A Boxer Rebellion En Route to the Knacker’s Yard?

Posted on July 28, 2015

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To start, an English teacher’s confession.  The first literary character that almost literally broke my heart was not Romeo or Juliet (or their contemporary equivalents, Kevin or Sadie from Across the Barricades), not Tess, not Cathy, and not even for Philip Pirrip.  No, the first time my tears stained the pages of a novel (or, in this case, a novella) it was not for any human, but for the tragic tale of Boxer, the workhorse horse of George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’.

For the uninitiated (and, really, you need to get yourselves initiated!), Boxer is Orwell’s allegorical incarnation of the Soviet proletariat who “was universally respected for his steadiness of character and tremendous powers of work”.  He “was the admiration of everybody” because he was “always at the spot where the work was hardest”.

Boxer Heyday

Most importantly, to his credit and, ultimately, to his detriment, “his answer to every problem, every setback, was ‘I will work harder!’ – which he had adopted as his personal motto.”  He is at the centre of the allegory as the one animal who most typifies the utopian goals of the original revolution.  Devoting all his energies and focusing every pound of his horsepower (nay, his very horseflesh), his idealistic goal is making Animal Farm self-sufficient through the (ultimately doomed) construction of the windmill that will mean that he, and ever other animal on the farm, never needs to work as hard again and can enjoy that most Marxist of sentiments, the fruits of his labour.

So, why a blogpost about education inspired by Boxer?

It struck me, late last night, upon reading the headlines from Nicky Morgan’s speech in response to the initially-much-lauded workload survey, that the teaching profession is not unlike Boxer (an allegory upon an allegory – forgive me if I strain courtesty with this post).  We work stupid hours, just as Boxer does – he is warned that “a horse’s lungs do not last forever”.  Our pay (1265 hours over 195 days) has long since been pro ratad across the year but our workload is, by necessity to some degree but also by choice, term-time only and we cram it into those 195 days and the weekends that surround them.

And that’s okay.  That’s our choice.  To work like Trojans (or Trojan Horses) at the point of connection with our students and colleagues makes a lot of sense in terms of teaching effectiveness, and allows us those extended holidays (for which we are unpaid, lest that fact be forgotten) in which we can throw off the harnesses and breathe easily again.  Sure, we take unbridled criticism for that fact from some quarters – although at least not from politicians, who hopefully will continue to know better than to throw stones close to their own glass houses – but it is our choice to work this way and agency is a key remedy for the aches and pains of a seemingly unfettered workload, as Boxer and his colleagues know:

“The animals worked like slaves.  But they were happy in their work; they grudged no effort or sacrifice, well aware that everything they did was for the benefit of themselves and those of their kind who would come after them.”

The problem with workload, for the inhabitants of Animal Farm and perhaps for the teaching profession alike, are not simply about the load of work that needs to be done.  Ours is a highly moral profession.  Nobody gets into it for purely selfish reasons, although nurturing the self is at its core too.  Because of that selflessness, we sign up to (at least) the seven commandments of ‘good’ workload (and I say ‘good’ invertedly, because by that I mean the greater good rather than necessarily the personal good) and, metaphorically at least, have them painted on the side of our barns.  I propose that these seven commandments of ‘good’ workload include:

  1. We will plan lessons and develop resources for these lessons.
  2. We will mark students’ books and guide them on how to improve.
  3. We will read and respond to important emails, even after 5pm.
  4. We will help students bridge the gap during difficult periods of transition.
  5. We will stay after school to lead extra-curricular activities that enrich.
  6. We will meet families of poorly performing students to help them improve.
  7. We will collaborate with colleagues long after the school day has ended.

Unfortunately, almost overnight it seems that ‘someone’ has fundamentally altered these precepts and, in doing so, fundamentally altered the amount of workload needed to execute them faithfully.  Not only that, ‘they’ have fundamentally altered the basis upon which these commandments rest, moving it still further away from the utopia of authentic autonomy to the dystopia of artificial accountability.

