Removing the barriers to happiness in our schools

First posted on Linkedin, 27/11/16

One of the things I’m struck by, when I travel abroad with work, is how each country’s education system is a reflection of its wider agenda. This is no more visible than in Dubai. Dubai’s innovative and progressive approach to governance is largely the brainchild of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Emir of Dubai and Vice President/Prime Minister of the UAE. A visionary and deeply respected leader, Sheikh Mohammed has empowered Dubai to weather the oil and gas storm in a way that other oil-dependent countries have not. Even the neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi has fared less well than Dubai since the price of oil took a nosedive.

Dubai’s current drive, as part of the UAE’s Vision 2021 (its National Agenda), is to promote happiness and well-being amongst its people. They have a Minister for Happiness, and their education regulator (the Knowledge and Human Development Authority) has a Director of Happiness and Innovation. There can be few places on earth that so openly promote an intangible thing like happiness, but its effects are profound so are worth exploring further.

Think back to your time at school. Who are the teachers you remember? Not the ones with the best degrees or the most well-constructed lesson plans. More likely it was the teachers who told corny jokes and didn’t take themselves too seriously. It’s not rocket science to know that if you enjoy being in a particular class you are far more likely to learn. You can have the most thoughtfully planned lesson in the world, but if the teacher is preoccupied or doesn’t seem to care you can forget about learning anything. I don’t mean that teachers should be clowns: they need to have good discipline and know what they are talking about. It tends to be the ones who have that combination of knowledge and authority who can relax enough to enjoy themselves – and by extension enable their class to enjoy themselves also. That’s why I don’t think iPads will take over from teachers any time soon. They have no sense of humour. Siri tries, but has a long way to go.

So Dubai is promoting happiness, and I think that’s an excellent thing. People who are stressed out and anxious aren’t productive; happy people work better and synergise more effectively. Daniel Goleman explores this in his book ‘The New Leaders’: ‘When people feel good, they work at their best. Feeling good lubricates mental efficiency, making people better at understanding information and using decision rules in complex judgements, as well as more flexible in their thinking. Upbeat moods, research verifies, make people view others – or events – in a more positive light. That in turn helps people feel more optimistic about their ability to achieve a goal, enhances creativity and decision-making skills, and predisposes people to be helpful.’ By actively promoting happiness, and looking for innovative ways to increase it, Dubai hopes to improve the efficiency of its workforce.

It seems to be working. I have visited Dubai a number of times in the last couple of years and am always struck by how upbeat a place it is. You only have to spend time in the cafés and restaurants of Sports City – a young, vibrant community close to the Marina – to see how well people have their work/life balance sorted. The Emirate has been designed with people’s well-being in mind: which is probably why so many people move there for a few years and end up staying a lot longer. Sports City has incredible facilities: even the ICC moved there from Lords about ten years ago.

This state-sponsored approach to happiness got me thinking about school leadership: about how important it is for leaders to lay the foundations for happy schools, ensuring the structures are in place to maximise the well-being of all. At its most simple, school leaders should go all out to create the ideal climate for powerful learning interactions to take place. In order for this to happen, you want a happy teacher in the classroom with happy students. The leader’s job is to create the structures to allow this. We talk all the time about ‘barriers to learning’, but should we instead be working out how to remove the barriers to happiness for our teachers and students?

Think about something as simple as WiFi. We don’t even notice it until something goes wrong, and then it’s an irritation that frustrates us and saps our morale (I think it’s taken the place of the staff room photocopier in this respect). Things like WiFi aren’t in themselves life or death problems: it’s not the big things that are the issue most of the time. It’s the small things that, added together, make the teacher’s life that bit harder than it needs to be. The more of these that go wrong, the less energy the teacher has for their core business: delivering great lessons. The same holds for students: if they’re tired or hungry or stressed out they won’t be in the right place to learn, however inspirational the teacher is. We put so much pressure on kids to get top grades, as we ourselves are judged by their exam performance. I think this is putting the cart before the horse: we should work hard to create a pleasant, supportive and kind atmosphere in our schools and see the results pick up, not push kids to work harder and harder whilst neglecting their emotional state.

It therefore makes sense for school leaders to hold up the microscope to these barriers to happiness and remove them systematically, whilst at the same time ensuring robust mechanisms for teacher accountability and student progress. We need to ensure nothing gets in the way of the teacher doing their job. I’ve known schools who have allowed staff to drop off their dry cleaning at reception and have their shopping delivered to school rather than home. Schools that have abandoned incessant reporting home, instead using online tools to allow parents real time feedback on their children’s progress. In doing this, the school is sending a clear message: we value you as professionals and we will do all we can to support you. It’s this that creates a happy workplace.

We all know that happiness is not something you can seek: it is a by-product of a life well lived, where we consider the feelings of others, work towards meaningful goals, and share our successes with those around us. Leaders like Sheikh Mohammed know that they cannot hand happiness to people on a plate, nor buy it for them: what they instead aim to do is remove the small irritations from people’s lives that stop them from achieving their utmost. Isn’t it about time we did the same in our schools?

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