Pathways to Academe

‘From schoolboy to interdependent learner’: An auto-ethnography of deconstructions and reconstructions of the self as a learner

Neil Summers

This chapter explores the constructs of self and how learning has been influenced over my lifespan. Living and learning is dependent on connections, compassion and a willingness to embrace our own vulnerabilities. These themes for this chapter illuminated the impact poor learning environments have on learners and the need for compassionate, supported networks that enable people to maximise their potential.

Junior School 1969

Headmistress talking to me in her office with my parents after I was caught with a group of boys pushing another boy into a girl’s toilet.

“…we are moving Neil into the class 1 (3 years below my current class) as a punishment for behaving this way, we hope this will teach him to behave and act his age!”

I spent 6 months in class with children who were 3 years younger than me, sat at a desk at the back of the class, I was lonely and afraid. This shameful and humiliating experience was part of the negative constructions of myself as a learner that haunt me to this day.

I recall that I was rarely comfortable with relationships as a child; my memories as a child were punctuated by not feeling a part of, or understanding the world I was living in. Not feeling wanted, understood or heard is a lonely and confusing world to live in. Especially as an infant, child and adolescent, when children are thought to be developing secure attachments and sense of self (Winnicott 1988). What feels fundamental about these relationships is what I learnt about myself and others via the relationships I was part of and observed. I was told by my parents and teachers that I was a “sensitive child” and that my behaviours were difficult to control; that I found it hard to grasp some of the essential knowledge and skills needed to be “doing what the other kids do”, reading, writing, talking, playing, having fun! My sense of myself, and the way I have lived and learned has been fundamentally influenced by these early constructions about myself as a boy, man, nurse, lecturer, son, brother, father, husband and friend (Stahl and Garth 2013). How these truths were constructed interests me as a learner and trainee counsellor; the ways in which society controls and chooses what it prefers and tolerates as “human” (Bauman 2005). I want to explore and understand questions about the constructs of self and how my learning has been influenced by what some refer to as “othering,” (Meekums 2008). I am choosing to focus on certain elements of your learning journey, as these elements represent the way that you have been ‘constructed’ and reconstructed.

The Constructed Self

My sense of my self started at home with my family. It is claimed that this process is influenced by the mother with her love of her baby (Winnicott 1988). Everything a mother does for a baby, from feeding, bathing and “holding” contributes to the child’s first idea of the “mother” and helps a child learn about the experiences of the body as a place of security. Winnicott (1969), developed this theory to include the concept of self, stating that the self is an important part of a person’s mental and emotional well-being which also plays a fundamental role in human creativity. These early constructions of self are shaped by what Gergen (2010) refers to as deeply held western beliefs that we hold “mental concepts” of ourselves. Societies speak and refer to these concepts of self as potentially being faulty or dysfunctional with the individual self simply being the processes related to conscious choice. The self is represented commonly as… “individual knower, the rational, self-directing, morally centered and knowledgeable agent of action.” (Grugen 2010, pg. 2). The constructionist view challenges these beliefs by attempting to develop an ontology the discounts the notion of a bounded self as a singular identity in a social world with relational process (Gergen 2010). This construct suggests that it is not the self that individuals bring to form relationships, it is that the psychological self emerges as result of the relational process.

The Construction of Learning Difficulties

This process continued at school where my aspirations and needs were neglected in what felt like an emerging construction by others of “me” having issues with learning. Dudley-Marling (2004) suggest that this is part of the technical gaze that has permeated the theory and practice of education that assumes that learning disabilities can be explained pathologically and exist in individual students. This left me uninspired and lacking in confidence and believing that the issues I faced as a learning with some sort of dysfunction on my part: “I was the problem.” These experiences continue to shape my early constructions of self and stayed with me until I began to build secure and meaningful relationships with mentors in and out of education where I was given the opportunity to develop a sense of myself as a skilful insightful person that had the ability to learn. These mentors gave me confidence and nurtured my abilities and gave me a secure unconditional basis to explore and learn. It is interesting to note that it was the relational aspects of learning I needed and when these secure relationships were not available to me, my confidence waned and the earlier construction of myself as a dysfunctional learner prevailed. These varying constructions and deconstructions of self continued throughout my adult life and culminated in me identifying some very specific learning needs that opened new opportunities and experiences. I was again able to form strong relationships with people around me and could use a technology to enhance and support my learning. I have had to continually fight against the response to my learning needs from others and from my internal critic that asks, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you do this? Why can’t you do this Neil?” and the search for a cure or a fix to these issues (Dudley-Marling 2004).

