Tom Delahunt is a Senior Lecturer in Adult Nursing having worked as an A&E nurse for many years. His PhD work is in education and the notion of ‘unlearning’ which builds upon his interests in the crossover between the educational system and neuro-atypical learning needs. Tom is a dyslexic with autistic tendencies.
In this blog, Tom reflects upon how it feels to try to demonstrate normalised and accepted behaviours within education and health care professional situations and systems when, as an individual, your perspectives and approaches are somewhat different.
You are treated with platitudes and false courtesy, yet your issues are a frustration and really just plain disruptive. Passive aggression leaks through their words and expression.
You feel it's maybe paranoia and others tell you not to worry. But it's real. You can taste the toxicity and tension in the room. You can see the fragmented patterns and distain for ‘alternative’ that hangs in the air like false truths hang on your tongue.
In the meeting there is a not-so-subtle hint that process must be followed. The question of “did you need support with that.?”... almost said with a grin.. a look of self-satisfaction at your bare Achilles.
In response, I hide away all aspects of self out of fear and ridicule in what was meant to be a safe space. This is my classic response now after a history of deemed ‘inappropriate’ and ‘misplaced’ internalised and traumatic responses that I have previously made, especially in my school days.
You go to school thinking good things and full of hope. A place to make friends and a space to be and become. But the culture often becomes suffocating, devoid of colour and indeed does not create the space to be and become who you truly are unless, of course, you are one of the few who thrive in a linear environment that prioritises certain academic subjects and ways of learning over all else.
However, through a combination of biology: my innate cognitive ability and my autistic tendencies to perform in exams and social expectations; my unquestioning compliance, I managed to navigate and survive the mechanistic and impersonal system that is school.
Since surviving the system, and strangely making a decision to re-enter it as an academic, I have realised that I have been given the gift of being able to use words through the creation of narratives and poetry which I utilise in my pedagogy and assessment feedback. This gift has enabled me to be an educator and dream of becoming someone who champions different ways of learning. Yet, it is this very gift and thus my pedagogical approach that others find challenging or too ‘left field’. A way of working that does not sit neatly within our linear ways of working in education and the expected behaviours and social norms within the classroom and indeed meeting room.
Who are these systems, behaviours and social norms for and where have they got us???
The wisest of words of our generation have emanated from the soul of an autistic child...a child aware and connected to the patterned reality of humanity with a need for a material reality. This is not a truth, but a lie told enough by those in power for generations to have fallen out of consciousness and to believe that life is about navigating a system for personal material gain and worth.
We are managing to demolish the entire planet's chances because of our perceived individual needs. The fixation on the 'I'.
How can I benefit?
The ‘I’ system is not a Worldwide phenomenon. In some African communities there is no individual statement; it's always WE. In some Scandinavian countries there is no fixation on a subject hierarchy or testing regime to measure children in order to group them; it’s about embracing learning and the development of the child.
So why are we all just surviving the system to enable the ‘I’ to thrive?
When I open up and work in a way that enables me to be a productive academic; to write and teach; it is a catharsis unbounded. It enables me to support students and enable learning, but I am often challenged in my approaches – seen as ‘left field’ and unconventional, maverick perhaps even a troublemaker. Yet, at the same time they are very quick to showcase my work for the benefits of national teaching awards whilst not supporting my approaches or tolerating my difference in my daily work by denying support and scaffold.
They see my approach to education, work and thinking as the manifestation of my mental health and link this to anxieties associated with grief. They link my behaviour to the personal identity and issues of separation and imposter syndrome. Go to your GP.... is the way they often respond.
This is why we turn to survival. We all, in our own ways, learn to survive the system, to get through it in the best possible way, in the only ways we know how that will enable us to move forward and for the ‘I’ to thrive and be materially successful.
Many fail along the way, they are excluded, fail to achieve the exam grades deemed worthy of success or are seen as being those who will not make it in life. Such limiting and damaging measurable indicators of success should no longer be applied. We must consciously move away from the goal of material wealth of the individual towards a collective social wealth.
We must make our education system a place to be and to become not a place to survive by blending in and watering down our gifts. We must enable growth and embrace difference even if that challenges mechanistic systems and deemed ‘social norms’.
WE can be much more than the ‘I’ could ever be.
How will you embrace the WE and make time in your classrooms less about survival and more about being and becoming?