by John Doran, teacher and guidance counsellor for over 24 years. He is a public speaker and author of the internationally acclaimed Ways to Wellbeing. It is currently taught in over 140 schools both here and in mainland Europe.
The best definition of education I have ever heard is that it’s a conversation between one generation and another, about what’s really important in life.Surely there is nothing more important to us as educators or parents than the wellbeing in the fullest sense of the word, of our young people?
This was the starting point for my recent Tedx talk filmed in Ballyroan Library, Dublin entitled ‘How to thrive in a world of busy’. That it received a standing ovation speaks to the fact that the future wellbeing of young people is a concern in a world where the pace of change in the future will never be slower than it is today.
The emotional well-being of our students should be every bit as important to us as their physical well-being. A student who is supported emotionally is far more likely to learn more effectively, and develop the social/emotional ‘soft’ skills necessary to become a fully rounded, empowered and flourishing human being.The future is not what it was. The world is changing. Are we preparing our young people for a world that no longer exists in a system perfectly designed to do so? When will vital life skills like stress management, communication and resilience be taught rather than caught in school? Are we about an education of the head or of the heart? Are we preparing students for a life of tests or the tests of life? Managing our stress, developing a vernacular around emotions, communicating with confidence, and building up our capacity to cope with tough times are vital skills to both survive and thrive in school and in life.
Unfortunately, such skills frequently get pushed aside by the relentless pursuit of curriculum content and happen by accident in schools, rather than by deliberate design. They are a random by- product, not strategically planned for. If we don’t consciously teach young people to confidently communicate, find their voice, and create a literacy around emotional intelligence, a term brought into common parlance by Dr. Daniel Goleman, we may end up with a generation in a fast-changing world that is unemployed, underemployed, or unemployable. This goes far beyond debating or public speaking modules that may be taught currently. It’s about helping beat the bouts of doubt with heaps of hope. To empower and encourage young people to harness a mindset of what I call strategic optimism. The stakes have never been higher with levels of stress and anxiety among young people at worrying levels. I would contend that the so called ‘soft skills’ of emotional intelligence, empathy and ability to effectively and confidently communicate, are the key differentiators that determines success in life, relationships and business. That enables and empowers one to as Emile Zola said ‘ live out loud’.
It is so important to teach young people that no matter what happens -if results don’t go your way , or that conversation, or that relationship, or you fail to get that assignment in on time -to remember what Robert Frost said were the three words experience had taught him most about life.”It. Goes. On.”
In other words very few episodes in life merit a full ‘flight or fight’ response. What seems ‘major‘ today with the passing of time may well be minor tomorrow. Can you remember what you were worrying about at this precise moment this time last year? You would have to have a very good memory to remember. Students enormously benefit from learning that failure is not fatal but rather a necessary and sometimes unavoidable signpost on the way to learning. There can be a huge toll to pay for living our lives in this ‘flight or fight’ zone in terms of our health both mental and physical and in terms of our performance and ability to relate positively to others. Indeed, many have pointed to a lack of confidence or ability to tap into innate resilience by what has been referred to as a ‘snowflake‘ generation paralysed by a fear of failure, and of somehow not being enough. Many of whom it would seem are happier to add a friend on Facebook than meet one.
When fear is writing the script of of a young person’s life, the working title is usually ‘I’m not good enough’. That feeling of not being ‘enough’ gnaws away at us and never seems to stop, with the effect of eroding our self confidence. Students studying the programme are encouraged to delve into fear and reframe it as ‘False Expectations Appearing Real’. We are born with only two fears – the fear of falling over and the fear of loud noises – which most teenagers have very successfully overcome! All the rest are learned over time. The fear of making mistakes, the fear of not fitting in, the fear of speaking out in public or expressing ourselves. There is a real difference between a sabre tooth tiger trying to eat us in our mind, and an actual sabre tooth tiger actually trying to eat us!
What we meet and greet we tend to defeat and what we resist usually persists. When that fear is faced up to it dissipates and the young person is able to change their emotional state from one of fear and anxiety to one of effort and application. They are free to ‘give it a go‘, communicate with confidence with a mindset of what’s the worse that can happen?
A crucial mindset to adapt when we meet a setback is to be more compassionate and kinder to ourselves. Withholding self-criticism and engaging in a more positive and constructive relationship with ourselves can greatly enhance our chances of a successful outcome. To amp up the voice in your head that’s positive – your inner coach, and dial down the negative voice in your head that’s your inner critic. That voice in your head is the only one you can be guaranteed will be with you all your life – ME FM, your internal radio station. Making it a good news channel encourages a growth mindset, and encourages young people to reframe mistakes as Vile – very interesting learning experiences. We tend as a society to talk least about the things we think about most, and young people can be very hard on themselves – we all can.
A key of young people to remember is that they are already enough – no brilliant exam result, status in life, or approval from others will make you more enough than you already are. You were born enough. We sometimes have a real fear that we aren’t – and have a real fear that failure will confirm that. That we don’t measure up to our own or others expectations. The temptation is to try and fill that void outside ourselves. We will feel enough when we get the approval of our friends, that college place, or the name plate on the office door. The message to young people is that you were, are and always will be enough.
What informed my own journey into teaching was the positive difference so many teachers made in my life when I was in school in the Patrician Secondary School, Newbridge. I came to realise the power the profession has to make a real and lasting difference. I was the first member of either side of my family to every attend University and so teaching to me is truly a ministery of hope in the service of the young. Years ago , a teacher asked us to write a sentence that meant something significant using only ten words and each word could only have two letters. Seeing us stumped she went to the board and wrote ‘If it is to be it is up to me’. In that moment, a teacher had challenged and inspired us to get in the driving seat of our own lives and not be a passenger. Not just for that moment but for the rest of the journey. All these years later I never forgot that lesson of inspiration, the teacher who taught it and a profession that at its best can weave magic, and help young people make each day their masterpiece. Let’s stop wearing the badge of busy, going to bed both tired and wired, and remind ourselves that the more we give to others, the more we need to give to ourselves.