Metaphors for digital spaces: Considering Westworld

the Westworld landscape (source: scifi.stackexchange.com)

You really do make a terrible human being. And I mean that as a compliment. ~ Maeve, Westworld

The Western genre involves representations of the powerful and the powerless, the heard and the voiceless, the abusers and the abused. In the romanticised landscape of the Western, heroes (usually white and male) overcome the challenges of the frontierland. Historical brutalities are often overlooked in favour of myth and legend; the Wild West is one of imagination rather than reality.

In an open access, peer-reviewed paper published this month, Cyborgs, desiring-machines, bodies without organs, and Westworld: Interrogating academic writing and
scholarly identity, I use the HBO television series Westworld as a lens for exploring academic identity and writing. The Westworld setting is a theme park, called Westworld, a kind of real virtual reality that the very rich can frequent on their vacations, for a hefty fee. The theme park recreates the idealistic American desert frontier, full of sweeping vistas, damsels, brothels, gun-slinging bad guys, and cowboy heroes. It drags the Western genre and setting out of the archives, dusts it off, and breathes new life into it by marrying it with science fiction. Like much speculative fiction, it takes our current world and presses a hypothetiocal fast forward: What if technology evolves to a point where we can bring multi-player computer games to life in theme parks populated with robots that appear and act human?

The Westworld universe is one that brings together the Western genre—its hopes and its atrocities—with technology. The guests to the Westworld park aspire to play a part in this world as hero or villain. (In the show we mainly follow the arc of male guests, so it is their desires we see pursued and borne out.) The hosts of the theme park are cyborgs who follow narrative loops designed to allow guests to act out their darkest fantasies without guilt or consequence.

A recent blog post by Benjamin Doxtdator has me thinking more about the notion of the digital frontier, and about how we envisage ourselves in digital spaces. In his post, Benjamin explored the metaphor of the internet as a frontier-style landscape that can be mastered or explored. He argues that this is an unhelpful and even dangerous metaphor. He proposes the lens of surveillance capitalism as an alternative; here I imagine Foucauldian panopticism, the telescreens of Orwell’s 1984, and the Eyes of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Benjamin’s post got me thinking about what we might glean from considering the Westworld world as a metaphor for digital space, and the human characters as representations of how people and organisations interact with that space. The park’s creators manipulate the landscape and the cyborg characters in order to engage, entertain, and satisfy their guests, while the guests treat the park with egomaniacal entitlement. Some guests pursue exciting story arcs for themselves, while others leave their morals at the door as they live out depraved fantasies of violence and abuse.

The show presents the cyborg characters as more human than the humans, perhaps encouraging us to question our relationship with technology and its dehumanising influence. It also asks us to consider the ways in which we feel free to interact with digital spaces where we feel we can be either free from our non-digital selves, or to enact alternate identities online. Westworld, viewed this way, presents us with a humanity with which we don’t want to associate and provides a warning to its audience about the dangers of interacting unethically and unthinkingly with technologies.

Meanwhile the cyborg characters, with whom we are encouraged to empathise, are awakening and beginning to rise up against those who oppress and violate them. The show lays bare inequities and power imbalances in technological arenas. It presents a critique of the powerful puppet masters and privileged users of tech, questioning what people do with their privilege and with technology when there are no checks and balances. Westworld‘s artificial frontierland encourages us to reconsider what we might do in digital spaces, and to what ends.

In Westworld it is the cyborgs, the underdogs and the underclass, who provide us with potential for resistance and who begin to question their world. We are constantly, however, reminded of the ways in which the cyborgs are created, controlled, and sometimes cast aside by those who run the Westworld world.

At a time when I am working on a framework for digital pedagogy at my school, I am reflecting on the notion of metaphor. I agree with Benjamin Doxtdator that conceptualising technology as a playground is dangerous. How do we want our children and students to see and interact with the world of technology? In a world of big data, cyber attacks, and alternative facts, perhaps it is with a combination of enthusiasm, caution, fear, confidence and criticality.

