A Practical Tool for Living in a Volatile World
“One autumn morning the wind had blown all the leaves off the trees and was trying to blow the branches off. Piglet’s ears streamed behind him like banners. ‘Mind you don’t get blown away, little Piglet.’ said Eeyore. ‘You’d be missed”“ (Milne, A. A., 1979).
Right now, outside the wind is coming in sudden gusts, gale-force winds predicted. One moment it is calm and still, and a moment later the branches are blown into a wild dance. The safe world of little Piglet seems part of a long-lost, benign past. Right now, the storms, sudden changes, unpredictable volatility of life seem to be buffeting not only Education but the country as a whole. There are peaceful lulls, when all seems well, and then unexpected blows.
One Headteacher returned to school in September. She knew her much valued Deputy would be off on maternity but had not foreseen that on first day she would find another senior member of staff with chronic illness and yet another off indefinitely for a family member with terminal illness. It is a fairly small school so the loss of these staff has a large impact. These challenges she can sort out but on top of them has been the uncertainty of funding from central government and the many other challenges a head faces every day. Four weeks of her summer holidays were spent working in order to be well prepared for all contingencies. Ten days of holiday had refreshed her but already, two weeks into term now, her energy levels are being tested.
So how does she respond to this situation? She could try delegating – but the teachers are already overstressed; she could attempt to tighten her control, or work ever longer hours. Instead she looks at her pressured staff and the responsibilities they are carrying and decides to strengthen the big battalions – values of the school. When things get really tight she knows from experience, that we have to draw on some of our most powerful resources – our inner strength, our values. She decided that ‘gentleness’ would be the key value for the term and that assemblies, meetings of staff, problems would be approached with gentleness. When I go to see her, for a short meeting, her room is calm and the school has a happy hum to it. She took to take me on a full tour of the school and as we go into each classroom we see children engrossed in what they are doing. In one class it is silent and happy; the teacher looks up to say the class is just having a moment of quiet reflection. Lavender vapour curls up gently beside her and the children continue to sit absorbed in stillness despite our unexpected entrance.
My brief meeting turns in to a 2½-hour exchange, talking and listening, sharing, learning. With a thousand things to do on her list, she takes time out to recharge herself talking about what really matters to her in her school – her vision to create a school where there is purpose and calm.
We know that teachers are being pushed to breaking point, that staff retention is at an all-time low and illness at a high. These are the inevitable consequences of trying to carry more strain than one can manage. Much of the strain comes from fear that translates into anxiety and worry. These in turn trigger a physiological response of an excess of adrenalin and cortisol that flood the body, setting up a flight or fight reflex. When this physiological reaction happens, we seek to defend ourselves and one very common way of doing that is to blame someone, either oneself or another. It is at this point that all hope of having a calm, purposeful school goes out the window.
This is why I’m passionate about teaching the tools for overcoming this anxiety and stress, especially the tool of stillness. If you watch any great person about to do something exceptional – Rubenstein about to start playing a piano concerto, the dancer about to dance, the footballer about to take the penalty kick to win the tournament, you will see that they always start from a point of stillness. Stillness calms the breathing, breaks the hold of reactivity and puts one back in control. It is a basic tool for life. So simple, totally free, no equipment needed, no planning, just the decision to do it.
Milne, A. A., & Shepard, E. H. (1979). The house at Pooh Corner. London: Methuen Children’s Books.