There are a lot of things to like about surfing. There is the laid back lifestyle, all year tan, girls in bikinis and endless summers. Other benefits include physical fitness, a strong connection with nature and the ability to use words like ‘worked’ and ‘stoked’ without sounding like a total flog.
Sun, sand and perfect waves beneath a clear sky are a hell of a lure for the modern human.
This ideal is true if you live in Hawaii or the Maldives or even Queensland. It is fine if you grew up with sand in your jocks and zinc cream in your hair. This myth is all good if you grew up near the coast or spent youthful summers at a holiday house or camping out in the annexe of a family caravan. You can probably surf like some ride bikes.
Perhaps you want to learn to surf, or claim you can because of that backpacker tour or lesson your girlfriend bought for your birthday. You know, the one where the instructors in green vests pushed you on a foam board through whitewash, and you stood up like a drunk with vertigo and straight lined it to the beach, hooing and haaing with arms aloft like a champ.
Okay, maybe that describes me too.
One truth about surfing is that what I just described isn’t surfing. Compared to surfing, it would be like riding on a velodrome with training wheels or ten pin bowling with a ramp and those bumper things in the gutter.
One truth about surfing is it is the hardest thing I have ever tried to learn, including long division. It is the albatross around my sporting neck, the Newman to my Seinfeld. Surfing is the pigeon to my statue and the fly in my sporting ointment and or soup. It is the dragon I spend too much time chasing.
It is a chase that has lasted more than ten years, and though the tone might sound complaining, it is more a lament. I too was drawn in by the image of surfing and the way people spoke about it. Tim Winton, in his novel Breath, wrote eloquently about the thrill of learning to surf and the spirituality of the lifestyle. To be honest, reading Winton only makes the frustration worse because it describes a soulful experience that has so far eluded me despite grinding effort.
I started learning to surf in my mid twenties, lured in by quick success of a first lesson and a mild case of quarter life rut. There were certain challenges to overcome – I grew up a long way from the coast and didn’t really like the beach. Normally that would be only a mild obstacle, assuaged with the application of effort and practice, for surfing is a great deal more than taking a few strokes and standing up on a wave. Without the knowledge of currents and tide times and weather conditions, learning to surf can quickly reduce itself to paddling around a lot, drinking seawater and worrying about sharks.
When the wind is up and the current is running, you can spend everything you have just getting out beyond where the waves break. On a learner board, which in my case was roughly the size of the HMAS Melbourne, it is impossible to duck under the waves, even in small conditions. My abiding memory of those early sessions was the effort of balancing myself with the quick realisation I often looked like a person in trouble in a flood, grasping at driftwood. Sometimes in choppy conditions it felt like there were gangster slaps coming from all directions.
Surfing back then was all sore arms and salty burps, with the odd short ride in the white water to keep me coming back. It was about learning not to panic when you were caught on the bottom, that seaweed was natural and every shadow did not make a shark. It was about getting shouted at by other surfers and learning line-up etiquette and university level meteorology. The urge to give up was a constant companion.
I also learnt that there was a difference between surfers and people who surf. People who surf are aggressive and drop in on you. They are always in a hurry and resent you being there. Surfing is an activity to be conquered and measured and mastered. Surfers are all like the Dude from the Big Lebowski. They whoop you onto waves and smile as you paddle by them. They speak slow, like Queenslanders, and have a quiet confidence that indicates they know something awesome about life.
The thing that changes them, steals ambition and sends you on a search is the very thing that keeps me turning up for punishment time and again. It is the thing that makes me squeeze my once athletic frame into a neoprene suit slash nappy, pick up 8 feet of fibreglass and paddle out into a winter sea for a free salt water enema and blue lips.
The truth about surfing is told in the peace you find out the back between sets, where time is a construct and nothing matters but the next lump on the horizon. Well, either that or the sharp rush of the last strokes before liftoff, when you ascend by the power of water and snap to your feet, or go over the falls to practice holding your breath, the usual outcome for this scribe.
Despite all the rejections and lost hours, all the days when swell disappears and there is nothing but close-outs, the truth about surfing is the very thing that keeps me coming back for more. It goes against all rhyme and reason, and defies the constant sense of dread I feel when I pull into the car park and lay eyes on the breakers.
But I’m not really a surfer, just a person who surfs not very well. Maybe Tim Winton is the man to ask about the truth.
One gift of the pandemic was more time for reading. The reading habit, neglected for too many years, proved a shining light in a most challenging year.
Conscious of the glut of reading lists swelling blogs and social feeds like autumn leaves, yet mindful of their important role in providing fuel for the bookish bonfire, here are some recommendations based on what I read in 2020.
There are five fiction titles, five non-fiction and three honourable mentions, listed without sequential significance. Enjoy.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The first book of the year and my favourite. More than slightly prescient, too, considering the forced isolation that followed. Count Alexander Rostov is a terrific character for our times despite being well outside them. The story follows his life of house arrest in Moscow’s luxury Metropol hotel across thirty or so years of the Soviet era from 1922 to 1954. As everything representing his status and rich life is removed, Rostov maintains an optimistic and expansive attitude, cheerfully embracing fate without compromising his principles. This is a transportive and beautifully written novel that I recommended more than any other. Read it.
Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson
This is Ready Player One for grown ups. Published in 1992, this dystopian story is set in a world where capitalism reigns supreme and virtual living is preferred to reality by most. It is a darkly funny romp and Stephenson creates a rich and engaging vision of an imagined future. The aptly named protagonist – um – Hero Protagonist, is an early developer of this virtual universe and accidentally finds himself hot on the trail of a mysterious and deadly computer virus that somehow reaches into the real world. Clever, entertaining and relevant.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The early part of the year saw a deeper dive into the work of Neil Gaiman, including a final public outing in February for a live Q and A in Melbourne where the greatest issue was bushfires – aah, those were the days! This is The Graveyard Book for grown ups, maybe? It rests firmly within Gaiman’s noir-ish horror fantasy wheelhouse. After an act of kindness, young businessman Richard Mayhew crosses into the shadowy otherworld below the streets of London. His journey, dotted with a remarkable cast of allies and villains, is a terrific tale to escape with, from young adults onwards.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Towles was a merchant banker before turning to a career in writing and this was his first novel. This kind of talent appears greedy, but this book underlined his bona fides as a writer and weaver of great historical stories. Set mostly in New York of the 1930’s, we follow the fortunes of Katey Kontent as she makes her way in publishing, straining against the confines of society and expectation. As with A Gentleman in Moscow, the characterisation and setting are a real highlight, and it is astonishingly well written.
V2 by Robert Harris
I discovered Harris more than twenty years ago via his early novel, Fatherland, and confess an unashamed enjoyment of historical fiction with a cerebral and compelling plot. Though he lost me during the ancient Rome period, recent titles have me back on board. This is a parallel narrative set in the latter years of World War Two, when Germany’s V2 rockets rained down on London and surrounds. Willi Graf and Kay Connolly are characters on two sides of the firing line whose fates are entwined more than they know. Written wholly during the first UK lockdown of 2020, it was a perfect decompression read after a long year, offering a nice blend of fact and fiction with just the right amount of historical rocket nerdiness.
Figuring by Maria Popova
This is a remarkable book in so many ways, if for nothing else the depth of knowledge and effort behind it. Popova has published her blog, Brainpickings, for more than a decade which is a testament to her love of poetry, science, mathematics and literature. Figuring is an opus that reveals the somewhat obscured (well, definitely to me) tale of a range of historical figures, mostly women, at the intersection of these points over four centuries. It is actually really hard to describe, so I’ll say that it really shifted my knowledge and view of science and literature, who we are encouraged to believe are incompatible. Like all good non-fiction, this book pushes the boundaries of understanding and shines a light on a topic that feels so critical, albeit embarrassingly concealed. Hard fun, but brilliant.
Principles by Ray Dalio
This book was the fly that kept returning to bash on my mental window. I read it out of curiosity and it exceeded my expectations. Ray Dalio built an extremely successful investment house over thirty years and never intended to write a book. This is a fascinating insight into the underlying principles employed and refined over his career. Initially written for employees so he did not need to explain everything, it grew into a comprehensive and rich reference. Though dry in places, the wider value comes from the ability to explore the mind and rich experience of Dalio. It is a reminder of the power of books to gain access to the wide variety of human experience.
The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were a most unlikely duo who had a massive impact on human understanding of how our thinking minds work. They met as young psychologists in Israel before forging a partnership that produced a body of research work that fundamentally changed our understanding of human motivation and behaviour. Lewis explores the nature of their friendship more than the work and it is here the real magic of the story comes alive. This was a lot of fun to read.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs by Ben Folds
The Ben Folds Five album ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’ played on high rotation when I was at university and Folds is an intriguing character fondly remembered. Music biographies have never featured too prominently in my reading, but this one broke the mould in many ways, mostly for the honest self-appraisal at the expense of a biased recount of history. There is little whitewashing by Folds – he knows he can be a prick – and it also contains a good deal of exploration and analysis of his creative process and experience of fame. Folds is a wild and forthright host and this was a great read.
The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande
Let me confess to a deep hatred of routine and a long history of mocking those poor souls fixated on protocol and process. Sure, I write lists, but the thought of a living life by checklist seemed like prison. Gawande is a surgeon who took on the challenge of developing a surgical checklist for the World Health Organisation in the hope they might improve related mortality rates in hospitals around the world. In the process, Gawande discovered the power and simplicity of checklists and how one could borrow great ideas from seemingly unrelated fields – like airlines. This is a great example of the unexpected benefits of reading outside your familiar box.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton
This is a terrifically accessible philosophical exploration of what it means to live a good life via six philosophers and their work. I had long avoided de Botton due to pretentious name prejudice and happily admit my wrong headedness. If you ever find yourself feeling sad or melancholy, this is a good place to start and a great place to revisit.
The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant
This little book is the condensation of a lifetime of work by this most interesting couple. Profound observations about humanity bounce out of every paragraph and one risks a sore neck with all the nodding in agreement. The writing is first class, reminding us that great literature is not the soul possession of fiction.
Running the Room by Tom Bennett
This is a book for teachers, one I wish was around when I was starting out. Released late in 2020, it is a most rare professional reading title that manages to be insightful, rigorous and funny at the same time. If you teach, this is a must read. If you know a teacher, tell them about it.
Six months ago, at the end of a long, hot summer, the act of teaching underwent seismic change as we all went home to do it from there.
While in Melbourne we did have, briefly, a return to face to face lessons, the bulk of this year has meant teaching and learning through a small, 13 inch portal.
There has been much experimentation, rumination and reflection on how best to keep the learning moving. Much of this is driven by the desire to do it better, some forced by circumstance.
In trying to formulate a summary of this experience, the following words kept returning, albeit from an unlikely source.
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
While the methodology of teaching has changed, the philosophy underpinning it has not. Learning is learning, no matter how we do it, and by returning to our core purpose, the essential objective becomes obvious.
Keep the learning moving.
As a practitioner, this period has reconnected me with the thing that got me into this career in the first place. I love learning and I love teaching.
