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.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Invisible Academies (Chapter 3)


The Archē Academy



I arrived at the Archē Academy early. Bathed from the East in the only sunlight ever to reach its walls and windows, it glowed an iridescent orange. As I awaited the hour of my appointment, I spoke to people streaming through the city's East Gate to their places of work. Among those who live in the Academy's vicinity, I learned, the true colour of the building is the source of some controversy. Despite deep division in that regard, all accept as fact - and not without some pride - that it was the first official building of the White City. Eschewing palaces and ministries, the Emperor's first act was to create a school (this school, their school) to forever safeguard knowledge and the past, which to them are synonymous.

As to its colour, there are proponents for every hue in the palette of the rising Sun, from ceremonious purple to sacrificial red. Each is happy to state the colour of the building as they see it in the here and now, to accept that it may be a different colour every day, every minute, or every time they happen to walk past it. The subjectivity of these existentialists is trusted by no one, least of all themselves, and two main factions have coalesced on the subject: on one hand, those who argue that the building can only be white, though it is never seen to be, and on the other, those for whom black is a certainty assured by the senses.

To the former Cartesians, appearances are not to be trusted and it stands to reason that the Emperor could only have inaugurated the White City with a white building. Notwithstanding this logic, supported by the unquestioned infallibility of the Emperor, they further argue that only the reflective achroma of white can honour the past, by protecting it from the blanching rays of each new day. To their empiricist disputants, history gives scant evidence regarding whether the naming of the city predates the erection of the building or vice versa; even if the archive were complete, the Emperor's logic cannot be inferred from the logic of ordinary minds; the achromatic purity of black is equal to that of white; and the only way to honour the past is to absorb the light of the new day, that its rays may be filtered by prior knowledge and not let loose upon the world, refracted and untamed.

To neither faction is it of any interest that proof has repeatedly been presented that the building is now grey.

The Emperor has seen fit to ensure that each Academy serves a locale, a community, and so the complainants on either side are, in their vast majority, students and alumni of the Archē Academy. It was thus clear to me as I left off speaking to passers-by that, more than bricks and mortar of this or that colour, the Archē Academy (and perhaps the whole Academy edifice) is built of this polemic. This thought was interrupted as I noticed a student moving in the opposite direction to the otherwise well-ordered crowd. I asked after her as I waited at the reception desk, and was informed she had come unequipped. She would return tomorrow.

Inside, the impermeability of the walls and the staining of the windows have ensured that the curriculum is incontestably empiricist. Though it was already obvious to me that the Academy is not premised upon a model of indoctrination (at least not a successful one), I was intrigued to see if the diversity of opinion in the general population was reflected in the school. What I found was that personal opinion has little place there. While a curriculum built upon experience appears to lend itself to individual interpretation, and a curriculum delivered chronologically must continuously highlight the erroneous nature of what has been held in each successive era as infallible knowledge, there are a number of criteria to discourage relativism. These criteria form the basis of strict hierarchies - of people, of subjects, indeed of the senses themselves.

At the bottom of these hierarchies are the students (not in order of age, but of proven maturity), the arts (not for lack of value, but because their true appreciation relies most heavily on the acquisition of prior knowledge and experience) and taste and smell (which seem to be perceived as wholly unacademic, though use of the other senses is also strictly proscribed). At the top of the hierarchies are the Emperor (or, to be precise, his subtle and less subtle instruments of measurement), the sciences (to which here belongs the study of language), and sight (for the direction of one's eyes is understood as the direction of one's attention). The Archē Academy is the first in the Empire, not just historically, but academically, and all its many eyes are fixed upon maintaining that status, be the minds behind them conscious of this or not.

The school's hierarchies and reverence for the past go hand in hand. They sustain and nourish each other, and are supported by rituals I found worthy of note. Speech is limited in quantity and quality, because a singular outburst might loose something new upon the accepted canon. As a result, no sentence is ever complete - completeness itself can only be conferred by the Imperial Authority of the Guardian of the Archive Vault, whose visits are separated by millennia. A student's sentence, already heavily shaped by prior teaching, will, no sooner pronounced, be dissected, pulled apart, have clauses amputated and others inserted, punctuation moved, changed or removed and only be transcribed into a book when it matches the sentence on the teacher's lesson script and can be transcribed into all books. The lesson script itself is not written by the teacher but by his or her superior, and is also subject to revision according to changes in the examination specifications, in direct correlation with imponderable movements in examination authorities, who in turn respond to the fathomless logic of the Emperor - a conduit for which I assume you are, dearest Secretary. In this way, every new event in history has the potential to re-write the entirety of the curriculum. Despite inscrutable fluctuations over aeons, it is no wonder that the Archē Academy has maintained its place at the Empire's apex, for a disciplined hierarchy is the most responsive system to changing circumstance.

As with speech, movement too is restricted in number and type. It is an oft-repeated cautionary tale in the Academy that the wave of a student's hand once blew chaos into the pages of the archive itself. For this reason, any potential for action with uncertain outcomes is dealt with in advance through policy and enforcement, habituation and exclusion. Students walk from class to class in single files along the left-hand wall, with hands behind their backs. Some see their maturity rewarded with an elevated status to monitor adherence to this code. Teachers walk with their hands by their sides. The most venerable of them walk backwards, at once showing the ideal direction of travel for the academic mind, and the profound abilities conferred upon them by detailed and encyclopedic knowledge of the past.

What of the student who hadn't brought a pen that morning, whose path I crossed as I entered? I never saw her again, but she has crossed my mind many times in the intervening month. I wonder whether she gave her exclusion any thought at all, and if she did, whether she had any power to change the circumstance in time for the next day. I imagine her across the road, contemplating the colour of the Archē Academy. Will that experience come to shape which faction she joins in the great polemic? And, if so, is it possible that the Emperor willed it thus? Having created the White City, the dark vault of the age-old empire and the grey Academy, is it conceivable that he abhorred the cold logic of this achromatic scale enough to create the conditions for dangerous little sparks to flit briefly into existence?

I suspect the archive is incomplete on the matter.