The Servant of the Nothing

The Nothing from the Neverending Story
The Nothing, actually looking a bit like a something

On Tuesday, I quoted Gmork, the evil servant of the Nothing from the Neverending story.

Of course, when the film-makers tried to depict author Michael Ende’s ‘Nothing’ they had to choose ‘something’ to show it. So they chose stormy clouds. It looked quite effective. In 1984.

In Michael Ende’s original story, the Nothing was more sinister than storm clouds. It was an emptiness that signified the death of ideas and dreams. It was madness to look at it. It was a hole in the soul, best described by one of Michael Ende’s fantasy creatures, a bark troll:

“You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”

And here’s the thing: I was once a servant of the Nothing. I think I might have done school leadership well at one point. But then someone pointed out that my action plans needed more measurable targets. And so I chose the easy things to measure – the half termly progress numbers that are actually meaningless. Then I heard that someone else was using non-negotiables in the school, and instead of saying “well that’s a doomed approach,” I decided I could set even more non-negotiables.

My actions plans were SMART. There was no room for original thought. My teachers could all look forward to being compliant. I had contributed to the death of ideas and dreams, replacing them with, well, nothing much.

As a person that depends on creativity for my own motivation, I had actually caused more more damage to myself than anyone else, but for all those teachers who remember the staff meetings with me standing up and sharing another new document, probably packed full of non-negotiables – I’m sorry.

I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m sure there are leadership teams out there who’ve replaced inspiration for measurement, contributing to taking dreams away rather than building them up.

The Empress of Fantasia has the last grain of sand in her hand and is about to hand it over to Bastien.
The Empress hands over the last grain of Fantasia

But there’s still time to come back. After all, Fantasia was rebuilt with only a grain of sand and some imagination. We can surely do the same with the UK education system and bring it back from the Nothing.

 

 

How do you measure eternity?

Why are teachers so frantic? One reason is that they went into teaching for one thing, and discovered it was something else. Edward Burton got me thinking about this in his comment on a previous post about the measurement community, which you should really go and read.

Meanwhile, a Henry Adams quote, though usually taken out of context, comes to mind:

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where their influence stops.”

Henry Adams 1938-1918.

Whether you take that positively, or negatively (as it was first written), it is the fact that measuring eternity is a very hard thing to do.

And surely here’s the problem.

Teachers go into teaching expecting to positively affect children’s lives. They want to teach them so that they can have better futures. But when they get into teaching they find that they are measured half termly on arbitrary progress numbers that have more to do with performance than learning. They find they are given a raft of non-negotiables that they have to comply with. As Edward Burton points out:

Things which are easy to see are easier to measure.

And so managers measure the easy stuff and forget that the true measure of a child’s education is what that child is doing in twenty years time, or the kind of person they are forty years from now, or their impact on eternity.

And you can’t measure that stuff.

It’s no wonder that we’re frantic. Desperately trying to meet goals that we don’t believe in. Desperately trying to prove that we’re doing a good job. Distraught at our lack of perfection. Frantic.

 

Frantic

Frantic: distraught with fear, anxiety, or other emotion.State education in the UK is frantic.

Frantic. Look at its synonyms: panic-stricken, panic-struck, panicky, beside oneself, at one’s wits’ end, berserk, distraught, overwrought, worked up, agitated, distressed.

It is a description of an emotional state that everyone experiences. Sometimes life, or work, becomes so intense that the frantic feeling is unavoidable. But to have such an extreme word characterising day-to-day life in an education system cannot be a good thing.

I left the state education system a term ago. After 19 years in it, I moved over to the ‘darkside’ – the independent sector. From that new vantage point I could look back and see how frantic I had become responding to the ever more frantic requirements of the system. Since then I’ve had a few interactions with the state system that have confirmed my diagnosis. Some of these interactions have been with former colleagues and some with teachers from the schools my children attend.

I see it in the eyes. They are too wide. Or too sleepy. Or full of tears.

And people have seen the change in me. “You look really well,” and “the weight has gone from your shoulders,” are both comments I have received on more than one occasion in recent weeks.

I think there are a range of reasons for this collective emotional state of ‘frantic’, which I hope to explore over future posts. And if you’re feeling ‘distraught with fear or anxiety’ over our Education system or your role in it, I hope to point to some solutions.