Six Steps to Student Happiness

A happy classroom is a productive one – not exactly rocket science, is it? Yet the drive to achieve results compatible with a career in rocket science means that happiness becomes an afterthought; despite increased awareness of mental health and wellbeing, academic achievement’s primacy in secondary schools remains resolutely steadfast.

Inspired by Adrian Bethune, author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom: A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness and a former work colleague before we set off on divergent teaching paths, here are some pragmatic tips to begin turning moody teens into rays of sunshine…

Start with yourself

Easier said than done. First point of note: it’s hard to foster happiness in the fragmented environment of secondary school life, where you are one of a student’s dozen teachers and you might only see them once a week as opposed to the more intimate daily connections of primary education. But as we’d instruct our students, just because something’s difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s important that, as teachers, we lead the way and set the tone.

Now, there are those dreaded classes that descend like dark clouds, dampening your mood before a lesson’s even begun… the forecast does not look good! So start forecasting brighter days. It’s amazingly empowering to recognise that you actually have the power to change those weather conditions. At the risk of sounding hippy-dippy, use positive affirmations to accentuate plus points: these might include reminders of why you went into teaching in the first place and the good that you can do for students. This won’t automatically solve complex affairs but a singin’ in the rain mindset should make you and, by extension, your students feel better. Take heart from small gains: a low-volume humming in the rain still beats a soaked cussing.

Acknowledge them as individuals

Back to basics, who was taught to greet their classes at the door? And who, realistically, actually does this every lesson? They arrive in dribs and drabs… there are starter tasks to be issued… the rictus smile began to ache by the end of week one. Of course, we still try to greet them with a smile, not a scowl, but the effect remains negligible if it is an insincere matter of routine.

Rather than forcing yourself to greet every student, every day, it is far more effective to personalise your response. Whilst going about your business, if you spy a student with a new haircut or a new coat, compliment it. Even better, if you’re aware of achievements in other subjects or in extra-curricular activities, take time to celebrate them. Even if they’re not the strongest in your subject, this gives the sense that their successes and talents are valued, contributing to an all-round culture of positivity.

In promoting individuality, be aware of the power of language. Collective nouns such as a class name can be useful in instilling feelings of camaraderie and belonging. On the other hand, referring to them as ‘kids’ can sound belittling and sets the adult apart from the group, no matter how affectionate or welcoming the tone of voice. And though it might sound trivial and unavoidable, beware the impersonal pronoun ‘them’. Guilty as charged, it appears in this very sub-heading! So what’s the problem? Well, every time we label ‘them’ as a faceless group, as in ‘Oh no, not them again’, it initiates a process of dehumanisation wherein we conveniently forget that each and every one of us has the power of self-determination. Classes are not homogeneous bodies and they are definitely not data sets!

Talk to pupils like human beings

An extension of the above. Conventional wisdom has it that adults should protect children from grown-up concerns. A laudable intent, without doubt, but there’s a vast difference between protecting and infantilising. Even pupils at Key Stage 2 have begun to outgrow being spoken to in a Comic Sans voice. Moreover, adopting a distinctly different tone can give the impression that the needs and concerns of young people are inferior and not treated with the requisite gravity.

Your telling-off mode can also have a big bearing on relationships and wellbeing. Sometimes recriminations are unavoidable and conversations can become heated but it is important to remember who is the grown-up; whatever is thrown back at you, try to maintain a reasoned, respectful, non-judgemental tone. You might not feel respected in the moment but you get what you give and common courtesy leads to happier long-term outcomes than raised voices and slanging matches.

Address feelings and concerns

The ideas explored here aim to be equally applicable to form tutors and subject teachers. Caring for student wellbeing is the duty of us all, but pastoral roles are perhaps better suited to the concept of worry boxes and other such spaces where pupils can post their concerns. The issue to be overcome here is privacy. An AFL-inspired check-in board organised into feelings such as I’m fine / I’m ok / I’m struggling looks the part except for the fact that, as with Assessment for Learning, pupils probably don’t want to be publicly seen to be struggling.

The key takeaway is to let students know that you are concerned by their concerns and want to help; even if they don’t feel entirely comfortable using whatever outlet you might make available, the simple action of sympathetically addressing negative feelings increases the likelihood that somebody struggling will seek help or guidance in some form.

Make a space where mistakes are allowed

There’s no such thing as a stupid question is a common dictum that flies out of the window faster than the groan escapes your mouth when the same question is asked for the third time that lesson. Flip this aggravating scenario to place the emphasis on inquisitiveness rather than inattentiveness: “Callum and Sophia have already asked that but thank you for joining in, it’s excellent that you want to know too.”

Rather than admonishing bad habits, praise good ones, and if particular pupils’ bad habits are so unbearable that they need addressing, do so in one-to-ones or small groups rather than in front of the class – students who lose face in front on their peers are never happy.

With regards to mistakes, don’t just allow them but encourage them. Many problematic pupils are stifled by a fear of failure which can be alleviated with an awareness that mistakes are a crucial step on the learning journey; risk-taking has to be moderated but the journey is far more exciting with a class that is willing to embrace adventure than it is with pupils afraid to exit their comfort zone. Again, modelling is important so don’t be afraid to make mistakes of your own; after all, teachers also become for more approachable if viewed as human beings rather than infallible demigods (tempting as it may be to project such an omnipotent image of oneself)!

Postpone punishment

Handing out sanctions does not obviously promote happiness but, since we’re not dealing with a utopian idyll, a strong behaviour policy is required and developmental studies do show that children are far happier given firm boundaries than they are living by their own rules Lord of the Flies style. This is, of course, not the same as saying rule with an iron fist and a degree of flexibility is demanded by the complex backdrop of social pressures being navigated by pupils and their teachers.

Whilst maintaining as much consistency as possible, the main tip for a happier classroom is to leave meting out penalties until the lesson’s end. We frequently begin on the wrong foot, chastising students for being late or not producing homework and issuing the mandatory detentions, which then causes a seething sense of injustice that impairs any subsequent learning. No matter how vital the homework, no matter how misplaced the sense of injustice, even if students know what’s coming (which they should do under consistent guidelines), deferring confirmation of punishment until the end can help to salvage a cordial and productive middle part. What’s more, dealing with wrongdoing in a calmer, post-lesson setting can give more opportunity for ascertaining whether there really were extenuating circumstances that might lead you to treat pupils a little differently in future.

For more ideas on implementing positive cognitive approaches in the secondary school environment, see Learning to Ride Elephants: Teaching Happiness and Wellbeing in Schools by Ian Morris.

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