Stream of blogciousness

Aqua Fauna by Britt Mikkelsen, taken at the 2017 Cottesloe Sculptures by the Sea

It’s Friday. The day I’ve told myself I will post a blog piece each week. Often I have the post written by Wednesday. Or I sit with a wine on Thursday night and work through it, luxuriating in the writing, getting the post ready so that it can sit quietly in hiding, ready for posting the next day. Sometimes it’s times like now – once the kids are in bed on a Friday night – that I finally sit down with my laptop and begin my tap tap tapping. Brain and keyboard reconnecting. Sometimes I agonise and go tentatively. Sometimes the words explode in a cacophony of keystrokes.

Occasionally, I skip a post, despite this being like the sound of fingernails down the blackboard to my perfectionist tendencies. Who cares if you don’t post? says the sane voice in my head. If you shout into the blogging void and no-one listens, it’s like it never really happened, whispers another. Why have a self-imposed deadline if you can’t break it? mutters the voice of reason.

This post, tonight, is a bridge between not-posting and posting-to-deadline, Writing about writing. Blogging about blogging. Guilt blogging. Words on the screen. A deadline met.

It’s not that I’ve been dragging my feet. In the last week I have written four blog posts, two for this blog—on International Women’s Day and on E4L in Australia—and also two for my school’s blog. I had a co-authored paper published in the International Journal of Research and Method in Education (Wahoo!). I had one child with a broken arm, the other with a virus. Sleep hasn’t been great. I presented at an evening leadership event that I organised with a colleague for the leaders in our school. I held a 5th birthday party with a Star Wars theme, including making the cake from scratch (another self-imposed rule of mine). I attended two grown-up birthday parties. I danced. I worked full time. I missed two calls from my sister and have not managed to call her back. I attended parent teacher interviews for my two kids. I packed lunches for school and also boxes of belongings because I’m moving house soon. I have plenty more to pack. Plus forty Year 12 English essays to mark. Plus plus plus.

Star Wars cake for Mr 5

So I can probably just have a glass of wine and relax. Skip the blog. I doubt very much that my small readership wait with baited breath for my posts to ding into their WordPress reader or inbox each Friday. So why do I feel compelled to stick to my deadline?

I wonder if it is a fear that if I let my own schedule slip then it’ll be a slippery slope to the occasional lonely tumbleweed post blowing through an empty desert of a blog. Or an abandoned wasteland of once-prolific posts, words dried out like carcasses in a summer drought. That my writing muscles will atrophy. That I won’t make the time to use this blog space to think through the things that get stuck in my head. Those thoughts that need to be teased out like fine silk threads or rolled around and around in meditative contemplation. Those dilemmas that need thrashing out and that burn in my mind until I assault my keyboard to get them out.

Today I had a bunch of partly formed blog ideas. Mostly things in my work or research that I’m thinking about and around. But this is the post I have written. I can only assume that this is the post that I needed to write. Maybe it’s my way of giving myself a break.

Stitching the shadows: Writing & social media

textile detail by Isobel Moore http://www.threadnoodle.co.uk/

textile detail by Isobel Moore http://www.threadnoodle.co.uk/

This blog post is part of a blogversation. It responds to two blogs, both of which came to my attention via my Twitter feed. This one on qualitative research methods by Naomi Barnes, and this one on tracing the social media interchange that followed, by Ian Guest. This is not the first time I have jumped into a blogversation unannounced and univited. The first time was when Helen Kara challenged Naomi Barnes to the #blimage challenge, after I had first challenged Helen to the same. The post I wrote, in response to Helen’s photograph of spider webs in her garden, echoes the themes of this post – the power and messiness of connectivity on social media. Another of Naomi’s posts had me thinking about diffraction.

The great thing about social media is that by engaging we situate ourselves within a public conversation. It’s when people jump in—to ask a question, make a comment, respectfully challenge, add their lived experience, share their perspective—that dialogue is enriched and we influence each other, across time, space and devices.

In Naomi’s recent post she articulates some ways of thinking that are close to my heart and my keyboard: blogging as inquiry and using metaphors as a method of sense-making. As many of you would know, I used Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a literary metaphor through which I viewed and re-constructed my PhD data. Metaphors, as any reader of this blog will recognise, are one way that I make sense of the world. Metaphors also emerged from the stories of the participants of my PhD as they worked to make sense of their selves and worlds.