This search led to my decision to train as a therapist and to a fundamental change in my personal and professional self. I found a professional and academic home that has enabled me to re-frame my uniqueness and to start to explore what my relationship is with this perceived “problem” (Freedom and Coombs 1996). These life events have led me to explore how social constructions of masculinity, nursing, therapy training and dyslexia have impacted on my identity throughout my learning journey. While this exploration has not answered these questions, it has provided me with the time and space to explore these existential questions. This exploration feels important as it will allow me to explore my journey as a learner and how different constructions of my self have influenced what I have done so far and who I am to become. This study will also add to the research literature in the field that is limited in relation to identity formation (Riddick 2000), impact of education on learners (Stahl and Dale, 2013), and men becoming therapists (Decker 2001, Smaller and Finlay 2016).

Procedure

I wanted to keep the methods for this study and analysis open as I was unsure about what I would find when I explored, mapped, collected and reflected on the significant aspects of my learning experiences and how these experiences contributed to my many constructions of self (Meekums 1993). My ambition was to free my mind and think about creative ways of collecting and reflecting on historical data that would allow me to shape and develop themes related to living and learning. I also kept a reflexive diary and recorded my feelings and ideas related to immersing myself in my life history. The analysis and reflections began as soon as I started articulating my intentions to pursue this method at the end of the first year of the module in year one.

I initiated this process by plotting my life timeline detailing what I felt were useful aspects of my learning experiences. This details my age, where I was born, where I lived, whom I lived with, the institutions I have studied at. A cacophony of feelings and memories have flooded in and out of my life and my reflexive diary captured my feelings and reflections. The development of the timeline was a creative, exhilarating and empowering experience as opposed to the writing. It is interesting to note that even before I started writing I felt anxious as it appears to be associated with the negative constructions of myself as a learner.

What was I reading, seeing, feeling and learning during these periods of my life?

I recorded personal narratives related to these areas by using pictures, music, books and identifying key relationships in these phases of my life. I also wanted to do some experiential work and recorded some videos of me taking the walk to school that I did as a six-year-old and other visits to homes where I lived and key institutions where my learning experiences unfolded in areas where I spent time being human.

I immersed myself in the data, using all my senses to explore significant life events, relationships and contexts that linked to the many identities I have occupied in my life. I wanted to focus on my subjective experience (Ellis and Bochner, 2006), with the focus on where links should be made. It is suggested that the use of this storytelling unearths meaning without trying to define it (Arendt 1973).

The following themes are a representation of this iterative process and are closely aligned to phases in my life. I have chosen to explore 3 aspects of my learning experience and how these have influenced the construction of myself.

Themes

He’s a Sensitive Boy—Learning to Hide!

My first real memory as a child was how exciting and fascinating the world was, with so much to learn, so much to see. I was born at home July 10th 1963 and my mother, father and older brother (by three years) lived in a council house in an industrial working town in the West of England. My father was a plumber, my mum was a housewife, with my dad working in a local car factory and in the evenings installing central heating to save for our first house. My early memories are punctuated by exploration, excitement and fear as I learnt to walk and talk and develop relationships with my family. One of my earliest memories was when I was about four years old and was taken to Playschool which was in a nearby church. I remember feeling very insecure about being away from my mother and not wanting to go to Playschool and feeling very uncomfortable with being there. I became tearful on arrival and just did not get the idea of why my mother was there and why she was leaving me. I can remember not wanting to play with other children and not finding the environment at all stimulating or comforting. I was so distressed by these events daily; I attempted to run home and would give any opportunity to run away from the playgroup to my house that was only five minutes away. My recollections lead me to believe that my mum wasn’t too happy about me leaving the playgroup and of course the staff were very concerned and I can remember being told off for attempting to leave and staff trying to encourage me to take part in the activities in the group. My mum and dad would also encourage me to go to Playschool, my dad saying “you are being a silly boy you must go to playschool.”

This is one of the many encounters I experienced in my childhood, that I feel shaped my first construction of self, the construction of what I believe on reflection relates to a term that was frequently used by my mother and significant others “sensitivity.” I can recall my mother telling me (repeatedly) that I was “too sensitive.” My mother constantly tried to get me to control what she called “my sensitivity” as she thought that this may result in me being hurt. I am now beginning to understand what she meant by sensitivity, this sensitivity was referring to my feelings and she and others were giving me strong messages to shut down my feelings and not share these with others. The way I was taught and learnt to deal with feelings was to push them away and “shut them down” and this is very much part of unconsciousness and appears to have developed into some well-rehearsed templates (Curtis 2010). I believed that if I shared my feelings I would be shut down, I feared that people would treat me harshly, as the nursery did, and I would be made to go back to the nursery and told to stop being “silly.” These experiences affected my construction of self as a boy and spilled over to me as a man. What I believed to be “my sensitivity” ultimately led me to believe that I must not be “silly” or “sensitive” to be accepted as worthy of love or positive regard by my parents and significant others (Rogers 2007). I had learnt as a child the things I needed to do to please my parents and I endeavoured to repress “sensitivity” and “silliness “and to be a “good boy.”

