I am a year on from delivering my Ted Talk at TEDx NorwichEd and it just felt like the right time to share the detail of my talk and to open up some discussion about it. So here is pretty much the talk that I gave. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic in the comments section.
The subject of my Ted Talk came about following a direct message that I received from a woman who had joined our social network NourishEd Collective. She had obviously found me via Twitter and she set about arguing that my ideas about nourishing schools were ‘the epitome of all that is wrong with the education system’.
I’ve heard views like this before and I can see that to some people the notion of foregrounding integrity, wisdom, nourishment and wellbeing seems to miss the point of what schools are meant to be about. I just don’t understand this perspective and when I observe the daily onslaught of what it really means to work in a school in these times, I believe the critical issues (poverty, poor mental health, anxiety, stress, and so on) foreground themselves, shouting much more loudly and stating their case much more stridently than the standards agenda.
My tweetee moved on to state that ‘like a cancer’ my ideas ‘should be cut out’. I have to admit that even I, so rarely off my nourishment soapbox, when confronted with such a strong sentiment felt more than a little upset. In fact, I felt so upset that I was moved to question, momentarily, whether this mission for school nourishment I have, was indeed a distraction, was, as the poster suggested, in opposition to the purpose of education. And so I went back to basics and asked myself — why am I here? Why have I chosen this vocation of education? As usual, the answer came back loud and clear. Because after successive years working in successive schools and observing the challenges faced by so many children and so many educators, I feel compelled to find ways of nourishing, compelled to find ways of supplying that which is necessary for life, health and growth in our school communities.
And this is because as a profession it seems that we have reached a stage of complete overwhelm. There is something so breathless and panic ridden about the pace of life in schools, somewhat governed by the pace of education policy and to a large extent governed by the need to demonstrate improvements in a context in which it is clear we now need to do a lot more with a lot less. Maybe it is a projection of mine but I find it is often easy to get caught up in the pace of life in school, easy to find oneself moving from one meeting to the next without stopping to go to the loo, without breaking for lunch. How many of us school leaders are habitually slightly late for the next appointment and always late home? How many of us rush around with the sense of never quite making it in a present state, ready and prepared for the audience ahead?
And this overwhelm is manifested in all aspects of school life. Teachers are overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations of what is required of them. Frequent scrutiny of marking, of lessons, of progress, the need to be an exceptional class teacher and decipher what this means amidst a slew of information and advice about what it could mean. The need to be a brilliant tutor when your tutees are gifted or struggling, ambitious and yet anxious and when parents share their worries and burdens with you too. And then there is also the requirement to be a good friend, family member or parent with many of us feeling that this is an area that we never quite get right. With friends remarking that it would be lovely to see you in term time too and with family members feeling squeezed into the weekend.
The profession rarely feels a safe place in which to be judicious, to choose wisely, to do little, but do little well. Instead, it often feels to be an acquisitive environment and many teachers and leaders drown in the sheer volume of what is accumulated. For leaders, the job of parsing and paring down what is required of teachers is ever more necessary and for teachers realising that we can not do it all is the reality we must more frequently face. For the children we teach this initiative overload, this accumulation of tools, tips and resources instead of a more considered doubling down is, I am sure, having an overwhelming effect.
For every member of the school community, the stakes have been articulated as being so high for so many years that failure rarely feels like an option. We are connected to the next village if you like, and to the way the next village does things. We know how the school down the road performed and our children know how the child at the local or very distant school performed and so for some of us, it feels as though we have no excuses but must keep striving for more, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing but never slowing down.
And this is why I come back to the naive, soft, ethereal notion of nourishment in schools. To nourish. To supply what is necessary for life, health and growth.
Because, imagine if it were the responsibility of educators at all levels to take conscious steps to addressing our feelings of overwhelm, paying as much attention to this as we pay to other aspects of our work. Imagine the subtle shift that would occur if we tipped the balance from an ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’ culture to an ‘if you can’t manage it, you can’t manage it culture’?
Imagine if we were so conscious about overwhelm, that we named it, called it out and set about reducing it. So for example, if as school leaders we felt it would not create dissonance and would not demotivate but might diminish feelings of overwhelm if we were to say every now and then, ‘I don’t know about you but I’ve been really feeling the pressure lately’.
Imagine schools in which were proactive about talking about stress and overwhelm rather than scared of it. In which immediately that we saw the signs of overwhelm in others, we reached out and offered to share their burden.
For me this act of integrity, this opening up and admitting to the pressures of the system need not be an act of revolt, it need not be a moment of complaining that enough is enough. Instead, it could be a quieter revolution. A revolution that supports others and enables something beneficial to occur and this would simply be the normalising of these feelings for others.
The disingenuous nature of a sector that suggests that if you can’t cope you are the problem is the problem and one simple act of honesty could prove a healing nourishing salve.