The illusion of control

I am, it must be said, a terrible control freak. Or, if you take the positive view, I am a truly excellent control freak. I am very, very good at it. I like things locked in, nailed down, and spelt out in lists. I have lists of things to buy, broken down by where we need to go to buy them.  I have lists of things to do at work and things to do at home. I have lists of possible gifts for people, and lists of questions I need to ask my boss. All neatly laid out. Nailed to the perch with seriously heavy duty nails.

I have deadlines, external and self-imposed. I have classes to teach, assignments to mark, lesson planning to do, curriculum to innovate, my daughter’s primary school events to be at, yoga classes to attend, and friends to catch up with. All calendarised, listed, and planned.

And I have a virus. It started as a sniffle – annoying, but manageable. I pushed through it. I had things to do. I was a woman with a plan.

It may not surprise you at this point to learn that my virus also had a plan, which involved intensifying into the mother and father of all sinus headaches, and ripping my plan right out from under me.

So here I am, home on sick leave, watching sulfur crested cockatoos career raucously through my local skies. I can’t control the cockies, any more than I can control my virus. There is no magic pill I can take to make it all go away. I can’t schedule a fixed amount of rest time and get better. I just have to rest and wait, and hope it won’t take too long. These things do happen, after all.

Yet it sometimes feels as though we rely on them not happening. We make these plans that have no space built into them for life taking place. We drive ourselves from one busy day to the next, and exclaim that we don’t have time to have lunch,  exercise, take a slower but more pleasant route to work, or have coffee with a friend, because there is too much to do.

We have all these labour saving devices and no time to appreciate them. We are constantly berating ourselves for not doing more, for not achieving more, and for wasting time. We are too busy to be sick. Too busy to allow life to happen.

A friend of mine recently had her hand broken by a stray ball when she was watching her son play soccer. I randomly broke my toe last year running past a couch (they’re dangerous, I tell you!). Viruses, car accidents, heart attacks, injuries, family crises. They happen. And when they do, we handle them.

Because it turns out that we do have time when we really need it. My workplace won’t crumble without me (magnificently indispensable though I like to believe I am). The grass won’t mount an armed takeover if we don’t mow it this weekend. (Although it’s possible there’s an advanced civilization developing under the trampoline – we’re hoping they are a peaceful species.) My students won’t die if their work gets marked a little later, or if the feedback takes an extra day or two to arrive.

We take time when we are forced to, but I can’t help wondering if we’d need less time if we took more time. Maybe this virus wouldn’t have hit me so hard if I made time to be kinder to myself. If my day off, from time to time, was actually a day off, rather than simply a day working at home instead of at school. If my weekends involved more leisurely coffees on the balcony and less hurtling.

Maybe, just maybe, time could be our friend, if we only let it. Maybe we could make it our ally, instead of trying to make it our slave – and winding up slaves ourselves. I’ll think about it. When I have time.


Treading lightly

When I say “teenage boys,” what’s your first reaction?

My daughter is vehement about not wanting to become a teenager, because everything she hears about teenagers is bad. They graffiti. They are rude. They are grumpy. They are vandals. Teenagers have a really serious PR problem.

And, indeed, 3 teenage boys made me cry last Tuesday. But not, perhaps, the way you are thinking. They showed up at my desk at recess with a gift, to tell me how grateful they were for the opportunities I have given them, and the work I have done with them.

And it wasn’t just any gift. We worked together on a dolphin research project, so they gave me a purple bracelet with a silver dolphin charm on it, together with one of the most appropriate and eloquent cards I have ever seen (also purple, and also with dolphins, naturally).

purple bracelet with silver dolphin
purple bracelet with silver dolphin

That project was one of the highlights of my career, both as a teacher and an academic. I had a wonderful time working on it, and the fact that it’s ongoing and turning into a real, usable, useful system is intensely satisfying to me. It was clear from the way the students kept working on it long after the assignment was submitted that they were highly motivated. I knew how they felt about it. And they knew I knew. Yet they wanted to express their gratitude in a tangible form.

So I wear my bracelet every day, and when things get overwhelming I use it to remind myself that I must be doing something right, and that I am appreciated.

