So here I am, sitting at MSP waiting for my flight back to the UK via Iceland. An extended stay back ‘home’ this time: the third and final stint of the professional part of my sabbatical.
It’s really all gone too quickly. My fellow teachers will know that feeling. Our jobs are compartmentalised into terms (or semesters), which, in turn, are sliced into half-terms, then weeks (or bi-weeks if on a two-week timetable), then days, periods… It’s even recommended that individual lessons are divided more still into starters, mains and plenaries… The chopping up of time seems to make it go faster. At least, that’s how it feels to me anyway.
And that’s how most of us cope with the job I think. Let’s get through this task… this period/lesson… this day… this week…. this half-term…. etc…
Whether that mentality is a curse or a blessing or a mixture of both, well, that’s up to individuals themselves to decide based on their own experiences. For me this academic year, it’s been a curse for sure: 2 months here, 2 months there, do this project for this week, do another project the next week… And before I knew it: *poof* I’m done, and I’m gone…
Although it must be said (thinking about it a little more), that this ‘time jumping’ effect was countered somewhat at the Exploratorium. While they had weekly events like Thursday night’s After Dark, and the Environment Group meetings on a Wednesday morning, all in all things felt a lot more fluid. Deadlines weren’t so harsh, and the days and weeks certainly weren’t as structured. It actually took me a week to get used to, and the Exploratorium staff (especially Kate, who is not just someone I worked with closely, but she’s also family – lucky on both counts!) affectionately made fun of me when I was asking for timestamps here and timestamps there. For the first time in my professional life, I had a prolonged spell of freedom, joy and more importantly, a lack of stress.
For this reason, at the time, I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing much at the Exploratorium. It’s not until my last week; looking back at what I had done, and speaking to the people I worked with, that I released that I achieved more fruitful, meaningful and fulfilling things over 2 months that I had done in a long time. This is not to dismiss what I have done as a teacher or head of department, and certainly not to degrade the wonderful work and achievements by students that I’ve taught… but, the more I take a subjective look from the outside-in at the teaching profession, the more I’m disillusioned about the way formal education is structured, and what the overriding objectives are, no-matter the intentions of the front-line establishment.
At the Exploratorium, learning was joyful, purposeful, rewarding and motivating. And for me being on the delivery-side of that, it was all equally so. There were no targets, exams, performance indicators. Of course, I have felt flashes of this as a teacher in formal education, but the end-game was always results-driven and outcomes. Can formal education ever shake this ‘exam factory’ habit? Will students ever be rewarded for the journey rather than the destination they end up at?
Ok… I went off on a bit of thought-rant there! One thing taking a break from the day-job does: is give you perspective.
I loved almost everything about my time at the Exploratorium, but the highlights for me were:
- Working with the Explainers: Young people (mostly high-school and college students) who are vibrant and proud to be part of an (informal) educational establishment. Going about learning and facilitating in a way that it should be.
- Being a simple busy-body: helping out in events by doing the simple things like putting out chairs, ushering guests, documenting etc. I found this kind of work exceptionally refreshing. It allowed me to socialise and disengage my brain (which tends to work at 100mph intensely on single academic tasks).
- Working with a diverse team: The Exploratorium certainly reflects the tolerant, diverse culture that San Francisco itself strives to be. For example, the whole Environment Group were women, not by policy, but because it just is… and no one cares (in the positive sense). Lots of LGBTQI+ people were visible (in one common area, there was a basket of pronoun badges (he/they/she) that people could choose to wear). I never felt any cultural residue, even accidental, of prejudice or discrimination in the place.
- I could be creative, without restriction. If I had an idea, and it was realistic and achievable, I could get to work on it. Even if there were parameters, the discussion, cooperation and compromise was positive and thoughtful. I wanted to give a talk in connection to one of Ron’s talks, so I did. I wanted to take loads of pictures, video and document the work the Exploratorium, so I did (even turned some of it into a piece of performance poetry).
I could go on with more.
It’s going to be hard to top that experience, and I’ve got 101 ideas in my head about how I would wish to improve and adapt teaching strategies when back in formal education… if it will let me…
Although it’s obvious I’m feeling a little down about this leg of the sabbatical being over, I am certainly looking forward to a few things, like the Geographical Association National Conference in Sheffield (#GAConf18). And at the TeachMeet, which is always so brilliantly organised by David Rogers, I’ve decided to talk about my sabbatical experiences so far, and why teachers should ask for a sabbatical themselves in Dr Suess style! (WHY do I do it to myself! *laughs*) We’ll see how that turns out!
Well, I have the flight to work on it… 😉
Adios, America… For now.