Trust in me..and in you.

Three short years ago, I made a decision to try and change some of the behaviours and coping strategies that I had developed over many years.

I was once again faced with that dreaded time of the year when we are expected to set New Year’s resolutions, make big promises and set out our vision for a “New Year, New You.”

But I realised that trying to change Me was not actually what was needed; instead, I needed to try and unpick some of the habits that were getting in the way of me being me. 

Just like we need to look at the behaviour of a child as something separate from the child (“I love you but I don’t love your behaviour right now”) and a form of communication or coping method, so too I needed to look at my behaviours and motivations with a new honesty.

Why did I need to do this? Because the life I was leading was a struggle. Because it was lacking in joy and characterised too often by fear, anxiety and sadness. Because I realised that it didn’t have to be like that.

Back then I started the process with a short piece of reflection which I buried deep in my phone notes and felt deeply ashamed for even committing to electronic paper:

“I feel:

I can’t do it any more because I’m too broken and can’t ever be fixed.

I know:

I can and I’m not and things can be broken and still go on working.

I feel:

I have no friends.

I know:

I do have good friends.

I feel:


I know:

I have worth and can offer a lot.

I feel:

Everything is wrong.

I know:

Lots of things are right.

I feel:


I know:

I am not disgusting.

I feel:

No-one understands me.

I know:

No-one ever can fully understand me but I can understand myself.

I feel:

Like the worst spouse and parent in the world.

I know:

I am a good spouse and parent.

I feel:

Like I don’t want to be here.

I know:

That I do want to be here.

I feel:


I know:

That I am exhausted but can get through it.

I feel:

Like I have to keep going.

I know:

That I have to rest.

I feel:


I know:

I have been and can be happy.

And I also know I can feel joyous, excited, loving, spontaneous and proud.

What I know will get me through and help me to fight the feelings when they visit.

Let this serve to remind me….

#hopefor2016 .”

As I look at this, three years on, I have to admit that on some days, the feelings are still stronger than the knowings and there are times when the sadness, anxiety and fear overwhelm me. But I can also say categorically that they are fewer and further between than back then. And I intend for them to get even more so (or is that less so?!)

I can’t pretend that the last three years have been easy. Unpicking over 40 years of learnt and well-practiced behaviours takes effort and time.

I ended up writing a book to help me with the process. At first, I did so under a pen name and shared it cautiously and in trepidation but after some positive feedback, I became braver and shared the book as me. Looking back, this was quite a risk to take; as someone in a senior role in education, it was perhaps foolhardy to share some of my innermost fears, vulnerabilities and struggles with a world that includes both the young people with whom I work, and their families, as potential readers.

I am aware that there are jobs I won’t get in the future because of what I have done. I am aware that there are people who find what I have written distasteful and self- indulgent.

And of course, in many ways, it is completely self-indulgent. The reality is that I needed to indulge myself, to write therapeutically and to find some answers to some questions.

My answers won’t be yours. I still haven’t found all the answers yet and I am still writing, reading, connecting and exploring to try and find them. But more things make sense to me now than they did three years ago.

If you are reading this and you are struggling, wondering whether you can ever feel better, asking whether there is any point to keeping going, please know that there is.

Please know that there are better times ahead if you are willing to take a few risks, take some time and accept that you are the one person you need to make peace with, above all others.

You are all you need but you don’t have to do it alone.



Happy Christmas


I love Christmas. I love the idea of Christmas because it is about family and love and generosity and forgiveness and celebration.

The real me is immeasurably excited about Christmas and always has been.

But the voice of the real me and my true self have sometimes been drowned out by voices that are not welcome in my head. Voices that try to sabotage my spirit, my passion for connection and my life force.

Every single one of us is born with an excitement for life and a need to love, trust and connect. 

Sometimes things happen to us that mean we can’t connect with that excitement. Sometimes people act in ways that shatter our trust and make us question our ability to love and connect.

Sometimes this can leave us in the paralysing position where we can’t make decisions based on our own needs and values but instead find our thoughts, emotions and actions driven by the voices of others.

Decisions bring panic. There seems to be no right answer. 

And so we adopt coping strategies that help us to survive. We allow the “shoulds” and “oughts” of society to drive our decisions, even though they may not align with our true values and beliefs. 

Or we find that the voice of Mr Anxiety, though a bully and not really our friend, gives us motivation that stems from fear and our most primal and instinctive survival system: “if you don’t do that, the world will end”;  if you don’t try harder, it will be a disaster”; “if you even think of doing that, you’re dead.”

And if not Mr Anxiety, then his close friend and ally Ms Depression will bring equally harmful but at the time helpful ways of making decisions and getting through the day: “Don’t bother getting up because you are such a useless piece of rubbish that it isn’t worth it”; “Don’t even try to say that because nothing you say is think is valuable”; “Don’t go today because those people don’t even like you. What’s actually to like?”

If we are really unlucky then these voices draw on the help of the third evil superpower, Lord Addiction, who will help them ensure that we develop some sort of physical dependence that drives us and our behaviour and creates another barrier to us connecting back with our true needs and wants. He has a long list to chose from when he casts his addiction spell: alcohol, drugs, gambling, eating, dieting, work…. and on and on.

Some years back I decided to write a book to help me make sense of my battles with decision making over the years and to try and find a way of better achieving what the World Health Organisation defines as a state of mental health:

“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.”

I also wrote the book to try and help others who may be experiencing similar things. Quite a few people have read it now and the feedback has been very positive. There are some review on Amazon, if you are interested.

