Friday, 3 August 2018

All you need is….hope.

It’s so important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.  Hope can make a great difference to how you respond to problems and difficulties.  The most fundamental aspiration of all human beings is to seek happiness, to overcome suffering.  You may go to bed at night confronted by many problems in your life, but it is hope that motivates you to get out of bed and carry on with your life next morning.

Dalai Lama

Over the past few months of my life I have been reminded of the true power hope can bring to situations of real despair in life.  A doctor looking after my mum in hospital reminded me of the importance and power of hope.  Hope is an energy that you can bring to any given situation in life.  It is a belief that anything is possible.  I truly believe that this one doctor’s attitude and hope that my mum might just defy the odds is what enabled her to recover when no one else thought it was even possible.  Other doctors in the hospital didn’t share this hope.  It really made me think.

You see, this doctor reminded me that being hopeful, not giving up, exploring all the avenues is what makes a doctor a good doctor.  I’m sure you’ve all experienced doctors who are not so good.  This made me think about my own profession, teaching, and how important I feel hope is in education.  The education sector are constantly trying to figure out the ingredients for great teaching.  What is great teaching? What does it look like and how can we teach all our teachers to be great?  Truth is, I’m not sure we can, just like I’m not sure all doctors can be great doctors.  But let’s not give up hope just yet.

I believe the most important thing a teacher can possess is hope.  They must bring that energy to their classrooms every single day and this carries with it a true belief that the children they teach can learn, can achieve and can succeed at school, no matter what their background or starting point.

Hope is defined as, ‘a feeling or expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen’, yet so many teachers lack this hope and expectation for their students. Surely it couldn’t be that simple, could it?  That if our teachers had a true belief and expectation that the children they teach can achieve and hold a true desire to make that happen this alone would make the difference.  As a parent I hope my children are taught by hopeful teachers.  Teachers who find ways around the many barriers in their way to learning and achievement.  A teacher who will never give up on them and will explore all the avenues to achievement possible no matter what their ability level might tell them on paper. That is what I want for my children and what I believe the parents of the children I teach would want too. 

In my class all my students are taught to A* standard.  If a student wants to achieve an A* they will have to work damn hard to get it but I will show them how, that’s my job as a teacher.  For some students the path to A* is pretty straight forward – these tend to be the students who have a lot of self-control and who are willing to work hard.  For other students the road to A* is a very rocky one that challenges them every step of the way.  The growth you witness in a student who has a target grade of a C yet defies the odds and goes on to achieve an A* is remarkable and a true privilege to be part of.  Yes, I taught them the content, showed them how to answer exam questions and showed them ways to revise and learn but the most important thing I brought to the table that made the real difference to them is hope.  I expected them to do it and shared this expectation with them every day – I showed them I believed in them and this desire and expectation lead me into finding ways to help them achieve the A*. For other students in the class who may not set their sights so high they too improve and achieve above their target grades as a result of this expectation to succeed. 

Having hope provides my students with the will they need to achieve their goal and I show them the different routes to achieving it. A teacher who has hope in her students helps the students approach problems and barriers with the right mindset to overcome the barriers in their way.  You see hope provides a motivation and drive in the brain.  Hope is where emotions follow cognition not the other way around.  Hope often leads to goals and hopeful individuals actively engaged in the process of improvement, development and learning.  They find ways to meet their goals and most importantly, they ensure they stay on track by constantly monitoring their progress.  That is a lot of energy that ultimately leads to success. There is a plethora of research evidence that links goal setting to success in life from sport to academic achievement.

In one study conducted over 6 years researchers were interested in the relationship between hope and academic achievement. They found high hope students achieved more academically than their low hope counterparts and many of these high hope students had lower entrance exam scores at the start of the study.  In my experience though teachers can make their students more hopeful.  If you can make your students believe that you believe in them and that they have what it takes to be successful you will see these young people transform before your eyes.  Yes, we know ability is important but to be successful it takes much more than just ability – it is something else deep inside an individual that drives them to succeed.  Often the hopeful student will use this motivation drive they have within themselves to improve their ability and when they see success every time they get an essay returned to them or a test score back where they have improved this just fuels their drive and sometimes makes them push themselves even more.

So maybe, just maybe, we can cultivate good teachers just by helping them realise the importance of hope and the positive energy that brings to the classroom. Don’t be afraid to be hopeful for your students and use this positive energy in your classroom daily to help your student realise their potential and even exceed it.   The real question for all of you teachers out there is what do you want to be?  A teacher or a good teacher? 




Thursday, 4 January 2018

Why New Year’s Resolutions are so important

I love this time of year, probably more than any other if I am honest.  I love that build up to Christmas where I spend a lot of my time reflecting on my year and appreciating all the great things that happened in my life.  I then turn my attention to the next year, to the future.  I am a big believer in personal growth.  I believe completely in always striving to improve myself and learn from the experiences I have in life.  2017 has been a good year, in fact it has been a great year. We moved into our new home in March, a home which we love and we still can’t quite believe that it is ours, I celebrated 40 years of existence and my family and I flew to New York to celebrate, nowhere better really to celebrate than the Big Apple.  My youngest had her First Holy Communion, a lovely family celebration and an opportunity for us all to get together again and my eldest started high school.  We had a lot to be thankful for.  My new year’s resolutions tend not to be about setting goals like going on a diet, going to the gym more or drinking less.  I like to set New Year resolutions more about how I choose to live my life.  Like improving how I cope with adversity and situations in my life that are out of my control by changing the way I react to them. 

