Sunday, 17 January 2016

A parable for teachers everywhere... and for anyone else approaching their annual performance review

The Carrots
Douglas was an excellent vegetable gardener. He had been doing it for years, had built up a vast store of experience, and occasionally won prizes when he could be persuaded to enter competitions. But it took quite some persuasion – he honestly wasn’t bothered about comparing his efforts to those of others. He believed that the important thing was to make the best efforts possible in the time available, and grow the best vegetables.

He was particularly good at growing carrots. Carrots can be cantankerous vegetables. They don’t grow easily – there are many varieties, each one highly specific about its individual requirements. Douglas was particularly partial to the Autumn King – it was a ‘heavy’ carrot, perfect for growing through the winter, smooth on the skin and a good colour. He also liked the Bolero – it had smooth, long, slightly tapered roots, sporting a deep orange hue – although it could be prone to blight. On the other hand, the Royal Star was a long grower and good for storing, and the Chantenay was a French variety that rewarded due care with delicious baby carrots, best boiled lightly and served, swimming in melted butter. Douglas knew all their quirks and possibilities. And knowing that, he could solve the deeper questions about having the right soil, the correct amount of fertiliser and water, appropriate sunlight – and of course, the knowledge of when to sow in the greenhouse, plant out the seedlings and  later collect in the harvest.

His employer valued these skills highly, relying on Douglas to just make the garden ‘happen’ every year, and occasionally opened up the grounds to the paying public on behalf of local charities. Douglas’ name never appeared on any programmes detailing the varieties or different layouts in the garden, but he didn’t care. He knew his skills were appreciated, and was simply glad to be paid for doing something he enjoyed and could do well.

But one Summer, everything changed. For reasons of work, his employer had to temporarily relocate to another country for several years, and decided to rent out the house and grounds to someone else. What would happen to Douglas?

‘Don’t worry. I’ve told the new people to keep you on. You know how to get the best out of the plants around here. Your new employers might want to make a few alterations, but I’m sure you’ll be able to accommodate them. I need them to pay the rent, so please do your best to keep them happy. Your new contract will be with them, not me, and they’ll be paying your wages.’ 

It was a little unsettling. ‘Can’t I just continue working for you, at a distance?’ asked Douglas. ’You’ll want the place looked after.’

‘No. The new people were highly specific about their own requirements – and one of them was about having control over any staff employed on site. And I need their rent. But I’ve recommended you highly, Douglas, and they said they were very keen to keep you on.’

As the handover date approached, Douglas wondered what would happen. He was introduced to his new employers about a week beforehand, who both looked very excited, shook his hand and asked lots of interested questions. Perhaps all would be well.

And so it was, for a few months. Douglas carried on as before, maintaining the grounds to his normal excellent standards, delivering garden produce and flowers to the house as required and keeping out of the way as much as possible when visitors appeared. He knew that some employers felt uncomfortable about having ‘servants’, and didn’t want to remind them of the fact when others were around. The new people would occasionally wander around the gardens, make appreciative comments when they met him, and get on with the business of being apparently ideal employers – the sort who pay you whilst letting you get on with doing things well.

But things changed at the beginning of the following Spring. Perhaps it was the March restlessness that comes from having been cooped up all Winter. The new people had Ideas about the kitchen garden.

‘We’d like to try something new with the vegetables’, they said.

‘Such as?’ he enquired.

‘Some different carrot varieties.’

Douglas was fine with that. He was all for experimentation. But there was more.

‘We want to try growing the Wanganui Giant Carrot.’ The wife was insistent on this. Together, they looked this up on the internet. It was a New Zealand variety that required deep sandy soil with not too much fertiliser.

‘They’re big!’ exclaimed Douglas. ‘It says here, that the carrots are so enormous that a pig once hollowed one out and raised her piglets inside it. Do you believe that?’  The new people nodded. They’d heard about the Wanganui Giant Carrot before, but had never had a big enough garden to try and grow them.

‘Can we try?’ they asked.

Douglas agreed. After all, they were paying his wages – and although it would be he, himself, doing all the work, it would keep them sweet – and would presumably mean he was left to his own devices elsewhere. Let them have their Wanganui Giants if it would keep them happy. So as Spring progressed, the kitchen garden was prepared, and he went about his normal business, leaving a good third of a plot for the new project. He did his research, adjusted the ratios of sand, clay and fertiliser in the soil, grew the seeds in the greenhouse – and one warm day towards Easter, with great ceremony, he planted his first Wanganui Giants under the watchful eyes of his new employers. According to his research, these beasts grew quite large, so he anticipated having to do a bit of thinning out as they developed their taste for the sun and the soil.

And for a few weeks, things happened as they normally did, and the seedlings began growing. But then over several days, Douglas noticed something. The soil around the new carrots was being regularly disturbed, leaving human footprints behind. He asked about it one afternoon.
‘Oh, it’s me!’ said the wife. ‘I just wanted to see how the carrots were getting on.’

