Tuesday, 29 December 2015

What Does Pixar's 'Inside Out' Teach Us About Teacher Wellbeing? Part 2

Riley: I... I know you don't want me to, but... I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don't be mad.
Mom: Oh, sweetie...
Dad: We're not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too. I miss the woods where we took hikes.
Mom: And the backyard where we used to play.
Dad: Spring Lake, where you used to skate.

This is the finale of 'Inside Out'; the dialogue is accompanied by many an animated sad expression, a healthy number of tears and it culminates in a big family hug. Apparently Dacher Keltner from the University of California, Berkeley, 'helped revise the story by emphasising the neuropsychological findings that human emotions are mirrored in interpersonal relationships and can be significantly moderated by them.'  However, the film heavily emphasises how we self-regulate our emotions and focuses less on the part that human interaction plays in influencing how we feel. For the purposes of the movie's concept this is forgivable but in real life if we shunned social interaction and relied on self to keep sane, I dare say we would find ourselves in a mess.

There are enough moments in the film where Riley and her parents help each other to overcome difficulties: sometimes by being 'goofballs' and acting like monkeys, and other times by playing hockey with a screwed up ball of paper or suggesting shared experiences to cheer each other up. And these are the moments I'd like to reflect on with regard to our own wellbeing.

I'd like to direct your attentions toward Benjamin Zephaniah's poem 'People Need People'. There are three verses, but here is the first:

People need people,
To walk to
To talk to
To cry and rely on,
People will always need people.
To love and to miss
To hug and to kiss,
It’s useful to have other people.
To whom to moan
If you’re all alone,
It’s so hard to share
When no one is there.
There’s not much to do
When there’s no one but you.
People will always need people.

In my previous post about 'Inside Out' I discussed how the exercise of a full range of emotions is good for our wellbeing. If this is happening then it is inevitable that there will be visible manifestations alerting others to our feelings. And when we spend time with friends, colleagues or family most of us hope that they will respond to the visual clues and ask us how we are feeling. And if you don't display your emotions, and the people around you don't notice when you do, then your wellbeing is in peril.

Benjamin Zephaniah suggests we need people 'to cry and rely on' and to moan to! 'Inside Out' shows us that once you have allowed emotions like sadness to manifest that healing actually begins when other people respond to it. Don't be afraid to let others see you in what you perceive to be weakness. There is actually great strength in admitting to others that you feel weak. Only when you admit it can you begin to become stronger, and so often that happens with the help of a best friend, spouse, partner, sibling, mentor or work mate. In those around us there can be found a wealth of experience, knowledge, and most importantly kindness, care and love. And we all need a bit of that, don't we?

For teachers it is important to identify those people in all areas of your life. Who knows you well? Who knows how much energy your pour into your job? Who has perhaps experienced the strains of the changing face of education and made it through the other side? Who do you know who appears to have a good work/life balance despite having a busy job? Who do you know who will just give you a cuppa and then sit and listen to your woes, without belittling them or waving them aside? Find that person. Actually, find a few; one in each setting you find yourself in. Find someone at work, find someone at home, find someone at the end of the phone line, and on Twitter. Wherever you are, know the people who can help you. And then talk. Make them aware of your emotions as part of day-to-day life. Not just when all comes crashing down. It's probably worth reminding yourself when you find those people that your range of emotions should come into play: if you feel happy, talk about happy things. If you feel scared, talk about what's scaring you. If you feel calm, tell them. Don't just moan. Or cry. Or rely.

And then there is your part of the deal. A relationship is two-ways. When the family's removal truck doesn't arrive, Riley cheers her parents up. When Riley sets out for her first day at school, her parents cheer her up. No matter how broken you are, you can still be a support to others. At times you might take more than you give, and vice versa. Who are the people in your life who need you? As teachers we are expected to care for the wellbeing of the children we teach and we can't escape from that - they need us. We all have colleagues; for those who are leaders it is part of your role to see to their wellbeing. We are duty-bound to moderate the emotions of those around us at school and if our own wellbeing isn't in check, we risk being ineffective in this area.

