Find your bliss and act on it, for the benefit of all your learners

Being an associate with Education Support Partnership is a privilege and pleasure in so many ways. As associates we get to work with schools that want to improve the wellbeing and engagement of their staff. As Richard Branson so brilliantly puts it, ‘If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple’.

Very recently, I was working one Monday in a special school in the north of England, when I was invited to sit with the children to eat my lunch.

It really was a very special school as each of the children who sat around me had been taught how to introduce themselves and then ask me ‘And what did you enjoy this weekend?’

It was a truly lovely lunchtime talking about the inevitable Pokemon Go and me explaining my passion for sheds and about going apple picking with family and friends.

But it got me thinking about a wellbeing session I led called ‘Survive and Thrive’ for a group of NQTs in London a few weeks ago. At the start of the session, I’d asked the group to ‘share a joy’ with someone on their table. Something that they’d done at the weekend that had made them smile. At the end of the session, a young teacher came up to me and thanked me for the very practical tips she’d taken away, but with tears in her eyes asked me to repeat our free helpline number. She said that after just a few weeks in the job, she’d found it impossible to find a joy as she had spent every evening and weekend planning, marking and mostly worrying.

I wondered how she would have been able to answer honestly if she’d sat down to lunch with her children on a Monday and they’d asked what she’d enjoyed at the weekend. Would the tears have welled in her eyes again?

Being a role model for our students

Whether we like it or not, we are role models for the children we work with. They are our ‘customers’ and look to us to learn how to learn, how to behave, how to engage with life.

If we as educators lose the joy, the sense of purpose and the balance in what we do, then we also lose the ability to authentically teach our children how they might do that for themselves.

One of the key components of the leadership coaching we offer, is the need to be as authentic as possible in order to give our best selves to our school. We also talk about finding a joy, a ‘bliss’, a passion that has nothing at all to do with school.  All of us need something to replenish and refresh our minds and bodies and which balances the effort and exertion of what we do for others. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what evenings, weekends and holidays were designed for.

All this can be dismissed as common sense, perhaps, but as the saying goes; the trouble with common sense is that it’s not always that common.  One of the most frequent bits of feedback that we get as associates is that it feels like we give people permission again to look after themselves. Our job is to make the common sense just that little bit more common.

Rediscovering the joy of the job

The other key area we like to work on with school staff is in finding their way back to the joy and purpose in what they do. It’s a hard enough job to do without it becoming joyless too. As the great Confucius so wisely said ‘Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to do a day’s work in your life’. In my mind, the difference between stress and joy is this: stress is when you are working flat out for something you don’t totally see the purpose of. Joy is when you are working flat out and you totally see the purpose of what you are doing. To me, that’s the big difference between surviving and thriving.

One of the favourite exercises I do with school staff to help re-engage them with their core purpose is to ask them what attracted them to work in education in the first place. I rarely hear people say that is was to get rich. More often than not, they mention an inspirational, or a joyful teacher; someone who had a passion for life and an engagement with their subject and their pupils that made them want to work in education themselves. It doesn’t take long for them to realise that I am going to ask them the next obvious questions: ‘What’s stopping you from being that person yourself? What are your pupils going to remember you for in ten or twenty year’s time?’ Often it is just the littlest prompt people need to give themselves permission to reconnect and re-engage with their work.

At this point, it seems entirely appropriate for me to mention one of my own inspirational teachers, Ken Rigby at Tywardreath Primary School, Cornwall in the 1970s.

I remember nothing whatsoever about his lesson planning, his marking or his probable worrying about us at times. I do remember his stories of sailing off the coast, stories of his time with his family and his great passion for living a life fulfilled. I wonder who gave him permission to do all that and still be a teacher, or if he just did it himself?

It doesn’t matter that I don’t remember the detail of Ken’s teaching. It does matter that I remember the way he taught me how to live and find my bliss. There’s a quote about the emotional wake we each leave behind us; like the wake behind a boat as it passes through water. It goes ‘They won’t remember what we said, they won’t remember what we did, but they will remember how we made them feel’.

Thanks for reading and helping me remember great teachers like Ken Rigby. I’m off to read a book in the shed for a while now. Or maybe follow my kids out to play Pokemon Go somewhere. Or look through magazines for fabulous houses I’ll never be able to afford.

Bliss. Any bliss, it’s your choice.

Whatever kind of a week you’ve had, for goodness sake, make sure you have a good weekend. Or a night off. You’ll be much more interesting when you sit next to your class at lunch on Monday.

Alex Bell is the National Associate Coordinator at Education Support Partnership, fellow of Royal Society of the Arts, experienced leadership coach, mentor and speaker and a former primary school headteacher.