Friday, August 27, 2010

On the importance of Mental Health Days

Oh dearie me. there are times when I really don't want to get up and go to work. I'm really good with premonitions. It's sunday evening and I already know that I won't want to get up tomorrow morning!

It's not that I don't enjoy work hugely when I'm there. I genuinely love time spent with my clients in the assorted workplaces I've nestled in. I know I'm very fortunate to have satisfaction and variety in my worklife. But when it's cold, wet and windy, and I know the traffic is going to be heavy and aggressively unforgiving, I tend to become a bit sluggish and niggly, even the night before.

It's tough having the kind of cold feet that woolly socks can't cure. When you drag yourself off to your place of employment feeling resentful and grumpy. Sometimes it's possible to use your favourite defusion technique to overcome this, to accept the dreary feelings and make room for them, but when it doesn't work...bah. (And for stay at home mums, the challenge is even greater. How can you escape?)

One friend confessed recently that she became so grouchy at work one day that she feigned a headache: "oooooaaah I feel a migraine coming on" and scarpered. Much better than snapping unreasonably at ones colleagues don't you think?

We all know what it's like to have a snitchy or deeply unhappy colleague in the office. Unfortunately, the grouchiness can rub off. It can be caught, and passed on like the virulent virus it is.

In response, I'd like to promote the occasional "mental health day" as a buffer for when the doldrums strike. I think we all need a bit of space sometimes. When the pressure is off, and we can kick the expectations aside, shrug off the constraints and commune with our informal selves... of course when one 'ought' to be at work, it's all the sweeter ;-)

FYI: No work commitments were avoided to write this post. I picked the violets under leaden sky, between squalls and icy gusts of wind.

Their glorious fragrance has transformed my mood.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Mask

It’s happened a few times now.

Everything appears to be going well. The students are contributing enthusiastically, writing when asked, chatting in pairs when that is requested, and contributing to the brainstorm of ideas I’m hurriedly writing on the board.

I thoroughly enjoy working with adults who are returning to study. So often they are unreasonably nervous. They don’t yet know how competent they are, so they feel quite entitled to be quivering with uncertainty. My job is to assist them to accept that they’ve 'got what it takes' and to unearth the skills they don’t yet know they have.

We discuss how adults learn, the different learning styles, and when time permits, we also squeeze in some light-hearted quizzes. It’s all in the service of unpacking the mystery of expectations at the tertiary level, and ensuring success is attainable.

Sometimes however, things go a little askew. You see, when discussing learning styles, it quickly becomes apparent that many adults I work with have grown up in the “sit still, do as I say, and don’t ask questions” classroom.

As you can imagine, for someone who is for instance a kinaesthetic learner, this hasn’t worked to their advantage, and their schooling has been less than ideal. Some struggle on suffering in silence, some withdraw completely, and others act up and get kicked out at the earliest opportunity.

I’ve learnt to keep a tissue box on hand when presenting this particular workshop. It’s not that I’m a meanie, and bring students to tears. But often there’s a release of pent up tension that results in weeping, and on occasion outright sobbing.

Tears of grief, tears of sadness at schooling wasted because teachers haven’t known about or have been unable to accommodate different styles of learning. Sometimes this is due to ignorance, often there were too many children in a class, and occasionally… well, some teachers had lost their passion for teaching, and possibly should have changed careers.

But often the tears are those of relief. Some adults are so relieved to discover they aren’t stupid. It’s a revelation for them to discover they simply learn differently. They feel validated, reassured, and empowered. They are ready to forge ahead with new tools and a different perspective.

What a privilege not only to help adult students realize that learning can be fun, but that academic success is within their grasp.


Sunday, August 15, 2010

Racism, intolerance and prejudice?

Ethical workplaces. Ethical co-workers. Ethical behaviour. Simple enough isn't it?

So many of the people I work with want to behave ethically and with integrity, and yet feel pressured into putting their own deeply held values aside when they enter their workplace.

This leads to extreme tension for many people, and impacts on their psychological, and often their physical health.

I was working with a University leturer recently who confessed that what he perceives as a lack of ethical behaviour at his university is making him seriously consider resigning from his prestigious post.

You see, in his university, English language standards for international students (who will remain in Australia on completion of their degree) are apparently being bypassed or ignored.

To be enrolled the students are supposed to have English language of a satisfactory standard to complete their course. They are expected to have sat, and passed, an exam to ensure they will understand lectures, course notes and reading lists. The English language exam is also meant to indicate their ability to be able to produce satisfactory written and oral work.

Where does this go wrong?

This lecturer has been accused to being racist for pointing out that if a student is unable to complete the requirements to the University standard, then the student should fail.

Sure we can and do teach requirements for the presentation of their reports complete with referencing and bibliographies. His university also offers bridging English courses for students who may need them. Fair enough, that’s how it should be.

