How are you all doing, FE pals? I’m sick to the back teeth of the current situation. I bet you are as well.
While there’s obviously a towering stack of negatives that come along with a global pandemic, there’s a weeny pile of positives, too. And though it’s generally agreed that our collective mental health is taking a pub-car-park kicking, at least there’s more recognition that mental health is an actual real-life thing. I dunno… I think people are starting to care about each other’s mental health and wellbeing a bit more than they did pre-Covid.
Have you noticed that so many more formal communications are beginning with "hope you are well" and ending with comments like "take care"? Empathetic language seems to be sliding into all sorts of communication that might previously have taken a more abrupt tone.
The wellbeing of those who work in education (not just "teacher wellbeing", which excludes great swathes of the edu-gang) has been an increasingly prominent subject over the past few years, amplified even further by the pandemic.
Exams 2021: Key questions that need to be answered
More by Sarah Simons: FE, let's follow Jill Biden's example and step into TV
Budget 2021: £126m to triple traineeships
A gentler style of communication is an acknowledgement that the recipient maybe has something going on that is far more significant than even the most important work activity. Perhaps the reason they’ve taken ages responding to an email could be something more than simply being a bit slapdash time-management-wise. Best not to make assumptions in these times. Work is not always the dominant factor in people’s lives.
Focusing on wellbeing and mental health
With a finger-buffet of shit hitting various fans in my own personal life, I’ve needed to take a few steps back to gather myself. I wanted to be more proactive than only taking the usual tried and tested methods to get healthier in mind, body and spirit – y’know eating well, doing a bit of exercise, getting enough kip, spending time outdoors, being strict about managing workload.
So I decided to make my mental and emotional health into a project. I like a project. I like steamrolling into an idea. I like actively investigating something. It makes me feel like I’ve got a little bit of control over what’s happening.
First on my list was seeing a psychologist. It’s a pricey do, but I’m viewing it as an investment. It’s a different experience to seeing a counsellor, and I’ve seen a few over the years. It’s more analytical, more… medical, I suppose. There are far fewer of those awkward long pauses as part of his role is piping up with questions and suggestions. The sessions give me so much to consider and are hugely valuable.
I’ve also been reading whatever I can lay my hands on about thoughts ’n’ feelings ’n’ that. I mean, at a push, we could call it CPD!
I’ve galloped through Radical Compassion by the mindfulness expert Tara Brach. The book encourages better self-knowledge by using the practice of RAIN, an acronym for a four-step technique of recognise, allow, investigate and nurture. I like the idea of compassion for others and keeping an eye on how you talk to yourself, too.
I’ve chucked myself at everything by the wonderful "vulnerability and shame researcher" Dr Brene Brown, though, I must admit, it’s taken me a while to get into her. I’d watched her Netflix show with a mate (pre-pandemic) who has a zero-tolerance bullshit policy. We sat through it up to the point where Dr Brown tells an audience of thousands that she’s "an introvert" and my pal could contain herself no longer. Stoney faced, she sighed, “Oh fuck off, love." I knew the point she was making. We laughed for about an hour and missed the rest of the programme.
I’ve read Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. Not just because I’m mad for that Tina Turner biopic, where she gets right into chanting and, next news, she’s selling out Radio City Music Hall as a solo act. But because the book investigates the practice of mindfulness and meditation from a secular and psychological point of view.
I’ve also read a lot of Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment stuff, about the quality of thinking and purpose of listening. I wolfed down psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz’s stories of conversations with patients in The Examined Life in one sitting. And I’ve wrapped myself in Wintering by Katherine May, a warm blanket of a book that explores the power of retreat and repair in trying times.
You might perceive all this inward attention as a bit "Eddie in Ab Fab", or think that an intentional time of self-exploration could be more accurately described as a journey up one’s own bum. That’s OK. Do what works for you.
For me, a time of actively "taking care" is adding to my mental, emotional, personal and professional life.
Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat