The clearing stage

Working through troubled times. The process: ‘clearing‘ first, strategies later…

How has the start of the new school year gone for you this time round? In 24 years of teaching, it never fails to hit me like a steam train! This year has been no exception – and in many ways an exaggerated version. Back to a familiar setting, but in a very unfamiliar context, 6 months after banishment. 

Labyrinthine risk assessments to digest, and labyrinthine one-way routes through the school to navigate. Masks on, masks off, like a  quasi-surgical version of the famous Karate Kid training. And somehow still getting caught out. 

Whilst there is obvious relief at being together again, catching up in real time on news, sharing fears and frustrations, there is also an evident nervousness. Suddenly sharing spaces with large numbers of adults – albeit socially distanced. Observing the different levels of rigour when it comes to sanitising hands and objects – with pangs of inadequacy or secret rebellion.

Meetings have a more practical tone. Less about pedagogy or new initiatives – and more about survival. The things we won’t be doing, the activities that are restricted. Where we can sit and stand in the classroom, the challenge of hot-dealing around office-capacity restrictions. 

Senior teams have knocked themselves out – quite literally – with thinking through the changing guidance, rotes, seating plans, room allocations, timetabling and re-timetabling. But of course there are so many layers to school life – the known knowns, the unknowns…and the multitudinous granular questions from colleagues who desperately want to get things right. 

These different elements to the behaviour we can observe as we re-assemble act as powerful reminders that we all return with myriad experiences behind us. A long lockdown and summer separation has passed. Each of us in our own unique contexts have felt uncertainty, fear, risk, caution, preoccupation. Some of us have had life-changing situations emerge.

The spectres of serious ill-health, bereavements, family conflicts, separations, redundancies, furloughs, loneliness, social anxieties, still linger. Life has at times, felt out of control and those feelings of helplessness and overwhelm can so easily return. Especially when so many aspects of the new routine have yet to fall into place and become familiar. At the same time, we are aware that colleagues have news of joy to share. Babies have been born. Children have grown. Dogs and beloved pets have provided solace and a new, playful energy. Engagements, marriages, birthdays and anniversaries have been celebrated.  

And the same is true of our returning children and teenagers. What are the stories that lie behind their lockdowns? What burdens are they carrying in their emotional back-packs?
Some left school in March as children and will return two shoe sizes larger, a head higher. Others will have wrestled with the transformations of puberty alone – perhaps only with a worksheet or YouTube PSHCE lesson behind them. 

We have all read and heard much of the mental health challenges of remote schooling. The dangers of the prolonged deprivation of the chance to play, grow, and learn together which are so essential to the healthy development of children and teenagers.

Quite rightly schools, pastoral leaders, and teachers want to respond. To strengthen and grow the rigour of the pro-active elements of the PSHCE offer – to use positive psychology to teach the life-skills and habits that help bolster resilience and provide a buffer against mental ill-health.

How we’d love to turn the clock back…and plug the gaps left by the dearth of meaningful interaction for growing hearts and minds. This all renews the vigour for teaching kids about all the things we now know contribute to wellbeing – mindfulness, gratitude, growth mindset, strengths-based learning…And don’t get me wrong, the skills for managing our minds should be essential parts of any curriculum that seeks to teach children rather than subjects. 

In our haste to try to repair any damage left by the gaps from the lockdown, we run the risk of winding forward too fast. In order for children and teens to be ready to absorb the lessons of positive psychology, we need to help clear the space for these ideas to land and take hold. 

Many young people will have been dealing with their family’s unique family cocktail of difficulties and woes with their eyes on the stress felt by their parents. Quite often, especially where loss, family conflict and breakdown is concerned, they feel unable to go to their parents with their fears, or worries. They protect their parents from the burden of their feelings – out of compassion, or the drive to be independent. 

They will show up in our classrooms and assemblies with a whole heavy back-pack of un-named and un-tamed feelings. In the same way that it is hard to grow flowers on a concrete yard, If we want the lessons of positivity, optimism, and resilience to have traction, we need to help prepare the soil for important emotional skills and ideas to grow.

In my training as a coach, the notion of a preparation, a grounding in where the client is at the start of the session is foundational. Some coaches call it ‘clearing’. It involves checking in with them – an honest reflection on what their feelings and preoccupations are. What has been happening in their lives recently that is coming with them into the coaching space. And a robust reflection on what is needed in order to be present and focused. 

