About 6 months ago I was sat in a conference for Head Teachers about the wonderful world of Ofsted. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am mischievous with language patterns and really enjoy noticing people though their choice of language and metaphor. I was fascinated whilst walking into the venue the impact 6 little letters (Ofsted) could have on a room of highly educated, resilient and passionate people. I hung back in the entrance and watched people walk in. The closer they got to their seat, the lower their heads became, the more rounded their shoulders and, as they sat down and glanced over the literature, certain key words became word popcorn throughout the arena. “Nightmare… awful… battle… up against it… unfair… enemy…stress… murder… deceives…”. I was fascinated, especially when the key note speaker, who was an additional inspector, started their spiel with ‘what an awful time to be a Head Teacher’. I was saddened by the room’s collective acceptance that they were going to allow Ofsted and the current climate to overwhelm their emotional state and in essence spoil their whole day. What a way to live.
I then started thinking about my own school. How do we stay so positive? Because my staff are the most positive bunch of people you will ever meet. Well, it’s not by accident I must admit. I became Head at a time when the school had been through quite a bumpy journey and for the last 5 years we have layered a programme of Emotional Intelligence. I remember one of the first sessions we had – we looked at the brilliance of Ofsted. Granted initially when I started saying how excited I was by the thought of Ofsted and how I was looking forward to enabling the staff to shine, my staff really did look at me with a bemused expression. We wrote down all of the negative assumptions associated with Ofsted and all of the positive things which could come out of the Ofsted framework. Then we went into the playground (after school) and actually burned all of the negative mind maps and collectively agreed that the only language patterns that we would associate with Ofsted were positive ones. We stuck all of our positive mind maps on the staff room wall and practised visualising how we would be when Ofsted arrived. When the did come, it was commented on by the lead inspector what lovely, happy feeling the school had and how proactive the staff were in discussions with the team. We had no panics, no tears and everyone came out of the experience feeling good about the process of the day, rigorous as it was.
I think in our training one of the most powerful realisations was that emotions are contagious and that we can generally choose how we are to feel in any given situation. For instance, whilst observing Head Teachers in an Ofsted meeting, the ripple of negativity which spread across the room was very apparent. The more people shared their stresses and the more people massaged those negativities the more negative people became. My staff know that they have excellent strategies in controlling their mood, their outlook, their morale and ultimately their wellbeing. The staff understand that seeing any given challenge dispassionately and not having an emotional reaction prevents any downward spiral of unhelpful emotions and therefore behaviour.
Our most favourite phrase in school is ‘thinker thinks; prover proves’. If you think something will happen in a particular way then you are almost guaranteed that it will. For instance, imagine that you have a child who quite often chooses behaviour which doesn’t serve them well. I bet we can all remember conversations where a teacher has been overheard saying ‘oh I’ve got that child again, if he comes in with his attitude then he’s straight out… I’m not putting up with that today!’ In observing this member of staff you see their face tighten, their body language hunch, the tone of their voice lower and their micro movements on their face set to a particular grimace. So what is the first thing this particular child sees when they enter the room? They see an adult who is less than happy to see them and the child, feeling unwanted and stereotyped will quite often act in the way that is expected for no other reason than they know it gets them exited from the room. Then the teacher reinforces their map by saying ‘see, I knew he’d have an attitude’. I watched a very skilled practitioner with a similar child who the previous day had tipped over a few tables and thrown a few books around the classroom and sworn beautifully at the excellently emotionally intelligent teacher. The next day when the child came in, body language set to fight or flight, the teacher stopped what they were doing and immediately put their head up, walked over to the child and said ‘Oh Liam. How excellent it is to see you today. I can see that you are going to have an amazing lesson. I’m really excited to see all of the fabulous things you’re going to do. I’ve designed the learning around Pokémon as I know that you are a really skilled Pokémon catcher. Let’s have an amazing day!’ The child relaxed and had a much better lesson and despite having to be reminded about some behaviour choices, stayed engaged with the entire lesson.
Teaching is a very committed vocation and there can be times which test our resilience. In a time of change and moving goal posts I think the most valuable tool you can use in staying well and in love with your career is the constant reminder that we are in control of how we feel and we are not victim to our emotional state. The most liberating behaviour is the art of being self-led and realising that education will always change and that we will always be judged by one mechanism or another. The secret of staying in love with it all is reminding ourselves that we do this job on purpose and it is our choice not our burden. One of my favourite quotes is from Marcus Aurelius which states “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” A mantra I remind myself of daily.
Kate Chisholm is Head Teacher at Skerne Park Academy in Darlington