The word “ego” often comes up in conversations about teachers, and not in a positive sense.
We hear teachers being described as having a “big ego”. However, this is usually in reference to teachers who are confident. This confidence comes through by:
- consistently putting ideas on the table
- coming up with an approach and going for it
- refusing to allow oneself to be bullied
- projecting an image of confidence to students
- looking confident
- taking on the challenge of leading people
- stepping up to deal with situations
- consistently contributing to discussions in large groups
Sure, these can sometimes spill over into arrogance or an inflated ego, but usually only when people feel cornered, subject to critical scrutiny by colleagues or – inevitably – malicious gossip.
I think a teacher ego – in it’s negative sense – is much less visible than the things in the list above. I think a negative teacher ego manifests itself as:
- believing one is much better at one’s job than one is
- claiming good practice is obvious, yet not actually doing it
- being a know-it-all
- always referring to one’s own ideas, thoughts and practices and not those of other people
- making it clear that other people’s perspectives matter less than one’s own, either consciously or subconsciously
- consistently talking while other people are talking
- finishing other people’s sentences
- shutting people down
- consistently judging other people’s practice and behaviour
- believing other people are interested in one’s negative or critical thoughts
- struggling to see anything from other people’s perspectives
- consistently making everything about oneself
- making one’s problems someone else’s problems
These behaviours are subtle, divisive and destructive… and particularly so because they are not usually the behaviours of people who are often described as “having a big ego”. Instead, they are often the behaviours of people who come across as insecure and, as a result, are quite hidden.
I should clarify that I’m not writing this posting because of anything that has happened to me recently… some, but not all, of my postings are autobiographical! I guess I’m writing this posting because I would like to see an increasingly sophisticated understanding of:
- what confidence is and why it is important for young people to be taught by confident adults
- how to avoid writing off confident people as having a “big ego” and preventing that initial observation from manifesting itself as malicious gossip
- how to deal with the more subtle, egotistical behaviours that do more harm in our schools than any confident, or even over-confident, behaviours could ever do
image from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/positive-ego-nancy-steidl-1
One thing that bothers me about international schools is the fear of taking a strong stance on any sort of issues. We persistently flap about in the no-man’s land of opinion, belief and – most worryingly – ethics. We have wonderful mission statements, visions, learner profiles, principles, codes of conduct etc… ad infinitum… but we don’t take a stance on anything that really matters.
Imagine working at a school that explicitly took sides against one, a few or all of these things that exist outside and/or inside the walls of most of our schools:
- massive gaps between the rich and the poor
- environmental destruction
- waste and the production of rubbish
- maltreatment of refugees
Imagine a school that refused to accept the children of parents who were in the country for dubious or destructive purposes – industries that caused pollution of the destruction of the environment, for example. Or a school that refused to accept the children of powerful local “dignitaries” or owners of the construction companies that are turning many of the cities we work in into nightmarish visions of “progress”. Or a school that refused to accept the citizens of countries waging wars on foreign soil. Or a school that insisted on paying its local staff decent wages. Or a school that would not tolerate seeing people living in distressing circumstances within a certain radius of its premises. Or a school that gave disadvantaged local people scholarships or new career opportunities.
Or, basically, a school that does more good than harm… and is fiercely proud of that fact. Is that how we can make sure our schools are “human”?
The pursuit of “busyness” is all-encompassing, it is everywhere and we are all perpetuating and complaining about it at the same time.
I am sitting in a beautiful fisherman’s cottage in a sleepy village on the coast of Vietnam. The rain has started to pour, simultaneously cooling the air and scuppering our plans for the next couple of hours and so… we are forced to relax.
Instead of piling into a taxi and heading into Hoi An, the beautiful and bustling nearby town to do all the things we think we are supposed to do on holiday – sightseeing, shopping, having cultural experiences, dragging our children and ourselves around making the most of being on holiday – we do nothing.
Or do we? What, exactly is nothing?
This is what “nothing” looks like at this exact moment:
My wife finds the time to read.
My Mum enjoys the relaxing act of sweeping sand off the verandah.
My children play and make up stories.
But, why do we only allow ourselves to relax into doing these things when the rain prevents us from going somewhere else? Because we have become conditioned into “busyness” – the cult of activity and the sense of guilt or fear-of-missing-out that characterizes the modern existence.
This is true in education too. We have allowed learning to be described as “activity” and we strive to keep students busy all day and every day. We have also allowed a fear of missing out to dictate what must be learned, and when, in order to make sure everything gets “covered”. The concept of relaxation, and so – inevitably – the ability to choose to do things that only relaxation really allows, is almost entirely absent from schools.
