Messing with Perfectionism

When I draw, I like to leave the sketchlines showing. Those words are from a song, metaphorically describing my desires for explorative, transparent communication processes in relationships. But most writing I share is produced with an invisible digital editing process.

A ‘zine-in-a-day’ workshop counters this digitality. We made physical stacks of printed material by cutting, pasting and writing with ink pen and printing with a Risograph printer within a few hours. With a risograph printer creating a master costs £1, after which prints cost 1p in ink, but the master can only be used for one batch: so making all the copies in one batch is the most efficient option. ‘I always think you might as well do 50’, the workshop leader told me. 30 was my compromise.

My project was personal and therapeutic: to reclaim my PGCE assignment. I’d submitted a draft a week before. Writing had been an up and down experience, spread over more than a year due to the disruptions to my course. My engagement with it had gone up and down with the normal difficulties of writing, and more personally with the processing of my experiences in schools from messy reality tinged with failure and anxiety into professional learning experiences. After many periods of serious avoidance and procrastination, and two full restructurings, I got well into it. Rediscovering educationalists who are dedicated to good pedagogy and who write research that is good for thinking with heartened me– in particular Askew, Resnick, Boaler. A coursemate’s kindly shared submission met the explicit learning criteria exactly but bored me stiff, making me value my attempts to include my ambivalences and cross the gulf between systemic critique and classroom practice.

Writing between the lines of my conclusion, literally as well as figuratively, re-claimed my ideas on my own terms, for an audience of my peers and community rather than my assessors. What I handed in was written in the academic register, and trod a line between criticality and compliance. Many of the thoughts which preoccupy me most were not incorporated, or were written in muted forms. I may still get feedback to cut the polemic and focus more on the classroom, so before dealing with that I wanted to value my personal experience and political rage, and mourn how these raw edges are controlled and smoothed over by professionalism.

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Paper based production challenged my perfectionism in writing. My choices of writing fast or slow, my hesitations, my corrections are all visible in the printed zine. I drew skyscrapers and some suits with currency symbols on them pulling puppet strings, and then self-consciously scrawled ‘generic clicheed representations of gneoliberal capitalism’ over them. It is unclear, and chaotic in places. I overwrote my nod to the examiners that “the capacity to convey enthusiasm, [threatened by the isolation and overwork of the teacher’s role,] is ‘a core Teacher’s Standard’” to the point of illegibility with the comment ‘like I give a shit about standards; this was a question of sanity’. I touch on ideas without finishing them, leaving threads of thoughts hanging. It’s a messy area in a way that a composed piece of writing never can be.

At the last minute I used this bit of writing to make a B-side poster fold out. I handwrote on the side ‘sometimes, when conversation fails, I end up sitting by myself and writing’ and ‘This zine is for everyone who’s been around me as I’ve been withdrawn and/or needy through my PGCE years. And everyone’s who’s grappling the role of teacher …’. I then accidentally made a black master before changing the roll to a light ink, so the text as image behind the text didn’t work. With that and another printing fail I’ve got a one-sided zine. It would have been good to have something that I liked on the poster side – but I’ve shared what I did produce with a few people anyway, and shall continue to do so when socially appropriate conversation is failing me when they ask ‘how’s the teaching going?’

This digital text makes the process behind the zine explicit, but also flattens it. I’ve found this easy to write, but I don’t know how well it conveys my thoughts and feelings. I’ve become trained into producing theoretical words, which are unnecessarily distancing to read. I’d like to re-educate myself away from the supremacy of pure text for communication, particularly formal writing. Alt text for the zine could read as briefly as:

When writing critically about teaching and learning as part of ‘professional learning’ balancing making a systemic critique, portraying personal experiences of frustration, presenting all experiences as ‘professional learning’ and complying with ‘explicit learning outcomes’ was a struggle for me.

That may be clearer, it’s certainly easier to read. But . . . it’s the process more than the product that makes me glad I made this messy little zine.

