Crying wolf

Some days ago, I had a gentle professional disagreement with a former colleague. There is a movement to teach mental health issues in U.K. schools; I am sceptical about its value.

Unfortunately, the reaction to most problems in the U.K. (if not the wider world) is to spill more words than actions, in particular from the mouths of politicians and subsequently in classrooms. Having taught various pastoral issues in my time, I came to the view that while the intentions may be worthy, the effects of bringing such things formally into the classroom is of very limited effect.

Children may be immature human beings, but by their teenage years they are entirely capable of being or (becoming) cynical, and they tend to see efforts to direct their opinions in overt ways as unwanted moralising. This approach simply risks placing the issue on the wrong side of the difficult divide that many perceive between the ‘unreal’ world of the classroom and the events of their everyday lives; the very act of bringing something formally into a classroom seems to remove it from ‘real life’ in the eyes of many pupils. I have seen too many children earnestly discuss an issue in a lesson, only to leave and immediately perpetuate the problem; I don’t think this is a failure of the teaching so much as a quirk of human nature. The problem is, any discussion of such matters can only generalise, and this risks diminishing the fraught nature of the real experience.

As Graeme Nuttall wrote in The Hidden Lives of Learners[i], teachers only ever see a small part of children’s lives, and there is a huge professional temptation to believe that they have more influence over the rest than they actually do. Undoubtedly, raising awareness of mental health issues may have a place – but there is a difference between discussing social attitudes and the experience itself. Encouraging children not to stigmatise those with mental health issues may yield a long-term change in social attitudes – which I think is underway in any case – and helping children to understand how bullying can provoke such problems may also be helpful. I do rather suspect, though, that those most prone to becoming bullies won’t care less anyway.

As for teaching mental health itself: can such issues be ‘taught’? I think not. The purpose of education is the acquisition of a capability for structured thought; the problem with mental health is that is does not obey such rules. Attempting to teach people self-diagnosis may again be worthy, but I think it is misguided and even potentially dangerous. Even as an aware and thoughtful adult, I failed to recognise my own difficulties for what they were, and I am not convinced that more ‘awareness’ would have made any difference. (After all, I have worked in a psychiatric hospital in the past, and am well aware of what mental illness looks like from the outside). It may be dangerous in the sense of encouraging children to ‘cry wolf’ with all the behavioural and support difficulties that can cause, amongst which genuine cases may get lost.

As for teaching people what mental illness is like, this is utterly misguided. I’m not sure it is even possible to teach what physical illness is like, except in a clinical sense, and that may not be of great use for those coping with it. Having now been on the ‘inside’, I simply do not see how a teacher could begin to describe what it is like to be the one inside that head. Even with insider experience, I am not certain I could do it either: most of the experience either literally defies words, or is so irrational as to make no sense when described.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to give something a slick ‘rebranding’ than actually do something fundamental about a problem. I saw this writ large having been involved with the Healthy Schools initiative, where many people spent expensive time ticking boxes and gaining accreditations – that still made precious little difference to what went in children’s mouths.

I fear the same will occur here – but from the perspective of those in charge, the requisite boxes will have been ticked even if little really changes.

What would be far more successful would be to lead by example. As I said, actions speak louder than words; there is evidence that even infants are more influenced by what they see than anything else[ii]. The best way to influence what children eat is to set them a good example; the same goes for any other aspect of behaviour, even if the occasional other intervention may also be necessary.

The best way to tackle the growth in reported mental health issues is to stop causing them (and in that applies to the teachers’ experiences too). The irony of this seems to have gone largely unnoticed: from my experience the biggest single cause of stress in schools is the over-inflated stakes that the results-obsessed education system itself imposes on its employees and clientele alike. The politicians’ recent pronouncements have been strikingly short of comment on this, let alone teacher mental health, even in the sense it might have a knock-on effect to their pupils.

The system caused the problems; it now feels that it needs to address them. It could start by aiming the water at the flame rather than the smoke.

[i] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Hidden-Lives-Learners-Graham-Nuthall/dp/1877398241

 

[ii] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/200910/your-actions-affect-what-others-do-even-when-those-others-are-infants

 

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Notes from beyond 3 – Wish you were here?

