Psychopathic schools

Some of my boarding school colleagues have a frenzied start to the day. Overseeing morning roll call in a fog of morning breath, checking that all the boys are present and correct, making sure they are dressed correctly, clean shaven, hair suitably brushed and off to breakfast. These days it also involves dispensing large quantities of medication all before getting to that first lesson with Grade 9.DSC_0350

One typically frenzied morning a harassed colleague of mine was in the pharmacist phase of his morning routine. He happened to have a spitting headache and a difficult class looming. He grabbed himself a couple of Panado’s as he handed out a variety of stimulant and other medication to those in his charge.

Unfortunately as the day waned his headache did not and he found he had to take more painkillers. It seemed to work and he found himself focused and engaged as he tackled his remaining classes with aplomb, cleared all of his marking and got up to date with his e-mail backlog. In fact, as he sat down to plan his afternoon coaching session he was surprised by how effectively he coped with the day. Indeed his wife commented on just how efficient and effective he had been as he had also managed to contact maintenance to sort out a problem in his own home and dealt with a few domestic matters that has been unattended for months.

As he strolled confidently down to the sports fields basking in the glow of a job well done his cell phone screen lit up in front of him, illuminating the name of a teacher who had been on his case about a particular boy in his house who was clearly, obviously and officially suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, (ADHD with the emphasis on the H). “Did you give Joe his Ritalin this morning? I have just had him for a double lesson and he was absolutely unplayable, ruined my lesson and my day!” After assuring the teacher that he had in fact dispensed his medical duties diligently, my friend reflected on the morning rush during medication time and the ensuing day. As he did so it dawned on him slowly that Joe had in fact received a couple of Panado while he himself had imbibed some 72mg of stimulant medication, hence his rare (some would say only) foray into the word of hyper-efficiency.

Schools can sometimes resemble a stay at the mad house, but are they psychopathic? They are according to John Taylor Gatto, “Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic; it has no conscience.” Gatto, an author and New York City teacher of the year for three consecutive years, believes that schools become this way because despite the fact that, “thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers, the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.”  That is, despite being filled with good people the institution of the school tends to squeeze out the humanity of its members. Often this comes from the pressure to perform and achieve, requiring an almost unsustainable super human effort.Slow down data graphic

In my last blog, Moving Up by Slowing Down, I wrote about the pressure on children and the pace that schools run at most notably in the areas of academic assessment, homework and extracurricular activity. I posed the question, ‘Are children today too busy?’ The response? An overwhelming 97% of respondents felt that they were. My contention was (and is) that we would all (teachers, parents and pupils) be better off if we just slowed down a bit rather than running around with, as Carl Honore puts it, “schedules that would make a CEO anxious.”

How do we slow things down though? I have spoken on this issue at several schools recently and asked a friend of mine at one of them how things were going. He replied, “Alas, the Utopia you sketched has faded from memory. Our ardour has cooled. Our lives are a blur of desperately reaching back to complete the tasks of yesterday while planning the future which is already happening.” Brilliantly put. It is really hard to escape the gravitational fields and orbits of our educational solar system in order to slow down. It appears ‘the abstract logic of the institution’ does indeed overwhelm our individual desires to be more humane.

So what can we do? There are though lots of ways to re-imagine education, but these fall beyond the scope of this blog. Instead I have chosen to look at what schools can do in the current educational paradigm of which they are a part. I have combed a variety of source material on this question and the suggestions below seem either to be the most common or alternatively make the most sense, to me at least.

1. Be human

Teachers must take every opportunity to be human and recognise the humanity of their students too. Let’s not be overwhelmed by the school system but make and take opportunities to connect with our colleagues and our students on a human level.  Anything in schools that build relationships can only help. I have heard of one school that has timetabled ‘Connect’ periods for their staff. A few years ago the International Boy’s School Coalition undertook a study on the best teaching methods for boys. They asked staff and students from schools around the globe to tell them what worked when it came to good teaching. I recall that storytelling and video clips featured high up on the list. However, although it had not been part of the research, what shone through was that the relationship between teacher and student was paramount. So strong was this narrative throughout all the text that the researchers analysed, that it could not be ignored. Boys learnt best when they felt that had a good relationship with their teacher regardless of the teaching methods used. I can’t imagine it would be much different for girls.

2. Do less

In 2004 first year students at Harvard receiving a welcoming letter from the Dean entitled ‘Slow Down – Getting more out of Harvard by doing Less’ exhorting them to do less, pick activities based on fun and basically get some balance back in their lives after the rush of school. Have a look  . In a similar vein the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have revamped their admission form to encourage high school students to do less in terms of gaining acceptance to MIT. Rather than expecting the students to have completed a myriad of tasks and activities at school they rather ask them to focus on one particular thing that they are passionate about. It is important to state that slowing down is not synonymous with being lazy. By doing less we are actually more focused, more productive and dare I say more passionate about what we do.

3. Sleep in

Sleep is important and we don’t get enough of it. This is perhaps more true for high school students. For teenagers this means having a lie in. There is much research to point to the fact that due to their circadian rhythms and melatonin levels teens will struggle to fall asleep as early as adults, hence the need to sleep in at the other end of the cycle. In 2009 a 10am start was introduced for 800 students at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, UK. It was instigated and observed by Russell Foster, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Foster says that the outcomes were clear. “The Monkseaton experiment shows, frankly, that if you start at 10am, grades go up.”  We have been trying our experiment at our school. While the students love it, it seems to be causing unbelievable pain and trauma in the lives of our teachers so the jury is out. I know of a school in the Cape where they have ‘Late start Wednesday’ where for at least one day of the week students have the margin to catch up on sleep or work. Anything we can do in this area is going to help.

