“How do you do it, Dad?”
That was the question my eldest daughter asked me on one of her home visits from university. She was referring to my propensity to get additional sickness leave.
I had just been to see the local authority’s occupational health therapist. After being led through a maze of corridors, I sat in her office awaiting an inquisition that never came. Instead, a rather polite middle-aged woman explained the procedure. She then asked me questions about my state of mind and about what had brought about my illness. It was gratifying that so many professionals had been speaking of it as an illness when other dubious onlookers were probably thinking of shirkers. The need for constant explanation of oneself is something that I was beginning to get accustomed to. Between my explanations, she asked some questions and then noted down my responses. All this would be going on file somewhere for unseen eyes to peruse and evaluate. A little voice was telling me that my condition was imagined and that I only fell into it because I couldn’t do the job. In some ways, after years in education, it was correct.
The job has changed beyond recognition. Teaching has moved from being a force for personal liberation to one that tied everyone to systems and false assertions. A new breed of teacher does not question the system but embraces it. The system is no longer up for debate. Certain nebulous ideologies have been allowed to take root and spread to every school and institution where education is practised. For anyone with a rebellious spirit, especially teachers, education is not a place to be.
One of my favourite references came from a local adviser with whom I worked on a number of occasions. He wrote that I was, “a maverick and unmanageable.” On discovering this I felt a deep sense of betrayal before I took the more sanguine view that his words were not as damning as I had first assumed. Okay, so the intention of the words was that people would be warned about my ego-centric approaches to the job, but what they actually said was that I was a free-thinker who didn’t just accept the party line. Socrates would have been proud of me whereas Aristotle would have had me throttled. Unfortunately, Socrates was forced to drink hemlock as punishment for corrupting the youth of Athens. Although the drinking of hemlock is a practice that is not allowed in modern education, I think it has been usurped by the public poisoning of personality and the threat of fiscal repercussions; if we choose to not conform.
The new breed of teacher is unaware of this. They have been raised in an age where educational absolutism has become the norm. Super teachers, super heads and super schools vie for prominence in the local press, the league tables and within their very own backyards. How many schools invest in banners announcing their brilliance after summer results? How many come clean and broadcast the fact that they are average or just below?
None of this was said at my interview with the occupational health therapist. Some things were touched upon, such as the madness of Ofsted and of the obdurate English department who I had sought to lead to, what I hoped would be, a successful conclusion. I probably said a few more things but can’t remember; the jelly in which I was living often blocked out much of what went on at the time. I can remember that she rubber-stamped my madness with the statement that captured her thoughts; I was unfit for work. A certain vindication seeped into me and I walked back home in the knowledge that there was something definitely wrong with me.
“How do you do it, Dad?”
“I think madness has a huge part to play in it.”
That to one side, one of the better things to emerge from the meeting was, not the additional time off from the institution but, the fact that it had been arranged for me to undergo a series of sessions with a counsellor.