If you are dreading Christmas, maybe you could take some time to read it.

But if not, please know, from someone who has been there, that Christmas does not have to be a time of dread.

It is a time of love.

You are worthy of love and you deserve a Happy Christmas.

Those negative voices in your head are not welcome at your table and you can tell them to leave.

Not every voice or every person is worthy of your love.

There are words, songs and people out there who can help you know and feel this. Don’t be alone.

Take back the excitement and joy of Christmas…and of life…for you. 

As I say to the children I work with: You are the only person guaranteed to be there for you til the end of your days…make sure that you get the relationship with your true self right and you will have everything you need.

Happy Christmas.

The Kiss


This a post I have been pondering for a while.

“Baby, say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah
And let me kiss you”
From Kiss Me by One Direction.

Let me say up front that I will say things that some may not like. I have said many of the things before in other places and sometimes caused a little controversy.

A while back I was on a mini break with my lovely 14 year old daughter. We had booked into a hotel in a large city and I was delighted to see that the hotel was also hosting a conference for children with learning difficulties and their parents, although my daughter wryly noted that even on holiday I seem to find things that remind me of work. Inclusion is one of my favourite topics:

At one point during our stay, we found ourselves in the queue for the lift with a father and teenage son who were there for the conference.
Immediately I saw a twinkle in the son’s eye as he saw my beautiful girl and soon he began to talk to her, asking her name. Immediately I saw her tense and flush, in the way that she does when spoken to by any stranger, before replying in a quiet and forcedly cheerful voice.

I stepped in, asking the boy his name and making chit-chat, sensing that his dad appreciated that.
The lift journey was short but why happened next took us by surprise. The boy put his arm around my girl. I saw her tense, look at me in a panic and I heard his dad ask the boy to let go.
For a moment we all stood, me keeping eye contact with my girl but above all, keeping calm.
In the dad’s voice I sensed that underlying tone of desperate hope that his child would make the right choices but also fear that he might not, that the control he was trying to exert as an adult might not serve its purpose.

Have you been that parent of the toddler in the supermarket who has suddenly turned from biddable and smiley to resistant and angry? Do you remember that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when you know that you aren’t in charge any more and no end of cajoling is going to stop those bottles/loaves/sweets (delete as appropriate) coming off that shelf and onto the floor?

Have you been that teacher of the pupil with anger issues who has suddenly turned from biddable and smiley to resistant and angry? Do you remember that sinking feeling you get in your stomach when you know that you aren’t in charge any more and no end of cajoling is going to stop those swear-words/punches/roars (delete as appropriate) from being released?

I could see that the boy’s dad was experiencing that sinking feeling.

A moment later and the boy had planted a kiss on the flushed, panicky cheek of my girl.

Something more was said by the dad and at that moment the lift reached our floor. I took my girl’s hand, said a bright “nice to meet you, enjoy the rest of your day” and we left the lift.

“I’m sorry” I said, as we walked the hotel corridor. “I can see that that was really uncomfortable for you. But I really don’t think he wanted to make you feel like that.”

“But mum, it’s not ok! I don’t understand why his dad didn’t do more to stop him!”

I tried to explain. I tried to explain that maybe the dad knew that any more of an attempt to stop his boy could have led to an outburst in a small enclosed space that he would have wanted to avoid at all costs.

And I explained that I was 100% certain that the dad would have spoken to his son after we had gone.

I imagine that the conversation would have gone something like this:
“Hey, remember how we have talked about not touching and kissing people unless they have said we can?”
“Yeah dad. But she told me her name and her mum talked to me.”
“Yes but that didn’t make it ok for you to hug and kiss her.”

Boy thinks: “but why wouldn’t she want me to hug and kiss her? I look like Harry today… cool and with my best jeans and t-shirt. “Baby, say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah
And let me kiss you.””

Boy says: “ok dad”.

I know that my girl will take a long time to forget what happened in that lift. I know that she feels let down by the adults. But I also know that by having talked about what happened and having acknowledged her feelings, we have mitigated against it causing her ongoing worry and distress.

Some will see this as a story of assault.
Others will see it as a story of helping children to learn about situationally appropriate behaviours.

I am not sure how I see it.

“Education is everything. We can’t and shouldn’t simplify it and talk in terms of it being the job of either teachers or parents. We need to accept that our job, as adults, is to be honest with children and to help them negotiate the complexity ahead. It is our job to develop in each child the skill to know and understand himself, the tools to express herself and the strategies to meet challenges along the way. And it is our job to talk openly and honestly so that, if and when bad things happen, children know to talk about them so that they do not become a source of guilt, a life-stealing force, a legacy of hidden pain and shame.” Nell Flowers. The Story of My Self.

I share this story with my lovely girl’s permission.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Book Review. The Ten Traits of Resilience by James Hilton. Published by Bloomsbury.



Those who read my blog regularly will know that I think and write a lot about school leadership. I also read a great deal about leadership and am particularly intrigued by the idea of sustainable leadership. Last month, I spoke at a Pedagoo event about how to stay, survive and thrive in teaching and leadership by drawing on instruments of personal power:

I also did a condensed version of this talk in a Leadmeet at the #womened Unconference this Saturday.

But I will confess that I am personally still in need of a little help in ensuring that I can keep going in leadership into my fifties…..which start next August the 13th. More of that later.

I have noticed some well-being warning signs of late and as I approached the Scottish October holidays which started this week, I knew that I would need to take some time to stop and reflect.

