Notes from Beyond 1: The end of Time

I’m glad to report that something like normality is being restored here. The drug-induced fug of the last seven months is receding as my dose has been cut and the mind heals itself; there are days when I even enjoy living – something that has been grimly absent since last autumn.

I still feel shocked when I think about the speed of change in my circumstances: this time last year, I was teaching full-time, with no expectation that the next decade would be any different. But a routine has established itself, with which I am not unhappy, and which is perhaps revealing some of life’s greater truths.

I am able to get up when the body is ready, rather than when the alarm clock dictates, eat a breakfast that sets me up so that the hunger pangs of mid-morning don’t happen. I’ve never been a ‘morning person’, so the ability to start the day in a gradual way is a huge improvement.

I have received enough messages from people I value, including some from colleagues of many years ago, for the inevitable crash in self-esteem to start to ease a little. There are enough people complimentary of my work for me to start to be confident again that it was not All My Fault.

And there has been a leap in my ability to think clearly and creatively about my position on all sorts of issues. I am getting involved in local community activities and a number of my dormant interests have revived.

Do I miss School? Very little, actually. The company of my colleagues defintely, and the better type of relations with the pupils too. But most definitely not the humourless grind of targets, scrutiny and compliance that the job has become. I don’t miss the regular assault on my better judgement from people whom, I honestly felt, sometimes had less insight and fewer principles than I – nor the consequent sense of having to live my life to someone else’s agenda.

But perhaps most bizarre is the sense of fluidity to one’s time. Having lived my entire life to the drum-beat of the academic year, having known precisely where one was and how things were progressing by the hourly, weekly and termly pulse of that system, it is quite disorientating not to have that. I even almost failed to notice that it was recently Half Term. But equally, it is lovely to be able to appreciate the onset of summer, rather than wishing it away for holidays that only begin when it is half-passed. I generally consider myself fairly self-aware, but only now is it becoming clear just how institutionalised a life in teaching had made me.

I am concerned that as time progresses, I may have less and less worth adding to the education debate. But that may be no bad thing – from a greater distance, it begins to look increasingly like a talking-shop whose main effect is to over-complicate what is still a fairly simple process. Of course, when it’s your daily life, perspectives are different – but I still feel that education is being over-complicated, and for all the wrong reasons.

I’m very fortunate that there no immediate need to seek new employment, and much of the above experience may seem to have little relevance for those who still need to earn a crust. But if there is one thing it is this:

The rat-race that consumes teachers and gobbles up children ever younger, is not only unnecessary but also counter-productive. Education should be about life, not the reverse. The ridiculous amount of pressure being applied to all concerned both risks crowding out the very things needed to think and learn effectively – time. It is very noticeable how much easier it is to think creatively and productively without the pressures of The System bearing down and obliterating everything else.

The pedestal upon which ‘Learning’ is put by so many talking heads is not authentic. In their world, subjects are simply the means to exam passes and league-table positions. They are the passport to a world of often-subservient, deskilled employment from which too often the main beneficiaries are the bosses. And they are the opening for those same people to throw you on the scrap-heap when they have had enough of you. Not a noble, higher aim in sight.

It is so much easier to bloom personally and intellectually when life is not one continuous, needless race against time.

Where have all the teachers gone?

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

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

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

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

800px-Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs_svg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will they ever learn?

Know your enemy

 

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

What causes job burnout?

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

Who is at risk of job burnout?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Feeling nervous?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking Point

So I must now add myself to the list of those whose mental (and physical) health has been adversely affected by their work. To be fair, there were other pressures too, but the advice being received is that long-term stress in the workplace is probably the root cause.

In the way of these things, recent encounters have revealed that several neighbours and acquaintances have had similar experiences, all except one of whom worked in the public sector. I have also heard of several others who have got out because the demands were just too much. In my own case, I don’t yet feel capable of making a rational decision about the way forward.