Benjamin Zephaniah reminds us in his poem that we need to live our lives with other people, sharing food, relaxing in company, learning from and playing with them. He says that other people can put us at ease and make life more appealing. 'Inside Out' reminds us that family and friends help us to deal with difficulties better than we can on our own.

For a case study in how talking about feelings helps, please read Numpty Teacher's blog post How I Stopped Drowning

Saturday, 26 December 2015

What Does Pixar's 'Inside Out' Teach Us About Teacher Wellbeing?

Joy. Sadness. Fear. Disgust. Anger. The five emotions that Pete Docter and Dacher Keltner decided govern each of us. Maybe that's unrealistic but it is Pixar; suspend some disbelief. Whilst your doubts are hanging up there, consider the question: what can we learn from 'Inside Out' about our own wellbeing?

The film's lesson (obvious spoiler alert) is that Joy cannot be the sole controlling emotion and that other emotions have a part to play in our wellbeing. At the beginning of the film we see Joy rushing around, taking a lead and trying to keep the other emotions in check. The other emotions rarely get a look in (sounds ideal, right? A life full of joy?) Then worrying things start to happen - Joy instructs Sadness to stand in a 'circle of sadness' so that she can't influence the feelings of Riley, the main character in whose brain the personified emotions reside. Eventually Joy realises that to deal with the problems Riley is facing, Sadness needs to take the reins. Joy's epiphany comes when studying a happy memory of Riley's family and friends consoling her: "They came to help... because of Sadness."

I suppose it's prevalent in psychology: feelings shouldn't be suppressed. When all the personified emotions in the film do give up trying to control Riley, a blackness descends on the brain's control centre: the beginnings of an absence of emotion - depression?

Advice about dealing with workload and the pressure of teaching that focuses on just thinking positively is usually sneered at, and for good reason; it hardly seems productive. It seems that the advisor is condoning suppression of all emotions other than joy. The positive advice that is coupled with practical steps to take is much more productive, but if still only focuses on joyful emotions it can easily miss the mark for those struggling with other feelings.

Writing this I am well aware that my previous advice could be seen to fall into the aforementioned categories. This post is another step in my journey into understanding how I, and others, achieve a good work/life balance and emotional wellbeing. One day, maybe I'll understand and be able to truly help others. I digress.

My question, prompted by an enjoyable Boxing Day afternoon movie, is this: can free expression of all emotions have positive impact on wellbeing? And I ask this particularly with teaching in mind. 

Can expressing anger about ever-changing goalposts relieve stress? Could allowing the fear of change in education to be in the driving seat help one to feel better? What about letting disgust at your SLT's latest time-consuming bolt-on initiative be your primary emotion for a while? Is just being sad about a profession that you once really enjoyed actually constructive?

'Inside Out' would say yes in answer to all of those questions. The film's conclusion goes further: the protagonist's memories are coloured depending on which emotion was prevalent at the event. By the end of the story Riley's memories become a cocktail of colours - each memory is multi-emotional. It is possible, and natural, to simultaneously feel more than one emotion. It is possible for aspects of teaching to enrage us at the same time as experiencing joy in another part of it. Whilst feeling joy about a breakthrough with a struggling child we may also fear the unknown of the next week with them. And, so, 'Inside Out' says, we will be happier if we allow all of our emotions to steer us and to help us make decisions. Perhaps happiness, contentedness, positivity and optimism (and ultimately, wellbeing) can be found in experiencing the full spectrum of emotions and in not regarding any of them as unhelpful.

What seems strange in the film is that out of the five emotions, we would traditionally only see one of them as a positive emotion: joy. All the others (anger, disgust, fear, sadness) we would immediately think of as negative. It looks like joy will always be overpowered, fighting a losing battle. But what the film portrays so well is how Joy works alongside the other emotions, not so that the main character is always joyful, but so that she always feels well, even when she eventually cries in her sadness. After the crisis, it is the moment when Sadness takes control that Riley feels best.

