Thursday, 20 July 2017

Saying Goodbye



I never got to say it.

It was three Christmases ago. I was cooking the family Christmas meal. I love cooking. I'd spent two days on the prep. It was going to be a gourmet affair for the whole family. As it turned out, I cocked up the starter, a beer soup that tasted just awful. The amuse-bouches were nice. The sorbet, at least, cleaned the beer soup off everyone's palates. I got the main course on the table, but the show-stopper pudding stayed in the fridge, a sad homage to the deconstructed fancies of Masterchef. I didn't eat. I excused myself and went to bed.

Part of me never woke up, though it took me a long time to realise it.

The rest of that holiday is a blur. I went back to school in January, having recovered enough from the virus to convince myself I could motor on. I did, right up until February half term.

I was teaching a pretty full timetable. I had responsibilities on top of that. Determined to bring about better communication, better assessment and lower workload for everyone, I was in charge of deploying Google Apps for Education. My line manager, an Assistant Headteacher, had left and on top of what I was doing, I was asked to fill his role too - parental engagement. No promotion. No pay rise. No support. No extra PPA. No review of my current responsibilities. I could have turned it down, I suppose, but the promotion was hinted at as a deferred possibility, and I wanted nothing more at that time than a seat at the decision-making table. I wanted to change things. I knew I could change things.

The school had just come out of Special Measures after years in the category, dragged out by every unsustainable, damaging initiative you could imagine. Every single one. I reckon I've been seen by more Ofsted inspectors, LEA advisors, Mocksted-peddling consultants and every other type of external observer than most teachers will see in their entire careers, and I never let the side down. I watched colleagues leave and get pushed out. I stayed. I threw everything I had at it, and all that ever happened was that more was thrown back at me.

By the time the virus came along, there was nothing left of me to fight it.

Between that Christmas and February, I started losing weight. I still attended every after-school parent event, as was required of me. I still ran the parent forum that SLT never attended or responded to. I still followed up, as was asked of me by the head, every single parent complaint and produced half-termly reports for governors on my work. And I rolled out Sims Learning Gateway, too, so that every parent would have access to their children's data and reports, and so that the school could save the considerable work and expense of printing them out.

I still ran Google Apps for Schools.

Oh. And I still taught. Not one. Not two. Three subjects. There were gaps in the staffing you see. And I'm a bit musical. And I'm a bit French. And that's all you really need at Key Stage 3, right? Someone to stand in front of the class who knows more than them and who can write reports.

School finished at 15.30 on the Friday and I was in the doctor's office by 17.00. I had pain in my gut and I was exhausted. I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and sent home with Omeprazole. I went to sleep.

I don't really sleep much. Six hours a night has been the average my whole adult life. For the next few months, I was sleeping 14 hours a night, and I needed a nap to get through the day. It was a sleep that provided no rest. I woke up from it as tired as I'd fallen into it. I went back to the doctor and he signed me off. A fortnight. Then another. Then another.

I had a whole barrage of blood tests. My white blood cell count was critically low. I was, apparently, suffering sepsis. There must have been drugs. I can't remember. There were supplements. All sorts. The energy required to digest food was more than my body could handle. Eating meant sleeping. I developed a tremor. I couldn't walk down stairs without holding on because my knees shook from the effort. I couldn't play my guitar, which broke my heart. I still can't play it because, I think, my heart is still broken. I got a new diagnosis: post-viral fatigue syndrome, or post-viral ME.

During that whole time, the school called me once.

"Hi JL. We've just had the call from Ofsted. I'm just calling to find out if there's any chance of you being back tomorrow."

The school went back into Special Measures.

And I missed it. Oh how I missed my work, my students. My sense of purpose.

My wife, I don't mind telling you, saved me. She is my hero. As I write this, she's still out there doing it. She works in education too. The greatest challenge for me these past couple of years has been to see the job's impact from the outside; to watch it try to do to her what it did to me; to support her the way she supported me; to struggle daily to find the balance between encouraging the right amount of resilience or of resistance; to be at home feeling like the one you love loves her job more than her family; knowing this to be untrue; resenting yourself for feeling it; resenting the toll it takes, the fact that even when she's home, she isn't really - the best part of her is still at work. Just like I was.

She has resigned. She has a wonderful new job to go to. All this week, she has been saying goodbye and it must be gut-wrenching for her. She loves those kids, and her colleagues, and they love her back.

But she is getting to say goodbye.

I went back on a phased return. The occupational therapist's report was ignored (administrative cock-up) and I was put straight back into the classroom. It was awful. I was awful. I had no support. I felt like I was shunned for having dared to be ill. I was a stone and a half lighter, and I'm not a big guy to start with. I struggled on until the summer holidays. I was given a timetable on the final day. Next year, I would be teaching English and Citizenship instead of Music and French, neither of which I had ever taught. Surprise! Have a great summer.