There will always be difficult work to be done in society, and we should be thankful that there are people prepared to do it. But it seems that in between the One Percent at one extreme, and the Just-About-Managings at the other, there is a significant number of people in public service whose own welfare is being damaged by a system that has little regard for the impact of its demands.

They are the ones coping with the consequences of both Austerity and increasing demands from public and politicians for ever longer hours and better service. It is all very well ‘demanding’ world-class services, but it is not acceptable that they should come on the cheap and at the deep expense of those who do their best to deliver them. One has to be realistic about what is possible.

It needs to be understood that “breaking point” is not mere hyperbole.

 

Season’s Greetings.

I would like to thank the people who have sent their good wishes during my recent difficulties. I have not yet returned to work, and am unlikely to do so early in January either. That said, progress albeit slow, is being made to get back to some kind of normality.

This system that we now have – whatever its other rights and wrongs – sometimes exerts just too much pressure on those it expects to ‘deliver’. Those who can influence such things would do well to take note.

I’m not quite sure what the future holds at present: I had no intention of stopping teaching at this stage, but at present the demands of holding down a full-on teaching timetable seem a long way away. Some people are suggesting that now might be the time to do something else.

But all that is a decision that doesn’t need to be made yet.

In the meantime, Season’s Greetings to all readers of my blog.

T.P.

 

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.

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? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronic_prostatitis/chronic_pelvic_pain_syndrome )

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.

Charley says…

Charley_says

I read with sadness this week’s Guardian’s Secret Teacher, written by a soon-to-be ex-teacher who, after a couple of years has realised that an aspiration simply to teach one’s subject is no longer sufficient. I feel the loss to the profession of one who may well have been or become a fine teacher – rejected by a professional monomania that cannot tolerate diversity of intent, and which places almost anything above a simple love of one’s subject. Education has become just too technocratic for its own good.

It’s difficult to pin-point any moment when an intellectual inclination ceased to be the principal asset of a would-be teacher, but there has nonetheless been clear shift in emphasis in the past few decades. Both my parents taught, but while there was a clear pastoral element to their work, their principal focus was always ‘their subject’. Contrast that with the comment I shall never forget (for the wrong reasons) when on the first morning of my own P.G.C.E., I was told, “If ever asked what you teach, the answer is, “Children””.

I’ve discussed the semantic difficulties of that statement before, but it also portrays the extent to which a certain mindset has dominated the teaching profession, no doubt egged-on by the politicians and educational theorists  whose comfortable careers depended on grandiose ideas of social change. Just to want to teach one’s subject was no longer enough, when the purpose of education had become something between a velvet social revolution and life-coaching for the masses. And since then have been added the institutionalised performance pressures that mean it’s no longer sufficient just to try to change people’s lives; anything short of a fully measurable metamorphosis is just not acceptable.

As Secret Teacher concedes, it’s hard to argue that schools should have no concern at all for the wider wellbeing of their pupils – but that’s rather different from the full-on social engineering that we’re meant to engage in today with the supposed aim of ‘preparing pupils for life’. With the perennial debate about sex education again in the headlines, it’s clear that some things probably do need to be specifically taught, if only because one cannot rely on all parents to do so themselves. But that position also represents the top of a slippery slope whereby there is no end to the number of socially well-meaning interventions schools should make to compensate for supposed parental or wider societal failures.

The education system has hoisted itself well and truly on this petard. Over the years, it has never stood up to those arguing that it should ‘teach’ this, that or the other; to do so would have been to admit its impotence, or at least insignificance as the guarantor of the social Good. The result has been the ceaseless expectation that teachers will have no limits to what they can or will do for their pupils, whether academically or otherwise.

I’ve done my share of ‘social education’ over the years, having been rather inexpertly involved in careers education, First Aid and more; I’ve also spent hours sitting on various box-ticking committees whose job it was to transform, for example, children’s eating habits – but whose more mundane (but one suspects actually more desired) achievement was to add another accreditation-mark to the foot of the school’s letter-paper.