Sadness explains, "Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems." Perhaps we do need to allow our 'negative' emotions to stop us teachers from ploughing on regardless because 'we have a job to do, so let's just get on with it.' Maybe anger, fear, disgust and sadness, alongside joy, can make us stop and think and lead to us eventually being well.

These are musings from someone who knows nothing of human psychology - please don't judge too harshly, but please do engage on this. Point me towards research. Tell me your own experience. I'd love to think more about these issues.

Postscript:

I have since found an article that does my blog post, but better. I should have researched what had already been written!
Inside Out Shows Wellbeing Isn't Just About Chasing Happiness
The bit about 'Emodiversity' is particularly enlightening.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Just 3 Teachers

Mr Clough

Walking into the lesson he picked up an elastic band, pulled it back, "That's potential energy..." he said. The elastic band flew across the room. "And that's kinetic energy." Never have I forgotten that moment in year 6, never have I forgotten that particular piece of physics. He was our headmaster and I would rank him as the most influential teacher I ever had. The cigar smoke seeping from his office, the giant art projects (shoes and socks off to walk over the paper), the trip to France (he showed me Monet's garden, took me to L'Orangerie and instilled a love of art which stays with me today), the funny words he used (smellytape). Yes, he had the hearts of his children. And I'm sure the hearts of his staff members too. His funeral was heavily attended. He made teaching (and leading a school) look like fun and we loved to be around him.

Lesson: be a fun teacher

Mrs Ashworth

The stories. It was all about the stories. We read and read and read. Zachary and I stayed in at lunch time to talk to her about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (we were in year 3!) and she brought in books of Tolkien-inspired art work to show us. She indulged our passions, and hers, and a lifelong reader she did make. If ever a teacher fostered a love of reading in her pupils it was her. Oh, and she also used to let me tidy the cupboard - my standard ploy whenever maths came round and I did it a surprising number of times. It was a cupboard I liked to imagine as Roald Dahl's Chokey, so small was it in our little old Victorian school building, and I remember reorganising the piles of text books I was supposed to be learning from (what were those ones with a hot air balloon on the front?) I've never understood why she allowed it, but she did, and look at me now.

Lesson: engage children using their own interests

Mrs Sanderson

Picture two scruffy teenagers on rollerblades causing a public nuisance outside Morrisons. Picture a maturing (she may have been younger than I thought but when you're little you think everyone is old) lady walking down the access ramp towards them. That scenario, in my experience, never goes well. Except when after 15-ish years those two teens still remember their nursery teacher and that maturing lady still remembers every one of her little charges. I have many more memories of my time at nursery than I do of my Key Stage One experience. I visited the nursery recently as my daughter did a stint there before we moved; the huge hall that once provided so many hours of imaginative play seemed tiny, as did those cavernous classrooms where she let us do woodwork with real nails and hammers and saws. Who needed Mummy at nursery when you had Mrs. Sanderson - caring, kind and encouraging of all exploration. Even rollerblading.

Lesson: know your children

Thanks to @Michaelt1979 for the inspiration for this blog post

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Family First?

"When's Daddy coming to my Christmas play?" asked my five year old daughter on more than one occasion. "He has to go to work darling, so he can't come."

When I had children I resigned myself to missing out on some of these little moments. Having the school holidays, not having to travel for work and sometimes being able to come home for tea time seemed like a fair trade for not being able to do the school run, go to presentation assemblies and attend end of year productions.

As it has happened, with the odd difference in days off between my school and my daughters', I have had the privilege of picking them up from school and seeing the eldest presented with her 'Pupil of the Term' certificate. Teachers are kind and have allowed us the last parents' evening slots so I do feel a part of their school life.

But the Christmas show wasn't to be. Or so I thought. At the end of the penultimate week of term the head pulled me aside, asking why she'd not had a request from me to go to see my daughter's Christmas show. Inside, crushing emotion and self-disappointment welled up. I'd let my little one down. She had wanted me to come, and I could've gone if only I'd asked. I had unnecessarily prioritised work over my family. My voice cracked as I tried to explain why I hadn't asked.