They didn’t have to do it. They didn’t have to write the card, or buy the bracelet, or do anything at all. They could easily have taken the attitude that I was just doing my job. They could have been all take and no give. But instead, as they have done throughout the project, they took the opportunity to give back. To lift my spirits in a way I could never have anticipated, and certainly never asked for. They left me far happier than they found me, both with their work, and with their gift.

They chose to make a difference.

There are so many ways we can all make a difference.

On the weekend I went walking with my family at the Quarantine Station down at Pt Nepean. As we usually do, we took a plastic bag and collected what rubbish we could. We collected a wide range of random stuff. Polystyrene, plastic bottles and caps, hair bands, food wrappers, pieces of glow stick, rope, and a large chunk of silicon sealant.

Rubbish from the beach at Pt Nepean
Rubbish from the beach at Pt Nepean

There was some rubbish wedged in rocks where we couldn’t reach it, and it took so long to cover a small section of beach that we couldn’t collect it all. The bag we carried away with us was only a small fraction of the rubbish on the beach on that one day, and it was heavy.

Volume of rubbish collected in half an hour at Pt Nepean.
Volume of rubbish collected in half an hour at Pt Nepean.

The trouble with starting to collect rubbish is that it’s very hard to stop. It’s easy to become a bit obsessed, and not stop as long as there is rubbish in sight. Sadly, in our current environment, that often means not stopping. Ever. Because there is SO much of it. Ever since our involvement with the Baykeepers Documentary, we have been a lot more aware of rubbish. Heartbreaking pictures of dead birds and dolphins with a stomach full of plastic bags tend to have that effect.

So if you make yourself responsible for it and decide to clean it up, you could be at it forever. And ever. And ever.

But you don’t have to pick up every single piece of rubbish to make a difference. The other day on the way home from work I ignored a lot of rubbish, as I have to, or I’d never get home. But I did pick up quite a few large pieces of polystyrene. This is particularly nasty stuff, because it breaks down into small white balls that look exactly like eggs. It attracts toxins and pollutants, and winds up floating, egg-like in our waterways. Indigestible balls of poison that our native fish, birds, dolphins and seals snap right up, with tragic results.

So I picked up as much of it as I could, and then I rode home. The rest of the rubbish that I had not picked up nagged at my heart, but I was comforted by the idea that there was a whole lot less rubbish than there would have been if I hadn’t stopped at all. Sure, I hadn’t got it all, but I left that part of the world a little cleaner than I found it.

I think this is a lesson I can learn at work, too. I can’t fix everything. I can’t do everything I want to do. I can’t solve every problem for every student, or even make my own subject perfect. But I can aim to leave the world better than I found it. Not perfect. Not clean. Not sorted. But better than it would have been without me.

It’s easy to feel that we have so little power, such a faint voice, that nothing we can do counts. There’s so much rubbish that it feels as though there’s no point in even trying to pick it up. But if everyone picked up 3 pieces of rubbish, our insoluble litter problem could vanish overnight. We can’t fix everything alone. But we can do a little every day, and have an impact that surprises us, even in a week. And by doing what we can, we can inspire others to do what they can. And together, our tiny acts can build up into a tsunami of change. Just by doing a little, when we can.

Like my students, we can choose to give back. To make a difference in the world. By showing someone we appreciate them. By cleaning up our local environment a little. By seeing something that needs doing and getting it done.

And that’s something that everyone can do.



That kid is so lazy

I was an exceptionally lazy student in high school. I never got the hang of study timetables or regular work habits. I had no work ethic to speak of. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, I just never saw the point. I was lucky enough to get into university by virtue of a very good memory – not because I worked at it, but because my brain retained enough interesting tid bits to get me over the line. Way back in the mists of ancient time, Computer Science was  a subject you had to clear an academic hurdle to get into, and I managed by some fluke to clear it. So I added CS into my Science degree as an interesting but not especially relevant fill-in subject.

