Have you ever bought a new car and from that moment on started spotting similar ones everywhere you go with seemingly improbable regularity?
I’ve been wondering if the same principle applies to things we hear. I have started noticing (and have been reflecting on) what seems to be a number of folk using particular phrases in settings where education is discussed; schools, conferences, on social-media. The phrases I hear often include ‘at my last school’, ‘in my last role’ and ‘in a former life’.
I admit I am guilty of having used them. All of them. I am now really conscious of the fact that I have and may still do. These phrases have really made me wonder about the value of our past professional narratives in the contexts or activity in which we find ourselves now; decision-making, opinion-forming, passing comment on something, comparing and contrasting approaches etc. I am curious about our motivations for recalling past exploits or experiences and how we feel when hearing other people’s recitations. I feel that reconciling the differences between our former and current contexts is important to us but is certainly experientially located.
There have been situations when I have spotted a situation when ‘I knew’ person ‘X’ was about to unload a military-grade salvo of stories about ‘X’ and scrambled for the ‘evac-chopper’. I have also been privy to discussions amongst colleagues who have assembled in anticipation of a new staff member joining the school or a team and talked into existence the worry that new ideas or expectations would have the potential for organisational or team entropy. By the same token, I have enjoyed hearing people share stories or past experiences that have shed new light on a problem, helped inform a decision, present new perspectives or allow lessons to be learnt about how to achieve success or pitfalls to avoid.
I believe that drawing on the reservoir of a staff’s past experience, knowledge, skills and contributions are vital to a schools healthy functioning and there is much to be gained from our professional experiences, but I am also wary of ‘frequency fatigue’. When does it become too much and invert to become something that is counter-productive? I am not suggesting that we put clamps or gags on these phrases, but merely posing a few questions;
- Have we any way of knowing whether our use of past experience (school, role, philosophy) in our current context elicits a positive response or frustration, sense of threat or some other emotion in those around us?
- Which experiences do we tend to draw upon and what does that tell us about our attitude to our current context?
- What do we stand to gain from the use of past experience? Acceptance, a sense of worth, to be heard or the feeling of making a sincere contribution?
- Do we observe new staff at our schools comparing and contrasting more than existing or long-standing staff?
- How do we REALLY know if those around us value what we have to say?
- Do newer staff to a school compare and contrast more than those who have been around long enough to be enculturated and institutionalised?
From ‘my experience’ (here I go … …) we tend to use comparison or contrast quite frequently, especially when it comes to taking a position on something or striving to progress things. I have heard the usage between teachers who have hopped from one system to another, such as from a state to private school or vice-versa. I have heard these phrases when a teacher has migrated from one international system to another. I have heard them when teachers feel a philosophical misalignment between a past experience and current context. I have also heard usage when a colleague needed to feel a sense of self-worth by articulating what they actually think.
In my last post I wrote about how we can be susceptible to ‘fabrication’ as a result of internal school cultures, expectations and compliance with policy. We are also clearly influenced by the school cultures we have experienced. Some teachers are progenitors of culture, others a product of it. Experience (good or bad) can profoundly affect how we work, think and transmit what we value. How we move those beliefs around between jobs and contexts is fascinating. Is it actually possible to abandon a previous context and culture and start anew somewhere without re-articulation at some point?
I am left pondering something Ron Berger wrote in his book Ethic of Excellence; ‘How do you share a culture? An ethic?’ How can experience be shared productively and helpfully without feeling the sensation of having to suppress people’s mumbles of ‘oh no, here they go again!’