One of the instruments of power mentioned in my talk and post above was James Hilton’s brilliant book “Leading From the Edge” which I reviewed back in August:

Imagine my delight, then, when, a couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of James’ latest book “Ten Traits of Resilience”.

In the book, James says that he is not superstitious, having lived in a number 13 house for many years. I have to confess that, having been born on the 13th, I’m also unfazed by that number, but that I do believe in serendipity and the power of the universe to give us things when we are in need.

The arrival of this book through the letterbox exemplifies the meeting of such a need.

James has skilfully identified the 10 balloons with which we keep our basket comfortably aloft as we navigate the terrain of school leadership and avoid either spiralling off into the ether, or crashing to the ground: A sense of purpose ; Optimism; Trust; Courage; Decisiveness; Asking for help ; A sense of fun; Curiosity; Taking care of yourself and Turning adversity into opportunity. 

The book is a brilliant mix of advice based on James’ own extensive experience as a school leader, as well as ideas and guidance offered by other accomplished leaders such as Patrick Ottley-Connor, Viv Grant, Ross Morrison-McGill and Kim Johnson. In another serendipitous piece of timing, I met Pat in real life at the Unconference on Saturday (having known him virtually for some time) and so have been able to “hear” his voice while reading his words in the book over the last few days. If you can manage to find a way of meeting him at some point, I would strongly recommend it. He completely lives up to his fabulous reputation!

The huge power in this book comes from the fact that it does not just offer advice but it also makes you work and think around the ideas offered through practical activities and tasks that have to be completed as part of your engagement with the book. James has clearly put a lot of time and effort into devising these exercises and I would insist that, unless you commit to completing them, you will not gain the full benefit from the book. I would also suggest that you do them in pencil so that you can go back and update them as needed.

James has also selected quotes and pieces of wisdom from experts in leadership beyond education and these are peppered throughout the book to add seasoning and spice that activate our reflective tastebuds.

My two favourites are these:

“If you believe it will work out, you’ll see opportunities. If you believe it won’t, you will see obstacles” from Dr Wayne Dyer


“A sense of humour is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done” from Dwight D Eisenhower.

I have discovered over the years that I am a somewhat unusual combination of Eeyore and Tigger but that I am a better leader and human when I let myself laugh, bounce and use humour to combat some of my black dog (or grey donkey) ruminations.  My lovely and hugely perceptive daughter recently pointed out to me that she has not seen as much of the relaxed and funny side of me lately and I know that I have some work to do on getting my sense of humour back.

The thing I love most about this book is that James writes in a style that is hugely readable yet backed up with evidence, science and research.

His honesty in relation to his own personal journey and challenges means that the reader instinctively feels a sense of connection and (number three on the list of crucial factors) trust in him and his wisdom.

If you want to stay in leadership and get the most from the best job in the world, read this book.

As James says: “You make a difference. Never forget that! You possess the ten traits of a successful school leader but we all need to give those balloons a little boost of inflation from time to time.”

The Ten Traits of Resilience by James Hilton is published by Bloomsbury.


Yesterday I attended my first #womened #unconference.

I have been involved virtually with Womened for at least two years now and have been working away with others in Scotland to raise the profile and mobilise the movement North of the border. In May 2017 we had a regional networking event ( have been connecting via the @womenedscotland handle since.

This time last year I had planned to go to the Unconference but events conspired against me.

And so this year I was determined to go.

Last week I almost had to pull out as I have been so utterly exhausted in the build up to our October holiday that I thought I’d never make the drive. But then my incredible fourteen year old daughter came to the rescue and suggested that she come with me for moral and navigation support and that we make a start-of-the-holiday mini break out of it….

So yesterday I was in the room, thanks to her support and collaboration.

What a day.

I met (in many cases for the first time) so many amazing people with whom I have formed virtual but very meaningful and supportive connections over the last two years including :

Amy Jeetley

Anoara Mughal

Kiran Satti

Jaz Ampaw Farr

Jill Berry

Patrick Ottley Connor

Pran Patel

Maria Alexander O Neill

Vivienne Porritt

Jules Daulby

Hannah Wilson 

Carly Waterman

Alison Kriel

I had many hugs and shed a few tears.

The days started with snippets of inspiration and authenticity from the regional #womened leaders who talk about their journeys and their why. 

The messages that stuck with me were:

There is incredible power in collaboration;

Womened can help you to be your authentic self;

Enable your self to enable others; be kind;

Promote and support one another;

Be sisterful;

Perfectionism does not serve us;

What you do is enough.

Then onto keynote from the incredible Alison Kriel. I first heard Alison last July at the Oxfordshire regional event and was so excited to hear again. Messages from Alison that resonated with me were:

The further up you go, the lonelier it can become but there is no point in flying high on your own;

Stop seeking the approval of others;

The only person who can give you permission is you;

The power of the collective and of collaboration will take away the isolation;

We must agree collectively to be the change we want to see in the world and we must rise together;

We are all strong, remarkable and amazing.

And so, of course,  is Alison. 

I then volunteered to do a seven minute leadmeet talk to replace someone who had dropped out at the last minute; although it was rushed and perhaps a mistake to try and fit a twenty minute talk into seven, I did my best and got across some of what I’d said at a recent Pedagoo event across (

Above all I tried to say that it is possible to survive and thrive in teaching and leadership, if we find our own personal instruments of power and stick to our values.

