Notes from Beyond: The Educational Prism

“You’re looking very well”.

Several people whom I’ve met in recent weeks have all said the same thing. It makes me wonder just how I was looking at the start of the year, at the lowest point. I looked hard in the mirror, and I think it is true: nine months free of the stresses of teaching life have indeed done something to recharge the physical batteries, even though the head still does not always behave itself.

Increasing distance has continued to present a changing perspective on how I have spent the past thirty years. I certainly don’t regret going into teaching, but the impact that this unique occupation has had is now clearer. I had always thought that I just about managed to keep the work-life balance in an acceptable place, but looking back it is becoming clear just how the job had  totally dominated my life, and indeed my mind. I saw almost everything through an educational prism; my entire existence was dominated by the concept of personal improvement, even as the demands of the job were sending me in the opposite direction. Much of my sense of life-purpose, even of the person I was ‘supposed’ to be was in effect dictated by the demands of the profession. I guess this is inevitable when one does any intense work for a long period, but that does not make it healthy. It’s clearer too, why many of the non-teachers I know seem to lack a sense of perpetual harassment: they aren’t teachers.

For those who would like to know, I am well on the road to recovery, though still ‘taking the tablets’. Hopefully in the next couple of months that too will cease, and I will have a better sense of where I stand for the future. Some supply work has been offered, but at this stage I really don’t know whether I want to go back into the shark-infested waters.

For that is what education has become, for those who work in it. I hope not everyone has my experience – only now am I starting to feel real anger, as well as sadness, at what happened to me. Not only were thirty years of good service to a school thrown wantonly onto the scrapheap by a management that appears no longer to set any value whatsoever by its duty of care to its staff, not only were they willing to push me to the brink of breakdown in order to get their cost saving, but I have not even had a letter of thanks for my service, which I think should be a formality, whether they mean it or not.

I suppose I’m fortunate to be in a situation where I could afford to take this breathing space, but it cannot last: somehow the income gap has to be closed by next summer. But I think that the physical improvement that people have noticed is testament to what teaching can do to individuals; it is nothing short of scandalous that the educational Establishment is prepared, despite all the high-minded talk, to treat its employees in this way. I know of about six other people who have left teaching prematurely this summer for related reasons.

Teaching always was more demanding that it perhaps appears to the public – but for it to have reached this extreme is inhumane folly. For a profession that majors on the life-enhancing benefits it delivers, to treat its staff so wantonly is hypocritical, self-defeating and a disgrace. I’ve always felt that schools should be doing what they could to mitigate the impact of stress on teachers; instead some at least, seem intent on magnifying it. It’s a pity it has taken the experience of the past nine months for me to realise the full scale of the matter. This isn’t to advise people not to go into teaching – but realise that you may not realise what it’s doing to you – and take care.

For anyone who enjoys my scrawling, I have started a new, more general blog. It can be found at

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.

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.





Quite some years ago now, I received a minor ticking-off from a senior manager because of the way I had handled a parental concern. It seemed that there had been a genuine error, and during a telephone call, I had accepted as much and apologised. Some weeks later, I had a very satisfactory and entirely productive exchange with the same person at a parents’ evening.

But when the senior manager asked me how I had dealt with the matter, I was told it is inadvisable ever to admit you are wrong or to apologise, least of all to the public. A small point, but one that has stuck with me ever since.

There are innumerable instances where errors are made in all walks of life. At the current time, I can think of pronouncements from government about teacher shortages and the effect of the business-rate rise on small businesses to name just two. In each and every case, someone is wheeled out to state that everything is exactly as intended, and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Except we know it isn’t.

And politicians wonder why people don’t trust them…

It seems to me that there is a major crisis of trust in society, and one of the places where this is most glaring is the levels of accountability being demanded of public servants. I read this as a mechanism for retribution borne of an inability to trust people to make honest decisions – even if they later prove to be wrong. The problem is, when the stakes are raised to extreme levels people become defensive and admitting errors, let alone apologising, becomes the last thing on their minds, even if that would actually be the best resolution.

I don’t blame the manager for that ‘advice’, for all that I think it mistaken. It was quite possibly borne from a bad previous experience. But the job of managers is to manage difficult situations, not just take the (apparently) easy way out.

My school is not unreasonably asking whether I am yet fit to return to work; the answer is no, for many reasons that I cannot control. But one small step would be receiving an admission of the error that caused me finally to snap last November. Yet there is no sign of this happening, even though it would be one fewer obstacle in the way of my possible return.

Readers will have to judge whether to take my word for this, of course – but to most people surrounding the issue, that error is so glaring as to make conceding the fact the obvious solution. And yet it looks as though that won’t happen.

