Poem

50 years alive.

The 13th of August 2019.

Unlucky 13 for some.

And sometimes has been for me.

The 13th birthday when I trapped my finger in a supermarket door

and lost the nail.

That 13th of August when my fantastic A level results made me cry because

they weren’t enough.

But superstition is a cunning strategy of the mind that helps us to find patterns and answers

when maybe there are none.

More lucky than unlucky without doubt.

Lucky particularly to be here after some other strategies of the mind that weren’t as cunning.

50 not out.

But remind me again of the rules of cricket….

Who’s winning?

I am, for sure.

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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. https://lire.amazon.fr/kp/embed?preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_yNodyb2G7M8DZ&asin=B01KP8XT86&reshareChannel=system&reshareId=E68M33PKD7RFF1C2339V

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. https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/why-we-need-to-teach-and-talk-about-mental-health-in-schools-for-researched-scotland-2018/

https://www.gtcs.org.uk/News/teaching-scotland/73-for-the-sake-of-all-look-after-yourself.aspx

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:

https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/06/25/mistakes/

https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2017/10/13/what-are-we-about/

https://nellflowersblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/19/bobby-and-emily/

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: https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/caring-professionalism-forcultureofwellbeingdginset-7-01-18/

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. https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/an-open-letter-to-mr-john-swinney/

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

 

 

Her voice

 

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Although she is almost fully formed, taller than me, supremely more intelligent and sophisticated at just the tail-end of fifteen, I sometimes hear her as if she were still a toddling babe.

A voice that spent its formative years immersed in Cumbrian sounds, so that it seemed, for a while, as if a “bath” was going to rhyme with a “hat”….until a move at nearly four, to a Hebridean Island where those influences were swiftly put aside in favour of a generic southern English.  In spite of twelve years since lived in Scotland, there is little to be heard of any Caledonian lilt, except, perhaps, when she sings in the school choir.

She has mastered Shakespeare’s Lady Capulet, knows every word from Hamilton and can put on Cockney or Glaswegian with the best.

Yet sometimes, in the midst of her articulate, diaphragmatically supported conversation, I hear that little girl. That voice which constantly questioned, sought out cuddles and put the world, irrevocably, to rights.

It throws me off guard, reminds me of where we once were….and makes me both excited and trepidatious about the stories it will go on to tell.

Photo credit: Steve Carter

Romeo and Juliet

Today was the last performance of “Romeo and Juliet”, which I had directed at school. Although I have been seconded out of school since Christmas, I carried on with the project. I am so glad that I did.

It was astonishing.

These are the words I said at the end:

Back in the autumn, I announced that this year‘s school play was going to be Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”.

“Ooh Mrs Carter.

Shakespeare. That’s ambitious!”

“Good luck with that!”

So why did I decide to choose this this play and go ahead, in spite of the challenges?

I chose this play precisely because it was ambitious. Because I know that when you are ambitious in your work with young people they live up to the ambition and they produce results just like the production we have seen this week.

I chose this play because we need to talk about the issues that the play brings up: we need to talk about teenage distress, about suicide and about the things that happen when we don’t listen to and love one another.

I chose this play because more than 400 years after his death, Shakespeare still has so much to teach us about life. The character in this play who perhaps appeals the most to me is Friar Lawrence because, in that scene where he talks to Romeo (after Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment), he is full of mindfulness and solution-focus, even when the worst has happened and Romeo wants to give up. He represents the type of adult that we need to be when our young people are facing challenges that the world throws at them.

And although in “Romeo and Juliet” we ultimately see two young people who tragically make irreversible decisions, what I want to show you now is the young people here who chose this play and have shown us in buckets what young people are capable of when we believe in them.

I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that drama literally saved my life when I was younger. believe fundamentally in the power of drama and the arts to bring out the best in our young people and this production shows why.

It has been an absolute privilege to work with this group and I’m incredibly grateful to them for their commitment, their team spirit, their care for each other and for me and for their massive enthusiasm.

 

Bowled over but not out.

I came off Twitter for a bit last week.

I’d been planning a digital detox for a while and I could pretend it was just about that.

But it wasn’t.

It was because I’d been made a fool of. A person who had been posing as a teacher-dad of a sick baby turned out to be a fake. I had sent him lots of supportive messages and DMs (as had many, many others) and the realisation that I had been duped made me feel shocked, sickened and ashamed.

I was not sure why it made me feel quite like it did at the time but I reacted by coming off Twitter and Facebook and even locking my Twitter account.

Since, I have had time to reflect.

I am very trusting and very forgiving. I am often too naïve. I want to see the best in everyone. I share a lot (maybe too much?) about myself and take the Tom Hanks quote about honesty to a bit of an extreme: “The only way you can truly control how you are seen is by being honest all the time”.

This has been a strength at times in my life but has also led me, at other times, to be abused and mistreated.

I have recently been doing some very intensive work about something that happened to me as a child and which has left me with a lifelong sense of shame and a tendency to dread and fear. The fact that I was duped by this hoaxer fed right into the victim role that I am trying to shake off and the timing was very unfortunate, in that it made me immediately knee-jerk into blaming myself and beating myself up.

Ok, I probably didn’t look carefully enough at the profile to realise that the story didn’t add up. I should have done.