Having said that, sharing my practice and experience outside the bubble of school and faculty setting has never been a strong point. The reasons behind this are no doubt reproduced by teachers around the world – a combination of humility, introversion and fatigue.
When you put your heart and soul into your work already, who has time to jump on the web or social media and share?
Well, another thing this period has taught me is the need for connection and sharing. In this series, I plan to write about the experience of sustaining and maintaining the effort of teaching from home.
Firstly, let me contextualise the setting. I teach in a school where all students have their own devices and it is well resourced enough to make the transition to remote education a relatively smooth one. Yep, we are very fortunate. We had terrific support from leadership and IT services and lucky enough to have access to the critical elements required to make it work.
As all students and staff have devices and home internet connections, we were able to remain in the synchronous learning realm. As a school familiar with the Google Suite, the platform of Google Meet was a no brainer, and the practical elements for delivering our lessons was supported by out learning management system, Schoolbox, and also by Education Perfect, which is more subject specific.
Using these resources as a framework for delivery and interaction, like everyone else, we dived in.
Having only a couple of weeks to get our heads around how it might work, the entire staff jumped into intensive training and planning for the experience which, in March, we thought might last a few weeks or so, maybe a month.
After engaging in one particular day of training, where we conducted faculty meetings and planning sessions over Google Meet, despite being onsite, I remember thinking it might be the most impactful day of professional learning in my twenty year career.
That was because, for everyone, there was opting out. Indeed, the forced engagement and associated forced risk created an overwhelmingly positive feeling.
It is hard to recall exactly what was going through my head, but I did lean heavily on the words of Viktor Frankl, and still do.
When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.
And while there was some conjecture about over the decision to remain fully synchronous, the advantages were obvious. Primarily, the existing infrastructure of the school day, including pastoral elements, were a known known for the entire school community, removing any uncertainty over how the days and weeks would structure and function.
Synchronous learning offered the minimum of disruption in a deeply disrupted world.
Thus, after working to set up links and meets, with some practice sessions while still on site, our first day ever day of remote learning began in a climate of novelty and even, it must be said, excitement.
We conducted four days of teaching before the end of term, and if nothing else it taught us that trying to control the remote classroom as you would a live one, trying to keep students accountable each lesson would pose a real challenge.
On the first day, I asked students to submit class work to our LMS, meaning there were roughly 75 bits of data to process.
Then came the headaches and red eyes. Then came the creeping fatigue and achy shoulders.
The first thing I learned was, there is a lot of stuff to let go of if we hope to maintain the energy and limit the stress. This led to the first principle of remote education.
Control the controllables, let go of everything else
Letting go of control is hard. It is particularly hard for educators used to being the leaders of their domains, in particular, the classroom.
So much of the skill in teaching is creating and owning that space within a lesson. We rely on all sorts of visual and audible cues to monitor our students. We enforce accountability in real time, in person, all within a space we can manage with our eyes, our ears and our voices.
If a student is distracted, we can see. If they get off task, we can find out. If they talk outside the limits of what they are supposed to, we know. If they ask someone else for the answer, we know. If they get their phones out and take a video of us, we know.
Additionally, teaching a lesson is largely a private activity, albeit one where privacy extends only between yourself and the 25 or more students in the class. Outside of formally arranged times, or perhaps unexpected interruptions, no one really sees what we do.
All of these things take on a different dimension in the virtual space, even a synchronous classroom where in theory, you should always be able to see what a student is doing.
This became a really topical issue in the early days of remote teaching, both in anticipation and practice. How do we know the students are paying attention? How do we know they are listening? How do we know they are doing the work?
Moreover, how do we know they won’t take photos or videos of us on their phones? How do we know their parents aren’t watching or listening? How do we know they aren’t cheating?
Well, in reality, we don’t really have a way of guaranteeing this. In fact, the task of ensuring these things are happening is Herculean at best, Sysiphean at worst.
This leads to asking two simple questions – what can we control? What can we not control?
Well, what we can control are the actions we take. We can plan and organise lessons, provide materials and resources, frame the learning objectives and provide the space and environment, to a degree, for the learning to take place.
We can ensure we learn the skills to manage an online class. We can notice things – we can check in with students and say what we see. We can ask students to stay back after for a chat. We can use email and other online tools to do what we would normally do. We can collect student work and assess it and return it.
These are the things we can control. We can control expectations and the learning activities we provide,
But… there are many things we cannot control.
We cannot control much about the student’s environment at home. Who can hear or see them, what their internet connection is like, or if they are on a separate house party chat while playing Fortnite or Minecraft. We cannot control if they take video or photo of us and then distribute that to their friends or turn us into memes.
These are things beyond our control.
In considering these questions, what became clear was that any attempt to control these things would likely be frustrating, exhausting and ultimately, futile.
Which is not to say we should accept them. No, we should not raise the white flag and let them happen, but we should recognise they will and do happen.
In letting go some of this control, we conserve energy for finding workable solutions and processes that limit the impact of these behaviours for students.
By interrogating some of these concerns, we also have the ability to recognise flawed scripts in our own thinking.
You are worried about parents seeing or hearing you teach? Why? What is it you are doing that you don’t want them to see?
You are worried that students will get help, or that the work is not theirs and you may get a flawed impression of their understanding and achievement? How do you know they do their own homework when you set it? Is getting help still learning?
You are worried that they will make memes of you, or video your lessons and share them? That they are not paying attention? Or playing games when they should be doing something else?
Well, they might do these things, in fact, we know many students are doing other things during our lessons.
What would you do if you caught them doing this in a live environment?
By asking such questions of ourselves, we found solace in leaning on the existing infrastructure of school policies and procedures.