As une édu flâneuse I was taken with Naomi’s notion of the ‘concept flâneur’. The flâneur, or its feminine alternative the flâneuse, is the attentive observer, the attuned wanderer, a scholar of the world and a chameleonic surveyor of the crowd. The ‘concept flâneur’ reminds me of my own use of bricolage in my PhD that I describe here as rethinking well-worn traditions and stitching them back together in new form. But flânerie is about more than stitching together. It is about rapt observation and devoted contemplation, about deep understanding and applying scholarly thinking. The theoretical flâneur is the insider-outsider, at once looking in and immersed within.

The part of Naomi’s post that challenged me the most was when she stated that qualitative research has stagnated as “the author has become central in the writing. It becomes about writing, rather than the research and the need for change.” It led me to a Twitter exchange in which I explored my own uncertainty around the self in research and the author’s place in writing.

a Twitter exchange resulting from Naomi Barnes' blog post

a Twitter exchange resulting from Naomi Barnes’ blog post

In keeping with Naomi’s metaphor of the sutured-together monster body, I see these kinds of social media interactions as textile. I have written before about textiles as a metaphor for subversion and political activism. We stitch onto shared fabric, adding perspectives, colour, texture, visual elements to a work. Our hands and minds shape the work (our thinking work, our writing work, our collaborative dialogue work), as it shapes us. Needles prick and rub callouses into fingers. We cramp. We struggle with the material. We can be proud of our contribution, working together like a quilting circle on the collaborative work of seeking to understand and to theorise.

Ian, in his post that responds to Naomi’s post, points out the non-linear, messy ways that exchanges happen on Twitter, despite their appearance in the feed as linear threads. I’ve written before about the butterfly effects of Twitter conversations, their serendipitous, surprising and subtly influential moments. Their powerful, unforeseen circumstances.

Ian wonders about the silences and the blurred boundaries between people and thoughts. I agree that it is in the silences, the shadows, the fissures, the dark cracks, of exchanges and of our own thinking, that we are most in a state of becoming and therefore potential change. It’s in the dark and vulnerable spaces that we learn. Blogging can be a bit like this: an exposure, a laying bare, a stripping down.

Ian mentions in his post that he shared a blog post via email despite sitting right next to his colleague; they collaborated via technology despite being in the same room. This reflects the evolving relationship that Naomi and I share. We have begun a co-authorly relationship, via digital tools. Word to word, screen to screen, device to device. When we met in person for the first time recently, we didn’t discuss our writing projects specifically. We saved our writerly collaborations for online spaces: email, Google docs, Twitter. In our fledgling collaboration, for me the digital sphere feels simultaneously a bit sacred and a draft-notebook-type place for working out. We show our workings to each other via our thinking-out-loud digital musings.

The wonderful thing about blogging, tweeting, emailing, writing and reading as inquiry is the acceptance, and even celebration, that it is all unformed. There are moments of awkwardness, uncertainty, openness, weakness, resistance, emotion. It’s all laid bare on screen, and open to tangled-threaded multi-webbed interchanges that have us emerging from the knotted labyrinthine tangles as from a chrysalis, declaring “here I am” so that we can be challenged and changed again.

5 things I learned in 2016

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

rainbow shipping container sculpture, Fremantle (taken with iPhone & olloclip)

2016 seems to have flown by at a rate of knots. I am so shredded right now that I feel like all of those ‘me at the beginning of 2016; me at the end of 2016’ memes floating around. But instead of a bleak image of end-of-year despair following this year of Brexit and Trump’s election, I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog post with the above sculpture. Part utilitarian shipping containers and part rainbow possibilities. The mundane made beautiful. Take from that what you will.

I figure that maybe if I take stock of what I’ve done and where I’m at, it might help me shed my 2016 skin and slip more freely into the new year. This year I submitted, was awarded and graduated from my PhD. I’ve since been appointed as an adjunct at the university where I did my doctorate, and have also been appointed to a cool new role at my school from 2017. I’ve had 3 peer-reviewed journal articles published, 3 book chapters accepted and presented 8 times at 6 conferences, including AERA in Washington DC. Emerald Publishing made a cartoon abstract of one of my papers. This is my 66th blog post for the édu flâneuse in 2016. I’ve also written for other sites including The Conversation and the Times HigherEd blog. I won an ACEL New Voice in Educational Research scholarship, and an international award for my PhD thesis. I worked a 0.8 FTE load: teaching English, coaching teachers and middle leaders, and refining professional growth and performance review processes at my school. I parented my two boys, who will both be in full time school next year. The youngest was in part time kindy this year, so I’ve had my last term-time weekday frolic with him.