I was reminded of the importance of this last year in some group-coaching I did for a school who had identified a particular year group as being especially disengaged and disaffected. They were  scathing about many things – but they reserved especial cynicism and venom for the pastoral programme which they interpreted as hypocritical, cultish… ‘Look after yourselves – but work yourselves into the ground and achieve at all costs…’ In their world view their school required them to be happy like Stepford students. So of course they had made it their mission to resist the whole programme tooth and nail. I can only imagine what a tough gig form time and PSHCE would have been for those teachers trying to help on the front-line. 

They felt they were being told what to do, how to feel, who to be. But underneath the anger was a sadness and vulnerability. That they did not feel known, that their difficulties would not be listened to or taken seriously. Wherever they looked, wherever there were resources offered them, teacher 1:1s, talks, workshops, online materials, they saw a persecutory plot to jolly them through school, keep their noses to the grindstone, and not cause problems. In other words the seeds were being sown on barren land. 

In my private coaching practice, I always write up key ideas, action points, learning, in my client journal. And part of the coaching ‘contract’ is work on accountability near the beginning of  each subsequent session – checking in with how my client has got on with the ‘next steps’ they designed – it’s called accountability. But as I have grown as a coach, I have learned to start the session in an open and responsive way – to check in and be ready to ‘dance in the moment’ (Co-Active coaching) with what is present in their lives. This is so important – to not wade in with the ‘agenda’ set by the last session. But to start with full and focused presence on the truly wonderful human beings who are my clients.

And this check-in is not diversion. It is like your mirror check before making a manoeuvre on the road. It is important. Recently I had been coaching a parent on the time of her relationships with her teens and the difficulty she was having with developing their motivation. We could have stayed on that track – but one session she had a bigger fish to fry in her emotional landscape – conflict with an old and trusted friend. Overlooking this would have meant only half her mind – maybe less – was on the session whilst she mentally rehearsed her next move on WhatsApp. We’d get no traction. As is often the case, in ‘clearing’ and hearing the troubles in her mind with this relationship which had been core – there were several learning points and points of intersection with the way she was showing up with her teenagers. 

In other words… ‘clearing’ the space means being open, responsive and agile to what another human is bringing to the connection we are trying to make. It enables them to feel safe, seen, and soothed through being listened to and met – where they are really at. It might pop up something that seems diversionary – but enabling the naming of it, is a way of bringing the mind to focus, slowing the formula 1 circuit speed of threat-based thinking and opening the ‘yes brain’ – that is more capable of curiosity, integration and assimilation of other ideas…

And I feel that in these still anxious and uncertain times – this ‘new normal’ – this practice is especially important as part of pandemic teaching, as well as pandemic parenting.

So what can teachers do to help students be receptive to important wellbeing tools?

CLEARING – a coaching tool to gain traction in the classroom…

What ‘Clearing’ might look like in the classroom – form times, lesson starters for PSHCE at the start of the year…

  1. Naming it. Publicly acknowledging that everyone is coming to this thinking space from different perspectives – some of which are unknown, private, and difficult. WE think we know each other well – classmates, friends – but in the past few months our families and friends have all had their own unique stresses and strains.

    1. It’s OK to have a whole cocktail of different, and difficult feelings in the mix. These may or may not be with you all the time. These are a normal part of human life. We’ve all had different days, we all have different needs. 

      1. Encourage the class to take a moment to reflect silently on where they are at. What feelings are in the room for them – from their journey to school, from the lunch hall, from the last lesson? 

        1. Introduce the chosen topic for the form time session – what aspect of Social, Emotional, Relationships learning it is. But also nutshell the intentions and values behind having that focus at this point ‘We are going to be looking at X in this session. This is important because of Y. We very much hope it will enable you to work on Z with less stress…’

          1. GIVE CHOICE. ‘I hope you’ll find some of this session resonates with you. But some aspects may not land so well – and that is OK. It’s important that we work together and work through any questions you might want to bring up.’

            1. ASK – is there anything anyone wants or needs to say or ask. What is in the room? What might be good to put out there right now that would help you be really present for this topic – and for each other?

Learning and reflections:

How might you adapt and tweak this process in your 1:1s with pupils?

When might ‘clearing’ be especially important in your 1:1s?

When have YOU been in interactions when your mind was elsewhere – hijacked on a rollercoaster? What was the impact? 

When have you experienced a form of ‘clearing’? What was the impact?

When might you feel resistant to ‘clearing’?

What might that tell you about where you are with the relationship with that student? With your relationship with your own need for control?


I hope you’ve found this topic interesting and helpful.As always, please contact me if you’re interested in coaching for you, or training for your team at school.With love and gratitude as always,Emma.

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