Once more I spoke of mine and once more I was reminded of my why:

  • Everyone must be willing to self-reflect and learn.
  • We don’t shout at others.
  • We all get things wrong and need to be able to apologise when we do.
  • We are all human and being in a position of authority does not mean you are better than anyone else.
  • Everyone needs to take time to see the reality of a situation and not fall into making judgements based on half-truths, prejudice or stereotypes.
  • Everyone is worthy of love.

It was such a privilege to hear the other speakers in the leadmeet telling their stories of leadership and I was struck by the resonances and shared messages that we communicated, in spite of our different settings, ages and backgrounds:

Amanda Pearce Burton spoke about how we need to reflect and take time if we are to be the best we can be as educators;

Collette Rowley Clifford spoke about the incredible power of mindfulness to bring calm to our frenetically busy lives;

Bethanie Lord talked about working in a girls’ school and finding ways to empower the pupils to find their voices and address some of the difficult challenges that they face as females;

Nerys Blower spoke about being her self and allowing herself the permission not to put on an act for others ;

Naomi Francis spoke about her campaign to keep languages alive, celebrated and taught in schools so that our children don’t lose vital expressive and, communicative and economically crucial skills.

And the ever-inspiring Jules Daulby finished by showing us why she isn’t in the least bit crap.

Next we went to a session with the wonderful Charmaine Roche on using coaching in a meaningful and authentic way in schools to help people flourish. A woman after my own heart and soul, I could have listened to Charmaine for hours and I would love to get her to come and help me answer her closing question in my setting:

Where are and how can you open up more generative conversations and increase the share of flourishing in your corner of the world?

Lunch saw delicious food and an impromptu coaching session for Daisy and I, with Patrick Ottley Connor using Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations methodology. I have known Patrick online for some time and his generosity of support, positivity and huge expertise have always struck me; his IRL (in real life) self is just the same as his virtual persona. As one of the advocates of #heforshe, he does an incredible job.

After lunch I was filled with emotion and huge admiration as I attended Maria Alexander O Neill’s session on Leading Your Own Way.

Maria and I connected two years ago through WomenEd and a shared commitment to promoting teacher and pupil wellbeing. Suffice to say that we have been through some ups and downs together and provided one another with support but we have also found a connection through shared experiences that (I hope Maria would agree) has resulted in a really special relationship.

To meet Maria IRL for the first time was a bit strange as I already felt as if we were soul sisters but to hear her talking just served to re-enforce this. 

Maria spoke honestly and passionately about the journey she has been on and the experiences that have shaped her as she has come to find personal and professional authenticity, wellbeing and to define her sense of self.

She told us with warmth, humour and love of some of the challenges that had resulted in her becoming lost and losing sight of the role model she needed to be for her children and she shared the practical, science and research based tools that have helped her to create a route – map to her authentic self.

I was in awe and inspired and I know that Maria had a huge impact on everyone who attended her session.

Next up were meetings of regional groups but as I was the only delegate from Scotland at the conference, I simply arranged with Hannah Wilson that we will connect soon and arrange for her to come to Scotland so that we can arrange an WomenEdScotland event in the spring to coincide with International Womens’ Day. Christine, Susan, Caradh, Elizabeth, Linda, Mandy, Joyce, Gillian, Charlaine, Sarah, Lynne, Lynda, and Natalie…get ready!

This freed up a bit of time but serendipity meant that I bumped into Pran at this point and had a fantastic conversation about the work he has been doing and our shared commitment to equalities and diversity education. It was quite funny as we spent a bit of time trying to remember when and how we had connected virtually before remembering that we have a shared experience of living with and writing about mental health challenges. Pran is a very special man and educator and I am determined to get him to come to Scotland and share his passion, experience and values there.

Last up were closing words from Keziah and Vivienne about the soon-to-be- launched Womened Book, annual Gendered Cheese updates from Jules and a final keynote from Christine Quinn. I had never met or heard Christine before but her powerful, intelligent and inspiring words left me in no doubt as to the power of us working together to change the world:

“How and why do we collaborate in a time of ambiguity? Because we need to make sure that the world works for everyone.”


What a day.

Jaz has written and spoken before before about the fact that we can sometimes feel like lone lunatics in the world, disconnected from those around us who maybe don’t share or don’t vocalise the same passions or values.

I have written about sometimes feeling like a wise but old and tired giraffe in the middle of a herd of zebra. 

Yesterday I found my giraffe herd. Some of us were Reticulated and some were Rothschild’s, some Kordofan and some Masai but we all shared the same values, beliefs and passion.

I didn’t feel the need to wear stripes but instead I showed my real self in front of the other delegates and perhaps most importantly in front of my own little giraffe.

I hope I made her just a little bit proud.

Thank you, WomenEd. I hope you know the power of what you do and know how grateful we are. This collaboration REALLY matters.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.



Why we need to teach and talk about mental health in schools? For ResearchEd Scotland 2018.

Yesterday I was a speaker at ResearchEd Scotland and talked about the reasons why we need to teach and talk about mental health in schools. The text and slides from what I said are below. It being me, I went a little off text at times but I managed to say most of what I had planned. Where text is in brackets, it means that I did not get to say it due to time constraints.


Today I am going to talk about why I believe we need to teach and talk about mental health in schools. Some people like to argue that mental health education should be the remit of parents or health professionals or trained staff, but I would argue differently.

I think that there are 5 key reasons why talking and teaching about mental health must be part of our work in schools and they will be at the heart of what I talk about today.


To start, then, with the first.



