The Practice of Values

The posthuman philosopher Rosi Braidotti talks about the “ethical imperative” of finding new ways to challenge the world order, a drive that mirrors the ultimate aspiration of many. It certainly suggests that values must frame any political engagement that seeks to disrupt the status quo.  Braidotti believes that genuine ethics work from the inside out; by individuals touching base with their own integrity and for her, as for her inspiration (the seventeenth century philosopher) Baruch Spinoza, that resonance is physical. As thinking humans, we also ‘feel’ when our integrity is provoked. We talk about being Postcards representing the Ten Components of a Thinking Environment‘unsettled’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘uneasy’. Our ethics are inescapably embodied, even when that means that our bodies betray our intellectual position and niggle us into reflection. Feelings are so often the trigger for rethinking situations.

Conventionally, ethics are externally imposed – particularly in schools and workplaces, where codes of conduct abound, but also in families, whether real or metaphorical. Certain behaviours are considered to be typically Christian, middle-class, female, Jamaican etc and there are sanctions for those who step outside.  These are an ethics to be obeyed; passive in their nature on the whole, though brought into play by “doing good”, accepted not scrutinised, sometimes rebelled against, ultimately accountable outside the self to a higher power, whether that’s Mum, God or ‘tradition’.

An internally-guided ethical compass is less straightforward and arguably harder work. Climbing out from under our parents/teachers/managers/clerics/community leaders’ ethical expectations is precisely what maturity is about and it’s not easy. Developing a personal ethics takes humility and self-awareness, a commitment to testing yourself, to persistently travel to the sharp edges and dark corners of your psyche. It’s work that never ends; a daily walking of your own ethical boundaries to avoid sinking into complacent smugness: ‘knowing’ you’re a good person is not the same as enacting goodness in the world.

The difference is between ‘being’ and ‘doing’ (even ‘doing good’). Being loyal to a friend going through a hard time is not the same as showing solidarity with them when they Clouds over a beach, representing the Thinking Environment component of Equalityare under attack from others. Recognising that an injustice has been done is not the same as speaking out about it. Braidotti’s ‘ethical imperative’ is concerned with enacting our ethics; of living a life which accommodates a consistent, mindful, embodied practice of values.

As a teacher educator, I would do ‘values work’ with every new cohort. We’d collectively define what a value was, then wordstorm values commonly found in teaching: equality, empathy, fairness, growth etc. I’d then ask each participant, including myself, to identify one value they hold dear and identify how it plays out in their practice. The intention of the exercise was to link practice principles with values as the first step on a journey to developing self-aware teacher identity.  The shocker was how few people had ever thought explicitly about what their values were Snowy Cliffs, representing the Thinking Environment component of Diversitybefore – shocking because, in the main, these were people who were already teaching, in many cases for years and in most cases their ‘students’ were young people and adults from marginalised communities. Contrast this cultural lack of reflexivity with the centralised promotion of “British Values” – in the public sector, at least, and more implicitly in news media propaganda – and it’s easy to see the continued dominance of the externally-imposed ethical model.

If we agree that the work of the moment is finding new ways to challenge the world order, perhaps explicating the practice of values is one way of approaching that. Certainly for me it’s been a lightbulb moment and it’s a practice I’m going to continue to work on – and write about – in the days and weeks to come.

This piece was first published on the Campfire Convention website in 2017.

The Professional Literacy Blues

This was first published in FE News on 8th May 2017. Still feels relevant.

Ever been in a bad relationship with a good person?  It’s all gone sour, but you can just about remember why you fell in love with them in the first place so you keep sticking it IMG_6251out, hoping things will change.  You might daydream about them leaving you and how brave you’d be in the face of that inevitable pain. Or is that just me?

In these turbulent times, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out that further education is going to face five more uber-tough years and we’re not likely to stop rolling with the punches any time soon.  Our tortured sector has taken so many hits that as educators we’re virtually out for the count.  Like that bored and tormented couple, we drag ourselves out of bed at the start of each week, wanting it to all to be over.  It’s hard to cling to a pedagogy of hope in these dire days.

But we must.  What’s happening here is a terminal case of low professional self-esteem and nobody is going to fix that for us if we don’t take up the reins ourselves.  We are victims of ideology, passively awaiting the next indignity with maybe a bit of deskside moaning to keep us feeling miserable.  Yes the work we love is going to hell in a IMG_6032handcart.  Yes we find ourselves constrained and tormented by ‘market values’.  But we need to get out there and inflict ourselves – our values, our passions, our creativity – on the world, instead of waiting to be done to.

I love a good rant, but when I hear teachers’ voices raised in public there’s a negative, reactive, often fatalistic tone.  We are so downtrodden that we choose to believe we have no power.  Or that we only have the power to be subversive, to dance when nobody’s looking.  Inevitably, that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In her chapter for ‘Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses’, Rania Hafez wisely identifies what’s at the sorrowful heart of our loss:  autonomy, authority, trust.  Powerful elements of professionalism, which have been eroded over the past twenty years.  But that doesn’t mean we have to be cowed by these acts of vandalism.