I always had strong feelings that I often felt weird inside, these feelings would come and go and were paradoxical. My feelings would swing from happy to sad, confident to insecure, loved and unloved, insightful and completely empty. These feelings were always hidden, never expressed for fear of making my difference more instance.

Help through Others—I Can Learn!

Moving through early childhood into school up until the age of 18 my learning experiences didn’t improve. I have very many recollections of being bored, unconnected and somewhat perplexed by human emotions and learning experiences. I struggled to read and write; all my junior school reports used terminology like Neil must try harder, Neil needs to concentrate, Neil appears to be too worried about what others think of him, he often daydreams and can be quite rude when he is asked to get on with his work. I did not like going to school and even now thinking back to my school experiences it makes me feel anxious. I never felt part of anything, I joined the chess group, I was unable to hold my own and lost my confidence. I joined the football team, I was stuck in goal, I didn’t enjoy that very much. The narrative was set by others; that suggested, I was unable or unwilling to learn. My learning needs were being constructed by others in the “figured” space of 1960-80 school system, where significance was placed on academic ability that was measured by rote learning teaching methods and children were tested via exams like the 11+ that streamed children into ability groups and types of schools, for example, secondary modern and grammar schools (Holland et al. 1998). My position as a learner in school occupied the space that identified me as a passive, resistant learner (Jenkins 2008). I was streamed into the bottom sets in all subjects and at one stage at junior school (because of an incident where me and some other boys pushed a boy into the girl’s toilet against his will) I was put into a younger year group as punishment. This as a young boy was a shaming experience and further compounded my negative sense of self, I wasn’t even capable of learning with other children of the same age. I was constructed as a “deviant” learner and the difficulties I was facing did not reflect what I could achieve, they were a direct result of how I was reacting and being treated by teachers (Dudley-Marling 2004).

It wasn’t until I stayed on in the sixth form that I met and was encouraged by teachers who believed that I had the ability to learn. The sixth form was very liberating, no uniforms, access to a common room with a pool table and snack bar, a flexible timetable where you could come and go between lessons. It was at that time I was taught by an English teacher who encouraged me to read, encouraged me to write, and spent an inordinate amount of time with me. It was this relationship that challenged my internal beliefs about myself as a learner and motivated me to pursue exciting ways to learn.

During this time, I was also growing into a man and noticed that people wanted to develop friendships with me, that others liked me and I began to like myself. This was a beautiful time in my life where I became a confident young man and indulged in the pleasures of life developing passions for music, alcohol, ideas and love. This lust for life and learning kick-started my passion for working with others and developing a real interest in social justice, humanitarian and environmental causes.

Much to the displeasure of my parents and extended family I took a position as a student nurse and a local hospital for people with learning disabilities. I volunteered at this hospital as a sixth former and was struck by the institutional nature of people’s lives, that up until this time I was never aware of. Whilst studying as a student nurse I developed a lifelong relationship with my nurse tutor who to this day is my mentor, friend and hero. Together with other students and committed staff we challenged, supported and developed ideas in relation to improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, in the communities we lived in.

I enjoyed studying and the key difference between these experiences and my experiences as a child, was the positive and nurturing relationships that were around me and the engaging nature of the theories and ideas that supported our shared vision. This was the empowering phase of my life, a phase that reflects the belief that people are able, if they are supported and nurtured and in the right context, to learn and thrive in communities (Stahl and Dale, 2013).

I was beginning to take personal control over aspects of my life. It took the form of an almost spiritual element: “…at the level of feelings…at the level of being able to make a difference in the world around us” (Rappaport 1985, p.17). I was being supported and exposed to a wide range of experiences that maintain and built mine and others’ competencies. Being empowered related to my sense of being in control and to be in control gave me choices and I could act on matters that affect my life (Zimmerman, 1998).

I worked closely with a young man with significant learning disabilities, who was also totally blind. This young man was led and assisted with his daily activities and did not have much control over his life. We were out on a walk one afternoon and I was learning him through a forest. I loved sticks as a boy and would spend hours in imagery play, reenacting Robin Hood tales and other combat scenarios, the stick became a bow and arrow and gun and lance. I wondered whether this young man, if offered , would use a stick. I placed the stick in his hand and after a couple of attempts he began to use it to guide his way. After prompting him again to sweep the stick across his path and walk unaided. I will never forget his smiling face and his delight as he began to negotiate the walk independently and this experience led me to believe that the key to learning is compassion, connection and love.