This is the World Health Organisation definition of mental health and I really like this. When we look at this, we have to question why there is stigma around talking about mental health. How is this any different to the broadest aims for education that any of us would aspire to achieve?


And in fact, in spite of all the recent wranglings about the four capacities of Curriculum for Excellence, there is a huge resonance between the WHO definition and these capacities. I would not want to work in an education system that has anything else at its centre.

But just to return to this slide for a moment, although I love this, I do have a slight issue with one word here and that is the word “normal”:




When we talk about mental health we need to remember that there is no normal; my mental health is not necessarily yours. What is important is that each one of us understands what we need to do to keep mentally healthy.


But now to my second reason from my earlier slide:


For a long time now, we have been bombarded with press reports suggesting an unprecedented crisis in teenage mental health and calls to urgent action. But, is the crisis real?4C97D6E7-CA8F-4205-A1C9-4D20D59D4ED2

Back in 2016 there was a report that basically told us that things were pretty bad for our teenagers.

If we weren’t feeling pessimistic before we read this, we probably would have been afterwards as it did not contain a great deal of good news.


My response to this and similar reporting in the Guardian on what they referred to as  Generation K was to write a blog post where I argued that just maybe, things weren’t quite as bad as the reporting suggested.

It all got me thinking about a lesson that my dad once taught me. It wasn’t one of those life lessons that takes place over a camp fire and stays etched in your memory for ever but rather a literal lesson; my dad served a double purpose in my life for a while as father and economics teacher. I had a brief flirtation with economics in sixth form. I started off doing A Level EPA (economic and political affairs) but being hopeless at maths sent the economics the same way as both physics and a career in medicine had gone a year previously. I decided to settle with an O level in economics and went on to do straight A level politics. However, I remember that dad …or rather Mr Bell…talked in an economics lesson about the fact that within our lifetime we would experience a shift in working patterns as technology created efficiencies that would result in more leisure time. The leisure industry would grow and people would work less because tech and IT would make it possible to achieve tasks in less time.

I do remember wondering about the subtle difference between having more leisure time and being unemployed…..however, there was clearly an economic model underpinning the ideas.

So, where has the Generation Leisure, forecast in 1986, gone? Seemingly, instead having more time and leisure in which to have fun, we find that  “British teenagers are among the most troubled in the world”: of the 42 nationalities surveyed in one report, only Macedonian and Polish teens were less happy with their lot.” It reported that we have teenagers crippled by anxiety; about debt, about terrorism, about social relationships. But in fact the article did then go on to give some hope, pointing out that teenagers generally also value authenticity, connection and friendship but it was hard to find this amongst the gloom.

There is no doubt that we live in a society that should have more free-time and where technology has created efficiency. Take a practical example. In 2016 I was studying for the Scottish ‘Into Headship’ course which required me to read a lot of academic literature. Twenty years ago, this would have probably required me driving to Glasgow (2 hours each way), going to a library, checking out each and every book and article (because they would have been the type that you could not take home), sitting and reading each one and taking copious notes. I cannot begin to calculate the time that this would have taken; time away from family, dead time travelling, time finding parking, time stuck in traffic. Today, I can click on a link in a virtual library and the book is here, on my laptop. I can read parts of it, go and put on a load of washing, come back to it, add notes electronically, spend an hour on a family walk, come back to it again.

Hours of my life have been saved in this way. I have hours more time that I can spend on leisure, with my friends and family, relaxing, meditating, right?

But actually, no. Because those hours that I have gained have somehow been hi-jacked by other things; learning Spanish, exercising, cleaning the house, trying once again to sort the finances. Doing, doing, doing……worrying, worrying, worrying.

Because the reality is that free time is SCARY. And space and quietness are times where the mind can ask those disturbing questions:

Who am I?

What is life all about?

Who do I want to be?

I would argue (and I know that others have done it more eloquently) that these questions are particularly disturbing in our now largely secular society where God, the church and the state no longer provide the majority with answers to questions about the meaning of life.

And so instead of trying to provide secular answers to the meaning of life and self, we have created a religion of busyness.

And in my 2016 blog, I suggested that it was not just an issue in the world of young people and education. Read Ariana Huffington’s book ‘Thrive’. Read or watch ‘I Don’t Know How She Does It’ by Allison Pearson. And listen to John Lennon’ s ‘Beautiful Boy, written as long ago as 1981, where he said “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

In my 2016 blog, I also went on to talk about the fact that what we may have come to label as a crisis of individual mental ill-health is perhaps in fact more of a societal dis-ease that education can help to play a part in addressing. Surely, as educators, parents and people, we need to encourage Generation Leisure to learn how to live and be happy in the life they have.

To know themselves and their minds.

To self-regulate.

To live with uncertainty and understand the things they can be certain of.

To embrace the best in social media and to reject the rubbish.

Back in 2016 there was a growing movement who were working hard to take this forward. They included the ‘#teacher5aday group, the #optimisticEd group, those who are fighting to raise the profile of PSHE (including Dr Pooky Knighstsmith @PookyH) and of course the man who now goes by the title ‘my favourite Doctor’, Dr Tim O’Brien and his book ‘Inner Story’; you can read my review here:

My blog finished with a reference back to Mr Bell and economics. Another lesson led me to the work ‘Leviathan’, written by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 which referred to the state of mankind, when unregulated, as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Over 300 hundred years later and, even though we haven’t left the EU yet, our lives (at least in the Western world) are far from this. Yet, reading about Generation K and the crisis in teenage mental health in 2016, and we might have been led to believe that they are.

