28 June 2013

A bit of affective soul-searching

Coucou Madame,

Once again I find myself in a very self-reflective frame of mind. Its seems to be a game of two steps forward (or probably one and a half) and one step back as I blunder my way through the year. It's interesting after years - decades - of feeling reasonably competent and valued professionally, to feel so demoralised by half a year back in the classroom.

It's not all bad - far from it. I feel I have established a good rapport and mutual trust with most of my students but it's the criticism and the way it reaches one's ears that tend to eat away at ones self-confidence. Last thing today, just as I was leaving, I learned from my HOD that she had just been summoned to a meeting where one of my students and her mother were putting a case to the Principal to be moved out of my class 'because she wasn't learning anything from Mrs Bourchier.' I am struggling to keep a sense of proportion, as this is not an isolated criticism. I must be failing to do quite a few things 'right'. Is it a communication deficit, I wonder? I'm not used to feeling so under surveillance. It would be so much more productive if students approached me directly with their grievances rather than my finding out from the Principal via my poor HOD. It makes me think of the French education system and the effect of negative feedback on student learning. It makes you feel off-side and 'anti' and, well, 'nulle', not to put too fine a point on it. And the effect of feeling 'nulle' is that your creativity dries up and you suffer more mental confusion. You become to some extent the person the critics are depicting. Such is the power of a negative (or positive) affective climate, not only in your workplace but in any walk of life. To perform well you have to feel that you have been invested with trust from your management and your colleagues as well as from your students, just as to operate successfully in any relationship there has to be a high degree of good-will and mutual respect.

As you're aware, the students at my school are not strong on autonomy and tend to place the responsibility for the success of their learning squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. It's a heavy yoke to bear, as increasingly the evidence of learning requires more of them than just producing the facts. They need to think, process and infer - skills that they are slow to develop and adopt. I feel I'm working at odds with my NZC-imbued ethos, encouraging as it does, collaboration, connectedness and self-management skills.

Would I be more effective in a different type of establishment, I ask myself? Maybe not.  I recognise that the way I am is somewhat at odds with the classic profile of a teacher. I'm not particularly assertive and this creates problems with students who are used to responding to external discipline rather than internal. The trouble is I don't really believe any more that corralling students in a classroom is the most effective way to foster their learning. I have a high tolerance of what other teachers might regard as 'transgressions'. I don't like imposing my will on anyone. Ergo I have difficulty saying 'do this or else' because for me the penalty for not doing something is missing out on the learning. I have the greatest difficulty with students who feel they're doing things for me rather than for their own learning - those students who won't lift a finger until you impose a deadline, then squeal because you haven't given them enough warning.  The stakes are high, in spite of the NZCs pronouncement that there shouldn't be undue emphasis placed on high-stakes assessment. The whole school seems to be geared to individual success or team success in the case of extra-curricular activities. In any case, it's success at the expense of someone else's failure. That's what I find so hard to accept being non-competitive and inclusive by nature.

In short, I'm not in my Ken Robinson element. I know that there are teaching/learning contexts where I have in the past felt totally in my element. What's changed? I know I have. The frustration lies in not being able to be fully myself, in feeling I am leading a fraudulent professional existence.
The majority of this term has been taken up with preparation for assessment, assessment, post assessment, catching up with people who were absent for the assessment and now writing reports based on performance in the said assessment. Coupled with encroachment on ones teaching time of extended assemblies, students out of class for a plethora of activities, illness etc - it's hard to see where there is space left for real reflection - worthwhile learning.

What should I do, I wonder? How long can I continue to swim against the current? It's interesting to realise the importance of the affective climate in teaching and learning. Can I eventually make a difference, if I'm prepared to hang on until I've 'established my credibility'? This year so far reminds me of another year that I spent in a single-sex school in the 90s and which I remember as my least happy professional year. When I analyse why, the reasons are very similar - lack of professional trust, feeling of being under surveillance, deep conservatism and suspicion of innovative practices.

There are some silver linings to these clouds of negativity. My department and HOD are wonderfully supportive and collegial. They and most of the students are what make it still worthwhile getting out of bed for.

Ps. I've tried to upload some of our puppet dialogues, which the students love doing, but so far the upload has failed. BTTDB !!


  1. Well, I've been back to the drawing board to nut out the video upload problems but am no nearer a solution. I couldn't upload them onto Vimeo or YouTube either. I then incorporated them into a powerpoint thinking I could upload that but no joy there either. I think I'll admit defeat on this one and seek your (or anybody else's) wisdom as to why they keep being rejected.

    1. What an honest and from the heart lens you use to describe what you are living right now. I am going to read again and take in more.
      In the meantime, something practical: the videos:
      1- what did you video with? your phone?
      2- if with your phone, can you not share directly to your youtube account from your phone?
      3- if from another device, what file extension is the file? how big? (although that shouldn't matter but...)
      4- email me or if too big dropbox me on of these files
      We ll have the videos up there and by then your post will have sunk in. Big mismatch: personal and professional beliefs, competences, and philosophy Vs top down institution established around credits counting.
      What to do indeed? I ll be back. But first the pragmatic: where are those puppets clips :-)?

  2. They are wee .mov files made on my iphone. The reason they were rejected by vimeo, they said, was that they were too short - about half a minute. I guess that's the reason they didn't work on Youtube either.
    I had downloaded the clips into my iphoto folder from which I usually have no difficulty uploading photos. As this is not a photo it's not quite the same. I'll try attaching one of the wee clips to an email. That might work. Or dropbox

  3. It's relatively tiny at 21KB or so. It seems to have sent itself off successfully.

  4. Further to my ramblings above, my rather negative state of mind - generated by a constant feeling of being on a conveyor belt (reminiscent of the one in Ken Robinson's RSA animate on Changing Education Paradigms) has the effect of alienating me from all that wonderful stuff I've been feeding my mind with over the past 5 years or so, and wondering seriously whether it's uptopian in my present circumstances. Whereas I might have been a bit dismissive of teachers who made the excuse of lack of time for not being more open to new ways of doing things and innovative pedagogy, I can now see that in a particular type of institution you have to be unbelievably strong and resilient to uphold your beliefs in the face of the prevailing very traditional climate. Pedagogy is rarely mentioned other than in my own department and it's something that the principal seems to have little understanding of. If there were support from the top to foster student autonomy my life would be transformed. I would feel supported rather than inadequate. As long as the responsiblity for student success is foisted onto the teachers then there will be little incentive for the students to become more self-determining. I end up having clandestine subversive conversations about this with selected individuals behind closed doors. We all know why but are powerless to effect any change.

  5. Could not contain thoughts arising in a comment box, so took it there http://back2board.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/a-good-question-is-one-that-leads-to.html


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