teacher in rehab

First off, an admission: I’m a recovering teacher. 

I had a chronic case of MCS (Measurable Criteria Syndrome), so I quit. Quit teaching in a classroom, that is. Mindfulness said: Enough. Be kind to yourself. Recover. So I did. Or, at least I think I did. It’s kind of an ongoing thing.

Part of the recovery process involved doing research into whether you can bring mindful awareness into your teaching practice; that is, whether mindfulness can help cultivate a sense of agency and identity in a school context; specifically, whether it could help me encounter education in its current performativity incarnation. 

So I did the research, then I left. 

Why? Because its incarnation was undermining my health and relationships. Hence, the current rehab. But the research did help me with something important: namely, how to detach myself from myself. How to be open, observant and objective. I wasn't out to knock the system. Well actually I was, but mindfulness stopped me. It whispered: embrace the paradox. Then I found the space to make some interesting discoveries about what it means to be a teacher. 

Being a teacher is representative of so many other identities. After all, we're all teachers, aren't we? I mean, there's definitely someone out there waiting for you to teach them; someone who needs your knowledge, expertise, your help. Someone who is relying on you to impart, signify and inspire. It doesn't matter who you are or what you do, at some point in your life you'll be called upon to teach. So teaching is significant. It's particular, but out of its particularity we derive something universal about what it is to be human.

One thing I discovered about the symbiosis of being a teacher and being a human is that the essence of both is about moments. Immeasurable moments. Moments unshackled by perceptions of what it is to perform. For a teacher that means being a teacher rather than doing the job of a teacher. And being a teacher is about role modelling the necessary struggle that underpins learning. And yes, I’m on Team Knowledge, and I totally get it if you want to be Didactic, Pedagogic or a Subject Expert (the holy trinity of teacher identity), but regardless of preferred epistemological domain, it still comes down to you being able to role model what it is to be a vulnerable, uncertain learner, and how you go about unpeeling yourself from that. And I say ‘unpeeling’ because it’s kind of sticky and messy, this learning thing: it requires experiencing success as the reframing of failure. A perception that, in itself, seems to me to be mindful.  

However, for the purposes of this post let’s circle back to this notion of recovery. Or, more succinctly, the rehab required from our experiences of formal education. It maybe that we’re all recovering in some way from our experience of formal education, whether as teacher or student. After all, I'm sure most of us would say that our formal - and informal, for that matter - experiences are often not the best. In fact, they’re usually one of endurance and compliance rather than engagement in something remotely resembling a worthwhile, actualising experience. Education, it seems, is something you must get through: rather like medicine you must take, or soggy veg you have to masticate.

Curiously enough though, when I ask teacher colleagues what they got out of school themselves, and whether school prepared them for this thing called ‘life’, they usually of um and ahh a bit, then smile knowingly as if to say, yeh… how come we’re getting away with this shit? How come it’s still like this? Then they usually go back to marking, planning, phoning a parent, pencilling in a meeting, inputting some data. There’s a lot of automaticity involved. It might even be selective amnesia. Either way, it puts me in mind of the Upton Sinclair quote: you can get a man to believe anything as long as his salary depends on it. Come to think of it, I guess that’s why I put up with MCS for so long.

Let me ask you though: what did you get out of school? Did it prepare you for the sleepless night you had last night, when the baby was teething, it’s rear red raw with nappy rash? Or for when your parent, close relative, or friend was dying? Or what about tonight, when you found yourself caught up in that brain-numbing queue at the Mall? Or just now, when your seven-year-old siloed another belligerent bout of eye-rolling at you? Or when that asshole cut you up on the freeway? Or when you found yourself ruminating over the text that never arrived; or the love interest who never returned your smile? How did education prepare you for all of that? You know, the stuff you’re just expected to learn. The stuff that most of us are beyond useless at? The stuff they call the School of Hard Knocks? Come to think of it, why isn’t there a School of Hard Knocks? I’d go. I’m up for a starter, a main, and a plenary in that school. I’d engage.

Because here’s the thing, I still have these misconceptions. I still keep on getting it wrong. And no matter how much I earn, consume, or numb my perceived pain, I still feel unschooled in how to encounter all of that. And while we’re at it, where does ‘all of that’ fit into the marketised world of what’s known as ‘value-added’?

Are we asking these questions? Or are we too busy sitting in quiet anguish - all Larkinesque - avoiding the things we feel we must say – to our boss, our partner, our present or absent parent – because we never learned how to encounter ‘all of that’? Perhaps what you do instead is push it all away: push the pesky, yukky, downright visceral stuff away, as you settle for the white heat of comforting inebriation.

It seems curious (to clumsily paraphrase Eliot’s Prufrock), that we measure out our formal schooling in key stages; in traffic lights of green, red and amber-hued simulacra of progress. Then, suddenly, we find the key stages have gone, they’ve disappeared, like Shelley’s lone and level sands that stretch far away. Somehow we got to Key Stage 5, but then it all just ground to a halt. Why is that? Can somebody tell me? Because I want to know what happens at Key Stage 6? Why is there no key stage 6? Because education seemed to imply there would be this comforting linearity: if I knuckled down, that is. So, what is Key Stage 6? Is it the apprenticeship, the internship, the debt-dazzled dependency of University? And what about Key Stage 7? Is that the first of the many careers? Or Key Stage 8? Is that marriage? Key Stage 9? The first child? Stage 10? Divorce?

Why didn’t I get schooled in those key stages? By my reckoning I’m on about Key Stage 29 now, or thereabouts. But I don’t feel prepared. And I’m diligent too. I’m hard-working. I do as I’m told. I know my place. So what happened to the linearity? I thought I was going to get linearity. Or was that just a convenient story I was told? Am I just being told stories? Is that what was meant when my English teacher taught me about the unreliable narrator?

Recently I was at the gym, stretching on a mat, when the dude next me said, hey, is it Mr Reck? Remember, me? I’m Jack. I used to be in your class. About 2006? I was hard work. Always pissing about. Surely you remember me?

Sorry Jack, I don’t. A lot of kids pissed about in my class.

Yeh, but I really pissed about.

No Jack, if you’d really pissed about, I’d remember you. You probably just thought you pissed about.

God, you teachers. You always looked so tired. You always worked so hard. You always seemed so under pressure. So knackered. I don’t know how you did it. How did you put up with it? I mean, the behaviour for a start? How did you put up with that?

I felt tempted to quote Upton Sinclair, but I let it go.

Hey Jack, I said. Good to meet you again. Call me Chris. You’re looking well, Jack. (He did look well. My seven-year-old met him later and said: Wow! Jack has an amazing six-pack. Cue my turn for belligerent eye-rolling.)

I think I do remember you now, Jack. What are you up to these days?

Jack told me he had his own media company. That he made good money.

Then he said, I learned absolutely nothing at school. I run a successful company now and there’s nothing I learned at school that helped me prepare for that. Mind you, I hate the media. I hate social media. I hate all that. And you know what? I don’t sleep well. I smoke too much weed. Can’t stop. I know it’s bad for me, but I can’t stop, and I hate that. That’s what I struggle with. Perhaps school should have helped me with that? It’s like my quest now, Chris. Kicking the weed.

Well Jack. It’s funny you should say that…

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