On happiness

Is it just me?

Whenever I read or hear someone saying how important it is that the pupils in their school, or the staff, should be ‘happy’, it always gives me pause.

We all need a measure of happiness in our lives, that’s for sure.  Looking through possible header photos for this post with my husband was an affirming experience!  I believe in the importance of joy – I certainly found it in my career, especially in headship, and have written about that here.  However, there’s something about the idea of ‘happiness’ as entitlement that makes me a little uncomfortable.  Reading this recent tes article, ‘Should schools teach students how to be happy?’ certainly made me thoughtful.

During my ten years of headship, I had a significant number of conversations with parents who were concerned that something had made their daughters (this was a girls’ school) ‘unhappy’.  The girls had been upset at home, and the parents – loving parents who, understandably, cared deeply about the wellbeing of their children –  contacted the school to discuss, and, they hoped, resolve the issue.  Generally their hope was that whatever had led to the unhappiness could be reversed, and joy restored.  The range of issues included: the casting of Mary in the nativity; a place in a sports team; a position on our sixth form senior prefects’ team; the predicting of straight A*s at A level.

I absolutely believed in the importance of working positively and constructively with parents.  I cared about their daughters, too – although not in such an emotionally intense way.  However, sometimes it happened that what the parents wanted for their child wasn’t, for various reasons, possible, appropriate, wise, or in the girl’s best interests.  I did listen.  I presented our rationale with, I hope, calmness and conviction.  I wouldn’t change the casting of a production, the composition of a sports team, a democratic senior prefect selection process.  And I wouldn’t overrule my academic staff and raise an A level prediction if, in their professional opinion, a different grade was the most probable outcome.  Rather than ‘teaching students to be happy’, sometimes the more important thing is supporting their capacity to deal with unhappiness.

I remember once giving this message to an irate father: I ‘m sorry your daughter is so disappointed that she won’t be a senior prefect next year, but there will be many other opportunities for her to take on responsibility and build her leadership skills in school.  You do realise, I’m sure, that not being made a senior prefect isn’t likely to be the worst thing that is going to happen to her in her life.  I see our job, as caring parents and responsible schools, to work together to try to equip these young women with the resources they need to navigate their way through life after they’ve left school and the family home.  That will involve dealing with disappointment from time to time.  Much as you might like to smooth her path so that she never experiences disappointment, that isn’t actually realistic or wise…

With staff, too, I hoped that they would find their role within the school satisfying, purposeful, rewarding and energising.  But when, for example, we had new appointments to make, I was aware that for every successful applicant there were several disappointed contenders, who might well feel bruised, no matter how sensitively and transparently we attempted to manage the process.  Financial constraints at one time led to a number of voluntary redundancies – an unsettling, anxious time, I knew.  I accepted that helping staff manage the tension and uncertainty was a key part of the process.  They were going to be unhappy.  And, of course, there are points within the life of the school where everyone has to navigate grief, and, with support and understanding, emerge on the other side of it.

There were many opportunities for enjoyment in the school.  There was much laughter.  But I would never have claimed that for either the pupils, or the staff, ‘happiness’ was an entitlement.  We should do all we can to ensure that those within our school communities are positive, recognising that their wellbeing (and ours, as leaders) is an important consideration.  We should protect it to the best of our ability, in the way in which we treat each other, and in the demands we make of each other.  However, we need to build resilience, too, and the capacity to cope with pain, with disappointment, and failure when those things happen.  Because they will.

Photo credit: John Berry




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