My conclusion is that such lessons are always going to be treated with time-honoured scepticism by many pupils; while there may be some who do gain directly (and they may not always be visible), the majority of young people do not take lightly to such worthiness. I suspect they see it as school going beyond its remit, and probably justifiably so – and they are adept at separating general discussions from anything that might apply directly to themselves. This is only compounded by the fact that it is extremely difficult to make such lessons anything other than nebulous.

While there has always been a place for a guiding word from an adult, in general such things cannot be overtly taught. Here is fine example of the need for a more oblique approach – and more so of the perception of the need for such; the transmission of values and attitudes is rarely effective when stipulated directly even by parents, let alone teachers. These are things which are assimilated, learned from other people’s ongoing example, though this is not to deny the need for intervention when actual transgression occurs. In general, a more helpful way is via the ethos of a school, and the  behaviour  modelled by those who lead and work in it. The error is then doubled by judging teachers and schools on the ‘outcomes’. In fact, it is equally possible that all we are doing is antagonising young people, perhaps even awakening their natural rebelliousness, or worse: it is known that prisons are a breeding ground for criminal technique…

Where more is needed, a pithy five-minute discussion within normal lessons can be productive, assisted by the fact that the matter in question tends to arise naturally, in a non self-conscious manner. This is a technique I have used to advantage on many occasions, and I have found that it tends to command more attention than any enforced programme of worthiness. It does, however, require sufficient flexibility in lesson –planning to make such digressions acceptable – and a teaching body sufficiently adept as to embrace issues as and when they arise.

This is a fine example of the own-goal typical of over-controlled education. While its intent may be valid, its desire to standardise, specify and measure has done more harm than good. The most meaningful way of embedding ‘desirable’ values in pupils is by having teachers who personify them; instead we have an imposed, extrinsic, corporate view of correctness. It has directed such things to be delivered in a way that almost guarantees resistance from many young people – and then it wonders why it fails to make an impact.

Yet it has become almost the dominant view that education is primarily about life-skills and life-chances. Well, in one sense, it always was – but not in the overt way that believes it can control both the inputs and the outcomes. The consequence, of course, has been ever-greater demands on teachers, backed with the emotional blackmail that if one drew a line then one was letting one’s pupils down.

Secret Teacher was absolutely right to draw closer limits to their aspirations – and not unreasonable to be seeking a degree of intellectual fulfilment as a motive for their work. That model also represents a more realistic and sustainable ambition for what one might expect of a typical teacher. It is especially regrettable that such intellectual fulfilment is now non grata and that the only acceptable motives derive from ‘welfare’.

Charley says… “Don’t go into teaching if you simply love your subject.” It’s a pity that we have lost this one to the profession as a result.

 

 “Charley says” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Charley_says.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Charley_says.jpg

Shall I leave now?

Our new(ish) Education Secretary seems to have ruffled many feathers with her recent comment that we should be able to judge the respective worth of academic subjects by the eventual earning power of the recipients. I was appalled at this, and a bit of me suspects that even her not-much-missed predecessor would never have come out with something quite this crass. If I were to let it bother me, I could be very indignant indeed that the person in charge of our education system sought to devalue my own achievement purely because it has led to only relatively moderate earnings. Perhaps she would rather I left teaching and became a banker?

Daisy Christodoulou posted an eloquent and elegant objection to this hyper-materialisation of education’s aims here, pointing out that the perception of education as an economic tool is relatively recent, and that the cultural, societal and even political applications of education predate it by a long way. She perceptively observed that education was seen to have a desirable purpose long before people became as wealth-obsessed as they arguably are today.

Whatever industrialists and politicians might think, the actual effect of education can only ever be personal. Whatever learning does to one’s brain is ultimately of no direct relevance to anyone other than the individual concerned; that is why education remains fundamentally a cultural attribute. While wider society might reasonably be interested in who can do what, and the individual, too, might seek wider validation of their efforts, that effect remains entirely cerebral. Trying to misdirect it for economic – or any other – specific purpose can only result in the devaluation of its wider benefits.

