I was lucky enough to present at this year’s UKFEchat conference on the benefits of sabbaticals. Here’s the full script (I have to work from a full script, I don’t trust myself to not go completely off on one). It’s a tad rough but I thought I’d post it as soon as and I’ve whacked the accompanying slideshow in there as well. Thanks to everyone involved.
UKFEchat script – Sabbaticals
Thanks everyone – it seems, by all accounts, to have been a brilliant day so far and a lot of that is to do with you. You being here, your presence and your support of UKFEchat is, to me, a real sign of the sector trying to better itself at an authentic, grassroots level and I think you lot deserve a round of applause. So here’s to you
Now, they’ve gone and ruined all that good work by inviting me to come and give the grown-up equivalent of a ‘what I did on my holidays’ essay. You know, that one that you give students the first day back so they’re distracted as you silently weep for 9.00am get-ups and being able to go to toilet when you want. Y’know, those luxuries.
Teaching’s hard. And like anything that’s hard that you end up doing for a prolonged period of time, it has an effect. After 8 years of working in FE, primarily at the rougher end of things (I teach English to vocational students therefore I’m not massively beloved. I also got a name for myself for being ‘good with behaviour’ so therefore my job title might as well be Reigning Thunderdome Champion) after 8 years I was shot through. I was tired, physically and emotionally wrung out. The relentless nature of the job (something, if I’m going to be honest, I formerly thrived on) had chipped away at me.
It’s not an uncommon story and yet, as a sector that struggles to recruit and retain staff, there seems to be very little thought as to how to ease certain pressures. On the contrary, ‘more for less’ seems to be the unofficial mantra due to necessity and many of us are taking on a greater workload than ever before. Now, I’m not daft, I came to FE after working in secondary and units and I didn’t enter the profession with blinkers as to what it would entail, it’s just that term after term had worn me down. I don’t think there’s any shame in admitting it.
So, I had to have a think. Which isn’t my favourite thing to do but needs must. I enjoy teaching. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not enamoured with it. I’m not part of that narrative that says you must passionately love it and want to get married to it and want to have it’s babies. I enjoy it – I think I have a certain talent for it (although if you were to ask the people I teach, they may give you a slightly different perspective.) But I enjoy it and I didn’t want to give it up.
Because that’s sometimes the stark choice in these situations. And people ARE making that choice to leave. Many people, who have been in the job for a while are being made to feel as though there is no choice but to leave. In many cases it’s a self preservation tactic and it’s a completely understandable reaction – I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about knocking it on the head completely myself.
But fortunately, thanks to a chat with a former colleague who’d already done a temporary bunk, I was introduced to the concept of (in the parlance of my college) a ‘career break’. Or sabbatical. Or ‘research leave’. But never, as my wife the good Dr Caroline Starkey has often reminded me, never a ‘year long jolly.’ And for me, it seemed like a really good fit.
Some things that you might want to consider before you go diving in.
Having answers to these quick questions is a good place to start if you’re thinking of going down the sabbatical route.
This is anthropologist Victor Turner whose work my wife pointed me towards yesterday. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, THAT’S how prepared for this talk I am.) The reason she did this was that she saw parallels to what I experienced during my sabbatical and the liminality that Turner explored in his work. This quote discusses the liminal stage of the rite of passage with its three stages of separation, transition and reincorporation.
Because in taking a sabbatical I was cutting ties with my former community, but (importantly) not in a permanent fashion, I then entered the transitional (or liminal) phase where I was unsure of my status, my place away from the old structure. This could probably be best represented by the weird ass list of jobs I took during my career break.
[SLIDE] Quick discussion (and vid)
All over the shop. But varied. And fun. And bar that one there not teaching.
But after throwing off the shackles of my old world, and trying to negotiate the new, it was time for reincorporation. What kind of transformation had there been? And was there an effect on my teaching?
One of the things that working in a high pressure environment such as FE does is promote a very narrow focus. There’s so much going on right in front of us that it’s difficult to see the wider issues. The career break allowed me to indulge in a wide range of employment some of which meant that I was involved in the edtech industry. Seeing what goes on outside the classroom has been fascinating to me and has sparked my interest as to the use of edtech in college. In things like wider policy, in things like how education is viewed from the outside. These insights have been useful.
It has also meant that I join my vocational colleagues in teaching a subject that I have worked in. This is important in FE and is often a stick used to beat down more traditionally ‘academic’ areas. English isn’t just what I teach, it’s what I used to do for a living.
Here’s a strange one – learning that I can get on OK without teaching if needs be has, in many ways, made me a better teacher. I no longer feel beholden to nonsense for fear of losing my post. I speak up more when I think something’s not right. My confidence has increased.
Perhaps, most importantly, I feel rested. It has been a time of relative relaxation. Time I’ve been able to spend bringing up my children. Time I’ve used to cultivate my interests. I started to run (for those that new me before, this is something of a minor miracle). The time away has seen a dramatic improvement in my health – I lost three stone (the legacy of too many sugary treats during meetings rather than eating propery) and my mind, where formerly filled with noise is now quiet.
For me, the sabbatical has represented the chance to step away from a high pressure job and reflect, and to some extent, heal. On my return I am calmer, more aware, and more willing to try new things in the classroom whilst having less tolerance for the things that are sub-par.
As I said at the start, teaching is hard. Perhaps the widespread take-up of sabbaticals for FE staff could go some way to making it less so.
Thanks for listening.