If adult education is to have any meaningful future, educators must take control of their own professional literacy; in fact it should be mandatory for any teacher education programme to model how to do this, rather than the jaundiced passivity, which is often what’s passed on.  Professional literacy starts with that fire in the pit of the belly that A shabby whiteboard house, with the following words graffitied in black paint: "Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes."almost certainly got you into teaching in the first place.  In adult education that’s almost always the desire to ‘pass something on’, ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’ (let’s face it, it’s not likely to be for the zero-hours contract).   Making that early connection with deeply-held values (whether or not they are the values of your organisation) is what will keep you doing what’s right in the face of provocation.  When values are satisfied, integrity is present.  Pay attention to what it’s telling you.

Professional literacy is also about knowing the history of your subject:  all its histories, not just the “white curriculum” that’s easiest to find.  Seek out the hidden corners and silenced voices of your specialist area; don’t be told how to teach, or tell yourself it’s not possible to do interesting work against a background of dull-as-ditchwater qualification structures.  It’s about joining with others in communities of praxis, on and off-line, to take strength from one another.  It’s about dancing in the middle of the fighting – as IMG_9727Rumi wrote – even if it’s in your own blood.  If you’re not up for that, if you think it’s OK to churn out useless qualifications and squander young (and not so young) hopes, should you really be teaching?

In this post-election gloom, when maybe the least educators hoped for was that febrile breathing space before a coalition is announced, Owen Jones talks about a politics of hope.  We know that for today’s politicians, further education is where other people’s children go, to get their ticket to work.  They don’t have the privilege we have, of knowing what education can really be.  Yes it’s hard to imagine an education of hope right here and now, but that’s what each of us should be about.  After all, who’s going to make it happen if not ourselves?

Rejecting the Label

I spent a couple of hours on World Mental Health Day 2017 crying in Morrisons’ Cafe, a favourite place of mine for intimate conversations. The reason? Overwhelm – something that happens with me often and around which I have spent half a century carrying shame. I didn’t see it coming. I never do. Although I can recognise cognitively that I am overloaded, I still go through the familiar cycle of illness (tonsillitis this time), convalescence/euphoria and finally tears, before emerging full of good resolutions into a period of intense creativity. And here I am, writing.

With sincere respect, what I don’t need right now is advice, so please tuck it away if it’s coming to mind. I don’t need therapy either – and I certainly don’t need medicating. I can promise you that I have tried strategy after strategy in pursuit of becoming ‘normal’ – and still I fail. Yet I am undeniably privileged, beloved and fortunate. I am forced to conclude that society does not fit me rather than the other way around. What I need from you, reader, is your attention.

I am rejecting a label that I was never formally given – that of ADHD. I was never given it, because complex factors in my childhood made me obedient and because I grew up in the 1970s, when it wasn’t a thing. During the 1980s, when I was unknowingly self-medicating with amphetamine (aka ‘Adderall’, US friends) it was only a thing for boys. Later, it was just a thing for kids. By 2001, when I burst into resonant tears at the back of a classroom, observing a microteach session about ADHD, the notion that the brain of someone as high functioning (and high earning) as me could be wired in an ADHD pattern was literally laughed out of town because a) I was bright and compliant and b) I didn’t act like a teenage boy*. But I knew. I knew the battle that raged in me constantly, living life on 25 TV channels all at once.

So I sidestepped the label rather than rejecting it and because of this no-one tried to put me in a remedial class, or stop me from studying even when I started to go off the rails, though I was denied certain privileges for being ‘highly strung’. I was lucky to escape the ‘help’ I might have been offered and after all the speed gave me spots so I weaned myself off that too. And I zigzagged through life, ricocheting between fitting in and living on the margins, channelling my intellect into street smarts until that day when I recognised my ‘symptoms’ in a powerpoint presentation, forgot all professionalism and cried and cried.

It’s possible then that I found a little solace in victimhood. For a while. There was a lot of stuff I needed to face up to around that time and my wiring was just a part of that. I knew I was a Linux in a world of Macs and while I might have fronted it all out pretty well I thought for a while that it wasn’t OK to be me.

What liberated me was the concept of neurodiversity, introduced to me by my friend @abilearning. Tomorrow I celebrate #WMHD2017 with a webinar for @mhfenetwork entitled ‘Rejecting the Label’, about what neurodiversity means to me. Join me here at 12.30 on 11th October or check back for the recording.

And what of the future for ‘people like me’? Frankly, I think the world needs us. After all, we are currently at the mercy of the neurotypical. Mental illness labels are literally no help when it comes to challenging abuses of power as Trump and Kim Jong-un make painfully clear. What if we stopped with the deficit labels and accepted that, for whatever reason – genetic, chemical, neurological, environmental – we were all wired up differently? What then for diversity and the future of the world?

*though I do confess to having the sense of humour of one.

Seriously recommended further reading:  Thomas Armstrong – The Power of Neurodiversity.