4. Take the ass out of assessment.

Schools should delay grading and ranking as long as possible and when they do start it, should do it as little as possible. There are other ways to assess children. Formally assessing children as young as 4 as has been proposed in the UK is preposterous. Cityterm in New York assesses its students by asking them to display mastery of a particular subject or area.

5. Listen to student voice

Radical I know, but the more we listen to what students are saying the more chance we have of learning from them. Teachers don’t always make the best students but we need to become experts in our subjects and our subjects are our students as opposed to the discipline that we happen to teach. One example I heard of this was to train students up to assess teacher’s classroom performance as opposed to merely relying on other teachers for feedback. There are many other ways that room can be given for student voice. I guess it comes down to our attitude in this regard.

6. Get out

The book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv points out that when children play out doors they use more vocabulary, use greater imagination and creativity, are involved in less conflict, and play longer games. Being outdoors can be tough but it builds character and gives us time and space to develop self-knowledge. I have written on this before at if you are interested. In addition, Ben Foggle, the UK based explorer, writes a really convincing case for more time outdoors. Have a look at his article if you are interested in this aspect of education

“Moses didn’t find God at the mall” John Eldridge

7. More arts and culture

In our utilitarian world, and in a South Africa where economic survival is a challenge the arts are sometimes given short shrift. Even when it comes to choosing subjects boys (or their parents) will eschew drama, visual art and music in favour of seemingly more useful subjects like accounting or economics. This despite the fact that for the most part universities neither know nor care what you study, just how well you do it. As Ken Robinson says, rather than anesthetising kids through school by the use of stimulant medication, which should instead be waking them up to what they have inside themselves through the ascetic of art and culture. Antony Seldon, previous Headmaster of Wellington College said that, “Children need extra time in school to experience enrichment in the arts, sport and character education. Too much time in class and pupils switch off, or they become too tired for homework… so we need longer school days, but, in the state sector, longer holidays, too.

8. Make sport fun

The pressure and intensity of the sports culture in schools is counter-productive to educational aims. There is a recent trend in South Africa to appoint professional sports people to come and coach at school level. This is a mistake. These well intentioned and capable people often lack the educational training and experience to get the best out of young people. They are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to looking at their role in the lives of young people holistically.  That’s not to say that there is no place for professional coaches, at the higher level students can really benefit from the technical edge a specialised coach can impart. It is just that their role needs to be clearly defined and monitored. Coaches need to have a transformational mind-set that aims to develop the students in their teams rather than a transactional one which merely utilises them in terms of getting results.

9. Pimp the school day

A school not so very far away from my own has just cut the number of lessons down to only four a day. That sounds fantastic. OK so each lesson is 80 minutes long, which from a teacher’s perspective (and a students I am sure), sounds dreadful. I will be really interested to see how this goes. The concept of extendable learning periods is another innovation that I have both read about and also heard about from our students who have been on exchange at schoolS in Australia. There are many ways to do it, but in this instance it was a 20 minute extension period tacked onto one of the lessons each day. The teacher of the lesson immediately prior to it could use the time to continue with the lesson, get the students to do their prep or just allow them time to do their own thing. I am also a fan of a ten minute gap between lessons. This allows teachers and pupils a little more time to interact informally and more intimately and allows space for the humanity of both staff and students to grow.


10. More coffee

OK this one is mine but it can’t be too bad a suggestion can it? It does help keep you human after all. If my friend had some time for a half decent cup of coffee in the morning he would maybe not have popped his stimulant medication. OK so he wouldn’t have been such a machine, but he would have been more human.





  1. This article is so true! My youngest aged 11 asked me on the way to school (at 6.50am to avoid the traffic and start school at 7.20 am) if I can find him a school where they start at 9 or 10 am even if it only finishes at 4pm because he is so tired! He has lost the joy that he had for school when he started. He is bright but unmotivated in an expensive private school in Joburg. I feel so sad for him because it doesn’t have to be like this. He fell asleep in the car in the way home this afternoon. There must be a better way!


  2. I’m sure this wouldn’t appeal to most families – but we’ve decided to homeschool our two girls from the end of this month – hoping to find a little more balance with our family time and in general all round. My girls can’t wait for the morning where we don’t have to do the early 5am rise and mad traffic dash. For the lessons we can do in the shade of a tree or a walk on the beach in the middle of the morning.


  3. Bingo! And yet for all the good intentions, the institution will undoubtedly find a way to bollix it up. Connect time will become structured to encompass all the elements of “connectedness” that some distant academic has dreamt up and each semester will need to be reported on and even if students aren’t assessed, the teacher will doubtless have to answer to that all-powerful god, KPI. I often think that I learned more useful stuff during the occasional off-topic diversion, than in most structured lessons.

    Unfortunately those worthy time and motion experts who beavered away in US workplaces of the 1970s have an enormous amount to answer for; ask a nurse how much time they get to spend nursing, or indeed ask the equivalent question of any professional. I once worked out that I was spending just short of an hour in every working day, filling in little computerised tick boxes and meaningless comments to prove how busy I was in the other eight plus hours of my day. An expensive indulgence at several hundred dollars an hour, but I digress.


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