“Throw those curtains wide!
One day like this a year would see me right.”
Elbow: ‘One Day Like This’
Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’ ends with a gloriously optimistic two and a half minutes, with Guy Garvey’s impassioned repetition of the above refrain building to a crescendo. Never has a song so wonderfully and obviously juxtaposed the act of waking up at the start of a new term. No matter how passionately we adore our jobs, no matter how much we are yearning to spread further seeds of knowledge to our delightful young customers, there is always the inevitable feelings of anxiety and lethargy on that fateful first morning. Correct me if I am wrong, but there is certainly no throwing wide of any curtains and heralding this as the day of the year (if you do, you have my profound respect and please contact me directly.) Of course there isn’t: we are only human, we have spent the last two weeks frolicking without fixating on hundreds of adolescents. This anxiety is fuelled by the inevitable dreadful sleep, which adds to the cocktail of uncertainty. Mark Enser’s excellent post ‘Candles in the Darkness’ illuminates this far more eloquently than I can, reiterating that such anxiety: “dissipates like the morning mist” when we return to our beloved classrooms.
What is it that eats away at us as we peel the curtains aside exhaustedly on that initial return to work morning? Unless we are blessed with superhuman steely resolve, it is most likely a lack of confidence and varying degrees of anxiety. Our minds begin the endless eduspin again, particularly at the start of this term with impending exams and fretting in the air like an insipid air freshener. No matter how many countless first term wake ups that have been experienced there are always the inevitable doubts: how do I communicate with young people? What does being a teacher involve again? Learning?!
I have spent some of the break reflecting on these troublesome psychological elements: on confidence and managing stress. I would freely admit to having a tempestuous relationship with both, I have written before on my own more introverted tendencies (not that this is indeed necessary a precursor to low confidence) and continual battles to organise myself better to prevent all encompassing teacher panic and the end of day the day mirror being:
Two excellent Easter reads have nourished a desire to better understand how best to temper these most pervasive of human emotions: ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley and ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ by Haemin Sunim. In the well intentioned spirit of blogerapy (a cunning mix of therapy and blog, just incase there is any doubt), here are some of my main takeaways from each to inform a term in which radiating purposefulness, tranquility and confidence will be the modus operandi.
I have followed Alex Quigley’s excellent blog since its inception many moons ago, frequently inspired and stimulated by his posts on English teaching. His book delivers an amalgamation of practical teaching strategies with a philosophy for growing as a confident and organised practitioner. For the purposes of this post, his thoughts on honing confidence in the work place are most applicable. The book is in part a reflective examination of the nature of confidence, exploring how its perceived evil twins: doubt and insecurity, can in fact nourish us and improve us as teachers. That becomes part of embracing a more confident outlook: doubt will make us measured, make us more considered and fuel us with the desire to improve. Not over analysing feelings of anxiety becomes one way to facilitate confidence. In reality most of us fluctuate wildly when it comes to confidence, as Quigley notes in this encouraging nugget:
“One of the lessons that emerge from my professional experience with colleagues is that many of the best teachers are bursting with brilliance, but they can easily struggle with a seemingly shallow well of self-confidence. Like Bertrand Russell stated, they are full of doubts, about themselves and their ability to teacher well.” ‘The Confident Teacher’ pg 14
One message that radiates from the book is the idea of embracing sustained improvement. Anxiety is mostly generated from misguided attempts at perfection, from seeking to control events that are ultimately uncontrollable, from unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. Stoical philosophy has been harkening this idea of not seeking to influence what we have no control over since Ancient Greece, and Quigley captures this spirit:
“How liberating is the thought that we will never be the perfect teacher? We can end the agonising strain of aiming to be better than our peers. Instead, we can aim to be the best version of ourselves – and just a little bit better at that. It is a goal that proves more achievable, breeding hope.” ‘The Confident Teacher’ pg 52.
It is easy to forget that teaching careers span well a significant scope of time. When I am teaching (‘A Christmas Carol/’Of Mice and Men’?’) as a wizened Gandalf at the age of 105, I would hope to have accrued a lifetime of wisdom progressively, to have patiently grown and developed as a practitioner. Being kind to ourselves to allow this reflective development is a stepping stone to increased confidence. Quigley reiterates the profound value in making time in the exhausting maze of the teaching week to “reflect, refine and repeat what we do in the classroom” (pg 63). This time is absolutely vital, otherwise we are merely on a conveyer belt and will not give ourselves opportunities to improve. Noticing what is happening around us and taking the time to learn from others is another vital way to grow in our own confidence:
“Observing others, in a well-planned manner, can shine a light on great teaching unlike any other method of professional development. It can give us time for reflection and thinking that is all too rare in our hectic working lives. We can see and hear confidence grown and crystallise into practice from such vicarious experiences.” ‘The Confident Teacher’ pg 37.
