Watching The Sun Rise: Reflections on life and teaching in 2012/13

Stephen Hurley at VoicEd asked for a reflection as the year ends, so I’ll give it a whirl.  This is going to be tricky to do without spiraling into Nietzsche’s abyss.

This past school year started with the worst summer of my adult life.  I’m still recovering from my mother’s suicide and I probably shouldn’t have resumed teaching in the fall, but I did out of shear stubbornness.  Rather than trying to deal with this nightmare in a quiet year I got to do it during one of the most turbulent political periods in Ontario education.  You need only look over Dusty World in the fall to see the white water political ride education in general and my board in particular went through.

In a few short weeks, as OSSTF swung from a confrontational stance with the Liberal government that I supported by volunteering on our district executive and attending many rallies, I found myself suddenly muzzled by an organization that I realized I have very little in common with.  Rather than standing up for what is right, they would rather do what is expedient.  I’ve never been good at bending a knee to bullying, even if it does serve a political end.  It’s half a year later and our OLRB complaint against OSSTF for misrepresentation is still awaiting an outcome.  Being an idealist I find this very upsetting.  It seems any organization is politically self interested before it can stand for anything else.

It’s easy to forget that teachers are people, and the job is a deeply personal one.  This past year has had a number of strange confluences both personal and professional for me.  As my school and board tried to leverage the suicide of Amanda Todd to address bullying I couldn’t help but feel that this was manipulating misery for some kind of administrative end.  The contrite, ‘suicide is bad, don’t bully someone into it’ struck me as simplistic.  That cyber-bullying got selected by the media as the cause of her suicide (which a number of anti-technology teachers immediately trumpeted as proof that we should back off on it) was doubly frustrating.  That Amanda, like my mother, suffered from years of mental illness tends to be ignored because dealing with something as complicated as mental illness is more than most organizations, no matter how well intentioned, are willing or able to do.  That provincial and federal governments have basically bowed out of caring for the mentally ill has put a great deal of stress on already over stressed families.  If we’re going to address mental illness it better not be on a poster stuck up in a high school.  This trivializes a very complex issue.  Suicide is never a simple result of bullying, it’s the most profound, existential decision you’re ever going to make.  It deserves more than a soundbite.

Between the fractured politics in education and my own personal baggage 2012/13 has been a difficult year to manage.  As the storm subsided and we began our two years of government mandated contract, the school trundled on and extracurriculars resumed, kind of.  In a subdued second semester I began to get some closure with my Mum and tried to find ways to get back on my feet again.  The first semester was like watching a horse with a broken leg that didn’t have the sense to lay down.  At the end of second semester I’m able to stand without it hurting so much.

With some perspective on a year that felt like nastiness was crowding in all around me, I’m able to see the good that happened too.  My wonderful wife has done backflips to help me through this, all while battling the same political nonsense and working on her Masters.  My spectacular son continues to astonish me with how deep he is getting, even as the education system continues to wring its hands over how not-normal he is.  I got a new principal who knows what she’s doing and who appreciates the work I do.  I’ve been able to develop my professional interests both as a department head, teacher and online PLN presence.  My board has been developing a real 21st Century presence in educational technology and I feel like I’ve played an important part in arguing for that.  The year has been very professionally satisfying, if you ignore the Ministry, the union and the media… which is probably good advice.

Even with a nasty political infection, education in Ontario has been able to produce outstanding results, and I’ve been able to develop my professional self in satisfying and challenging ways.  No year is ever going to be without challenges, and the challenges of this year have been mighty, but that I’m able to find intense intellectual satisfaction in my profession is a great help when dealing with all the slings and arrows life can throw your way.

But we’re all much happier now…

The stats back up that officer’s anecdotal experience.

I’ve had a number of conversations in the past few weeks that shed some light on a difficult subject. This all began at my men’s yoga class.  One of the other guys there is a detective from the city south of us. He has been working on homicides for the past nine years and is starting to feel the weight of being around that much death all the time. He said the hardest part of is job is seeing his own demographic so prevalent in the suicides he covers. When I asked what he meant he said the suicides always seem to be guys in their forties and fifties. That was a heavy way to start a yoga class full of guys in their forties and fifties and not the kind of thing you soon forget.

From that I went into Christmas. The last couple of years have been good with trips away to warmer places. These adventures have been a great alternative to having how dysfunctional my family is rubbed in my face for two weeks. After a long bout of mental illness, a divorce and a suicide the local family members aren’t very good at getting together and all the rest are an ocean away. I feel remarkably isolated during the holidays and getting generic presents from in-laws only serves to emphasize how peripheral I am to the festivities. I can see why some people struggle with the season while the rest are manically happy.

With that all behind me I attended a lodge meeting this week that developed into a very insightful discussion by a group of sharp men on the steady deterioration of social interaction between our gender in the past two decades. Evidently I’m not the only man who feels socially isolated. Many older members lamented the lack of time and the means to enjoy that social time together. My sardonic reply was, ‘yeah, but we’re all much happier nowadays.’ Attendance in masonry is an ongoing concern. Twenty years ago the social aspects of the craft were central to a meeting with brothers often socializing long after the meeting was done. Back then we had time for each other, nowadays our commutes are longer, our work expectations more stringent and our family commitments more involved. We have less time for each other in the Twenty First Century.

