Having just recently attended an international conference on Positive Schools, I had time to reflect upon all that makes Sha Tin College fantastic, all that we continue to learn from one another, and from experts.
You might wonder about the direct relevance to us, at STC, of a conference like this. After all, we are academically successful and, according to many sources, this is a friendly, welcoming, generally happy, vibrant place. There are many opportunities for everyone, but like all excellent places of learning, we aim to be curious about the ways we can cater to all students and elicit the best from them.
Adolescence is a compelling, complex and confounding time, isn’t it? We now know it stretches until approximately 25 years, too! During such a formative period there is so much change that it is essential those of us working with adolescents to hear about the latest research into what strategies work with them most effectively. The experts at this conference, despite their diverse specialisms, ethnic backgrounds and personal passions, all agreed on one thing. Relationships are the most essential aspect of wellbeing and in order to form strong, trusting relationships, we need to know our students and offer them unconditional positive regard. We need to regularly remind them that they are worth so much more than just their grades/marks.
Andrew Fuller, a Fellow of the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Learning and Educational Development at the University of Melbourne, told Conference participants that there are five major values which underpin these positive relationships with our young people. These are: trust, forgiveness, integrity, hope and compassion. He said we need to begin by getting to know our students very well. Then, it is vital we effectively communicate with them by listening without judgement, that we exhibit empathy and compassion and that we are there for them. This means devoting time to students, even if this is in an unstructured way, outside of lessons. Of course, none of us would disagree with any of this advice; we are teachers because we believe in the potential of adolescents and that we can influence and guide them in relevant ways. It occurred to me that what Andrew Fuller was espousing not only applies to teachers, though, despite us being in loco parentis a lot of each day. It applies to ALL the adults who have a role in the lives of our students, parents, too, of course. To quote him ‘Parents are the foundation of a child’s wellbeing’.
In response to a recommendation by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, (www.michaelcarr-gregg.com.au), a psychologist specialising in adolescent mental health who many of us have been privileged to hear speak in several contexts this year, I read ‘Lost Connections’ by Jonathan Hari. In it, Hari explores causes of depression and anxiety. However, his findings are neither bleak, nor cliched. His robust research as a social scientist, in conjunction with experts across the globe, indicates that ‘connections’ with other people, nature and ourselves should be our focus. These will help protect us from anxiety and depression, and loneliness. Hari’s engaging style and persuasive evidence prompted me to think very deeply about what really is important. In our school, we try to forge and nurture connections with students, every day. We do this because they are all distinctive and special. We do this because we have hope and because they inspire us. Our students are not the sum of their academic scores, but individuals who are treasured and loved for who they are, warts and all. I have been further convinced by Michael Carr Gregg, Johann Hari and Andrew Fuller, that we are right to prize relationships above all else. After all, we are working with those who are most important – our young people.