Mixed feelings at a time when I am aware the school holidays are coming to a close; I will try not to gloat when I remind you that mine continue ad infinitum – albeit with the remnants of a very uncomfortable head to deal with… I am slightly apprehensive about the coming watershed, when all my former colleagues return to work, and I don’t. There is also the small matter of a financial brick wall lurking in the latter part of next spring…

When I was a child, the summer holidays seemed to go on forever; this year it is particularly noticeable that it was only five minutes ago that they were beginning… So having done my gloating, I will observe that in a sense I have had no holiday at all. While others were abroad, I am not yet in a position to follow suit, even though we’ve had a few nice days out locally. What’s more, my entire personal calendar, by which the pulse of life’s routine was measured ever since I was three, has been abolished – including the holiday feeling. It’s strangely disorientating.

On the increasing number of better days, I’ve been exploring my options. The good news is, it looks very much as though my second book (and first on teaching) has found a willing publisher – though I’m not counting my chickens. More details in due course, if they become warranted. Book number three, on something entirely different, is also underway.

I have also been dabbling in local politics, again something for which I didn’t have time ‘before’. People keep telling me how many transferrable skills teachers have, though I must admit I was sceptical. But it seems that this is actually a case of unconscious competence: without divulging too much, those skills do seem to have come to the fore. I am beginning to think that they may not even be fully visible to teachers themselves, as they are not quite the ‘usual suspects’:

  1. The ability to be self-sufficient. Having seen the extent to which many people rely on teams and committees to move forward – and how sluggish this can be – one of the teacher’s strengths comes from their autonomous ability to get things done. From necessity, teachers need not to rely overly on others – they don’t have secretaries and sub-committees and minions to delegate to: they just do stuff. That is a great strength.
  2. Communication. I managed to cause a long-running debate on the local community’s Facebook page; it ran for several days. I did what any teacher does naturally, and tried to balance the discussion, ask the dissenters to elaborate and explain what they would prefer, etc. etc. As a result, several unexpected plaudits have come my way. I received similar when I worked as public-facing volunteer on a steam railway some years ago – just for doing what came naturally as a teacher. It clearly is a rarer – and more appreciated – skill than I thought.

A while ago my former school went through a tough patch; I gently fished my tutor group for their thoughts. One said, “It’s hardly surprising we’re all fed up when half the teachers seem as though they don’t want to be here either!” They were right, and it was particularly saddening in a school that used to be a relatively happy and motivated place; I’ll leave you to figure out what had changed.

But it’s clear that teachers’ soft skills have more impact than perhaps they appreciate – so don’t forget to have a smile on your face and a song in your voice when you return in the coming weeks; I’ll have one there for you!!!

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.

Sense from Spielman

Some surprisingly enlightened words from Amanda Spielman, the new head of Ofsted in the last few days. She has observed that education is about more than passing exams, and that the qualitative cultural experiences of, for example hearing or performing classical music should not be foregone in a race for exam passes. But that is exactly what is happening.

She has said that Ofsted may need to start looking ‘under the bonnet’ of the headline figures a school provides, to see how they were arrived at. I am not confident she will like what she sees.

Spielman has also accepted that the current situation has been reached due to the pressures of numerical accountability on schools, noting that few people, given such targets will be prepared to risk a fall for the sake of principle. She is right – and likewise about the effect on children’s education, which has been to destroy the enlightening experience it should be and replace it with a conveyor belt.

The trouble is, the present system has too much invested in its current mechanisms; while it is true that managements have downward pressures on them, my experience suggests that some at least were all too assiduous in the way they embraced the exam-factory culture. The single biggest influence on educational culture is school-level management, and instead of standing up for educational principle, some at least sold their souls for the sake of institutional hubris. The alternative reading, that the system has actually valued intellectual philistinism so much as to allow it to come to rule the system, is worse. I don’t see these people about to execute a skidding U-turn in a way that would only undermine their own raison d’être.

From my position “beyond”, this is saddening. Spielman is voicing the very issues that I tried to stand up for in my teaching career. I never neglected the importance of qualifications for my older pupils, but ‘qualifications’ are subtly different from ‘results’. My refusal to game results or to be solely driven by the need to maximise them at the expense of children’s real education was one factor that put me where I am now.

 

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?

Another one bites the dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Declining, not falling. Part 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of that, I want no part.

Different worlds

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

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

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

Or as John Cleese says:

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Eurostar of teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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