Category Archives: Reflections

Have the Right Hijacked Teaching?

I read with interest Daisy Norfolk’s recent blog post Tiger Teachers or simply the Fearsome Far-Right? in which she likens some elements of the teacher Twitterati to Nigel Farage and the rise of the far-right. Norfolk is a vocal critic of some of the more influential voices who cut their teeth in the Twittersphere and rapidly branched out into the real world. Vehemently opposed to the authoritarian methods employed by Michaela Community School, a London free school, Norfolk appears to have become even more critical following the publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, edited by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh and including chapters written by staff at the school. The school (and the promotional book) have been lauded by many of the influential teacher folk on Twitter.

The claim Norfolk makes is that support for Michaela and the growth of far-right ideology amongst the more vocal teachers on Twitter, is comparable with the rise of right-wing sentiment in the UK and the wider landscape. This is certainly a interesting suggestion, and one that perhaps warrants further investigation.

I must confess to having not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, nor have I visited Michaela Community School, so I’ll try to avoid criticism of either. The only caveat, perhaps, is to comment on the title of the book, which early on struck me as controversial in its own right. The title is obviously taken from Amy Chua’s equally controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, espousing the authoritarian parenting style adopted by many parents in parts of East, South and Southeast Asia. Tiger mothering has been found to be beneficial for academic and professional success but damaging for mental health. For example, children raised in such a way are more likely to suffer from depression and addiction later in life and have higher rates of suicide. However, not all suffer and many flourish. Children respond in different ways to different parenting styles – I suspect this would be the same where teaching is concerned (but that’s an extrapolation of what we understand from parenting studies, not from teaching). My personal opinion would be that the title was chosen in order to be controversial and controversy is a good promotional tool.

But does an authoritarian ideology make you an agent of the far-right? Furthermore, can we equate this to the rise of Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and their fascist chums? The work of Theodore Adorno would certainly suggest that we can. Adorno proposed the idea of an authoritarian personality, characterised by the tendency towards hostility, dislike of lower status individuals, the need to control others and a rigid and inflexible belief system. He measured this using what he called the F-Scale (F for fascist). People develop an authoritarian personality, he claimed, partly by being raised by authoritarian parents.

Adorno’s theory of authoritarian personality is flawed on a number of levels, but does raise a number of interesting questions. The most recent and the most comprehensive analysis of the EU referendum result published by NatCen points to a country not divided by left versus right but by liberal versus authoritarian, in an adoption of the so-called culture wars that developed in the United States in the early 2000’s and has culminated in the election of Donald Trump (a battle based on identify and values rather than political allegiance).

Authoritarianism is, of course, a poor solution in the long term. Such regimes lack staying power because people don’t like their freedom to be undermined. David Cameron telling people to vote remain will have led some undecided voters to do the opposite because they wanted the freedom to make their own decisions (a psychological phenomenon known as reactance). The more authoritarian the approach, the bigger the backlash.

Societal differences are often played out on social media and I think Twitter is perhaps the best example. The authoritarian voice appears much louder than the liberal voice on Twitter and I don’t really know why this is the case; perhaps authoritarians are just more attracted to Twitter? It would also appear to me that those teachers labelling themselves as traditionalist are more likely to adhere to authoritarian values than so-called progressives. The added problem is that Twitter, while great for sharing ideas, is a poor platform for debate (140 characters just isn’t enough) and often results in ridicule and ritualised humiliation of the individual who dares to oppose the more powerful voices (many of us have been on both sides of this at one time or another and I’ll admit to tweeting nasty things in order to feel like one of the gang). An added complication is that some appear to use Twitter for self-promotion or to gain favour from the more influential teachers and semi-teachers (I have known some leave Twitter both permanently and temporarily for this reason). Farage is a chancer, a political opportunist, and there are many like him on Twitter.

I feel Norfolk’s anger and frustration. I venture onto Twitter with much more trepidation and caution than I once did – I must have a thin skin. The problem with this is that Twitter rapidly becomes nothing more than an echo chamber for the back-slapping brigade and the self-promotion clan and any kind of useful debate dies out completely. Of course, very few teachers use Twitter and I suspect few have heard of Michaela Community School, so in the end, the echo chamber is quite small with little real influence.