I hated it. My goodness, it was dull. And yet, by third year, CS accounted for every subject in my degree. Here I was doing a double major in a subject that I professed great loathing for when I started. What kept me hanging on was that I could see the third year list of subjects, just dimly, from where I sat in my yawn-inducing first year classes, and they were fascinating. There was Artificial Intelligence, Image Processing, Computer Graphics, and a whole host of other things that actually interested me. I could see that it was going to get fun, if I could just stick it out. So I scraped through first year, crawled over the pass mark in second year, and in third year I actually started to enjoy myself. By honours I was loving it, and when I was offered a PhD project I leapt at it.

More years on than I care to count, I still label myself as a lazy person without much work ethic. Yet on Thursday I saw my GP for a disturbingly painful patch on my leg,  which I thought might be related to the massive doses of antibiotics I was on for a sinus infection. My GP was alarmed (which is never a good sign) and diagnosed me with yet another bacterial infection – this time cellulitis, which she said is likely to be because I am run down and my immune system has become compromised. She put me straight on a third type of antibiotic, and told me quite sternly to rest, or wind up in hospital on intravenous antibiotics.

I was a little spooked by the gravity of her manner, and the threat of a hospital stay. But there was a workshop the next day that I felt was really important – about a new year 12 Computer Science subject. It was a long trip to get there, a long day of pretty intense work, and a long trip home. Only a crazy person would sign up for something like that after such strict instructions from her doctor. Certainly a lazy person with no work ethic wouldn’t even consider it.

Of course I went to the workshop. And I’m really glad I did. I’ll be going to the second day of the workshop tomorrow too, if I possibly can, although I have spent most of the weekend in bed trying to compensate.

And while I was lying in bed feeling rather sorry for myself it suddenly struck me. I have accidentally acquired a fairly insane work ethic. A work ethic that, truth be told, has probably led to this series of infections in the first place, never mind my ludicrous way of dealing with them.

This lazy, hopeless student now works herself half to death in order to do the best job she can. She gets given a medical certificate to take two days off work and she goes to work anyway.

What changed?

I’m doing something I care about. I’m doing something I believe is important.

My education didn’t give that to me, but I was lucky enough to bluff my way through until I found something that did. Our education system is still, for the most part, not giving that to our kids.

I have seen students tackle subjects that don’t grab them with such unwillingness and lack of effort that I have despaired of them ever achieving anything. I have seen those same students turn around in other subjects and perform prodigious and almost miraculous feats of effort, energy, and intelligence in order to achieve something they are actually interested in. Something they can see the value of.

We certainly have talented, passionate teachers in the system who could make a difference. And some of them do. But for the most part teachers are so busy keeping their heads above water that they have no time to contemplate radical changes to both curriculum and delivery. Those teachers who could make the education system an amazing place to be are, for the most part, too crushed by workload to even contemplate it.

It’s very easy to label kids lazy. To curse them for being unwilling to make an effort. And certainly we all need to learn to put in some effort on the things we don’t want to do – life is full of necessary, but profoundly dull tasks. But I think we need to spend a little less time calling kids lazy, and a little more time asking ourselves what we can do to motivate them.



Work a week in my shoes

I’ve been struggling lately with the requirements of my job. I need to produce a whole lot of documentation – important, valuable documentation, without question, but for those very reasons, time consuming to do properly. I have a lot of marking to do, sections of my courses I want to rewrite, and upcoming lessons to prepare for. I have competitions to run, organisations to liaise with, and struggling students to help. I am feeling a little overwhelmed, so it was a shock when a friend recently said to me: “I didn’t think your job was particularly stressful.”

Since then I have spent considerable time trying to unpick my stress – is it me? Am I simply not coping with what, after all, is an easy and rewarding job? So I started to audit how I spend my time. And time is definitely the issue. But that probably doesn’t mean much to you if you’re not a teacher. So I want to explain to you what my working week looks like. Bear in mind that I am half time. On my days off I swan about drinking margaritas, watching television, and entertaining in my  palatial mansion, of course. After I have finished the work I couldn’t do in my working hours.