But what real harm was done?

I didn’t send them any money or do or say anything that I regret.

For a while I thought about deleting my blogs, my accounts, my online presence. I started to question the merits of trying to be “authentic” and vulnerable online when in fact there is such an  inherent artificiality to the process.

But then I thought of all that I have gained through being connected online and through Twitter. As I have mentioned previously Twitter and blogging have helped me to connect with some incredible people, make genuinely friends and achieve things that would not have been possible without it.

And so I am not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The world of Twitter and online connection is not inherently bad.

The fact that I am trusting and want to help others is not wrong. That is what being a caring human being is about.

But sometimes others act in ways that are abusive, unkind or hurtful and when that happens we need to acknowledge it, call it out for what it is and fight back by being even more ferociously caring.

So if you want to connect or need a virtual hug, I’m still here.

Selfish selflessness

What motivates you?

I have been reflecting on motivation again. A lot of my work involves working out why children behave as they do…but it also often gets me looking at adult behaviours. My overthinking brain also (too?) often makes me reflect on why I behave in the ways I do.

Recently a friend told me that she does not believe that there is any such thing as genuine altruism.

A while back I was told by someone else….for the purposes of this post, I will call him Mr O….. that he believed my motivation was not driven by my moral compass but “something else”. Rather ominously, He did not elaborate on what that “something else” was….

As part of “Into Headship” we were made to think long and hard about our reasons for wanting to be leaders. We were given some amazing reading around the lessons that we can learn from history in relation to leadership; one of my favourite quotes was this:

‘We can all think of charismatic or transformational leaders whose purposes were inappropriate or immoral (e.g. Hitler)’ (Bush and Glover 2014, p 559).

Bush, Tony, and Derek Glover. “School leadership models: what do we know?.” School Leadership & Management 34.5 (2014): 553-571.

Over the last few months I have been thinking and worrying about this way too much. “When I SAY that I’m acting in the interests of children and young people, am I really?” “Why do I want to be in control?” Etc etc. Blah blah blah.

And then this morning I heard the brilliant nurse and poet Molly Case define it perfectly.

She spoke of her motivation being “selfish selflessness”; of the buzz she gets from caring for others and giving people a good experience of hospital and of treating people well.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00046rt

And suddenly I realised that my motivation is just that. It is about me but it is also about others.

And whilst “selfless selflessness” might be the ultimate goal, I think I can live with “selfish selflessness”. As long as I don’t ever slip into “selfish selfishness”….

Can I ask a favour? If you ever see me slipping that way, will you promise to tell me? Please don’t be like Mr O….

Healing

Three weeks ago I had a small accident. I had taken part in a local singing competition and, on leaving the stage, I slipped on the steps and landed on my back and arm. Adrenaline helped me to jump up and act as if nothing had happened but by the next morning I was in a lot of pain and hobbling significantly. A call to the GP resulted in a recommendation to keep moving and take painkillers but I was fairly certain that I had done myself some sort of major back injury. There was absolutely no bruising on my back and no evidence of any damage but I felt sore and very restricted in my movement.

My arm, on the other hand, was a very different matter. As well as significant throbbing, a large bruise soon sprang up. Like a child, I became slightly obsessed with showing it off and I was also pleased to have something to show after my body….and pride….had been injured.

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As humans I think we like to have something to show when we are in pain; a trophy mark that people can see so that we don’t have to talk or explain, unless we want to. The mere sight of a bad bruise is enough to elicit a flurry of reaction: “Ooh, that looks painful!” “You poor thing!” “You must have really hit the ground hard!”

This too explains why mental struggles, because of their invisibility, can sometimes cause us such difficulties. You can look “so well” on the outside but be struggling enormously on the inside;  there may be no emotional equivalent of the massive bruise to elicit empathy or understanding.

One of the hardest things for those suffering from anorexia can be the period after they have put on weight when people start to say “you look so much better” when in fact the thoughts and depression associated with the illness are still there. There is a fantastic campaign being led by Hope Virgo around this issue and I would strongly encourage you to sign her “Dump the Scales” campaign.

Three weeks on and the bruise has gone. This is amazing testimony to the body’s capacity to heal, when given time….and a bit of arnica and paracetamol. My back is much better too and had improved to such an extent that last week l managed to do two amazing walks along the West Highland Way with my son, albeit more slowly than I might have normally.

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Just as our bodies have the magical capacity to heal, our minds and emotions do too when they have been hurt. Sometimes we may need the equivalent of arnica or painkillers while our recovery takes place and, for some, medication is a much needed part of recovery. In addition, however, we need time and empathy while we recover; if and when we have the courage to expose our psychological bruises, we need people who will accept that we are in the process of healing and will understand that we maybe need to walk a bit more slowly for a while.

I still have a tiny bump under the surface of the skin on my arm; it serves to remind me that I am not fully healed and that if I press too hard on that spot, it hurts.

One day soon, that will be gone too.

This book about healing will be free to download on Kindle tomorrow, Sunday 14th April.

https://read.amazon.co.uk/kp/embed?asin=B01KP8XT86&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_yNodyb2G7M8DZ&reshareId=98ZW7VHFE86SNCKBF9EV&reshareChannel=system