I think this is where a lot of people go wrong.  I know lots of people who hate making resolutions and avoid it at all costs but I think it gives us a wonderful opportunity to reflect, refocus and improve.  Ask yourself what do you want from your life this year?  How could your life be better and what could you do to make it better?  This might just be something as simple as stopping complaining about your job.  If you hate your job that much that all you do is complain about it, maybe it is time to go and get a new job.  Constant complaining can be dangerous to our mental health and that of others and your complaining impacts other people more than you realise.  According to a research study from Stanford University exposure to negativity peels back neurons in your hippocampus which is the part of the brain responsible for problem solving and cognitive functioning.  What tends to happen is that complaining becomes a habit.  People vent their frustrations onto others to make themselves feel better but instead they should be looking for solutions if there is something you are not happy with.  We have to stop and consider the effect complaining has on our health.  Venting floods our bloodstream with the stress hormone cortisol and each time we tell someone about our frustrations we end up 10-12 times more aggravated. 

So, if you reflect on last year and find that complaining became a habit for you then just make that one change in your life and notice the positive impact it has on so many aspects of your life.  Pay attention to the difference and how it makes you feel.  Write it down even to remind yourself in case you slip back into your old habits. 

One of the best changes I made to my life was in 2011 when I started keeping a gratitude journal.  I remember the day I bought it.  I was in Bristol attending the Positive Psychology Masterclass with Bridget Greenville Cleave and Miriam Akhtar, two positive psychology experts.  They introduced me to the idea of keeping a gratitude journal and I went and bought myself one that day.  I sat at my hotel window and wrote in it for the very first time about the three things I was grateful for that day. I loved it and I am now on gratitude journal number 2 and would not be without it.  If you are struggling to find a New Year’s resolution for you then maybe this is the one.  I cannot begin to explain to you the benefits it has made to my life, to my thinking, my happiness and my health.  Living a life of gratitude enables you to really focus on and see the good things in life rather than the bad.  It helps me to stop and savour things and really appreciate moments that too often would just pass me by.  I worry less and enjoy everything more.  So, if you don’t have a resolution I recommended a gratitude journal.

Another resolution that will make your life better is mindfulness.  Not necessarily meditation but just learning how to be mindful will enable you to savour the simple things in life and it somehow enables time to move slower because you pay attention to things.  Things like having a shower, driving to work, eating your dinner, reading your book.  If you pay attention in the moment you enjoy things so much more.  I learned this in 2014 when I was studying my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of East London.  As part of the course I needed to try out 3 different positive psychology interventions and document my experience of them.  One I tried was the Headspace App.  You can download it on your phone and it offers ten free take ten sessions of mindfulness meditation which you are guided through.  If I am honest this scared me.  I have never been a big fan of meditation and this intervention pushed me right out my comfort zone.   If you don’t know anything about mindfulness meditation, put simply, it is when you sit up straight on a chair and pay attention to your body, how it feels, smells around you, noises you may be able to hear, you might count your breath or do a body scan.  By day 6 I was starting to feel the benefit.  I started to pay more attention to little things in my day that I would normally just do.  On my drive to work I used to spend too much of it thinking about the day ahead (and how much work I had to do usually) and before I knew it that ball of stress had built up in my stomach by the time I arrived at work.  Instead I started mindful driving and paid attention to the drive, my hands on the steering wheel, the noise of the indicator, what I could see out the window etc. and I found this made for a much nicer drive to work and me feeling much better by the time I got there.  As a result I found myself to be more productive. 

I only did the take ten once (ten minutes of mindfulness meditation over ten consecutive days) but this was enough to have an impact on my life since then.  It has helped me particularly in my job as an Assistant Head teacher when I deliver whole year group assemblies.  So often I used to get distracted when I gave assemblies, I was too busy focusing on the kid at the back who had fallen asleep or the one who looked like they were whispering to their mate.  I spent too much of my time during assemblies focusing on what they (the audience) were thinking about me rather than focusing on the content and the message I was actually trying to get across to them.  Mindfulness changed that and now I love giving assemblies and having the opportunity to give key messages to my students that I know will help them flourish in life.  Assemblies are now a much more enjoyable experience and the delivery is much better when I focus on the topic. 

New Year resolutions are linked to Hope Theory which can be divided into 4 subcategories:

1.       Goals provide people with direction and hopeful thinking and a belief that you can actually reach your desired endpoint. 

2.       Pathway thoughts refers to the thinking we choose that leads to us achieving the desired goals and our belief in our ability to do so (Snyder, 2000).

3.       Agency thoughts refers to our motivation to actually get up and act. 

4.       Barriers refers to the inevitable things that may block our way in the pursuit of a goal – we have a choice.  Either we give up (which too many of us do) or we utilise our pathway thoughts to create new routes to our desired goal.

Accept there will be barriers but aim to see these barriers as challenges and find another way to reach your goal.  It doesn’t have to be a big thing, it could be something small but maybe a new year’s resolution that will help you be a better you is the right place to start.  Perhaps a New Year resolution that will make you feel happier and more present in the moment is perfect for you.  I was sceptical when I tried some of them but I can honestly say I am so glad I did.  So that is three suggestions for your New Year’s Resolutions:  stop complaining (change a bad habit), start a gratitude journal and be more mindful.  Hope this helps some of you set some great goals for 2018 and make life better for you and those around you.

Katie Small