If they take photos or video of you and you find out, follow the normal procedures of your school. Inform their pastoral carers and inform the parents.
How can we make sure they keep their cameras on? Well, we can’t – not really. We can only ask for proof of life and make our expectations clear. If our expectations are not met, we can respond as we normally would.
The key thing is, when dealing with all these situations, let go of the feeling that you can control these things. You can’t.
I have experienced success in many of these areas by creating a clear set of expectations and most importantly, following through.
At the beginning of a class, when we mark the roll and connect, all students must have their cameras on. I also ask they have them on during periods of direct instruction or when answering questions. I also ask they switch them on when they return after a period of offline work small group work.
Students understand that if they are not responsive or their cameras aren’t on when I ask, then they are marked absent and I email year level managers and, if necessary, their parents.
Now, it is not a perfect system, but it focusses on controlling the process, not the outcome. It takes a lot of stress out of teaching classes because I am only working on that which is in my control. I’m leaning on existing school policies and infrastructure for support when needed and above all, I’m not pushing the boulder up the slope, or tilting at windmills, or being drawn into the student bad behaviour dance .
Philosophy without action is of limited use for teachers in this environment. My hope is that by sharing some practical experiences during this time, there may be value for teachers tackling the hard fun that is teaching and learning from home.
Letting go of habits formed over a long period are not easy, but fighting every day to impose impossible standards on both you and your students is a waste of energy and time.
Diving into Twitter is like visiting the social media version of the Mos Eisley cantina. You will find something useful, but all manner of weird and whacky awaits within.
The democratisation of media, manifested by cheap and easy methods of engagement and broadcasting like Twitter, proved an alluring frontier connecting like-minded people around the world.
In 140 characters, one could comment and share all manner of human activities in real time. Heck – the capture of Saddam Hussein was live tweeted by some guy on a phone in a van, beating traditional media and journalism to the punch by some measure.
There are many examples of how Twitter can be viewed as a force for good – breaking down barriers and allowing people to connect and share.
Yet, the reverse is also true. What is good can be bad. The expansion of positive shared commentary means more ugly things about people and society appear too.
Examples of ugly are many and varied, to the point where it can be more harmful and time consuming to engage than not take part at all.
This spectrum of nasty negativity sprang not from the platform, but the people wielding tweets, rich with human failings and foibles, instantly hyperconnected through cyberspace.
Twitter became a fulcrum for trolls, the virtue signallers, the egocentric, the needy. It learned the consequences of the inherent folly in quantifying the value of life via how many followers one has, constructing hierarchies and forming vigilante lynch mobs to mobilise against those who dare not agree.
Twitter is where people go to hate – and in any scroll through your feed you will see everything from passive to outright aggression and bullying that honestly, in a face to face environment, would get people fired or worse.
To be honest, there are limitless depths to discussion of the merits and limitations of Twitter, too much to explore here, but we can focus on where there be be golden treasure to find, particularly in the context of education.
George Couros, Canadian educator and writer, is a big advocate of creating professional learning networks via Twitter. In his book ‘The Innovator’s Mindset’, Couros explains and outlines the benefits of using such platforms to scale up the possibilities for teachers to access best practice in education and tap into the wisdom of the hive.
Sceptical, but open to the advice, I found myself crossing the threshold of the Cantina and dipping my toe into the river Twitter to take the temperature and see what benefit , if any, there was.
One of the great challenges as an educator is to make time to raise one’s head above the day to day and see what else is going on in the world. This is additionally challenging because so much professional learning and development is imposed on us by our context and setting. For better or worse, our exposure to modern trends and best practice is often curated by our employers or wider organisations and networks.
Another challenge has also been the delay in educational research getting from the university or the chalk face, into publication, through the myriad traffic jams and gatekeepers and into the hands of the teachers.
For good or bad, those barriers were breeched through the magic of connectivity. Now, we can directly access the experts and their work without the need to attend expensive conferences or travel the globe.
All you need to do is follow them on Twitter.
Couros suggests that Twitter is a great way for teachers to share best practice and also connect without the impediment of cultural or temporal limitations. Moreover, he argues that engaging on a professional level via Twitter is a great way to foster creativity and growth for all involved.
At the beginning of 2020 I decided to put his ideas into action and jumped on Twitter. In short, there have been plenty of golden discoveries and links to other educators and organisations that have fuelled a bonfire of professional learning and context which is fundamentally changing my views of good and effective teaching and learning.
And in a world where the day to day act of teaching and learning is being profoundly challenged, the insights and connections have proved useful in wrestling with the wicked problem of how to keep the learning going amid the mass disruption for schools and education in general.
In no particular order, here are some things I have noticed:
WATCH WITH CURIOSITY
Admitting to being a Twitter voyeur sounds creepy, but it makes the whole experience more bearable if you don’t feel the need to compete. There is sage advice in the ‘two ears, one mouth’ philosophy of listening more than you talk. In time, perhaps active sharing of ideas and views is something to get involved with, but are plenty of good voices in the mix now. At the minimum, a retweet is enough to spread the virus of good ideas.
SHARPEN YOUR CRITICAL AXE
Well, the old saying that opinions are like a***holes – everybody has one is nowhere more obvious than on social media platforms like Twitter. Meandering around Twitter is like living in a permanent episode of Q and A, where opinions fly around like pollen in springtime. As with any opinion, quality control is the issue and the remedy is to keep a ready hand on your bullshit detector. Questions that have helped me: Is this true? Is this person believable? Is it supported by research? Education is like fashion – there are fads and trends be be wary of, and there are various ‘scenes’ who define themselves by their dogma and self-sourcing ideology. That said, just because we disagree with something doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.
