“To care for the teacher is to love the learner” Lao Tzu, founder of Daoism
Teaching is one of the best jobs in the world. Watching our students grow and blossom is the reward for our efforts. Watching the shy child take centre stage and the questioning child open our eyes with their ideas: this is the lifeblood that feeds our hearts and makes us want to get up in the morning to do it all over again. But the pressure of targets, league tables and exam results dilutes the magic that makes a great teacher.
Teaching is a form of magic. It is alchemy in which we try to help young people find the gold within themselves.
We hold, inspire, support, care for and transform the opportunities of our next generation. The anthropologist and author Ursula le Guin wrote a beautiful novel, the Earthsea Trilogy, about a young wizard called Ged. In his training, he was taught this fundamental truth about the act of magic: to change a thing, you must first know its ‘real name’. To change a rock into a flower you must first understand the qualities of both. Every child has a real name. The essence of who they are and who they may become. If we understand their real names, we can help them transform. If we teach them without ‘knowing them’, we are teaching rocks. We make this magic of transformation happen every day, in every culture and every situation across the globe. In war zones, in ghettos and in the inner cities we turn rocks into flowers. In classrooms across the planet, from the remote village school of a few children to schools where children are invisible within the sheer scale of the learning enterprise, we weave our spells and struggle to find the ‘real name’ of every child. Yet we work in a world that asks endlessly of us and gives back too rarely. As such, we often walk into our classrooms unfit for the very thing we care so much about. If we are unable to cope with the never-ending, ever-changing series of demands and pressures we face, we cannot provide the quality teaching and learning experience expected of us. We will not be the great teachers we aspired to be when we entered the profession.
Stress is now our constant companion.
Self doubt is its bed fellow. They walk into class with us and leave with us at the end of each day. Stress weakens the immune system. A weakened immune system means sickness. Sickness leads to teacher absence. Teacher absence generates extra workload for our colleagues, a disrupted curriculum and inadequate learning. Long term unaddressed stress equals long term absence.
Our stress is not sustainable.
From a certain angle we all seem well, energised and creative. And yet each of us radiates tension, as if each of our lives has been built upon the skin of a balloon and something or someone is inflating us toward the breaking point. Do we know that we exist on the skin and that as we expand towards achievement and good deeds the skin becomes more fragile? Maybe we cannot. We only know that we are busy and always doing. Because someone expects that of us. Children, parents, our colleagues, our superiors and ourselves. And we have forgotten what it is to stop.
When you are on a wave surfing towards the rocks, you only know that you are on the wave. Movement, just like expansion, is an illusion that holds collapse in its trajectory. We are heading towards the rocks. And yet we cannot get off. We stay on because we care so much that there is no choice. That is what stress feels like. We all recognise the ill effects of stress. We feel the adrenaline pumping through our bodies. Our heart rate elevates. We are more easily agitated, less tolerant, quicker to judge and feel fatigued and run down. I feel it now as I write. A memory of the day and a foresight of tomorrow. I feel the rushing or at least feel rushed inside. My mind is full, racing and turbulent. Negative thoughts are rampant, and yet again, the inner critic is at the helm of my mind’s narrative. In this state, my creative powers are used only to survive. And I know that I cannot do this joyous thing called teaching.
I am not good enough. Why am I not the teacher I could be? I think we all know. Teaching is bad for your health. Former Primary Head teacher John Illingworth is just one casualty of chronic stress rife in the education system. He believes, “Depression, anxiety and burnout have become the teachers’ diseases…” The Teacher Support Network survey stated, “Working in education is bad for your health!”
How many times have I stood before my class, head thumping, fatigued, struggling to stay calm, yet handling a provocative situation and knowing that I want to be the one that gets ‘time out?’ They cannot learn when I feel like this. They feel my discomfort. I snap, have no patience and my lesson falls apart. I know that my relationships with my students are at the heart of my teaching. But how can I know them or pay attention to their needs when I am only able to pay attention to my own stress, the deadlines, the targets and my hope that they will do well?
Where is the learning in that? What am I teaching them?
I believe that to cast our spell of transformation, to work our magic, we need to be well. Being well is a fundamental need for us to continue our work. I believe that Well-being for teachers is not a fluffy, nice–to–have. It is not a luxury for the end of term and it should not be seen as a bolt–on or added extra. Well-being in schools is a prerequisite for healthy, constructive and productive quality teaching and learning.
Teaching at its best arises from healthy teachers who are well rested, open minded, clear thinking and compassionate towards the challenges of learning. A Mindful teacher is fully present, able to support and encourage whilst simultaneously challenge their students to reach beyond expectations or self-doubt. Mindful and not mind-full. Relaxed teachers are flexible teachers. Flexible teachers are more likely to be resilient.
Felicia Huppert, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge University, describes how economic growth is not the only indicator of progress for many governments. Citizen well-being is becoming accepted as equally important. Well-being is not just about happiness. It is much more than this. It is about living life well, developing and knowing ourselves and our full potential; developing relationships with ourselves and others and contributing to our society, our world. This is “flourishing”! The UN High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-Being (April 2012) advocates a new economic paradigm with well-being at its core. Why would education not do the same? Flourishing schools provide the bedrock for balanced perspectives, balanced approaches, balanced attitudes and balanced living – for all.
We are not asking for easy lives. Know that we choose to give of ourselves to effect change in others. We know that there is a price. And I think we are all happy to pay that price because…
“A good teacher is like a candle – it consumes itself to light the way for others.” ~ Author Unknown
And if we are to find the real name of each child and practice the art of transformation, then we will do this better, so much better, if we are well. We will burn brighter and longer if ‘well-being’ is at the heart of our practice.
If we were to offer a well-being programme, centered in deep inner work, that offered insights into the challenges you face, the time, space, skills and tools to cope in a more resilient and flexible fashion, and if that were to impact each teacher to then impact the quality of each child’s experience, would you be interested to know more? Remember: “No education system can be better than its teachers.” Lord Adonis, Global Teacher Prize 2013.