People need people. Today we are more connected than ever, but not always in ways that matter. How often do you spend your school day holed up in your classroom or office, not speaking with (as opposed to speaking at or emailing) anyone all day?
The Very Happy People Study by E. Diener and M. Seligman in 2002, found that there was only one characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10% from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships. Is it time to get more social with your colleagues?
The power of community
Communities can sustain us in difficult times, often in ways close friendships can’t. Your colleagues know exactly what it’s like to teach a six period day, your friends can only empathise; and your best friend, the social media strategist, probably isn’t going to be able to give you very useful advice on how to get your students to come into the room, settle quickly and focus on your lesson, but one of your colleagues probably can.
What a school community provides, more than anything else, is a ready made support network of people who are going on a very similar journey to you. Even if they’re at a different stage of their journey, they’ll understand what you’re going through, and be both able and willing to give you the support you need to keep going…meaning we can save our friends and family up for other kinds of support!
Some of my happiest times in teaching have been when I’ve felt I was part of a school community. What made those schools different was the way in which people looked out for each other and noticed when things weren’t right. This didn’t mean that every time someone’s Year 9 lesson didn’t go quite to plan it was down tools and off to the staffroom to endlessly dissect ‘what went wrong’ while drowning our collective sorrows in bad coffee; it did mean that people consistently did small, nice things for each other. Not on a one off basis because SLT declared that it was kindness week, but routinely, over time, so that we all knew we were part of a community that cared for each other. Teaching is a high stress job, and if we’re to make it through the day (let alone the term or the year) with our self esteem intact, then we need to look out for each other.
Being part of a school community doesn’t just make a significant difference to your working day, but to your overall well-being. While bonds between family and close friends are important, research has shown it is the wider social bonds, such as those we have with our colleagues, that give the greatest boost to day to day happiness.
Three simple ways to build your tribe
Greet people on the corridor, look them in the eyes, make small talk in the photocopy room, drop in to someone’s classroom and ask how their day is going, leave a fancy tea bag in someone’s pigeon hole. Communities grow because we reach out and connect.
2. Think small
Who needs your help? Consider a daily act of kindness, like paying someone a compliment or letting them have the last of the coffee. Research shows that when people witness acts of kindness they’re more likely to be kind too, so be the change you want to see.
3. Open your mind
You might feel that you’re different or not part of the group, especially if you’re new to a school, so get curious: ask interested questions, initiate conversations that aren’t work oriented and drop your preconceptions. Recently I discovered that one of my colleagues is an award winning ballroom dancer…not someone I would have anticipated gossiping about Strictly with on a Monday morning, but now I really look forward to getting to Briefing that bit earlier to hear his thoughts on Sunday’s dance off.
Easy in theory, harder in practice?
If you’re feeling isolated at work – go where people are – the staffroom, the dining hall, the photocopy room, someone else’s classroom, and start talking. Don’t wait to find your mirror, someone who has the same views and preferences as you, that’s just an excuse to stay tucked away safely in your classroom.
Communities, like families, are made up of people you haven’t necessarily chosen. Schools are amazing melting pots, made up of people from different backgrounds with different life experiences, but bonded by the fact we’ve all chosen the same profession. Meaning there will always be some common ground between you and the person in the classroom next door. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be BFFs, but it does mean that there’s someone on the corridor who’s happy to share their glue sticks when you’ve forgotten to re-order yours. Or better yet, be the person who notices what’s going on for their colleagues and help out when and how you can.
Ready to build your work tribe?
You never know who you’ll meet when you join a school community, how they can help you or vice versa. No matter how talented, smart or hard working you are, it is literally impossible to thrive in teaching without the support of your colleagues. Being a happy teacher takes a lot of mental and emotional energy, and having someone, let alone a whole group of people, to talk to about your journey can be just what you need to make it to half term with your smile (and your sanity) intact.
Join the Happy Teachers Happy Schools virtual staffroom on Facebook to connect with like-minded colleagues and grow your happy tribe.