Why We Quit Teaching

The reader who respects the right of the bomb victim not to have the graphic photo of his dismembered body displayed onscreen will forgive us for presenting a very selective account of our reasons for leaving the teaching profession. Confessions can be a pleasure to read, but they can be painful to write. We certainly do not want to go into the details of how, for instance, our modest attempt to encourage the spirit of self-organisation in the classroom led to the students organising themselves and electing a spokesperson, who stood up to give a long, well-composed account of our failings as a teacher. Such moments of profound humiliation are too painful to recount.

So, we would much rather concentrate on the less personal and more political reasons for leaving the teaching profession – reasons having to do with our complaints about the profession as opposed to the very justified complaints that others have had regarding our suitability for it. And yet, perhaps, something ought to be said about the mistakes that were made along a very personal journey. It would be nice to think that one or two young people thinking of entering the profession could be saved from making the same mistakes. Nice, but vain. Nevertheless, we will mention the first big mistake: the foolish assumption that a passion for the highest pedagogic ideals was enough.

Rousseau was right, at least about that. The instruction of that great writer was for children not to have access to more than two books in the course of their education. Every teacher was a child once, and a childhood spent largely in the company of books can be a dreadful preparation for a career in teaching.

Morrissey’s line: “There’s more to life than books my friend, but not much more,” was fun but false, at least for trainee teachers, for whom the line ought to have been: “There’s more to life than children my friend, but not much more.”

There are people for whom books are not a source of information, but a refuge from the buzzing, booming confusion of social life. An effective test for that personality type needs to be developed, and then used to ban such people from entering the profession. We wish that ban had been in force all those years ago. It would have nipped things in the bud and spared us so much (although who knows what fires we might have leapt into from the frying pan of education).

If, as they used to say, there are two types of life: the life of action and the life of contemplation, teaching belongs very much to the former. Apart from brief periods climbing rocks and walking up hills, our entire life prior to entering the teaching profession was a life of contemplation. Even the rock-climbing and the hill walking were intended to aid the contemplation of things that could only be considered properly from a great distance – a distance that negated the need for an immediate response. There are no such heights or distances in the classroom. It is one of those many places in modern society where contemplation is impossible – a place not for meditation but for a form of action as intense as any Red Bull-sponsored extreme sport.

Right from the start it was a silly mistake – the start being another walk in the hills, coming down Causey Pike on the path to the village of Braithwaite in the Lake District. The sun was shining, and at a point looking down on the tiny village, and on a short level section with a wide vista across the lake towards the town of Keswick in the east, a sturdy wooden bench had been erected. There was a small brass plaque embedded into one of the timbers – a plaque bearing a dedication to the memory of a teacher from the village below. Some strange mixture of sunshine, altitude, the view, and an imaginary picture of a small rural school animated by a respect for all that was good, combined with other factors more obscure, combined perhaps with an element of despair (for there was always an undertow of despair) providing a dark background against which the bright could appear astonishing, and a yet more pronounced element of confusion (we had finished our postgraduate studies but still had no clear idea how to make ends meet), created the conditions for something close to an epiphany. If the word “vocation” has anything to do with the word “voice”, that was where the voice was heard. And the voice said: “Teach,” not in the academy that our postgraduate studies had prepared us for, but in a small rural secondary school such as this – the sort of school that erects wooden benches in local beauty spots in the fond memory of its finest teachers. To work with humility towards the point at which one’s memory might live on as a wooden bench given pride of place in a local beauty spot – what finer life could there be?

How deceitful those voices can be.

It was a while before we actually set foot in a school, but simply walking through the school gates shattered the epiphany. In the interview for a place at the Nottingham University Teacher Training School they had asked for our opinions about what makes a good teacher. They had forgotten to ask us about our own experience of school and whether we looked back on that string of old schools as places of fulfilment or as scenes of a slow but excruciating torture.

As soon as we walked through the gates, the memories – long forgotten while we were reading things like Dewey’s thoughts on education and democracy, and planning how to uphold the highest ideals – came flooding back. They were both dreadful and debilitating. On that first morning we ought to have turned round and left.

