Every obstacle provides an opportunity for growth.
This idea is not new and it is not mine. You see it threaded through tomes in airport bookshops, where charlatans and sheisters claim they discovered this essential truth, ignoring that fact that learned older and wiser minds sorted that out a long time ago.
What an opportunity for growth this lockdown has been. It has provided space and time to reflect and act on some of the ugly inefficiencies, habits and behaviours from personal to national to global.
The enormity of an event is often hard to see when you live in its midst, and there is some distance to travel yet on this journey. As we emerge, slow and timid in many cases, there will be decisions made.
There will be habits lost and gained forever. There will be new perspectives and philosophies, as diverse as humanity.
Which leads to my take away – reading books is a magical thing.
Being an English teacher, it might follow to say of course I would say that.
The truth is, ironically, for a long period of my career I lost sight of the importance of books and reading. They became things to act on, measure, cover, deliver.
I was too busy to read. Schools are an easy place to tumble into the trap of a ‘busy’ life. There are always urgent and important tasks, emails to answer, meetings to attend.
As you take on more responsibility, either pastoral or curriculum focussed, the busy and urgent and important grows to the point where you make sacrifices to keep up and stay afloat.
Sadly, too often it is the teaching that suffers. Lessons become things done on the fly as you take a breath and revel in the sweet sanctuary of the classroom.
The other sad trade off is reading books. My brother, a chef, always said the last thing he felt like doing after a shift in the mad, dynamic kitchens was cook.
It felt the same for English teaching and reading.
It was easy, then, to fall into the habit of passive consumption. TV, gaming, streaming and binge watching became routine. In time, the reading of books might fall to five to ten books a year, or less.
I also fell into the trap of believing that books would somehow pass out of use in the age of technology. It was the myth that the information age would distill the important things found in books to a more digestible form. Somehow learning and developing would be easier.
Then a fictional character said something that sparked a renewed love of books and reading.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. A man who doesn’t read lives only one”.Tyrion Lannister – Game of Thrones
This stuck in my mind and led me, in a roundabout way, to developing the reading habit and rediscovering the magic of books.
When I saw this quote from Carl Sagan, scientist, astronomer and author, the jumble of thoughts became clearer.
“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”Source: Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory
By the time we entered lockdown, the opportunity to read more was a welcome one. Books have been one of the things that has allowed me to travel and experience the world while being a good citizen and staying at home.
It has also caused me to reflect on myself as an English teacher.
There are many in our profession who are too busy to read, as I was. This is a dangerous space to occupy because on one level, it limits growth to the context of your life and experience, which is ironically shrinking despite the hyper-connectivity of the online world.
On another, it reinforces the belief that you already know everything.
General James Mattis, a Marine Corps veteran of more than forty years, puts it even more plainly:
“If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”Jim Mattis: Call Sign Chaos
In 2017 I read 17 books. In 2018 I read 28, assisted by a new habit of listening to audiobooks rather than the radio on the way to work. In 2019 I read 30 books.
As of the beginning of June, 2020, I’ve read 28 books, no doubt assisted by the opportunity provided by lockdown.
The benefits have been immeasurable and have seen a massive expansion in my understanding of how little I really know or knew as an educator, a writer and a human being.
Not all this reading is is fiction and not all is the same genre, either. This has not been a list of 100 books everyone must read before they die.
I’ve read about philosophy, science, business and economics. I’ve read about psychology and rebellion and mastery. I’ve travelled through time and listened to the voices of the dead.
These books are not only fuelling the bonfire of learning, they are fuelling action and reflection on many levels which in turn has a positive impact on my world.
My curiosity has been awakened and enhanced to levels not seen since childhood, probably. It started by reconnecting to the magic of books and reading.
The lockdown has provided the certainty that good learners and thinkers, whether they be teachers or students, must build and maintain a foundation based on reading books as a habit.
It does not matter where you begin. Make time to read a page each day and go from there.
What is important is to recognise that good learners are readers. Teachers need to develop the reading habit no matter what their subject areas – but English teachers in particular need to read widely and often.