‘Well, please try not to tread too close’ asked Douglas.’ Downward pressure inhibits healthy root growth.’ He laid down a few duckboards to make it easier to access the carrots without compressing the soil, and his employers seemed happy enough.

But one day, they came to see him in his potting shed. ‘It’s the carrots’ said the wife. ‘They don’t appear to be growing’. Which was absolutely true. They weren’t. The other vegetables were flourishing as ever, but not the Wanganui Giants. Their little green shoots stayed resolutely little. ‘You are using the right fertiliser, aren’t you?’ she asked. He was, of course, and carefully explained his methods and showing how they suited this variety based on their researches. But she wasn’t impressed. In fact, she seemed to be rather frustrated.

‘But they ought to be growing by now! What’s wrong?’

He didn’t know. And that seemed to irritate her even more.

‘But you’re meant to know!’

Douglas promised to see what he could do. But when his employers left the potting shed, he detected a slight chill in the atmosphere left behind them – and it wasn’t a late frost. He could sense they just weren’t happy with the garden anymore.

The feeling worsened as the weather warmed. His employers were spending more time inspecting the gardens now, asking pointed questions, asking whether this method was absolutely the best course of action to take, and weren’t there other ways? They were watching gardening programmes on the TV, and discussing them with him next day – always a bad sign. He had the distinct feeling that he was a minion being managed.

And the Wanganui Giants were most definitely not living up to their name. They were sprouting a little more, but didn’t seem to want to get any bigger. He’d dug up a few, but the roots only stretched a few centimetres. It didn’t seem to make any sense. He could tell his employers were checking up on them almost every day. It was becoming almost a ritual. Every weekend when he took time off, he would notice on the Monday how much the soil around the carrots was flattened again. ‘Haven’t they got any better things to do?’ muttered Douglas to himself. The whole business was starting to get under his skin.  

He was meant to be an expert, someone who knew his craft. The soil, the plants and the weather were all his. But everything he was doing now seemed to be open to question. And the lack of growth in the carrots were starting to make him ask questions of himself. As an expert, he felt he ought to have the answers, and at the moment, there were none. And it hurt.  

Then one day, came that conversation. On a Friday afternoon, Douglas had just been cleaning up before leaving when the husband came out to wish him a good weekend, but then added a passing shot. ‘Douglas, could you just have a little think about whether you’re really cut out to be our gardener? We’d like to have a chat about it on Monday.’ Such a simple question. So many possible consequences.

He couldn’t sleep that evening. Next day was spent in a daze. On Saturday night, he slept a little, but still woke in the small hours to remorselessly turn over all the possibilities of the past and the future. It was horrible. Sunday passed slowly, the slower still as evening approached.  Sunday night... was best forgotten. And on Monday morning, it was raining. As he walked up the path past the gardens he had tenderly nurtured for years, he wondered what would happen.

But his employers were out. Their car wasn’t in the drive. They’d probably been away for the weekend. Odd how they hadn’t told him. However, there were still things to do. Soon, he was in the tool-shed, separating out some fresh seedlings ready for planting out, losing himself in the simple rhythm of gently teasing out the roots and placing the plants into larger biodegradable containers packed with fresh compost. Each plant had been grown from seed harvested and stored from last year. New life from the old.

Then he heard the car coming up the drive and sighed. Time for that conversation. But as he emerged from the tool-shed, he saw the car retreating down the drive again. They stopped when they saw him, and wound down their windows to speak when he gestured with his hands.


‘You wanted to have a conversation with me about the garden and my future working for you here.’

‘Oh... yes’, said the husband. ‘We’d forgotten.’ Forgotten? Had Douglas wasted a weekend worrying about a possibility that could be misplaced? Controlling his face, he silently cursed. And then he decided to deal with it, whatever it was.

‘You asked me whether I wanted to carry on working here.’

A silence from the husband, then the recognition of slowly-returning memory. ‘Oh...yes! Thank you for reminding me. Look, we’re just going out to the shops. We’ll back in the afternoon. Can it wait?’
I’ve been waiting all weekend, he thought. And you forgot.

‘No’, said Douglas. ‘It can’t.’

His employers looked at each other, slightly perplexed. This wasn’t quite how they intended to spend their Monday morning. They’d had a nice weekend away, and had now come back to this. How awkward. It really was unhelpful. The car windows were wound up again, and a conversation ensured inside.

At length, the engine was turned off, and his employers got out of the car, and stood there in front of him, looking embarrassed.

Douglas waited for them to collect their thoughts. Finally, the husband spoke.

‘Douglas, we were wondering whether you really wanted to be our gardener.’

Then the wife. ‘You don’t seem to be enjoying working here.’

‘And we do want you to be happy.’

