A Teacher’s View On FlourishingMax Girardeau
Words by Jenna Blencowe, one of our guides.
Jenna is a qualified secondary school teacher, an ecotherapist and an outdoors enthusiast. She relishes every opportunity to combine her two passions- enabling people to flourish and being in nature. This has lead her to work with vulnerable young people on a city farm, run wellbeing in the woods sessions for a mental health charity, and lead groups of young people on personal development hikes across Costa Rica and Iceland with Raleigh International and the British Exploring Society.
‘What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses their own soul.’
JOHN DEWEY, ‘EXPERIENCE AND EDUCATION’, 1938
I came into teaching fuelled by a desire to help young people reach their potential. However I quickly became disillusioned when I realised that my school prioritised academic achievement over (and often to the detriment of) staff and student wellbeing, and that this had lead my colleagues to abandon their moral compass and professional integrity in the pursuit of top results. With the school’s values at such odds with my own, and now feeling so distanced from my initial aim in becoming a teacher I started to not only question my purpose in school, but the purpose of school itself. Emotionally and physically exhausted, demoralised and deflated, I decided to leave. Perhaps this all sounds familiar?
But what if it didn’t have to be this way? What if schools weren’t just exam factories, but were interested in nurturing the whole child, in seeing them really flourish? What if students were to leave school feeling confident in their unique abilities and with a strong sense of their own values, purpose, and a feeling of connection and belonging to the world around them? What if all educators felt that their own wellbeing was also prioritised, and that their tireless efforts served a greater purpose than just numbers on a piece of paper? I wonder what would happen to staff retention? I wonder what our emerging workforce and leaders would be like? I wonder what the impact on our society would be?
Since leaving the classroom I have dedicated my time to deciphering what it means to flourish, and how we can encourage this, with the hope of making this ‘what if’ scenario a reality. Following in-depth research and enquiry into this very matter for my Master’s dissertation on Leadership for Wellbeing at UCL, as well as many personal experiences and training in nature connection practices and ecotherapy, I have developed ideas for how to remedy our schools that I’d like to share with you.
Question #1: What needs to change?
Short Answer: Bring wellbeing to the heart of education.
Slightly Longer Answer: Often, where schools fail to see the value of focusing on wellbeing is because they equate wellbeing purely to hedonic happiness. Defined in this way, schools would simply pander to whatever makes students feel good, risking academic rigour in the process (Ian Morris, Teaching Happiness & Wellbeing in Schools: Learning To Ride Elephants, 2015). This, of course, is not the solution.
To see real value, schools should equate wellbeing with flourishing, where flourishing is defined as feeling positive emotions (hedonic happiness) as well as functioning optimally (eudaimonic happiness). Flourishing thus defined doesn’t mean ignoring what makes you feel good. Quite the opposite! Both are required to keep each other in check; if left unbalanced, hedonia can lead to addiction and eudaimonia can lead to a workaholic lifestyle and exhaustion.
Looking at eudaimonia in more detail, it is described as living in accordance to your true self and striving for self-realisation. With this in mind, flourishing can therefore be summarised as the combination of feeling positive emotions, being true to yourself, and reaching your potential.
What’s more, this re-focussing doesn’t have to come at the expense of academic achievement. It has been proven that wellbeing, considered in this way, is linked to academic success, and it has also been proven that they are mutually beneficial! (Martin Seligman, ‘Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Wellbeing – And How To Achieve Them’, 2011)
Question #2: How can we enable students, and staff, to flourish?
Answer: I could go into detail about how we need to have a good look at and shake up school culture, to ensure that a focus on wellbeing is embedded within every part of the school, including and especially the belief system, as this is what will inform what everything else looks and feels like.
Perhaps this seems too big or radical a step, so I’ll start with the smallest and most effective step a school can take, one that is both relevant and achievable for teachers, school leaders, and students alike – becoming more connected to nature.
‘We are nature.
So losing touch with nature
is losing touch with ourselves.’
CLAIRE THOMPSON, MINDFULNESS & THE NATURAL WORLD. 2018
Let us revisit our tripartite definition of flourishing to see the transformative power of connecting to nature:
1. Feeling positive emotions.
Think of a place where you have felt most calm, at ease, and in awe…
No doubt most, if not all, of you will have pictured somewhere in the natural environment. The health benefits – mental and physical – of being in nature are well documented. We know that spending time in a natural landscape can reduce stress hormones and boost our feel-good serotonin levels, for example. ‘Biophilia’ – humanity’s intrinsic affiliation with nature – is hardwired within our DNA.
Flourishing is not just about reducing stress and neither is nature-connection just about spending more time outdoors; there is a greater depth to both, which I came to realise on my own journey. I was already a keen hiker and outdoor enthusiast before I started teaching; while being in the hills certainly helped regulate my emotional wellbeing, it was during a nature-connection retreat that I experienced what it was to have a deeper connection to nature, and its far-reaching, profound and life-changing benefits.
2. Being true to yourself.
The guiding that I received on this programme helped me to see that ‘as we connect with the Nature around us, we can’t help but connect more fully to the Nature moving within us,’ (Josh Lane, Conscious Nature: The Art & Neuroscience of Meditating in Nature, 2019). I became more self-aware, more connected to my emotions, my values, my environment, my whole self than ever before; I was filled with vitality.
3. Reaching your potential.
This, in turn, gave me clarity and drive, an intrinsic motivation to pursue what felt right for me both personally and professionally. It enabled me to flourish. For me it was a rite of passage, marking a transition of before and after, one that I wished I had experienced so many years before.
Imagine if this was how you felt about your job! Imagine if this were how your students felt about their education…
Let’s make this happen.
Here is an opportunity for students not to lose connection to their own soul in the pursuit of academic achievement, as Dewey feared. Here is an opportunity for the education system to be a place for students, and staff, to genuinely flourish: to feel good, and to gain self-knowledge rather than just academic knowledge.
During these times of global and individual uncertainty, a time where many of us face months of isolation and disconnection from nature, and from our sense of purpose and interconnectedness, I believe more than ever that we need to bring wellbeing to the heart of education, and for this to be facilitated through powerful and meaningful connection to nature.