Work, Unrequited Love, and Regret

It never ceases to amaze me how our chaotic lives so often lead to order. Just how is it that all of the random interactions between the thousands of souls within our circles of friendship can lead to any semblance of sanity? Social norms? Maybe? Bias? Possibly? All that is sure is that, now and then, powerful messages and lessons arise from the milieu and, if we allow ourselves a little peace and quiet there are there for the taking. Sometimes that lesson is one of regret.

Just the other day, I found myself making a point to a colleague like this: I asked, “Have you ever had a crush on someone who did not return your feelings? She chuckled, “Just one?” It was an easy question. It’s happened to all of us and unless someone’s really been blessed (actually I would say they are either very unlucky or, at best, awfully forgetful; after all strength only grows from times of pain), the mere mention of it can’t fail to resurrect, from those long-ago teenage and twenty-something years, the feelings of shame, of sadness; that overpowering grief which accompanies the realization that something you so dearly and powerfully want will remain forever beyond your grasp.

The subject? Work. My point? Even though we can love work it’s important to realize that work does not love us back. It can’t. It has, after all, no feelings and, therefore, no real means by which it can reciprocate. Any love-ish responses from work that we may experience, either real or imagined, are just in accordance with policy or some higher directive within the corporate structure. It’s just behaviourist; programmed.

Ersatz love is not love.

Now don’t get me wrong–I wasn’t suggesting that we should not love work. Far from it! Throwing one’s soul and passion into the daily labour is just about the healthiest form of self-expression I can fathom. That which occupies the lion’s share of our waking hours should be something about which we care deeply, right? Else, why bother? Find something else. There are, after all, plenty of ways in which you can spend the day.

No, it’s just that we should not expect reciprocity for those extras we put in. We are hired, after all, to do something fairly specific and, in return, it’s agreed that we will receive financial compensation along with, hopefully, a modicum of respect–although the later part is far from guaranteed. Anything else is on us, and us alone. The extras we do are best seen as things we do to receive rewards that are intrinsic. And good for that! After all there are few things more rewarding that the certitude that what we have done demonstrates excellence and is the results of our best efforts.

Life, at least seen through the rear-view, has an uncanny knack of leaving us with a more-or-less coherent rendition of events. Even ones that probably once bore no semblance of connection become, over time, all coupled, to a single train. So too with this week. After a conversation from last night here’s now a part two to my story.

Chatting at a party with a former student, I became aware of an even more powerful rendition of the story of one-sided love. She graduated with her B.Ed. some years ago and since then has been working hard in the hopes of some day obtaining full time employment. At the party she was quite upbeat. The number of substitute days she’d been getting, per week, has been steadily growing. She’s been working on another degree, one that will make her even more employable, and is right now just one course short–a course that is not offered in the next semester. No worries, though, she’s also working on a go-around, for a system that apparently does not really care if she succeeds or not.

There are times during a conversation when you disengage, temporarily, from the outward discourse and rejoin that ever-present inner conversation. So, shifting my mouth to automatic, my thoughts ran instead to the obvious: this young teacher–a particularly talented and well-suited individual, I might point out–had, some two years earlier, already achieved all that is necessary to pursue her chosen career. Since then she’s been going day by day, looking for substitute work while, at the same time, working feverishly to add yet another degree to an already impressive list. And all for what? “Hopefully sometime soon, maybe I will able to snag a term contract,” she’d said. She didn’t even see a permanent job as a realistic outcome at this point! How completely messed up, all things considered! I returned to the conversation, assured her that she was taking all the right steps, said, in all sincerity, “I am so very proud of you,” and returned to the group I was mostly hanging with.

It happened again on the ride home. Thinking back on the exchange with the former student a flood of similar stories of former students trying so very hard to break into such a walled-up system flowed through my head. This time the thought was inescapable. There’s love. There’s unrequited love and then there’s … this.

What have we done? How could we have possibly created such an uncaring, unfeeling structure? The irony! After all, this is the same system charged with the education, the care and, yes, the love of our young people. Is it too much to ask that it spare a little of that same love for those who so dearly want to be one of those charged with carrying out its mission?

So what’s my point? Frankly I’m not completely sure. I only wish I could suggest some positive steps that might ameliorate this, items that might make it a little more fair, more tolerable, more just plain right. Of course it’s not that simple. There are no real dragons to slay, no villains to vanquish. No doubt, as is the case in all walks, there are more than a few self-centered thugs who have muscled their way to positions of influence and power and, for whom, self-interest trumps integrity. They are the minority, though. The vast majority of all of those who serve the system, whether as teachers, administrators or as trustees, do so in pursuit of the lofty goals you’d expect. It’s just that we’re all just one piece of a much larger mosaic, one that cares about much more than young professionals and their contribution to our future.

There are those who will scoff, and assert that it’s all confirmation bias. You know, that style of wrong thinking, when we only acknowledge the evidence that supports our beliefs and either ignore that which is to the contrary or find a way to refute it. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps, though, they’re not, at least not this time.

For my part, the best I have is a feeling of gratitude. It provides a huge measure of comfort knowing that those who wish to join the teaching profession do so with such a degree of fortitude and passion. That said, there’s something else and it’s not good. I’m left with deep regret knowing that my own veteran’s legacy, my own contribution of thirty-five years of service to the same profession has not contributed in any meaningful way to improvement in how we treat those who aspire to follow in our footsteps.