I went home in tears. I had an appalling summer. My precarious health caved in a second time.

Anti-depressants were little use, but they reassured people around me that I was doing something. CBT was excellent. It gave me a language to conceptualise the anxiety attacks I was suffering, and to manage them. It didn't stop them.

I had another term of absence, until my departure was mutually agreed.

Since then, I've only worked supply and part-time contracts. Initially, I felt totally, and stupidly, emasculated. How utterly disrespectful to my wife that feeling was -  to the decade she'd supported my career aspirations at the cost of her own. I got over myself pretty quickly.

Physically, I'm a weaker person for my experience. The weight and muscle loss have caused me to suffer pain in my cervical spine, which is with me for life now. At some point, a permanent tinnitus kicked in. If that doesn't sound like much, consider never being able to enjoy a silence, and having to work harder to keep your cognitive load under control in every noisy environment. A classroom, say, or any dinner table where more than one conversation is going on at the same time. I'm still prone to an anxiety response in stressful situations.

Mentally though, I am stronger than I've ever been. I've learned the power of no, and I'm not letting go. Unfortunately, that's not always helpful when working in schools (an understatement). By the same token, I have a little less ego getting in the way. I never valued myself much by how hard I worked, how much I earned, or how important my job title sounded, but I don't break myself anymore trying to sustain a system that can't sustain itself, and I advise all those who'll listen not to either.

I focus on the students in front of me, on the curriculum to be taught, on keeping expectations high. Ironically, I can only do this because expectations of me are low. Anything more than a body in the room who'll take a register is a bonus, it seems, for some schools I've worked in as a supply. But even for those who really look after supply teachers, accountability is low, and where that is the case, I stay as long as possible. Every placement where my curriculum needs are met and my pastoral abilities empowered, I literally feel my teaching improve.

What does that say about our education system, at least as I'm encountering it?

As I've picked myself up from the floor, I've taken ownership of my own CPD. I go to conferences and I read, read, read and I write. I listen and I ask questions. I interact with people across the education system who constantly challenge me to think better, to be better. And I have the time to do all that because I don't work for a school that won't let me, that has other priorities for me.

But there's one thing missing. Nearly three years ago, I didn't get to say goodbye to students I'd taught and colleagues I'd taught with for years, and I still carry that with me. Since then, I've met many young people and teachers, some of whom I've had opportunity to say goodbye to, but few of whom I'd developed a true, long-term, pastoral or collaborative rapport with. If you read this and you have those things, I dare say you don't take them for granted. I dare say your students and colleagues don't either. Though I would venture a guess that more than a couple of things this year have gotten in the way of you making the most of it.

In my experience, a focus on curriculum, self-directed CPD, and moderate accountability don't just create the conditions for better pastoral care for our students - they are in themselves better pastoral care for our teachers.

Saying goodbye is always a proud moment, tinged with more than a little sadness. It is a privilege. Perhaps an education system that allows teachers that privilege is one that would see fewer teachers choose to say goodbye to the classroom instead.

27 comments:

  1. Don't know what one can say. The system is dysfunctional. Look after yourself and your loved ones.

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  2. It certainly is dysfunctional, Elise. Thank you for your comment. Looking after myself and my loved ones is my top priority, these days. I'm hoping to achieve a little more than that, though. I see all teachers as my colleagues, and I've got a little book coming out about the system that I think is going to make a big splash, so that all my colleagues are better able to look after themselves and their loved ones too. :)

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  3. This is extraordinary, JL. But then again, I suspect it isn't. Thank you. You write powerfully. I look forward to your book.

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    1. Thank you for your support and for taking the time to comment, Andy. I really, truly appreciate it.

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  4. Very sorry to read of your experience. It is very easy to neglect physical and mental health to put others first. Everything seems more important than yourself until one day, the body says "no more". There is something fundamentally wrong with a workplace that encourages neglect of well-being. In my experience, no matter how hard you work, there is still more to do. I used to stay up until I finished a task but, in the end, I was surviving on less than 5 hours sleep and still not getting it all done. Then each day would be a struggle due to tiredness. Directed time after school gave me less time to work at home in the evening. I even resented family members engaging me in conversation if it meant I couldn't focus on work at home. That's not healthy and not right. I've taken early retirement to focus on everything I love: my family and my subject. I'm not stopping work. I just won't be working in a school. I survived - and so did you. That's something to be immensely proud of.

