This blog is a bit of a follow on from the previous blog and is a bold statement that - yes - schools are like a Paralympic Team. Perhaps you are giving a blank look at the screen right now, but that’s okay - “Dream, struggle, create, prevail. Be Daring. Be brave.” so says Caterina Fake - and so I am going to be brave in putting forward an idea that may be understood and embraced, or may fall flat on its face. But you know, I have to try.
See that diagram above? Well I am going to explain it for you… in the context of the Paralympics.
YOU (the athlete) - you the individual, the role model, the role model emulator, the hurdler, the thrower, the cyclist, and swimmer. You who is the teacher, the pupil…. or the athlete, striving constantly to bring out the best in yourself and others.
CLASS (the relay team) - your first (or second, or third) team. Small and close, you bond, build close friendships, learn how you compromise, learn conflict resolution on an intimate level. You learn how to trust and grow within a “family” full of siblings and potential role models. You might only be a team for a short time, a year in a school, a race in the Paralympics, but you have a bond that will last unconsciously for a lifetime. This is your core group each year.
YEAR (Paralympic swim team) - This is the bigger, intermediate team, that you also see every day, and gives you a sense of wider identity and support. This team is like the cousins coming together to have fun and learn with the siblings. It is an opportunity to make friendships outside of your core group and to grow and develop because of the opportunity to be social outside of your brothers and sisters. It is your introduction to citizenship and community. This is the group that may change as each year passes in subtle and not so subtle way, but ultimately it is who you feel defined by - I was the graduating year of 1997 in school AND I was part of the 1996 and 2000 Paralympic Swim team.
SCHOOL (Paralympic team) - This bigger team provides you with a variety of role models and supportive figures that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The school is like the Paralympic team (the whole team, inclusive of all sports and athletes involved), you are an integral part of the bigger picture, but you don’t necessarily develop deep, lasting relationships with all of these people. It comes down to identity again though, for a number of years you are part of a community that will define your present and define your future. This bigger community provides a deeper scope for support and inspiration… and again, widens your potential for finding that role model that you might be the one that understands you the most and provides you with the best opportunity to emulate strengths that person has.
... and finally, COMMUNITY (Paralympic movement) - This is the broader community that exists as part of the school, but extends outside of the schools walls. Parents, Governors, community leaders and exemplars are this wider community and they can have a positive impact on the class, year, and school. The community for the Paralympics is that global community of Paralympian’s that inspire me, inspire upcoming Paralympians, and that keep the Paralympic movement alive and growing. This community, that encompasses all the other circles, is the ultimate opportunity for individuals to show citizenship and character growth, it widens horizons, and can help model the best intrinsic culture for the school.
These ripples, these waves of community, role modelling, and emulation, are what create a culture of character. All of these ripples are what support the development of character and good wellbeing, and cross the ripple barriers it is not only the pupils that benefit from this idea of team, but also the teachers, staff, parents, governors, and wider community. So what impact can development of team, relationship building, and making of a community have on the school (and what impact did it have on me as a Paralympic team member)?
The VIA Institute on Character has teamwork as one of their 24 character strengths. As a character strength the key concepts are: Citizenship, Loyalty, and Patriotism. Three key elements that were developed as a team in the Paralympics, and three key elements that can be developed in schools (perhaps patriotism from the sense of being proud of being connected to the school and local community and being able to talk joyfully about its culture). And what happens when you increase the values of teamwork (and by extension responsibility)? Research shows that self esteem can increase, as well as self-respect and group cohesiveness, when you bring development of teamwork into a school. This is because we humans are inherently social creatures, and thus purposeful teamwork will enhance prosocial behaviours and cooperation. On the Paralympic team developing these prosocial skills under the guise of teamwork meant that we had group cohesiveness and support - perhaps shown most aptly through the empathy and compassion shared between athletes when we had losses as well as the cheering and celebration when we had wins. Support became a natural behaviour.
How can you develop more teamwork in your school? Develop a class battlecry, class colours, whole class group activities that encourage the pupils to help each other out to achieve a challenge. Develop a competition between classes in year groups, cross classes when it comes to some activities and assignments so that relationships can develop between “competing” classes. As a school choose a charity or community group that the school will spend the year raising money for, have a fundraising amount aim and encourage the pupils to support each other to raise money - perhaps have older pupils help younger pupils raise money, etc. As a wider community have parent/caregiver/family challenge evenings, where pupils and parents/caregivers have to work together to achieve different challenges in the hall or playground.
You can get more ideas by checking out my book, co-authored with Frederika Roberts, Character Toolkit for Teachers.
As a sports person (and Western citizen born and bred) I have noticed something about our cultures, from Australia to the UK, to the US, and many European countries, we are extremely focused on performance and outcomes. What do I mean by this? Let us look at two examples that I am familiar with - the Olympics/Paralympics and Education.
