Peter Whitton

On 2nd August, one of the inspirational teachers of my life passed away. Peter Whitton will not be known to a wider public, and he always utterly played down the only public connection he had – the unlikely fact that he was the cousin of glam-rock star Alvin Stardust.

Before I knew him, Peter was a colleague and friend of my father at the Boys’ Grammar School that I later attended; Peter’s wife Ann was similarly a colleague of my mother at the town’s Girls’ Grammar School. I remember our calls to the Whittons’ rather chaotic ex-farmhouse as a very young boy while my both my mother and Ann were on maternity leave.

Later, Peter taught me Classical Studies and then ‘O’ Level Latin; having drained myself slogging through French grammar, I never really repeated the task with Latin, and was never one of his best pupils. But I remember his lessons with great fondness, not only for his academic rigour, but for his gentle humanity and willingness to treat his pupils as proto-adults who just happened to be discussing matters of great import. Despite his refined intellect, he was always extremely direct and down to earth, and not above sharing a smutty (but clever) joke or shaggy-dog story with us. We also admired the fact that he was utterly his own man, and a known maverick on the teaching staff.

He was born in East London in the early Thirties, and his experience of the War left him with pacifist sympathies for the rest of his life. He was deeply affected by human suffering, and one on occasion he drove my wife and me a considerable distance from his latter-day home in a remote part of the Limousin to see the only war memorial in France that commemorates conscientious objectors.

Peter was recommended for Cambridge but being from a poor home was not able to afford the social trappings required for entry in those days, and so went to London University. He moved to Somerset in the 1960s, where he made our family’s acquaintance.

He was a big man in every sense of the word; he appeared older than he evidently was to us boys on account of having lost his hair early – but he then seemed scarcely to age at all into his eighties. He was always a great Francophile, and I also owe my ability in French to the individual tutoring he gave me to ‘O’ Level – even though my dominant memory is gasping for air amidst the garlic fumes of his close presence…

When he moved to France he lived in what for a while were frankly primitive conditions in an old farmhouse near Limoges, and was in his element tending his allotment or chopping trees in his wood. He converted a barn into a workshop and was rarely happier than when turning out furniture.

We first visited him there in the scorching summer of 2003, and remember sitting for long hours over lunch in his garden. By then he was almost more French than the French; his face ruddy from rather too much pastis, he was totally integrated into the local community, his French fluent as a native’s and even his appearance in his habitual serge-de-Nimes dungarees only lacked a string of onions to make the picture complete. And yet he never appeared contrived; he was not enacting some middle-class Anglo-French dream. This was just the way he wanted to live. Equally, he had the knack of bringing in an armful of lettuce from his plot, tearing it up, flinging on oil and vinegar, bringing some paper-wrapped cheese from the depths of the ‘fridge – and producing an utterly delicious lunch.

We saw him again at my father’s home in Somerset; being a teacher’s son produces some rather surreal moments, such as this one, when as teacher myself I witnessed the reunion of several of may father’s colleagues, all my former teachers in our living room. Peter immediately fell into an in-depth discussion of Middle Eastern geo-politics with my old history teacher in a way I doubt many present-day teachers could even manage; such was the unassuming learnedness of such people.

We last visited Peter and Ann two summers ago, by which time Peter had fought off four bouts of cancer. He seemed general well, but his age was beginning to tell. He was still at the woodwork and wine, though.

Peter started (and remained) my father’s friend; he then became my teacher and tutor and ended up as my friend too. As so often it took the benefit of hindsight to appreciate his influence as a role-model, but this is something all my old school friends are agreed upon. With the passage of time, I also came to realise that he was one of the people upon whom I modelled my own teaching persona.

We often talked about teaching; he was distressed to hear what the British education system has become; his repeated response was simply, “But where’s the human touch?” I learned more from the likes of Peter about what it means to be a teacher, than any present-day corporate professional training session will ever even appreciate. And I think that is a fitting epitaph to a fine man.