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  5. Christine, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I agree with everything you say, and I am doubly concerned that school leaders are in an equally invidious position of being coerced into acting unethically or against their better judgment. The system is riddled with perverse incentives.
    I'm glad that you've found a way out that gives you happiness. I recognise too painfully the poor relationships with family and friends that result from a toxic workplace. I'm not finished with the system yet. I'm going back to kick it in the shins. @honeypisquared and I will be publishing Flip The System UK in January. Look out for the fireworks! :)

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  6. Well more power to you! I really hope that we see a sea change that promotes greater compassion however, I think it unlikely. Good luck with your new venture. I await with interest!

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    1. I hope we disprove your pessimism. 😉

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  7. This moved me to tears; the never getting to say goodbye is something I too experienced first hand. It still floors me that I was not good enough, strong enough in some way. I was trying to run a newly amalgamated school working 75hr weeks whilst still having cancer treatment. We went into special measures, I left defeated, and feeling an utter failure. Fortunately I too managed to pick myself up, dust myself off and find balance. I went back into the classroom and on into SEND specialism. I pace myself, listen to my body, and have found the strength to say no. Work life balance is restored as is my health.
    I wish you all good things, to weather a storm such as yours and find balance is no mean feat.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your story. I hope you know (at least rationally if not emotionally) that the school deserved SM, not because of anything you did, but because they were the kind of institution that expected that level of sacrifice from people. You are more than good enough, and I am so pleased for you (and the rest of us) that you've found a way to stay in education that works for you.

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  8. I feel for you JL - you have been through a terrible time. The system should not be breaking people like this. I had some ups and downs but was luckily able to cope with it all and in my SLT role I always asked of any initiative - what's the effect on staff? I worked hard to get rid of irrelevant stuff but it's tough when we exist within a harsh and punitive accountability system. I hope you continue to feel better both heath wise and in your teaching. I also have tinnitus so I definitely feel your pain there!!! Julie

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    1. It's a simple enough question, isn't it? And a good place to start. Funny enough, implementation of new initiatives is the one aspect of education that doesn't come with a checklist and a consultant with a clipboard...
      The punitive accountability system is a huge problem for SLTs as well as for teachers. If we see Retention problems in both as separate and unconnected, we will never fight back against it. As well as too many leaders happy to brush teachers away as 'not tough enough', there are too many teachers willing to lay all the blame with SLTs and not look further. Together we stand.
      As for the tinnitus, I still miss silence. Especially looking up at the stars late at night... And I'm going to make the system pay for that! 😉

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  9. What a horrendous experience for you and your family. The LA closed the school I worked in and our happy band of teachers and pupils were split apart. I had to find another job, like all my colleagues. It could not have been a more polar opposite place to where I had been. A head that lied about the position I was being offered and who had already ruined the careers of several teachers. The LA knew all this but let me go anyway as a sort of redeployment package; I still had to have a formal interview. From being on a permanent contract, I was given fixed term and after 6 months she advertised my job without telling me. I wasn't alone in this sort of treatment, this was her MO with all staff. You only got a permanent contract after years of being under her cosh; if you were lucky. So I decided to go to my union and ultimately we went to the LA together. My union rep was furious and asked this LA guy...."When are you going to get rid of this absolute bastard? It's already ruined several members lives."
    Basically, I was back at square one and had to find myself another job. It was end of May by this time so time was running out. My Dad had died at Christmas and my mum was dying. I decided to leave. I could have reapplied for my job but it was another fixed term contract and I just thought I'll take my chances, go on supply and be with my mum and take care of her until she dies. The head was perplexed as to why I wasn't applying but kind of got some comeuppance when the candidate they chose for my job was completely unsuitable for an inner city school. So here I am now. A supply teacher and 4 years down the line. I know if I'd gone back I wouldn't have survived. I would have been ill. I am so sorry that this happened to you. Sometimes we don't listen to what our body and mind is telling us until it is too late. Hope you don't mind me telling you my story! God bless you my friend and I hope you continue to enjoy your new life. I loved your writing. It moved me.

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    1. It's all too common. We've been under the cosh of punitive accountability so long that a large number of school leaders are people who have made it through that and whose management strategy reflects exactly the system within which they've risen to the top: churn and burn.
      I'm honoured that you've shared your story. Supply teachers have very little voice, and yet we are freer to speak than many working in schools.
      God bless you too, and thank you for praising my writing. That means a lot to me.

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  10. There's quite a lot of children with #SEND who also don't get to say goodbye.. drowned in a system which is just not suitable, holding on for as long as they can, but often not making it to the end of term or end of a school. Sorry to hear you've been through all this, it's not fair. It's the system.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Steph. It's not just children with SEND. The number of permanent exclusions is testament to a malaise that goes beyond schools, but which schools are no longer necessarily contributing to alleviating. For me, there's a direct link between inclusion of staff and inclusion of students. There is so much pressure on schools to perform to a set of narrow goals that anyone who isn't helping pull towards those narrow goals is easily perceived as a threat to achieving them. Once you're there, it's not a big step to re-cast your lines of inclusion on a scale of 'pulling hard enough' and keep raising the bar. You draw all your resources into that effort (and you lose staff along the way, who you can't replace), and then it's justifiable (though not just) to say you don't have the resources to support those who need it. And that's before even considering budget cuts...

