In the midst of my depression, my heart sunk when my wife – a Clinical Psychologist – told me that it sounded like my therapist was doing something called ‘Compassion Focussed Therapy’ with me.
My initial thoughts were that I didn’t want to be told be kind to myself: I wanted to be made better. I didn’t need to be told to watch more TV or do more exercise. But I was so, so wrong.
Compassion is about honesty and paying attention to the unkind things you might say to yourself: the kinds of toxic things you say to yourself to keep yourself on your toes. It also asks you to pay attention to the kinds of unkind things you think about other people as well. Some call it the ‘inner critic.’
You see, we’ve forgotten – on both individual and institutional scales in education – that we’ve evolved over millions of years. As a result of this immense process, we’ve ended up with three layers of brain- notionally called threat, drive and soothe. To begin with, imagine these things on a triangle like so.
Only when we have these three areas in proportion can we operate in a way that keeps our emotional health in decent condition.
Having a bit of threat in your life is great for the short term to, say, get yourself out of the way of a double-decker bus, or to get yourself to the doctor if you’re feeling particularly unwell. But too much for too long can have catastrophic effects on our mental health, and the way we
see the world. Before we know it, our world can become shrouded in a dark fog of anxiety and depression. Here’s the weird bit, though: our brains are simply doing what they’re supposed to do.
I believe that it’s our job – and responsibility – to find another way. Compassion is rooted in warmth and honesty; it’s about asking ourselves to recalibrate and find our true sense of drive and soothe. It is on this axis where I believe educators will find the sustainable truth to success, health and wellbeing. If we’re motivated by what should truly drive us – social improvement, love of our subject, the warmth of relationships, that kind of thing – then the connections to the ‘real’ reason for education are much more accessible. In short, the risk of getting the sack or a rubbish Ofsted grade is not motivating.
It’s why, in my opinion, things have gone so wrong in recent years in terms of the haemorrhaging numbers of teachers from the profession. We’re asked to live on the axis between threat and drive with a series of thinly veiled warnings. This is why schools hoist banners up celebrating their own success rather than helping the struggling school down the road; this is why performance management is a ridiculous way to assess the impact that a teacher is meaningfully having on the lives of their students; in some cases, it’s lead to some fairly unsavoury behaviours by leaders that think there is no other way. Perhaps in the current context, for some schools, it feels that way.
My book – The Compassionate Teacher – explores and suggests ways that educators in all settings can make a start on reclaiming their wellbeing, in terms of their teaching practice, their relationships with colleagues, their students and most importantly – themselves. If you’re interested, give it a read, and I’d be delighted to hear from you!
Andy Sammons @andy_samm is a Head of English in a large secondary comprehensive school.