This is a guest post from colleague Catherine Gatt reflecting on her experiences with Positive Psychology.
Late last year a series of life events led me to enrol in an online learning environment with the goal of achieving a Diploma of Counselling. After more than ten years in the classroom I would have readily listed ‘interpersonal skills’ on any questionnaire that asked for my strength traits. Dealing with students on a daily basis, parents, colleagues and the occasional talk in front of a room full of people led me to believe that I had ‘people’ skills.
I was also a little curious to experience ‘online’ learning, but that’s a reflection for another post.
The first unit of the course was an examination of what ‘interpersonal’ really means. I was astonished at the level of intricacy our day to day interactions with others have. Everything from the slightest gesture, pause, intonation, words said, words not said speaks volumes more than I had ever appreciated. What struck me as most interesting among these insights, was that the relationship between a counsellor and a client was the single most important factor in impacting the outcome of the whole process.
Basically, if a client ‘liked’ their counsellor they had a significant chance at working through their problems and coming out on the other side.
The second I read this I immediately made connections to the classroom. Do my students ‘like’ me? What is the impact of my relationship with them, on them? What is the impact of their relationship with me, on me? What ‘unsaid’ messages am I communicating through the day? How important is ‘mindset’ in my classroom?
As part of my course readings I crossed paths with a branch of psychology known as ‘Positive Psychology’; within the first few encounters I had answers to many of my questions. Positive Psychology is ‘the scientific study of strengths and virtues that enable individuals, communications and organisations to thrive’. It focuses intently on achieving a sense of balance, also referred to as ‘flourishing’, that promotes a sense of connectedness and fulfilment.
One of the first names that will pop up on any Google Search on Positive Psychology is Martin Seligman. Seligman has pioneered much of the groundwork in this field as well as actively promoting its viability and importance across the world. Within a few minutes I was hooked into his TED talk entitled The New Era of Psychology where he discusses the ‘nuts and bolts’ of ‘flourish’. This inevitably led to a late night purchase of his renowned book, ‘Flourish’ on Kindle.
From this the connections started to strengthen. Seligman advocates strongly for the use of statistical data to determine the effectiveness of a particular approach (in any field). A visit to his website ‘Authentic Happiness’ are hours well spent. By participating in a myriad of activities and questionnaires not only are you given valuable insights into yourself, you contribute to a clever system of data collection which informs practise in this field worldwide.
Seligman dedicates a significant portion of ‘Flourish’ to his work here in Melbourne with Geelong Grammar. In 2008 Seligman with an impressive support cast in tow, was invited to consult on the viability of a ‘Positive Education’. It was adopted (at great cost and some resistance) by the school and with a comprehensive professional development plan and volunteered time by teachers and staff, significantly impacted on the school community in ways that I thought at first were fictional!
None of the practises that Seligman presented to the Grammar were ‘rocket science’ per say but perhaps they were. The sheer simplicity of the program along with irrefutable statistical data to back its impact, led me wondering, ‘Why aren’t we all doing this?’ It seemed as though ‘Positive Education’ was ‘infectious’. By teaching students to focus on positives, to become actively aware of their strengths, to build solid resilience, it was inevitable that teachers themselves started to change their mindsets. In fact, Seligman insisted that teachers trial every method presented on themselves and track the impact this had on them. This approach could only deepen the relationship between a teacher and a student. Celebrating your strengths with another person is quite personal and a positive building block for building a healthy relationship.
I bought into this immediately. I was aching to get back into my classroom and trial out some of the simple tenants of ‘Positive Education’ on my students. The first one I trialled was WWW (What Went Well). At the time I had a student who obsessively focussed on the negatives in her day. It had almost reached a point where her parent was presenting me with long lists of trivial complaints (the loss of a grey lead pencil among them).
I asked the parent in question if they would be open to the idea of trialling out WWW with their child. I explained that the idea was that every day their child was to record three things that went well and write about why they went well. The underlying principle is that by engaging with gratitude and focusing on the positives you can actively reverse negativity and bias. After a couple of days, I noticed positive changes in my student. She smiled more, seemed more relaxed and the long list of grievances shortened dramatically. While I can’t statistically prove that these changes were the direct impact of WWW, I knew that there was really something quite powerful about this approach.
I also noticed changes in myself. I took Seligman’s challenge on board and trialled out the WWW method before bringing it back to my classroom. I walked through the door at the start of the day excited about the positives, at first because I was hoping I’d have three to write about at the end of the day and then because of the intrinsic happiness they brought me. I started to experience the infectiousness of ‘flourishing’; a happy teacher meant happier students, happier students meant a happier learning environment. I started to share my WWW with my students and our relationships deepened as a result.
One day in the near future I’d love to measure the impact of the small things in my classroom. But right now the positive vibe is evidence enough!
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