I wonder what would happen if a school set out – with true intent – to create a sense of relaxation, to replace “busyness” and fragmentation with long periods of time during which teachers and students could relax into simple, deep and meaningful pursuits, to value what happens in those circumstances rather than panicking about what is not happening…
Header image from http://www.boundless.org/~/media/Images/article/rel-13-good-busyness.ashx
Ever since Chad and I came up with the time space education concept, I am hearing people refer to the need for time and space more and more when talking about education, school and life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to claim responsibility for this trend! I’m just concerned that the issue of having less time and less space is becoming bigger, and so the need for people to refer to it is becoming more widespread. As it says in this clip from “The Gods Must be Crazy”… we don’t know when to stop!
Students like Nikita and Kaithe, IB students at Saigon South International School, are referring to the need for people like them to have time and space, to understand their need for time and space and to be able to harness the power of having time and space to improve their learning and the balance of their lives.
Teachers – everywhere – are concerned about how fragmented, scheduled and full their daily lives and their students’ daily lives are. Everyone seems to understand that real, deep learning only happens when people are given the time and the space to engage with what they are doing fully. Yet, take a good look at any school’s schedule and you will find a grid that is dedicated to keeping everyone busy, built on the overriding concern that anyone and everyone must have their days cut into small, manageable “segments of time” that can be managed, planned and accounted for. Furthermore, they are built on the premise that learning can not and will not happen unless these grids, and other grids that dictate what must be learned and who will deliver that learning, exist.
So caught up in these grids are teachers that – even when there is no expectation from anybody to treat time and learning this way – they continue to do so. The mindset of busyness is so palpable that we can’t help ourselves as we usher kids around, interrupt them, split them up, put them back together, tell them to hurry up, tell them to slow down… We believe we are preparing them for real life, for work. But, strangely, there are almost no workplaces – except perhaps for those we believe we are not preparing our students for – that treat time in this way, that abuse time so routinely!
I guess I’m writing this because I believe that schools won’t really change for the better until they explore how time is used. Sure, we can all do funky things with funky new technology in the segments of time that we have and there’s lots of amazing teachers out there doing amazing things with their students in those segments of time. But, until we really face up to it, we will continue to ask ourselves the following questions:
- where has the time gone?
- why aren’t students able to go into great depth with their learning?
- why are so many students unsure what to do when they do have free time?
- why do we always feel like we’re behind?
- why are our students, and ourselves, so distracted?
- why are schools such busy places?
- why does it feel as though nothing was really achieved some days?
- why do we often feel dissatisfied with our teaching?
- why are we so exhausted?
I would like to see every school faculty be given the chance to inquire into how time is used in their school – a full, professional inquiry into “busyness” during which they can pull apart the traditional moulds they put time into and think again.
The question is… how do we find or create or find the time to do give this issue the attention it deserves?
We have to remember to go against our learned instincts.
My learned instinct is to hold my children back. We’re walking along a footpath in Cheshire, in the UK, beautiful fresh stream rushing across ancient stones. Children utterly excited to be there… and they want to run ahead, and my learned instinct, my new instinct that I’ve got from life, somehow, by mistake, is to hold them back. My first response is “no… we’re not here to run”.
Well, guess what, Daddy… you’re wrong.
These kids are here to run. And there’s no reason to hold them back.
It’s a lot like learning. We’ve just got to let them go, just run. And, I’m standing here now watching them. It’s raining, they’re full of zest. They’re excited by the space, the freedom, the flowers and by the fact that they can just run.
Yes, they make a few mistakes, get stung by nettles, make their shoes filthy in mud. But they are learning, first hand, from and about the environment. They will not forget nettles. They will identify the squelchy, marshy patches of land and – maybe – avoid them next time!
I created this context – in my role as “teacher” – by bringing them to this place. I knew it was important, special and rich with opportunities to discover. But then I have to let them be free within the context, only that way will genuine questions emerge from them, and they did:
“Why is the water and the rocks orange?”
“Why are the cows lying down?”
“Where does the water come from?”
“Why is there wool on the branches of that fallen tree?”
“Who does this land belong to?”
“Why are people allowed to walk through here?”
“Where does that path go?”
“What is making that sound?”
“Who made that rope swing over the river?”
And then, of course, many attempts at holding on to the piece of wood hanging from a tree and swinging out over the water until they had all had many successful goes!
Instead of being a controlled walk, with adults determining the path and pointing out the things they thought should be of interest or worthy of learning about (i.e. the ones we had the answers to!), it becomes a child-driven walk, a haphazard route, endless questions – many unanswered – unpredicted experiences, private thoughts and moments of personal growth and self-actualization that we – the parents – are not even aware of.
