I keep bumping up against the concept of seva recently. It means "a commitment to serving others". A Sikh colleague is writing seva into a national professional development curriculum, not as an afterthought but fundamentally, as something which is at the core of any social action approach. My son is working for a British-Indian company that enshrines seva in its customer service mission. It defines it as "big heart and applying our minds to be first-class". It’s rare to find the word seva without the word "heart" resting nearby.
At some level, most teachers still think of themselves as public servants and seva has relevance for our profession, which is traditionally seen as a vocation. So when does "selfless service" become damaging not just to us, but to our profession as a whole? And what can we do about that, without losing service as a professional value?
More on this: Why do we all work overtime? Because other teachers do
Guy Doza wrote in Tes recently that we all work overtime because other teachers do – and he’s got a point. In unhealthy workplace cultures, presenteeism (working when you are sick, or visibly working out of hours) is a way of signalling your loyalty. Plenty of other overtime is unseen, even taken for granted. Teachers do this to keep themselves safely employed, whilst making themselves vulnerable to mental and physical burnout. We know this and we know, too, about the mental health crises in our education system (and elsewhere).
We don’t know what to do about it.
Workplaces are responding with various degrees of effectiveness and if yours hasn’t signed up to the Where’s Your Head At? Manifesto yet, that’s something you could lead (or suggest). It’s a campaign that puts the onus firmly back on employers, rather than pointing the finger at workers who overwork. (“Don’t let us see what you’re doing to meet our impossible demands!”)
Meanwhile, a deeper exploration into the nature of public service is in order.
Professional codes tend not to include definitions of service, making it difficult to notice when the extent of that service becomes unhealthy. The Nolan Principles, which (ought to) govern public life in the UK are headed by ‘selflessness’ but in pathological working environments - where perfectionist cultures meet austere times - being ‘selfless’ means not knowing when to stop. Many of us do not know when to stop.
Seva is also defined as "selfless service" but dig a little deeper and you’ll realise that its adherents are not promoting martyrdom but something much more affirmative. Seva is to serve (a person or community) without the expectation of receiving anything in return. Teaching a group of students is seva (we don’t – or shouldn’t – do it to get recognition, gifts or gratitude). Any transaction is between the organisation and the educator (wages) and it’s this relationship which becomes corrupted, in situations of chronic overwork.
The problem is that we have forgotten who we serve. Not the organisation, but the student and education itself, by doing the best job we can to help individuals process and apply knowledge and ideas. When teachers report that they are delivering on assessments but they are too tired to be creative, curious or questioning, you can be very sure that the tail is wagging the dog.
Returning to a definition of seva that combines a big heart with "applying our minds to be first-class" is worth considering. This is not appropriation, just recognition that the peculiarly British approach to public service has something to learn from another tradition. It’s good to sidestep the word "outstanding", which has come to feel like a huge, unhealthy weight and as we do so, we maybe sidestep any drift towards martyrdom too. Educators (teachers, guidance workers, learning support staff) have big hearts, we know that. Let’s start talking about what first-class thinking might look like for education, and bring a little seva to our lives.
Lou Mycroft is an adult educator, facilitator, writer and public speaker