I am paid for a 19 hour week (half of the standard 38 hour week). That’s 1140 minutes. Of that time, I teach scheduled classes for 675 minutes. We have 75 minute classes, so I frequently teach for 150 minutes, then get a 50 minute lunch break, followed by another 75 minute class. (Bear in mind that I can’t leave to get a cup of tea or even go to the loo in class time, as I am on duty and required to maintain minimum staffing ratios in that room.)

For my 3 work days, I get 50 minutes lunch break  a day – 150 minutes in total. This is “my” time, so on Tuesdays I help with the choir, Thursdays and Fridays I meet with students who need extra help, as well as doing a 25 minute yard duty.  If you add those “free” times, together with the 25 minute tea breaks in the morning, also usually spent on yard duty or helping students, we’re up to 900 minutes. After school on Tuesdays I meet with my teaching team for up to an hour, planning curriculum, organizing competitions, planning excursions, and making sure we are all teaching the same things. Now we’re up to 960.

On Wednesdays we have professional learning in the afternoon, but I’m only there for 50 minutes of that once a fortnight, due to the way my hours have worked out this year, so let’s call it 25 per week. 985. Thursday afternoons I run an hour of extra programming help for my year 11 students, where they can ask questions, get help with particular problems they have, and go over some of the trickier stuff that they might not have fully understood in class. 1045. Not including those extra meetings that arise when excursions need to be organized, or extra activities run, like competitions, guest speakers, training sports teams, organizing school events etc. It also doesn’t include attendance at Parent teacher interviews (after hours), school formals, open nights, presentation night, valedictory dinner, etc. All of these events come out of my own personal family time. Oh, and school camps, which we are expected to attend, but of course there is no such thing as time in lieu for non-work hours spent at work.

So that leaves me with 95 minutes of my working hours, per week. 95 minutes to plan 7 classes (2 of my face to face classes are covering for teachers who are away, so somebody else plans those), mark assignments for 78 students, track the progress of 78 students. Contact the parents of any students who are struggling. Meet with those parents to try to plan a way forward.  Meet with students who have particular issues. Catch up with students who are no longer in my classes but will always be my students, who come to me for advice. Keep up to date with advances in my field. Plan new classroom activities and learn about new ways to engage my students. Meeting the teachers I team teach with to make sure we are on the same page for upcoming classes. Writing progress reports and end of semester reports. Completing mandatory Education Department requirements, and doing enough professional learning to maintain my registration. And a hundred other activities I haven’t even got time to remember, much less complete.

Let’s cut that to the bare minimum, throw away all those extraneous activities, and assume that the 95 minutes is half marking, half planning. And we’ll round up, to be generous, and say 48 minutes for class planning. That’s 7 minutes planning per 75 minute class. As to marking, I have 78 students on my rolls. That’s around 37 seconds per assignment, assuming no toilet breaks or time to breathe. To be fair, that assumes that every student submits an assignment every week, which of course they don’t. But they all do work every week, which I need to check on to ensure that they are making progress. And those students who don’t submit their work need to be followed up on, to find out why, and put special measures in place to ensure that the work does come in eventually.

The result of all of this, of course, is that I spend far more hours than I am paid for, and still feel that I have not got time to do my job properly. I use my own computer, paid for by me, which I am required to have but which is not provided by my employer (unless you count the wonderful opportunity to pay for an education department computer out of my own pay – the generosity is overwhelming, isn’t it?).

Oh, sure, I could be spending my holidays planning classes, which leaves no room for taking individual students’ needs into account, and no possibility of coordinating with team teaching partners.  That would make that 95 minutes all marking time – just over a minute per assignment. Tonnes of time.

So let me ask you this, all you parents out there: Do you want your kids having 75 minute lessons that were planned in 7 minutes? Do you want their work marked in a minute?  Of course not. And that’s why teachers work far more hours than they are paid for, and collapse into the school holidays almost insensible with stress and exhaustion.

That’s also why, if you have friends who are teachers, you will barely see them during term time. Because taking time off for eating, breathing, and sleeping seems excessive. Having a life as well would be pure hedonism.

