The Executive Monkey

Publicerat 28 september 2017

Teaching is an industry that creates high levels of stress for teachers particularly at key times in the school year. Many teachers become disenfranchised and leave the profession due to stress. I often share a story with staff about the ‘Executive Monkey’. I remember in a psych class when I was at university hearing about an experiment from a long time ago when ethical standards were lacking about the Executive Monkey. Basically the experiment was about monkeys performing a task to elicit a reward and if the monkey did not perform the expected task then a shock would be administered as a consequence. The experiment had a variant where monkeys were paired and both would receive a shock but only one monkey was responsible for executing the task, this monkey who was responsible for this task was known as the executive monkey. Now both monkey’s were subjected to the same conditions and consequences but the study found that the executive monkey had a range of detrimental health effects supposedly due to additional stress relating to the responsibility of the harm caused to the companion. I am glad that psychology has progressed in terms of ethical practices in working with animals. But what stuck with me about this experiment was that we as teachers and educational leaders tend to take on the stress of others.

The executive monkey

During my time as a counsellor I often shared a tale of two Buddhist monks. The tale recounts two boys who were given to a Buddhist monastery by their parents during their formative years. As the years pass the boys engage in their learning and take on the values and philosophies of the monks. Finally the time comes for them to go out into the real world. The monks had a ceremony for them and wished them well for their journey ahead. The boys who had grown into young men began their journey and were excited by their opportunity to explore the world. As they ventured on, they came across a river and the current was too strong and they couldn’t cross so they walked on. They then heard a cry of an older woman who was being swept away by the current. The first monk acted on instinct, dropped his bags and jumped into the river to save the woman. This angered the second monk, as part of the Buddhist training they were not permitted to touch a female. The second monk thought that maybe they could have done something different to save her without compromising their rules or beliefs. The first monk rescues the woman and takes her safely across the other side of the river. The second monk grabs their bags and also makes it across the river. The woman thanks them and they continue on their journey. The second monk is so angry he cannot speak and they walk on. For miles the walk without speaking a word. Finally the second monk can’t take it anymore and stops saying “brother why did you do that after all our training, our first opportunity in the real world, the first test we face and you betray our training, by carrying her across the river why?”. The first monk replied “I only carried her across the river but you have carried her for the last 10 miles”.

The key message here is don’t carry your problems around with you, deal with them when they come up. You cannot function at your best if you are carrying around significant stress. Part of being a good teacher or leader is knowing when and how to access support. It will assist you in having longevity in the field and thus keeping experienced teachers in the classroom. Don’t be the monk and hold on to your burdens for 10 miles and be careful not to become the executive monkey by taking on the worry of others. Counsellors learn good strategies in compartmentalisation and debriefing. You will need to identify key strategies and resources that work with you. Seek the support of trusted colleagues.

Om skribenten:

Hello fellow Educators,

My name is CJ Bradley and I am a passionate educator who works in Queensland Australia. My background is that I have worked as a Teacher, Guidance Counsellor, School Principal. I am currently working as an Assistant Principal in a large Secondary College.

CJ Bradley