The education system is finally realising that it needs to look after its staff, hooray! 'Well-being', 'mindfulness', 'resilience', 'growth mindset' and other such buzzwords are popping up in educational talks and articles everywhere.
With so many teachers leaving & taking time off sick it can't come too soon. However I have heard teachers saying things like 'oh no, something else for us to do!' and I totally get that. We live in an age where were receive more information in a day than someone living in the 17th century would their whole life.
Then there's the problem with the quality of teaching. There is no set standard so it can be hit and miss. For example there is an organisation that trains 'mindfulness teachers' which only requires a minimum of 2 years' experience. So you could join a class or get someone into your school, with all the best intentions, and they would be ineffective at best or end up doing more harm than good at worst. Practising mindfulness has been proved scientifically to be beneficial to one's physical as well as mental health so it could be natural to assume because it is simple in nature it is easy to teach.
Herein lies the problem. The road to enlightenment is not all nice and fluffy. As soon as you become a serious practitioner off come the layers - it has been likened to peeling and onion, tears and all. As you get to really know yourself all that stuff from the past you thought you'd dealt with can pop up any time, and usually again and again with deeper insight each time. So this is why it is important to have a teacher who has that depth of practice.
Mindfulness takes courage, you have to be prepared to face your demons and sit with them. There is more to it than counting breaths and eating raisins. Those are great practices in themselves but as you go deeper with the practice more demons will reveal themselves. The benefits of doing this though are huge. Life doesn't necessarily get any easier, stuff happens but the way you view difficulties will change.
So for today's exercise start noticing how you distract yourself when things get uncomfortable. A big one for many teachers seems to be Twitter for example or maybe you reach for the biscuits or (as in my case) crisps or alcohol or TV. Can you sit with the discomfort even if it's just a few minutes? Notice what you are thinking. What are you craving and what are you avoiding? Do this with kindness and humour. If you are finding it really difficult then reach out for help, no one has to do this alone.
If you are able repeat this several times a week and over time you will become more aware of your habits and what you do to relieve tension. Then you can make more skilful choices. So, for example, instead of having a glass of wine before bed you may opt for a cup of camomile tea, instead of watching the news you will choose to listen to music or instead of getting caught up in an argument on Twitter you may choose to go out for a coffee with a friend.
I have been practising mindfulness meditation for 10 years now. You don't always notice the benefits immediately but one day you will look back and realise how far you have come.
For more information about how Helen can help your school please contact us today.
This week I have read books about two very different approaches to school leadership.
The first was Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders ( Leading Teachers, Leading Schools) by Belinda Harris. This is the only book for school leaders that I have come across that goes deeper than improving exam results and passing the OFSTED inspection and advocates transformational change from within. It is very indicative of the current situation in education that this book was written 10 years ago and how little has changed.
Belinda Harris draws on a wealth of experience and research, both theoretical and practical, to back up her claims. With so many teachers leaving the profession and suffering stress-related illnesses working from the inside out is not 'fluffy stuff' but vital to education's future. Now more schools are taking up 'mindfulness' and 'well-being' things are slowly changing but a lot of it is still superficial and does not go deep enough for lasting change. In my view becoming more self aware and the importance of self care needs to be embedded from initial teacher training so this book should be read by everyone who works in education, not just school leaders. Every member of staff is a leader, just at different levels.
A lot of what Belinda writes about is probably still beyond the comprehension of many school leaders who have never worked on themselves. I've worked in over 40 schools and I have seen very few that are aware of their inner processes and how it affects their school ethos. However it will take a few school leaders to take that leap of faith and try it out for themselves to see the difference it can make to life in and out of school. I do think that is beginning to happen but not quickly enough in my opinion.
I was in tears reading this book because there is so much evidence that by becoming more self aware we can change the world for the better but very little is changing in that regard in education.
The second was Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership by Dame Sally Coates. I call this a 'car crash' book - I read a sample on my Kindle and had to buy the book because I could not believe what I had read and wanted to be qualified to comment fully. This is not a book in lessons of leadership rather a story of management, and not very good at that. I do believe Sally (sorry titles don't impress me, actions do) did nave the best interests of the pupils and staff in her care at heart but she came across as completely unaware of the lasting impact of her actions. She did not give much explanation about her background or what qualified her to be asked to turn around a failing school other than being a headteacher in another school for 10 years. From what I can see, although she had been teaching for 40 years, her experience inside and outside education is very limited. She had only worked in two schools in London and it would appear that she has never worked in any other sectors.
There are many contradictions in this book and I would need to write another to cover them all fully. She bandies about the term 'emotional intelligence' but does not apply it to herself. It is interesting that Belinda Harris is quite dismissive of Daniel Goleman, I've never felt comfortable with his work either, yet Sally Coates cites his work at regular intervals throughout the book. She has no boundaries for herself or her staff, priding herself on always being 'available' yet any good leader knows self-care is paramount. She is proud of the fact that teachers 'drag themselves in' - her words, not mine - rather than take time off when they are sick and calls them at all times in the evenings and weekends. A lot of her staff were young so perhaps they were able cope with this kind of pressure and didn't have many other commitments but I was under the impression that she has dismissed the wisdom and experience that older teachers can bring to the leadership team.
Here is a woman who is so afraid to be vulnerable and let any weaknesses show. Bullies are usually covering up their own insecurities and she openly admitted she wanted her staff and pupils to be a bit afraid of her. There is no reference to what happened in her early life that makes her so hard on herself. I agree with her on one point though and that is the ethos and the culture of the school reflects on the headteacher. However she is blinded by her own definition of 'success' and does not see that it means different things to different people. She was very dismissive of people outside London who, in her view, were not as ambitious. I wonder who cuts her hair? Her lawyer? Her doctor? There is more to life than GCSEs and not everybody wants to go to Oxbridge, just look at their suicide rates.
I am concerned about the lasting damage she has caused with her 'headstrong' approach; to those teachers she told were 'inadequate' simply based on the hearsay of SLT, to those children that did not conform whose spirits she broke by her punitive measures (2 hours' detention after school on a Friday and 8 sides of lines and then only looking at the cause of their behaviour if they came back 4 or 5 times), to her young staff who have not had a good role model in self care and not least to her own children, who as teenagers need their mother at this time more than any other, while she was working 60 hours a week.
This is not a sustainable model as evidenced by the school's exam results which dropped sharply the year after she left the school. Her changes were all about outward appearances and results rather than celebrating differences. She does pay lip service to this but then seeks to get rid of anyone who does not conform to her view of the world. I sincerely hope she has retired and has moved a long way from education so she cannot inflict any further damage. We need more heartstrong leaders not headstrong ones. Read this book by all means to see why our education system is in the state it is and then read Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders and take leadership lessons from that.
I was also in tears reading this book but for very different reasons. I feel for Sally who is obviously suffering deep inside, even if she doesn't know it, and all the people who have had their lives and careers destroyed by her actions. I have had it done to me in the past and I know what that feels like.
If you would like to become a more heartstrong leader to create lasting change please contact us today and see how we can help.