Suspension of Belief

14 September 2010

A few weeks ago, I made my annual resolutions. I don’t do the traditional New Year nonsense, instead I wait until my head is clear, I am rested and rational and hopefully a little more objective than I am in the commercialised crush to sensibility that is the Festive Season. After all, I hate Christmas.

To put this in context, I had just finished a two-year stint as head of Physics at a pleasant little low achieving state school. I’d worked my nuts off: made some good progress in ethos and with some individuals (of whom I am incredibly proud) and put together a decent set of online resources at my own expense which were enjoyed by many around the world. I was now back at a former school (another, less pleasant but no less low achieving state school), as a class teacher of no particular fame or significance.

Here’s how I started.

Not wishing to be ungrateful, I realise that looking after one’s health is the baseline from which everything else is launched. I’ve quit smoking again as I write this and have been to the health club more than ever in the past two years. I remain committed to clearing my name and debts, as much as when I refused to take the bankruptcy cop-out of the spineless, which was the state of affairs my second marriage left me to deal with, seven years ago.

I dream of being a writer, encouraged by a few who say I have some talent in that direction (is it just because I like words?). I dream of having earned a PhD but frankly have neither the patience, tenacity nor intellect to do a proper one. I might buy one, like a guy I know who has a fifty-dollar PhD in Polar Bears.

Next, I wrote down some habits: procrastination is my worst, but the tendency to confidence (which pisses people off) and depression (which pisses people off) is probably the most costly.

The catharsis comes in recognising some of the realities of life: I set these in a backdrop of a list of things which are not my priorities: proving myself, I don’t have to do; working for free, or for nothing, needs to stop; and taking on other peoples’ problems has to go too. Part of the urgency in this is due to my age, my financial dependence on working which nails me to Scotland, and fact that there are arseholes, everywhere. Look around you.

I have a lot of interests, and I’m happy that I’m pursuing these better now I have taken the summer to organise my house and my office. I have no excuses, except as already noted. I’m not really interested in the union, or the poor or the stupid. “If you don’t want to learn, son, bugger off and get out of the way of those who do.” (Hood, 2010)

Finally, I drew up a list of the consequences of these lists of constraints and facts. I have to keep earning. I have to exercise, physically and mentally. I have to make time for my home and garden. I have to remain in control. I have to have balance.

From these conclusions, I have shut down all web sites which don’t directly drive one of the priorities on my list. The Wiki, the World-Wide-Whatsit, the Physics sites, the forum, the teacher blog, Mr Hood’s classroom (my Moodle VLE), all of them, now gone.

I’ve also stopped believing true, things that are patently fake. This is the most liberating of all.

Peace on Earth

26 December 2009

I hate Christmas. Well, I don’t hate it. I get closer to hating it every year, though. All that expense, meeting social expectations. All that stress meeting social expectations in time. All that guilt, spending time in the bosom of another person’s family instead of my own. All that frustration, wasting precious hours that could and should be spent doing something more worthwhile. All that hypocrisy of Gestapo chariteers.

Peace is never far from my thoughts, especially at this time. It’s a place I long for. The Peace of walking dreamily in an English Lane; of sharing a space with a dog that understands you; of feeling your place under a starry sky; of vamping out some pleasant chordy melody for nobody’s pleasure but your own. The Peace of fresh sheets. The Peace of the Mosque.

I am further from Peace than perhaps I have ever been. This year, I have consolidated my rejection of recent religion. In my life, I’ve been a Mason, a Muslim, a Mormon. Even an ordained priest in the latter (pun intended). Each step I have taken in the man-made structure of fake revelation has taken me further from myself.

Is anyone reading this? If so, I wish you what you wish for yourself. For me, it’s a return to the flickering hearth of honesty: whether by mazel tov or molotov.


28 October 2009

There’s a place in my head which is difficult to visit. I was there a short while ago. Whenever I visit this place, the result is that I cannot sleep, nor even stay horizontal in the dark. I have to be upright, in the light, with the comforting sound of the BBC News for company and reassurance.

What is this place? Beaconsfield, Tasmania. I’ve never been there physically, but since I heard the story of the two miners who were trapped a thousand metres under the ground and who were rescued after five days in 2006, this place in my head tortures me, especially after too much caffeine. Read about it,  if you don’t know the story. I cannot imagine how these two men got through this ordeal. Three years on, I don’t know if I ever will.

When I sat down to listen to Carol Dweck at this year’s Scottish Learning Festival, I was neither familiar with her work, nor her style of speaking. She began speakingunclesam in that slow, patronising American style often used by those of the old colony when speaking to lesser mortals, such as children, animals, idiots or congregations. All around, hackles were rising.

As she continued with her presentation, the mood began to change. Ears pricked, heads tilted and the silence of thrall fell upon us as her message was revealed to us.

On Monday, I had an interview at a Private School in Crieff for a Physics teaching post. I didn’t get the job, I am sure, not just because of my evident ambivalence, but also because I made a right pig’s ear of it. Not for the first time in my life, I swanned in expecting my inherent intelligence, charm and super-powers to win the day. Certainly, I did some preparatory work – I looked up the arrangements document for the lesson I had to prepare and deliver, I checked out the state of the school’s finances, its inspection reports, the available online profiles of the people I was to meet on the day, and even made a video tutorial to back up the observed lesson. I just didn’t teach well nor interview well.

Why? A look at the video tutorial will give you a clue. The Physics isn’t wrong – but it isn’t complete. From my assessment of the pupils, their understanding isn’t what I am used to. For example, they could tell me the wave formula and a laymen’s interpretation of refraction but not what refraction is. They had all the facts: they no doubt could answer questions related to the exam and will no doubt achieve healthy grades from their having internalised all of the techniques, methods and procedures needed to do so. My lesson on ray tracing, as a stand-alone delivery of some of these methods for this narrow aspect of the course, failed to do this. It required much greater independence of thought, more maturity and better confidence in articulation than these young people could muster.

I am in danger of justifying the outcome here – in her book, “Mindset – the new psychology of success“, Carol Dweck quotes John Wooden:

“you aren’t a failure until you start to blame”

… so let me make it clear (as much to myself as anyone) that the responsibility for this failure is entirely mine. I went in arrogantly expecting that my teaching style is enough for anyone – it isn’t – and that my inherent skills are evident to all but my enemies – they are neither inherent, nor evident. The biggest mistake was going for an interview which I did not want to succeed in.

beattieWhat now? Learn, that’s what. In Dweck’s talk at the SLF, as expanded in simple language in her book, I began to see that I have often exhibited “fixed mindset” characteristics. My 30-year membership of Mensa is testament to this: I feign false modesty when it comes out in conversation and people seem impressed, in the same way that Beattie Belman is impressed by her grandson’s ology. I imagine that if I were to take the Mensa entrance exam again today, the outcome might be different. I would certainly hope so.

In all of this lies a defect in my character: it’s referred to in my recent assessment of the reasons I was considering pursuing a doctorate. Needless to say, I have written to the good people at Edinburgh University and said that for the time being, this course is not best suited to my needs and aspirations. Call me “Mr. Hood”.