Believe in yourself and be an achiever

5th December 2003 at 00:00
Teachers can have a huge impact on motivation if they go about it the right way, says Ewan Aitken

I attended another opening of a school last week, the 14th in two years, a record for Edinburgh! This one, however, was a little different. The headteacher, formerly head of one of the three schools which merged to create this new one, announced to the gathered throng that she had been my primary 7 teacher.

She used this example to tell the children that if they worked hard they could achieve great things. I am not sure the assembled weans included being a councillor in their collective "great things to achieve category".

Primary school was a fairly positive experience for me, although the move from Nairobi to Dunfermline aged seven was not the easiest of transitions.

By the time I was in this now headteacher's class I was settled and she made good use of that. High school was a different experience, however. I struggled, as much because of what was happening outside school as in it.

By 16, I was ready to leave.

But I stayed, mainly because of the attitude of one PE teacher. I was no sporting star, but he helped me believe that I could achieve great things.

He did it by talking up my achievements, modest as they were, and pushing me to greater goals. My finest hour was winning the Fife schools under-17, 800 metre championships. Not quite the Olympics, but the journey to that moment of personal glory meant I stayed on at school, and ended up going to university twice, getting ordained and moving on to a life in politics.

That teacher changed my life by instilling in me a belief I did not know I had. He did so not by the content of his subject but his attitude to my achievements. I learned to have a confidence from which I still drink deep.

I tell this personal tale to illustrate one of the key themes of a fascinating conference I attended last week. "Towards a confident Scotland" was an opportunity to tease out some of the challenges and insights articulated by Carol Craig in her excellent book The Scots' Crisis of Confidence. By exploring our nation's story theologically, philosophically and politically, Craig shows that as a nation we do have a serious confidence problem. But, she argues, it is learned behaviour. It is a consequence of our history as Scots, not a consequence of being Scottish.

Keynote speaker Martin Seligman, the renowned psychologist, developed this theme. Seligman's thesis is that everyone is an optimist or a pessimist.

This is much more complex than a glass half-full or half-empty. It is, psychologically, how we interpret the world we experience.

Seligman shows, through years of robust research, that the optimistic approach means not only higher achievement but also better health, better relationships and, more fundamentally, a better sense of personal peace. He argues that even if we are genetically pessimistic, we can learn to respond to the world optimistically and so gain the benefits of optimism.

The conference attempted to apply this "learned" approach to a nation. That is a huge challenge. Can we learn to be optimistic as a nation? Can we learn true confidence in our nationhood - as opposed to, as Craig argues, being trapped by a fear of stepping out of line which will lead others to cry: "Ka the feet from yon big b*****d"? This, she argues, is the stock Scottish response to anyone who is seen as too over-confident in their own importance or ability.

In the discussions, the role of education came up continually, in particular the idea of emotional intelligence. The question was asked more than once: can we embed emotional intelligence into the curriculum? The answer is yes. To begin with, we need to learn to talk up the positive, to celebrate our success as well as challenge our weaknesses.

Tom Hunter, the entrepreneur behind the focus on enterprise in the curriculum, wrote about the programme recently. While it stems from a concern that we are not encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit, something identified as a sign of our lack of confidence, Hunter's piece was full of positive words. He offered evidence that the programme is already being seen by others as ahead of the game and breaking new ground. He gave a clear sense of confidence in the effectiveness of what is still a relatively new venture.

I have no doubt that any teacher involved in delivery of the programme reading Hunter's words would have a renewed sense of purpose. From accentuating the optimistic comes the confidence to deliver the aspiration.

As that PE teacher showed me, great things come from small words.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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