This blog starts with an email. It is sent to me. I read it and it asks me to do something at a specific time. This action is something that I frequently do anyway, so it’s no big deal. I’ll definitely complete what I’ve been asked to do for it’s neither difficult, time consuming, nor unreasonable. In fact, it’s the very model of reasonableness and it’s similar in content and tone to so many that I too once used to write. Emails in which I too would ask others to do things that, perhaps, they already were doing. It’s how the world goes round. We ask. We do. We follow the instructions.
If I’m honest, I’ve felt a bit lost of late, creatively speaking that is. I’ve not updated this blog, not written a podcast, not given vent to the more imaginative aspect of who I am and what I like to do. I’ve not filmed anything; my camera roll is looking thin. I’ve managed to write fragments for an ongoing project. And I’ve deleted plenty too. So yes, I’ve felt a bit creatively lost. It’s like there is something that I want to say, something that I need to get out of my system before I can draw a line under this feeling and move on. I need to move on. I’ve not enjoyed feeling creatively stuck. Several weeks ago I thought that the depression that plagued the earlier part of my life was returning. I have the tools now, the learning, the knowledge, the experience to be able to take a step back and analyse this for myself. In truth, it hasn’t returned. I’m not depressed; I’m frustrated. I’m not depressed; I’m stuck. I’m not depressed; I’m following the instructions, and to be honest I’ve had enough of doing so.
We’re all sold a story, a narrative of progression if you like. At heart it is simple: do this; earn that; buy this; you’ll be happy. And, get busy doing it. Now, on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this. Everything that I have ever achieved has been as a result of being functionally busy, of doing the work, of getting things done. And this has served me well for most of the time. Most of the time being busy has been the default setting that has enabled me to get a grip of myself and therefore complete what I’ve set out to do: teach well; an Ironman; marathons; an MA; family life. Great. Busy is good. Or busy is good until you reach the point where your busyness is simply made up of responding to others’ needs, wishes and whims. Busy is good until it starts to crowd out the lonely voice nagging away at the back of your mind…
And that voice is clearly asking one of life’s more difficult questions: is there a different way?
Schools are a testimony to the difficulty of the question. Despite the obvious technological and societal changes of the last 150 years, a Victorian wandering into a modern school would still recognise it as such. From classrooms to staffing structures, assemblies to lessons, essentially things have stayed the same. We follow the rules.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. If I go and see the doctor, I want her to follow the rules. When I trust a school with the care of my children, I want them to follow the rules. Following the rules has given me opportunities enough to be able to live a life that is acceptable to me. I’m grateful that I have learned the rules successfully enough to be, well, successful. In recent years following in the footsteps of others has enabled me to relearn how to live more calmly, more responsibly, more acceptably. But here’s the thing that I’ve been struggling with and slowly accepting: following the rules will only get you so far. If you want to go further, you’ve got to write your own. If you want to truly express yourself creatively, you have to take that leap of faith and you have to ask yourself that most difficult of questions for yourself and by yourself. In the words of James Althusser, you have to ‘choose yourself’.
In my own profession there is a very clear route that we might want to call career progression. It’s easy to see the map play out from where you currently hone your craft to where you want to be. If you learn the rules and follow the instructions it’s perfectly possible to tread the path. It’s the road well-travelled. But it’s also a road that narrows. The further you go, the more rules there are to be cognisant of because, at heart, that is what responsibility looks like. As a school governor I’m acutely aware of the legislation and guidance frameworks within which we operate, and mostly these serve a purpose because they define our common purpose. But however valid these rules are, however developed my understanding of these becomes, it doesn’t stop that nagging voice from pecking away at the back of my mind: is there a different way?
And then the answer hit me. Reading that email brought it all into focus. There is, and it’s been there all along. I’ve just been looking in the wrong place.
I’ve been looking around for different opportunities over the last year. I stepped away from departmental and school leadership in 2014. Since September of 2015 I’ve taught English in a wonderful school that continually recharges and energises me. As such I’ve felt ready to get stuck in again, to progress. To this end I’ve sought out and been involved in experiences that I’ll be able to press into service when I’m ready to apply for a new post. Some of the these experiences have been school based (such as governance) and and others are things that I’ve dipped my toe into to widen my professional skills base: podcasting, motivating, coaching, writing. All the while I’ve been trying to reconcile school-based experiences with the other professional activities I’ve been pursuing. All the while I’ve been looking for the ‘best-fit’ role, for there must be one out there. All the while I’ve been asking myself: how can a message of being happier work for schools, for teachers, for children? How can motivational speaking have an impact on wellbeing in schools? How can coaching in schools transform outcomes? And, most of all I’ve been asking myself: where is the role that unites these?