FOLLOW AND UNFOLLOW WITH CARE
Jim Rohn said that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Whether you agree or not, the people and topics you connect with will determine your experience and shape your views. This is a real issue on social media that bleeds over into real life – and why 5G protestors feel empowered to gather in front of Parliament House armed with the ‘evidence’ of the lizard man conspiracy. The simple strategy of remembering why you are on Twitter should serve as a good guide as to who you follow and who you do not. It is a nasty paradox – we must be vigilant not to make the voices we hear too synchronous as we end up hearing only our versions of the truth reflected back. This requires being open to dissenting voices, which is sometimes maddening, but reduces the danger of developing knowledge silos and living in a feed bubble. Which leads me to the next thing:
DON’T TWITTER ANGRY (OR HAPPY, OR SAD) IF YOU CAN AVOID IT
There is a real temptation to make Twitter an extension of your life, and our egos are only too willing to broadcast, especially if we think our ‘audience’ needs to know what we think or feel at any given time. There is a fine line between offering comment and opinion and living your life out loud online. If more people remembered that Twitter is not the place to fix life problems, and that professional ‘scenes’ demand professional conduct, the better off we’d all be. Sure as the sun rises, battalions people will see it that way and there is nothing we can do about it – except choose not to add our shouts to the negative hurricane. Also, tweets live forever – as the older and wiser versions of us are sure to discover with varied consequence.
IF WE TAKE FREELY, WE SHOULD GIVE FREELY
In essence, as educators we should put pennies in as well as take them out. While the belief that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’ is pretty prevalent and easy to live with in the relative anonymity of cyberspace, there needs to be professional courtesy with the sharing of anything. Perhaps the best way of giving to the professional world of Twitter is to be kind and share your own stuff freely when the time comes, not for money. Education is a service industry after all.
The search for educational gold can be challenging on Twitter, as you must sort through the muck and the micah to find it. That said, maintaining connections via Twitter is a critical step for the evolution of our profession and our craft.
While there be dragons, trolls, sharks, leeches and pilot fish, there are also great leaders in education who are as lit up by teaching and learning as you are, and more than willing to share. What is more, most don’t live in ivory theoretical towers and most show a desire to help teachers and students grow into their highest levels of contribution and achievement.
Here are some places to start looking if you decide to jump in – the water is warm, I promise!
The notion of redoubling one’s effort has periodically proved a curious sticking point for me. If you can double your efforts, does redoubling your efforts mean you’ve already doubled your efforts and failed?
With the announcement that Melbourne is heading into deeper lockdown to deal with COVID-19, it feels appropriate to revisit this idea of redoubling our efforts in terms of life and work.
One cannot help but have empathy for those touched by the loss of loved ones, or the disruptive uncertainty of the loss of employment or income and everything else that tumbles out of this pandemic pandora’s box.
Equally, one cannot also help but be grateful for the relative safety and security we enjoy compared to others in Australia and around the globe.
As someone prone to melancholy, finding a way to process this has been a priority. In the process of searching for a way forward, one comfort was that while we might feel like the first people to experience an event like this, the vastness of human experience says this is not true.
The ancients understood how to tackle wicked situations like ours. Seneca, stoic writer and philosopher, made reference to the principle of ‘premeditatio malorum’, or ’the premeditation of evils’. In essence, it is the act of envisioning what can go wrong, or what will go wrong, allowing us to be less shocked when events do unfold.
Modern managers or psychologists might refer to this as a ‘premortem’.
Of course, this is challenging in the dynamically uncertain environment we find ourselves. Imagining every possibility could prove a pathway to madness if we are careless. That said, it might also be a pathway to beneficial action.
We can safely assume that as we enter this next phase of lockdown, things will be harder before they are easier, and it will likely prove much more difficult than what we’ve experienced to this point.
There are many facets to this situation, so many relating to individual context – where you live, what you do, what you can and cannot control.
Speculating on these questions is challenging enough. Some industries will boom. Some will bust. It is certain that the dark angel of circumstance, so to speak, will touch some homes and spare others.
We can also anticipate that the experience of the lockdown has the potential to be very divisive as our varied situations separate us.
Without the ability to move around and interact as we normally would, the temptation may be to withdraw further into the kingdoms, silos and dung heaps of our own experience.
We may be tempted not to talk about how bad, or well, we are going. We may be tempted not to share small joys and victories, to focus only on the thousand cuts or slights, or the dull cadence of routine.
This creeping disunity could represent social fracturing. It will divide society further.
Without doubt, it will continue to unearth the stupid, the selfish and the ill- informed. It will uncover the desperate, the narcissistic, the entitled. It will deepen the chasm between ’them’ and ‘us’.
In times of crisis, wisdom tell us to look for the helpers – and we are all helpers now, to an extent.
At the minimum, staying at home has now become an act of service and courage for all, but for those of us fortunate enough to be essential workers, there is even more to do.
We are laying the track as we go, to an extent, and now know that the dynamism of this situation means we lay this track blindfolded. We can’t be certain of what lies around the next bend.
Yet, as educators operating in the lengthening remote environment, we have a critical role to play. We must keep the learning moving. We need to bring the energy and magic every day, to play something of a role in winning days when every one has a ring of tiresome familiarity.
We do that by being organised, flexible and above all, listening and connecting to students and colleagues.
We can anticipate that the fatigue, cognitive overload and anxiety we’ve already seen will deepen and this may lead to a loss of hope and cynicism about the point of learning.
We can anticipate that nurturing mental health and wellbeing will be the great challenge of remote 2.0 for everyone with a stake in the learning world.
Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of people in education sharing their experiences and doing what good teachers do anyway – adapting and working for others. Teaching is a service, after all.
And what a great opportunity it is to learn new things and also build on what we have already learned in this most challenging of years, whether we are synchronous, asynchronous or semi-synchronous in our approach.
Routine and habit make a huge difference. There can be great power in small acts – asking someone how they are, admitting that you are having a hard day, modelling vulnerability, focusing on good teaching.
Consumption won’t do it in terms of engagement – action and response must be the way. Creativity must be given space to thrive and we need to focus on providing time and space to do what is essential for the learning to occur.
Teaching is a service and when at its best, a team game. Teachers and schools are perhaps even more critical in a time when the home, defined by the context our students live in, will feel a sanctuary for some and a prison for others. Sometimes, this feeling will change from day to day.
We have the power to influence that experience – lesson by lesson, day by day, week by week.
And if we can, through education, play a part in helping a string of good lessons add up to a good day, and those good days add up to good weeks, and those good weeks add up to good months, and those good months add up to good terms, then when we emerge from what must now surely be viewed as the defining event of a generation, it will be with goodwill and appreciation for learning and schools and our role in meeting the challenge of each context.
Surely that is a worthy contribution for us to make as learning professionals…
This book is, perhaps, perfectly suited to the forced isolation of a global pandemic.
Maria Popova is interesting. Her website and blog, Brain Pickings, offers top shelf intellectual nourishment in consumable bites.
Native to Bulgaria, long time resident of New York City, mathematician, poet, reader and consumer of the world, for thirteen years she has curated and shared her passions and interests via the website.
Her book, Figuring, is difficult to classify, other than to say it is a collection of stories about amazing people past and their interweaving and ageless challenges and concerns.
Part creative non-fiction, part biography, part love letter from a voracious reader to the world of books she inhabits and explores, Figuring is a reading experience to be savoured.
Popova is unapologetic in her desire for the book to be challenging and enduring. It raises the big, eternal questions of the human condition. She boldly declared her hope it ‘has the shelf life of a shelf, not a banana’.
The book takes its name, at least to my understanding of the play on words, of a number of significant historical figures ranging from Johannes Kepler, seventeenth century astronomer and polymath, to Rachel Carson, twentieth century scientist and author.
The title also relates to the verb form, as in figuring something out, as these people aimed to make sense of their worlds via science, mathematics and literature. Often, their concern was also directed at the very human challenge of solving this problem called living.
In turn, their figurings contributed a huge amount to our knowledge and understanding of the universe and life within it.
What I most enjoyed, though, was the ability for Popova’s book to bridge the conventional chasm between science and literature.
Figuring demonstrates the long association between these two fields, one that we ignore when applying a binary classification. We hear all the time that people are either artsy-fartsy literary types, or ‘just the facts m’am’ STEM types, left and right brained, either/or and not both.
Well, Popova and her historical figures say hooey to all that.
Kepler, in addition to his work as an astronomer, published ‘Somnium, or Dream’ in 1609, perhaps the first science fiction story. He also acted in defence of his mother, accused of witchcraft, all the while advancing the understanding of the cosmos to an unheralded degree.
Jumping ahead to the first half of the 19th century in New England, the tale visits the remarkable Maria Mitchell, who occupies a temporal space with a hugely influential cast of scientists and writers who cast a mighty shadow over the canon of Western culture.
Mitchell in turn inspires Harriet Hosmer, pioneering sculptor and photographer, then overlaps with Margaret Fuller, journalist and literary critic in a time when women were meant to be quiet.
Overlapping the same part of the world and time, Emily Dickinson writes her poetry from the isolation of her room and self imposed bubble. Later, in the middle part of the twentieth century, marine biologist Rachel Carson writes her long form investigations into nature that capture the attention of the public and spawns what would become the environmental movement.
Peripheral figures to these remarkable stories are actually the ones I admit to knowing better, no doubt because they are celebrated more in the canon I was raised on – Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
As for the central figures, they carried their burdens and had arduous, difficult relationships often suppressed by the demands of society. Many lived tragically and wrote profoundly in stunning clarity. In turn, they inspired and influences each other, often without knowing, fuelling a process of intellectual striving that continues to this day.
They also were obsessed, tormented, blessed and cursed by the pursuit and experience of love and loving in all forms.
Perhaps we should be aggrieved or ashamed that their stories are not more widely known and celebrated, or perhaps they are and my ignorance is exposed.
Either way, these historical figures are, in many ways, perfect role models for those adrift, curious and confined by circumstance.
Most definitely, they are for those who don’t fit the mould.
As mentioned, this is a book to be read slowly and savoured, as much for the depth of Popova’s writing and the need for a break after even a few pages to ruminate and reflect.
If nothing else, in a period where the noisy chatter of mass consumption is so relentlessly dark and apparently insurmountable, there is a distinct joy in escaping into the stories and minds of people long gone who, in their own ways, lived through much, much worse.
As Popova writes, there are many kids of beautiful lives. Now is the perfect time to introduce ourselves to them, if only to provide perspective on our own lives and troubles.
My answer was always teaching, or puberty management when fishing for a laugh.
This answer is true because it focusses on daily activity, which makes sense if you equate your business to your work.
Yet, there is a growing sense of dissonance with this answer. Lately I’ve worked hard to rethink, reimagine and reframe it to declare that the business I’m in is learning.
The original response is based in the reasonable view that teaching is what the work actually looks like. It springs from my thinking, knowledge and expertise, framed by my values, beliefs and principles gathered over twenty years or so.
In essence, it is my job – where I trade my labour for money.