I suspect this situation, like European fascism, will run its course.

But that’s a very liberal way to look at things.

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On Breaks, Beards and Books.

It’s been over three months since I decided to take an open-ended break from teaching. The time has given me the opportunity to assess what is important in my life, to read and to write and cultivate facial hair. Even though the finances are beginning to dwindle I’m more content with my life now than I have been for a long time, even though I realise that at some point I’ll have to get a job or make something resembling a living from writing.

Writing.

I have been writing more than ever before. I’ve had three articles published in the TES since January, some bits and pieces for other websites and blogs as well as the first draft of a book on learning. I’m also co-authoring another book that I’m very excited about and even found the time to spend on more contemplative writing projects. Other opportunities haven’t worked out as planned but, as I’ve said before, life has a habit of going off on its own path and leaving you behind.

Reading.

Reading over the past few months has been eclectic. I’ve spent time reading research papers, books on neuroscience, emotions, general psychology and mental health – I’ve also found some time to read fiction. Two particular books stand out from the rest simply because they have helped me come to terms with the things going on in my own mind and in my own life. It’s been a while since I read any books with a revelatory quality; the kind of book you dare not put down or one where you find yourself reading the same chapter several times because of the almost audible buzz it caused in your neural connections the first time around. I rarely read books more than once but I suspect I will pick up Matt Haig’s ‘Reasons to Stay Alive‘ and Tim O’Brien’s ‘Inner Story’ a number of times before then end of 2016.

These two books are similar in many ways, not least in the way they made me think about myself in a much deeper way and accept the fluidity of my own existence. Sure, our genes and other elements of our biology govern us but there are things we can control and things we can change. With all the talk of resilience in education (and I’ve written about it a few times) I think we all tend to overlook the fact that to survive is to be resilient – it’s not something we have or do not have.

According to O’Brien we all have two stories residing in out head, one that is about our life and another that is controlling our life. Your inner story can control you in many ways – all those interconnected thoughts that buzz around in our minds make me, well, me. They guide my behaviours and influence my decisions. Your inner story can work for you or against you but the beauty of this inner narrative is that we can change and edit those chapters that don’t help us. Reading ‘Inner Story’ quickly made me realise a number of things about my own inner story and why it wasn’t helping me.

Specifically, it was telling me that:

  • I have to be the perfect Dad because others judge me more harshly than they do ‘traditional’ parents
  • The success or failure of my students is my responsibility
  • Others a far more qualified/capable/experienced than me and therefore have the right to judge my actions and proficiency
  • I found and lost the only the person with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life
  • Anxiety controls my life

While I’ve tried hard to question some of these beliefs in the past, setbacks merely overwrite and undo that work and I tend to find myself back at the beginning. I now realise that during the closing months of 2015 (and probably long before) this story was controlling my life and the only way out appeared to be the deletion of the entire story and to begin again on a fresh page.

As I said, human beings are resilient and when we get knocked down we have a tendency to get right back up again. For some this takes time and requires the kindness and support of others. Matt Haig writes candidly about the times when our lives begin to unravel and, in his case, when anxiety and depression overwhelm. Indeed, life itself is overwhelming. My experiences are not identical, but being able to peek into the pages of someone else’s inner story can prove enlightening. I felt so privileged that a sent Matt Haig an email, just to say thanks.

O’Brien (like Haig) knows what he’s talking about. This is evident not just by the endorsements his book has received, but also by his deep knowledge of psychology and forthright no-nonsense style. There are no references or footnotes to distract the reader, just a practical application of psychological theory that draws mainly on the cognitive processes and the inner voices that hold us back and can propel us forward. The chapters on understanding Your Self, Your Behaviour and the Flow of Fear, I found particularly useful. The ‘Being’ chapters require more effort and self-reflection, but I’m working on it. I’ve also cheated to an extent in that I’ve solved the problem of teaching by no longer being a teacher, but the more I stay away from the classroom the more I fear returning. ‘Cheats’ somehow don’t seem to work awfully well in the long-term.

We need to make our lives work for us rather than allow life to push us this way and that way. We need to find the wisdom to identify what doesn’t work for us and the courage to change it.

The courage to be is the courage to accept oneself, in spite of being unacceptable – Paul Tillich