Sunday, July 11, 2010

Celebrating Square Pegs

Before becoming a teacher I worked for 13 years for one of the major high street banks. During that time I made something of a speciality of not fitting in. That's not to say that I was a Johnny No Mates ( at least I hope ), rather that I managed to to be slightly out of step with the thinking of those around me. When I worked in technical teams I was the non-techie, the one more interested in the business operations side of the systems I was helping to develop. So much so that I ended up 'going native' and working as a manager in the processing centre I had designed a system for ( and ending up as an end user of my own system - now there's end user testing with a vengeance ). Once out of the technical area I was the non banker amongst bankers. Far from being a hindrance to my career it enabled me carve my own niche. My perspective was at a tangent to others and my ideas a little left of field. And this was valued and rewarded. During my most productive time I was developing a management information system and rolling it out across several business areas. I was totally 'in my element' and firing on all cylinders - I could almost feel the synapses in my brain connecting I was so focused on what I was doing. 

Then slowly it started to change - my element started to be perceived as my comfort zone. I started coming under pressure to get involved with projects I had no interest in and which I felt I had little to contribute to. Increasingly I was expected to become like all the other project managers in the department and fit in. This culminated in a course called 'Leading to be Customer Driven'. This was the bank's drive to turn us all into lean, mean, selling machines, maximising profit for the shareholder. Your bosses, colleagues and people you managed were all invited to give you feedback on how to become more 'customer focused' and then you spent 3 days on a residential course coming up with an action plan on how to achieve this. My feedback was fairly unanimous - you are good at what you do but you need to get more involved in the business side. 

The first session of the 3 day course was reviewing your feedback and drawing up action points on a flip chart. I dutifully drew up my list, stop doing the stuff I enjoyed and start doing the stuff that bored me ( I paraphrase but you get the drift ). The facilitator came over and read my carefully prepared, toeing the party line action plan and asked me a question - so how will you feel when you've achieved this plan? Bored, frustrated and utterly demotivated was my answer. Maybe you need to look at the plan again he said before moving on to the next flip chart. 

The course turned out to be one of the turning points in my life. Throughout the three days I battled with the conflict between my competitive nature and my drive to succeed and the growing realisation that I was in the wrong job. The course became a sort of group therapy as I talked and occasionally sobbed my way through my decision making process. By the end of the course I was resolved that it was time for me to move on. During the final washup I received a piece of advice that I've followed ever since - 'nurture your inner anarchist'.  

So what has all this navel gazing got to do with education? Ken Robinson basically. Last year I watched his TED talk on schools killing creativity and about how we could be helping students to be in their element.

This has bee followed this year with a second TED talk:-

From my own experience I know that when I am working in my element I am happy and fulfilled and making a difference. When I am being forced to conform I am miserable and disruptive and demotivated. How many of my students have I just described? How do I reconcile this when I have 30 students in front of me and targets to meet? When a student not in his or her element is capable of totally destroying a lesson for the rest? Not got an answer and not looking for a Dead Poets - Captain, my Captain moment. Just shouldn't we be able to harness those inner anarchist and nurture them? Looks like I'm a hopeless optimist to the last.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have answers either, but I admire that you are asking these questions. Ken Robinson's video asking if schools kill creativity has been very popular here in Canada too. Lots of concern here in the province of Ontario that we are cutting teachers and resources for the arts, and concentrating too much on literacy and math.