No one likes fire alarm tests

They’re annoying, disruptive and always seem a little bit unnecessary.

Until there’s a fire.

And then everyone is suddenly very grateful that the system works as it should. Would it have worked without the tests? Probably.

There are many situations when ‘probably’ is fine. Should I take a coat – it looks like it might rain? Probably. Is it worth getting an extra loaf of bread – in case we run out? Probably. Do you think it’s time to get some sleep? Probably.

And there are times when ‘probably’ isn’t good enough.

He’s unconscious – do you think we should call an ambulance? Probably. Yes. The road is icy, do you think I should slow down a bit? Probably. Yes. My friend / student / colleague / sister seemed to be struggling a bit today – should I check that they are okay? Probably. Yes.

Sometimes, it can seem annoying, disruptive and unnecessary to check in with people around us who appear to be struggling? And surely they’ll be okay without us checking in won’t they? Probably. 

Is probably good enough? Probably Definitely not.

Fires happen.

Words also matter

The children we teach are young ­– new to the world. But they have brains that are running two-million-year-old software.

Long before we had written or even spoken language, our ancestors relied on emotional interaction, eye contact, posture, facial expression, and body language to communicate and to catalyse and sustain our connection to our tribe.

These days, we have written and spoken language to help shape our students’ learning and their educational environment. But our students’ sense of safety, connection, and their emotional, physical and neurological state remain heavily affected by our ancient programming that instinctively scans more primeval forms of communication.

We should be careful, planned and deliberate with our words. They matter.

And so do all the many other forms of communication at our disposal.

This is safety

There’s a scene in pretty much every horror and thriller film when one of the characters walks slowly towards the darkness, their heart thumping, not knowing what lies around the corner…

This is fear.

I remember a boy that I went to school with who was bullied relentlessly – he didn’t know what was going to happen to him each lunchtime.

This is fear.

I remember a teacher I occasionally had in primary school who was very unpredictable – we never knew what to expect or who he was going to interrogate.

This is fear.

And in the best classrooms, students feel at home and connected. There are no unseen dangers around corners. There are social norms and a group dynamic that nurture certainty. Whatever happens – especially if I show vulnerability, take a risk, or fail – everying is going to be alright.

In these classrooms, students feel a sense of belonging. They know it’s okay to be less than perfect. They feel listened to and cared for. And their performance is optimised.

This is safety.

At least, connect

We talk a lot, in schools, about the impact of the teacher-student relationship on learning. And for good reason. Whether you look at highly energised and engaged classrooms or read the empirical research, strong and positive relationships clearly power-up the learning environment. And when relationships mature over time, and are given the right conditions, we end up with teacher-student interactions that are enriched by forgiveness, integrity, trust, compassion, and hope. This is the foundation for education in its ideal form.

But there are times when this is not possible, when a genuine relationship with a child or a group of students is unable to be established. It may be that you have not had time to build trust yet. Or it may be that the students you are working with are in a difficult mental or social space that precludes them building a genuine relationship with another adult. Or maybe, for some reason, you just don’t ‘click’ with a certain student or group.

In situations like this, there is no rush. Relationships can wait. Maybe a relationship will never develop. And that’s okay. In fact, your students don’t actually need a strong relationship with you to learn effectively.

But they do need to feel connected and they do need to feel safe. Connection and safety are hardwired evolutionary necessities for complex learning.

As hard as we try, we can’t control relationships. But as educators, those two factors – connection and safety – are within our control. They require us to turn up for our students authentically, to listen to them, to see them, to value them.

Sometimes that is all we can do – and sometimes this is everything a child needs.

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.