means little more than the ability to work harder or spend more, thereby enriching our masters further. I suppose it may also mean the ability to support one’s dependents better, thereby being less of a burden on the State – thus enriching our masters further. But do such things really equate to ‘more opportunity’ – let alone the best that education can offer? The societal effect of education is actually cross-generational, but in which case, is the story we peddle that learning generally transforms individual lives anything more than a white lie? True, people will sacrifice much for their children – but there comes a point when perpetual deference to the future becomes pointless. In a secular world, the best solution has to be for each equally-valuable life to be lived as well as possible in its own right.

I certainly don’t equate being bound ever more irrevocably into the economic treadmill with a better quality of life. It seems to me, too, that the focus simply on the grades people achieve – which ties them inescapably into an economised view of education-as-currency, rather than what actually happens in their heads during the educative process – is a corruption of the basic aspiration of that activity.

My half-term holiday involved travel by train to Strasbourg, and thence to our friends in Switzerland and their second home in the Black Forest. I took the heading photograph in a restaurant in a remote village 3000 feet up in said Forest . We had just finished stomping up a gorge by a waterfall, followed by an hour’s soak in the local spa-pool: an enlightened amenity for a backwoods – but not neglected – community. We ended with a delicious meal in this homely, family-run restaurant. But what has this to do with education – for all that our party consisted of people with Master’s and Doctorate qualifications? I suppose one might argue that education alters the value one attaches to such experiences, but that seems far from universal – I can think of many who would be bored by the prospect – and I doubt holding a PhD is a prerequisite for appreciating it either.

Question: does education really change the values one has in life?

So what is all the education really for? Germany and Switzerland excel at the ‘protestant work ethic’ – and no doubt running a successful restaurant or spa is indeed hard work when measured in time and physical effort – but where does education really come into it, beyond an ability to add takings up or read the regulations? It is unlikely to generate the understanding that even in business, authenticity and joie-de-vivre are important assets. Likewise, accumulating the money to acquire second homes and pay for meals requires work – but that is hardly sufficient to sum up the beneficial effects.

It seems to me that the things that I find so attractive about those countries’ quality of life have less to do with education than their transmitted culture. They may value hard work and they certainly have no shame about material wealth – but those are not the things that alone bring their high quality of life. If anything, the opposite is true: it is the remaining awareness that the good life is about more than material factors that is important. Contrast this with a conversation overheard amongst educated Britons recently, to the effect that customer-loyalty is pointless any more since all companies overcharge and one should ruthlessly shop around in order to beat the price down. It seems a bleak, dehumanised view even of commerce – and one for which a little independent thought might prompt a re-evaluation.

During our trip, we encountered unfailingly friendly, courteous people in shops, restaurants and the street – as we always do. I’m not so naïve as to believe this is the whole truth – but it is nonetheless a regularly repeating experience. One assumes they do not all hold doctorates, nor put the pleasantness on just for foreigners – but the impression is of a positive outlook on life that if nothing else still has time for the basic civilities.

As always, we found a comfortable, solid stability that appears to provide a high quality of lived experience, no matter how educated people might (not) be. I’m not suggesting that there is no hardship or conflict in those places – I have seen enough of the less attractive side of the continent to know better than overlook it.  But the overall sense is of a better, more satisfied life-balance than is widely achieved in the U.K. where life seems perpetually precarious – as the various ‘social pathologies’, let alone more overt recent expressions of dissatisfaction might suggest.

People ‘over there’ do have pressured lives – but they still seem to retain a greater sense of personal agency, and an awareness that the good life has to come from within – precisely the things that one might expect good education to inform. And they do it seemingly without recourse to either the bleak social Darwinism of the British Right or the indulgent dependency-culture of the Left. One might add a sense that civic structures in those countries are more enabling and less punitive and miserly in their outlook than those we have here.

By contrast, my impression of this country is that no matter how hard one works, Quality of Life is an elusive concept. I have sent countless young people out from my school whose expectation seems to be that life is a rat-race in which the sole purpose is to earn as much cash as possible, unaware of the fact that doing so may cause impoverishment in many other ways. Plenty see education as little more than a necessary evil to accomplish this.

For all the eventual high salaries of South-East England, this seems to me to be a recipe for a dull, unsatisfying life, the proof of which is the ceaseless, fruitless scrabble for privileged economic status in the town where the school is located. Yet that town itself is a dull, lifeless place; its wealth does not seem to bring it a greater quality of life. Furthermore, that life is seen as competitive rather than collaborative, about extrinsic success rather than intrinsic satisfaction – is, I think, a deeply important point. Put our pupils (as I often have) alongside their Swiss or German counterparts and ask them about their respective lives and the contrast screams loud…

(To be continued)