On Happiness and Heads

An aside, in response to Andy Cope’s exhortation to Head Teachers to be happy. I came into teaching in search of true, deep happiness. Here is my appraisal.

Inside me

I’m happy. I’m a naturally upbeat person, likely to see the best in someone or a situation, often naively. I experience sudden surges of joy, from a thought, from a memory, from an idea, sometimes just because.

In my classroom

In the playground, at lunch, in the corridor, wherever I encounter children, they make me happy – for many reasons.

Seeing my pupils in the playground, about to walk into my classroom, fills me with joy every day. Listening to their excited recounts of Last Night as they hang their coats and bags up gives me a warmth inside. Feeling the buzz of a lesson when it’s just hit that sweet spot of enthusiasm, where someone says, “Ah! I’ve got it!”, where we collapse in uncontrollable giggles, where the conversation suddenly gets more profound than I ever thought possible, where the hairs on my arms rise at what I am seeing or hearing: all of these things and more make me happy.

In the staff room

I love listening to colleagues, watching them interact, hearing them talk about their pasts or their lives outside teaching, seeing the shared looks across the room, hearing them laugh.

Working at happiness

Happiness may also require a little conscious thought and hard work. 

I am a strongly expressed extrovert. If I’m too long or far from a source of energy and enthusiasm, I can find adversity or others’ apathy difficult to deal with. Children, by and large, are little Duracell batteries of emotional energy, which is also why they make me happy. 

I value and seek out more introverted colleagues (in the Jungian sense of the word) when I need a happiness boost, a reality check or just some reassurance. I always have done, and have been lucky enough to have had at least two bosses who were my mirror opposites (great if you acknowledge and understand it; a nightmare if you blunder around unaware).

I know what gives me a quick fix, be it chocolate, a menial but oh-so-satisfying task, a favourite memento or just a thought. Apologising makes me happy: the acknowledgement of wrong, the release of guilt, the exchange of power (giving it away) and the typically positive response to an unexpected and unsolicited “Sorry”. Telling someone how good something they’ve done is makes me happy, for obvious reasons that seem to escape some people. And talking to the right people helps – not just introverts but a mutual support network of friends.

I know that however bad a situation is, it is likely to get better and, even if it is as bad as it can be, I won’t suffer permanently or unbearably. So far, at least: I don’t kid myself, which also means that I can trust my inner voice that tells me that I will be happy again.

I know places and conditions that will top up my energy and make me happy: mountains, a literary festival, a country walk, the window seat in a streetside cafe, a gig or music festival, a hack on horseback, really good ballet, a crowded market or station concourse, a sharp and incisive intellectual discussion, a high building, familiar places. If I can, I go there or anticipate them. Or I find their near equivalent within the school (the playground on a sharp, blustery morning, a bustling lunch session, the crowded staff room, my empty classroom resonating with a Tallis motet).

So I make conscious choices to be happy, based on what I know about myself. But not to acknowledge unhappiness, not to allow it a place beside me and address its causes, is dangerous.

When happiness is hollow

Happiness has to have deep roots. I’m a happy person because I know myself better than ever, am now true to myself and finally like myself, just as I am. I’m happy in my classroom because I deeply love and value children, and learning, for its own sake. I’m happy in the staff room because I like people. These are my starting conditions. I’ve also listed and described my strategies for maintaining happiness.

I have spent my entire adult life (and a bit of my childhood) looking at leaders. I don’t feel much of a need to lead, though I have done from time to time. What I want is situational leadership: someone who possesses the attributes, awareness and acumen to judge, adapt to and ultimately influence the mood of their organisation. And because I watch the little details, look for longer term trends and weigh up what it all means for them, for us and for me, I want my leaders to be authentic.

I do some occasional work with troubled teenagers. There are more capable volunteers than me, so I often gravitate to the parents. I watch their expressions, listen to them, then ask them, “Who’s caring for you?” More often than not, they say, “That’s a good question,” smile sadly, look somewhere I can’t see and switch to a more soluble problem.

I also worry for Head Teachers. Their accountability is crushing, their motivation is often altruistic, their work habits are gruelling, their environment is shifting and they have insufficient control over the variables that affect the performance of their schools.

If leaders can draw on their inner attributes, their strategies and their self-awareness to express genuine happiness, then I will share it. If I don’t believe the smile on their face, I’ll think less of them for it. But most of all, if I suspect that their outward happiness isn’t sustainable, I ask myself, “Who’s there to help the Head?”

Help our Heads

I have an idea: let’s acknowledge our shared humanity, our common frailty, our mutual need for happiness and help each other. It should be in all our job descriptions, not just the Head’s.

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