By 2017 we were still reading more of the same:



And this summer, we got this:



I don’t deny that provision in the UK for children and young people who are highly distressed, suicidal and suffering mental illness are woefully inadequate and I have been fairly relentless in my campaigning to improve things.  It hasn’t always won me friends or helped my career prospects. But when I see austerity impacting on the wellbeing of children and leading to the deaths of children then I will not keep quiet.

Children with acute mental illness need specialist support an often they need it urgently, or they are at risk of death.

I don’t disagree with reports like this when they are evidence-based and if they help raise awareness that we need to talk. But I also think that we need to be clear what we are talking about. Teenagers have always suffered from emotional difficulty; it is part of being an adolescent and it is really important that we acknowledge that and talk about it as teachers and as parents/carers. For more on this, check out the pioneering research being done by neuroscientist Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore and others in her field. We also need to ensure that we don’t create a crisis of “mental illness” or teenage depression by somehow turning normal emotions into something pathological. In perhaps the greatest and most popular study of teenagers ever, Shakespeare presents adolescence in all its terrible, emotional beauty; “Romeo and Juliet” deals with the issue of teenage suicide.

Last week we had this in the news. The slightly heart-breaking but also inspiring revelation that chirpy, positive Ruth Davidson suffered as a young person but hasn’t let it hold her back:


Now, not to labour the point, there was clearly some degree of teenage mental ill health back when Ruth was younger, a good 20 years ago when there was no social media and none of the associated pressures.

And back when this young university student was smiling on a German statue around 30 years ago there was also a lot of turmoil and mental distress under the smile:


Maybe more of her later…


If we look at the various articles I have referenced above or other sources to find suggestions as to the cause of the ‘crisis’ that we are facing, what do we find?

Well, social media gets apportioned a lot of the blame, that’s for sure (we hear about its alleged impact on body image fears, perfectionism and the fear of missing out) but actually what we know is that social media is still in its relative infancy in terms of robust and longitudinal research into its impact. Much as we THINK or FEEL that young people are more body conscious because of social media, we don’t KNOW.

In fact, if you follow the right you-tubers as a teenager on social media, you might, in fact, discover a whole tribe of like-minded individuals who make you feel better about yourself and your body, rather than worse.

What we DO know is that the ability of young people (and adults) to SWITCH OFF and have time away from connection with others is hugely reduced by social media and that this is likely to be affecting our thoughts, emotions and relationships.

We do know that technology is likely to be having a worrying impact on the quality of people’ s sleep in the 21st century and that poor sleep hygiene and poor mental health are clearly interconnected. For more on this, look at the research of Dr Mike Farquhar, Consultant in Sleep Medicine at Great Ormond Street Hospital:



However, the causes behind the so-called crisis are not easy to define…because if they were, surely they would be easy to address.

Last summer I read a book by Matt Haig which I would highly recommend as an analysis of the possible reasons behind the societal dis-ease that is affecting many young people.

Notes on a Nervous Planet is brilliantly written as it tells Matt Haig’s personal story of anxiety, depression, existential doubts and literary genius but also draws on the ideas of other researchers and thinkers. Here, for example, he quotes Harari’s hugely influential book Sapiens…..and I don’t think this is a million miles away from what we talked about back in Mr Bell’s economics lessons.


Before we move on from the possible causes of any mental health crisis, I just want to mention this:


Because the world is confusing and hard to understand a lot of the time, not just for children, but for us adults too. And it’s only if we talk about it, that we will be able to manage it. I am not sure why this man is a role model. If I could, I’d ask him what he has to say about some of the mistakes from his past and debate whether he is actually the ultimate authentic role model who admits that he is flawed and has erred but is now repentant and looking to be forgiven so that he can work productively and fruitfully to make a contribution to his community. Maybe I would be able to forgive him and move on. But maybe some of the victims of his past would find it harder.

But to return to my first slide, whatever the reasons may be, a lot of young people would appear to be struggling and it seems logical that we, as people who are working to educate and support young people, should talk and teach about it.

The third reason behind my assertion is this.

In 2016 I did a poll on Twitter about staff mental health.




A friend who is a teacher in England and whom I really trust had said the phrase quoted to me.

I had heard of a school leader who had recently said that she had concerns over a prospective employee because she knows that she had suffered depression in the past.

I  was aware that the virtual community of which I was a part at the time was something of an echo chamber. The amazing, positive, empathic, wonderful people whom I was engaging with through #teacher5day, “HealthyTeacherToolkit” and other forums did not, I feared, represent the whole of our profession. And that bothered me. I had written a lot on this matter and about how I think it SHOULD be in schools.

Of course, the poll was pretty unscientific and I am sure that the wonderful researchEd crew and Tom Bennett would have been pretty unimpressed:

For a start, there was no definition of what I meant by mental health.

I did not specify whether I wanted people with a medical diagnosis or the self-diagnosed to respond

And I did not ask the same question relating to physical health in order to make a comparison. I  was hugely thankful to those who engaged with this and showed a shared passion to make things better.

The slide shows the final result:

Unscientfic or not, there was a message here. Thank goodness for that 65%. But 35% agreeing?

Many people also tweeted thoughts and several sent me longer direct messages.

And the  real value of this exercise was in these responses and stories:

Some teachers and leaders answered with a definitive “I do not agree” and talked about schools where the mental wellbeing of staff is prioritised.

Others talked of having experienced terrible treatment in one school only to find a sympathetic approach in another so that they could continue successfully in their careers.

