Friday, 30 May 2014

Filling the glass

I saw Shawn Achor (amazeballs psychologist with loads of cool stuff to say about happiness) in a chat thing with Oprah Winfrey the other day. She was asking him about optimism/pessimism, glass half full or half empty stuff, and he said why does it matter either way as long as you can fill it back up again?

I love that. That really is the whole point isn't it...getting back up and at 'em and finding ways to fill the glass back up again.

So I was thinking about what helps me fill my glass back up when it's running on low and it struck me that sometimes happiness is actually quite counter intuitive.

No, I'll rephrase that.  To people who are naturally fit, healthy and happy it's all very obvious stuff.  To somebody not quite so naturally that way disposed, sometimes what you THOUGHT makes you happy, turns out to be the stuff chipping a little hole in that glass letting all the good stuff leak out.

For example, I'm pretty sure I used to think that literally filling my glass, many times. Many, many times, made me happy.  Clearly it actually made me throw up and embarrass myself in all manner of ways instead. Don't get me wrong, I'm not/never have been an alcoholic, just a teenager / London media type / human,and I still do love a drink (or several).  On occasion. As part of the occasion...not as the actual be all and end all of the occasion.  Now it comes as a side dish served alongside my happiness rather than being the starter, main course and dessert.

Which brings me to another thing.  Yep, you guessed it.  Food.  Now I know there has always been a mahoosive link in my brain between food and happiness.  Not necessarily a bad thing, we are programmed to think like that about food to a certain extent. But me, and actually most of my family, have been guilty of taking that to the limits on far too many an occasion.  Again, food becomes the occasion as opposed to something you eat and enjoy as part of that occasion.  Food becomes an excuse for an occasion, a manner of celebrating...or commiserating, or eeking out a good day.  So many occasions in my family have a particular food linked to them. Party tea. Popcorn. Peanuts. Custard and Cream. Fish and Chips. Take aways. Family Roasts. I could go on.
it's in the jeans
And then there's spending money on nice stuff...surely that's got to make you happy?  Well, depends. On how much stuff. How much money. Any why you're doing it.  A new pair of skinny jeans to show off all the hard work at the gym (ahem, that might have just happened)...ok, yep, that's part of a happiness boost from achievement.  But piles and piles of unnecessary crap that you can't afford and that's now clogging up the house (erm, ok so guilty as charged with that one too), that's just trying to buy happiness lacking elsewhere....I know that because that's what I did.

Consumption in general doesn't really seem to do it.  It engineers a fake sort of high for a split moment, but leaves a big stinking hole of regret or something lurking behind it.

So what does work then?  I had a look at my 'Happier' app to see what most of the happy moments I'd shared were linked to.  

Guess what?  Not a single one of them was about buying stuff. Or eating lard.  Champagne was mentioned in celebration of a new job.  Food was mentioned a lot, but in terms of healthy happy nice natural soul boosting stuff...not self loathing cheese topped lardacious stuff.  Slight aside, my mum and brother refer to the food I eat now as 'gravel'.  They mean stuff like quinoa and bulgar wheat and an unexpected added benefit of eating healthier gravel, means my brother doesn't even bother looking in my fridge to see what he can nibble on when he comes round. ha!

Anyway, I also spotted lots and lots of mentions of nature, being outside.  That didn't surprise me, I've always been an outside freak.  A gravel eating, outside freak, that's me.  Spending time with friends and family, also up there.  Doing well at work/school (same thing these days) defo keeping that glass full too.

But interestingly, the thing that got the most mentions was not eating and drinking, wasn't having fun, wasn't chilling out or holidays.  It was going to the gym.

So back to the counter intuitive.  Going to the gym is basically sweaty pain.  Yet it's my number one happiness inducer.  In a nutshell, where all the other old days stuff makes me feel a bit depressed and like somebody I don't want to be, going to the gym makes me feel like me.  Like the me I really am, like the me I want to be.  And that makes me happy.  I stick my earplugs in, turn the music up and off I go.  It's physical, it's energetic, there's an element of 'flow', there's achievement, goals and learning new stuff.  It's perfect.  Sweaty, painful and calloused finger inducing, but perfect.

None of this should really surprise me. In fact it doesn't.  Because I knew all of this already from all the reading and whatnot I do about positive psychology.  But knowing something and experiencing it are two very different things.  Reading somebody else's account of happiness  and taking the time to work out your own, again, are two different things.

