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Better by Atul Gawande (Book Thoughts)

Better: A Surgeon's Notes on PerformanceBetter: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

I picked up this book last week as I was curious to know why anybody would possibly want to be a doctor. There are so many things that can go wrong. Unhappy patients can sue you. You can become burdened with stress and guilt for operations and diagnoses that went wrong. You never feel like you are doing enough, because there are always more problems to be solved, more patients to be healed. You focus so much on taking care of others that you forget to take care of yourself.

I am not a doctor, but I am currently training as a secondary school teacher and thinking whether I want to keep doing this after this year. The hours are long, the pay is terrible, the work is hard, the students are rude (only a select few, and they usually apologise shortly afterwards and have other things going on in their lives that make them short-tempered) and the vast majority of the work and effort you put in goes unnoticed and unappreciated by both your students and coworkers. Not a few times I have asked myself why anybody would possibly want to be a teacher.

Both are similar professions. These are jobs which demand a lot of a person. To do either of these jobs well, it takes more than just going through the motions and ticking the boxes that you are asked to tick. It takes awareness and presence. It takes being attentive to the person in front of you. In the afterword to this book, Gawande discusses what it truly means to make a difference as a doctor (and the same can be applied to any profession, or extrapolated to life in general as a human in an often confusing and unruly world). He argues that yes, it is important to keep up to date with new research, and it is important to pay attention to technique, systems and best practices, but most of all it is important to pay attention to the person sat before you. The person who has been entrusted to your care for this moment. Both of you are strangers on this world, just passing through, but for a fleeting moment you are asked to pass something on to this other person. You are the vessel through which something will be given to him or her.

Gawande wouldn’t put it in these terms, but he makes the point that medicine, like teaching, like law, like any profession, is not just box-ticking and cushy positions with nice pay checks at the end of the working day. It is a matter of being human. And to be human means to put something of myself into my work. To be myself. And to therefore be vulnerable. But this vulnerability is what finally opens me up to authentic relationships with my colleagues and patients (students), and if life is made of relationship then it is also what opens me up to life – life “to the full”.

Teaching, like medicine, is not an easy job. But maybe this is what makes it worthwhile. Because the challenge is what keeps me alive. It stops me from falling into the torpor of a nice office job with wellness days and mental health dogs. To live at all is to be uncomfortable. It is to be uncertain and afraid much of the time. But then we hold onto each other for dear life and love our way through the mess.

I still don’t know whether I will keep teaching after this year. A few students have asked me over the past months, “WHY would you want to be a teacher, sir?” Sometimes I have tried to reassure them that I enjoy teaching and that it is a good job, but children have a nose for dishonesty. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult at times. But why is it difficult? I think it is difficult because each day I am asked to set aside my own preferences and opinions and turn the focus away from myself and towards the students who are entrusted to my care. I am asked to pay attention. I am asked to listen. I am asked to be open to the person in front of me. I am asked to forgive and be patient. I am asked to develop a deeper understanding of the people I meet. I am asked to grow. And growing is never easy. But it is the only way to truly live.

I still don’t have all of the answers, but maybe that is a good thing. I told a veteran teacher the other day that I “have a long way to go” and she said “that’s a good thing”. I don’t know how long I will carry on along this path, but it’s what I’m doing for now so I will keep going and see where the road takes me.

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”

And hopefully at the end:

“…I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.”

I suppose I enjoy teaching because it is an adventure. And because I believe life should be an adventure – with highs and lows, with friends and foes. But hopefully one day we’ll all look back and smile.

Anyways, I’m waffling now. Have a good day. Time for some lesson planning.

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