Once upon a long time ago, I was a child – hard to believe, I know, given the depth of wisdom and maturity displayed in my posts. Back then, my father would, from time to time, return home from work muttering darkly about “the disease of the English workplace”. And, being young, I’d heed his words barely a jot. If that. For years thereafter, whenever I heard this phrase, I blithely assumed that his staff were either hooligans or syphilitic. At least, I did until it dawned on me that: a) it being the sportingly-stratified seventies, none of them followed the football; and b) even a desperado, armed with several bargepoles joined end-to-end, wouldn’t consider touching – never mind infecting – any one of them. And so I resolved to ask my dad what the Azerbaijan he meant.
It turned out that he was referring to the art of moaning when the boss isn’t around, and saying “Yes, everything’s fine!” when s/he is – events often separated by mere nanoseconds. Whether this tendency is especially evident in English workplaces I know not, but I do know how frustrating my dad found it: he was a boss and, if things weren’t going well, he wanted to know. Because, until a someone has the gumption to point it out, it may not be apparent that a something needs addressing.
Like dots on a Mandelbrot set, it’s a pattern replicated at many levels in education. For instance, Boss announces nonsensical initiative after consulting with, er, Boss. We lackeys listen and hope to goodness that our incandescent anger is apparent in the emoji-esque facial expressions we adopt and the questions we ask politely, apologetically or – too often – silently. Lackeys then go away, grumble to each other and do as we have been told, until the task becomes an integral part of our lives. By which time, Boss has, no doubt, sprung a clutch of other such surprises.
This is, I think, less of a problem at departmental level. Our proximity to our subject colleagues, including our department or faculty heads, and the amount of time we spend discussing what we do, make it near-impossible for disquiet to go unnoticed. Ignored, perhaps; but it would have to be a hard-of-hearing HoD who wasn’t aware of misgivings rumbling like approaching thunder. Heck, s/he might even share them – despite being forced to enact the creed that middle managers were put on this earth to bend or, if necessary, bludgeon staff to the principal’s will.
The further up the food chain one ventures, the more repercussive the problem becomes. Assistant heads who avoid pointing out that the latest craze is highly flammable may do so from fear of being regarded as fifth columnists or terminal party-poopers. Yet, the more frequently this is so, the further out of favour playing speaky-uppy falls. When the staff have to snap loom bands against their wrists, to remind themselves that they’re sentient beings with expressive powers, something has gone very wrong.
It’s an imbalance that’s also horribly apparent in the employment market, where recruitment now proceeds on the assumption that it’s your obligation, oh candidate, to make yourself as likeable/manipulable/exploitable as possible to the school, while the institution need do nothing to court your goodwill. And I say this as one who’s as guilty as the next fool of having bitten my tongue so many times during an interview day, it was left hanging by a single, bloodied thread.
At one august establishment, we lucky, lucky, short-listed few were informed that the Head of Maths had been instructed to achieve [insert figure cribbed from raffle ticket] % of A*-C grades, “because, if they can do it in English, then why not in Maths?” Like the other candidates, I said nothing, even though ‘Monumental twat’ was scrolling past my eyeballs like the ticker tape on a 24-hour news channel. By the time the panel interview came around – the coda to a string of exercises in compliance – I’d long lost interest in the place and the post for which I’d applied.
So, instead of responding to the ‘Any questions?’ part at the end with the obligatory plea to hand over the last ounces of my time and sanity to co-extra-curricular-revision-its-all-for-the-kids additionality, I asked what measures the school was taking to ensure that its staff enjoyed a proper work-life balance, since no child benefits from having teachers hovering constantly at the edges of nervous exhaustion. Hardly the stuff of Frost vs Nixon, you’ll agree; but enough, as it happened, to necessitate the summoning of the Rentokil van that was pulling up as I left the premises.
In environments that run on silence, practical idiocy thrives. Little wonder that so many school playing fields are like graveyards, littered with the corpses of innovations imposed from on high. Innovations with no pedagogic value, nonetheless commanding too much of the time that should have been spent on Proper Stuff, like planning and teaching and feedback. Time now irretrievably lost to driving through silly ideas and then quietly starving them to death, when they could – should – have been averted at the pass in the first place.
Unsurprisingly, then, the workplace disease to which my dad referred is at its most toxically evident between heads and those above them. En the anonymity of masse, head teachers mobilise themselves occasionally, through union and conference, to wave plastic cutlery at Ofsted’s or the DfE’s sacred cows. Yet, how many more times have you buckled under the weight of our leaders’ craven attitudes towards said institutions’ whims? Which is one reason why the data-rich and learning-poor farce of much current practice gives those at the top so little reason to question their priorities. Not when our collusion suggests that they seem to be working so well.
Thumbs up all round, then, assuming that we still have them. Speak now or hold thy peace.