In the teaching business, I am in charge. Everything filters through me and the choices I make, albeit guided by school culture and curriculum. The knowledge I hold is curated and passed over by me.
Yet success for students in this model hinges on the extent to which we turn up, and how much we have to give when we do. Physically, emotionally, this is a tough ask and places a lot of pressure on the ‘heroic’ teacher.
If we shift focus to say we are in the learning business, the board opens right up. All of a sudden, our position as keystone or capstone to the learning process is challenged. We enter the field of play, we take part, rather than coach from the sidelines.
This opens a Pandora’s box for everyone involved in education, often seen in the tension between views of teaching as job, career, or calling.
This is a place of great vulnerability. It requires an admission that you don’t hold all the answers and much touted excellence and perfection is elusive. As many educators and schools embody Guy Claxton’s ‘low risk, high shame’ culture, this tension is even more problematic and wicked.
Then we throw in the context of a return to remote learning as, in Melbourne, we change direction and go back for at least six weeks. To bastardise Shakespeare, we left remote learning like schoolboys from their books. But we return to remote learning reluctantly, with dirty looks.
There is a sudden urgency to reflect on what we took away from the experience. Perhaps what hurts most is the fact we’d fallen for the belief that it was over and we might return to some normality.
This time, there won’t be the shiny tinge of novelty to help the medicine go down.
If we stick with the principle of concentrating on the essential, perhaps the bias should be towards learning, not teaching.
We cannot simply focus on getting through again, setting a course for the other side of this situation and sunnier climes.
The path requires keeping simplicity in mind when it comes to effective and successful learning. What makes learning work in any context? What makes for sustainable momentum?
In my humble view, it lies in doing less, but better. It is creating routines and structures that provide a framework for deep thinking well beyond simple consumption driven, task based education.
We must control the controllable, assuming that students are doing their best. When they don’t, we should point and call that and encourage and cajole. We must make it desirable to attend class for as many students as possible.
Experience tells me that students working in a blended environment, where analogue and digital activities coexist, fuelled by time and space to connect and get feedback leads to some strong learning, even from the couch, kitchen table or bedroom.
It also tells me that we will have little joy in providing endless Sisyphean consumption of worksheets and learning tasks, and engagement will plummet.
It tells me that all the innovation and shiny apps and programs won’t make for impactful learning either, as whatever is going on behind the scenes on other devices is no doubt more engaging than what we can provide.
Of course, I’m more than willing to be proven wrong. You can’t learn anything if you think you know everything.
Which is why going back for a second helping of remote education must be about the learning, not the teaching.
Over the last few weeks, this quotation from author Michael Lewis has been on my mind.
“As I’ve gotten older—I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s—I could not help butnotice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves.
There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. There’s the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There’s the smart person; they delivered the clever put down there.
There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are—in the way you craft your narrative—kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.” And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is.”
In Melbourne over the last week, several suburbs went into lockdown again to tackle a spike in COVID-19 cases. As of last midnight, my neighbourhood joined them.
For a minute our thoughts may have turned to the sense it was somehow unfair. There was a strange resignation as news spread along the streets and we were sent back inside.
It was also certain that the second time we locked down, many people would reveal their true natures, especially if measures were not evenly distributed.
This expected phenomenon revealed itself in social and mainstream media. Views ranged from the childish exclamation of ‘it’s not fair!’ to the downright crazy notion that nasal swabs are really secret government programs to microchip the population like cats and dogs.
Pass the tin foil hats…
So Lewis’ belief about personal narratives and their tendency to be manifest destiny for a lot of folks got into my head.
Perspective suggests that, in the vast history of what human beings have been asked to sacrifice in the interests of the greater good, staying home is pretty low impact.
Of course, the caveat is always on the specific context – fortune delivers me a pretty comfortable place to bunker down.
To be honest, even if it feels unprecedented, which it may be in terms of scale, there have been countless occasions when human beings were forced into isolation by all manner of external events.
The fact we are here to write and ruminate on it is testament to how they got through it, like we will.
Beyond circumstances that people really can’t control, many are completely within our grasp to influence and change.
We know this because generations of people came to this understanding via their experience of ‘unprecedented’ life events.
One such man is Viktor Frankl, who survived the holocaust and spent the rest of his life trying to understand why. He said:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning
As a man who lived through the unimaginable horror of genocide, the wisdom he discovered relates to our ability to choose the attitude we hold towards any event. When linked to Michael Lewis’ idea, it is possible to argue that our attitudes and responses are embedded in the stories we tell about who we are.
Which is a longwinded and indulgent way of saying that when this situation arose, I decided to make the best of it and emerge better somehow.
Heading back into lockdown, the dominant feeling is gratitude for another opportunity to reflect and challenge and learn about the narrative that shapes my character and situation.
For what its worth, for most of my life it would have been negative. I was a complainer, a whiner, a navel gazer. I was very much the man in Stephen Crane’s poem, addressing the universe:
A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!” “However,” replied the universe, “The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation.”
Right now there are many people wrestling with this truth, locked away in their homes or perhaps experiencing some freedom after a long confinement.
And while conceding that the journey is incomplete and perfection continues to elude, without opening up to the opportunity and choice, the entry into shutdown in the second week of a well earned holiday would be very different.
Three ideas central to this openness can be found in Ryan Holiday’s series of books based on ancient Stoic philosophy.
Holiday is an overachiever who now devotes his time and influence to spreading the word of stoic thought and practice, revisiting the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus.
Each book deals with a central concept that is more applicable than ever in the current climate. What is more, the mix of philosophy and historical case study makes them easy to digest, just in case you encounter flashbacks to turgid lectures about philosophy from houndstooth jacketed, monotone academics.
