The power of Positive Psychology for teachers

Clare Martin

Clare Martin is the founder of the Positive Teacher Network, which aims to support teachers to take a positive, proactive approach to looking after their own wellbeing. As a teacher herself, she recognises the difficulties teachers can face and highlights the importance of developing mental resilience so that they can continue to flourish in their careers while maintaining a life outside of the classroom. Her background is in psychology and with a passion for finding relevant and realistic tools to support wellbeing much of the work she does is from the evidence-based fields of positive psychology and cognitive behavioural coaching. Facebook: PositiveTeacherNetwork

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Get out while you can!

That’s was an experienced member of staff said to me one day over lunch during my first term of teaching. This really is not what you need to hear during your NQT year! And the thing is, he wasn’t joking. He really meant it.

 

That was 12 years ago and I am still teaching. But I learnt something very valuable that year; looking after your wellbeing and finding ways to stay passionate about what we do is essential. Otherwise, there is a danger that we find ourselves in a job that we once loved feeling stressed, tired and overwhelmed.

As a result, I have always been interested in how to develop on a personal level and learn to manage difficult situations and find ways to flourish in both my career and life. My background in psychology has encouraged me to focus on techniques and strategies that are based on research and one of my key areas of interest is positive psychology. This is the study of wellbeing and optimal functioning - flourishing. A whole field about the subject I am most passionate about!

So how does Positive Psychology fit in the world of education?

Positive Psychology is doing what traditional psychology never used to do. It focuses on what is right with people, rather than what is wrong, and in doing so creates tools and interventions that can help everybody to become healthier, happier and more fulfilled. It is not about waiting until there is a problem and trying to help somebody "We need to stack the odds in our favour."back to baseline. It is about helping people be better than ‘okay’. It is about ‘flourishing’.

If we focus on developing ourselves to be happier and healthier then we develop greater resilience. This means when serious difficulties arise in our life we already have the tools in place to help us manage them. As a teacher, and also in my role as a coach and trainer for other teachers, I know how important it is to develop this resilience. Teaching can be tough, it can be time-intensive and overwhelming. But it can also be exciting, engaging and fulfilling. When we are happy and fulfilled we can deal with a lot more than we can when we are tired and stressed.

Positive Psychology provides the tools to increase our happiness and fulfilment. What’s more, they are often simple ideas that can be easily implemented into our lives without massive time commitments. Barbara Fredrickson talks in her book ‘Positivity’ of the need to experience more positive emotions than negative ones. She suggests that a 3:1 ratio is ideal because negative emotions can be a lot more powerful than positive ones, so we need to stack the odds in our favour. This might sound obvious, but many people spend a lot of time dwelling on and focusing on the negatives in their day, to the extent that they might not even remember some of the positive ones. Think how many times you have sat down with a colleague or a friend and asked about how they are. How often do you hear all their troubles, worries and gripes? Of course, it depends on the person. But this is very common and it is almost less socially acceptable to sit down and tell someone all the great things that have happened in your day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t tell yourself.

That is where Positive Psychology Interventions (PPIs) come in. PPIs are research-backed activities designed to get someone to deliberately do something they wouldn’t normally do in order to enhance their mental wellbeing. For example, if it is not your natural way to focus on the positive things from your day and you would struggle to get a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative emotions, one way to intervene and shift this is to write down, before going to bed, three good things that have happened in your day. A general guide is to pick one for each of the following:

1. Something that went well.
2. Something you enjoyed.
3. Something you are grateful for.

Then expand on why you choose those things. They don’t have to be big things. It could be recalling"There are always good things we can notice and appreciate." enjoying the warmth of holding your coffee at break time on a really cold day. Even when there are bigger difficulties in our lives there are always three good things we can notice and appreciate.

This simple activity, when done repeatedly, has been shown to increase happiness and even reduce symptoms of depression (Seligman et al., 2005). But regardless of research, it makes so much sense. If we normally spend a lot of time focusing on the negatives, choosing to pick out three positives from our day is not only good in the moment; it also programmes us to start noticing and enjoying the positives throughout our day.

I can personally vouch for this simple intervention. I have been doing it every night for a couple of years. I choose not to strictly follow the research method, rather than writing it down I actually do it with my husband so we get to share in each other's positives from the day, adding an extra layer of wellbeing through strengthening a relationship. Making it work for you is what is most important, write it down, do it with your kids or say it aloud to an empty room - whatever makes it easy to do it every night for a week. But try it, you might like it!

The great thing about PPIs is there are a lot of them, so if one doesn’t seem to be a fit for you, there will be another tool that will. For me, being able to explore and try new ideas and tools that increase happiness, gratitude, mindfulness and creativity means that things are always interesting. One size doesn’t fit all. So the more tools teachers can pick up to support their wellbeing, the more easily they can develop personally and professionally.

As teachers, we must take our wellbeing into our own hands. There will always be challenges but it is how we deal with them that defines us. Developing resilience by focusing on and prioritising wellbeing is essential. When we do this we not only look after ourselves, but model invaluable life skills to our students.

How do you look after your own wellbeing? Let us know below!

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