We had already visited the Mediterranean and sailed past a rocky outcrop with a lighthouse on it, and been told that there was still a need for lighthouse keepers. We should have immediately left education and set about finding a vacant lighthouse. Stupidly, we felt obliged to stick at it. Surely the demons could be confronted and overcome, we thought. But they could not.

In those first weeks teaching in a Nottingham secondary school the only good memory of school that returned to us was the following: At the age of seven we switched schools because our mother had got a job teaching infants there. She would stay behind at school for a while each day, tidying up and preparing for the day to come, and we would leave our classroom at the end of the day and wait in hers while she was quietly going about her business. In that empty classroom with the large windows filling the wall looking out onto the empty playground and letting in a sunlight that seemed to be welcomed by the empty space, there was a tranquillity that was magical.

No one whose fondest memory of school is of an empty classroom is going to make it as a teacher.

You will forgive us for leaving aside the rest of the personal aspect of the story. The decline from those first weeks – because the entire story is one of unbroken decline – is too painful to recount. Nothing is more painful for the man of knowledge than to have to admit how ignorant he has been about himself and his complete unsuitability for something he dedicated such an important part of his life to.

So on to the political. This may seem to be less important, but it is not. The personal reasons for quitting concerned primarily the demons of the past. Kant’s great discovery a decade or so before the French Revolution was that the past is a figment of the imagination. We cannot count, he argued, without holding in our imagination the numbers that have already been counted. The faculty of the imagination that makes counting possible is the same faculty that makes it possible for those demons of the past to tyrannise the present. And this is the same faculty out of which ideas can emerge about the future – ideas that might attain such a force when shared by others that the haunting memories of the past are pushed to the margins of insignificance.

If there had been an inspiring politics of education guided by great ideas springing forth from the abundant fertility of a radical social imaginary, there might just have been a hope of saving the situation. The inspiration provided by what they used to call a shared praxis might have freed us from a state they used to identify as specifically bourgeois: the state of being trapped in what feels like a personal hell. But we did not find ourselves in the midst of any such movement.

Discussions of education – formal education – tend to focus exclusively on what happens in the classroom, ignoring something of equal, if not greater, importance: the division of labour. Education is divided up into subjects, and teachers are assigned to these very narrowly defined pedagogic boxes. There is some discussion within those boxes about how best, for instance, English teachers can teach English and maths teachers can teach maths, but there is little or no discussion that goes back, as they say, to basics, and discusses education as such, both formal and informal, and its aims, and what we lose sight of when we assume that everything is fine as long as English teachers are teaching their subject well and the maths teachers are teaching their subject well and so on.

What interested us most about education was what falls through the gaps between the subjects. Unfortunately we didn’t managed to find a group for whom those gaps were the real issue.

Teachers generally are trapped in an ossified institutional structure that excludes the possibility of a meaningful dialogue about what our vision of the educational project should be. And the changes made to that institutional structure in recent years (to do with the marketisation of education) have exacerbated that exclusion. It is considered an advantage if people begin teaching without having had the chance at university to reflect upon the intellectual traditions from which the principles of pedagogy have emerged. No, teaching is a job to be done; get in the class and get on with it; and the exam results will provide a perfect indication of your efficiency. Just as the car mechanic has no need to understand the history of mechanics to be a good at his job, so the teacher has no need to understand anything about history in order to be a good teacher. It’s simply a matter of mastering the technicalities and getting on with the job.

A title of one of the approved manuals comes to mind: The Craft of the Classroom. Teaching is a craft; if the craft is mastered everything will go smoothly. It is never part of the job of the craftsman to question what exactly is or ought to be going so smoothly.

So the situation offline was utterly uninspiring, but that was before real life became known as life offline. With the advent of the internet there was a hope that a more searching dialogue might begin and a movement gather pace. The impression we got, though, found us agreeing with those characterising the internet as a digital buoyancy aid, keeping people forever on the surface of things, making it even harder to plumb the depths, allowing, for instance, an endlessly rushing stream of 140-character interjections to keep one from working slowly through Rousseau’s brilliant 480-page work on education entitled “Emile”. The internet – especially the social media – create a much more intense sense of what is trending now, this very minute, giving the now a renewed temporal significance that makes it harder than ever to give the past the attention required to prevent the present from becoming a mere moment in a rather thoughtless process of cyclical repetition.