So now you know mine, but yours might be here's a challenge. Stop reading this, shut down the computer and go out and do something that makes you happy.  Start noticing what makes you happy, and do more of it.  Test out a few theories, challenge yourself, try something you always told yourself you hated (ask anybody, I "am not an exercise person", only turns out I am)...what are you missing out on that you actually love but just don't know it yet?

Next time you notice your glass is dangerously near to half empty, don't dwell on it. Instead ask yourself, how can I fill it back up again? Then go do it.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

On reflection

The last year has gone by so quickly.  I find time always does fly by, but nothing compared to the last 12 months or so, I literally don't know where it has gone.

And it's been not just a very fast year, but a very busy year, full of newness and change.  Fast change, but change that felt so painfully slow at the same time somehow.  I don't know how that works, but that's just how it felt.

It's been a relentless year of ridiculously hard work.  It's been hard for many and often unexpected reasons. Harder than I expected in some ways, but easier in others.

It's been uncomfortable and challenging and at times made me question my sanity. 

But worth it.

And this is only the beginning.

Yet as I approach July, two programs I embarked on at the same time are drawing to an end and, as part of the process, both are calling on an element of reflection, a moment to look back and consider the progress made, the changes, the journey and the next steps.

Anybody who knows me will know that one of these areas is of course the on the job teacher training I started last September.  But very few people know that at roughly the same time I signed up for a 12 month online fitness coaching program as well.  Which might not sound very significant, but it was more than a fitness program, it has been a proper, full blown soul searching, sort your life out inside and out coaching program.  So as well as 6 trips to the gym each week there's also been fortnightly habits to learn and daily lessons to complete, tantrums to be had and all sorts.  On top of learning to become a teacher, planning, completing my assignments etc etc.

So yes, it's been busy.  And having not blogged about either of these things at all, I now feel like I have about 800 posts swirling about in my brain desperate to come out.

For now though, on the subject of reflection, I can't help but notice how different my reactions to both courses seems to be.  

From a teaching point of view: I know I'm only just starting out, I know I have loads left to learn and to experience but I am super proud of how well I'm doing so far and know I have loads of potential to be a really great teacher over time.  Sometimes I catch myself berating myself for not being better yet, for not knowing it all yet...but mostly I am very forgiving of myself, I'm not too hard on myself.  I am still a perfectionist and practically kill myself trying to do the best lesson ever in the whole world for every observation and then get frustrated afterwards with all the ways it could have been better...but that's just because I really want to do the best job I possibly can at this and because I'm just a very reflective person always wanting to learn and improve for next time. Exhausting way to be, but that's me.  On balance, my overriding sense at the end of this course is achievement, pride, excitement and hope for the future.

However, when it comes to the online coaching side of things, the same feelings are there but totally skewed in the other direction.  I have glimpses of pride, of feeling strong, of recognising my progress, of revelling in how much I can lift now compared to a year ago, but there's a bigger part of me that says I haven't done enough. I haven't made as much progress as I wanted. I'm not as strong as I wanted. I can't lift as much as I wanted. I haven't lost as much weight as I wanted. I don't look as good as I wanted.  The results have been amazing.  But not as amazing as I wanted.  Which is just ridiculous because actually, the results have been awesome (it's an American program, it's compulsory to say things like 'awesome') body is a whopping 50cm smaller than it was last July, nearly 20cm of that from my waist.  What's not to love about that!?

It seems to me that I see my teaching thing as something I am doing, but the other is still more intimately linked with who I think I am...uh oh, issues alert.

This is interesting to me.  It throws up several questions:  Did I just want too much?  Were my expectations too high? Undoubtedly yes.  Did I actually give it my all and follow all the lessons to the tee?  No, not really.  I especially had a massive blip in March that I'm only just starting to claw my way back out of.  Does that matter?  Does that make me lazy and useless?  Well, actually, no.  It makes me human.  It shows me that actually this past year I've had a ridiculous amount of stuff going on and at times some of the other stuff just had to take priority.  Am I scared of what happens next when the program comes to an end? Yes.  Do I still have issues around my self image and especially body image?  Clearly...or I would be just as proud of my transformation there as I am of my journey towards becoming a teacher.   

But I'm getting there.