Now, the commandments appear to read:

  1. We will plan lessons and develop resources for these lessons, including rewriting schemes of work for each Key Stage when new National Curricula are introduced at very short notice.
  2. We will mark students’ books and guide them on how to improve, even when class sizes and teaching time is increased because our school is fighting against budget cuts and increased expenditure.
  3. We will read and respond to important emails, even after 5pm, particularly when our leadership team is launching new initiatives to avoid or escape ‘special measures’.
  4. We will help students bridge the gap during difficult periods of transition, especially when hastily-implemented curriculum planning has decoupled what was taught before and what is expected next.
  5. We will stay after school to lead extra-curricular activities that enrich, most notably interventions in English and Maths which will prevent us falling below arbitrarily-chosen ‘floor standards’.
  6. We will meet families of poorly performing students to help them improve, and absorb the amplified anger and disrespect they have for us, courtesy of ill-chosen comments fed to the media.
  7. We will collaborate with colleagues long after the school day has ended or, in the midst of a recruitment crisis, prepare lessons and mark work for a never-ending supply of agency staff.

Like Boxer, we will sometimes scratch at our forelocks and try our hardest to remember the original commandments that we thought were up there on the side of that barn.  But more like Boxer, we will work harder and are working harder to ensure that we fulfil the remits of these new ones (in spite of any union’s work-to-rule edict) because we know that someone has to, and because we still believe that things can only get better.  As Orwell writes, “it seemed that nothing kept him on his feet except the will to continue”.

It may have appeared like an ‘easy win’, therefore, for a politician new to their role and perhaps determined to soften the rhetoric of her predecessor, to launch a ‘workload survey’ into teaching that would “offer you a new deal” (how Orwell would have loved – through loathing – this appropriation of FDR’s New Deal).  I suspect that time will tell that raising the aspirations of a profession, only to crush them through the ruse of a political gimmick rooted in the very antithesis of self-reflection, might prove to be the straw that breaks the horses’ backs.  Nothing galvanises teachers more than genuine appreciation and an authentic attempt at empathy.  But nothing discourages teachers more than tokenistic appreciation and affected empathy.

I stated earlier that it was Boxer who reduced me to tears for the first time as a reader.  The reason for this wasn’t that, in the end, his maxim of “I will work harder!” proved to be his undoing.  Yes, he collapses from the sheer will to power that he possesses.  Yes, he bursts a lung in the process and renders himself incapable of further work.  But I draw strength from these things, just as I draw strength from the indomitable spirit of those who stay in this noble profession in spite of (perhaps because of) the alterations to the commandments for which we all signed up.

What gets to me every time I read this short story is the fact that, after his collapse, Boxer waxes lyrical about his time beyond work.  He has coped with the systematic assault upon the terms and conditions of his employment (ring any bells?).  He has coped with the introduction of a punitive performance-related pay system that divides beast from beast (any bells yet?).  He has coped with the ever-disappearing horizon of his own age of retirement (surely you are hearing those deafening bells now?) and has finally made it to his very own promised land, an unprepossessing patch of land on which to grow old gracefully.

And then the van from the knacker’s yard comes to take him away.  Boxer is never seen again.

Boxer Knacker 2

As well as the promise of what could have been (in such a way, Boxer is the very essence of Animal Farm), it is Orwell’s description of Boxer’s last stand that leaves my lachrymose.

“The time had been when a few kicks from Boxer’s hoofs would have smashed the van to matchwood.  But alas! his strength had left him; and in a few moments the sound of drumming hoofs grew fainter and died away.”

But we are not Boxer.  There’s strength yet in our hoofs. We need to ensure that we keep on kicking whilst we still can; destructively, if we must, at that workload that would box us in and cart us off to an early grave.  And then constructively, as we try to rebuild the windmills that others may tilt at from time to time, but which we know (or at the very least, hope) will make it all worthwhile, eventually. Most of all, we must learn the lesson that eludes Boxer throughout the story, that not everyone has our best interests at heart, regardless of their warm words on our workload.

“Squealer made excellent speeches on the joy of service and the dignity of labour, but the other animals found more inspiration in Boxer’s strength…”

In conclusion, and for the record, here is my own workload survey: the summer is here and it’s time to take possession of our unprepossessing patch of land that is our annual salvation.  We may be knackered, but we are not yet for the knacker’s.

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