Although I’ve sat through -or rather, ignored- many aircraft safety briefings in the past few years, it wasn’t until relatively recently that the relevance of one of the standard phrases became clear. A wise man pointed out to me that the phrase ‘fit your own mask first, before helping children to fit theirs’ contained a not-too-hidden metaphor about how important it is that parents –and those who work with children and young people professionally- prioritise their own wellbeing if they are to be fully effective in promoting the wellbeing of those they care for. Or to employ another helpful cliché: ‘You can’t pour from an empty jug’.
As Headmaster of two successful UK independent schools for the past thirteen years, I have seen a progressive growth in the need for that principle to be both understood and employed, and relatively little evidence that it is happening at all widely. In recent years I’ve heard, with increasing concern, many brilliant, positive and dedicated colleagues say something like ‘I’ve never known a term like that one’ or ‘I’m not sure that I can cope with much more of this’. To my great shame, I’d often put that down merely to tiredness or evidence of diminishing societal levels of personal resilience. When I started to analyse it, though -most helpfully by comparing the lot of a teacher today with life when I entered the profession thirty years ago- I began to realise just why they might feel that way.
When I started in 1988, the expectations of teachers were much simpler. I wasn’t expected to be expert in depth about the range of special educational needs and how to address them; to understand complex neuroscience and learning styles; to know, be able to recognise and react to the signs of abuse or radicalisation of my pupils; to be brilliant at using IT in my lessons; to be an expert in using data to inform progress; to write risk assessment and know health and safety legislation inside out. All great things, of course, that help young people immeasurably and have made education better…but all of which are expected in addition to what teachers were doing back in the day, with no extra time and little extra support.
On top of this, accountability -through onerous inspection regimes, newspaper and government exam performance tables, and growing parental expectations- looms large. Government can’t stop meddling, and the profession has suffered a loss of societal esteem.
However, the thing that appears to have tipped the balance for many teachers is the emotional strain and time consumed as they find themselves on the front line in helping young people manage increasing levels of mental ‘dis-ease’ and illness. All this within a national health support system insufficiently resources to do more than scratch the surface of the issue. A survey I ran in 2015 for HMC (the association that brings together the Heads of most of Britain’s leading independent schools) showed, for example, an 85% growth in schools citing pupil depression as a serious concern over the previous 5 years. Not that it’s just a private school problem; evidence clearly shows that all schools in all settings have experienced the same. And this whole conglomeration of factors can affect teachers badly: a survey of Scottish state school teachers in 2016 showed that almost half rated their mental health either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.
That’s why I have been searching for some time for a tool that would effectively help staff as well as students to understand, measure and progress the quality of their wellbeing, and in doing so make them more physically and mentally healthy as they face the pressures, unpredictabilities and occasional injustices of life.
Flourishing at School promises to do that. As a long time fan of the work of the school of psychologists around Dr Martin Seligman (and very recently, having at last proudly developed the ability to pronounce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) I was pleased to come across such a professionally presented tool that incorporated the wisdom and scientific validity of PERMA with an understanding of the importance of physical health to mental wellbeing. Furthermore, as Head of one of Britain’s eight Quaker schools, it was good to join dots to reveal how that model chimes so clearly with the central tenets of a Quaker education; but that might be a blog for another day!
So, we’re trialling Flourishing at School. And we’re starting with our staff, partly to evaluate its potential use for our students, partly to help develop a better lexicon around wellbeing, but largely to see whether it can enable them better to flourish, and can fill their jugs to help them keep pouring good things into the lives of the young people they care for so much. Let’s see what happens!
Editor’s note: since this post was written, this article was published by Tes indicating thousands of UK teachers are on long-term leave due to stress or mental health issues.
Chris Jeffery | Headmaster Bootham School
Chris Jeffery is Headmaster of Bootham School, in York, England. Formerly Head of The Grange School in Cheshire, he was the founding Chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) Wellbeing Working Group and has held a number of pastoral positions in leading UK private schools.