The mental health of our schools.

I have been long fascinated by and committed to supporting children, young people and adults to be mentally healthy.

I like to use the world health organisation  definition of mental health, which, in my opinion, de-pathologises the conversation about what we are trying to do when we work to engender good mental health in our communities and our societies.

“Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

My own interest in this field comes probably from the fact that I have sometimes struggled to realise my potential, occasionally failed to cope with the normal stresses of life and quite often wondered how best to make a positive contribution. I still struggle. I still find it hard to know what I really feel or think and I am often overwhelmed by the shoulds and oughts that I have adhered to over decades. But as my 6th decade looms on the horizon, I am doing better.

I have written a book about my experiences and although, at first, I wrote under a pen name, I now acknowledge that I am Nell.

The reason? Because I feel that there is an innate hypocrisy in telling people about how to manage their lives unless we acknowledge the difficulties we have faced in our own.

Recently I seem to have become a “voice” on the subject, with invitations to speak and write on how schools can be mentally healthy places for both pupils and staff.

I both love this and feel a huge sense of accomplishment but I also still hear the sabotaging voices who ask me what the hell I know about it, who on earth I think I am and why, if I am so bloody good, I’m not THE voice on the subject.

I have very strong opinions on what it would take for schools to be truly mentally healthy. My blogs are full of suggestions:

But my post sometimes generate hostile reactions from teachers who say that “schools can’t do it all” and that we can’t be expected to do the work of CAMHS and social work as well as deliver the curriculum and get pupils through exams.

I know that we can make our classrooms and schools more mentally healthy.  Because I have done it. As a class teacher, as a head of department and as a head of secondary, I created learning environments where the message that I cared about every child as a person was paramount. A lot of the relationships I built were through teaching drama and doing school productions, but even when I was head of a modern languages faculty and teaching French and German, I had the same quality of relationships.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not always a calm, easy going person on the inside and have to work incredibly hard on some days to make it appear as if I am on the outside. I think that the effort of doing that for over twenty five years has taken its toll. I am not a teacher who many pupils have as their favourite, or is particularly cool. But I am a teacher who provides children with consistency, care and the permission to make mistakes and come back from them with a clean slate as many times as it takes.

My biggest struggle in schools has been working with other adults who can’t or don’t work in the same way. Adults who are driven by different motives. Adults who see education as crowd control or a way to earn a living. Adults who take out their anger or frustrations on children. Adults who lie. Adults who bully.

Many schools have them and it can be hard to know what to do when you are faced with them. My solution tends to be to write pieces like this and hope that maybe they read them, recognise themselves and reflect on how they might change. Or at least talk to me to explain their values and motivations.

I wish I’d sometimes had the courage to be like an amazing secondary school leader whom I heard speak at a conference recently. He said that his message to staff who won’t work in a genuinely compassionate way is to look for a job elsewhere because he has no place for them in his school. Why have I sometimes lacked this courage? If I am honest, it is because I suppose I always hope that adults, like children, might wipe the slate clean and change. Old dogs can sometimes learn new tricks. It also be hard to address issues when faced with the argument that you are the one in the wrong and that some children need “firmness rather than a soft approach” and “I have proof of this from my thirty years in this school.” Don’t get me wrong. As a younger teacher, I sometimes used to raise my voice if a pupil had made me angry/made me look stupid/disrupted my class. And sometimes a strategic shout seemed to work. But then I read a piece that suggested that if shouting at a pupil seems to “work” then it is because they are likely to be experiencing shouting and possibly worse verbal abuse at home.

When would you accept being shouted at by a GP, shop assistant or bus driver? So why might we ever accept teachers shouting at pupils?

I can honestly say that I have not raised my voice at a pupil or class for at least 10 years, other than to alert them to danger.

And having become, in last the last six months, my authority lead for the UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools programme, I KNOW that we should be pushing for all schools to say “no” to shouting.

Maybe it is asking too much for some teachers to be otherwise when they have so much to do, increasing deadlines and salaries that don’t align with those of other professionals.

But maybe it is more about the fact that schools aren’t the easiest places to build genuinely caring environments, particularly secondary schools with their strangely segmented days, ever-shifting social groupings and regimented choreographing of unique individuals who are desperate to rebel, to take risks and to be at the same time cringingly conformist and supremely creative.

Of course Ken Robinson said this a long time ago and numerous grass roots groups continue to do so:

But until we have decision makers at the top who are willing to accept that the measure of a good school is about so much more than its exam results and that measuring the well-being of children can’t be done easily and without adults knowing those in their care really well, then we are setting ourselves up to fail. A questionnaire that asks a child how they are feeling is simply not enough.

A long time ago, when I was training in Dramatherapy and Counselling Skills, I would be met with a strange scepticism and suspicion from others when they discovered that I was a teacher. I soon came to realise that a lot of therapists and counsellors found schools difficult places to work in as their structures were fundamentally un-therapeutic. Worse than that, it seemed as if much of the caseload of your average therapist seemed to involve dealing with and trying to find resolution around issues that had resulted from the school experiences of both children and adults.

It was partly because of this that I decided not to leave education and become a therapist, but to try and stay in teaching and become a more therapeutic teacher.

We have come a long way since then. There are many schools, particularly primary, who are doing an amazing job at helping children to grow up mentally healthy. In Scotland, the league-table and OFSTED culture of England, where brilliant staff are sacked and schools are closed because of a dip in SATS or GCSE results is not a factor to worry about……yet.

But let’s not be complacent and think that there isn’t a lot more we could be doing to ensure that schools are places that promote, rather than prevent, mental health. Let’s remember and take heed of the compelling and powerful words of Dr Karen Treisman in her brilliant Ted Talk:

”ALL relationships ‘are the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind’… because relationships, shape who we are.” – Dr Karen Treisman



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