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Head Down Days

I hear the alarm, and start to extract myself from dreamt scenarios,

wash off the clinging images, oats down my throat, notes into file, into pannier, arms into hi-vis and bike out of door, down the road and

Queen’s Hostel

up the hill, lock it up, roll down trousers, wipe off sweat and into staffroom.

 

Eight timetabled hours and two more,

then I’m coming home past Queen’s Hostel again.

I push aside a stack of undistributed No Borders zines to shelve my ringbinder.

As I check my email media laments that a ship has sunk off Lampadusa, as if it is news.

The thought rises up of my gentle friend

who cooked rice, who rode a cement mixer in silence, who let his companion make the boat, whose head is scarred by an interrogator, who shrugged at the wait for his papers and his roommate’s nightly phonecalls,

and each time I clamp it down before it opens the floodgates.

And I strengthen my doors, to focus on this one thing.

But dammed up and directed the pressure inside me makes me immobile, paralysed,

and then in the classroom I can do nothing while a boy takes his painstakingly scrawled label that the group rejected, turns it into a spaceship, and flies it around the room.

The hope that I can be better, that I will not allow eager learners to be humiliated and sink into passivity, calcifies into grim obligation, as I follow this well-trodden path where my humanity must be administered in strategic doses to nourish my allotment of 30 thirsty young souls to grow and yield a harvest.

I hope at least that I can help them grow wild, interplanted, co-existant, joyous, and I will do this even if the yield is less orderly than that grown in rows.

And I will come back to the rest of the world.

 

This is from the first term of my PGCE. From my struggle to reconcile myself to my tunnel vision on my workload, and to hope that it will lead me somewhere where I am able again to have worthwhile engagement with people in the world. Returning to this as I stew in the process of regurgitating experience as a neatly packaged learning experience for the consumption of the academy.

regarding your question

You ask like you expect a reply off the cuff,
as if some social small talk could be enough;
but it’s a topic that’s been lying hidden in my brain
that I need to share before it drives me insane.
Can’t give you off the cuff when my heart’s on my sleeve
But if you want to know what I truly believe,
may I tell you my frame, before we discuss the picture?

The world is a sad and terrible place.
I think that’s a truth that we’ve got to embrace.
If we’re to live with it, do what we can with it,
it’s something I’d sooner just face.
What we feel may be what our warped thoughts think,
but reality may not be better, could also be worse.
Critical thinking might be a curse, a quagmire where to be stuck is to sink,
but the lack of it surely is more hopeless still.
I chose the apple, and I always will
seek out the fruits that show possibilities of infinities of change.
We can only hope our futures will not be as they seem.
If nothing is inevitable, everything is possible, we gotta be critical
and we gotta dream.

So, about the teaching. Given capitalism in general, and schools in specific are fucked, it’s going kind of ok.

tree for me

I say “You there, bumpy, you may be the tree for me

may I lie at your roots and bask, to get off task?”

 

I drop down and a weight lifts, my mind can drift

sun warms me and my eyelids fall closed, my limbs repose

it’s a sunny summer evening and I’m free to be,

so I let go nagging thoughts, let the world wash around me.

 

there’s wind and laughing chatter and beyond the urban sea

the eb and flow of engines, that muddle of realities

it’s chaos and it’s peaceful

it is war and it is order

 

or war and chaos and peace and order, chaos, peace, order, war

order and chaos, peace and war

I’m not gonna split em up, I’ve tried before

it gave me hours of inaction and my head got sore

 

reality’s not simple, it never will be,

we’d better get on and accept that, take responsibility

to do what we can with what’s around us, ‘cos perfection is illusory

and meanwhile I gotta take time, yeah take a bit o time

to remember all I can really know is me.

bumpy tree

 

this is a song. wrote it in a park at the end of a day, sometime in early summer 2013. I wrote it quickly in the first draft, and musiced it over a few days – I was in a highly active stage, one where I was feeling quite effective, and so I was recognising my need for downtime and giving it to myself: this song is good for me to help revisit that need when I’ve been neglecting it. I’ve sung it to friends, but not performed it yet. I am intensely self conscious of my songs – they have always been a product of starting with an emotion that I can’t quite pin down, and poking and prodding phrases of chords, melodies and words until there’s something that feels coherent.

