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How a ‘Realistic Happiness Culture’ can Transform your School

August 27, 2019, 10:46 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Stephanie Davies discusses the profound impact that a ‘realistic happiness culture’ can have in school settings beset by performance pressures...
How a ‘Realistic Happiness Culture’ can Transform your School

When we talk about happiness, there can often be a sense of it being a short-term thing. However, it’s important to note that there’s a difference between happiness and pleasure.

Pleasure tends to be something short-term and quite self-centred, whereas happiness is something much greater than that, and more far-reaching in the long term – particularly in schools.

At the same time, however, it’s also okay to not be happy. Children and young people especially can these days be pressured to think that being happy is the be-all and end-all, when what we actually need to talk about more is the idea of ‘realistic happiness’.

A comfortable space

Happiness isn’t always achievable. Life, after all, is full of ups and downs, so experiencing peaks and troughs is entirely natural. There will inevitably be days when you don’t feel great, or feel sad.

What matters is how we cope at such times, and how we can help others work through their own difficulties. It’s this which can create a truly happy culture within a school.

You can help this process along by creating a system of school buddies and school groups for your teachers. Which teachers among your staff seem to be performing particularly well? Identify who they are, and form small staff groups that they can regularly work with and chat to, perhaps at lunchtimes or after school.

These talking groups can be really helpful, but shouldn’t be mandatory. Have them perhaps discuss different topics or themes each week, and make sure that staff know they can drop in on them as and when.

The groups might choose to talk about SATs one week, and maybe something entirely unrelated to school the next – perhaps personal wellbeing, or experiences with the menopause.

Creating small talking groups of this kind will help foster a broader sense of community and give people a comfortable space in which they can talk about specific subjects that are important to them.

Acts of kindness

Another thing you can do is organise activities that might fit the aforementioned ‘pleasurable’ and ‘short term’ description, but which can boost morale over time. One of our ideas at Laughology is something we call ‘Getting mugged off’.

Buy a large mug, fill it with some pleasant, inexpensive goodies and treats – nothing too large or expensive – and leave it anonymously on a table in a room belonging to a teacher who’s recently done something brilliant with an anonymously written note.

Having done it once, make it a regular weekly thing whereby a teacher takes their turn in filling the mug with goodies and leaving it on a colleague’s desk in recognition of something great that they’ve done. On the one hand, it’s a simple act of kindness that shows appreciation for others’ efforts, but it also taps into something else – that highlighting instances when people do the right thing is vitally important.

With schools under so many different pressures and constantly fretting over what they need to do next, marking those moments when colleagues excel themselves with small rewards is a really positive move. Many settings will do precisely that with their children, but rarely with staff.

You can also take practical steps towards reforming policies and procedures that may be causing issues. A big one for many teachers right now is their school’s marking structure – if you haven’t already, consider joining the many schools now giving serious consideration to the volume of marking they currently expect their teachers to manage, and the marking approaches they expect to see.

It’s not as though a school will stop marking completely after reviewing its marking structure – but it may well be that a better way of managing your teachers’ marking demands comes to light. Perhaps there’s a different, more effective approach out there that’s worth looking at.

Real outcomes

In the course of our consultancy work with schools, we’ve tended to find that when senior teams are broadly happy, the teams they work with will be too, and so will the children. Building a culture of realistic happiness across a school starts with the leadership – which will involve headteachers recognising the importance of their own wellbeing in the way they carry themselves, their behaviours, how they react to events and the relationships they form with their team.

Where that’s the case, we’ve seen increases in SATs performances, wellbeing improvements in staff, increased happiness levels, better behaviour among the children and instances of richer thinking and learning. Children are more willing to raise their hands in class, and more likely to respond to conflict – be it behavioural or personal in nature – in a thoughtful and considered way.

In the qualitative responses we’ve received, we’ve heard of children being appointed as ‘happiness champions’, whose role is to help their younger peers talk through any conflicts they’re experiencing and lend support in managing them better.

We want people to recognise just how important happiness is for the lives of everyone – not just in education, but also workplaces. That’s why, in 2015, we held our first National Happiness Awards, covering two sectors – ‘Happiness in the Workplace and ‘Happiness in Education’.

Wider recognition

The ‘Happiness in Education’ categories aren’t just intended as a celebration of ‘happiness for happiness’ sake’ – what we look for in the nominations and entries we receive are successful outcomes as the result of happiness-related activities undertaken in school. The more we’re able to get that information out to a wider audience of schools, parents and educators, the more likely it is that they’ll start promoting happiness in education themselves.

Entries for this year’s Awards are now open, and will close on 29th October 2019. We want schools to tell us what they’re doing to promote happiness, and to present us with evidence of those activities organised under five separate headings (see ‘Happy people’). By ‘evidence’ we don’t just mean statistics – we also want to see videos, photographs and any other material that will bring what you’re doing to life and help your entry stand out.

The winner of the ‘Happiest Primary School’ category in last year’s awards was one people may have heard of, thanks to Britain’s Got Talent – Flakefleet Primary School in Lancashire, in recognition of the valuable and discreet support it provides to children and families from the local area, such as washing clothes and sometimes providing Christmas and birthday presents.

Another notable previous winner a couple of years ago was Fourfields Community Primary School in Peterborough. The headteacher, Sue Blyth, later went on to speak before a conference audience of Ofsted officials about what it was that made Fourfields such a happy school, and why happiness was so important to them.

That’s brilliant, both for them and us. We want schools to be acknowledged for the really important work they’re doing which isn’t recognised by Ofsted. Our belief is that if enough schools are engaged in such work, and increasingly getting attention because of it, Ofsted’s got to start taking notice.

Create people

Based on academic research we’ve seen and further research we’ve done ourselves, the process of creating happy people requires five key elements:

  • Confidence
    Not just the confidence that someone needs to make the next move, but also a sense of confidence in other people
  • Personal development
    The ability to move ourselves forward, while recognising our achievements and successes
  • Mutual support
    The giving and receiving of support, as well as kindness, community and a shared sense of purpose
  • Positive relationships
    Effective relationships forged between members of staff and between different groups within the school
  • Coping skills
    A recognition that life isn’t about being ‘up’ all the time; that tough things sometimes happen and that our environment can affect our ability to move beyond them

Stephanie Davies is the founder of the training and development provider Laughology.

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