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Wriggle and whirl those blues away;School management

Judy Mackie reports on a workshop designed to help the whole staff unwind, relax and re-energise after a long day.

Skipping round the gym is a fairly common activity in most primary schools. But when the skippers are the depute headteacher, school secretary, and a variety of teachers, it's a sight not to be missed. And for four incredulous youngsters who are witnessing just such a sight - their noses squashed against the lower windows of Aberdeen's Westerton Primary School - the best is yet to come.

For through the fuzzy safety glass, for one unbelievable hour, the boys and girls watch as their normally dignified teachers give each other "high fives", pummel each other on the back, fall backwards into each other's arms, take part in a wild, whirling dance, wriggle together inside an enormous elastic band, and, finally, lie, deathlike, on the floor.

Those of us on the other side of the glass take little notice of their hilarity (although I, as a guest, am secretly glad I won't be facing them in the classroom tomorrow). We're all too busy enjoying the luxury of letting ourselves go, in our first exhilarating experience of The Feel Good Factory - a relaxation and energising workshop for teachers.

Run by former local authority dance tutor and professional singer Val Munro and her friend Jenny Thomson, senior teacher of physical education for Aberdeen, the wacky workshop is gaining popularity in Grampian for stimulating the feel-good factor among primary school staff.

With its unique mix of dance, team-building activities, flexibility and fun, it provides stressed-out staff with the ideal environment to let off steam and have a really good laugh at the end of a demanding day.

"I work with many schools in the city and see a lot of people who are lacking in energy due to the demands of their job. Our workshop aims to put back some of that energy by giving participants time to relax, laugh together and feel part of a friendly, supportive team. In the long-term, this should not only benefit the staff themselves, but also their pupils," says Jenny.

"Positive thinking plays a large part in the process. We want people to go home feeling good about themselves and what they've achieved that day," explains Val.

The two have a knack of immediately putting people at their ease. "No one is judging you here - do as much or as little as you want," they say, anxious that no one is suffering agonies of silent embarrassment.

Their near-slapstick style of demonstrating the next move, while never missing the opportunity to poke fun at each other, is a perfect antidote to self-consciousness, and reassures us through all the interesting things we find ourselves doing during this unforgettable hour.

One of the most challenging demands for me as an outsider, is having to pummel, and be pummelled by, Anne English, the depute headteacher . We both agree that doing the "chop suey" with your hands along a stranger's back, is not exactly an everyday occurrence. Likewise, having to fall backwards into the arms of senior teacher Kathleen Troup, who confesses she's "not someone who goes overboard touching other people".

Yet, it's clear for the group as a whole, that when the normal social barriers are let down, a new closeness starts to creep in. We understand that these activities are all about trust and support and any initial embarrassment soon disappears.

The giggling outside grows louder when the giant furry elastic band is produced, and a half-hearted attempt is made at drawing the curtains against the young peeping toms. We squash inside the colourful rubber circle and move outwards against the strain. Inevitably, rebound takes its toll and we each allow ourselves to be "pinged'' across to the other side, where we wait for it to happen again. For a few glorious minutes, we're younger than the children outside, flying across the room in an ecstasy of freedom. The laughter produced by this simple activity is always a joy to listen to, Val tells us, and it's easy to understand why.

Finally, it's time to wind down. We lie on the floor and Val talks us through a relaxation exercise, while Jenny helps us position ourselves more comfortably. As we're brought back to reality, our young audience drifts away and we're reminded about the scrap of paper we received at the start.

We had to write down how we felt at that moment, and we're asked to do the same again now.

As the goodbyes are being said, I'm allowed to see these before-and-after comments, which sum up the experience so succinctly. "Exasperated and tired'' says she feels "soft and wobbly"; "frustrated and annoyed'' has become "more relaxed"; "totally drained" is "a lot more positive", and "scared" is now "at ease and relaxed - thank you!" So successful are their workshops - which can be booked by schools as a one-off, or as a series of three (open to mixed or single-sex groups) - that Val and Jenny are now looking into the possibility of providing them on a regular basis for children with special educational needs and in mainstream.

"We've carried out a pilot with one special educational needs school in the area, and it went down very well. The activities are ideal for young people with learning difficulties, they also have a calming effect.

"We hope soon to be able to work in partnership with health and teaching professionals to help fill the gap in provision of this kind," saysVal.

The Feel Good Factory can be contacted on telephonefax: 01224 732165.

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