But somewhere along the line some students are being passed who don’t have the required English skills to, for instance, write a report independently, read (and understand) Warning labels on bottles, or adequately understand mathematical questions. (This is naturally of great concern when some of these students will work in the medical field, and has a negative ripple-on effect in those workplaces).

This post isn’t about the rights or wrongs of the system per se, but about the effect of name calling, and being required to compromise your own standards. It’s about the effect of this on an individual employee. (I'll talk about the effect on the students in another post).

Simplistically it boils down to - pass the students, or have your hours reduced. And the effect is an uncomfortable dilemma. Do you pass students who aren't up to scratch, or fail them and not make your mortgage repayments?

Unfortunately this is all too common an occurrence. I regularly work with academics, teachers and administrative staff who are deeply distressed about having to compromise their values; to be pressured into passing students whose work is sub-standard.

Some leave, some stay and struggle on, disillusioned and unhappy. Being an onlooker, I do wish that someone; someone in a position of power would acknowledge the damage that is being caused, (not just to my clients, but to the students and their future employers) and have the courage to say “This is wrong. The buck stops here. I will address this issue.”

But I'm not holding my breath.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Sport. It just isn't fair.

I'd just like to put a stop to the rumour that all Victorians are sports mad.

We're not.

Categorically, emphatically, not.

I come from a long line of healthy, happy, well adjusted, (well we think so anyway) non sport loving people.

But there are occasions when I almost wish I had a basic understanding of things related to sport. Almost is the crucial word here. You see, everyone assumes that Victorians are passionate about AFL (AKA footy) for starters, and love a variety of other sports ranging from soccer and cricket, to rugby, tennis and netball, in fact pretty much any sport particularly of a team nature.

I've tried to enjoy them, I really have, but it just doesn't work.


Sadly it kind of kills the conversation when the confession is apologetically uttered. It comes across as being unVictorian, and possibly even unAustralian, of letting the side down.

But it doesn't mean we are ill. Or to be shunned. Or destined for the white jacket with arms that tie behind the back.

We simply don't relate to sporty events.

But I don't think I'm on a winning streak with my disinterest in sport. So I sometimes feign interest, and make inane comments. I confess I'm grateful to the 'IT Crowd' episode where Moss and Roy bluff their way through a conversation at a pub pretending to be "real men". It gave me a few clues and useful phrases that work quite successfully with taxi drivers :)

Thanks guys!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Change. How do we cope?

Life throws some odd things at us sometimes doesn't it. You are lulled into a sense of "things are going well at the moment aren't they" and whammo.

Sometimes it seems you've had an inkling that something is afoot, and a small part of you is hesitantly mentally prepared, and you cope reasonably well. But at others things seem to come out of the blue and confusion reigns.

Then there are the other changes that we know are imminent. We try to prepare ourselves mentally for the change, and sometimes fail dismally (although I use the word fail loosely, as I don't really accept the notion of failure as such). Perhaps it would be fairer to say we struggle with change that doesn't fit with our desires in the scheme of things.

Illness, being made redundant, the change of job or returning to the workforce after a break. These are the kind of issues faced by many people at some stage in their adult work-life.

When I first began working with people who had been made redundant I was mentally prepared for anger, bitterness, confusion, grief and loss. The emotions that I hadn't expected to encounter quite so often were relief, joy and excited anticipation. Some of my clients were simply delighted to be able to leave an unsatisfying job easily, and with a bit of a payout.

One gentleman had emigrated to Australia some 30+ years ago from Greece, and hadn't managed to squeeze language lessons into his early years here. He was initially embarrassed about his limited English. He'd worked in the one factory all that time, and was very hesitant discussing his career options with me. He then, with a twinkle in his eye, began talking about his dream - to buy a caravan and head off around Australia. Couldn't wait to get started. Why on earth would he want to retrain with the whole of the country waiting to be explored? Change dressed as anticipation.

Others were just happy to have the opportunity to change direction. They saw their redundancy as a chance to do something for themselves. The government offer of a short training course was gratefully accepted, and they planned to use their payout to extend training into an area of interest rather than working in a mundane job through necessity. Change as challenge.

Many of these clients had fled war-torn countries years ago. Had escaped with the few possessions they could carry, and left behind satisfying careers in universities, in the medical professions, as teachers. I simply can't imagine what they suffered on so many levels. but to add insult to injury to be forced to work in menial jobs as factory fodder once safely here must have been ghastly. So much change, adjusted to through necessity.

One sweet young slip of a girl, newly pregnant, sobbed uncontrollably. It was the only job she'd ever had, and with her limited English, she had little prospect of further employment. For various reasons, the retraining being offered was not practical for her. The baby would now be born. I wonder how she's going. Painful change.

There's no "one size fits all" scenario, we simply do the best we can at the time, with whatever resources we have to hand.

Change continues, we adapt.

Life goes on.