I love my job. Teaching is the most intense, most rewarding, and most under-appreciated thing I have ever done. But before you tell me it’s not stressful, and that I am so lucky to have those generous holidays, work a week in my shoes. Better make sure you get the soles reinforced beforehand, because they’re almost worn through.

You are what you do

I’ve long been passionate about people’s career choices. Way back when I was an academic giving career advice at University Open Days, I would exhort kids (and their hovering parents) to pay less attention to which degrees will get them the most money, or the most prestigious job, and more attention to what they really wanted to do, and what they really enjoy. Sadly I still hear kids plotting their futures based on reasoning that seems to me to be not merely coldly practical, but actually ill-fated. “Where are the jobs?” “What will earn me the most money?” “What will be most impressive?”

Think about it in terms of numbers for a moment. If you assume an 8 hour day, 5 days per week for 48 weeks per year (working on the Australian system of 4 weeks’ leave per year), a rough, back of the envelope calculation that doesn’t include things like public holidays or sick leave, would see a conservative estimate of 30 years of working life add up to over 57,000 hours of paid work in your life. Sure, you might go part time, or take maternity leave, and there are things like long service leave to look forward to, but even if you pare it down conservatively to fifty thousand hours, that’s an awful lot of time to spend on something you’re only doing to pay the bills.

I’ve just finished reading “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, by Canadian Astronaut, Colonel Chris Hadfield. Sure, it was fascinating reading all the details of life on the International Space Station, and how they coped with (and reveled in) weightlessness. Plus it was a very funny read, and I frequently laughed out loud – the man has amazing talent in all kinds of different directions. But the thing that struck me really intensely about the book was one point that he kept on coming back to: although his lifelong dream was to go to space, he enjoyed every step of the intense and laborious preparation along the way. If he had never made it to space, he still loved what he was doing along the way. If he hadn’t enjoyed it, he could never have stuck with it.

That’s not to say there weren’t bad days – and some of them make my tough days at work look like birthday parties in comparison – but overall he was in the right place to use his talents, his passions, and his energies on something he believed in with his whole heart. Whether he went to space or not.

The passion comes across with amazing intensity as you read the book. When I read the last page I was almost teary at saying goodbye to a very personal and emotional tale of a working life lived to its absolute limits. Chris obviously put everything he had into his work, believed in it heart and soul, and made a huge and very public success of it. Whatever your job, ask yourself this: do you feel that way about your job? Is there something else you could be doing that you could feel that way about?

I admit I have been exceptionally lucky. I’ve had opportunity after opportunity, and I have been well placed to take them and see where they led. But at the same time I have constantly sought to do the things I was most passionate about – almost never with a clear idea of where I would end up, or even any expectation of an immediate job. Those few times I had a plan for the future wound up being mere stepping stones to completely different, unexpected paths that have been breathtaking in their intensity and fulfillment. Those opportunities only arose because I was somewhere I wanted to be, working with good people, pursuing things I was fascinated by.

It took me until my late 30s to find a job that gave me everything I was looking for, and I can’t see myself giving up teaching for a long time, if ever, but I am always looking for new chances and interesting directions. I’ve been teaching now for 3 years and each year I think “Maybe this year I’ll do things just like last year, and have a chance to breathe,” but it never happens. There are always wonderful new chances to take, and amazing new directions to explore. Slowing down may be something I will have to contemplate one day, but in the meantime the opportunities are too good to waste.

Chris Hadfield may have retired as an Astronaut, but I have no doubt he will spend the rest of his life giving himself wholeheartedly to every endeavour. That, to me, is living. Anything else is just marking time.

How awesome are you?

If I walked up to you and said “how awesome are you?” what would you say?

If your boss came and said “tell me about the good stuff you have done recently?” how would you react?

If a friend said “you’re so talented!” what would you do?

I’ve been thinking about praise lately. Last week I was at a conference where I was unexpectedly publicly praised – I received an award and the presenter spent some time talking about how awesome my work is. It was quite overwhelming. And yet I know the project we were talking about is awesome. I am deeply proud of it. I do talk about it, at length, to my friends – generally raving about the students involved, the organisation who are partnering us in the enterprise, and the results we are getting. What I don’t usually mention is that it wouldn’t have happened without me. I saw the opportunity. I made the contacts. I built it into my course. I worked really hard to make it happen.