The happy ending is that, as a result of my boss's prompt, I went to my middle daughter's nursery Christmas show and it was lovely - Christmas really began that day. I had checked with my super-understanding five year old and there were no hard feelings; she is sweet enough to be able to be excited for her younger sister even when it might not seem fair. So, No.2 and I shared giggle fits during one of the songs and I smirked as she spent a whole number rearranging her star outfit, complete with full-on hands down skirt moments. Family came first that afternoon. And I got to miss the SLT meeting: Christmas bonus. 

And what have I learned? Well, it was a reminder of how to prioritise. I have a kind boss who cares for the wellbeing of her staff and who, despite not having children of her own, understands the importance of family. I should have known that I could at least ask. Not everyone is fortunate enough to work for such a leader. I have a family at home who need me and deserve my best. My job is important, but actually my own flesh and blood are more important. Really, I'm essentially doing my job because of them - so that I can support them financially. But their needs are more than just that. They need my time too.

I don't think I'll be suddenly leaving school at 3:25 everyday to get home to them, or even automatically assuming that I can take time off work to go to every school event, but I will consider my family more in the decisions I make regarding how my time is spent.

This was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th December 2016 entitled '"Daddy can't come to your Christmas play, he has to go to work"': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/daddy-cant-come-your-christmas-play-he-has-go-work

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Forced Academisation: Will Hands Be Tied?

The Lords are revolting! "How very dare you!" they reply to the Tory idea that all failing schools should convert to academies. 

Come January I'll have worked in an academy for a year. Our school was rated as 'inadequate' by Ofsted two years ago this month. This is the part where I hasten to add that I joined the school in September last year, quickly distancing myself from any association with the grading. I took the job based on the weakness of the report - the challenge appealed to me. Who wouldn't want to work in an inner-city school boasting the accumulating problems of years of declining leadership? I remember sitting in bed reading the report and gasping out loud at what it contained. I remember visiting the school to be the told by the new head (who had already been appointed before 'the visit') that "the report was kind." I went to interview and accepted an Assistant Headship at the school, knowing that very soon the local authority would relinquish its responsibilities and that an academy chain would be 'taking over'.

It was my decision to work in an academy. Some of the existing staff members were highly suspicious of the change. As are most who are anticipating the passing of The Education Bill in which failing schools are to be forced into academisation without even the consultation of parents or teachers. And there are some awful stories which would only serve to heighten fears, but mine is not one of them.

As mentioned before, the current head started in the new year, post killer Ofsted. She quickly set about making changes (no time to outline those here). When the school became an academy - part of a large local chain - she retained her status as leader of the school. Whilst she has become part of a bigger machine, she still makes the decisions that are right for the school. In our chain, each head has autonomy as the academy recognises that its leaders know their individual schools best. Maybe, we've struck gold and other academies are not structured in this way, but they can't all be bad, surely?

As an academy we have benefited in other ways:

Parents were initially vehemently against the academisation, but a year on perceptions have changed. They see now a school run by professional people with their children's best interests at heart. They see us as part of a bigger force for good in our city - there is a sense of belonging amongst our stakeholders. They see that as a result of the aforementioned leadership, under the academy's umbrella, that major changes are taking place and transforming their children's education. Whilst we still have our challenges, no longer is it an 'Inadequate' school. 

Staff, on the whole, now feel proud too to be a part of the chain and there is a greater sense of teamwork and belonging; our staff Christmas meal was apparently the best attended in many years. Positive working relationships with other schools in the group are beginning to be fostered and expertise is being shared. 

The children notice the difference the most - they are learning more, more quickly, and enjoying it. They look smarter in our new uniform. They like the tighter routines and the maximisation of learning time. But they would not put the changes down to the academisation, but to the shift in 'how things are done', which all points back to the leadership (most children would recognise the change came about when the head changed). 