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  11. I would like to know if anyone who has read this can honestly say they are a successful teacher or on SLT who feel they have a good work/ life balance? Also if you do, What is your secret?

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    1. Gary, thank you for commenting. It can feel that way sometimes. In my experience though, there are many schools who seem to get the balance right (at least as right as they can), but they do so despite the system they operate in. Many more can't or won't stand up for their staff. What is clear is that if the system is working for you, your success is at the expense of someone else's whether you see it or not. This is a travesty.

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  12. An important post. Certainly something I need to consider a lot more. Thanks for sharing this

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    1. Hi Paul. Many thanks for your comment. In what way do you feel you need to consider the issues raised?

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  13. I have retired now after 36 years in a challenging city comprehensive. The only way I survived that was by being able to say NO at the appropriate times. I have passed that advice onto all those entrants into the profession that I have been involved with. This didnt mean that there weren't plenty of times I found myself bogged down with overload and stress but I took time to down tools and recharge my batteries!

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    1. I'm glad for you that you had the resilience to say no and the understanding school leaders to allow you to do so. The shortening career span of teachers and the attrition rate of new recruits and experienced staff alike seems to indicate that something isn't working across the system, which isn't to say that many schools and teachers don't go on thriving despite that system.

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  14. Your story really moved me . We live in a country where there are no powerful unions to back us and I really envied you guys out there. Now I see your trials and tribulations in pursuing a demanding profession are even greater than ours. The worst part of our career is that one bad observation feedback can rob you of your self esteem and convince you that you aren't good enough with the result that you perform much lower than your capability. It's then a vicious circle of even more negative feedback.
    But this summer I have 'picked myself from the floor' as you said and taken charge of my own CPD. I am hoping to have a better term this year.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I salute your grit and perseverance at continuing with a system that has not acknowledged your greatness!

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    1. Hi Nafees,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to leave a comment. If my experience has taught me anything, it's that you can't compare your experience to anyone else's on a scale. How we feel and how we respond as individuals is in the end entirely personal, and I can see how a lost of professional self-esteem could be soul-destroying. I'm glad you've found a way forward through taking ownership of your CPD. I honestly believe this is the most powerful tool we've got as teachers everywhere.
      Where comparison is useful is in the policies governments are deploying and their justifications (rather than their outcomes!). You haven't said where in the world you are? Who carries out obstervations? For what purpose? And why are they so high-stakes?
      Once again, thank you for your comment and your encouraging words. I am truly grateful, and I wish you all the very best for next term.

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  15. Thank you for sharing your story although I did find it upsetting that this system allowed this to happen to such a dedicated professional. Ultimately the buck stops with the leadership which, in this case, is the government. Their lack of pastoral care for their teachers cascades down to the people they have delegated the responsibilities to. Therefore do i have much faith in SLT? Not really. I acknowledge there are those who try,and many hods, to shield their dept from constant attack but who will shield them and their families (let's not forget the impact on other areas of our lives)? We must all learn to say no and strive to achieve a proper work-life balance. All the best with your future and I hope your health goes from strength to strength.

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    1. I think you absolutely hit the nail on the head. The best SLTs and middle leaders know they have no right to expect the trust of their staff. By the same token, the more astute teachers don't blame their managers for what they know are, more often than not, ineluctable actions.
      The problem is with the system and the raft of perverse incentives and inadequate instruments that make it up. It is entirely premised on a rewarding/blaming individuals and entirely blind to itself. All errors are the fault of aberrant behaviours or aberrant people. If we're going to find the unity and strength to say no, it's going to have to be to that. I hope Flip The System UK, which I've co-edited and comes out in January, will lay the path to it, for all our sakes.
      Many thanks again for your comment and warm wishes, and allow me to wish you exactly the same.

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  16. Thank you for sharing your story although I did find it upsetting that this system allowed this to happen to such a dedicated professional. Ultimately the buck stops with the leadership which, in this case, is the government. Their lack of pastoral care for their teachers cascades down to the people they have delegated the responsibilities to. Therefore do i have much faith in SLT? Not really. I acknowledge there are those who try,and many hods, to shield their dept from constant attack but who will shield them and their families (let's not forget the impact on other areas of our lives)? We must all learn to say no and strive to achieve a proper work-life balance. All the best with your future and I hope your health goes from strength to strength.

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Thanks for engaging. I aim to respond to all the feedback I get because that's why I write: To share ideas.