The email indirectly contained the answer: there isn’t one. I’ve not just been looking in the wrong place; the reality is it doesn’t exist. The email had inadvertently solved the puzzle for me by pointing out that unless I take action to create my own pathway I’m going to enter my fifties still being asked to do the most basic of tasks. I’m not willing to accept that this is where my life is heading.
Of course, the email didn’t directly speak to my current situation. Instead, through its polite requesting that I do something that I ordinarily do anyway served as a prompt, a reminder that unless I start to really exercise my own creativity I’ll be destined, solely, to follow the rules and instructions that have already been written for me. That email jolted me back to the present. It brought me back to a present in which I feel empowered to wholeheartedly create my own roles. Now is the time for me to create my own portfolio as teacher, coach, writer, governor, runner, film maker, photographer, creator, podcaster. This is my manifesto for change. Instead of waiting for the opportunity to arrive in which I can unite these overlapping skills and experiences, I am going to create it. Quite what this looks like, I don’t know yet. I haven’t planned out all of the details, but I have liberated myself from the notion that the only way we make progress in our careers is by following the instructions and the rules that someone else has written before. It’s time to choose myself. I know that I want to continue to teach, and to teach as well as I possibly can. But I also know that I am called to spread the word about how important our own happiness and mental health is. We get one life. My purpose in mine is to help others, both children and adults alike, to live it well. Both inside and outside the physical constraints of the classroom I feel compelled to help others to realise their untapped potential to do so much more than they ever dreamed possible. I’ve written and produced podcast episodes and created content on YouTube, I’ve written blogs and coached. I want to do more of this. I enjoy the feeling that I get when someone takes the time out to say that, in some small ways, it’s helped them out. Now is the time to say that small is not enough. I want to go all in. I’ve had enough of cautiously dipping my toe in the water while waiting for someone else to come along and approve it. I am going to create my own version of a life in which these skills and experiences unite and inspire others to take action, to encourage others to strive for their goals, to succeed in school and in life. That’s the life role I want to create for myself.
It’s been on my mind for a while now. A few weeks ago we had a family day out. We’d travelled north to the seaside town of Morecambe to a water-based play area in a municipal park. We needed to. The weather had been glorious for what seemed like weeks. Summer, although not fully underway, seemed like it had already been with us forever. The air was warm. The sun was strong. The sky was blue. Life was good. We had a few hours to kill before our allotted time in the waterpark, and so, lunchtime being not far away we found ourselves seated in a lovely little cafe watching the world go by and ordering some food. I’m nosey so I had a good look around the place. I quickly realised that all of the patrons appeared to be drawn from the same archetype: late middle age, shuffling from table to door and from door to counter. They were all overweight, the men massively so. Every. Single. One. I could no more imagine any of them enjoying an active life, let alone running, than I could imagine any of them eating healthily. Each was tucking into some form of stodgy food: pies and chips seemed to be a particular favourite. It is no exaggeration. I’m not creating this scenario to serve the point of this blog post, and I’m certainly not passing judgement. I’ve previously struggled as much as the next person when it comes to making the healthier choice. There is no moral value attached to my observation. Here is the point though: I thought to myself that it can’t be by chance that each of these people have found themselves slipping into retirement wearing the same elasticated clothing. They are simply following the rules: we age, we gain weight, we become less physically active. And the rule is a lie. The instruction is flawed. Perhaps the ‘inevitability’ of ageing, and our culturally defined acceptance of it, is the greatest testimony to our ability to blindly follow the rules and follow the instructions regardless of the consequences. It appeared that not a single person tucking in to their food had the imagination to follow a different path.
So, this is it. I can’t afford to waste anymore time waiting for the opportunity to come along in which these disparate strands of my own life come neatly packaged together in a job description that someone else has written. It’s time to write my own; time to tread my own path. I don’t mean this as a defiant act of rebellion. I will always defend the standards that teachers should and must hold themselves to. I’m not a maverick; I have a role and I will continue to do it as well as I possibly can. But I am at that point where I believe that my personal version of progression lies within the wider professional skills that I’m developing. I know I can be of greater use, of greater service, of greater help to learners of all needs wherever they may be found on their own journey through life. That’s where my own journey has taken me, and that ordinary email helped to realise that this is just the start.