They Sure Can Slide Fingers on a Pane of Glass

Increasingly it seems to me that if, twenty years from now, we took the time to assess what the young folk of today got from their childhoods, the one thing we’ll be able to state with surety is that there was never a generation so adept at sliding their fingers along a small sheet of glass.

Thirty-five years ago I began (getting paid for) my teaching career. In those days I self-identified as a science – math teacher. I loved it, especially the lab activities. I was lucky because at the time–the early eighties–science curricula were designed to be very hands-on. It was great, but there was something else: I generally found that the activities jived very well with the students’ personal experiences. Students could, for example, relate to labs studying motion because the objects of study seemed so very familiar. For non-accelerated motion the students were used to gliding along ice, rolling along level ground on skateboards, bikes and rollerblades. For accelerated motion, they could similarly draw on tobogganing or biking downhill, playing ball and just throwing rocks in the ocean. For circular motion they had experience on playground merry-go-rounds, swings and even with twirling things on the end of string.

But then time passed. I noticed it first for circular motion, never an easy topic and one that you had to ensure that students had up-close-and-personal experience with before digging in through the lens of physics. Students could not relate anymore to any of the once-familiar events. Not even twirling stuff on strings! I just put it down to the increased time that the children were spending playing video games indoors, figured, “That’s sad, but I guess we’ll just have to redouble our efforts with the hands-on activities in school,” and thought no more of it.

…until the penny dropped.

Talking to the young people who attend the university at which I work it became increasingly obvious that, not only are the students not directly experiencing the physical world (aka playing outdoors) but neither are they doing that in school! Regardless of what happens in k-6, once they hit Intermediate and then High School, their days in science class are mostly spent with their bums in uncomfortable ancient school desks, all neatly arranged in rows, and listening to an adult talk, talk, talk about scientific knowledge or show off how well they can “solve a problem,” which, by the way, is not that at all but, rather, a boring run-through of some algorithm for dealing with some contrived situation or other.

And there’s shag all interaction with the physical world.

Once there was a thing called “core labs,” hands-on activities that HAD to be done. In the eighties they numbered 12 to 15 per course. These days the number is more like six and, guess what, less than that are actually done. Oh, they’re talked about and sometimes even simulated–you know, rubbing your fingers across the glass top of a tablet or whatever to simulate motion, or something equally banal–but rarely ever really done.

What a shame. It turns out that our remarkable, wonderful brains are ideally suited to experience the world in two different but complementary ways. One way is procedural, logical, even rules-based. It is dealt with mostly–but by NO MEANS EXCLUSIVELY–by the left side of the brain. Talking, reading and experiencing simulations feeds it nicely. The other was is more holistic, even probabilistic, and, similarly is mostly handled by the right side. It’s best fed through direct physical and / or sensory experience with the phenomenon in question. Two views, ideally nicely merged and coexisting, producing a complex and useful representation of whatever the senses encounter.

Too bad that the simulated and  talked about and PowerPointed-to-death world is mainly processed procedurally. It’s not real in the experiential sense and, as such, the processing that the (mostly) right brain is so good at never gets to happen. As a result, the young people can talk and diagram about the physical world, even “solve” paper-and-pencil problems but give ‘em something real like some electrical components or mechanical parts and they have no clue whatsoever what to do with them.

Because they’ve never had the chance to. Still, they have experienced glass displays and they are no doubt adept with that.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Again

A conversation with a former student, now abroad, who informed me of how all the teachers’ lesson plans need to be written in procedural form and pre-approved by the upper administration, reminded me of the old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. Tired of fetching the water himself, the master sorcerer enlists the aid of his best apprentice to do the menial task. Thinking he knows more than the master, the apprentice enchants a broom to do it for him. Sadly, though, he does not know how to stop it and soon the place is flooded. Sometimes the “upper underlings” think they know more than they really do, to the detriment of us all.

The mysterious duality that brain physiology imposes upon our perceptions!  While the notion of the hard and inseparable divide between the left and right brain function has been debunked over the past ten years or so it remains that the brain is not symmetric. There are significant differences between the left and right halves–differences in weight, in shape, in appearance and even in the ratio of right to grey matter. And while neuroplasticity is a thing; yes, the brain can “rewire” itself in response to injury and to education, there is a decided selection on the left for processing things in a logical, procedural way and on the right for dealing with things that, frankly, seem to be decidedly quantum-mechanical, governed by things that can only be understood on a more holistic, probabilistic, even whimsical sense.

It’s painful, therefore, to observe, more and more, a growing emphasis, throughout society, on things that appear more left-brained, at the expense of things that best come from the right. Witness the increased de-skilling of the trades and the professions, a thing you see increasingly in my own field as, more and more, everything gets reduced to something “anybody could do.” Everything has to be reduced to an algorithm, a set of procedures or rules, with less and less room left for that wonderful, powerful thing we call “good judgement” or “art” depending on the context. It all makes you  wonder just how many of those apprentices are busy enchanting brooms as you read this. Let’s hope there’s at least a few wiser sorcerers who can undo it.