Ghosts in the Learning Machine

Some things persist , ghosts in the machine. A lot of psychology, popular and obscure, explores and names the old scripts and thought patterns that act as operating system for many people, perpetuating good and bad habits.

As we emerge from the experience of remote teaching and learning, the opportunity to look back and reflect has been challenging and worthwhile.

Using this opportunity to reflect on my own experience, I began thinking about the concept of these ghosts in light of my past teaching practice and behaviour.

Beginning in the logical place, as a graduate, I remembered travelling and finding my first teaching job in the UK. The life of a supply teacher in London at the dawn of the new millennium proved a gruelling and intense learning curve.

We were an invariably young cohort, landing there on working or ancestry visas from the four colonial corners of the commonwealth. The allure, outside of school, was travel and drinking in, often too literally, the vast and diverse experience London offered.

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We were there to prop up a system groaning under the weight of numbers and made worse by an aggressive and often punitive inspection regime, OFSTED, which left the profession struggling all over, but particularly in the less privileged areas of London.

This created opportunities for adventurous and willing young teachers.

We were fairly well paid as long as we turned up and we got the jobs no one else wanted. This invariably meant tough schools in front of the toughest classes. The experience provided an intensive environment to experiment and trial all kinds of approaches and tactics in performing the job of a teacher.

It was a tough gig. These schools were often failing and the students at the very fringes of what anyone might think was a successful learning environment. Conflict and bad behaviour became the new normal.

It was enough at some places to keep all the students in the room for all of the lesson. In fact, for many schools, this was success criteria for a good lesson.

As a young male teacher dealing with waves of angry and disaffected young men and women, the potential for conflict was woven into each day. In this environment, establishing that you would not be pushed around was the difference between chaos and passive aggressive compliance.

In essence, the tools and strategies for meeting fire with fire were sharpened and honed.

It was effective on one level and not all that suited to creating a good learning environment on another. The script was, looking back, a sad necessity for survival – get in and take control of the room, dominate and if needed, intimidate. Throw all the tricks you could at them and hope the lesson ended without anything too serious happening.

Even when I tired of day to day supply, shifting to a long term contract where there was actual teaching involved rather than being a prison guard, every day was a hostile journey into classrooms that became containers for trauma and anger and hostility.

When returning to Australia, fortune delivered me to a very different setting in an elite private school. In terms of teaching environment and resources, it was the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

As an early career teacher, challenges came in different ways. If I learned anything, it was the array of student troubles and issues in the puberty management sector did not lessen in terms of impact.

They simply became more affluent in their nature. They had better ways to blow off steam than rob old ladies at the bus stop and carry knives to class.

Conflict continued and a lot of it was due to my disproportionate response to classroom issues. My sensitivity and response was set to London levels, and looking back now, it probably destroyed the opportunity for good learning for many students at that time.

The script that drove my identity was uncompromising hard man and there is no doubt that I was a blunt force instrument in a surgical world. To be completely honest, this was probably true for a much longer part of my career than I would like to acknowledge. It was my operating code, if you like, and default setting.

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This would follow me, as expected, through different teaching roles in the UK and Australia. Even as I developed as a teacher, gaining experience and responsibility, this tendency to see every act of defiance from students as a nail to be hit with a hammer persisted. Often, this habit acted as a huge barrier to building effective relationships to optimise learning and progress.

Over the last few years, sparked by a return to learning and ensuing self reflection, I began looking at some of the old scripts and code at the heart of my teaching philosophy and practice. Beyond interesting, it has been really revealing to point and call some of these ideas and investigate where they came from.

In computer parlance, a ghost in the machine relates to any time a device acts counter to the intentions of the operator. This can be attributed to old and redundant lines of code or operations that live deep inside the operating system, forgotten and unknown.

For a long time, despite the change in setting and educational context, despite the growth and development in understanding this profession, I still operated like that young teacher in London.

Conflict was a common event and a lot of time, energy and resources was devoted to managing these situations. The collateral damage to relationships and learning was profound.

On one scale, these interactions, often escalated and extended by my choices, impacted only those directly involved. Yet on a wider level it dragged others – parents, managers, support staff – in like a vortex.

Of course, when working in puberty management, these issues and interactions are a given while we negotiate the meandering and volatile years of exponential change and growth.

It is always easy the blame the students, too, for their poor attitude and behaviour that demand we intervene to correct their errors in understanding.

The thing is, this view seems too confining and ignores the role of the grown up professional in optimising the environment for learning and growth.

We must rise above our old scripts and work to identify and eliminate the bad habits and attitudes that contribute to ineffective practice in education.

More and more I am convinced that controlling the controllable is a maxim worth pursuing in life and work. At the very least, identifying what we control and what we do not is starting point on a worthy exploration of ourselves and the world.

Through this process, we can also identify and challenge the lines of code in our operating systems to see if they are still relevant and effective.

For there are ghosts in the educational machines driving teacher behaviour in schools all over the world. These old stories and beliefs inform values that may not only undesirable for educators, they might be destructive and downright dangerous.

The need to be cool. The need to be popular, or powerful, or respected. The need to be the smartest person in the room, the fountain of all knowledge. The need for perfection. The need to get the highest test scores. The sense you have chosen teaching for the lifestyle and the students really get in the way of that. The sense that you teach, but they won’t or can’t learn and that is not your problem. The sense that we can’t really have too much impact on them anyway. The belief that all you need to do is cover the curriculum. The sense you are just teaching until the world discovers you are a genius. The belief that teaching is meant to be easy…

If insanity is doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results, then the counter is to reflect on our reasoning and purpose for doing what we do.

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In this way, those ghosts in the machine may drag themselves into the light for interrogation and review.

In the interests of our students and ourselves, this must be seen as a worthy and meaningful pursuit.

With coaching, mentoring and the use of meaningful and rigorous performance review, perhaps these inefficiencies might begin to work their way out of our classrooms and schools.

As we all should know by now, what is best is not always what is easy.

Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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