Plenty of people are willing to bemoan the difficulties being faced in society today – and yet fewer seem to realise that by refusing ever to concede an issue, they are only adding fuel to that fire. To err is only human, and the acceptance of such more often than not will defuse issues far more readily than digging heels in. I think it is entirely consistent with a high standard of professionalism to admit errors when they arise – especially when the other party is not ‘big’ enough to do so; it lowers the temperature and is far more honest than pretending we are perfect or closing professional rank. I wonder how may ‘difficult’ situations are exacerbated by such perceptions.

Apologising requires some courage, particularly where there is a worry that such an apparent admittance of weakness may be exploited – but by working on that assumption we tar everyone with the same adversarial brush. In fact, admitting an error is a demonstration of strength which in the vast majority of cases will resolve an issue quickly – and in the long run we are all the worse off for the failure to accept as much.


Living by numbers

For those who thought this is a teaching blog, please indulge me. Documenting my current experience is fully part of being a teacher, and there are lessons to be learned…

I have been using a great app to track my medication and recovery .   It reminds me each day to take the tablets, offers words of encouragement, shares the experiences of others, plots progress every two weeks and will even send the information to my doctor (if only she had time to read it). And if I let it, it will harvest my input to become part of the ‘big data’ being used by pharmaceutical companies to improve their products.

But my talking therapist was sceptical. Her main concern was that it would be too easy to rely on the app to tell me my condition, rather than look inwardly to judge for myself. She is equally sceptical about Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which I was offered this week. I felt rather let down when the telephone interviewer told me he thought I had “typical anxiety”. It doesn’t feel like typical anything. According to my therapist, CBT is popular because it is “skills-based” and measurable. You get worksheets to do for homework. And at the end of six or twelve sessions, they are likely to terminate your course whether you are fully recovered or not, because you will have ‘demonstrated progress’. Accepting that I don’t know what I don’t know about CBT, the parallels with education are unmistakable. We both agreed that a more holistic approach was proving more helpful.

Having been forced to stand back from working life for the past three months, it has become increasingly evident how ‘conditioned’ to circumstance one becomes. Even as someone who feels he is generally fairly self-aware, it came as a shock to start to see just how time-orientated I have been. I was fretting about how long it would take to recover, about the fact that time was being ‘wasted’ doing very little, about the time targets I might be facing for recovery, when my sick leave would run out. And yes, the app is about numbers too, inasmuch as one has to rate how one is feeling on what is known as a PHQ9 test.

I am just too used to living my life against the clock, a constant battle to get things done by yesterday, with the anxiety about what will happen if I mess up. I am conditioned to being constantly told that one’s teaching can never be ‘good enough’, that the only thing to do when one reaches a target is to look for the next. My working life has run in hourly chunks for three decades, governed by the unbending regime of the school bell and timetable. Even home life was affected by the need to be ready next time the school bell rang. Those three decades seem to have shot past almost unnoticed. Today marks another full year on the clock of life; last time I checked I think I was about 28.

I wouldn’t recommend the experience of the last three months to anyone, but in some ways time has slowed right down again. Although some capabilities have been taken away (bizarrely, I can write but I still can’t read much), in others ways I have got my life back.

Each day has been its own entity, rather than just a notch on the count towards the next weekend/holiday/end of academic year. I have had time to stare at the sky, to watch the changing light in our home, to amble around the picturesque town where we live, to spend real time looking at my own (neglected) needs rather than those of others, to keep up with the admittedly depressing world news. And to spend more time in touch with people who have come out of the woodwork to wish me well; people whom I was previously too busy to keep up with, and who were too busy themselves. Some are people I worked with for twenty years or  more, but who somewhat misinterpreted each other for all that time. Our attentions were too busy elsewhere.

The fact that those people care has been the most salutary lesson of all, for someone who has habitually conducted his life in a relatively self-contained way, whose vexations and objections were either internalised or put to the world through this blog. And though I tried hard to resist, it was easy to view the blog too as a numbers exercise, particularly when others urged me to put it about a bit more.

It can’t carry on indefinitely of course – but it has made me think.

But for all this time, I have fundamentally felt that teaching is about life, rather than the other way round – for all that it was a regularly-obscured and rapidly receding belief. But in the cut-and-thrust of regular school life, it has become too easy to believe that we live to teach. Just like we live to consume, or live to be rich, or popular. It’s all about Quantity. Even mental health treatment seems to have become just another set of production targets. The cart is well and truly before the horse; how foolish can we be?

