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.