This time last year I wrote about 5 things I learned in 2015. 2016 has thrown up some similar and some different learnings. Here are my top 5.

  1. Carve out a work routine.

I’ve had what has felt like a really busy year. To manage, I have instilled more structure into my work flow. This is about more than my Post-It note system. It means I try to find a regular ebb-and-flow routine, like blogging here every Friday, and carving out time for strategic project work at school, to make time for it among all the operational and relational stuff that fills my days. It also means figuring out where and how to make time for academic thinking, reading and writing.

This #1 point is totally unsexy and eye-rollingly boring, but it’s becoming more and more of a necessity if I’m to manage the work I have coming my way in 2017.

  1. Prioritise breaks for self-care.

One thing I’ve learned this year was something I already knew but seemed to forget: I need regular proper breaks. This year I didn’t carve out enough time for space, family and myself. Time. And. Spaaaaaaaace. A couple of weekenders does not a break make! Also, I have realised, conference travel does not count as a break. Between presenting, rushing around to sessions, meeting up with people and time zone changes, I often came back more exhausted and more behind than when I left. Doing good work that inspires and nourishes me is important. But taking a break from work to regenerate and re-centre is, too.

Watch out, 2017. I have plans for some spectacular holidays.

  1. Support and trust the individual.

In my work in leading professional learning, coaching and performance review processes, I have become more convinced than ever in the need to balance the individual and the organisation, personal vision and organisational purpose, support with accountability.

In particular, I remain despairing about the increasing media and policy focus on high-stakes standardised testing and performative measures for teachers. I’m also increasingly committed to supporting middle leaders in our schools, who are often forgotten between the popular rhetoric of and focus on the teacher and the principal.

  1. Be who you wanna be, yeah.

I continue to do identity work through my writing, my online interactions and my professional engagements. I struggled this year with fitting into doctorly robes after my degree was conferred, but am now enjoying the freedom that comes with being beyond-PhD. Being a post-doc adjunct whose paycheck comes from industry, not a university, means that I can start to play with ideas that are interesting, divergent and experimental. The joy of being an unpaid academic is that I’m not tethered to the world of academic measures and impact factors, so am able to flex my writer-scholar identity, to see what sorts of crazy-beautiful writing I might be able to work towards. In 2017, I hope to continue in my journey to becoming the scholar, writer, teacher and leader I want to be.

  1. Shift the narrative. Make a difference.

I’ve been exploring voice and activism in 2016, and wondering about what those things might look like. Can I be a part—via my work, conference presentations, online writing, scholarly writing, social media engagement—of shifting education narratives? Can I make a real difference, not just to the lives of students and staff at my school, but to the wider system, to people outside of my local bubble? I’m not sure, but I’m inspired by Tolkein’s character of Gandalf who says, “it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay.” As a pracademic I’m excited about the synergies between educational research and practice, and I’m hoping my own small, persistent nudges at the narratives of education might make a small but important difference.

The gift of failure

surf fail from redbull.com

couch surfing fail from redbull.com

This blog post is a bit of a sequel to last Friday’s blog about the influence my teachers have had on my educator self. It’s a continuation of the reflections about what kinds of life-wide experiences have shaped me professionally. Telling my own story is related to this paper in which I wrote that those things that affect our professional educator identities are collaborative and individual; occurring in life, school, and work; and requiring elements of support and challenge. Personal life experiences, as well as professional experiences, shape educators’ beliefs and practices.

I’ve alluded to some of my wobbly moments when I talked about embracing my discomfort zone, learning that I grow most in times of challenge. But I’m often not always up front about those times. I usually prefer to paint my own narrative with a rosy hue. I tend not to focus too much on failure, but rather on areas of celebration and of improvement. I don’t enjoy lingering too long on soul-crushing defeat, although I am comfortable learning from missteps. Below, however, I provide a glimpse into my long and ordinary history of failure and disappointment, and how that has shaped me.

