Wednesday, 23 January 2013


“You think too much.”

I’ve been on the receiving end of this observation since I was about 13 years old.

Back then, I didn’t understand why people were saying this to me with varying degrees of pity, confusion and exasperation; surely thinking a lot was a good thing?  My diaries from the time are a never ending saga of introspection and dwelling, with occasional bouts of self-loathing thrown in just to break the monotony.  I second guessed my friends and enemies, analysing every tortured twist and traumatic turn in our dysfunctional circle until I drove myself insane.  I assumed that everyone did the same.

A particularly prolonged period of inner wrestling almost saw me drop out of university.  I simply couldn’t see what the point was in writing essays about what other people had already written.  Discovering that my romanticised ideal of three years of stimulating and earnest academic discussion where fresh insights on old issues elicited approving and admiring nods from bearded professors before we merry students retired to the bar to get drunk and have experimental and fabulous sex was but a pipe dream, I became slightly disillusioned.  The reality of mostly dull lectures delivered by academics who neither knew nor cared what I thought and judged my understanding based on a 2000 word essay summarising what everyone before me thought, followed by retiring to the bar to get drunk and have disappointing and vanilla fumbles was unfulfilling to say the least.   While my peers just got on with enjoying themselves, I was unable to stop questioning everything about the process.

Profundity is often sought but rarely achieved by those seeking to dish it out, but Professor Brooke was (probably still is) one of those people who never wasted a word.  In 1998 he said something to me which has since often provided a key with which I can unlock myself from destructive cycles of overthinking.  “Sometimes, Karen,” he said, “You just have to play the game.”

This new way of looking at the world was a revelation!  It gave me permission to occasionally stop trying to ‘understand’ everything and everyone and to just go along with the world around me as it appeared on the surface.  Clearly I was not cured of my excessively analytical nature but I felt like I’d been given something to control the condition.

Fast forward to today and six months of immersion in the world of dating has led to a massive relapse.  ‘Playing the game’ doesn’t work when you’re trying to work out why he hasn’t texted or what the exact significance is of how many times he’s written ‘x’ at the end of a message or what it is about you that’s putting everyone off.  What even is ‘the game’ when it comes to dating more than one person or deciding when it’s time to put a label on the situation and if so, which one?  I never appreciated how far a stable relationship had pushed this side of my personality into dormancy or how all-consuming the analysis monster would be when she grew full size.

My old ‘play the game’ medicine doesn’t work on this new strain of overthinking; I suspect because the condition has changed and is now augmented by a deficiency in self-worth and a lack of understanding of the new symptoms.  The only solution is to try new cures.  Distraction works but is tiring; the same goes for getting in shape.  Surrounding oneself with friends is always a winner, but after a while a resistance builds up as they, understandably, become fed up with such constant navel-gazing.  Wine absolutely has its place, but it is contraindicated with the aforementioned treatments, rendering it best reserved for serious attacks.

Ultimately, acceptance is the only way forward.  Acceptance of oneself, the situation and the ever-changing nature of the world.  Acceptance that nothing stays the same, good or bad, and that there really is some truth in the idea that what doesn’t destroy us makes us stronger.  Acceptance that whilst being overly analytical and pondering can lead to dark and twisted places, it can also lead to self-understanding and wisdom and that, either way, if that is who you are, then that is who you are.  Someone will love it.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Fantasy Headteacher

Since New Year’s Resolutions are doomed to failure, I’ve decided instead to consider what I might do if I were someone else.  School starts again next week and I find myself thinking what I might do if I were a secondary school headteacher. 

1.    Before making any decision, ask myself ‘will this help the students to learn?’
Too much of what happens in school is done to please OFSTED and parents.  Almost all of my other resolutions are the immediate result of instead focussing my attentions on helping students to learn. 

I understand that it is necessary to judge schools and hold them accountable, but the current system necessarily focuses on what is easily measurable as opposed to what actually matters.  I wish I could offer a solution, but I can’t – my only suggestion is that all headteachers refuse to play this stupid game and instead focus on doing what they know is right.  (I realise this is never going to happen, sadly.)  If every school did this, OFSTED would be forced to develop an inspection regime that did schools justice and the tail could stop wagging the dog.

2.    Remove the focus from exams
Much more easily said than done, this one.  However there are ways to accomplish it and good reasons for striving to do so.  Resits would be allowed in my school but parents would be billed for both the exam entry fee and any extra after school support provided.  We wouldn’t even discuss target or predicted grade in the first year of any course of two years or longer.  Meaningful courses with no resulting formal qualifications would be provided and professionally taught.

I’m not suggesting that passing exams is unimportant, just that we seem to have lost sight of learning for learning’s sake.

3.    Ban homework
Homework is set because parents expect it and because it is easy to monitor.  It is often educationally pointless or worse, counter-productive.  I would remove any notion of a ‘homework timetable’ and allow teachers to decide whether it is relevant or necessary to set homework at a given time.  Poor quality homework tasks encourage a negative attitude from students and arguments at home.  We perpetuate the unhealthy notion that the working day does not stop upon leaving the workplace and unfairly disadvantage students from less academic households.

This is not to say that I would be encouraging students not to seek learning opportunities outside school.  A bank of inspirational, optional projects, combined with support for parents in how to develop a love of learning at home would complement the ethos of my school regarding learning being about more than just passing exams.

4.    Allow failure
Life includes failures.  Learning to handle these and move on from them is a life skill.  When we allow a student to hand in vital work after the deadline, or clutch at straws to find something, anything, good to say about a shoddy and lazy piece of work, or enter them for their third resit without demanding some change in effort or attitude we are doing them no long term favours.  When we correct their work for them, rather than insisting they work out where they went wrong, when we give them rewards for simply doing what is expected, when we lie on their university references we are just passing on problems to the next teacher, professor or employer who has to work with them.  Allow failure, catch them, support them in their quest to avoid it again.

These ideas are all impractical, for one reason or another, which is one of many reasons I shall never seek to be a real headteacher.  In reality, headteachers have a ridiculous variety of conflicting stakeholders to try to satisfy.  Most of them entered the profession to teach in the classroom, not to sit in an office balancing multi-million pound budgets whilst being pulled in a dozen different directions by department heads, governors, parents, pupils, the Council, the Government and the local community.  They do a mostly thankless job, mostly very well – it’s too easy to forget this and we shouldn’t.  Here’s to the headteachers.