Indignant 17yrold[me] Confronting Unjust Suspension

In which getting on for 10 yrs ago I wrote an angry email. Just found it. Made me laugh. And also reflect on how little I brushed up personally with disciplinary procedures at school – I probably wouldn’t have had such a righteous approach otherwise. Can’t remember the outcome now, but I think it was the first confronting (white-man-in-a-suit) man in authority to call their bullshit in solidarity with a bunch of their victims. The punishment had made me particularly angry because it was purely retributive – with no reparation (eg developing a code of use for the cafe with the workers there, or painting the pillar) or even preventative action (because it had been so totally out of the blue and unpredictable). The principal in question was highly acclaimed as successful – but this was one incident that displayed his ego, and inclination to throw power around without listening to others or attending to its effects.

29 September 200* 14:18:22
Message
From:        [The Principal at my college]
Subject:    Re: suspensions re. cafe
To:        [my full name]

B*****
You have an appointment to see me at 12 o’clock on Monday. I warn you now that you will need to adopt a very different tone to that be used in phrases like “There were a total of 27 names on the height chart on the wall(also impermanent) and these people are not being punished, possibly because there is a limit to the depletion of college attendance that you wish to inflict.”.
P****

[my full name] on 29 September 200* at 11:21 +0000 wrote:
I am writing because I am very concerned over the suspension of 7 students for a week in response to the incident of sticking stickers on a pillar in the cafe. This seems to be an over reaction to impermanent and inoffensive damage. I do understand why you are upset, because you have interpreted this as vandalism that shows a lack of respect and value for college property. We understand that you observed the damage immediately after inspecting a theft, and that you were therefore already rightfully angry. However, although it was thoughtless, no harm was intended.
The punishment of suspension seems disproportionate to the offence and it disadvantages all concerned. The 7 students will lose a week of tuition- among the concerned are dedicated students on whom this will have a considerable effect. It seems contrary to the recent college crackdown on termtime holidays that 35 student college days are being compulsorily wasted.
It is also unjust that others involved are totally unpunished. There were a total of 27 names on the height chart on the wall(also impermanent) and these people are not being punished, possibly because there is a limit to the depletion of college attendance that you wish to inflict. There were also others involved with the stickers, as they were perceived as harmless fun.
I am apologising for frivulous attitudes relating to this incident- we at first found it hard to take the reaction of crime scene tape around the area seriously- we have now realised our mistake in our attitudes and are taking the whole incident seriously. I am certain that we have all received a shock and have seen that this behaviour is not going to be tolerated and in future will avoid such activities.

I know that I am expressing views shared by a great number of students and possbibly also of others, and I would like to discuss this further.

Yours sincerely,
[my full name]

I fear.

I fear I will grow up to prop up the crumbling staircases in the castle of capitalism and I fear that I will beat my knuckles to blood and bone against the castle’s walls.
I fear that the fuel that flames in us now will burn out, and its ash will leave us smothered before our fire catches on to sturdier logs.
I fear that over the staffroom tea machine I would recognise no trace of the sparks that are in me now, and I fear that I will burn alone as I watch the blazes in those around me be smothered.
I fear I will straighten out and live orderly between the lines, and I fear my scrawled life will never become intelligible.
I fear that I will grow small in fear of the storm and I fear that I will grow weedy and weak and be flattened as the gusts grow stronger.
I fear that I will find myself rolling without brakes to an unknown destination and I fear that I will wander in the woods so long that when I find a path I will have no strength to follow it.
I fear that I will bury down into my microclimate, and I fear I will grow no roots as the topsoil all around me washes away.
I fear to hope that we will be the fungi, the mycorrhizal network which helps the tree grow strong in the cracks, that our scars will make our knuckles stronger, that when our flames die down we will rekindle them, that our ash shall be fertile, that we shall flourish before we rot, and then we shall shoot up again, and that together we shall make our paths to the destinations we will create, and our roots shall mesh together a habitat where we and all who join us can flourish.
I fear that I will lose hope, and I hope I will not lose my fear.