One of my former colleagues – Glenn – once gave me a book called Edible Selby. It’s a sort of combination of a cookbook and travel book, but it’s really a book about the beauty and simplicity of finding and doing something that you love.
Ken Robinson refers to the intersection between what you love doing and what you are talented at as “The Element”. It is a special place in which work does not feel like work, in which there is a shift in your relationship with time. He doesn’t idealize this place as it, too, may be full of frustrations, mistakes, disasters, pain and heartache. But, he does argue, very convincingly, that the world would probably be a better place if more of us, many more of us, were working in our “Element” rather than in jobs we fell into through confusion, societal expectations or the desire to be wealthy.
This begs serious questions of schools, though. We do seem to be quite afraid of being places in which our students may have a chance of finding their “Element”. Indeed, we sometimes seem to perpetuate the trap of that endless pursuit, the “all wretch and no vomit” described by Alan Watts – “I’ll find out what I want to do when I leave school… I’ll find out what I want to do when I finish university… I’ll find out what I want to do after my gap year… I’ll find out what I want to do when I’ve earned enough money… I’ll find out what I want to do when I’ve retired”. And so on.
What if schools made it part of their mission to help students figure out their “Element”? What if it was OK for a student to know what they wanted to do by the time they were 16, and didn’t have to fail school to be able to do it? What if a student worked out that they don’t need to go to university to pursue their chosen path?
It seems as though a successful education is all about “keeping your options open”. But, what if it was also about finding focus, purpose… your “Element”. Why shouldn’t we be just as proud of helping students find what they want to do as we are of creating all-rounders who haven’t got a clue what they want to do?
Some people never find it, you know. And, in many cases, this may be because of their education.
There is a misconception in life, and particularly in schools, that “speaking my mind” – or honesty – is a euphemism for being a bit of an arse. Either I don’t “speak my mind”, which must mean that I bottle everything up, conceal my true thoughts and never share what I genuinely think or believe, or, I feel like I can just go around being rude to people and make “speaking my mind” a kind of license to make all interactions highly personal and confrontational.
Both of these dichotomous positions are damaging to a school culture, and people who adopt them can be equally toxic in different ways.
Person A, the type who never “speaks their mind”, usually makes it clear to everyone that they have made a conscious decision never to “speak their mind”. With this constant declaration of self-censorship comes an implicit declaration of disapproval, judgment and criticism. It translates, basically, as “if I could speak my my mind it would be negative and I would tell you how useless this, that and they are”. The dangers of people like this are:
- They do actually “speak their minds” in small circles of people, sharing their bottled up negativity with those people they have decided they can confide in, and forming little clots of people in the organisational flow. These clots, like real clots, cause all kinds of awful things to happen – others become wary or paranoid of them, good ideas or initiatives get blocked or people who excel at their jobs have their confidence chipped away at until they leave but the clot remains.
- At times, opportunities arise for Person A to express themselves with anonymity, and this is like a dream-come-true for them. They feel liberated to “speak their mind” and unleash their thoughts onto people with no fear of having to take responsibility for their words or actually talk about or think it through with another human being.
- Person A may often also just go about their business, interacting only rarely with other people, but still walking around with their dark cloud hanging over them. People avoid them for fear of being caught in the storm – dragged into a negative conversation that has the potential to ruin their day or forced to listen to toxic gossip. This sort of isolation does nobody any good… particularly as Person A is responsible for the education of young people.
Then, there’s Person Z, the one who has taken it upon themselves to educate everyone else by just being an a$#@%$#e. They shoot people down, they belittle people, they interrupt, they opt out of conversations that need to be had, they refuse to take part in any positive initiatives, they make the discussion of ideas personal, they see things only from their perspective, they struggle to focus on student needs rather than their own, they talk when people are trying to address a group, they criticize meetings or workshops that don’t quite live up to their high standards (which are rarely reflected in the way they teach!), they have stopped learning, they get angry about things that don’t really matter, they write people off and give them no chance of redemption… the list goes on.
Fortunately, schools are also full of People C, D, E, F, G, H… the people who occupy the grey areas. These people:
- understand the value of exchanging thoughts, opinions and ideas
- are able to discuss things without making it personal
- are able to remain free of judgment
- value open and positive relationships
- are conscious of the effect of their attitude on others
- can see the big picture by “zooming out” of situations
- feel uncomfortable in gossipy situations
- try to get along with everyone in a way that is not artificial, because they know it matters
- give people the benefit of the doubt
- are respectful listeners
- are open-minded and ready to learn from any source
- don’t sulk
I know these are all generalisations, so please don’t comment and tell me that! Instead, please think about whether Person A and Person Z exist where you work, how they affect your school culture and how we can move beyond such polarised behaviours. Until that happens, the potential for the evolution of schools may well remain in their hands.