The internet exacerbates a tendency that was already there long before: the fondness for blank pieces of paper. One of the defining gestures of modernity is to turn one’s back on the past and insist that we begin again from scratch. Whatever was said in the past was vitiated by woefully mistaken ideas so we must work the answers out for ourselves using our own resources.

The same attitude is seen in discussions of education online. There is the assumption that a new epoch has begun – an epoch so new that the past cannot possibly be a guide. There is talk, for instance, about an autonomy, a freedom, a liberty that have only become possible with the invention of the silicon chip. Prior to that humanity was enslaved in a pre-digital tyranny. In this radically new state only radically new ideas can possibly be valid. And so any suggestion that we might still learn things from the fourteenth century, for instance, comes to seem ridiculous. And it seems pointless to go back and read things like Jakob Burkhardt’s book on the Renaissance and note that “The Italians of the fourteenth century knew little of false modesty or of hypocrisy in any shape; not one of them was afraid of singularity, of being and seeming unlike his neighbours.” (p99) No, neither the utterly singular Italians of the Renaissance nor the long-dead Burkhardt could possibly have anything to say that might illuminate the astonishing novelty of our situation. The past is dead. The present is the future.

Perhaps this refusal of the past is what explains the shocking inability to develop a way of thinking about the future that avoids being a thoughtless affirmation of the dominant trend. Among all the excited talk about the numberless new tools that liberated teachers must be aware of and keep up with there are occasional reminders that what really matters are the ends to which the tools are put, not the tools themselves. A very important reminder, but the talk of those ends is drowned out by the awe-inspired praise for the bewildering array of means. With so many tools to become familiar with who has time to waste quibbling about the ends?

Having spent the entirety of the third decade of our life – perhaps the decade in which the chance for happiness is most easily seized – in a cloistered study of the history of ideas from the Socratic insistence on leaving the cave of the everyday, through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment struggle with the forces of darkness, and the Romantic critique of the darkness of the Enlightenment – having steeped ourselves in all that and more there was no way that we could join a movement that regarded two and a half thousand years of intellectual enquiry as no longer relevant to the debate about how best to flip classrooms and do everything else that may or may not be involved in dragging education into the unprecedented century we now find ourselves in.

Instead of finding a new source of hope, we despaired. But in our despair we learnt something. We discovered the error in our original desire to find a revolutionary movement. It is not just that talk of revolution has now been reduced to a sales pitch. More importantly, the revolutionary gesture of turning your back on the past and wanting to begin again from year zero (and people talk now about the 21st century as if the clock was reset at zero at the end of the last hour of 1999) is now the height of conservatism. In an epoch in which, as Marx put it, “all that is solid melts into air” the insistence on sublimating the remaining solids is essentially conservative. Breaking with this tradition has to involve a reappraisal of the wealth that was trashed in the insistence that the present achieve a total liberation from the past.

We are grateful for the lesson. However, we only learnt it in measuring the distance between ourselves and the movement we were hoping might lift us out of our personal hell. And in dwelling on our inability to join those fighting online for the learner revolution it became clearer to us that the only sort of education we were really interested in was completely impractical. The revolutionaries can argue that they have history on their side. They are in tune with the most progressive tendencies that are liberating individuals to become co-creators of something wonderful. The force of the critique is aimed against the dusty solidity of the old educational institutions, demolishing whatever seems to impose a form on the children’s lives that would make them unfit for this new order of supposedly spontaneous co-creation.

Unpersuaded that these co-creators would have any profound grasp of what exactly ought to be created in this very busy business of co-creation, and unpersuaded that a faster and more fluid order would be less barbaric than the older, more solid one, we realised that the only education we really wanted was one that would make children unfit for such a dubious world. Although we too in our earliest dream of the wooden bench and the harmonious village wanted to prepare children for the world, we slowly realised that what we really wanted to do was exactly the opposite.

