Right now I’m in Canberra for the National Mathematics Summer School, which is a program run for talented mathematics students from all over the country. This year for the first time, they’re trialing a teacher component to the NMSS – two intensive days (rather than the two weeks that the students get) which give us a brief taste of what the school is like for the students, and also provide an opportunity for us to do some professional development too. (Getting my head back into undergraduate maths for three hours? Yep, my brain is pretty much melted right now.)
But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. (I’ll save my reflection for the bus ride back to Sydney.) I had the pleasure of meeting and sitting down to chat with the exuberant Betty Chau (who maintains the fantastic @PositiveSchool account, not to mention a fantastic blog) over a milkshake in a lovely outdoor cafe close to ANU (where I’m staying). I shouldn’t speak for her, but I had a fantastic time – evidenced by the fact that I remained completely oblivious to the passing time and became totally absorbed in our conversation way over the time when I was meant to be back on campus for dinner. (For the record Betty, I did in fact make it back inside just as they were about to pack up and finish serving – so thanks for driving that little extra distance at the end!)
Aside from raving about the superiority of the ACT secondary schooling system (something I’m totally willing to admit – sorry NSW, I love you but I hate you too), Betty shared with me her passion for positive psychology. (For the uninformed, to give you a brief and over-simplified summary, it’s an approach toward people’s mental wellbeing that focuses on their strengths rather than on what’s wrong with them.) I found it both intriguing and refreshing, for a few different reasons.
Firstly, though the idea of positive psychology seems to be gaining currency, the practice of positive psychology in the schools that I’m familiar with is lacking to say the least. When Betty told me a few things about how positive principles were a part of her classroom practice, the kinds of structures that some schools in Canberra have in place to implement it and the kind of helpful effect it was having on her students, I was just blown away. This is something that we definitely need to learn from.
Secondly, it dawned on me just how relevant it was for all teachers – but particularly mathematics teachers, since that’s what’s going through my head at NMSS – to be caring for the psychological needs of our students in a positive and nurturing way. Mathematics has a just reputation as possibly the most demoralising high school subject in existence, with a massive (usually damaging) psychological effect on thousands of students every year. I’m convinced that this is part of the reason why so many students are convinced that they are bad at maths: regardless of their actual mathematical ability, they have had a series of bad experiences with studying maths that have left them psychologically scarred and they have (understandably) just given up on ever understanding it. This is a great tragedy and something that drastically needs to be changed.
Thirdly, Betty’s smile and enthusiasm are pretty infectious. That’s not a very professional assessment of the facts but it’s true!
So as I continue to think about the new role I’m starting this year, I’m now faced with this question: amid all the organisational decisions, the results analysis, the academic rigour and everything else that a head teacher is supposed to be prioritising – how will I care for my students’ wellbeing? What principles will I bring to the way I interact with students and lead my faculty to ensure that we develop their strengths rather than become fixated on their weaknesses?
For that matter – how will you be caring for your students’ wellbeing? Now there’s a question worth considering as January 28 approaches!