When somebody else verbalises the thoughts you’ve been pondering for a while, it’s an enlightening experience. I had the privilege of watching Andy Cope (@BeingBrilliant) deliver a keynote presentation this morning and the key, very refreshing, message is that happiness is a myth. It sounds depressing but actually, what he suggests is that we’ve bought into a myth that happiness is just something we’ll achieve if… if what…?
- If we lose a few pounds?
- If we upgrade the car?
- If we land the promotion?
- If we get good results?
- If we have a successful Ofsted?
By buying into this myth, we’re actually depriving ourselves of valuing the here and now by continually waiting for the time when we’ll have ticked off all the happiness criteria. It’s a myth because no sooner have you achieved the ‘I’ll be happy when…’ target, something else takes its place.
In some ways, teaching ‘to do’ lists can fall into the same place. We’ve heard them all (and have probably said a few ourselves):
- I’ll only mark another 10 books
- I’ll just plan another 2 lessons
- I’ll just call another 2 parents
- I’ll just write another reward postcard
- I’ll just fill in another intervention form
This isn’t a uniquely teaching problem. Whether we write them down or keep them in our heads, the rise of ‘being busy’ means we can become slaves to our ‘to do’ lists. Listening to Andy talk reinforced something I feel strongly about: the reality is that you’ll never tick everything off, you’ll never clear everything and feeling bad for having a life because some other miserable sod has uploaded a picture of their holiday marking pile in a humblebrag fashion with a superficially ironic comment about ‘what a great start to the holidays’ is no way to give your health and well-being a little bit of TLC.
I spend a lot of time talking to people about being the change you want to see. Each time somebody signs into school 3 days in the holiday at the crack of dawn or sends emails at 11pm, talks about endless holiday sessions they’re running or fills their personal social media pages with work stuff, the implicit messages they are trying to send are ‘Look how dedicated I am’, ‘This is a sign of how much I care about my students’ and ‘If I can manage all of this, why can’t you?’ It’s not a question of can’t. And the reality is if you’re working until 11pm and all through the holidays, then that’s not dedication – it’s insanity. In fact, it’s the work equivalent of those irritating ‘check-ins’ into A&E that scream ‘Ask me more about this. Please. Ask me!’ Not only does it suggest that they’re craving validation and external praise (preferably from people further up the organisational structure), it creates a bar that could be used to hit colleagues with who – understandably – might need some downtime to balance with the excellent job they do.
If we’re going to take the art of being brilliant (to steal from his book) and apply it to schools, the first thing that needs to be binned is workplace martyrdom and the race to the bottom: who’ll do the most extra, who’ll go the extra mile, who’ll do the whole damn marathon and share a picture of them doing it (or the professional equivalent of cc-ing everybody in sight into totally innocuous emails). Remember, we don’t know what’s going on in our colleagues’ lives and if we want to be great leaders – because all teachers are leaders – then we need to create a culture of well-being and happiness and pull people along with us, not create a culture of competition. Culture is key to happiness.
For that reason, I post about having a break, enjoying spending a day walking with my husband and I advise all of my trainee teachers to switch off and not get sucked into the ‘to do’ list culture. I love seeing photos from teaching friends who’ve gone mountain biking, or have been volunteering with Girl Guides or have taken their dogs for long evening strolls on a beach. Surrounding myself with teachers and support staff who value their well-being creates a culture of a life outside of the working bubble, where it’s acceptable to don leggings and sign up to a charity wineathlon, run local 5/10k runs or zipwire off a local landmark (all true examples). These teachers know that (to steal a metaphor from earlier), happiness isn’t an enchanted reward at the end of the rainbow; it’s a state of mind and it starts now.
When all is said and done, most teachers are dedicated professionals who care immensely about their students and their school communities and it’s for this reason that resetting our perception of happiness is key. Happiness starts now. It starts with looking after yourself. It starts by getting rest, by having hobbies and nurturing your home life. Happy, healthy teachers will shine in the classroom and get the best outcomes for everybody.