********

edited and pulled together from rediscovered jottings from a year ago that emerged from a workshop at The Spark, a week of workshops for social change which will be running again next week. in these precarious times, sitting with fear, and accepting it as a flipside of hope is something I neglect too long, and then rediscover, and feel refreshed.

to PGCE

I am going to start a PGCE. Not GTP, not Schools Direct, and not Teach First.

There are many reasons that I have chosen a PGCE, despite the financial disincentive. One of these is that I’ve been lucky to have had a low rent enabling me to have saved up enough money to be able to afford it comfortably with a Student Finance Loan & 2:1 degree bursary [damn that not-a-first, if I’d known it would’ve been so significant I’d’ve got stressed to push the boundary].

I also chose to work in schools as a teaching assistant before applying for a PGCE. I cannot over-rate this experience in terms of the amount I have learnt about schools, and the people in them. The hierarchical nature of schools was a shock to my system, and I am glad not to be navigating it from scratch at the same time as training to be a teacher. I grew up in a social bubble, in a rural area so white that I didn’t notice how white Cambridge was when I went there. I went to an independent secondary school, which was ‘less posh’ than others, more champagne socialist than tory. It was a desire to widen my social experience as much as indecision that made me put off my PGCE.

Experience that included being part of a group of TAs reacting to the offer of a free course out of working hours. Experiencing different class and supply teachers. Observing the social dynamics between TAs and teachers from a position on the fence – working as a TA, but coming from a more teacher-typical background. Watching several different teachers and staff teach that a square is not a rectangle, and attempting to intervene tactfully, with varying success. The experience of my key child, who had just listened as I brought his attention to the pencils he’d dropped and was picking them up from under the table being told off across the room by the teacher. The experience of being told by the headmaster at my secondment in his office that I disrespected authority, and was sometimes aggressive (no specific examples – though in following up my class teacher named the incident in the previous sentence). The experience of having an abnormally friendly relationship with the headteacher based on her perception of me as ‘very intelligent, far too good to be working as a TA’, which made her think of me for secondment, and then for a school garden design project.

I am relieved that I did not go onto a Teach First programme two and a bit years ago. I believe if I had applied, in a fit of careerism, I would have had a fair chance of getting on the programme. But I feel certain that I’ve increased my chances of being a better teacher, if three  years later, during which time I have been a good (well, ok, I hope) TA & playworker, on the far side of  a PGCE. I will be able to develop my ideas about teaching in a community of peers, with a supportive faculty. I will be able to learn from observing a range of teachers and schools on my placements, and experiment while I am not yet bottom-lining children’s education for a year.

‘Tough Young Teachers’ has been, as a few people have put it ‘an advertisement for the PGCE route’. It has also shown how hostile performance management in schools can be, and to have a year of supportive training before bearing the full brunt of it can only help. Teach First candidates may be driven and idealistic, but surely they would be able to do even better if they had the opportunities to develop as reflective teachers given – slightly- by a PGCE, or B Ed.

I’m entering teaching with a fair degree of cynicism. Formal schooling is at a status quo of 30 kids, one room, one curriculum, one timetable, which makes one problem. The experience, however, can be far far better or worse. The difference between insecure teachers with poor understanding and little inspiration and motivated, insightful, confident, dedicated nurturing teachers is huge in its impact on pupils. This isn’t only about the teacher, but about a supportive school environment, from management to parents. I do not know how effective a teacher I am capable of becoming, and I know that I will not know without committing to a huge amount of work. I fear accepting becoming a teacher who is mediocre, while losing sight of the sorts of relationships with children, learning and the world which I value. The teaching profession has a bad way of defeating young idealistic teachers, to become old moaners.

While I want to do my best as a teacher, I am not expecting to become a teacher as my sole core identity. I want to explore the potential and limitations of schools, and once I am fully qualified, I will see whether staying in the role of teacher looks like it makes sense to me.