As Lynne Taylor-Gooby, the principal of The Royal School, Haslemere wrote in The Independent,

“…the well-stocked mind [is] a virtue in its own right and… to be curious creative and spiritually aware [are] good things”.

This is a sentiment that I endorse wholeheartedly, and it is a major reason why I get out of bed on dark winter mornings. It ought to be possible for politicians (and others) to accept this on its own terms as a key component of a good society. This is about giving whatever meaning to individual lives that their owners later seek, and if some apparently ‘educated’ people really are insufficiently reflective to appreciate this, one is forced to doubt whether they really are very educated after all.

Some individuals may indeed choose to deploy their intellect for the single-minded pursuit of material wealth, but that choice is still the product of individual reasoning. So long as it does not involve the exploitation of others, it is hard to object, though one might hope that wider reflection would lead to a more considered understanding of the limitations of such a life – and also galvanise the potentially-exploited to resist their guile.

Like all teachers, I want my pupils to “succeed” – and for all the semantic arguments over precisely what this means, I think it is still a noble sentiment. For children’s consumption, we probably don’t need to engage too much in the philosophy, but what concerns me is that success is now only defined in terms of hard cash – as Ms. Morgan effectively suggested last week.

At its most extreme, applying this philosophy to education risks accelerating something that already needs greater investigation – the possibility that schooling (not Education, note) is simply making it easier for those who can to pull ever further away from the rest of society. It’s not as though there’s no evidence that that is happening…

I most definitely went into education to help people realise their potential, and there is always going to be a tension between that and the (in)equality of the outcomes. But I did not go into it believing that the only, or even most important, indicator of that is their earning capacity. While competition can be healthy, it does not by any means suit everyone and can easily become an obsession in itself. The notion that education is about gratuitously beating the opposition (and amorally either  ‘playing the game’  or ‘gaming the play’ in order to do so) is alien to me – and yet it seems to be the principal premise behind the values I see being expressed in school every day.

My own objective could not be more different. The  aggregate benefit of education to society can only be achieved by the success of each individual’s educational experience on its own terms. I see my role as firstly the development of children’s intellect and secondly, the transmission of one particular field of knowledge. What they do with it in later life is their concern, though I hope it will contribute to both an individually fulfilled life and one that contributes to the wider wellbeing of society. Narrowing this remit to economic supremacism devalues many of the other attributes needed for both of the above.

Securing a comfortable material quality of life is not a reprehensible aim – but it is diminished if not set in a more widely sustainable social and psychological context. I have deep reservations about the worthy teaching of ‘life skills’ as it reduces the development of personal qualities to just another external fix. The best way to promote enlightened thinking and behaviour is to equip people with the perspective to think it through for themselves – and this comes through the long-term development of thoughtfulness. This is not about creating champions (financial or otherwise) but about the development of the general fabric of society and its everyday quality of life. It is not about grit, so much as a sense of realism and proportionate expectation, of balancing one’s own needs with those of others. It is about giving people the ability and dignity to make their own considered life-choices rather than foisting political or economic ones upon them. There is a far greater total benefit to be had from that, than the production of the occasional winner – and thousands of also-rans.

A successfully educated person is one who can bring that perspective to bear on any aspect of life that they need or choose. Many thoughtful people realise that a widely well-lived life may even require the deliberate rejection of highly materialistic values. Arguably, it is also those academic disciplines that have a less direct line to high earnings that do most to promote such socially-responsible views. Yet by Morgan’s criteria, these people and their education count for little.

Success in this context refers as much to the quality of one’s relationships, one’s participation in wider society, the fulfilling use of one’s time, and a belief in one’s ability actively to influence these things, as it does to the size of one’s tax bill.  Shall I leave now?