We have become an academy but the powers that be in the academy group have allowed the school's leaders to do their job, resulting in all manner of positive changes. I recognise our situation may be different to others as the new head was not responsible for the 'inadequacy' of the  school, nevertheless, I wanted to share a positive story of a school being forced into becoming an academy

Photo Credit: geebeetography via Compfight cc

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Overtime: Are Teachers The Only Ones?

Teachers’ workload: two words bound to get any teacher on their soapbox. Articles abound on the issue. The DfE even challenged us about it (does anyone else find the use of the word ‘challenge’ strange?) I don’t need to tell you, the hardworking teacher, that the workload is great and I think even the stereotype of ‘Teachers. Huh! Cushy number; working 9-3.30!’ has died a death; even the non-teaching public know now that teachers don’t just work a. 37.5 hour week.

Evenings. Weekends. Holidays. Some of us work them all. Overtime pay? Not a chance. Lack of free time, family time, fun. Many a teacher has experienced this. But are we alone? I mean, are those memes that suggest teachers are the only ones working at home in the evening actually accurate? Well, there have been studies: its official! Teachers work more than any other profession!

However, I know some pretty hard working folk who aren't teachers and I decided to ask a few of them about their working hours. I asked them their role, contracted hours and overtime (either paid or unpaid). Here’s what I discovered:

Many of the workers I asked are contracted at around 40 hours, similar to teachers. Many of them said that they work around 20 hours extra, unpaid, on top of their contracted hours. Workers who answered in this manner included a Director of a water company, a Vice President of a manufacturing firm, an Associate Director of a political consultancy, an Enterprise Architect for a publishing company, an IT Consultant, an HR Business Partner in a telecoms company, an IT Architect in a small data consultancy and a Senior Finance Manager for a construction Services company. If my friends are representative of workers in those industries then that’s quite a lot of people around the world working similar hours to teachers without being paid overtime. Some of those I asked reported that working around 90 hours per week is sometimes necessary.

What about working from home? The IT Architect said “for me there is little to distinguish work and home. Holidays increasingly are measured on broadband quality. I don't think I really ever switch off from thinking about work.Echoing the sentiments of others, the Finance Manager remarked “My phone is on 24/7 and I'm expected to check email at all hours.” A number of those I spoke to revealed that they did extra work at home, others did not say whether their 20 hours of overtime was done in the office or at home. The Vice President stated “I'm always working: nights, weekends, vacations! I have found the saying "It's tough at the top" to be very true.”

Another major finding was that travel takes up more time on top of extra hours for non-teachers. Whether it’s being ‘at work’ 24/7 on foreign business trips away from family or sandwiching a week’s hotel stay with 15 hours of UK-wide driving, this is something most teachers don’t have to deal with.

It may be noted that those I spoke to all hold fairly senior positions and are likely to be paid well.  I didn’t ask for salary details simply because those who compare the workload of teachers to that of other professions never compare salary either. My anecdotal evidence is in direct reply to the blanket statements of ‘no-one works as hard as teachers’. Well they do. There are many men and women all over the country up late working, arriving at the office early to get an extra hour in, missing out on time with their children, spending every waking hour replying to emails, going on ‘holiday’ with a project to complete. Teachers are amongst those people but they do not have a monopoly on these characteristics.

One of my friends concluded: “It appears most people really enjoy the work they do and they do what is needed to be successful! I'm feeling lucky to enjoy what I do and that I have fun doing it!If you really are in teaching because you are passionate about it and you love working with the children, then surely this is the attitude to have. Imagining that you are the only one still up at 11pm preparing for the next day will not change the fact that teaching is a hard job with many demands and pressures. Knowing that everything you do can have a positive impact on the lives of others can make all the hard work worthwhile. Counting yourself as one of the many workers around the world who goes the extra mile for no reward could begin to take the edge off the pain you feel.

And if you are still up at 11pm preparing for tomorrow, perhaps you’d benefit from reading up on maintaining a good work/life balance. Although the pressures are high and the workload is heavy, I believe there are things we can all do to address the balance. Might I suggest you begin with a couple of my own blog posts?
Photo Credit: thatbookkeeper via Compfight cc