My childhood of course consisted of experiences in which I was not successful.  The Mathematics classroom and the sporting field were arenas in which I learned what it felt like to be a failure. I distinctly remember a moment in primary school when I asked my mum to keep me home from school on Sports Carnival day so I could avoid having my lack of athleticism paraded for everyone to see. I was thinking of the events in which I would have to compete, against children at least a year older than me, and in which I would ultimately lose. I distinctly remember her answer, which has stuck with me: “You are good at school every day. You get to be the person who enjoys success in class and feels good about herself. Today is the day for other students to have success and feel good about themselves.” I’m pretty sure her response was along the lines of, “Today is the day you get to be crap at something; now go and be crap at it,” and the insinuation that this was somehow valuable for me. Of course my primary school self was mainly upset that I had to have a day of feeling sub-par and coming last, but even at that age it allowed me to feel grateful that I only had to feel that occasionally. What about the students who felt like failures every day in every lesson, for whom school was a place of constant embarrassment and not being good enough?

This experience shaped my teacher identity. I try to remember in my teaching (especially as my subject is a compulsory one), that many of my students may not be enthusiastic about the subject or good at the subject; they may come with preconceived negative emotions, reactions, and expectations. They may have been imprinted with years of feeling failure in English, feeling exposed when asked to read aloud or feeling alarmed and distressed by corrections on their written work. How, I ask myself, do I engage and ‘get’ those students for whom being in an English classroom is a challenge or makes them feel like a failure, an idiot or a fish out of water? How can I make the experience of my classroom a more positive one? How can I make them feel understood and confident?

Much later, I was shaped by my experiences of failure in my PhD. I have described before the pits of PhDespair. I remember the moment when one of my supervisors said to me about a draft chapter, “When I read your research proposal, I thought you were a really good writer (pause for effect) and then I read this.” My supervisors told me that I needed to make the argument of the chapter clearer. This advice bemused and frustrated me. As a teacher of English and Literature, and someone who has ghost-written, copy-written, and creative-written in various contexts, I felt like I was now the remedial student in class who could not comprehend what was expected of her, or what good (academic) writing looked like. At these meetings I would nod, and afterwards I would go home, still confused. (It felt a lot like when my dad would help me with my Maths homework; eventually I would nod and say I got it, but I remained confused about how to achieve success.) I repeatedly went between my notes from my meeting with my supervisors and my draft chapter, trying to find a way to action advice that I did not fully understand. What would it look like if I was a critical reader and a clear academic writer? Clearly not what it looked like at that point in time. The proverbial sweat and tears on those early pages was intense and immense. I struggled, grappled, tried, yearned to ‘do it right,’ to understand what doing it right looked like, and still felt as though I was poking around in the dark with a flaccid stick, blind and impotent.

This experience was uncomfortable, squirmy, and difficult.  And it was in that space in which I started to make incremental changes, small steps towards understanding, towards ‘doing good research’ and ‘doing good academic writing.’ It is that space in which I which I was growing, transforming and learning. 

Meanwhile, that same week I provided my English classes with exemplars of good answers and worked through what it looked like to have written a piece which clearly addressed the criteria. While providing models is a part of my normal teaching practice, it certainly came to the fore while I was searching for it for my own writing.

As time has gone on, I have found that place of struggle less dark and more invigorating, because I’ve grown to see it as a place of breakthrough, rather than a place of breakdown. Peer review continues to be a place of growth for me. As I said in this post, receiving reviews often feels like simultaneously receiving a high five and a punch in the face.

We all fail at some things, some times. Some of us fail more than others. We hear terms like ‘growth mindset’ (which has been almost decoupled from Dweck’s research in some  buzzword-happy arenas) and phrases like ‘FAIL = first attempt in learning’ and ‘fail fast, fail often.’ But failure is not a catchy slogan or a viral meme. It is a deeply felt experience that shapes us. 

The more I fail, the more I’m able to see failure as an opportunity, rather than a slight. Failure and disappointment are inescapable parts of being a human. From childhood we develop strategies to sit with the emotion (disappointment! despair! anger! anguish! incredulity! imposter syndrome!) before, hopefully, rationally moving past the emotional to a place where we can be logical and take positive action. We have choices in how we respond to success and failure. We can develop ways to approach those moments in our lives. Acknowledging failure as a part of our cycles of being, doing and feeling means that we can face it, sit with it, and see what gifts it might offer us.