In the Olympics (AND more recently the Paralympics) there has developed a cult of hero adulation, much to the detriment of the true meaning of sport, that has impacted the wider community, and how we view and articulate success. Athletes are awarded with monetary support from governments, but only if they achieve top results (i.e., being in the top 8 in the world, and/or if you win a medal at the games). This extreme pressure to perform has now been noted to have a detrimental effect on sports peoples mental health and wellbeing.
The wider impact of hero adulation on the community can be mostly seen in two arenas - education and business. In education the epitome of success comes from the multitude of unnecessary tests that students take, tests that are there to bolster the school’s position on league tables, and build their reputation as a school that gets results. But what results? And to the detriment of what? A child’s mental health and wellbeing?
Performance and outcomes; data in, data expressed, and data out. By performance I am meaning specifically the performance traits that we as a Western society purport to be the most important character traits we should develop in ourselves and the coming generations below us. Duckworth, Seligman, Lickona, and Davidson, describe performance character traits as qualities that help individuals self regulate their thoughts and behaviours that support achievement of goals. Traits such as grit, resilience, hard worker, perseverance, diligence, self control, self regulation…. They’re not bad traits at all, but taken out of the bigger picture of character and character education, they can start to be problematic.
What research has shown is the benefits that developing performance traits; a school that focused on performance traits showed students to have higher levels of perseverance and community connectedness over an academic year. The problem with performance traits, however, is that they cannot be claimed to be either good or bad. Intrinsically they are neutral, a blank trait that can be applied in a good or bad situation. The best example I can give is when one of my lecturer’s stated “even a criminal has to be gritty and resilient if they want to break into a car or house.” Traits such as perseverance, self regulation, diligence, and grit can be applied as much to cheating in an exam as well as doing your homework so you can pass an exam honestly.
So should we stop developing performance character traits in our young people?
Of course not! We should still develop these traits in young people but alongside a moral imperative.
What are moral character traits? Noddings, Walker, and Pitts state that moral character is the traits that help individuals strive for ethical behaviours and values that have an impact on their relationships with others and communities. Examples of moral traits include, kindness, compassions, empathy, integrity, and social responsibility. As part of the research mentioned above (about performance traits), a school that focused on the development of moral traits showed students to show a high increase in integrity and social responsibility that are intrinsically good regardless of context.
To develop a well-rounded, community minded, flourishing individual it becomes apparent that we have to focus on a mix of character traits that complement and support each other. But how can we effectively do this? The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues character "building blocks" shows an elegant and simple way to express this mix, they divide traits into four categories: moral, civic, intellectual, and performance. The Jubilee Centre stresses the importance of the moral traits being the overarching traits that guide the other categories. The VIA Institute on Character classifies their 24 character strengths into 6 categories: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The VIA Institute on Character emphasises the importance of all classifications in the development of character in individuals.
What becomes self evident is that we human beings are complex creatures, but given the right support and encouragement, the right guidance and role models to emulate, we can develop a well-rounded sense of character within ourselves, a well-rounded sense that will see us thrive and flourish in all areas of our lives.
Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting aca- demic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944.
Lickona, T., & Davidson, M. (2005). Smart and good high schools. Washington, DC:
Character Education Partnership.
Noddings, N. (1988). An ethics of caring and its implications for instructional arrange- ments. American Journal of Education, 96, 215-230.
Walker, L., & Pitts, R. (1998). Naturalistic conceptions of moral maturity. Developmental Psychology, 34, 403-419.
There is something of the controversial and confrontational in the understanding of humility in our society today. I say this, with an honest hand on heart, that I even find, within myself, a certain struggle in understanding humility and applying it to my own life and sense of self. Growing up, especially in the eighties and nineties, to be humble was not “cool” - in fact we were actively encouraged to be as big, loud, and out there as possible. Think big shoulder pads, big hair, and even bigger egos. Our role models were people who made big bucks in banking and investments, celebrities who were extravagant and unapologetic for their “live big” lifestyles, and sports stars who were focused primarily on winning, winning, winning and who would chuck massive tantrums if they lost. Success was defined by being the best and having the most material things - money, property, objects. Life was aspirational in a capitalist way, material objects revealed status, if you weren’t aiming for the large house with large furniture and a fancy car in the garage there was something wrong with you. In the eighties and nineties humility was seen as a weakness and a character trait that would not help you achieve individual success in life; achieving the socially accepted BIG life meant there was no space, no place, for humility.
Humility comes from the root words of humilitas and humus, meaning “the earth beneath us.” What this says to me is that humility is about being grounded, grounded in ourselves and in the world around us, in being grounded in the truth of our lives, our successes and our failures. Humility is not a weakness, but like the earth that stands so solidly beneath our feet, humility is strength in knowing our true selves; it takes strength in the feedback and comments of others; it takes strength in the knowledge of doing what it takes to be the best moral and ethical person that we can be. Humility is finding strength is your abilities, your knowledge, your character, and using these strengths to help others grow, learn, and succeed. There is power in humility, there is power in the deep, pro-social connections humility assists you in making. Humility is that beautiful middle ground between vanity/pride and self deprecation. In Don Quixote humility is said to be the base and foundational virtue of all the virtues and without humility no other virtue would exist. So I ask you, do you cultivate humility in your own life? Or in the lives of the kids you work with or parent?