Re-Construction—Restoration and Healing

The contribution of significant others in helping me to feel secure, loved and able to live and learn alongside my colleagues and friends became a stable aspect of my middle years, between the ages of 30 and 45. On reflection and looking back at the many aspects of my experience of learning during that time has become clear that what I thought I needed in order to function was praise and acknowledgement from others; this is the only way at that time I felt competent as a man, father, son, husband, friend and teacher. I moved from a job as a practitioner working with families with children with learning disabilities to a nurse teacher as I had a passion for working with others to share common goals around supporting peoples’ ability to learn. It was at this time that my early child experiences of being too sensitive and not being able to learn once again came to the fore as it was suggested that you can’t be a teacher if you can’t spell, write and deal with all forms of communication competently. As a child, I had learned many ways to hide what I thought to be my failings and weaknesses and again I had to retreat and think about very many ways I could stop others from what I thought at that time as the inability to read and write that appeared to be needed at that time to teach. Technological support was not available for me at that time and it wasn’t until the introduction of the first personal computer alongside word processing that had spell checks I could confidently function in a teaching environment. My feelings of inadequacy were compounded by others urging me to seek help and support for what was constructed as a dysfunction (Grugen 2010).

I underwent a psychological assessment and was diagnosed with ‘attention deficit disorder with associated “learning difficulties”. This diagnosis was a double-edged sword as it constructed a new version of me as “Neil with ADD”. On reflection, it did help explain some of the issues I have with learning but compounded my insecurities by “othering” me. The diagnosis came with recommendations about technology that could help with my ‘condition’ with significant others around me suggesting that they always knew there was something ‘wrong’ with me; my diagnosis gave them the label that they could use to satisfy their long-held beliefs about me.

This label and the lived experience of being me are in conflict as I’ve come to realise that attention deficit disorder is not an actual pathology. It’s one of the many socially constructed explanations to describe behaviours that do not meet societal norms (Parens and Johnston 2009). Timimi (2004) suggests that the pathologizing of the symptoms of ADD is influenced by societal values where passivity is constructed as the norm and where those on the active/ passive spectrum are seen by society as different; their behaviour constructed as problematic. The process of defining this behaviour against a set of symptoms absolves society from any blame related to what the causes of these perceived problems are. I believe that diagnosis does not in any way explain the causes of the differences and emotions that I feel, just differences in behaviour. However, the differences are being reinforced by my relationships as a child and the social context in which I was living and learning at the time. My family and social environments were key determinants in my success as a learner and consequently my internalised notion of self. I was in danger of believing the self-fulfilling prophecy that I didn’t can learn and this was somehow part of my DNA, fixed and absolute and I have struggled with the confidence, support and the belief that I can be loved and learn unconditionally (Riddick, 2000).

The struggles led me to counselling training and over the last three years I’ve been exploring my sense of self and challenging long-held beliefs about who I am and how I learn. I now reject my diagnosis and see no meaning to disclosing all telling others of this crass pathological reductionist view of myself. I take the position that I have a unique learning style and, if provided with support in the right context, I am capable of learning and succeeding (Sebastiane et al, 2016). I am now learning to reconstruct myself as I continue to challenge myself, learn new skills and use my life experiences to develop new ways of supporting my clients. The learning environment and the relationships I’ve developed over the last three years have helped me to come out of hiding, and close all the doors that I had used to protect myself from feelings of hurt and disappointment. The most difficult aspect of this journey is to combat old constructions of myself that still haunt me at times but more recently are fleeting feelings that come and go and which are countered by the strength I have developed with the support of others in shaping and developing the new me. I’ve chosen to just use my name not prefaced by Mr, counsellor, teacher or father just Neil. A confident, skilled capable learner who wants to learn with you.

Conclusion

I have explored and developed an in-depth understanding of the constructions of me how my learning has been influenced by what some refer to as “othering” (Meekums 2008). I have traced my learning experiences as a boy and man and this exploration has been both joyous and sad and has illuminated the highly damaging consequences of what society controls, prefers and tolerates of the human self.

This exploration has been both joyous and sad and has illuminated the highly damaging consequences of what society controls, prefers and tolerates of the human self. I have learnt that effective learning is contingent on secure attachments and nurturing, enabling relationships that collectively embrace person centered compassionate models of support. This exploration adds to the research in demonstrating how autoethnography can be used to explore constructions of male learners and counsellors. In tracing my experiences. In undertaking this study, I have been able to strengthen the emerging construction of myself as a learner, a person who is curious, bright, compassionate looking forward to continuing to learn with others.


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