As a society, we have become very good at identifying a pupil’s issues and then labelling them. “Anxiety” is one example of this. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard so many children and adults say that they feel “anxious” about an aspect of their lives.
Continually identifying anxieties shines a spotlight on them and can actually amplify them; it rarely makes them go away. That’s according to so-called “positive” psychologists, such as Martin Seligman.
Positive psychology focuses on the potential and strengths of a person, rather than on identifying problems and how to fix them, as traditional psychology does. It asks us not to deny that we genuinely feel anxious at times, but encourages us to recognise that this is a natural part of life – and that we still need to get on with things.
Inspired by this idea, my school launched a positive-psychology project last year, working with our educational psychologist, in which we asked colleagues to identify six positive character traits that we felt would benefit pupils and staff. These were: resilience, love of learning, gratitude, forgiveness, teamwork and kindness. We now refer to these concepts at every opportunity. As a staff team, we also highlight these traits when we see them in each other, and talk about them at meetings.
Rooted in research
If this sounds like just another fluffy “in an ideal world” concept, I can assure you that it is rooted in weighty scientific research. Psychologists Robert Emmons and Cheryl Crumpler have found that people who express gratitude on a regular basis have better physical health and wellbeing.
Seligman, meanwhile, has found that people who are optimistic perform better at work and school. And psychologist Shelley Taylor’s research shows that optimism can protect people from mental and physical illness.
As school leaders, we are very used to hearing about how much better we could do in just about every area; as long as we are still playing the percentages game when measuring attainment, progress, attendance and so on, demonstrating improvement will remain part and parcel of our jobs. But tuning in to what our strengths are, what we are good at and what inspires us, is also very important – both for ourselves and for our pupils.
I truly believe that the future of education lies in the field of positive psychology. Celebrating our strengths and building our character can only lead to good outcomes. So maybe it’s time that we stopped thinking about what we can’t do as leaders and started focusing on the positives instead.
Mike Fairclough is headteacher at West Rise Junior School, which was Tes School of the Year 2015, and author of Playing with Fire: embracing risk and danger in schools