How can we cultivate our humility? And what impact will cultivating humility have on our lives and the lives of others?
(image from Pixabay)
Living by ones values has, in recent years, become very important to a lot of people. I certainly know, amongst my friends, that they often talk about what values (or character strengths *wink *wink) are important to them - honesty, authenticity, openness, knowledge, love, kindness, gratitude....
I also see how values play out in the actions that people take, the relationships that they build, the jobs that they have. For most people I know there is such a beautifully obvious ode to service in the way their values are expressed, service to others (humans!), service to the environment, service to animals, service to the greater good of society.
It has got me thinking how I actively practice my own values and if, in the actions I take on a day to day basis, I am being true to myself and what I believe in.
Let's talk about what my values are:
(humility can, on occasion be a hard one for me,
I think there is an entirely other post in the making to explore this further)
appreciation of beauty and excellence
(the above are in no particular order)
How do I express these in practical ways in my life?
Love is a no-brainer and pretty much covers all of the others, I love my friends and family, I love life, I love knowledge, and I love everything that is beautifully challenging (as in anything artistic, i.e., art, music, writing).
Family and friends, I try to support and develop positively developing relationships with the people in my life. Since having been bereaved three times in the past six years this has taken on a new meaning for me and I pay particular attention to building good relationships with those that are open, willing, and able.
Gratitude is what gets me through anxiety filled moments, whether work-wise or socially, reminding myself that I am abundant already, rich in relationships, interests, and experiences. That putting on that mask to impress others, or failing to nail that work contract, well, ultimately those things don't matter, and that my worth is not to be judged by others. I also practice gratitude through my ever growing spiritual practice, through meditation and prayer, that connecting into what is bigger than me, a heart to heart with God.
Curiosity - very simple, I never want to stop learning about life, humans, nature, the universe.
Humility, I constantly remind myself that I wouldn't be where I am without so many others, success is not just given to you, it is earned through the collaborative and interconnected nature of human society.
Care, in friendships, but also care of nature and my own body. Inspired by my sister, I developed an interest in chemical free beauty and hygiene products over fifteen years ago. Combining this with my concern over the environment and single use plastics, I have reduced my beauty/hygiene products to chemical free, plastic free, and almost waste free: a shampoo bar, soap bar, clay toothpaste, and I am currently finishing off moisturising cream that is in a glass jar, but I intend to start using body/face creams that come in compostable cardboard containers (YES there is such a thing!!).
Kindess (see all of the above).
Appreciation of beauty and excellence and creativity go together, I have an innate need to create, and if I can create something beautiful, even better. I have weekly piano lessons, I knit in winter, and do cross-stitch whenever I have time (and of which I want to make more time), and I mend clothes that are still beautiful and just need creativity to make like new again.
What are your values and how do you express them in your day-to-day life? Let me know in the comments below.
(image from Pixabay)
(I wrote this the other night... but I still think that it is relevant and important to post here. Because life isn't always sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. In fact, without the moments of existential doubt - as I infer below - we cannot appreciate the lighter, happier, content moments of life. So on reflection, a few days after writing below, I say this to you, really feel the wide variety of emotions that you feel, remembering always that change is inevitable and that as the sun rises and sets, so sadness, anger, fear, happiness, joy, and ecstasy will come and go).
I suspect I am having an existential crisis.... again.
I don't mean to make an existential crisis sound flippant or deluded or sublime. But it's there and it is something that I trip into regularly, especially since my Mum died. This is going to be a deeply personal blog post, be warned.
As a renowned optimist I do generally see the good, great, and grand view of life, the lighter side, the side where laughter is contagious, the ridiculous can send me into fits of laughter that draw tears from my eyes like the turning of a tap, the marvel at nature that surrounds me, the love expressed through the deepening of relationships with those that love me (and whom I love dearly).
But there is the whirling chaos of despair that sits ever present in a very particular area of my brain and heart. Albert Camus wrote "There is no love of life without despair of life," and the way I see life resonate with this is astonishing. I see friends affected by grief (in the many varied ways that grief expresses itself and the many varied ways that grief comes about), and I recognise that that whirling chaos of despair is a condition of the human experience. To feel grief (for me the grief of losing a parent) is to feel love and a love of life in all its glory. There is hope in even the darkest times and that hope is love. Love is never lost, but it is enduring, most especially during loss, whatever that loss looks like. Despair, I think, almost guides love, guides it to where it needs to go, where it needs to wrap its tendrils tightly, binding; safety.
The colours of life enthral me, including the feeling of despair when I trip inelegantly into it, because, to fully be human, to fully understand the human experience, we have to trip into the dark, if only so we can excitedly skip back into the light.