We’re feeling time squeezed at a time when our debt levels are going through the roof in a desperate attempt to maintain that standard of living we enjoyed two decades ago. One of the first things you try to curtail when you see debt spiraling out of control are optional social events. The economics of Twenty First Century life is just another force acting to tear us apart. As Axl so aptly once said, ‘as our arms get shorter our pockets get deeper.’

Running the desperate treadmill of modern life has us feeling like we have no time to make connections with each other. To fix this problem we cunningly invented social media to fill that gap. You can stay in touch without sitting in traffic in crumbling infrastructure while burning ever more expensive gasoline to see people, but you’re not really seeing them. Having the time and means to actually meet your fellows and spend time with them without feeling like you need to be virtually or physically elsewhere is a basic human need many men have forgotten. I’m willing to bet many of those suicides my yoga buddy attended were lonely men feeling socially isolated.

The health considerations of poorly socialized, less active men are bad for everyone. I keep getting told to be active. I’d love to play hockey or soccer as I once did, but there is no access to the local cliques who do it. Men tend to be remarkably tribal and don’t like taking in outsiders. That makes it difficult to play team sports if you’re not living where you grew up with the people you grew up with (that’s most of us).

I’m going to make a concerted effort to try and cultivate the time and space to find the social discourse I seem to have grown out of as a middle-aged man. My family and my work are important, but so is finding the time and means to experience meaningful relationships with other men. It might even lead to exercise and a chance to expand my social network into something beyond words on a screen.

Closer To Genius

I just spent a brain busting three days wandering around Amsterdam.  It was my first time there, and like all travel to new places it pushed my thinking in a number of ways.

Mastery is hard work

The Van Gogh Museum is one of those must visit places while in Amsterdam.  The main thrust of the current display is his development as an artist.  This has strong undercurrents for anyone in education, teacher or learner.

Like all original thinkers, Van Gogh didn’t suddenly wake up one morning full of genius.  Genius is often presented to us as an unattainable brilliance, something normals can look at with wonder and awe.  There is a hidden assumption of a magic, genetic advantage in this presentation of genius, but it isn’t true.

Vincent’s early career was full of formal and informal learning opportunities that he took and walked away from.  His early work is rough, even poor, but he improved with practice. Van Gogh learned what he needed to learn and then moved on, usually completely out of sync with whatever the curriculum or his classmates were doing – it was a self directed curriculum.  I imagine he was a failure in every way on his report cards.  However formal education helped or hindered him Vincent moved on, a self-directed learner voracious for an opportunity to learn more about his craft.

Self directed learning is a key aspect of mastery.  Walter Gretzky once responded to a reporter who described Wayne as a natural born talent.  He said this was nonsense.  Before school every day, rain or shine, Wayne would be out with a hockey stick in hand.  Every day after school until it got dark he’d be out with a stick in hand; mastery is never a gift.

Any talent you’re born with isn’t mastery, it’s probably something simple, like being ambidextrous.  Real craft mastery is only earned through the old adage: blood, sweat and tears.

The only thing that people like Van Gogh, Gretzky or Einstein bring to their mastery naturally is a fascination, an inborn love of their area of study.  That atypical fixation allows (forces?) them to ignore just about everything else in order to hone their craft in a way that the typical, disinterested, distracted, minimally engaged human being never will.

It’s vogue these days to assume that everyone is a genius is some way, they just have to find out what it is.  After visiting Vincent’s museum and immersing myself in his work for a few hours I couldn’t help but think that true genius is something well beyond what most people are capable of.  Most people don’t have the will power or focus to master simple skills (driving, reading, writing) let alone the relentless drive to open up new areas of human endeavor.  Real genius also leads to emotional crisis and a ghettoization of the person struck by it; others find your obsessive fixation frightening.  That so many geniuses suffer the fate that Vincent did isn’t a surprise.  That we admire genius from a safe distance isn’t a surprise.

What I did take from Vincent’s development as an artist is that his mastery was a function of an unyielding and constant development of his skill.  If you want to develop mastery in anything, anything at all, a genuine relationship with your craft is what you want to cultivate.  If you’re able to nurture and maintain that intimacy with your craft you’ll find mastery.

The trick, if you’re not a natural obsessive, is not to fall out of love with what you’re learning.

In a classroom, demonstrating a genuine affection for the material you’re teaching and encouraging this in students might be the closest many of us ever come to genius.  It’s a shame that education doesn’t recognize a love of a subject in learners and teachers alike.  We make gestures towards the lifelong learner but do nothing to acknowledge its presence in students or teachers.  A living fascination with your learning is the surest path to the most effective, most enthralling kind of education (and life) you could hope for, and, as Vincent will tell you, the only road to mastery.

I was in Amsterdam after returning my Mum’s ashes home.  Her suicide was on my mind as I wandered through Vincent’s work.  She too was an artist, a talented one, and her work often consumed her.  I’m still not sure whether to take Van Gogh’s meandering trip into madness as a warning or a comfort.  In the end we all die, it would be nice to think that our fixations, though they may eventually claim us, would also allow us to create some beauty to be left behind in the world.