It would be tempting to say that the emerging high-tech world is not fit for the children who are being fitted into it, but to say that would be to hold up the child as a measure of all things, which we certainly wouldn’t want to do. That is another area of disagreement with the online movement.

There is that dreadful moment in one of Ken Robinson’s talks, for instance, where he takes the fast-paced demands of the multi-tasking high-tech child for whom trigger-happy play is everything as a standard to lambast the sluggish, low-tech monotask classroom where something less playful is the focus of attention. Or, more generally, there is the assumption that what spontaneously goes on in the playground is good, and it is only when the bell goes and the children are called to enter the more orderly world of formal education that things need to be criticised. Or, even worse, there is an assumption that out in the playground there is a spontaneous horizontality that then gets crushed by the verticality of an educational structure built by adults. Were we just unlucky in having an experience of infantile playgrounds that negated all of these assumptions? In our experience, it was the playground that was hellish, by comparison to which the classroom felt like a haven, where there was someone in authority able to keep the barbaric elements in check – elements obsessed with a violently vertical ranking of everything. Sorry, but the opposition between the good child and the bad school is another piece of pedagogic thoughtlessness. We couldn’t possibly sign up to a movement that only sees a problem in the ossified institutional structure of formal education and doesn’t see the equally pressing problem in the instincts of the children themselves.

So, having failed to find a movement that might have lifted us out of our private hell, we simply declined to the point that our students told us bluntly that we were failing. As others have done, we left the classroom to eke out a living as a private tutor – a relief in the short term and a step in the direction of damage-limitation, but it did nothing to halt the longer term decay of the spirit. The private tutor really is the pedagogic equivalent of the prostitute – paid to obediently sustain a mentality that is purely instrumental. It is all a means to a pre-determined end, with no scope for pedagogic ideals. Yes, there is scope for experimenting a little with a few online tips and tricks, but nothing that would allow the teacher to become more than a hired technician. In the discussion prior to being employed no one asks: “What is your vision of education? We are deeply troubled about the way civilisation has taken on the character of a runaway train – a train that must be stopped by people with education enough to know where the brakes are. What can you do to help this young man appreciate the gravity of the situation?” No, the question is always: How quickly will he be able to get the certificate?

Other private tutors have welcomed the chance to monetise their skills as online edupreneurs. For us, if we had to pick out the single-most depressing development in education in recent decades, it would be the rise of the edupreneur. The Thatcherite marketisation of education was bad enough, but that was imposed from above, and one could still believe that perhaps all the forces from below tended in a very different direction. The rise of the edupreneur represents the auto-Thatcherisation of people who ought to realise that if there is something as anti-pedagogic as the cane it is the market.

From time to time we still watch the old footage from places like Orgreave in 1984, cherishing the memory of a time when it still seemed as if the miners might win. On that basis, there was no way we were going to become the educational equivalent of one of the scabs. No, we would not become edupreneurs.

Having begun with the most rousing vision of a teaching career one could be proud of, we ended up in the seediest quarter of education working as a sort of pedagogic lap dancer. In the end, what got us down most of all was not the fact that there would never be a wooden bench, but the reduction of teaching to mechanics. The systematic exclusion of a thoughtful idealism was just too depressing.

To cope with the loss of those ideals we find ourselves doing the same as everyone else: escaping. All the hopes of some great historical engagement are gone. All those push-ups and chin-ups to keep us fit enough for the barricades were, finally, for nothing. Instead of a great engagement we now find ourselves living in perfect harmony with everyone else – all of us united in our passion to escape.

While we were in education, we were continually looking for something. Having found nothing, we left and opted for something where there was never any question of continuing the old search. Although we had always been intrigued by Beckett’s “I can’t go on; I’ll go on,” we discovered that in our case it would have to be: “I can’t go on; I’ll stop.”

written by Torn Halves on October 7, 2015 in digital revolution and education with 9 comments