Invictus. On keeping going.

How to harness much needed head-winds to rise above tail-winds of pressured school terms.

And so we have lift-off. Into Spring after last week’s flurry of snow here in the UK. As the trees and plants start to bud and blossom…I wonder how are things feeling for you?

The Winter of Discontent still feels very present. Strike action persists, as do the high prices and the returns on the hard work we do, are increasingly slender. Every time I look at a bottle or orange juice or a tomato, it goes up in price.

In speaking with various school leaders who are commissioning me to do training work for their staff, or workshops for anxious and divided year-groups, I am picking up on a dominant theme – that though commitment is high, morale and energy are low. We haven’t really recovered from the stress, the change, the uncertainty of the pandemic. The children we work with continue to be highly needy and fractious with each other, or shut off, stuck, and hard to reach.

For some of the school groups where I contribute to the pastoral and wellbeing elements of their CPD programme, the intention for taking training opportunities is there, but actually taking the time out to reflect, extend and connect with other practitioners is too hard when day-to-day pressures of time are so strong.

Another esteemed colleague told me that they did not know any teacher, of their age, experience, and seniority, who was not talking about exit plans from the profession. It takes a LOT to be in the midst of school life, to set the tone, be the energy that brings children and teens together purposefully, to provide meaning, passion.

But when the pace of change continues unabated. Navigating truth, objectivity and tolerance in a funnelled world of fake news…or the upside of hearing about Artificial Intelligence potentially marking students’ work of the future, set alongside the downside of the minefield of plagiarism…Everywhere, every screen, all at once…and how…how do we, as the elders of the tribe who have responded to the calling of developing young minds…really connect?

For my own part, I am also getting more than a touch T.S. Eliot about Spring…I don’t think I ever truly felt his opening lines of The Wasteland in such a real way previously…

‘April is the cruellest month…’

Having moved house and spent money settling in rather than having holidays as we may have done pre-pandemic, changing to a new routine of my now self-employed life as a coach and trainer, it is not always easy to look up and look ahead…it is easier at times to feel the heaviness of my tread on the hamster wheel.

And indeed, moving now more into my 50s, I do indeed feel that decline in energy, the strain of undertaking physical exercise with the gusto I might have previously. Those of you who share my age and gender will be familiar with the prescription of cardio exercise and weight work to counter some of the effects of the menopause…well the nearest I’ve been getting is raising a latte to my lips in the mornings…I have a renewed respect for the vitality of some of my former colleagues and friends who have now well-established running habits!

And here am I – a trainer specialising in psychological wellbeing…a coach…I’m not really meant to be like this…but I am…and I’m not going to magic wand away any of it any time soon. Neither am I writing this with the expectation that some ‘Pan Am’-smiling-platitudes are going to help anyone get through these gritty times. Sometimes the wellbeing world just isn’t going to cut it. And more than that it can feel as though if you’ve ‘just’ done these 5 things all will be well.

How many articles and posts have you read like that? How many kids and teens do we lecture about happiness and wellbeing who – for whatever reason- life has in a bind…

The mind gets very, very good at doing what it rests in…You marinade in moaning and your thinking will become more bitter…And noticing these tendencies is part of that all-important life-skill of self-awareness. Because you can’t change what you can’t see.

When we’re in a bind, our minds seek out the confirmation of the lowest common denominator of our thinking. And when we look around right now…where are we seeing inspirational and effective leadership? Where are our role models? Where is the game-plan for a brighter future? Dialogue, change, hope? War grinds on, strikes continue, gradually becoming less and less newsworthy…Matt Hancock’s WhatsApp archive reveals yet more self-serving and staggeringly morally-bankrupt mediocrity.

Yesterday, a friend whose son is applying to University next year, told me about the dreadful financial prospects of graduates with student loans and how economically hobbling the repayment set-up is – and my initial thought was my god…who would be young?…No wonder there’s a mental health crisis…

But enough demonstration of the negativity and confirmation bias reverse forecast…

Here are some things we all can do to try and access some uplift when life’s tailwinds are strong…I hope you might have a moment or two to experiment and explore some of the ideas – and if any of them land…brilliant!