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts. ~ Richard Bach

Sitting with monsters this Halloween

'The Colossus', by Francisco de Goya

‘The Colossus’, by Francisco de Goya ~ monster on the loose

Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned? ~ the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Monsters get a bad rap. They are recoiled from in horror. They are often marginalised and voiceless in texts that privilege the hero, the ‘goodie’, the protagonist. There are, however, texts that challenge the hero narrative. And those, like the 2013 zombie film Warm Bodies, that attempt to give voice to the monstrous.

Recently, Naomi Barnes has me thinking about monsters and about what being mindful of the monstrous might teach us. As well as her blog posts on monstrous identities and monstrous research method, we are working on co-authoring academic papers that play with assemblages, messiness and monstrosity.

So I’ve been mentally revisiting Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, a novel close to my literary heart. Today, Halloween, seems like an appropriate day to write down some of my musings about what Frankenstein might offer us.

Over the weekend I watched the 2015 film Victor Frankenstein, which, while breathing some life into aspects of the original story, manages to mostly butcher it. One of the most disappointing aspects for me, a common feature of film and popular adaptations of Shelley’s novel, is the grotesque and unsympathetic way that Frankenstein’s creature is portrayed. The creation is coldly portrayed as violent, scary, hideous and inhuman. Unlike its long journey in the novel, in the 2015 film the creature comes to a swift and ugly end.

In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein’s creature does indeed look hideous. Its appearance is the reason that almost everyone it comes across is afraid of it at first sight. But we see in the creature’s scenes with the blind man De Lacey how human, gentle and thoughtful he is. After his unnatural birth at the hands of Victor, he initially acts with kindness and curiosity, secretly helping De Lacey’s peasant family and showing a great deal of empathy and benevolence.

The novel gives the creature a voice and we see its potential for good and for love. But he never really has a chance. He is the product of unchecked scientific ambition, an assemblage of body parts dug up from graves, and the brutal force of lightning that seems to provide his “spark of being”. He is living dead. As soon as he comes to life, Victor says that “the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” So the creature’s own creator immediately rejects him. Victor describes his own creation as “wretch”, “demon”, “villain” and “fiend”. While the creature is eloquent, he comes across virtually no one who will stick around long enough to hear him out. His existence, and the visceral human reactions to him, are a clear lesson in human prejudices. In the end, it is his rejection by everyone, including his creator, which leads him from childlike curiosity and kindness, to vengeance and death.

On the flipside, Victor, while described by others in the novel as “noble,” eloquent and “godlike,” shows many monstrous qualities. He is ego-maniacal, obsessive and unlikeably self-absorbed. He calls the creature “my own spirit let loose from the grave,” revealing his own internal monstrousness. Like his creation, Victor gnashes his teeth and is blinded by rage and vengeance. Like Prometheus of the novel’s subtitle, Victor is punished for seeking and creating forbidden knowledge.

Frankenstein and his creation are dual co-existing beings, doubles to one another. They are both human and monstrous. They mirror each other throughout the novel, highlighting the monstrous in the human and the human in the monstrous. The light in the darkness and the darkness in the light (à la Star Wars). Their duality is clear when the creature says to Victor, “you are my creator, but I am your master.”

Nature, natural creation and birth are presented positively by Shelley in her novel, while the unnatural is constructed as destructive. The reader of Frankenstein is constantly warned that “dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge.” Victor’s ambition to distinguish himself through his science is what creates his downfall, while his creature becomes more and more desperate the more he knows. Knowledge is despair.

So this Halloween, as an English and Literature teacher, a researcher, a teacher, and a human in the world, I’m wondering what this tale of the dangers of science, the prejudices of people and the monstrous and human in us all, might have to offer.

I’m sitting quietly with my thoughts of monsters on this All Saints’ Eve. Re-membering. Dis-membering. En-visioning.

On the emotional, human dimension of teaching

A world map for World Teachers’ Day (photo by me)

On today, World Teachers’ Day*, I‘m going to reflect on my experience of teachers as a school student. I’ve written about what research indicates about ‘good teaching’, but this post shares my personal story of the teachers I remember, and how they shaped me as a teacher.

