The bearable discomfort of being… a teacher

“The aim of this project is to avoid as much as possible stationary postures and promote mobility. My will is to introduce a “bearable discomfort” for our well-being.”

Benoit Malta

The above quote could very easily be a mission statement for a school. Certainly it would fit any school that follows what Keven Bartle calls a ‘deficit model’.

In schools up and down the country, a combination of the weight of accountability with the relentless and endless stream of (what we are told are) education’s aims and objectives means that teachers are in a permanent state of motion.

We are unable to adopt “stationary postures” –  the essential states for completing many staples of teaching, such as reflection and planning. As such, we are in a constant state of “bearable discomfort”: as a collective entity, we just about endure despite the crippling workload, constant changes, regularly updated directives, scope creep, regenerating to-do-lists and time theft; however, as individuals many of us don’t survive: this is when the bearable discomfort becomes unbearable and teachers become headline-grabbing statistics.

In the quote that opens this post, however, Benoit Malta isn’t talking about teaching. As far as I know, he doesn’t have any influence on education policy. He is actually a designer from France. The quote is actually about this:

As you can see, the Inactivité is a two-legged chair. The thinking behind the design is that it forces the user to constantly make slight movements in order to maintain balance. One cannot simply sit back for a moment and relax in this chair – it is necessary to be in a perpetual state of response to external forces in order not to fall. This is the bearable discomfort of which Malta speaks.

I think the chair seems perfectly symbolic of what it is to be a teacher today.

The principles of the Inactivité are like the lot of the teacher: we must constantly respond to the forces around us to achieve stability. Of course, some of the forces we face are to be expected: those that come from direction of the students. This is because learning and behaviour are often unpredictable and so cause a disequilibrium that it is our job to stabilise.

However, I’d argue that the majority of the forces that cause teachers bearable discomfort come from other sources. This is a result of the endless accountability measures and extensive managerialism of the education sector.

What is the answer to this? Well, to continue the analogy of Benoit Malta’s chair… in order to be balanced, teachers need to be supported. To resist the forces from above, we need more stability at ground level. Teachers need to feel bearable comfort in the shape of a genuine focus on teacher wellbeing.

Nicky Morgan, Nick Clegg and Tristram Hunt have all taken up the issue of teacher workload in the run-in to May’s General Election. However, whilst this issue is in the hands of politicians, it is conveniently taken out of the hands of schools. Politicians aren’t going to provide the stability that teachers need for bearable comfort. That stability comes from the schools themselves. The best thing that politicians can do is to incentivise teacher wellbeing and retention and put the responsibility into the hands of schools. From here, we might begin to see some change in the manner in which schools respond to directives and trends.

Like many of these directives and trends in education from recent years, the two-legged chair seems eye-catching and innovative. But, of course, like many of those directives it could equally turn out to be counterproductive and harmful.

One of the questions we often ask when considering introducing something new into schools is: “Has this idea got legs?”

But perhaps we should be asking, “How many legs has this idea got?”

Now, how many times do I need to tell you – sit on that chair properly or there’s going to be an accident.

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