It is with great pleasure that I write to you as you start either your NQT year, your studies or your career in teaching. I loved my job as a teacher! I don’t say that lightly. I think back to my years in the classroom and they rank as some of the most rewarding times of my career. I can’t remember what exams were passed but I do remember the faces and names of the children, young people, staff and families who shaped me as a person and as a teacher.
I’d like to share an experience with you; it sums up exactly why I went into teaching in the ﬁrst place – to make a difference to children’s lives. I received an email from the mother of a boy who was in one of my early Year 2 classes. I’ll call him Mike.
My son Mike was one of your students about 15 years ago. At the time he really hated school but you were so lovely and patient with him. You tapped into what he liked doing which at the time was constructing models.
Mike has just graduated with a first class degree in mechanical engineering and is going to study for his masters at Manchester uni.
Thank you for your patience and hard work, I firmly believe his time spent in your class has contributed massively to him finding the thing he was good at and was the foundation of his career choice xx’
I was deeply touched and humbled by a couple of things. Firstly, that the mother had taken the trouble to show her gratitude and appreciation and secondly, that Mike had gone on to develop the knowledge and skills to use his natural gifts and talents in our world. He was brilliant at building models and really did hate school, but that classroom was a place of joy and appreciation. Together with the brilliant Mrs Benson, we tried to offer each of the children a positive and nurturing experience of school. As teachers, we model the qualities we want to foster in our children and these qualities can last a lifetime.
I don’t just mention this experience out of some distant sentimentality; there are rich lessons to be taken for you as an NQT. Always seeking out and nurturing the natural gifts and talents of the children before you, whatever age they happen to be, can be liberating and empowering for them and for you. There is no greater gift you can give your children than to be fully present with them in the classroom, not preoccupied with future or past events.
Easier said than done, I know, but mindfulness could be one way of approaching this. Being present is something that the mindfulness approach encourages amidst the constant busyness of school life and ‘to do lists’. As my co-authors and I wrote for Issue 2 of Impact (Baker-Jones et al., 2018, p. 54): ‘Mindfulness is a capacity we all have to bring awareness to each moment, with interest and care. Mindfulness practices help us stabilise our attention, so we can be more intentional, responsive and kinder to ourselves and to others. Rather than acting as a ‘cure’ for the things life throws at us, it can be viewed as one of the routines we have in place to help keep us healthy, like eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise.’
As part of the MYRIAD Project (My Resilience in Adolescence), which started in January 2015, researchers from the University of Oxford, King’s College London, University College London, the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Exeter are undertaking research into the effectiveness of a mindfulness-based programme, compared with normal classroom teaching, in helping young people with their emotional wellbeing and resilience – the ability to adapt in the face of difficulties (Kuyken et al., 2017; Baker-Jones et al., 2018). The programme involves a series of lessons taught alongside other timetabled teaching of personal, social or emotional wellbeing. Lessons include short mindfulness practices focusing on the breath, body and immediate experience, alongside classroom discussion of the application of new skills in everyday life (Kuyken et al., 2017; Baker-Jones et al., 2018).
Teachers are trained to deliver these lessons over an eight-week period, enabling them to develop skills in practising mindfulness. We don’t know the results of this research yet, but it could potentially have a beneficial effect for teachers – practising mindfulness regularly may help people to become better able to read their emotions and the signals their body gives, which could support teachers in dealing with issues such as challenging behaviour and competing demands on their time (Baker-Jones et al., 2018).
Essential qualities and writing a ‘to be’ list
It always struck me, as I worked for almost 20 years as an SLT member, SENDCO, CAMHS link and lead for mental health and wellbeing, that I constantly had a ‘to do’ list on the go. It seemed an inﬁnite stream of tasks with a life of its own. It caused endless stress as it never seemed possible to complete it.
Sometimes, I seem to recall, it would include items like ‘sort out Kate’ (a pupil!). How on earth does one do that? And yet, that was the nature of working with children and young people, especially in the area of wellbeing. Time isn’t on your side and you have little control of the influences surrounding the young people you are working with. ‘Banging my head against a brick wall’ often came to mind when dealing with my ‘to do’ list.
I attended a training event at work where staff shared their aspirations and long ‘to do’ lists. As I listened, I realised that not one person mentioned any of the personal qualities that, as we all know, can make such a difference to any situation. It was a moment of clarity for me – it shouldn’t be about a ‘to do’ list but a ‘to be’ list! How do I want to be in the world and how can this shift in emphasis bring a greater sense of achievement to my work and life? In many contexts this may actually be the only thing that we have any choice about. ‘How can I be in this situation?’
So I decided to try it out. My ‘to be’ list consisted not just of general things, such as be kind or caring or loving, but more specific things, like make time and space for people, allow people the time to express themselves, listen more carefully, show kindness in small ways (with cups of tea, opening doors, smiling!), appreciate conversations, write more ‘thank you’ emails, notice things outside myself or notice things inside myself. This is not the exhaustive list but it gives you a flavour. All of these things were not to be ticked off a list, like obligations completed, but rather they were about spending time cultivating a sense of interest in the world and the people around me and helping myself to value a deeper sense of community. I wanted to move away from glorifying busyness, rushing and skimming over things.
Am I saying that focusing on my ‘to be’ list reduced my ‘to do’ list? I’m not sure about that, but it certainly helped me to experience more ownership of the things I could change. A sense of acceptance and awareness was brought to the smaller interactions, which, in turn, had an effect on me and my ability to appreciate things. I experienced a certain ‘lightness’. That seems an unusual word, but lightness is the only word I can think of to describe the sense that came from regularly appreciating the small things that were happening in my day. Something definitely shifted as I more consciously fostered a greater sense of awareness and appreciation for whatever or whoever crossed my path.
I was fortunate to come across a TED Talk by American educator Rita Pierson, and I’d like to leave you with her parting line:
‘Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connections and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.’
I would add another part to this quote: ‘Every teacher deserves a champion – a person who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connections and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.’
Be that champion for your children and ﬁnd a champion for yourself. May I wish you all the very best as you begin this exciting journey of discovery.