And I think my reaction to this reaction says the most about how far I've come.  Am I going to say oh sod it then and disappear into an ice cream fuelled misery fest?  Nope.  That's what the old me would have done. The new me puts her pink trainers on and gets back into the gym, lifts heavier than last time and keeps on going.  The new me realises you just can't control the results, but you can control the decisions you make and the actions you take. Keep taking those actions and the results will come.

So if that's what I can control, actually, that's what I should be measuring progress on...hard work, good decision making, not my warped view of the end result...there is no end result anyway, it's a lifelong process.

And there's where my two courses collide.

In teaching you're taught to promote and congratulate good decision making in order to effect behavioural change. You're taught to praise the process not the outcome..."oh you've worked so hard on that and kept on going when it got difficult" versus "gosh, what a pretty picture". You're taught to refer to behaviour as just that, not an inherent part of the person..."do you think that was a kind thing to do?" as opposed to "you're so naughty".  I know that, I do it all the time with the children.

But perhaps it's about time I learnt to do it with myself as well.

Lighting the touchpaper

I was just thinking to myself that I hadn't posted for ages and came in to find I had in fact written this post way back in September but never published it.  So, here it is:

As I start my teacher training I've been doing a lot of reading around how children learn, what helps them develop and grow and what my role as a teacher in this whole process is going to be.

Needless to say I'm loving every minute and every word of it.

My first assignment, about the role of the teacher in developing the exploratory spirit of all learners, has inspired me to share my thoughts on the subject here:

A while ago I observed a lesson where there was a little boy, brand new to the class. He hadn’t been in the day before so hadn’t had the homework. There was no pre-teaching from the teacher to help him catch up. As soon as the lesson started he felt on the backfoot & it showed in his body language. As the class went on the boy realised he actually knew some of the answers, and it was a subject he loved to learn about. He became more and more animated and more and more excited, his body language literally opened up as he began to explore the subject with the others. In his excitement he had his hand up and was jumping up and down making little whimpering noises desperate to make his contribution to the class. The teacher walked past, looked down her nose at him and said “I can see you, there’s no need to make that silly noise”. And Boom. The shutters were down, the light went off, the body language closed. He didn’t move or speak for the rest of the class and he certainly didn’t explore any further.

We may well all be born with a drive to learn, but it’s all too easy for it to be squashed. Either by life itself, as we learn about things like shame and embarrassment, we learn to judge ourselves. Or, for others of us, like that little boy, by parents and teachers who just don’t really know any better, who aren’t armed with the knowledge or tools needed to help it flourish.

And so we end up, according to Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The new psychology of Success, with two types of people: those with a growth mindset and those with a fixed mindset.

And to boil a whole body of work down, the two mindsets can pretty much be summed up with Henry Fords "whether you think you can, or whether you think you can't, you're probably right".

And if you think you can’t, what’s the point in trying or exploring any further.  If you think you can, that spirit keeps you going, keeps you progressing

And that’s what we’re looking for really. Progress. It’s what Ofsted are looking for anyway.

And as teachers, our role as defined in our Standards is to promote the intellectual curiosity that leads to that progress.

In fact curiosity and exploration are woven all throughout the Early Years Framework as well.

As teachers we’re aiming to keep, or move all our learners into a growth mindset and away from a fixed mindset by:

a) doing everything we can not only to keep those growing minds flourishing, but also by protecting them from anything at all that might lock them down


b) to work out the code for the padlocks and break off any chains already there… bearing in mind the code for each learner will be different.

Dweck does seem to simplify this bit somewhat.

But if you think about it, our minds and brains are the most complicated bit of kit we’ll ever have to use and none of us gets an instruction booklet on how to use it.  So in a way I see my role as a teacher a bit like helping each of my learners write their own mind user’s manual.

The more I think about all of this and read through the books on my PGCE reading list, the more it seems like one big minefield out there. Every which way we turn there’s a potential bomb shell. A potential trigger to shut a learner down.

Be it the language we use, the type of praise we give and to whom and when and for what.
The type of assessment we use, what we measure for and what we do with the results
What we as teachers value and what we model ourselves
The feedback we give
How we lay out our classroom
Our behaviour management strategies
How we work with parents and other partners
The type of questioning we use and we encourage our learners to use
How we plan and use the curriculum
The targets we set, the challenges we put out, the choices we allow our learners to make for themselves
And so the list goes on.

But used in the right way these bombshells become a powerful armoury…the minefield becomes a rich treasure chest.

