My Scholastic Stockholm Syndrome

“Neurotics complain of their illness, but they make the most of it, and when it comes to taking it away from them they will defend it like a lioness her young.”
Sigmund Freud

Teaching engenders a fantastic array of neuroses. From my abecedarian knowledge of psychology, I recognise the firm onset of a Stockholm Syndrome bubbling up inside of me. Two things triggered this self-discovery; the removal of Gove from the DfE and the end of the holidays. Teaching has really pulled the plug out of my life this last term, and I have spent a lot of time wishing for the hands of the clock to hurry their spindly selves up, as I know I have been tiptoeing on the brink of a genuine meltdown. The summer holidays and the decapitation of Gove ought to have perked me up, right? Wrong.

Let’s deal first with Pob. My relationship to Michael Gove has been murky and complex. For as long as I have been a teacher, Michael Gove has been the Education Secretary. Everything I have learned about being a teacher has happened whilst he is at the helm. I have rallied against him, singing cruel songs about his face whilst waving the Socialist Worker at his office window. I have felt my blood boil as I read his flagrant trolling, which is always expertly done.

Oddly, I had some direct exposure to him too, which changed my view of him, though not necessarily favourably. My some quirk of fate, I ended up being one of the few teachers who were on his consultation panel for the new National Curriculum for History. Sitting amongst a room full of Professors, pundits and experts and me – most of whom who wanted to tear into his controversial first draft – he was so obviously and admirably in control. He said something to the effect of “I am pleased you are here. I consider myself something of a Hegelian. I have presented a thesis, I now have a room full of antitheses…now let’s synthesise.” Cue a room full of donnish laughter, in spite of itself.

More recently, I attended the Policy Exchange Education Conference, at which both Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt were speaking. I enjoy bantering along with the people in the audience, in public and over Twitter, but I was noticeably away from my ‘home audience’ of Gove-bashers. The room was pretty warm about Gove, which was an improvement on the negative perception of limp Hunt. I felt as though I was among a room full of disciples, all of whom who were following Gove not because they like Gove – in most cases – but because he was making tangible improvements. As I sat there, Twitter-phone in hand, I began to think… Yes I really dislike him… yes I am a card carrying Labour Party member … but… the new curriculum is much better, and … perhaps some progressive teaching leads to not very much learning … and it is pretty bad that lots of pupils lack a basic core knowledge…

I left the conference early for a bath. Partly this was because of body odours borne of a bad choice of thick jumper, but part of this was the sense of ideological uncleanliness. That oft-misattributed quote of A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head sprung to mind. Was this part of the inevitable rite of passage into becoming a Tory. Oh god…

When Gove was sacked, my heart fluttered but then murmured. It murmured ‘How should you be reacting to this?’ My instinctive whoops did not come to fruition. I was sitting on the train, kids around me after an enjoyable trip to the beach, thinking ‘Would these children suffer from their lack of chronological understanding?’ Gove wasn’t as bad as we all thought…

Or was it Stockholm Syndrome?

Another example is the one that I am currently working through. I have tiptoed so dangerously and traumatically close to burnout this last term, it is not even funny. I have found myself unable to breathe and clutching my chest at one point. I have been clocking the most ridiculous hours, and have spent every weekend and evening slogging it out for school with no respite.

I have had some fantastic sessions of moaning though. I have moaned widely, as many of us have. I have shot out missives all over my Facebook feed, where my fellow educators can all rejoice in our shared voluntary misery. I have written provocatively titled blogs and watched as everyone agrees about how crap our lives are.

The summer holidays existed as a glowing mirage from about April.’You can do this’, I would whisper to myself as I watched my marking pile up higher and higher, knowing I would not get everything done even if I did not sleep. Nearly there. One last push, then you can relax.

Then the holidays came.

The handcuffs come off and I look back to the Radiator of Commitment to which I have been chained for a year. But then the croaking paradox of devotion kicks in. I am so used to the Radiator of Commitment that, now my wrists can swing free, all they want to do is grip back onto the Radiator. Now the manacles are cut, I see that the Radiator is not just radiating wage-slavery and mental illness; it radiates structure to my days, it radiates the sentiment that I have a purpose, it radiates the sense of belonging.

So what am I doing with my holidays. Compulsively, unthinkingly and regularly checking my stagnant work email inbox. Cruising the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Teacher Twitter, only to find everyone is off camping with their kids, getting hammered in Faliraki or sunbathing away from the fiery glow of Education. Look at this blogpost. Think of all the merrymaking I could be doing, as a 24 year old in London. I could be training to be a burlesque dancer. I could be eroding my pregnancy-esque stomach with some fitness. I could be socialising with a human. Nope, I am in Costa cruising the TeachFirst website and writing wordy blogs which academise my tragic addiction to the job that is killing me, willingly.

Am I going to get over this? Not likely. Rather than running out of the compound, waving my arms wildly at my rescuers in their helicopter, I am gripping onto the thick beard of my captor, whispering “They don’t understand us… we don’t need them. Let’s tie me back to the radiator and check my emails again.”

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3 thoughts on “My Scholastic Stockholm Syndrome

  1. Brilliantly written, Jonny – I enjoyed reading this.

    But there is a serious point to it, I know.

    Re: Gove: I wasn’t comfortable with the demonising of him and remember feeling particularly uncomfortable reading an article by Sarah Vine about how their children were reacting to everything that was publicly said about him. But I didn’t agree with much of what he did and, in particular, how he did it. At the National College’s ‘Seizing Success’ Conference last year I asked him whether he agreed that in order to lead successfully we need to win hearts and minds, and, if so, how did he feel he was doing with that? The question was well-received by the Conference delegates; the answer less so – in fact he didn’t really answer it, and didn’t engage with the ‘hearts’ bit at all. I wasn’t sorry to hear the announcement – I’ve known a significant number of Ed Secs since I started teaching in 1980 (I know….!) and I think the profession deserves better.

    Re: unwinding – you joke, but it is serious, really. It doesn’t necessarily happen naturally, but you do need to think about strategies to make sure it happens. Often getting away from home with a pile of good books and no easy connectivity is a good start. Twitter wasn’t around for most of my professional life, and email only for the second half of it. As a deputy and then a head I would have days when I checked school email, but they were designated days when I was in ‘work’ mode. If there was an emergency outside those hours, the school office always knew how to get in touch with me.

    Twitter is harder, especially if you have one Twitter account for all matters personal and educational. I’m one of those who will tweet educational stuff throughout the summer, because in the ‘post-career’ phase of my life I don’t need to unwind to the same extent as I did when I was working full-time, so even on holiday I will set aside an hour or so a day to catch up. But I really think than in order properly to refresh and re-energise so that you go back to school in September feeling rested and ready, you need to have stretches of time when you don’t even think about school/education – as far as you can control that. If I were still a head I’d think about having separate Twitter accounts for education/the rest of my life, or certainly use the ‘lists’ to separate out different strands and NOT read articles about inspection etc on days when I was trying not to think about school.

    Sorry this is such a long response, but hope it’s helpful!

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