Now, perhaps one mechanism we can use to power back those curtains on Monday morning is “self-efficacy” (pg 33), or an increased faith in our ability to illustrate change. This is not about blind naivety, as Quigley highlights, it is about nourishing ourselves in the face of difficulty. Our role as a teacher is hugely important, hugely empowering, and we must consider the impact we have to fuel our confidence:
“We must, crucially, believe in our individual agency that we can individually change our lot, even in the most trying of circumstances.” ‘The Confident Teacher’ pg 48.
One reason why confidence can be such an elusive emotion to sustain in the teaching world is the scale of demands, the fact that there never seems to be enough time. WH Auden encapsulates the paradoxical nature of time in ‘As I Walked out one Evening’: ‘O let not Time deceive you/You cannot conquer time.’ You can certainly never conquer time in teaching and it is foolish to try. Quigley’s book includes a wide range of strategies, not in overcoming time, but in working to develop a more efficient relationship with how best use time. Preparation and effective use of time will enable us to feel in control as the week sprints by. He makes the contrast between “fixed time and fluid time” (pg 77) and expands:
“Many aspects of teaching, like lesson planning and giving written feedback, often move between fluid and fixed time definitions. If we do them well, concisely, without any unnecessary excuses, then we can go a long way to making our working week manageable” ‘The Confident Teacher’ pg 77.
This exploration of time leads me delightfully to ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ by a Korean Buddhist monk, Haemin Sunim. I have been (slowly) growing a bit of an obsession with the merits of living a more reflective and considered life and how slowing down would benefit teaching. Initially I wrote this post a few months ago on slow teaching and feedback, now I am turning this into a pedagogical project, a book called ‘Slow Teaching: calm, mindful and outstanding teaching in the busy world of education.’ There are no illusions of grandeur, this is merely an extended attempt at growing as a reflective and more thoughtful practitioner and continuing to develop understanding of how best to teach (and indeed manage teacher well being!) The first chapter is here, any feedback on this novice attempt would be much appreciated.
Back to the masters: Sunim’s book is an inspiring amalgamation of lots of slow and mindful ideas, with some delightful reading on perspective and stress. For teachers there is lots that is applicable: there is much to be gained from refusing to march through the days on autopilot. There might be the temptation to speed up to respond to the diverse demands, but to do so will only lead to exhaustion, burn out or at the very least dissatisfaction. Indeed, deliberate slowing down will enable a more joyful, easeful and calm perspective:
“Those who work in a playful, relaxed manner tend to work more efficiently and creatively. Those who work nonstop, driven only by stress, work without joy”. ‘The Things You See Only When You Slow Down’ pg 31.
There is common sense here: the individuals who are most respected in any professional environment have an ethereal quality, they radiate calm purposefulness and appear utterly unable to be jolted by the day’s events. Young people are aware when they are in the hands of a teacher or individual like this: they in turn feel confident and assured by their presence. In the exam season this vital ingredient of teaching with joy and calm is often overlooked, but is at its most important. Stress, and indeed speed, is addictive and can spread throughout schools like wildfire.
Slowing down professionally will also be a gateway to increased self-awareness, a vital prerequisite to teaching effectively. How can we expect young people to manage their own emotions if we are not fully in tune with our own? Yet with the myriad of contrasting interactions we have in a daily basis in the school environment, detaching oneself to observe emotion can be challenging. Deliberate self-awareness, pausing to reflect on reactions and behaviour is vital:
“When you try to understand something, it’s often most effective to set aside your preconceptions and observe it quietly so that the object of your examination reveals what needs to be understood. Instead of diving into the muddy water of your emotion as a way to conquer it, you should observe it from the outside and let it settle down and transform on its own” ‘The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ pg 44.
Perhaps the most lovely of thoughts to conclude with is the notion of perspective. We are in control of how our mind is functioning, no matter how busy the world appears around us:
“The world is experienced according to the state of one’s mind. When your mind is joyful and compassionate, the world is, too. When your mind is filled with negative thoughts, the world appears negative, too. When you feel overwhelmed and busy, remember that you are not powerless. When your mind rests, the world also rests.” The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down’ pg 13.
So, back to those Monday morning curtains. When the alarm rears its vicious head at the ungodly hour and the temptation is to crawl back into bed, groaning, instead move slowly and confidently towards the curtains. Optimism, purposefulness and calm will radiate from your pores as you draw them back. Perhaps you will even chuckle to yourself: “One term like this a year will see me right…” Thank you for reading, wishing you a confident, slow and calm term.