This is the type of classroom every young student should be entering.
There’s a slightly quaint quote that appeared on a banner at the World Anti-Bullying Forum in Dublin last week:
“Keep your face always toward the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.”
The quote is often attributed to the poet Walt Whitman, sometimes to the social activist Helen Keller, and occasionally to English poet Charles Swain. No one is really sure who first said it or wrote it.
But it has endured because it’s profound. It’s a reminder that in amongst the buzz of our lives, we continue to make fundamental choices that shape our experience.
Even when we are at our best and going well, we can’t escape the shadows. But when we immerse ourselves in what really matters to us, our lives feel brighter, and the shadows fade.
“When an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.”
Old African proverb
By the time your children or your students are in high school, they will have clocked up nearly 100,000 waking hours of experience. And by the time we’re 40, we have about a quarter of a million waking hours under our belt.
Somehow our incredible brain has the capability to synthesise thousands and thousands of hours of experience containing millions of unique events and piece it all together into a coherent narrative.
We don’t think about ‘our life’ as a list of sequential events. But rather, we synonymise our life with our story.
So what a shame it is, that in the rush of our modern, campfireless life, we give ourselves such limited opportunity to make sense of and to share our stories.
And I wonder how many of our students feel like they are a secondary character in someone else’s story?
As filmmaker Rick Stevenson, a man who has interviewed over 5,500 kids, says: “There is no higher calling than to help our kids fully understand their stories and to learn how to use them…There is an empowerment that comes when kids realise that they are writing their own biography – in real time.”
With this realisation comes a shift in perspective. When we realise that life is about writing our own story, we are compelled to ask: “What story do I want to write?”
It’s hard to think of two more profound, powerful questions to explore with a child than: “What is your story?” and “What story do you want to write?“
There is one question, more than any other, that should be held close by every educator. It belongs on a Post-It note on your desk and in the forefront of your mind as you enter a classroom:
“For whom do I teach?”
The Tebetan term lelo loosely translates into English as ‘laziness’. But lelo is a specific form of laziness which relates to doing idle activities with no concern for virtue. Whilst lelo can refer to lazing around, procrastinating or watching too many YouTube videos instead of pursuing a virtuous life, there is a modern form of lelo that those of us who love our work are more at risk of.
As we become immersed in the working week the number of ‘things to do’ can easily push us beyond our limits. Instead of mindfully choosing how we spend our time, we instead switch to ‘triage-mode’ – frantically trying to manage our inbox and dedicating time to ‘urgent’ and ‘overdue’ tasks. Although this doesn’t really sound like ‘laziness’ it is, in a sense.
In the same way that mindless YouTube videos can take us away from spending our time on rich, meaningful engagement, so too ‘busyness’ at work can disconnect us from that which brings meaning to our lives. We take false comfort in the feeling of ‘getting things done’. Clearing our email can feel like we’re moving life forward – when in fact it is often just another revolution in an endless cycle. Sometimes it is easier – lazier – just to keep the wheel spinning rather than to step away and reorientate.
Interestingly, the Tebetan word vīrya, meaning ‘diligence’ is seen as the opposite to lelo. When we’re being diligent, we’re working hard in pursuit of our values. When we’re busy, we’re just working hard. That does seem a little lazy.
So if you haven’t already, try to refrain from using the term ‘busy’. Busyness is something to avoid if we can. Let’s keep working hard but let’s aim for diligence instead.
The concept of ‘work-life balance’ didn’t last very long. It was first used in the 1970s but is starting to die out. In part, this is because mobile communications technology has meant that many of us carry work with us in our pocket – and so geographical detachment from work no longer occurs. But in part, ‘work-life balance’ never really made sense in the first place.
The idea that there is some kind of binary competition between ‘work’ and ‘life’ naively overlooks that fact that, for many of us, our work is a pillar pivotal to our sense of wellbeing and fulfilment in life. Sure, there are other pillars such as family and community that contribute too, but ‘work’, when chosen and aligned with our values adds huge meaning to our lives.
So, perhaps a better term, as promoted by the University of California’s Haas School of Business, is ‘work-life integration‘. As different domains of our lives become more blended, our wellbeing does not depend on a proportional trade-off between domains but rather a synergistic and harmonised integration. We benefit from work-life integration, for example, when our experience and accomplishments in the office make us a more empathic friend. Or when a teacher’s challenges of raising their own young family provide a perspective that amplifies the impact of work with their students.
Work-life integration is not a utopia. There will always be too many things to do and different priorities to juggle. But the more comfortable and cognisant we are of our core values – what really matters to us – the more we can align our work life, family life, community life, and personal life in an integrated way.
In the 1950s, B. F. Skinner developed an approach to understanding behaviour that became known as ‘behaviourism’. Skinner theorised that human behaviour is the result of the consequence of previous behaviour. If a behaviour leads to punishment or a negative outcome, we are unlikely to repeat it. If a behaviour is rewarded, we are likely to repeat it. Thus, human and animal behaviour, can be controlled and shaped via reward and punishment.
60 years later, some schools are continuing to adopt behaviourist approaches to managing student behaviour. Programs such as PBIS attempt to selectively reward ‘positive’ actions in an attempt to extrinsically reinforce certain behaviours. And, not surprisingly, research shows that they work…if your goal is to coerce certain observable behaviours. Feeding a dog a bone when it fetches a ball will cause a dog to fetch another ball.
The main problem with approaches that focus on observable behaviour is that they force people to focus overly on observable behaviour! Behaviourism is all about what can be seen and measured and it disregards underlying motives, values and character. Unfortunately, countless studies have shown that wellbeing, happiness, community cohesion and long-term prosocial behaviour are directly linked to motives, values and character.
And to make matters worse, dozens of studies have found that intrinsic motivation is undermined and eroded by extrinsic reward. When we ‘pay’ students to be kind or forgiving or courageous, they are actually less likely to be so in the future – especially if the payment is no longer offered.
This is why Positive Education takes a different route. It’s a harder, longer route that focusses on nurturing character, engagement, relationships, meaning, and caring – not because there is some extrinsic reward waiting, but for their own sake. When these virtues become embedded in the hearts and minds of our students, you don’t need carrots and sticks so much anymore.