Clarity in confinement?

It’s important to say things as they are.

Love is the opposite of avoidance. And so, it is important to be able to say things as they are, beginning with our fears.

(Boris Sirbey)

I read that piece of wisdom this morning in a LinkedIn article entitled Le hamster épris de ciel bleu (The Hamster Passionately In Love With Blue Sky, translation mine). The author, Boris Sirbey, wrote a fantastic text in which he shares his thoughts and learnings during the Covid-19 pandemic.  

As I read his article a third time, I realized why it resonated so strongly with me. It answered the question that’s been hounding me since I left teaching in the school system: why did I leave?

Although Sirbey was writing to answer the question: Is it better to let the system collapse rather than continue with the status quo?, five specific elements stood out to me. Three of them explain why I left teaching. Two others summarize my perspective looking forward.

Reason #1. Alienation

I felt a distinct feeling of alienation between my way of thinking and that of the system in which I was working. I felt my personal thoughts and decisions were no longer valid or appreciated in an environment that proned a collective mentality that made no sense to me.

For example, if a student arrived late in class because they had spent the weekend at one of their parent’s houses and didn’t have the appropriate supplies, I was to apply a consequence. I just couldn’t do justify that. To my mind, that student needed encouragement, support and help reorganizing his life, a life that had been totally disrupted when his parents split up.

Alienation. I had to apply a sanction with which I didn’t agree. But what about humanity and compassion?

Reason #2. Operant Conditioning (Do = Have = Be)

The culture of the school system is based on conditioning. You do the right thing, you get the right things (marks, approval, extra hours paid, project leadership), so you are respected more. Conformity is the norm. I personally am fascinated with the individuality of people, with their quirky ways of seeing, doing or perceiving events. I thrive in an environment that welcomes and appreciates unicity and individuality. And as a teacher, I encourage that as much as possible in my classroom. However, as a member of a culture that requires evaluation that decides on passing or failing, talent performance that is rewarded with certificates of merit, I had a hard time.

To illustrate this, let me talk about the Awards Ceremony at the end of the school year. The same students were rewarded year after year for the same talents. And of course, those students were the ones that had a) had the most talent (or that matched the definition given by the community), the parents that best supported them in developing that talent, the most engaging personality (read: the student who most closely met the requirements of the judging staff members). In the end, the students who had worked the hardest or demonstrated the most originality or who had managed to get a passing grade despite a high-risk family environment was never rewarded for being brave and showing up (wink to Brené Brown).

Operant conditioning. No thank you. Students are not clones. They are individuals.

#3. Draining Lifestyle

Being a teacher is a crazy life. It means getting on a roller-coaster at the end of August and riding the ups and downs until you got off at the end of June in a dizzying mix of exhaustion, exhilaration and dread at the coming year about to start again in two months. The first month is spent just resting, getting your energy back. The second, is an anxiety-driven lead-up usually characterized by a swing between neurotic research and planning, and desperate attempts to enjoy the final weeks of freedom before The First Day of School!

Teachers are teachers because they a) love their students, b) love their subject matter and c) want to make a difference in society. But the school year is a demanding battle to meet the needs of the program, the administration, the parents, colleagues, student needs, continuing development and personal sanity.

For me, it just got to be too much: the bells, the intervention plans, projects, committees, the weather, policy changes, budget constraints, family life… No, I had to choose one day between security and personal well-being. I chose personal well-being, but also the consequences that came with it.

I stopped contributing to my teacher’s pension plan, I lost my paid holidays, I lost the satisfaction that I was contributing to developing young people’s minds, and of course I lost a work environment in which I had been working on and off since 1989.

I gained freedom, the freedom to be myself and continue developing my love for life, language and learning.

However, I gained. I gained freedom, the freedom to be myself and continue developing my love for life, language and learning. And, I also adapted. As Sirbey says, humanity has to go through a certain rite of passage to earn the freedom of self-determination.  

During this time of confinement, I realize now that I am emerging from my rite of passage. I had to leave the environment I knew (and to a certain extent loved), re-orient my career (I now teach adults in the business setting), go back to school (leadership studies in the management faculty of Université Laval), and adapt (teaching online during this crisis).

As I said at the outset, it’s important to say things as they are. So I have. I was hesitant (afraid?) to say these things before. I wasn’t sure how in any case. However, now I have. One more point, though.

When the Covid-19 crisis broke out, I was miffed; I turned down three offers to go back to teaching in January. Had I accepted, I suppose I’d be at home earning my salary, keeping in touch somewhat with my students, waiting for school to reopen. That is what got me wondering about why I had left in the first place.

But I am glad I did. I chose to be authentic. And I will remain that way. I love the students I have now and feel honoured to share in their personal lives as we have classes from their kitchens, livingrooms and home offices, and meet their spouses, children and pets.

We are only here for a time. Accepting that fact is the most liberating thing there is. The question that we ought to be asking ourselves, therefore is not: How can I survive the chaos that is shaking the World?, but rather: What can I learn from it?”

(Boris Sirbey)

Let me finish this post with a quote from Sirbey (translation mine):

“Ancient wisdom deemed that the art of living stemmed first from an awareness of one’s mortality before being able to fully experience one’s passage here on this Earth. We are only here for a time. Accepting that fact is the most liberating thing there is. The question that we ought to be asking ourselves, therefore is not: How can I survive the chaos that is shaking the World, but rather: what can I learn from it?”

Here’s the question: so what are you seeing more clearly during this time of confinement?  If you enjoyed this article, like, comment or share. Thanks!

Take care, and keeping learning! – Love Claire :O)

[Photo Credit: André Mouton/Unsplash]

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