PeterSummer 2003, Murat, France.

Death by Management

This is a cross-post from my new general-interest blog which can be found at https://sprezzatura.blog

I’ve been dabbling on the fringes of local democracy. The small town where I live is noted for its outstanding heritage and excellent quality of life, but like many such places, it presently faces multiple challenges from various forms of development that are closing in. In the case of housing, the big builders frequently target such places because homes sell quickly there for a premium. But in the process, they very often ruin what was attractive in the first place.

Neighbourhood plans were a political initiative to give at least a semblance of local self-determination – it depends on how cynical you want to be. But my impression is that these activities are suffering from the same malaise that seems to afflict all of modern life – over-management.

I will hasten to say that I am sure those heading in this direction mean only well; it is just that for many people, professional life has become about little more than committee meetings. It seems that nothing in modern organisations can move without a pile of policy objectives, dozens of meetings and tome of paperwork.

There are some people who glory in all of this – and I have met my fair share of professional committee-sitters in my time. The Healthy Schools Initiative was one; I spent a fair amount of time in meetings with people who seemed far more concerned with ticking boxes, writing policies and acquiring accreditation logos than actually effecting real change. And for all that the logos were indeed acquired, very little of real use actually changed. Certainly nothing that justified all the expensive professional hours spent in those meetings.

If local democracy is to mean anything, be it in schools or entire communities, it is surely about giving people the ability to make a real impact on the places where they live and work. That should not require dozens of sub-committees and expensive consultants and analysts. And when I put some practical ideas forward, it seemed as though, being ‘projects’ – as opposed to policies – they have to go in the box marked ‘aspirational’, for attention only at some ill-defined moment in the far future.

The cynic in me says that death-by-management is a product of a society that struggles to create enough ‘real’ jobs for its people. Equally, I know that communal activities do need to be co-ordinated, money accounted for, and democracy observed. Good managers facilitate that. But on that last point, the triumph of the professional committee-member is not democratic, for it excludes a whole tranche of people who do not operate in that way.

Furthermore, such hidebound procedure strangles the ability of the doers to operate in their own, possibly rather esoteric ways; policy by definition does not cope easily with diversity. Bureaucracy and committee work is not known for its creativity and imagination, and history is littered with influential people who revolutionised their fields precisely by not following the rules.

Over-management kills stone dead the ability of such people actually to bring about real, on-the-ground improvements.

Declining – if not falling. Part 2.

I think it was the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who, some days ago, said something like, “Selective education does not promote social mobility and therefore it has no part in the British education system.” (my emphasis).

It could not be clearer: the Labour Party sees education primarily as a form of overt social engineering. But the Conservatives are saying exactly the same thing, though they couch it in terms of individual opportunity, of course.

I’m not going to disagree with people trying to optimise their time on this planet – but as the years have passed and education policy has blown this way and that, I have had a growing sense that the whole thing is utterly, profoundly mistaken in its approach. It is at risk of becoming little more than a huge waste of effort. This blog, and my (still unpublished) book were in part an effort to reconcile this, both for my own professional sanity and partly because I genuinely believe that something fundamental needs to shift in the tectonic plates of the British political/social/education systems.

Education works – of that there is little doubt. It permits people to improve their diet and health, to form productive relationships, to reduce their family size, to follow complex procedures, to make more rational decisions and to improve their material conditions. Largely forgotten to policy-makers, it also opens the wonders of human culture and knowledge, and it may encourage people to act more responsibly towards the planet. It can tip the balance of life from suffering to joy. But it is not a panacea.

It does not do those things because of bits of paper with certain letters on them – nor because of green pens or triple-marking. Its success is not measured by league table positions, nor by the size of managers’ salaries. I don’t think it really even does those things because of teachers’ choice of methods. And it certainly does not do it because lessons danced to any particular drum-beat of “progress” in a set amount of time. All of these things are nothing more than the immature preoccupations of an introspective and surprisingly insecure profession.

