I have been long fascinated by and committed to supporting children, young people and adults to be mentally healthy.
My own interest in this field comes probably from the fact that I have sometimes struggled to realise my potential, occasionally failed to cope with the normal stresses of life and quite often wondered how best to make a positive contribution, therefore coming up a little short against the World Health Organisation definition of mental health.
Recently I seem to have become a “voice” on the subject, with invitations to speak and write on how schools can be mentally healthy places for both pupils and staff.
But my musings sometimes generate hostile reactions from teachers who say that “schools can’t do it all” and that we can’t be expected to do the work of Camhs (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) and social work, as well as deliver the curriculum and get pupils through exams.
I know that we can. Because I have done it.
Research: Say 'hello' to tackle pupil misbehaviour
As a class teacher, as a head of department and as a head of secondary, I created learning environments where the message that I cared about every child as a person was paramount. A lot of the relationships I built were through teaching drama and doing school productions, but even when I was head of a modern languages faculty and teaching French and German, I had the same quality of relationships.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not always a calm, easy-going person on the inside and have to work incredibly hard on some days to make it appear as if I am on the outside. I think that the effort of doing that for more than 25 years has taken its toll. I am not a teacher who many pupils have as their favourite or who is seen as particularly cool. But I am a teacher who provides children with consistency, care and the permission to make mistakes and come back from them with a clean slate as many times as it takes.
As a younger teacher, I sometimes raised my voice if a pupil had made me angry, made me look stupid or disrupted my class. Sometimes a strategic shout seemed to work. But then I read a piece that suggested that if shouting at a pupil seems to “work” then it is because they are likely to be experiencing shouting and possibly worse verbal abuse at home.
When would you accept being shouted at? Would it be OK if it was a GP, a shop assistant or a bus driver? So, why should we ever accept teachers shouting at pupils?
I can honestly say that I have not raised my voice at a pupil or class for at least 10 years, other than to alert them to danger.
And having become, in the past six months, my authority lead for the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools programme, I know that we should be pushing for all schools to say “no” to shouting.
Is this asking too much of stressed teachers? I don’t think so.
Schools certainly aren’t the easiest places to create genuinely caring environments, particularly secondary schools with their strangely segmented days, ever-shifting social groupings and regimented choreographing of unique individuals. But difficult is never impossible.
A long time ago, when I was training in drama therapy and counselling skills, I would be met with a strange scepticism and suspicion from others when they discovered that I was a teacher. I soon came to realise that a lot of therapists and counsellors found schools difficult places to work in as their structures were fundamentally untherapeutic. Worse than that, it seemed as if much of the caseload of your average therapist involved dealing with and trying to find resolution to issues that had resulted from the school experiences of both children and adults.
It was partly because of this that I decided not to leave education and become a therapist but to try to stay in teaching and become a more therapeutic teacher.
We have come a long way since then. There are many schools, particularly primary schools, that are doing an amazing job at helping children to grow up mentally healthy. In Scotland, the league-table and Ofsted culture of England – where brilliant staff are sacked and schools are closed because of a dip in Sats or GCSE results – is not a factor to worry about...yet.
But let’s not be complacent and think that there isn’t a lot more we could be doing to ensure that schools are places that promote, rather than prevent, mental health. Let’s remember and take heed of the compelling and powerful words of Dr Karen Treisman in her brilliant Ted Talk: “All relationships ‘are the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind’…because relationships shape who we are.”
Lena Carter is the head of teaching and learning in a secondary school in Argyll and is currently seconded as the authority’s lead for looked-after children. She tweets @lenabellina and you can read her blog at: lenabellina.wordpress.com