The Long Kiss Goodbye: some homework for Summer Break

The prospect of Summer Homework no doubt fills you with an unimaginable joy. I know, bite me, right? Summer is exactly not the time to be stressing yourself out over school, because it is your God-given right to chillax (1) for a few weeks and let your muscles unwind into roughly the shape nature intended. You may even change colour from very, very white to merely unhealthy. But there are still some things you should consider in order to make your time away as productively relaxing as possible. Plus, if you know you’re set for the return, the anxiety of it melts away. So have a think about these two easy projects. I won’t call them homework again…

School playground

Ask: Where do you see yourself in five years time?

I’m of a generation that saw Friends the first time, which in the nineties was seen as zeitgeisty and achingly hip; now it looks as contemporary as Happy Days. One of the characters, Rachel, played by the inestimable Jennifer Aniston, was a ditzy, needy relationship car crash. At one birthday party she broke down in tears when she realised she was thirty: as a child she had decided that she wanted to be a mother by the time she was 35. But that would mean she would have to get pregnant at 34; and that would have to take place at least a year after she got married. And of course, she didn’t want to get married until she’d courted with some guy for at least a year or so. By which calculation she realised that she would have to meet her life partner….that day. Cue: more floods.

If you’ve ever had that conversation at a staff appraisal, you’ll know that it’s a tricky one to answer.(2) But seriously: where do you see yourself? It’s a good question. Although I strenuously attempt to avoid sounding like an NLP textbook, anyone who doesn’t have a plan about where they’re going will end up where life takes them, rather than where they want to go. Amazingly, many people have no mid-term plans, only short-term ones that are constantly met, missed, or reset depending on the prevailing life weather. But big plans are important. If you have a big plan in your life, you at least have a chance of reaching it. Without a goal, an aim, you live through a collection of individual days, and miss out the opportunity for your life to have larger arcs, and narratives of enduring meaning.

Of course you can’t plan for life. But you can plan. That will take you immeasurably closer to where you want to be. Like our narcissistic fictional friend (3) Rachel, have a long term target with big bold brushstrokes of ambition. By all means, make them aspirational, for God’s sake, please make them aspirational. ‘A man’s reach must exceed his grasp,’ quoted Dr Johnson, ‘Else what’s a Heaven for?’ Quite. Reach for the Pole Star, as long as your ambitions are achievable by human effort and initiative. ‘Winning the lottery’ isn’t a particularly credible ambition- that’s a daydream, a pleasant diversion (some would say distraction) from genuine ambition: own a company; run a school; be married with children; open an orphanage. I don’t know, whatever you want. Then, plan backwards from that point, and ask what you need to have done in order to achieve it, step by step, backwards in time, until you reach your present point. It really is a simple process. Why don’t more people do it?

Life gets in the way. We live in a bubble of our own concerns, like Shire horses, blinkered against anything that distracts or scares us off our immediate path. When I cycle through the traffic of London, my focus of attention is very, very narrow: normally, I’m aware of the ten or so metres in front of me, and the mere immediately to the left and right of me. That’s a corridor of focus, and all else is driven out by expediency, survival and utilitarian considerations. Once in a while, I’ll look up to see the greater picture ahead, but it’s mostly autopilot and tunnel vision. When do I decide the route of my journey? Before I leave, not when I’m dodging JCBs and enthusiastic, polite lorry drivers who act as though I dishonoured their family, or offended them in a previous incarnation. (4)

When do you plan your journey? Not when you’re in the middle of a lesson. Not when you’re dodging spit, or taking a child to the nurse, or writing up an incident report. And sometimes that means never.

Why did you become a teacher? Was it because you lacked the ambition to do anything else? Did you fall into it, deterred from other avenues by an epilepsies of imagination? Probably not. It probably appealed to you; something in the career resonated with you like a tuning fork or a crystal glass. At some point it snag your song. Does it do that still? Where do you see yourself in five years time. Take the time to think about it.

Take a trip somewhere school is a distant memory

I don’t need to tell you to take holidays. But some holidays recharge, whereas others deplete. It is all very well to book yourself a week caning the bars of Ibiza and Magaluf for seven days in a row and getting back the night before INSET, but your body will hate you. I will hate you.(5) Because you will re-enter the teaching treadmill at the same speed you left it, and you will sink further into the role without the perspective you need. Once in a while, take a holiday that will genuinely reboot. My preference is for the Highlands of Scotland, particularly the Orkneys, where life is slower, the scenery is severe and awesome, and you have as many cliffs, waves, hill and warm, dry pubs you could ever need to accommodate. It could be anywhere- the Gobi Desert or Somerset- but find yourself somewhere that you can completely remove yourself from teaching, see things that you never normally see, and get in touch with the you that isn’t a teacher. For Gods’ sakes, have a few long lies in; get some early nights; see an old friend

Just do whatever it takes to get away from the exercise wheel of anxiety and immediate, urgent tasks that teaching is comprised of. Stare at some stars with a glass of wine in your hand and consider what you want to do with the rest of your life. I can’t avoid sounding slightly spiritual when I say that every day you have is a gift; your life is ripe with opportunities and possibilities; you yourself are some kind of miracle. What can’t you do? Believe this, even just a little bit, because it’s true. What matters to you? What, on your deathbed would you like to remember having done. Famously, no one on their death beds ever says, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’ What do you want to have as a legacy? What could you be proud of?

Do this at least once a year. I call it ‘an appointment with your own soul,’ whether you believe in such a thing or not. This is very much part of the process that Aristotle also describes. Because one of the problems with a virtue ethics approach to your life is that there will often be times when virtues will conflict, and you are left with the responsibility to decide which one should predominate.

Example: Your sister has committed a crime, and the police ask you if you have any information about it. Do you submit to familial loyalty or civic duty? Which one wins?

We need to try to understand the bigger picture of our lives, and generate an understanding of the holistic entirety of who we are, and what kind of lives we want to live. Once we have settled on a clearer idea of this- consider it a map- then we can make the smaller decisions, based on whether those actions correspond or defy the bigger picture. Which means that at some points and contexts we will act one way; at another, another. That is part of the complexity and the subtlety of the system. It relies on you being an adult, and taking responsibility for your own life.

Good luck, and I hope you have a lovely break


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1 .Copyright: Anyone under twenty.

2 . Although my personal favourite answer I ever heard was, ‘Standing on a pile of maimed bodies holding an axe as my armies conquer Persia.’

3. The best kind

4 . It’s possible. I was a VERY bad flower.

5. I’m kidding. I love you.