Some teachers talked of having been dismissed in defiance of equalities legislation but without the resilience or support to challenge this; the law is one thing but invisible prejudice that cannot be proven is another.

Others spoke of being forced into early retirement having shown vulnerability or having asked for support or reasonable adaptations.

And so on.

It seemed clear that there were some amazing schools out there doing an amazing job. There was a lot to be learned from them. But there were clearly also schools where there was room for improvement.

Some observations I made at the time

The education of our children is not something to be taken lightly.

Having someone who is able to be nurturing, calm, positive, realistically optimistic and caring for children is vital. If you aren’t those things, you probably need to do some reflection on whether now is the right time for you to be working with young people.

But that is not to say that you can’t be all of those things and suffering from mental health issues. There are teachers who put on the act during the day but struggle out of school with stress. There are functioning, thriving depressives. There are those who experience anxiety but manage it.

Let’s be honest. If someone is suffering from a bout of severe depression, they will probably be incapable of putting everything needed into teaching a class of thirty adolescents.

But then again, so would someone suffering severe back pain.

Teaching is stressful and maybe those who are not mentally resilient are not best suited to be in a classroom under intense pressures.

But there are other options. Teaching adults. Teaching part-time. A career break for recovery.

Absence in school through any type of illness is hard to manage. Getting quality supply can be difficult and absence can impact on teaching and learning. But school leaders can minimise absence through awareness of their staff members’ wellbeing, early intervention and by creating a culture where it is ok to ask for help.

The individual school context and ethos are key. If ethos is not right, it is this in itself that may lead to a person suffering from mental ill health even if they had no issues previously.

If you hit me with a stick, I will suffer physical injury and distress. If you shout at me, bully me, exclude me, undermine me, I will suffer mental injury and distress.

(In the long term, I (and others) would like to see the following implemented in order to ensure that moving forward, all schools are happy, healthy environments:

The inclusion in all leadership and headship development courses of modules on staff wellbeing management.

The inclusion in all initial teacher training courses of modules on managing emotional health and wellbeing in a high-challenge profession.

Awareness raising around equalities legislation that tells us that it is illegal to discriminate against someone who has mental health issues (current or past).

The development of education-specific occupational health teams.)

In the short term, here’s what I suggested that people could do, whether they were a head teacher or a dinner lady:

  • Be reflective about your own assumptions and prejudices and learn about mental health, what it is and what it is not. Do a mental health first aid course or look at website like this:
  • Engage in all those behaviours and kindnesses that you teach your pupils about.
  • Challenge gossip and rumour about others.
  • Challenge bullying behaviour and cliques.
  • Avoid repeating certain clichéd phrases – for example “she’s off her head”, “he’s a psychopath”.
  • Watch out for each other and ask people how they are. Listen to the answer.
  • Challenge stigma.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Celebrate the wonderful diversity of your colleagues and embrace them for all they are, vulnerabilities and strengths.
  • Love the ones you’re with. You never know when they may not be there.



Back for a moment to this book; I really like the way that Matt Haig talks about stigma here:


If as adults, we stuggle to talk, how on earth are children going to manage?

But hopefully, things are changing.

And this brings me on to my next reason.


We need to create cultures in schools where pupils meet with adults who care about them and show them unconditional positive regard.

What this means is adults who see them as lovable and full of potential and able to learn, even when sometimes they can’t act loveably or learn for the moment. Who show them that they respect and have time for them even when they sometimes have difficult things going on in their heads and make poor choices.

Who don’t judge them because they sometimes act out because they are feeling so bad.

Who don’t shame or punish them for their behaviours but allow them to get it wrong in the hope that with good teaching and support they will learn to get it right.

Who don’t punish precisely those pupils who are living the hardest lives and deserve more support than others.

These are the teachers and adults who make a difference to children who are struggling to make good choices and are therefore mentally unhealthy.


Chris Kilkenny is a care-experienced speaker in his early twenties who grew up in poverty, in care and in addiction services because of the addictions that had been passed on to him in utero. I am honoured to call Chris my friend. He talks about the very poor experiences he had in school when there were no adults willing to see beyond his behaviour and take the time to see that he was struggling. No-one who asked how he was. No-one who was there, day-in, day-out. Chris  now goes into schools and talks about the difference that just one adult can make to the life of a child by doing the simplest things. If you want to hear Chris talk about this, find last week’s Ricky Ross Show from Sunday morning on STV catch-up.  Or watch out for him on the STV Appeal this coming Tuesday, 25th September at 7.30pm. Chris is also part of the ACE Aware Nation movement in Scotland which is driven by the fundamental belief that adults working together can mitigate against the damage of trauma that children may experience in their lives.

(The movement has been responsible for bringing screenings of the film Resilience to Scotland under the passionate leadership of Dr Suzanne Zeedyk who is is a research scientist fascinated by the connections between our emotional and physical health. More information can be found here.

Suzanne’s core aspiration is to strengthen awareness of the decisions we take about caring for our children — because those choices are integrally connected to our vision for the kind of society we wish to build.

Her team have been working for some time to bring awareness to the UK and Scotland around what have come to be known as Adverse Childhood Experiences and which are the subject of the film.

The Scottish Tour took place between 29th April and 1st July 2017. Over that nine week period, 28 screenings of the film were hosted, all over the country. Almost all of them sold out. Twenty-five were community screenings, held as far north as Shetland and as far south as Dumfries. The remaining three were additions: the Premiere, a screening for the business community, and a screening for Scottish Government civil servants. In total 2,435 people came.