Even as I type that I am squirming uncomfortably. The project also wouldn’t have happened without the amazing students, the incredible partner organisation, and indeed the opportunity provided by the school to extend and develop the curriculum. It’s easy for me to praise my students, my partners, my colleagues, my school, and my friends. I can praise just about anyone (although I draw the line at Tony Abbott). But praising myself makes me squirm. Talking about my own achievements is something I am hugely uncomfortable with.

But why should I be?

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!”

Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

It seems to me that the world belongs to people who can self-promote. People who shout to the world about all the awesome things they are doing – even when those things aren’t all that awesome, or maybe are not even theirs to shout about. It’s the shouting that counts. It’s the image you present that is important, far and above the substance of what you actually do.

It’s very difficult to praise yourself. We tend to see people who sing their own praises as braggarts, show-offs and generally obnoxious people. Yet I think it’s important to be able to say “I did this, and I did it really well” or “this would not have happened without me” or “this is really important, and I made it happen” or simply “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud of it.” There is a lot of space worth exploring between over-the-top self-promotion and not being proud of what you do, yet it is somehow more socially acceptable to fall on the extremely negative side of that space.

I am very proud of what I do, and I do lots of it really well. Not all of it – the day I start saying I know everything there is to know about teaching will be one day after I should have retired. There is always so much more to learn. But everyone has things they can be proud of, and few of us are willing or able to articulate them.

I think that’s a shame. It’s all very well to be modest and self-deprecating, but I believe that for our own self-esteem, and for the benefit of all the young people who are watching us and learning from us, we owe it to the world to stand up and say “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud.”

So ask yourself tonight: How awesome are you?

Giant Yellow Duck 1, Weather Gods 0

Today was a long day. After a late night last night and an early start today, we had parent-teacher interviews from 4 until 7pm. This process fascinates me. I have 5 minutes to see each set of parents, usually with the student present. Sometimes I have a series of scattered bookings and time to talk more deeply. Sometimes, as tonight, I have bookings every five minutes for long, long stretches, and emerge from the process utterly spent.

As the night went on I used my short breaks to keep an anxious eye on the weather bureau’s radar page, watching the rain arrive and settle in for a protracted stay. As it became clear I was going to get wet on my ride home, I briefly contemplated cadging a lift. It was a toss up between staying warm and dry and chatting in my friend’s car on the way home, and getting cold and wet but shedding the day’s tension and stress with every pedal stroke.

In the end the stress relief won and I suited up for the ride home. I have a large yellow rain cape that makes me look like a giant yellow duck, and plenty of very bright lights, so I wasn’t worried about visibility in the traffic, and I stay fairly dry from the knees up.

As I left the building I took a moment to commune with a fellow cyclist – a rider far more intrepid than I, who averages about twice my speed and rides for almost 3 times as long. We shared rain avoidance tips, compared bikes (His: lean, fast and serious. Mine: an armchair on wheels.) swapped good wishes for the journey home and whooshed off into the night.

I started to sing my favourite boppy song (currently “Love is Easy” by McFly  – it’s very difficult to feel miserable in the presence of this song) and took my usual gentle approach to the ride, magnified slightly by the need to keep an eye out for particularly deep water and wheel-snatching mud holes. I safely navigated the building site where they have changed the footpath on an almost daily basis for last six months, wresting my back wheel free of the mud, and I scooted down a local side street, on the home stretch now but also hitting that point where water from my helmet was dripping down onto my nose in a most uncomfortable fashion. Also my legs were starting to get cold.

Then I saw it.

A shape on the fence I was passing turned to study me, as if wondering what strange manner of large yellow creature was disturbing the peace with splashing noises and flashing lights, and I was suddenly eye to eye with a large tawny frogmouth. It watched me impassively as I sloshed by, with a curiously contemplative air.

By the time I got home I was warm and tired on the inside, cold and wet on the outside, and energised by my chance encounter with this charmingly enigmatic bird.

In a car I would never even have known he was there.