Growing up, but especially during high school, I didn’t want to be a teacher. I think partly this was because of my dislike for those in authority who saw their role as to uphold what I saw as petty rules. While on the one hand I was a geek who diligently completed my school work and strove for academic success, I did not want to fit into norms set by others. I skipped some classes. I didn’t see the point in wearing the school uniform, unless it was to shackle me to conformity as part of a homogenous group. One year in high school I called the State Education Department and checked their rules on wearing uniform, and then asked that they contact my school to explain that uniform was not legally enforceable. It turned out that the only enforceable guideline at the time was that students in government schools be neat and tidy in appearance. (Yes, I was that student.)

In Year 8, my English teacher insisted that I rewrite a creative story entitled ‘Stop, thief!’ Although I had worked hard and long to craft the story, she told me that a thief should not be good looking with a “chiseled jaw,” and that I was to rewrite him as ugly with a hooked nose and hunched back if I wanted to pass. This felt to me to be an unjust response, one that not only supported what I considered to be an unrealistic and one-dimensional stereotype, but one which failed to acknowledge my effort and deliberate authorial decisions. I wanted my villain to be good looking!

In Year 10, after approaching a teacher to transfer into his higher Mathematics class, I did not pursue the subject change after he told me he wouldn’t speak to me unless I tucked my shirt in.

These experiences contributed to my view of the identity of ‘teacher’ as authority figure and stickler for petty rules, an identity I had no desire to emulate.

After deciding eventually, and almost accidentally, to pursue teaching as a profession, my “I don’t want to be a teacher” sentiment morphed into “I never want to be a teacher like that but I do want to be this kind of teacher.”  As a teacher I am often an advocator for looser rules (such as encouraging mobile technology in class, rather than banning mobile devices) and am guilty of ignoring those rules which I think are there for control and assertion of authority, rather than for learning and developing students into self-regulating, autonomous, responsible, thinking individuals.

At school I connected with teachers who I thought cared about me and my learning, who gave me some scope to try alternative methods and pathways of learning, and who did unexpected things: the Literature teacher who helped the class read a difficult novel by providing coffee and breakfast while we listened to the audio book; the Mathematics teacher who differentiated to allow her students to feel success; the English teacher who would surprise the class by wearing elements of costume while enacting scenes from texts. 

I try to emulate these things in my own teaching, thinking of little ways to surprise and inspire. I began one lesson while standing on a chair, conducting with a pair of drumsticks I had confiscated. I take students to the river or the high street to write. I surprised a very serious class of International Baccalaureate Diploma students, with whom I had been doing difficult laborious text analysis work, by providing them with textas, pencils, reams of paper, and chocolate biscuits (Arnott’s Tim Tams and Mint Slices for my Australian readers). At the end of all our hard work trying to understand 800-plus page Anna Karenina, they were to spend a couple of hours creating a visual representation of the novel. The result was a thoughtful and inspired creation, a train driven by Tolstoy, in which each carriage visually represented a key moment in the novel, with a lit candle at the front of the train and a burnt-out candle at its end, representing Anna’s journey.

A later experience, as a postgraduate student in a class during my Graduate Diploma of Education, supported and developed these earlier experiences of the emotional dimension of being a student and of the impact of teachers and classrooms on student confidence. There I was, in a class of mature age Graduate Diploma of Education students. I was the youngest, at 20 years old, and the oldest among us was 62. We were asked to share our memories of the best and then the worst teacher we had ever had. What I noticed as my fellow students, themselves almost-teachers, responded to this question, was the emotions they seemed to experience as they recalled their memories of teachers who either inspired and encouraged them, or who made them feel small, exposed, and uncared about. I was reminded of the famous quotation, attributed to a number of people including Carl Buehner and Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It occurred to me during that Grad. Dip. Ed. class that the impact of a teacher, and their behaviour, on a student, each student, can be powerful and lifelong. That what for the teacher may be a throwaway line on a bad day, may for the student be a criticism which cuts deep and lasts a lifetime. It reminded me of the vulnerability of students and the turbulence of finding a sense of self throughout childhood and adolescence. This led me to continually reflect upon the effect I am having on students, my building of relationships, and my self-monitoring of things which may be seen by students as hurtful.

So while I often take an intellectual approach to teaching, looking to evidence, research and impacts, I think we also need to remember and recognise the deeply emotional, human experience of being both student and teacher. Happy World Teachers’ Day!

* World Teachers’ Day is held internationally on 5 October, but as this usually falls in the Australian school holidays, Australia celebrates it on the last Friday of October.