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Monthly Archives: January 2016

Stress (or, you can’t always get what you want)

I am prone to stress. Don’t ask me why, maybe it’s perfectionism or upbringing or some kind of chemical imbalance, but more often than not I find myself overthinking things and locked into some kind of death spiral from which it’s hard to escape. This is particularly true of teaching, because it is an endless job, the kind of thing which (if you’re prone) you will inevitably carry home with you – even if you leave the books at school.

My habitual reaction to situations like this in the past has been to run away. If something is difficult, if it is not working, and you are stressed out by it, then clearly it is not right for you, and it’s time to go. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but that’s the gist of it. Friendships, jobs, cities… I don’t want to over-state how much I do this but I have that tendency in my brain, to think that if it was right then it would just work.

That’s easy enough when you’re young, but the older you get the more difficult it is. It’s harder to make new friends, for one thing, because who has the time for that? More than that, though. Each thing you burn up and get away from becomes another few months gone, another opportunity lost at a time when opportunities are narrowing and narrowing. And then there are those things that you can’t just get away from. You have a house, and a mortgage. Selling it means a massive upheaval, and finding a new commute, and losing a pile of money in stamp duty. You are married. Of course, you can’t get away from that person (and nor would you want to, incidentally), but suddenly your decisions make an impact on someone else, and you are less cavalier with them. You have a career. It might not be ideal, but the alternative is starting again at the bottom of a ladder you don’t even know whether you want to climb, and not knowing if you’ll even make it.

And so you stay put, or at least I do, and everything in you for a little bit cries out that this is wrong, and you should run away – be like Robert De Niro in Heat, and when the heat is on, be willing to drop it all and go in five minutes. And it’s terrifying. Your whole way of doing things, your whole cowardly (and mostly quite effective) way, isn’t really an option any more, or at least not without causing untold risk and pain to your family. And so you start to wonder, like you always do, whether if it was right, it wouldn’t be this hard. You’d love your job and you’d feel comfortable where you lived and you wouldn’t be so worried.

And then you stay a little longer, and the panic starts to pass, and you start to realise that maybe this is okay. That in turn makes you still more worried, because maybe you’re becoming complacent and settling for less, and so you start to think again about how maybe you should get out, and you start looking for new houses and new jobs… just in case. And the whole cycle starts again.

For a while I was breaking the cycle. I was content, things were great and I felt peaceful with just about everything. It lasted about three months. And then I got tired, exhausted even, and started to wonder if I could keep doing this job, if I was actually cut out for it at all, and the cycle started again.

I’m tired of this game. I was learning how to be content whatever the circumstances and then my stupid brain undid it all again, and for what? For possibilities that I worry about not ever being able to achieve. Fat lot of good they are. It’s a running joke at work that I have a ‘Plan B’, that I’m always thinking of what I can do if one day the heat is on and I have to get away. I’m tired of living life like that; living with an escape plan, always ready to run away. Just for once I’m sticking here, even if everything might not be perfect. I have to believe that’s a better plan for happiness than the alternative.

 
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Posted by on 25/01/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Getting better (or how pragmatism may have unexpectedly saved my soul)

I trained to be a teacher a good few years ago now, before which I worked for churches. I worked as a youth and community worker for a while, and before that I interned at a church in Oxford. I complained about things a lot at the time, because I was young and idealistic, but one thing that I always did before work was spend forty-five minutes to an hour sitting in a coffee shop reading the Bible and writing in a journal (I don’t say that to insinuate that’s normal, just that it’s what I did).

It would be no lie to say that I was proud of my knowledge of the Bible; I knew where passages were found and I’d often thought deeply about them and when I spoke to people, I found that verses would come to mind. I felt close to God, both in church and to some extent during the week.

I was also deeply unhappy and destructive, both to myself and to those around me. I was a ruthless perfectionist and terribly idealistic, and so I put great demands on people, which is a terrible trait to have when you’re leading people. The church that employed me as a youth and community worker was a community whose kids work was ambling along well enough until I showed up and, in my first year, tried to change the entire structure of their volunteer rota in a way that meant volunteers would never get the chance to go to a church service. Many of them stepped down and the rest looked exhausted, and I praised the ones who did step up and despaired that people weren’t more committed. I was twenty-two when I started. About a year and a half in, I hit a point of total burnout when after running seven separate weekly youth events with less than five volunteers to help out, one day I woke up and found that I was so exhausted I literally couldn’t hold onto a single thought.

All of that happened when I was spending an hour’s ‘quiet time’ every day. For all the good that it did me – and I’ve missed it, believe me – I don’t know that it made me more loving, or compassionate, or understanding. If anything it made me more demanding, because I was doing it and so should others.

When I became a teacher, my hour’s quiet time disappeared, almost overnight. When you get up at 6am daily, it’s no joke telling people to get up an hour earlier. To get eight hours sleep, I would have had to go to bed at 9pm each night. Coupled with work stress, and long hours, and planning for a wedding, I was lucky if I managed to read my Bible for ten minutes a day. There just wasn’t time! Church felt like a slog, particularly because I felt judged for my failings – failure to serve, failure to invite people, failure to spend time in prayer – and it hardly seemed like I was going to get back into it when that was my feeling every Sunday morning. Admittedly, things are better on that front now than they were when I started teaching, but that took a while, not to mention a move to a new church.

