Don’t sweat the small stuff…or should we?

This is not a blog post about counting your blessings. This is not a blog post about perspective, at least not in its entirety. It is not even a blog post about positive thinking.

Have you ever arrived at work grumpy and tired and facing a five period day of classes populated with students who seem determined to try the very last of your nerves? Well, you can bet your bottom dollar that one of your colleagues is facing a five period day, jam-packed with even more frustrating students, topped off with bus duty, a lengthy meeting, data to enter and a stack of books that just have to be marked that evening. But does this make your five period day easier by default?

As the great philosopher, Lindsay Lohan, in the seminal ‘Mean Girls’ so eloquently expressed: ‘Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter’ and as such, someone else’s bad day doesn’t make yours any better. Somebody’s bigger problem doesn’t solve yours anymore than another person’s headache cures the pain in your own head.

I have never been one for the ‘there is always someone worse off than you so count your blessings’ ideology. And here’s why.

Early on in my teaching career, when working in a challenging school, our HT instructed us to discuss the tragic 2011 earthquake in Haiti with our vertical tutor groups. Not seeing a problem so far? The angle we were to take was to stress to our tutees how lucky they were in comparison. Still not seeing a problem? Let me explain. I was only too aware of some of the difficulties my tutees lived every single day- a parent in prison for unspeakable crimes, neglect, racial abuse to name but a few. I could not bring myself to look these young people in the eyes and tell them how lucky they were. Clearly, most of us would accept that not losing your home in an earthquake could be considered fortunate, but I struggled with the idea that the simple fact of not experiencing earthquake related devastation should negate all the other problems and difficulties you may face closer to home.

Some of you who know me well may struggle to believe that I did want to do as I was told… but I also wanted to be true to my own set of values and beliefs. Of course, I felt it important to discuss the event in Haiti and to spare thoughts for those affected, but I could not tell my students that this by definition made them ‘lucky’. It has been widely reported in the media that our young people are experiencing more mental health issues than ever before. One fear I have is that by not allowing them to explore things that concern them, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to us, we are invalidating young people’s feelings, discouraging them from opening up to the adults around them upon whom they should be able to depend for emotional support. For after all, how sure are we that they are aware of the seeming irrelevance of their problem in our busy lives and in a world fuelled by media doom? As far as I’m aware, no one has devised a universal scale to decide how valid or significant a person’s problem is. We must remember that young people’s feelings and worries, to them, are very real and of pressing importance.

Now, I am not saying that I am totally averse to hearing why a young person is upset or distraught and thinking, ‘really?’ Some of you may even have heard me, in a weak moment, exclaiming that a stroppy year 11 girl should ‘get a real problem’ when she created about removing an offending non-uniform item. And then I thought of Haiti. And of those students in my former tutor group. Earthquakes are the epicentre of devastation but their impact is felt for miles and for years afterwards. And so it can be with emotions. When young people, for want of a better word, ‘kick-off’ or are distressed, what we are witnessing may just be the aftershock of the one, or many, issues which may be affecting the young person in question. A friendly, non-judgemental ear in these circumstances can go a long way.

I think it is also important to remember this for ourselves and our colleagues too. Maybe in an ideal world we would all be sunny, positive people one hundred percent of the time and anything annoying, stressful or difficult would just slide over us like oil on water but please remember this: you are allowed to feel a bit sorry for yourself every now and again: when you are pulling those 12 hour days that your non-teacher friends just don’t understand; when it is sunny outside and you have mocks to mark; when you’re tired and have lessons, topics, students you just don’t want to teach that day. You are allowed to see the fact that your day is so busy you barely have time to catch your breath as your most pressing concern in that moment. You do not have to feel guilty that there are people who don’t have jobs, get paid less than you and get fewer holidays than you (loud cough). And you know what? I think all of this is healthy.

Even healthier than this though, is getting a new perspective on these concerns. How many times have you had a little moan about one of the aforementioned daily stresses and someone has said something that has changed your viewpoint? Perspective, when offered generously and without judgement, can completely change your way of thinking and make you feel readier to face the day. This too is important. In our profession, we do not have the ‘luxury’ of allowing ourselves to dwell for too long on things that are troubling us, whether big or small, and the ability to park it temporarily when we are feeling like this is a valuable skill we can support our young people in developing.

I want you to cast your minds back now to 3rd January 2017. Did you burst through the school doors revitalised, reenergised and delighted at the prospect of the cold, grey, day ahead and your year 8 class period 5? I began my day faced with 27 faces of somewhat cynical year 11s who greeted my explanation of the reduction of bells with cries of woe and dismay. I’ll be honest, it annoyed me. The gremlin in the back of my mind screamed, ‘It is just a (insert expletive) bell! Get over it!’ Fortunately, this is not what I verbalised. Instead, I said calmly to the disgruntled teens something along the following lines: ‘Look, we can choose to feel grumpy that it’s Tuesday morning, the holidays are over, it’s cold and dark and there’s changes happening that make us feel unsettled. Or, we can choose to stick a smile on our faces, give it a go and see how it is’. And you know what? Some of them actually nodded in agreement.

I am well aware that you have now spent a considerable amount of your precious time reading my blog entry, either through choice or coercion, and may still be wondering what my point is. Fair enough. I suppose it is this: people have problems. Big and small. Let’s try not to compare small problems to devastating natural disasters but feel free to offer some gentle perspective.

Francesca Knight, MFL.

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