I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Daily Mirror’s front page headline grabbing declaration which stated very boldly ’50 kids a week sent to Sex Change clinics’ with a subheading ‘Record number of referrals as parents seek help for children as young as four’ (23rd October 2017). It certainly wasn’t the most sensitive headline, but it did highlight the fact young people are accessing the Gender Identity Development Service in increasing numbers.
Gary King is deputy headteacher at Devon’s Isca Academy, as well as a blogger and frequent TeachMeet speaker. As his school goes from strength-to-strength, we pick the mind of one of the UK’s most enthusiastic educators.
I come to write this piece after a brief Twitter exchange, a shared appreciation of the 1998 Coen brothers cult classic The Big Lebowski, with Innovate My School editor James Cain, Emerging from our ensuing conversation was the idea of an article to explore what lessons in leadership, if any, might be gleaned from Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski. Despite my love of the movie, and my interest in leadership lessons from art as well as life, at first it felt a little like scraping the bottom of the metaphor barrel. However, after some reflection, I came to the conclusion that perhaps there is something in the movie that may be worth sharing...
My eyes were streaming as I walked through the streets of Kathmandu. Not because I was crying, but because it was so dusty! The lack of roads and volume of vehicles whip up air that is painful to breathe. Small children with no observable adult supervision are everywhere. I know children are small but this is a different kind of small. We’ve all done the child protection training that asks us to watch out for “failure to thrive”. It’s far more difficult to spot when the children are all in the same boat. They tug at you as you walk past. “Give money. Please. So hungry”. They cry at you in broken but well-rehearsed English that will rip your heart right out of your chest.
We know that teachers are leaving our profession in record numbers, and I have heard of schools where more teachers are leaving than staying. We also know that not enough young people are choosing to become teachers themselves. Teacher training places are going unfilled, and there simply aren’t enough teachers to educate our children of the future. As the population grows, there seems to be little effort to make any changes to recruit and retain quality teachers. Year-on-year, teachers are voting with their feet and leaving the profession.
Both as a teacher, and then as a school leader, at the beginning of each new year I used to identify what I would be trying to achieve over the course of the year to come. In both roles, my focus was always around how I would be working to improve my understanding and my practice so that I was better able to meet the holistic needs of all my learners.
There are several words that I don’t feel get the usage in day-to-day conversation they deserve – ‘determination’, ‘empathy’, ‘bravery’, for instance. However, the word that perhaps evokes the most powerful ‘do I have that?’ feeling is ‘resilience’.
Until our resilience is tested, we never really give it a lot of thought, we just merrily continue through life without actually knowing whether or not we indeed possess it. So what happens if our mettle is tested if we don’t have resilience?
Let’s rewind several years, to when my resilience was truly tested to the max, and I failed - miserably! Ill health - a cancer diagnosis, totally out-of-the-blue - led me to enter an abyss of physical and mental pain, a downward spiral that led me into a chasm of hopelessness and despair. And I don’t say that lightly - I was very psychologically fragile for quite some of time.
Consequently I ascertained that I indeed didn’t have ownership of any resilience, I had nothing to fight with, nothing to correlate this gargantuan event too, and I continued to plummet.
It was suggested by a medical professional that I needed some psychological support: I needed therapy. So following a referral to the psycho-oncologists at our local cancer centre, and a telling short fortnight wait, I began the start of my recovery, and finding my resilience. It did not happen overnight. There were many frustrating therapy sessions (both for me and my wonderful therapist), but perseverance - on both our parts - ensured that a way forward was discovered, I was able to keep going, and I began to dare to dream that I could step out of the quagmire that I had been wading through for what seemed like forever.“I was excited at the prospect of creating a new life.”
