This month I am writing with a feeling of energy and inspiration having just completed three amazing Positive Schools conferences around Australia. Several key themes arose throughout the packed two days in each state. Although presented in various ways, similar messages sang out loudly and clearly across the presentations and workshops.
First, the importance of having a sense of belonging for both students and staff; and with this the value of school community.
Second, the importance of engaging students in day to day learning and the value of having teachers who are engaged in who the students are, as much as in what they do.
Third, the need for teachers to feel good about themselves.
I am going to explore this third significant theme in this article. Hopefully we can address the other two before the end of the year.
Teachers need to feel as important as the work they do. It strikes me time and time again that every teacher begins their career knowing how valuable teaching is as a profession. They understand that education is the foundation for all else in life. As former teacher and best selling author Maggie Dent points out, no profession is possible without the profession of teaching. Yet, many of the day to day challenges that teachers face can all too easily chip away at their faith in themselves and in the job they do. These challenges include work overload, too much emphasis on testing and parent issues.
Clinical psychologist and author, Andrew Fuller, suggests that since the term helicopter parenting was invented, a whole new breed of parents have come to knock on the staff room door. These he aptly named ‘Black Hawk Down’ parents. Parents who look to their environment to bring out the best in their ‘gifted’ child. Whereas once children were berated if they performed badly at school, now it seems it is more likely to be the teacher who gets told off. At the other end of the scale, increased divorce rates, busy careers and the need to pursue materialism, can all lead to disengaged parenting. This can result in parents looking to the teacher to tell them who their child is, rather than the other way around.
I am confident that the majority of parents out there, myself included, want their children to be happy before all else. Yet, what will bring that happiness is the subject of much confusion. For too many of us, happiness equates to a search for success in terms of wealth, status or material trappings. As so entertainingly put by entrepreneurial presenter Jason Clarke, this often results in parents pushing their kids to excel in academic pursuits without any sense of what their passions really are. Each year of school becomes more pressurized with final outcomes looming as if they predicted the whole of life’s fortunes. Popular psychologist and parenting expert Michael Carr-Gregg makes an important point when he reminds us that year twelve outcomes do not in fact, predict life success. As much as we would like kids to do well in their final school assessments, it really is not the end of the world if they do not. Far better that our adolescents leave school with curiosity and excitement, than disillusioned with the chase for uncertain grades.
Workload quantity is another stressor guaranteed to challenge the most robust teacher. Not only do teachers have to work with all manner of young people five days a week, they also have to prepare lessons, mark work and write reports. And we all know how much fun report writing generally is…
And then there is the enormous issue of early testing. I have never met a teacher who is supportive of NAPLAN, nor for that matter a psychologist. NAPLAN may have been designed to encourage improved academic learning, but it is now frequently used as an inaccurate and incomplete benchmark of educational success.
So what can tired teachers do to create a sense of joy in their work and in themselves?
How do we keep hold of the fire in teaching when people are constantly drowning our enthusiasm?
Although there are numerous approaches to creating a positive self-view, I believe that we all too often underestimate the power of finding humour in the absurdity of life. Tie and time again, at the Positive Schools conferences, and indeed at other great events I have attended, I have seen large groups of people energized and inspired once they have laughed. Laughed at a joke, or at a simple truth, or at an amusing observation. It seems that although we certainly want and need new ideas and strategies to help us in life, we also very much need to be reminded that life is often crazy and illogical. It can be very funny indeed.
The joy in teachers faces was evident at Positive Schools when they listened to amusing stories about clever or not so clever students. When the absurdity of troubled parents was made into a humorous commentary. When their humanity was tested with acute observations of human behaviour. Personally, I found myself laughing out loud as Jason Clarke displayed a small cartoon Spiderman unexpectedly dancing in the corner of his overhead. The message being delivered was that we, and the children we teach, are easily distracted by events around us. To me the louder, and possibly more important message was that sometimes laughter really is the best medicine. Having a great time in learning is as important as seeing the relevancy and value in what we are doing. As Tim Sharp, also appropriately known as Dr Happy, stated, although meaning and purpose are important determinants of wellbeing, let’s not forget the value of joy.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (www.positiveschools.com.au)