My attention was drawn to something that a recent pupil wrote about me. I think it is from one of the class whose GCSE figures, while demonstrably sound, were not aspirational enough and so tipped me into my current place.

Really nice guy who clearly knows his stuff. Never gave up when I lost motivation for his subject and always willing to answer questions…has a lot of knowledge that he shares with us, not just about Geography… he tries to make us think for the answer instead of giving it to us. Respect that as instead of giving us stuff to just memorize, he is trying to get us to think for ourselves and get us prepared for higher education. Thanks.

I don’t believe in an education system that functions largely to justify its own existence. I certainly don’t believe in the mad, messianic drive to make teachers mortgage themselves to breaking point for the supposed sake of the next generation.  Educating the young is one of the most important of human activities – but it does not have to be the institutionalised destruction that it is now.

Education cannot be something that you ‘just do’ to people; it is about developing the potential for intelligent thought, and that fact needs constant renewal. Exam grades are a human construct; sophisticated brain processes are not. As with my app, numbers can be helpful – but an end in themselves, they are not. The relationship between qualifications and education is no more direct than that between treatment and good mental health: the the former seems not to guarantee the latter, for all that that is where the obsession lies.

The pupil quoted above ‘gets’ what I have tried to do: to deliver a holistic education that while academically rigorous was principally about developing high-level thought and personal compassion. The rest of the system seems utterly to have lost sight of this – and it doesn’t any longer rate those who haven’t.

The tone of this post is perhaps sounding like the start of a recovery – but one in which that student’s words might make an apt professional epitaph.

Time to Talk Day

 Much of what I have written on this blog over the years has as its background the notion of wellbeing. I fail to see how an activity like education can be about anything other than making healthy, balanced, sane and hopefully fulfilling lives for people. Unfortunately, the opposite now seems to be true: the system seems increasingly good at making both teachers and pupils stressed and worse.

In my opinion, this is about as damning an indictment of the current state of play as it is possible to make; I know it is not equally true everywhere, and that (hopefully) nobody sets out to create toxic institutions – but the fact that they have arisen despite this makes it all the more concerning.

My approach to teaching has always stemmed from the wellbeing of those concerned – and as far as I am concerned, that of pupils and teachers is indivisible. Together they make for healthy learning institutions, and without those, education will never be as productive or affirmative as it could be.

It is of course important for pupils to achieve good qualifications – but not important enough to wreck people’s mental health for. Unfortunately, my school is amongst those – I suspect many –  that talks the talk but does not in practice walk the walk. Too many other things to deal with. My years of working there have, on balance, done my health no good at all – and I am no sickly individual. My efforts to raise the issue over the years as both Union and H&S rep. have largely met a brick wall, the knowledge of which undoubtedly helped aggravate my own current condition. More I cannot say for the moment.

Having this morning been signed off for another month by my G.P., I have just discovered the significance of today, Thursday 2nd February. Sometimes such things take on amplified relevance.

If you are able to visit the website and make a pledge, please do.


Stiff Upper Lip

Resilience is an issue close to my heart at the moment. The organisational machinery is currently whirring around me. School is not unreasonably enacting its procedures for long-term absence. My Union is now in action too – but there are limits to what they can do, based on their regulations and no doubt pressure on resources.

Whether I will be able to attend the meeting the school wishes to have with me next week is as yet uncertain. I still find it hard enough to go out just to visit my G.P. without the anxiety symptoms returning.

It is both frustrating and embarrassing – though that is probably only my problem because everyone around is being very supportive. It is very easy to feel ‘pathetic’ right now, but for some reason the anxiety returned last week it is not something I can really control yet. But The System has only so much time for individual weakness.

The Daily Telegraph is reporting research finding that children who attend private schools tend to be more resilient than those who attend state ones.

That doesn’t surprise me, having had contact with both. The interviews within the report attribute this greater maturity to the breadth of experience offered. Very little about the hot-housing for exams that the state sector is besotted with.

Resilience and maturity are surely things that education should develop – but recent experience which seems to have focussed more on running the teachers ragged to ‘deliver’ what the children ‘need’ (or are ‘entitled’ to) is unlikely to develop this, so much as Little Emperor Syndrome. And in the meantime, it is clear what it can do to the teachers.

The state sector is often critical of the independent one, for reasons I largely share. But I suspect this research has hit on something, and I doubt it is only connected with the privileged backgrounds of private school pupils.

I had been feeling that my own resilience leaves a lot to be desired at the moment – until it was pointed out to me that three decades working in a state school is enough to test the resilience of a saint.

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)


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)

Boiling frogs

Many years ago, before becoming a teacher, I worked in a psycho-geriatric hospital. The memory of the pathetic souls therein has never quite left me – but when you see them daily, it is not long before you start to forget quite what ‘normal’ might mean.

They say that if you put a frog in a beaker of water and turn up the heat, it will sit there gradually acclimatising until it boils to death. But if you drop the frog into hot water it will hop out again, safe.

Despite the best efforts of several people, my school has resisted the implementation of a formal stress policy, appearing to argue that only failing teachers get stressed. Other issues will apparently be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. I only have to look around me daily to see that this is not the case – though spending years in the profession could quite possibly lead to boiling frog syndrome. I wonder how many of us take as normal levels of stress that in a wider context might be considered alarming, even threatening. Such a policy risks making people internalise a problem that could be defused by sharing, thus setting up vicious cycles likely to make matters worse and perhaps even self-fulfilling.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my previous workplace, I suppose that like many, I lazily tended to think that mental health issues only affect others. But the more interested I become in this issue, the more it becomes apparent that the effects of stress can be both insidious and oblique. One starts wondering whether boiling frog syndrome is at work on oneself.

As I mentioned some posts ago, I recently had something of a health scare. It has been a roller-coaster summer as a result, but after hospital tests proved almost entirely clear, the most likely diagnosis for the remaining symptoms is a problem in which a significant factor can be, yes – stress.

I will spare readers too much medical detail but who would have guessed that chronic prostatitis may be caused by stress? ( )

And some of the test results it can yield overlap with markers for prostate cancer, so plenty of cause there for further alarm. There is also significant co-morbidity with IBS, something I know all too much about. Both have significant psychological as well as physical effects, not least because of the ongoing pain and discomfort that they can cause. Be all that as it may, I won’t pretend that these events haven’t also affected my state of mind, and with it my personal efficiency and (perhaps) professional effectiveness.

This is but one of a number of indeterminate, sometimes overlapping functional problems that the medical profession is still getting to grips with – but unhealthy stress is, nonetheless, implicated as a contributory factor in many of them. Teachers beware!

I wonder how much those in charge of staff really understand such issues. Deflecting the issue with the claim that stress is necessary is mere displacement activity.

They cannot of course be expected to be medical experts, but the causes of problems for their staff are more numerous and more complex than might at first be apparent; a reasonable duty of care might require an acceptance of this. Given the potential of such conditions to impair people’s effectiveness in the workplace, it need not even be a matter of altruism to adopt a sympathetic stance. When someone says they are stressed, certain images and behaviours perhaps come to mind – but if the foregoing is correct, there are both more numerous and less obvious conditions in which stress may be a factor. Denying that it is anything other than a marker of inadequacy seems like the most philistine of responses, to my mind the mark of a system deploying delusion to avoid home truths.

Longer-standing readers will know of my own career turbulence over the past couple of years, and given that these conditions can be (and have also been) long-standing, they may be more of a factor in the equation than I have suspected. It is certainly true that they have become more intrusive as pressure increased under the current regime, until this recent turn of events meant I could ignore them no longer.

How such issues are approached can make a significant difference: there is not a teacher on the planet whose performance would not be affected by the experience of long-term health difficulties – and they are hardly something one invites.

My experience is that most teachers are not people to shirk their responsibilities, and I include myself in that. Yet a widespread view in schools these days seems to be the opposite: it is implied that any sign of weakness is the teacher’s (deliberate) fault. As was recently pointed out to me, pressures sometimes build up to unhealthy levels without one even being fully aware of what is happening, yet my default setting was to blame myself, very ably assisted by a professional environment which encourages that. There is no guarantee that the demands made of teachers these days are either reasonable or achievable simply because they have a veneer of authority – but it is all too easy for them to set up a destructive train of thought in someone’s head as a result.

I don’t think that I am unusual: at some point, most adults probably experience pressures and conflicts in their lives that affect them adversely, even if they are not aware of it – but  this particular manifestation of the issue nonetheless came as a surprise, and has been the cause of much worry. I have come close enough to the matter, both physically and mentally, to take greater care in future.

Given the value they place on learning, one might hope that schools would be enlightened employers, particularly as the occupation can be identified as a significant cause of stress in the first place. But recent times suggest that this is far from always the case. It is not an easy situation to resolve – but offloading complete responsibility for any eventuality onto the shoulders of individuals is neither fair nor productive. The refusal to accept that wider issues will ever legitimately intrude on the perfect world of the educational zealot is just another expression of the warped perspectives of some in this profession.

And I would recommend to all teachers that they take seriously the impact of stress, even if they think they are immune. It can have some unexpected effects.