Now armed with resilience, I persisted with therapy, not only enabling me to feel free from the boggy river I found myself in, but to step out onto the sunny river bank at the other side. I had the fight back; close family and friends had resigned themselves to the fact that they would never see the ‘old me’, and so had I. But suddenly, as the clouds parted and I could see the sun and the stars again, not only did I see and feel aspects of ‘my previous life’, but I was excited at the prospect of creating a new one – my ‘new normal’ as I called it. What this consisted of is a positive mindset, an appreciation of each and every moment I was in, acceptance of what had happened and not reflecting on my own past with sombreness or the future with trepidation, but with hope and excitement, and of course resilience.
Possessing resilience in this form is undoubtedly life-changing; the ability to bounce back when something difficult is thrown our way, is an invaluable asset for any person, both old and young. Therefore, teaching our children about it now, during their formative years, can make an enormous difference to how they tackle the obstacles that life will undoubtedly thrown their way, as they advance their way to adulthood. I often wonder if my spirit and fortitude had been tested as a youngster, that I would have coped better.
Reasons for children to develop resilience throughout each school year are shown in the difficulties they may encounter, not only in their childhood, through adolescence and on into being an adult:
Developing a child’s resilience from Day One enables them to be braver, more adaptable, live with curiosity and will ensure that they can advance through life in an independent, motivated and optimistic fashion. They will have the tools to strengthen relationships that will make certain that they forever feel they have somewhere to turn – which is imperative for building resilience.
If we imagine resilience is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it will become. We as adults need to guide pupils to not let the little issues define their day, week or even their lives.
Throughout the school year, we must encourage them to find solutions to problems, and not to let the problems ‘take hold’, which in turn can lead to weakening their ‘muscle'. If a child does not recognise this, it can lead to a child’s mood beginning to decline, and consequently to them feeling negative which can negate the resilience they may have begun to build up. By utilising positive self-talk - ‘I can do that’, ‘I will make this situation better’ “We must encourage pupils to find solutions to problems.”
and so on - can prevent a child seeing a situation as an insurmountable problem, and will begin to flex their resilient ‘muscle’.
Once a child has established that using resilience every day is a crucial part of living with a positive mindset, they must then endeavour to continue to sustain it. There are many methods that teachers should encourage and develop, in themselves and in pupils:
With these in mind, if we stop using the resilience muscle, in time it will become weaker and will surrender to heavy weight. Therefore, children need to tackle problems throughout the school year; not avoid, not shy away, not let issues grind them down, but to face them head on, find their own solutions in order to develop this important aspect of their personality make-up.
Now, having built my resilience over the past years, I now have the ability not only to help myself, but to help others around me too. I recognise that sometimes, on my stronger days, that I almost feel like I have a surplus of resilience and determination – an ‘I can fight the world today’ kind of feeling. It’s at that point where I can pass my strength on to others. It’s not always easy, because on some days I certainly enter a deficit of resilience – then I can feel weak and defenceless, but I can tap into my ‘reserves’ and fight right back.
So of course when my resilience does get tested, I take all those strategies that I have developed over time, and use them to bounce back - although I like to call it ‘bouncing forward’! That is the great importance of possessing resilience – it can stay with you forever, but you must use it whenever you can, build upon it, be aware that you are using it, find your own solutions, communicate well, develop self-compassion and go and enjoy life like never before. I do, and when I sit and reflect, I can’t believe how far I have come, and for that I am incredibly grateful and still – to this day, I am full of fight, determination and of course – resilience.
How will you develop resilience in yourself and pupils throughout the year?
'Wellbeing' is a word that has been bandied around for a while with regard to teaching as a profession. It generally stems from the issues that come from teaching being a stressful job. I imagine it has always been so: taking 30 young minds and guiding them (sometimes unwillingly) towards educational enlightenment is stressful. However, when you add the current climate in teaching in our country, “stressful” isn't a strong enough word.
I tweet and blog a lot about my network and how being an outward-facing leader who is connected to a wider educational community fuels me. It the last few years through Twitter, StaffRm, #womened and now #bameed, through #teachmeets, #leadmeets and #researched I have met a plethora of fantastic educational contacts who have inspired me, empowered me and connected me. Through these connections I have ended up meeting brilliant educators and collaborating on some fantastic projects. These collaborations have reignited my passion for my profession.