The Laddered Trap

I’m not really a big fan of hierarchies. I got quite out of the way of them when I was on my extended maternity leave. One minute, there I was, coffee and tea (or water in my case as I don’t really do hot drinks) in all sorts of houses, from the smallest terrace to the largest country home, cackling over the levellers that are birth and breast, and then, suddenly, a step back into the workplace and all is rigid, strictly defined; stepped. The difference is harsh, and confusing. I’ve never really got used to it.

In education, hierarchy is everywhere you look. It reaches deep into the bones of the school and it defines us, from the headteacher to the dinner lady, from third year finals to EYFS. Even knowledge itself is ranked according to its qualities, with subjects classified as hard and soft, and, in our time, dispassionate reason stands at first place.

Right now, like the Ancient Greeks, we are in love with Reason and the realm of ideas. It fires you up, the workings of the brain lifts you to the spiritual sphere. With it you can debate, move the knowledge it underpins on. Reason, and its close partner objectivity, stand at the gates to truth.

Emotion, on the other hand is such a loaded thing, so chaotic, so subjective. It shuts down debate and is painted in terms of opposites; earth to spirit, water to fire, female to male. Easily dismissed as not being relevant, or clouding judgement, emotion lurks underneath, one step above or away from instinct. It is the enemy of the tick box or the check sheet; the success criteria. ‘What works’ means reason and research; head, not heart.

Yet we teachers exist in a constant state of tension between the realms of knowledge. As members of an academic body we care deeply about the things we teach – and at the same time, we worry about the wellbeing of our charges, and guard our right to do so fiercely. We are, after all, in loco parentis. But when it comes to it, we dislike the idea that parents should have a say in policy or practice. Why should Mumsnet be going to the Department for Education, we ask? Why them and not us?

Parents and their emotions are the last people who should be making educational decisions, we mutter between ourselves in whispered conversations. They don’t get it, they can’t see how difficult it is, their judgement is clouded, they are over emotional, too close, hysterical; too female.  They don’t see it the way we do.  How easily we dismiss them and their subjectivity.

I do wonder whether it isn’t something to do with the hierarchies between different kinds of knowledge.  My knowledge of children and special needs didn’t come from the pages of books or the journals that sit in academic libraries (although I know that my experience is echoed there). It isn’t guarded by academes.  Anyone, from whatever kind of hierarchy you care to mention, can acquire it – although in many ways, when it comes, it does so randomly and through the chaos of life itself.  Like birth or death, there is little, if any, control over its caprice.

Maybe that’s why we don’t like it, we look at it with distrust. Maybe that’s why we put emotional knowledge, our reactions and intuitions, those based on experience and the heart, at the bottom of the heap. In the same way that Aphrodite roamed the world causing all sorts of trouble, Athena, her sexless sister and goddess of wisdom, born not in the way of blood and tears, but leaping instead, fully formed, from her father’s head, did not.  Two sisters; competitive and jealous. Powerful.

Perhaps we who are not goddesses but who find ourselves, despite our frail attempts, tossed on the spume spray of the sea as much as the ancients ever were, could turn the story of centuries around and escape the laddered trap.

I would like that.

7 thoughts on “The Laddered Trap

  1. Thanks, Nancy. It’s the most elegant summary of the trap I’ve seen, ever. And the trap itself is so elegantly designed that many don’t even realise that they’re in it. Particularly those who are in thrall to their own unwittingly bespoke version of pure reason.

    My knowledge of my children’s special needs didn’t come from academia. It came from adults who have the same disability – they showed me and the missus what life with this disability can be like, and more importantly what it should be like.

    That knowledge told us that much of what our professionals were telling us about the future for kids like ours was absolute bollocks. It also told us that most of these professionals had a very limited grasp on the science that should have been informing their practice.

    I think there were two things that allowed us to escape this trap. We were lucky to come across some very high-quality academic research in language impairment, at the same time as we came across a couple of kamikaze professionals in the system who were prepared to implement its findings.

    We wouldn’t have got anywhere without that. But also it was our emotional response to their situation that helped them the most. We were stubborn, relentless, tenacious, quietly immovable, because our experiences with adults with this disability, and our own emotional relationship with our kids told us what they were and weren’t capable of.

    And that’s before you even bring love into it. No-one speaks better on this than Mark Neary; how utterly vital it is to meeting a disabled person’s needs, how utterly natural it is, and how utterly infuriating professionals find it.

    We simply wouldn’t see reason. Their reason. Because time and time again, their reason was self-serving, outdated, obsolescent, confirmation biased, and sometimes downright prejudiced crap.

    Every time we came up against this attitude, we told senior professionals they were wrong. Every time, they told us we were naive, overly invested, unable to see the big picture. And every single time, our kids proved them completely wrong.

    The best professionals in this business know how little they know, and how much there is still to learn – both at the level of the individual, and in understanding a specific disability.

    There is something grimly ironic, I find, reading blogposts on SEN issues written by people who preen themselves on their rationalism, who just don’t get this basic point.

    Somehow, their fetish for ‘the best that’s been thought and said’ just doesn’t stretch that far when it comes to SEN. And SEN seems to strike a weird, emotionally repulsive response in many of them. That, I guess, is the trap.

    1. Matt, you understand so well what I try to say. You’re so right, Mark’s posts on love are just beyond anything – and the response of professionals to that love is a shock.

      What is it that we are afraid of? Of love? I wonder if we are.

      1. “We” being professional “we”? Varies hugely from professional to professional, I think. I simply don’t know if there is a collective “we” in this case.

        One thing does seem clear to me though. I know a fair few professionals in SEN issues who decided to specialise because of personal experience – usually because of someone in their family, sometimes because of their own SEN.

        It’s very obvious to me that almost all of these professionals are better at their jobs because of this personal connection. They understand that academic expertise in a SEN specialism can only take you so far, and – more importantly – they understand just what is at stake. Of these people, I can only think of one who might be a less effective professional because of their personal experience with a particularly type of SEN.

        Sometimes it’s not fear of emotions or love, I think: some professionals in all walks of life simply do not like working collaboratively, particularly with people outside their profession.

        Others – particularly at a senior level – don’t fear disability, and often don’t specifically care about it: what they do fear is loss of control over resources, people, and personal reputation if things go horribly, provably wrong.

        But I do think that a number of professionals at all levels (senior, junior, SEN specialist, generalist QTS) are afraid of disability. From the direct experience I have, it’s been a pretty small number. But some parts of the blogosphere are certainly eye-opening; I’ve no idea if they are representative or not, but I do think that they are genuine.

  2. Gosh there’s a lot to unlock there. For me, the thing that leaps out from your comment is the one about fear. Fear of disability is so strong in our society. I often think that the biggest (and simplest) thing I can do to counter it is to show the world that I love my son. The way that I act around him is a witness every single day.

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