How compassion fixed me: and how it can fix our schools.
I ignored all the warning signs. The signals my mind was sending to my body that things weren’t ok: wakefulness, never doing anything fun, not speaking to my wife, not seeing my family. It lasted around six months, but eventually I just snapped.
We all have demons on our back to some extent: that’s natural. But when something – whether it’s a bereavement, a relationship breakdown or work – drains your energy and mental strength, they explode. Suddenly, I felt like a complete failure. I wasn’t making enough money. I wasn’t progressing quickly enough. I wasn’t driving a nice enough car. Basically, I totally lost sense of everything that I cherished about my career and my life. It was totally and utterly terrifying.
My school was in disarray – and truth be told it had been one way of another for the year and a half I was there. I was leading English, and totally overwhelmed by the scale and pace of change, but also how it was being managed. At my lowest, I found myself sobbing on my parents’ couch, my little boy running around in the next week totally unaware of the crumpled mess that was his dad in the next room.
Only now can I say that I will never go back to that place in my mind. A year later, I am in a new school – again leading English – where the leadership believe in the students and their staff, and where I feel completely supported as a middle leader. The biggest change in my mindset has been the way I now see myself and my place in the word, and the way I now speak to myself. Being horrible to yourself and saying unhelpful things to yourself is absolutely exhausting.
Compassion Focussed Therapy is rooted in Evolutionary Psychology. In a nutshell, our brain has three systems which regulate our emotions; firstly, a ‘threat’ part which is the most basic and powerful of our evolved brains (from our reptilian days), secondly, a ‘drive’ part linked with status and achievement (coming in during our mammalian days), and lastly a more recently evolved ‘soothe’ part (more directly linked with humans- linked to attachment, kindness, care and affection).
The threat system is fantastic for basically keeping us alive- like when a tiger might be trying to eat us, it makes us panic so we run away. It’s not so good for helping us solve complex problems, and the world we live in offers us so many reasons to feel threatened. Specifically in educational terms, it’s the never-ending learning walks, paperwork, performance management and exam results- that’s just the start. These things won’t kill us, but our brains don’t really get that- they just pump round the warning signals and our bodies react accordingly. Over a long period of time, this has profound physiological effects on our brains, and our mental health.
Fortunately, evolution has gifted us a failsafe: the soothe brain. It takes time, and it takes effort, but it’s all about recognising the things that give us peace and calm. It’s also about recognising the unhelpful and unkind things we say to ourselves. We are not our thoughts, and the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world might provide us logic, but they are damaging.
More than that, though, it’s about talking to ourselves in a kinder, compassionate way. Compassion isn’t just about ordering a curry, watching a film and cheering ourselves up. Compassion is about warmth and honesty: talking to ourselves in a way we’d want to speak to a friend- with honesty and affection. I had to ask myself – like I would want a friend to ask me – whether teaching was what I really wanted to do. Whether I just needed to take myself out of it. At my worst point, the notion of soothe just helped me to notice the things which I could take pleasure from, and it helped me understand that I could do things to calm myself, and to alleviate the pressure I was continually asserting on myself. That’s just the start, though.
By beginning to take a more accepting and understanding approach to ourselves, we can begin to understand others around us- colleagues and students alike – that might be triggering threats in our own minds. Compassion is fundamentally recognising the struggle we all face.
My own experience got me thinking about the wider educational system, and why so many colleagues around the country are beginning to talk about their experience of poor mental health. Noises are being made about wellbeing, which is all well and good, but there is an appalling lack of education – and even meaningful awareness – around mental health in schools.
I wanted to explore this further; it made me wonder whether at a systemic level, our education system might – albeit inadvertently – be promoting poor mental health. I felt as if it was time to pull some of this thinking together to help teachers understand not only their own mental health, but the wider system and their place within it. Taking this further, I also wanted to reflect on how we can tangibly promote compassionate relationships with colleagues and students in our schools.
Our schools need to have drive with soothe at their base – not threat. At best, it’s unsustainable, and at worst, entirely more destructive and damaging.
My new book- The Compassionate Teacher – hopefully offers a way forward. Marrying some of the theory together with the wider literature on mental health, as well as interviewing some of the most incredible people in UK education, it’s an exploration of the education system, as well as an explanation of how we can reclaim our profession and maybe even begin to reframe and address some of the harmful and insidious thoughts and practices that frame our experience of schools.
The Compassionate Teacher is published by John Catt.