My teacher’s eye response to global crisis and a tsunami of mental health problems in schools: Strictly Positive Teaching

It’s early 2018 as I write, and a very tough time to be a child. It’s not that easy for the rest of us, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see that it must be unbelievably scary and confusing through the lens of a child.

We have lived through a globally tumultuous eighteen months, where much of what we took for granted has been thrown out of the window. In the western world populations have never been so divided since the days of the Cold War. Within nations the holders of entrenched views seem unable to understand the opposing opinion. Anger and contempt on one side greets any expression of views from the other.

In the international English-speaking world, the phrase “fake news”, unknown two years ago, is an explicit concept which people now accept. Cries of “fake news” are chorussed by one side when a report seems to claim that their opinions might be misguided. Individuals trust their own prejudices more than facts or the opinions of experts. ‘Expert’ has become a pejorative term, as people grasp the opportunity to assert their own opinions, however misguided and extreme they be. Norms have been overturned with the controversial election of Donald Trump in the USA, and Brexit, Britain’s choice to leave the European Union, in the UK. Because Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton won the popular vote with some 2.8 million more votes than he did, and that electoral irregularities have been alleged, the result of the election was by no means acknowledged and divisions have never yawned so wide; whereas here in Britain the so-called Remain and Leave campaigns relied less on fact than on scare-mongering and hyperbole, so the decision to leave is not universally accepted. In both nations divisions have not been thrown into such sharp focus for many decades. As the dust settles, even so many moths after the events, the deep fault-lines of disagreement endure. One man’s facts are another man’s “fake news”.

Migration is a hot topic everywhere; while unfortunates fleeing strife, war, famine and poverty from many nations of the earth and liberals across the globe reason that whole world problems require whole world solutions, impoverished communities believe they pay a disproportionate price in helping the poor and exiled of the world, and they seek to pull up the drawbridges and concentrate on looking after their own. Migrants living here, Europeans as well as those from further away, are looked at with a more open distrust, and in Britain and America instances of hate crime have surged since our two elections, at some point more than doubling compared to the days before the two surprise results. Some schools have started collecting ethnic data about their students. Individuals are disappearing from communities where they have lived for decades. Children are fearful.

Economically the western world continues to feel the impact of a massive economic crisis and uncertainty, so that families are anxiously watching their budgets and fearing the economic ramifications of these seismic political events. Many Britons live in deep poverty, having to judge what bills not to pay, and in some cases turning to the frankly terrifying resort of loan sharks. Children living in such circumstances feel helpless and frightened, sometimes experiencing anxiety and guilt that they are unable to help their families.

In the UK, schools are instructed by OfStEd to pursue improvement “relentlessly”, and judgements of a school’s performance may look at “pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” and their “personal development, behaviour and welfare”, but whatever the facts most schools interpret that the overwhelming job is to enable students to get the highest grades; SATs, GCSEs, A Levels, etc; which they can. And, of course, that is the core business of a school, to get their students the best possible qualifications that they can so that they can walk out of the doors into the best future that they can build for themselves. The obvious danger, however, is that if those grades more to the school than to the students, any incidental detriment to the student in the attempt to get them can be easily overlooked.

Social media is often a forum for hate, loathing and dismissal; children who are subject to bullying are not safe when they close their bedroom doors, but are followed in and tormented mercilessly through their electronic devices. The bully in the playground and behind the bike-sheds has been replaced by the faceless bullies ranged at thousands of keyboards tapping out insidious and unrelenting abuse. Children in friendships and relationships routinely exchange photos of themselves naked or semi-naked for a laugh, and then when relationships go wrong those intimate photos can be widely exchanged and judged cruelly and obscenely. And if public figures are regularly subject to rape and death threats, can we be surprised that some young people choose to mete out the same to other, more vulnerable, youngsters? We are becoming inured to the pictures of children who have committed suicide staring out at us from newspaper front pages.

As I said, it’s a tough old world. Stress, depression and anxiety are therefore as endemic in schools as they are in the wider population.

This epidemic of mental health issues is widely acknowledged by politicians and those in power, but it would be too daunting to try to address the root causes – impossible, even. So Theresa May announces that the ‘stigma’ of mental health issues must be tackled, but declines to provide any funding to do so, instead, predictably, says that schools and employers will provide this support for children. No one seems to question the fact that our young people are suffering and cutting themselves and killing themselves. The government seeks ways to manage these issues, rather than eliminate, or at least mitigate the circumstances which bring them about.

We in schools are used to governments calling upon us to resolve all the issues which beset society without any money, training or time. In addition to teaching and helping students get good grades. We sign, moan a bit, then roll up our sleeves and get on with it.

But the truth is, in this area, we teachers CAN do something to help. We can do something to help in our everyday pedagogical practice. We should not aim to be ersatz psychiatrists or social workers – as teachers we are not qualified to replace such professionals, and trying ham-fistedly to do so could do more harm than good; even school pastoral leaders can do any more than acknowledge concerns about a student and signpost appropriate sources of help. But in our classrooms and in our schools, we CAN help.

As a stark contrast to all the insoluble awfulness of the world, we can resolve to be kind, strict and POSITIVE.

In every aspect of our work as teachers we can resolve to provide clear boundaries to the students in our care while being unfailingly positive. We can work WITH the natural psychology of being a child, rather than forcing young people to behave in ways which run counter to their instincts. In otherwise, in every sphere of operation we can resolve to be a STRICTLY POSITIVE TEACHER.

This is my two pages of bad news. An ironic introduction to the concept of strictly positive teaching, but everything from now on will be positive.

UPDATE: Since writing this preface, I have had to attend the funeral of a creative, talented young person, who buckled under the strain of life and took his life just a year after leaving school. My evangelical zeal for Strictly Positive Teaching has intensified . WELCOME TO STRICTLY POSITIVE TEACHING.

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