I don’t think it even really does it because of the specific things that children are taught. It is true that some people develop genuine interests or skills as a direct result of their schooling, but they are probably a minority. It is also true that important information can be passed on – though it’s debatable how much of it is ever retained, let alone acted upon given children’s inherent immaturity. It is pretty certainly not true that people’s attitudes change deeply because of soul-searching during PSHE lessons or the like; in my experience, moralising in schools – even when it contains practical information – often does little more than antagonise.

The problem is, education is nothing like as predictable as so many want it to be. For a start, its societal benefits are primarily trans-generational. There are plenty who benefit from it as expected – but there are also the widely-publicised cases of people who ‘did well’ only ever having been to the School of Hard Knocks.  I know several cases where access to the best education seems to have made little difference and has arguably not prevented those people from heading in the other direction down the socio-economic scale. More schooling does not automatically lead to better lives.

This is why it is so mistaken to require schools to be social engineers – the issues that really hinder life outcomes run at a deeper and less visible level, and often establish at an earlier age, than we can control. There is only so much that fire-fighting by teachers can achieve. My own educational progress was not mostly down to the quality of the schools or teachers, so much as my coming from a home that established appropriate values to begin with.

I don’t think I have experienced any great social mobility in my life – but my education has nonetheless helped me to access many fields that are a source of perpetual fascination and reward. It has also given me a perspective about to relate to wider society. I am about to be jobless – but education will provide the resilience to keep me interested in life in the interim. It was not achieved through targets – the nearest thing we had to those in the 1970s were firmly in the ‘demotivating’ camp; it was achieved purely and simply through awakening the intellect.

In some ways education’s success has been its own failure:  by encouraging those who can to capitalise on their skills – while politicians were busy removing the social restraint that used to accompany overt greed – we have facilitated the opening of the inequality gap that now troubles so many. And what of those left behind? Few of the social engineers have much at all to say about those who just don’t bother: it’s another expression of the ‘everyone a winner’ syndrome.

The causes of inequality in Britain run far deeper than anything that education alone can tackle. The current view starts from the questionable assumption that the present system does not already allow those who will to flourish. It is about class envy and replacing one elite with another. It assumes that those who fail do so for reasons beyond their control – which real-life examples repeatedly show to be only partly the case.

I’m not suggesting that undeserved privilege does not exist nor that it shouldn’t be tackled – but a better way would be to remove the concept of social hierarchy – whether defined by money or anything else – rather than simply equip a different group of people to profit at others’ expense. This might sound utopian – but my impression is that the relative classlessness of many continental countries is one of the reasons this issue does not trouble them as severely as it does us.

We may achieve isolated wins, but most of the desire to push people up the hierarchy is worthy but pointless hope. The failure of even many educators to appreciate that it is far more subtle and complex than that is the greatest educational  failure of all.

Teachers would be far better doing what they really can – awakening individual intellects – and then leaving them to make what hopefully-enlightened sense of the world they will. It is what I tried to do as a teacher; isn’t that enough?

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.

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.

 

Enemy of the People

“It’s all for the children”. In my experience, people enter teaching for a variety of reasons. Yet the single, most over-worked creed to which all teachers are expected to subscribe is this.

One might well ask how working with children can be for anything but their benefit. But the problem, as with so many things in education, is knowing what that ‘benefit’ actually is. What about educating children for the benefit of everyone else – so we don’t have antisocial little savages in our midst?

‘For the children’ seems to be uttered most often by those who favour child-centred approaches and by those who manage schools; in both cases it is appropriated both to justify certain orthodoxies and debunk others.

The former seem to believe that allowing children free rein to decide (or dictate?) their own learning is the most benign approach. The latter seem to think that children’s benefit is synonymous with their schools’ positions in the league tables – and spend least of their daily schedule in contact with living, breathing young people.