Really? Douglas waited to see if they would say anything else, but they didn’t. Was that it? 
He spoke. ‘I’ve always enjoyed working this garden.  It’s what I do.’

The wife. ‘But you seem to be getting more and more frustrated with the garden. Whenever we try to make improvements, you get frustrated. And we do believe that people should enjoy their work, don’t we?’

Her husband nodded. ‘So...’ she continued, ‘... we wondered if you’d be happier working somewhere else.’

Ah. So it had finally come to this. Douglas thought hard. ‘Are you saying you want me to leave?’

Of course not, he could see on their faces. The thought had never entered their heads. But it was a lie. He saw them looking at each other, silently discussing with looks, which of them would actually say what had no doubt been discussed, endlessly, every evening. Another wordless glance from the wife decided it. Then the husband spoke.

‘Douglas, if you can’t be happy here, then we think you ought to go.’

‘But I am happy here.’ He found he was enjoying being awkward.

‘But we’re not happy with your work.’

Ah, he nodded. We’re there now. The truth. Time to draw them out.  ‘What is it about my work that you don’t like?’

And it all came out in a rush.

‘The carrots....’

‘...We don’t think you understand them...’

‘...And a gardener ought to be able to grow them...’

‘...You’re not prepared to try anything new...’

‘...You don’t listen to advice...’

‘....You treat it like your own garden, not ours....’

‘....And you’re not giving us what we’re paying you for...’

‘....And in the end, it’s we who have to decide...’

‘...and this is a very difficult conversation for us...’

 ‘...And you’re making this very hard for us...’

In the end, they ran out of breath and pointless platitudes.

Douglas knew they were waiting for him to put them out of their misery. But he wasn’t going to, not quite yet.

How outrageous! Said their faces. Of course not!

‘...It’s your attitude...’

‘...Your manner with us...’

‘...It is our garden after all...’

‘...And you make us feel uncomfortable...’

‘...And we’re the ones who live here...’

He waited until they’d stopped opening and shutting their mouths and making noises.

‘So you’re getting another gardener?’

No. The husband spoke. ‘We need to give that more thought.’

They were going to do it themselves. Inside himself, Douglas smiled, despite the situation. So, they fancied themselves as gardeners, and wanted to do things their own way.

They said some other things too. About a month’s notice. Good references. Wishing him all the best in future. How sure they were he’d find a better position suited to his talents. And thank you for all the effort he’d put in over the years. But Douglas wasn’t listening. His time in this garden was over. The conversation finished, he went back to the shed and finished sorting out the seedlings.

A few months later, he was passing the garden, and forced himself to look over the fence. Things looked much as he expected for the time of the year, although jobs he’d expected to be doing himself at this time weren’t being done. And the following year, despite his ex-employers making a few obvious desultory efforts at growing potatoes, very little else seemed to be happening. And potatoes were a proverbially easy crop. And, he noticed, there were a lot more weeds about.

Another household quickly took Douglas on, grateful for his expertise.  He was given a free hand – and curiously, when he tried growing Wanganui Giant carrots the following year as a challenge, they came up fine. But it didn’t make sense. Similar fertiliser, similar soil, same weather conditions. Puzzling, really.

But then one Saturday morning, he passed his old garden on the way to buy a newspaper, and glanced over the fence when he heard a familiar voice. It was the wife, kneeling down next to the same vegetable patch. She was digging up some plants with a trowel, talking to herself. He stopped, curious. She had a ruler on the ground next to her. She was working her way along the line of plants, digging them up, measuring them, and putting them back in again. All along the line. Every one. No exceptions. And she was muttering something about not being right.

And the following Saturday, when he conspired to be in the same place at the same time, she was doing the same thing. Douglas thought back to his time with her, leaned on the fence, coughed to get her startled attention, and after a polite greeting, decided to ask a question.

‘Excuse me, when I was working for you, were you doing that every weekend? Digging them up like that?’

The wife, without thinking too deeply, replied, ‘Yes, of course.’


‘To see if they were growing.’

‘And you did that every week, like you’re doing now?’

‘Of course. How else would you do it?’

Indeed. Every Saturday, she’d been digging up the carrots he’d carefully nurtured through the week. Trampling down the ground. Extracting and measuring every one. Severing the tiny filaments of root that a carrot puts down to help it absorb the nutrients from the soil. Just so she could know how long they were. Each week. And in the process, stopping them from growing. By removing the very things that helped them grow. And then blaming him when they didn’t.

And as Douglas proceeded along the lane to get his paper, and started reading about the different ways that people found their work being measured and assessed by their employers... he wondered if his own experience had anything to say about it.

1 comment:

Any requests of subjects for future posts in 2016? No idea too stupid for consideration. And yes, I know I am a bad writer, so don't bother saying that unless you can write something better. But maybe there's a topic buzzing around in your head that you'd like to see covered... because I've got a keyboard here, it's loaded with letters, and I ain't afraid to use it.