Since the tour, there have been numerous screenings and the film has had huge impact in moving forward Scottish society’s understanding  of what needs to happen to help children thrive.

Interestingly, Vincent Felitti, one of the doctors who appears in the film was here in Scotland 10 years ago and spoke about the issues– but there was no revolution then.

The power of this film seems to be that it has sparked what Suzanne calls a revolution in kindness to children.

Revolution happens because individuals want it to happen.

One of the key messages of the film is that to be resilient role models to children, we have to first acknowledge our own uncomfortable feelings and take ownership of any bad things that have happened to us so that we can move on from them.

Jack P Shonkoff MD speaks about the fact that children who are born with a poor start in life are not doomed. The science shows otherwise. He speaks about the term toxic stress stress which is the chronic activation a stress reaction with no support to manage that stress.

Resilience (the ability to survive and thrive in spite of trauma) is learnt but you cannot learn it if you are living in a culture of fear. A child cannot learn conflict resolution if his parents are constantly fighting.

A child cannot plan for the future if she lives in a culture of fear where the future seems frightening. A child cannot learn to delay gratification if she is constantly mixing with friends who do drugs. The key to learning resilience is the presence of stable and caring adults. In order for adults to be caring and stable they need to acknowledge their own early experiences and transform their own lives. Adults need to build their own capabilities in planning, monitoring, and impulse control. This is about more than just reading to kids.

It’s crucial that those involved with the children are trauma informed. We should not talk about what is wrong with children. We should talk about what has happened to children.

– Some teachers may feel that they are not qualified to do this work as they are not therapists But this is not about therapy. It is about life. It is about us adults being honest about the ups and downs of life but showing up and being role models.

– And no matter how jaded we feel, we can’t give up.)


Just for a moment, I would like to return to the idea of us being role models. It is important that, as role models to young people, we show our own vulnerabilities as well as our strengths. Even though I am the head teacher in my school, all my pupils knew a year ago that my dad was not well with cancer and that I was struggling a bit because I talked about it ins assemblies..but they also saw me come out the other side of it and manage the emotions around this difficult situation.

They also know that I struggled with anxiety and perfectionism when I was in my early 20s because I have told them; I want them to learn from where I went wrong. I fell into some very helpful at the time (but damaging in the long term) coping mechanisms that have taken me years to unpick and are still hard to shake.

They don’t know the full details but I can tell you that it was a pretty dire time for me and that I fought some really difficult battles to stay mentally healthy. I am 100% certain that if someone at school had talked to me about mental health I wouldn’t have had such a difficult time. When we do talk and learn about it we can feel better and children need to know that. More on this type of experience from a friend here, if are interested, though it does not make for easy reading.

Even Mrs Smiley, positive Carter goes through difficult patches and that is ok. In my opinion, children need to see that. My own two children need to see that too.


Perhaps it is better to say that children are at risk of death when we don’t teach them to be mentally healthy. Let’s not fall into the press tendency to over-dramatise.

But there is no expressing what you go through, as a teacher, when a young person in your care commits suicide.

And of course, adults who have not been taught to be mentally health are at risk too.

So. What can we do, in practical terms, if we want to talk and teach about mental health?

Just start. Use the WHO definition of mental health and start a conversation.


Look at the Action for Happiness website. It is a fantastic resource, full of free to use material and fully backed up by robust research from great thinkers like Lord Layard and the Dalai Lama:





A caveat.

Although we need to talk about mental health, talking is not always easy.

We started this campaign in our school a couple of years back and it worked well in many cases, but not for all pupils.


One of the things that has upset me the most recently is hearing professionals from CAMHS say that they can’t do anything for a child because the child won’t engage, by which they mean, talk.

Who has a teenage child in the room?

And how chatty are they?

We KNOW that teenagers often lose the power of verbal communication and revert to monosyllabism when they hit adolescence so why would anyone expect them to talk to a therapist or counsellor about feelings?! We need to do better than that and offer something else.

For me, that is often simply hello and eye contact at the morning bus drop off. Or just offering a smile every day in class. Or maybe writing a postcard to say something positive. Or organising a lunchtime club.

You don’t need to be CAMHS trained to do these things. But they DO make a difference.


We can talk to children about some of the difficult issues in life and we can create a culture where we use assemblies and lessons to model openness and honesty. But they may not always want or be ready to talk back and therefore we must never push it.


Thanks for listening. I hope that some of this may be of some use.

The wisdom of Pooh.

This afternoon my son Ru and I went to see the new Christopher Robin film.

It was Ru’s choice.

It tells of how the grown up Christopher Robin has moved to London, works too hard, ignores his lovely wife and daughter and is stressed and burnt out. He has become horribly serious and forgotten how to play. He has clearly suffered from being sent away to boarding school, losing  his father at a young age, being made to grow up too soon and experiencing the trauma of fighting in a war.

Spoiler alert: he ends up finding the 100 acre wood gang, realising that he needs to connect with his playful and imaginative side again, stopping for a bit….and being ok.

I think my boy was trying to tell me something.

I laughed, cried, slept for 10 minutes as I am so exhausted from work already worn out feeling it should be a wake-up call.

You can read some of the very lovely quotes from the film here:

There is also a brilliant quote at the end about the exploitative Woozles who get all the credit why the rest of us rush round doing the work……and another about how we can find solutions to problems when we just look at them from a different angle.

Go and see it. And heed the warnings.

“When you do nothing, it leads to the very best of something.”