The cornerstones of character: Direction

Written by: Matt Bawden | Published:
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Your school’s leadership of mental health, wellbeing and character must have purpose and a clear direction in order to achieve positive outcomes. Matt Bawden explains

Two recent reports from the Department for Education (August 2017) have suggested that four cornerstones are important for successful in-school mental health and character education provision.

These four are: leadership, accountability, direction, and opportunity.

In my last two articles for SecEd (see further information), I focused on the cornerstones of leadership and accountability.

In this third article, I explore how setting the right “direction” enhances both mental health and character education.

Good leadership provides direction, accountability and purpose in order for your school to find the right opportunities for students, staff and the wider community. Direction comes from a mix of effective leadership and management.

Linking character and mental health

Combining mental health provision and character education makes a lot of sense when we consider the direction the two should take. They both focus on enabling students, staff and school communities to flourish.

Mental health is all about wellness. Increasingly schools are forced to focus on addressing the mental ill-health of rising numbers of students and staff, who are exhibiting the symptoms of increasingly varied and complex conditions.

When doing so we often focus on the causes of this ill-health, which leads to discussions about things such as reductions in workload, or testing, and positive actions that can make time for both student and staff wellbeing.

Many of these approaches or initiatives may work but can seem tokenistic in the face of the problems before us – a yoga class once a week can be viewed as a sticking-plaster covering up bigger problems, for example.

However, if we focus on human flourishing we pre-empt problems and by linking the direction of a school’s mental health provision to its character education it is possible to address both mental ill-health and general wellbeing. One key aspect to all this is resilience.

The role of resilience

Character education is never about demanding that staff and students are particular sorts of people – it is about opening doors to help them think for themselves as to how they might wish to develop.

Character education focuses on the development of qualities that enable anyone to flourish. Resilience is one quality that is often said to address mental health, but it is very domain-specific.

We all exhibit resilience in one or more areas of our lives, yet transferring this to other aspects of our day-to-day experiences can be tricky. The student who shows great resilience at home when things go wrong might fall apart when he or she has done badly in an assessment, for example.

Resilience needs us to have a degree of honesty – we need to realise when we are struggling and be honest with ourselves. If we develop courage we will have more opportunities to test our resilience, and if we focus on our curiosity then we are more likely to see when others need our help to bounce back as things go wrong.

Schools are rich in opportunities to develop the qualities that can bolster such resilience. For some they can be found on the sports field, for others in tutorials. Wherever they are found they can be built into the sense of direction that good mental health provision requires.

External sources

As previously discussed in the first cornerstones article on leadership, and followed up in my second piece on accountability, it is important to have a lead person for both mental health and character provision.

This lead person is accountable for the direction the school takes. This person decides how to use the limited resources available, where to spend the money, who to train, and what to buy in.

In order to do this well the leader needs to consult with others. This might include a range of agencies, the parents, and the students and staff. Within this, external sources need careful mediation by competent people in the school.

The direction is set to make sure everyone knows what is happening and why. By talking to these different groups of stakeholders we ensure buy-in. We also avoid missing the obvious.

Schools will usually have several agencies working with them who all have a vested interest in the mental health of students, and sometimes of staff. Asking these agencies for ideas can be very useful as they have experience of other settings and some working understanding of your school. They may not be able to act themselves, but they might identify need, and perhaps who else can contribute.

Talking to parents, students and staff matters too, as they are the ones on the front-line. Taking everyone with us matters, as a parent who struggles affects their child, a child who struggles affects their class, and a teacher who struggles affects their colleagues. The potential permutations are too many to calculate. We are far better asking them now while we are heading towards the waterfall, rather than once we have gone over the edge.

Ultimately, there are many places to gather information and inspiration for both mental health provision and character education. Information and inspiration matters, we don’t have time to look for things – we need solutions now. But we must prioritise and this is why setting the direction matters.

As a senior leader in a school I am bombarded with companies offering to solve my problems. They have training programmes, or staff who can visit, or videos I can buy. But, they all cost – and it can be tricky to decide what to do.

A good web search brings up a range of articles, and for character education I cannot stress or recommend highly enough the free resources available from the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues (see further information). However in the meantime try the following ideas to evaluate your school’s direction and purpose in this context.

Direction & purpose

  • Map out where you are now. What do you have in place, formally or informally? When you have done this, celebrate just how much is already in place. Make sure it is signposted, and that those who provide it know how much they are valued.
  • Map out where you would like the school to be. What would good provision look like? How would your students, staff, parents feature in this? Don’t be afraid to dream. List out all the things you would like to happen. Include who they would happen for, when they might happen, and where.
  • Pause, breathe and consider why you want your school to be like this? This is your vision, it provides your goal. The “why” is more than you just wanting people to be healthy, it is about each individual. Make plans to communicate this to everyone – it will help them to see your vision and want to help.
  • Take a quick stock-check of anyone or anything you have to hand that can help you achieve your vision. Yes money can be tight, and professional help hard to come by – but, there are a lot of community resources and willing helpers who might solve some of the problems. Looking at your mapping, consider who might be able to help. You may need to ask around.
  • Think about where there are gaps, and look for things to fill them. Having considered who or what is to hand there are bound to still be things you would like to have in place, or even need. Other schools may have similar issues, or may have found solutions. Asking colleagues in other settings can bring potential solutions.
  • Be patient, don’t do everything at once, or do it all yourself. There are always other days and other people – do what you can and things may gain their own momentum.
  • Every now and then stop, look at what you have achieved, celebrate it with everyone, and carry on. Conveying the sense of direction to others is essential. All stakeholders need to know what is happening and why. They need to know that the direction makes sense. Sometimes we can think people are on board with our ideas when we have actually lost them along the way. Taking time to relaunch can bring people back.

Conclusion

It is worth repeating: if we focus on human flourishing we pre-empt problems. If we stop to consider, as part of both mental health and character provision, the things we need to help people improve themselves (and others), then we can provide the building blocks for their stability. If we care about other people’s courage, honesty, resilience, determination and curiosity then we must nurture their growth and provide them with the tools to succeed, to bounce back from life’s setbacks, and to help others.

  • Matt Bawden is an assistant headteacher at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne and editor of the Association for Character Education eJournal Character Matters. Follow @ourschoolday. To read his previous articles and SecEd’s other best practice relating to character education, visit http://bit.ly/1OvQtqv. His final article in this four-part series is due to publish on May 3.

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