The Obstacle is the Way borrows from Aurelius, Roman Emperor, who determined that ‘the impediment to action advances action, what stands in the way becomes the way’.
In essence, the only way through challenge is through. Indeed, it is valuable to think differently about events like, I dunno, the lockdown associated with a global pandemic, seeing it as an opportunity rather than a burden.
His second book, Ego is the Enemy, challenges the notion that Stephen Crane wrote poetry about. It explores the heavy, destructive weight that ego has on people throughout history. It challenges us to reconsider or explore the widely held belief that we are special and entitled to recognition and success. It poses the question of the impact of living within our own little ego bubbles and how that impacts our personal narratives.
The third in the series, Stillness is the Key, relates to the ability to be comfortable and find peace in just being rather than always doing. This is where the world of mindfulness and meditation comes to the fore. Most clearly, it challenges the belief that getting away from it all was the answer to an unquiet or depleted mind, or you always had to be doing something to live a meaningful life.
This might be the most relevant idea to explore just now. In a hyperconnected world, where there are endless ways to keep one’s mind busy and distracted, how can we learn to sit still and enjoy what we have and be more mindful of the moment? In this way, we may reduce the chances of becoming overwhelmed by the amount of time we have to focus on what we cannot do, both now and in the future.
There was a time, not so long ago, when proud sports fans around the globe felt it so knitted into their DNA that life without it was unimaginable.
Sport, writing as an avowed fan of many, was a perpetual certainty like death and taxes. Periods of sporting cut and thrust mimicked the seasons of life. Every fallow off-season offered time for reflection and for absence to make the heart grow fond.
Spare time, energy and cash was spent on the varied narratives provided by teams and players engaged in sporting endeavour.
This is hard to explain to those who don’t get sport – watching and playing can feel, on some level, like the same thing.
In his book Shoe Dog, Nike Corporation founder Phil Knight described the experience and emotion of watching legendary US runner Steve Prefontaine win a big race.
I’d never witnessed anything quite like that race. And yet I didn’t just witness it, I took part in it. Days later I felt sore in my hams and quads. This, I decided, this is what sports are, what they can do. Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”
Phil Knight. Shoe Dog
Hyperbolic as it sounds, sometimes watching sport does feel like that – not so much that you are watching as you are part of , critical even, to the spectacle.
Many elements build the sporting experience. There is the tribal aspect of choosing a side and standing together as one. There is the sense of the national spirit made flesh in watching our boys and girls compete on the world stage, bringing a feeling of agency and significance.
Sport becomes the place where rivalries are settled, where competition lives, gentle or otherwise.
Compelling sporting narratives keep the fire burning. Underdogs strive in David and Goliath battles and the heroic struggle for ultimate glory and success over adversity. We know the longitudinal joy in spotting a bright young thing and following their trajectory to greatness like a glowing comet. There are Shakespearian falls from grace, gossip, trivia and endless opportunities for analysis, debate, discussion and nostalgia.
There is also the connections, real and imagined, between players, coaches and fans. There are the social links – forensic water cooler post-mortems; after work seminars over quiet beers before, during and after events.
There are the offseason activities, the falling of leaves in autumn as players depart, the fallow winter where other sports emerge and take their position in the consciousness.
There is the hope of spring, renewal of team and timeline through new faces promising innovation and success.
Sport is theatre, delivering drama and joy in a way that life does not always. It is predictable and seasonal and kind in a cognitive sense. That is, of course, until it isn’t.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a wicked problem. It provides an incredibly unkind cognitive environment, where an uncertain opaqueness colours the lives we once took for granted.
Sport has been something to be missed like one might miss their favourite coffee shop over the festive break. It is the regret of your favourite restaurant closing down
Sure, the first few games felt like a cold drink after a long desert walk, but as more occur there is something not quite right, a little bit off.
This pandemic has changed perspectives and offered time and space to reflect without distraction.
In that time before, where endless sports crippled the senses with choice, the cups of the average fan filled to overflowing. Where once there was scarcity, a time before perpetual streaming and beaming, the coming of the internet created something like an all you can eat buffet.
The sporting media, belligerent and invasive, expanded their reach to every weekday and hour, spewing a circular and repetitive narrative that placed itself at the very peak of human endeavour and the utmost level of importance.
Spoiled for choice, permanently connected and crippled with options, the schedule became fragmented and sport became somehow less social. There was once a collective joy in taking something in at the same time, live and in the moment. There was something joyous about sharing these experiences with family and mates.
There was something about the Monday post mortem before you put the sport to bed for a few days and paid attention to other things. Family. Friends. Connections.
When the teams dropped on Thursday night, Friday dawned with the promise of a weekend of sport among the leisure.
After a hiatus, sport in the pandemic doesn’t seem so critical, just a nice thing to have. It certainly adds to a richer sense of living, but it is not essential for a full life.
In time, as we pared life back to the essentials, sport diminished in the primacy and it became something that is just a nice thing to have, not a need to be fed.
.In the grand scheme of things, among all the confected soap opera clashes of sports journalists with nothing to do, one thing has become obvious. Without the games, life goes on.
With the games, played before empty stands and lacking many of the elements that make the experience a great emotional phenomenon for so many, life still goes on, and the sport just isn’t that great.
In time, we will return to it and it will be glorious and engaging. But…well… there is just too much sports to go around. That is a sentence that hurt me to write, but it is true.
Sport is not essential to a rich life, just a nice thing to have. The world turns without it, and that is now the real lived experience as a sports fan, not an imagined phenomenon.
Where once we believed the world might end of they took all the sport away, we now know that this is simply not true.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.