Giving and receiving

Teaching is absolutely a profession of giving. We give our time, we give our energy, we give attention, we give advice and guidance, we give compassion, we give support.

All of this giving is why teaching is so tiring. Teachers, at the end of a long week or a semester or a year often feel, literally, exhausted. It feels like there is nothing left to give.

But, to our students, even when we feel exhausted, we continue to give hope, we give purpose, and we give love. And in the giving of hope, purpose, and love, we receive in return, a deep, profound sense of meaning in our lives.

That’s why we keep bouncing back up and doing it all again.

Space for peace

Forgiving is hard. Especially when we’ve been really wronged, hurt, or betrayed. And even more so when the hurt is inflicted by someone close to us.

But the only alternative to forgiveness is holding a grudge. And that’s a choice we can make. But holding a grudge consumes a lot of emotional energy. Anger and resentment are negative emotions that require constant fuelling. And 30 years of forgiveness science has identified a range of harmful long-term physiological and psychological effects that all of this negative emotional exertion can have.

When we forgive, we do not forget.

But when we are able to forgive, we unstick ourselves from the past; we release ourselves from anger and create room inside for peace.

Home is perspective

There’s a line that Shaun White, professional skateboarder, snowboarder and Olympian recites to himself before a major run at an event:

“I’m here, I’m going to try my best, and I’m going to go home, and my family’s there.”

Most of us aren’t Olympic athletes but we know that feeling of ‘being at the top of a run’. We know what it feels like just before we ‘drop into’ something at work or at home that matters. Winning feels great, applause is nice, being overlooked hurts and failing sucks.

But humans always see outcomes through a lens, a perspective. And when we change lenses or shift perspective, the world looks different, the world is different.

When we remember that, at the end of the day, despite everything, we go home to our family and our ‘tribe’; our wins are tempered by humility and gratitude. And our failures are cushioned by hope and love.

A hand on my shoulder

At one of the most pivotal points in my schooling, when I was a 14 year old boy struggling through a low point in my life, there was a teacher who knew me and knew the challenges I was facing. At one point, about half way through a lesson, when the whole class was working busily, he must have sensed that I wasn’t at my best. He walked over, put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said to me: “It’s going to be okay.”

It was a tiny gesture of support, empathy, compassion, understanding, and connection. It was layered with wisdom, kindness and hope. It renewed my confidence, made me smile, and became etched in my memory.

This was not an ‘intervention’. It wasn’t a tool or a strategy or a ‘coaching’ technique. It’s just part of what great teachers do day in and day out as they lift up their students.

Six keys to student happiness

The 2019 World Happiness Report has just been released. This is the 7th annual edition of the report – based on data from the Gallup World Poll.

This year, the top 10 happiest countries are, in order: Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria. Australia ranks 11th, the UK 15th, USA 19th, the UAE 21st, and China 93rd.

Interestingly, the six key variables used in the report to explain differences in average life evaluations are:

  1. GDP per capita;
  2. social support;
  3. healthy life expectancy;
  4. freedom;
  5. generosity;
  6. absence of corruption.

These variables have been found in the overall research literature to be important in contributing to general differences in evaluations of happiness. All of this makes sense at a population level, but I wonder what the equivalent six key variables would be for student happiness in schools?

Here’s my list:

  1. safety (Do I feel safe at school?)
  2. belongingness (Do I feel like I belong?)
  3. hope (Do I see a bright future and have the ‘will’ and know the ‘way’ to get there?)
  4. autonomy (Do I feel a sense of volition and control over my schooling?)
  5. purposefulness (Do I feel that my learning make sense and that it matters?)
  6. trust (Do I feel that I can trust my peers and teachers, and do I feel trusted?)

There is no World Student Happiness Report. (The PISA Students’ Wellbeing Report is the closest research we have.) But if there was, the above six factors would contribute significantly. These factors are the foundation of a child’s school experience. Nothing matters more.

The greatest of all

If you look back into human history and pull a list of the greatest teachers of all time, you’ll probably end up with names including:

  • Confucius
  • Socrates
  • Anne Sullivan (teacher of Helen Keller)
  • Maria Montessori (of discovery learning fame)
  • John Locke (philosophy of character first and academics later)
  • Jaime Escalante (known for his work teaching maths to troubled students in Los Angeles.)
  • Albert Einstein
  • Marva Collins
  • Madenjit Singh (educating the poor in Cambodia)

What is it that makes these educators particularly brilliant? Partly, it’s fate. In each of the above cases, there were factors that assembled to create an opportunity for great impact. But it’s much more than that.

Whilst this is a very diverse list of people from different times and cultures, they share two fundamental similarities.

First, all of them were, to some degree, controversial in their time because they saw a different way. They bent rules and harnessed disruption and innovation as a source of energy. And this energy helped light a previously unseeable pathway ahead. Escalante taught ‘unteachable’ kids to succeed. Montessori challenged entrenched norms about teaching and, in the process, revolutionised primary education. Collins opened a ‘school’ for impoverished youth on the second floor of her own Chicago home.

Second, all of these great teachers knew that education, ultimately, is not about literacy and numeracy but, rather, about sculpting the character and lives of their students. They possessed a deep sense of purpose – of wanting to contribute to making the world a better place. And, in all cases, this fuelled heightened emotional engagement and deep passion in their students.

First, innovation & hope. Second, inspiration.

Therein is a lesson for all educators.

People of determination

I had the privilege today of attending a welcoming of the Irish Special Olympic Team to Dubai in readiness for the upcoming Games. I was reflecting on why I came away from the event feeling so inspired. And I think it comes down to witnessing a very raw, unadulterated version of the human spirit.

Under the UAE’s National Policy for Empowering People with Special Needs, people with special needs or disabilities are referred to as ‘people of determination’. I love that. These fellow people face obstacles that I could never truly understand – and yet they achieve and succeed anyway. They know their goal is going to be an immense challenge and so they just dig deeper.

There is nothing more inspiring than that.

All of this made me wonder: if our primary goal as educators is to genuinely inspire our students, how often did I role-model struggle? How often did I allow my students ‘behind the curtain’ to see obstacles I was battling? How often was my determination really on show?

In a way, the Special Olympics are a window into some of the most beautiful and fundamental elements of our humanity. When we’re willing to open our hearts, we see that we share so much in common. And it reminds us that, whilst we each carry the burden of our own personal challenges and battles, we are blessed as a species with an incredible depth of spirit fuelled by determination and hope.