Wellbeing: why we need to work on our ‘what-if’s'

Hypothetical questions can be friends or foes. Jo Steer explains how to use these mental musings in the most useful way

Jo Steer

wellbeing better questions

What if the kids don’t behave in the observation? 

What if my books aren’t up to scratch? 

What if the kids don’t make the progress that the data demands?

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What if everyone thinks I’m a crap teacher? What if it’s true?

In my experience, “what if” is rarely used to initiate useful, constructive questioning. At least, not when it comes to the kind of questions that we ask ourselves.   

Throughout my life, my “what ifs” have fanned the flames of self-doubt and anxiety.

In a profession where both of these things are sadly on the rise, it’s only natural that many of us are asking questions to which there isn’t really any good answer.

We’re asking questions that feed unhelpful thinking habits. We use our what-ifs to predict future failures, to read minds, to make mountains out of molehills; to think in terms of all or nothing, success or failure.

But what if we didn’t?

Here’s some handy swaps to help get more out of this humble sentence opener.

‘What if it all goes wrong?’ to ‘What if it all goes right?’

It’s one thing to assume the worst if you haven’t put the work in (sometimes we need a swift kick into action, so that we don’t become complacent).  But if you have genuinely done all that you reasonably can for the class/job interview/staff training, then why not use your questioning to promote realism over pessimism? 

This isn’t about being positive to the point of deluding yourself. It’s about counteracting a stream of loaded questions, asked as if failure and misery are pre-determined.  

When you catch yourself assuming the worst, switch to “What if it’s all OK?” At the end of the day, we can’t predict the future – so if you’re going to try, you may as well bolster self-confidence rather than self-doubt.  

‘What if he/she thinks I’m a rubbish teacher?’ to ‘What if he/she doesn’t think about me at all?’

In a climate where we’re monitored, assessed and judged continuously, it’s not hard to see why many of us have become increasingly over-critical and self-conscious. We over analyse conversations and emails, attempting to find hidden tone and meaning, wondering what on earth others might think of us.

The thing is, they’re not usually thinking about us at all; they’re far too busy dealing with their own pressures and problems.   

And where there is a genuine issue? If it’s important, they’ll tell you. Then you can take action to resolve it. I’ve made it a rule now that I’m not allowed to read minds or fret about anything for which there isn’t solid evidence. It’s saved me a lot of time and stress.

‘What if I don’t get it done?’ to ‘What if I died tomorrow?’

So your body and mind are crying out for a night off – and you did promise yourself that you’d finish early…but “What if I don’t get X, Y and Z done?” and “What if I fall behind?” It’s very easy to develop teacher tunnel vision, prioritising school above all else.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a teacher, it’s that there will always be something else to do… but you’ll never get this same day back again. 

So as morbid as it might sound, I ask myself “What if I died tomorrow?”. It helps me to curtail the guilt/anxiety spiral that often accompanies much-needed time off. It reminds me that I work to live, not the other way around.

Jo Steer is a teacher and experienced leader of SEND interventions

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Jo Steer

Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant

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