Somewhere in the middle are those who advocate a ‘tough love’ approach – to which traditionalist teachers (unfairly in my view) seem to have been attached.

The same phrase is also appropriated by the evangelists who “absolutely love working with children” and who are daily “thrilled” when children “connect” with a new piece of understanding. Well, I have some sympathy, but I think such people probably need to grow up.

As with much evangelism, the message is over-simplified, and not as altruistic as it claims. As fully-functioning adults, teachers ought to have more complex insight and motives. While a genuine pleasure in working with young people is clearly desirable, the over-emotional attachment of a teacher to their pupils seems to be more a matter of surrogate parenthood or their own kidulthood than anything more rational – and professionally rather suspect.

In my own case, the pleasure of genuinely helping people is real enough. Working with children can be very rewarding; some of them I actively come to like. But plenty more are indifferent, frustrating, or downright unpleasant. I try not to conflate help with either permissiveness or helicopter teacher-ing. And I feel distinctly uneasy about claiming to know what is inalienably ‘best’ for other sovereign (if immature) individuals whom I see for only a small proportion of their lives, and in highly contrived circumstances at that.

At least as important to me are the wider, less personal and often unspoken aspects of ‘benefit’. These include the perpetuation of a stable civil society – which requires people to both understand and actively subscribe to a social contract. It also involves the transmission, preservation, accessing and furthering of human intellectual and cultural capital. And it involves striking some kind of balance that allows each individual to grow into a responsible, well-balanced person, capable both of living a fulfilled life of their own and of contributing to the same in a societal sense. Those things are at least as much part of every individual’s interest as anything more selfish; this might be particularly apparent in a world that is as unstable as it currently seems.

Part of that balance is understanding the inevitable trade-off between rights and responsibilities, between custodianship and dominion. That is an exceptionally difficult thing to achieve, let alone develop in others – and all the more so to do in a consensual rather than coercive or confrontational way.

The indulgent culture of modern schools does not manage it. I’m afraid that the education system is well and truly infected with the Cult of the Individual – and why would it not be when the rest of society (ably assisted by the commercial sector) – is so? I do not see promoting education solely as a ‘challenge’ that pits the individual against society, that portrays it as a competition to extract the most (power/money)  for oneself, genuinely serves people either individually or collectively.

Likewise, a system that hypes schools’ own rivalries, or that pretends that classroom teachers can also have stellar careers is insidious. It plays to the self-interest that too often wins out over the interest of the Whole.

The cult of the individual also leads to perverse outcomes. Those who manage schools supposedly in the interests of the children most often absent themselves from contact with those same children. They become apparatchiks of a system whose functioning often works against the complex benefits discussed above. Balancing budgets, surviving Ofsted, hitting performance targets all become more important than individuals’ education or even wellbeing – individuals who become little more than numbers on a spreadsheet. ‘The Children’ simply become an abstract.

Such depersonalisation in turn leads to the culture that drives children and their teachers to the edge of mental illness in order to meet (literally) inhuman targets. It leads to the removal of teachers who might actually understand the complexities of education, who haven’t forgotten that successful teaching is a constant tightrope-walk between multiple conflicting needs, and who appreciate that such false-dichotomy thinking leads to poor conclusions about ‘benefit’ and how to achieve it.

I have even heard it said by a senior manager that no teacher is better than a ‘bad’ (or in my own current case possibly mad) teacher. I wonder if my pupils, who have not had a regular teacher for four months now, would agree.

The worst outcome of this mentality is the myopia that can only see ‘benefit’ in the simplest, most immediate and most selfish of forms. That is the antithesis of successful education – and the fact that there is so much of it around may say something about our success to date. Such myopia is responsible for the inability to appreciate multiple perspectives, or to compromise in the name of consensus. And it is the myopia that falsely labels anyone who tries to temper rather than indulge such selfishness as an Enemy of the People.

 

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.

 

 

 

Sorry!

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 http://www.iodine.com/start .   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.