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Coordination

Scratching at the bark

In my first term of teaching in 2008 my mum was hospitalised.

She had been unwell for several years. There were some really quite alarming events surrounding her health for us as her family over the years leading to her hospitalization, and there were lots of strange explanations from GPs who clearly, in hindsight, failed to diagnose her illness properly.

Mostly, as her family, we were quite confused.

Until she got admitted.

When she was admitted, her condition in intensive care rapidly declined, until a specialist finally correctly diagnosed her issues and was able to treat the underlying problems.

During her alarming decline, my dad called me to say that this may be it and that I should come and be with her.

After 6 weeks in my job as unqualified, untrained teacher I had to request leave, to go up to London, and to visit my mum in hospital. I wasn’t sure how much time I needed and I said so.

After a few days staying in London with family and visiting my mum at UCH in Euston I had a call from the “Undermaster”.

I don’t really remember much about the call except that he asked “Is your mum really dying?” and said “The kids are missing you”.

At that stage, at 25, it was enough to make me feel guilty and with my mum’s condition improving I felt the I needed to go back. I felt the pressure to go back. Infact in 2008 I was lucky to have a job as a recent MSc graduate.

I had to go back. After all who would look after my classes for one more day? What would happen to my students learning if I stayed away even one more day to help my Dad, to spend time with my mum who I very nearly lost.

In hindsight, and soon after my mums recovery I am ashamed to say that I even questioned my own motives for going to see her. “See, she was fine!” “There was no need to go.” “I just wanted an excuse to not be in work”. This was the self talk I gave myself for a few years until I had convinced myself that she wasn’t really dying when I went up to the hospital in 2008.

My sister put me straight recently. Her memory was very clear. Mum very seriously nearly died.

I realise now, that hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Mum’s situation could have not recovered and I may not have gone. What would I think about myself then? It is very easy to look back at an event and to look at is skewed. Facts just don’t seem the same after an event as they did before.

Unintentionally or not I was manipulated. My senior colleagues’ concern was not for my welfare in light of my mother nearly passing. He just needed me back in work to keep the ship running. Thats true. But it is also true that this motive was probably obscured even to himself.

Teachers really are amazing people. Mostly, they go above and beyond all the time, continually making personal sacrifices in the name of the learning, and of their students. And they can be easily manipulated into doing so.

But where does that stop? When do we draw the line? When is it more important to focus on the wood than stare at the trees or even scratch, up close, at the bark?

Often I think about the focussing illusion and how it impacts our working lives as teachers. I think that this is a major factor in our working, day to day decisions to sacrifice for learning. We spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week, thinking about other people. How to help them learn, how to differentiate for this kid, how to hook in another, how to enthuse, how to inspire, how to bend ourselves backwards and spend all night making whizzy animations on our PowerPoint just to engage a student.

When we are in this mode, learning is the MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL TIME.

Unfortunately, the downside of this thinking like this is that we lose the ability to recognise when learning isn’t the most important thing in the world.

Learning is important in so much that it benefits an individual and enriches society by having well educated individuals collectively. Often we place our students learning above our own wellbeing but no one can keep sacrificing themselves indefinitely.

Eventually you get to a point where you have to stop going the extra mile today, so you can keep walking tomorrow.

In this age of the coronavirus, I hear stories of teachers complaining about loss of learning time if schools close. The focussing illusion is rearing its head again. We are anchored on learning. We think learning is more important than keeping people alive and keeping people healthy.

In this age of the coronavirus I hear other Diploma Coordinators complaining about their teachers who, after staying away from a virus hit country will not come back as the dust settles. They forget that this is now going on all over the world. They are anchored on their schools, on their concerns.

For international teachers, the game has changed. The rules have changed. No longer is it just about school closures in one country. It’s about global travel bans. Border closures. Indefinite quarantine. It’s about family members on the other side of the planet who are now also exposed. It’s about the limited and decreasing availability of flights. It’s about uncertainty about when this may be over. And it will be over, eventually.

And yet, while this forest grows round us, some of our school leaders are focussed on one tree and mending it – school closures and getting them reopened. They forget about the rest of the forest that has grown up around them. They forget about how some of their staff may now have other considerations, they didn’t have a month ago. They will even ignore government advice in their pursuit of re-opening a school.

My mother said its barmy. The UK government wants to self isolate over 70s for up to four months. She can’t understand why COVID is so different to SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Ebola, that causes the global government reacts so. It is hard to comprehend.

COVID is way more infectious than any of these other diseases. It can be transmitted without the individual evening knowing they are infected. Super infectious and super transmissible. Thankfully it isn’t as deadly as Ebola, but is probably 10x more deadly than seasonal flu.

I just hope that school leaders, in their eagerness to re-open schools and get learning on campus up and running again, step back from scratching the bark and look at the wood and the myriad obstacles it presents for their staff.

I just hope that school leaders can be strong enough to allow their teams to be humans when they need to be.

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