An abundant toolkit fool of goodies to help our learners thrive.

And within my treasure chest, as I see it, are 3 compartments.

Me myself, How I teach and What I teach.

Which roughly correspond with the teacher roles of Modelling, Conveying, Orchestrating and Explaining as Guy Claxton lays out in Building Learning Power, and three of the themes from Development Matters in the EYFS, Positive Relationships, Enabling Enviroments and Unique Child.

There’s literally SO much to say within each of these boxes that I could go on for a week so I’m going to pick one or two key points for each.

Firstly, me.  I think my first duty to my learners it to adopt a growth mindset myself. After all, in the words of DuBois “children learn more from what you are than what you teach”.

Secondly. Even as I was writing this I realised that the main point about how I teach and what I teach, is that that’s not the point at all. Rather it’s about how and what my learners learn.  I mustn’t do all the thinking for them, I needn’t have all the answers, but instead use and encourage those higher level questions that encourage expansive and exploratory thinking beyond right and wrong…and create a safe risk taking environment for that to flourish, and then praise accordingly, avoiding at all costs that ‘gilded cage’ that Dweck talks about. How I use assessment is important but more important is that the learners can self and peer assess, know how they’re getting on and what to do about it.

And in terms of what I teach, well why not ask the learners what they want to learn? One teacher I’ve observed always starts a new project by jumping to the end of term quiz as a fun way for the class to explore their existing knowledge together and then come up with ways to fill the gaps and decide together what they want to learn next.  I  also think it’s important that we give all learners time to discover themselves, their own strengths, their own learning styles. That’s why free-flow play is so important in early years and why encouraging collaborative play is not always the right thing to do…solitary play is just as important in developing an exploratory spirit.

And then as well as modelling, there’s explicitly learning to learn and thinking skills. This could be through something as simple as having 6 coloured hats in each classroom to represent De Bono’s 6 thinking hats and inviting learners to try on different hats to find new perspectives and new ways of approaching the issue at hand…I’ve seen this done to great effect.

So, if I’m getting it right, it’s not about me at all. It’s about “us”.

What I need to do is light the touch paper and get out of the way!

A bit like a pyrotechnician if you like...light the fuse and watch the fireworks dazzle and shine. Get it wrong and it all blows up in your face. Or at the very least you dampen the fuse and put out the flame.

Yeats is quoted as saying "education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”, and before him Plutarch posed that  "the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be ignited".

But to light a fire, to open the treasure chest, we need a match. A key.

And as much as I love Carol Dweck's work and her Mindset book, I think she is missing something that Barbara Fredrickson captures with her work on the Broaden and Build Theory.

According to Fredrickson, it's positive emotions that open our minds right up like a water lily, so we can literally see the bigger picture, beyond the immediate horizons of our own situation.  Her research is grounded in positive psychology, essentially the science of optimum human flourishing and positive psychology tells us that people who experience more positive emotions are more optimistic and more creative. They exhibit more resourcefulness, more resilience, and more reciprocity and reflexive skills, otherwise known as the 4 key Rs of of Guy Claxton’s  learning powered brain.

And the reason this happens is because positive emotions send dopamine flooding round our brains, lighting up all our learning centres and putting us in an optimum state for learning. 

Without it, our brains are pretty much closed for learning.

So we can teach thinking and learning skills and encourage exploratory thinking but if our learners are too hot, too cold, tired, hungry, sad, scared or bored, their brains will be closed and it just not going to go in.

I think Claxton and Lucas go some way to addressing this with their ever evolving model of real world intelligence where they put 'presence of mind' right in the centre of everything else. Without it, everything else falls apart.

For me, this is why programs like the Tools of the Mind early childhood curriculum described by Paul Tough in How Children Succeed, the Penn and then the UK Resilience Programme, SEAL, Healthy Minds, ELSAs and other programs that teach ‘soft’ skills like  mindfulness, focus and self control etc are key here. In fact Tough argues these are far more important than the more cognitive skills in determining whether a child will exhibit a curious spirit and I'd be inclined to agree with him.

But I also propose a step further. I would set the whole model within a  frame of positivity.

So, as teachers, if nothing else, our role in ensuring the exploratory spirit of all learners is fully developed, is to fill our classrooms with positivity, to give our learners what psychologist Shawn Achor terms “the Happiness Advantage”.

And there are plenty of ways we can do that, but that’s a whole other post.