  1. Identify one or more go-to funny resources. Is there a meme, a moment from a film or sitcom, a comedy sketch, a joke, a stand-up routine, or piece of satire that you particularly like? Something that absolutely plays to your sense of humour, a piece of silliness. Revisit it in your mind. Remember the laughter of it. Something or some things that brings you joy. Make them more accessible. Create a folder on your phone or somewhere where you can go to with deliberation and call them up…
  2. Find some little everyday things in life that give you a little bit of comfort and joy. Is it having a morning coffee, and committing yourself to a ‘condor moment’ to enjoy it? Is it having a particularly lovely pen for jotting down your notes with – either a beautiful object that sits in your hand so beautifully, or when you write with it the tactile gliding sensation is juust gorgeous. Is it treating yourself to a deluxe notebook? Or wearing something that makes you feel great…Again, think what they are…note them down, and bring them to the front of your mind so that you can use the power of those little headwinds to uplift you…It’s not voodoo or a cure-all. But it is something you can intentionally access to treat yourself.
  3. On a more serious track, is there a poem or a reading, that you find particularly inspiring. That speaks to your inner core in a resonant way – with meaning, passion, purpose? Obviously as an ex English teacher, there are loads of quotations that could be called up if I sift through the sands of my mind…But having a poem or a lyric, or a reading to hand…around your desk…somewhere you can see it that acts as a reminder. You might not stare at it and read it all. You probably don’t need to. Sometimes just reading the first fragment can bring those goosebumps, and bring you back to a sense of purpose, a sense of integrity, or ground you in something inspiring. I particularly love Invictus by William Ernest Henley. It got Nelson Mandela through 27 years’ incarceration on the oppressive Robben island, recalled so beautifully by Morgan Freeman at the centre of the film Invictus. I only need the first verse to be transported, elevated, taken by poetic shortcut to something transcendent.

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

How magnificent. I used to have it stuck to my desk at work.

  • When it’s the weekend and you have some free time (hmmmmmmm?). Unstump yourself. Create a list of your own shortlist of film Oscars…10 films that inspire and uplift you…Prevent that apathy of too much hijacking your ability to choose something really cool, nurturing, uplifting, thought provoking. Which films get your nomination? They don’t all have to be worthy…
  • Express gratitude. Make a list of 10 people from your past and present life – working or not – to whom you genuinely and authentically feel some gratitude. Once each week, make contact with those people one at a time, and send them, or read to them, a message from the heart that meaningfully expresses your appreciation for the things that they have done for you – and why they are important. This has the double bubble effect of spreading good feeling in the preparation, and augmenting it in the connection…
  • On the more worthy front…and this is a good one if you’re really feeling that you’re on the hamster wheel…Take some time out – like 10, 20 minutes – to really focus on trying to summarise what your purpose is as a teacher. In workshops I often use the notion of the ‘What 3 Words’ navigation map…where you think what the 3 most resonant values speak to your sense of your essence as a teacher. How you want to be able to show up for your students. Spend some time choosing wisely and well. You can always choose more and then narrow down – but don’t go for more than 5. Optimal is 3. Easy to remember. These are going to be your hyperlink to your vocation, your sense of fulfilment in your work beyond living by the bell and the assessment, recording and reporting cycle. Because in the humdrum aspects of a busy term, it’s easy…so easy to forget that we were called to this job. If we really wanted an easy way to be earning a crust we’d be driving Foxtons minis. So dig deep. Choose 3 values. They might be emotional values. Like ‘calm’. They might be energy values – like ‘inspiring’. They might be aspirational words – be bold. Don’t hide that light. Once you’ve got those 3 words, you can do some more reflective work to embed these concepts that underpin the struggle…and that might involve going through these reflective tasks for each word:
    • Why is that value or principle so important to you?
    • How can you access that feeling or value more frequently? How might you walk the walk of that value…Identify the tangible, observable behaviours that would help you experience your work though the lens of those values more. Are there things that you do as part of your role that really embody those values? How can you get a bit more of that into your working routine?
    • What do you sometimes do that gets in the way of those values being part of your experience of your work? Are there certain behaviours and practices you can dial up or down to help you with that?
    • Can you create a ‘reminder image’ – a card with those 3 words on it eg at the front of your planner. Or on the screensaver on your laptop…? How can you make those words, those values, more livable, more prominent…?

AS I mentioned, there’s no magic wand here. But there is self-compassion and self-care. And that is very, very powerful in helping shift some of those mental pebbles and starting a little landslide of more positive feelings and experiences.

Can you commit to doing just one or two of these micro-practices each day – deliberately and intentionally and disrupt or interrupt the mass of ‘meh’ that we all have to get through from time to time?

This sort of practice can have a massive impact on our mental health. Research shows that 50% of our predisposition to mental ill health, unhappiness etc is genetic. In the absence of significant traumatic experiences (eg abuse, more than 3 Adverse Childhood Experiences) then environmental factors account for 10%. The remaining, whopping 40% of traction we have on our resilience and life satisfaction and capacity for wellbeing, thriving, is based on how we actively manage our minds…These have to be intentional interventions… eg mindfully and deliberately interrupting ruminative thoughts etc…

So have a playful explore of how you can increase your encounter with those uplifting headwinds and rise above the forces that can bring us down and make life that bit harder than it might be…

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