It’s hard being a teacher. Every day you are required to show endless patience and compassion to kids who are often distracted, or irritating, or personally vindictive towards you (in my case at least). You are under huge pressure to plan good lessons and to stay on top of marking and to get results, and it can feel overwhelming at times. It’s the kind of thing where you need to be spending time with God, not just to ask for help but also to get refreshed (non-Christian friends, if you’ve read this far, I can only say from experience that this is definitely one of the benefits of those times). There’s rarely a week that goes by when I don’t think wistfully of those mornings spent in coffee shops.

However, a few years into teaching, I’ve started to notice something odd. All that choosing patience, and having to show compassion to people who you don’t want to, and asking for help when it’s insanely difficult to do so – all of that has started to reshape me. I’m more compassionate that I used to be, more patient. More (whisper it) loving. I think somehow am starting to look more like Jesus, against all the odds and without even really trying. It’s a hard thing to explain and I don’t know what to do with it, really. I thought theology came first, followed by practice, but years of getting my theology right didn’t change my heart; getting out there and doing it has, which doesn’t mean that all those years in coffee shops weren’t valuable, but it does make me think they weren’t quite enough. Maybe that’s why some parents can have a greater experience of compassion and patience – all those years of loving somebody who can be an enormous pain. I don’t know, really.

Don’t mistake me, I got it really wrong when I started out teaching, and alienated a lot of my students. Yet in spite of all of that, a few years in and with less time to read my Bible than ever, I’ve found myself being rewired and renewed all over again by the experience of trying to follow God at school, in a way I never expected to be. Has anybody else had that happen to them, in schools or elsewhere?

 
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Posted by on 10/01/2016 in Uncategorized

 

Competence (or how I learned to stop worrying and love being average)

One of the things I miss most about University life is being really, really good at something. Essay writing, specifically about English Literature, was something I was once very good at – and I don’t mean to brag by saying that, but that was definitely one of my skills. Now it’s useless. There are days when I think, I would happily sit down and write an essay about Dickens if there was anyone out there who cared about what I had to say, who would read it and say ‘well done, that was great’.

Now I work as an English teacher, and although there are elements of that degree that I use, it’s rare that anyone looks at anything I’ve done and says ‘well done, that was great’. My kids certainly don’t. They don’t walk out of my lessons with enormous grins like in those adverts the DfE has produced, as satisfying as that would be. As a teacher, I am fine, but I consistently feel a temptation to be the best teacher. To beat all the others and prove how I excel, at whatever it is I do. I want that glow of satisfaction, and I want that external recognition, no matter what it takes.

This is a long-standing problem. It happened with me and my sister to an extent, but then I suppose that sibling rivalry isn’t that uncommon. It also happened at school, especially in Sixth Form. It happened on my internship year, with my fellow interns, and on my PGCE, with my fellow placement students. It has even happened in church, where I have tried to prove how I am the best Christian, as mad as that sounds. The most knowledgeable, humble, insightful, best preacher, best leader… and so on. I seem to instinctively want to show off my own greatness.

The biggest issue with that is that it is utterly destructive. I could be the best teacher my kids had ever been taught by, probably. I could mark all their work intensively, plan lessons that were always exciting and vibrant, make sure that every student felt cared for and followed up on, prove that I was an innovater and a visionary to my colleagues, but at what cost? That would mean sacrificing time with my wife, and it would mean working to the detriment of my hobbies and interests, and it would probably also affect my health, and all of those would mean that I wasn’t the best at something else. I wouldn’t be the best husband, or the best writer, or the best chef. So how do I work out what to prioritise? What should my ‘thing’ be?

Most Saturdays I read The Times, and so much of that seems focused on how to be the best whatever – to cook the best Christmas dinner or own the most stylish house or read the best books or go to the best restaurants, if you live in London at least. But then each week it also has a section devoted to undoing its own work – showing you how to be happier and more content, how to build better relationships with your children or partner, or having better self-esteem. The secret is almost always to not be so obsessed with work or your smartphone: to be more present where you are.

Over the past few (exhausting) years of adult life, I’m increasingly starting to realise the hard way that the latter is a better way to be; the era of my being the best at anything has to come to an end. It would be very easy to rage against that, but I think it’s okay. So with that in mind, my new year’s resolution for 2016 is just to be competent at what I do. To be a competent teacher. To be a competent writer. To be a competent husband. To be a competent chef. Nothing more, nothing less – just passionate, defiant competence.

Deep down, I think competence is the secret, even if the word has acquired negative connotations recently. It doesn’t mean doing a lacklustre job, just doing what you do well and making sure that you do what needs to be done. Is it worth doing more? I’m not so sure, because if I keep trying to be the best at whatever it is, all that’s going to happen is that I start pushing other people down. I will start competing with others and driving them away, rather than working with them. It’s happened before, and that kind of showboating is no use to anyone. Surely it’s better for you to decrease so that others increase, so they can develop their talents and gifts alongside you – and if you’re always top of the pile at everything you do, there’s no way for that to happen. It’s a recipe for being a bad teacher, anyway, failing to trust and empower your students and doing all the work for them, and I’m sure that it has to apply elsewhere in life too.

Maybe that sounds like a terrible admission of defeat to you, but I think the alternative might end up spelling disaster. And anyway, surely putting that much stock by anything just equates to idolatry; it’s making something into your saviour that’s not capable of saving you at all. My history suggests that I will fall down, but for my sanity and wellbeing in 2016 I’m resolving to try and become less, whether I fail at that or not. I’ll let you know in time whether or not I turn out to be the best at being humble.

 
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Posted by on 02/01/2016 in Uncategorized