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Headmaster's Blog: Purposeful activity and a sense of directionGood relationships between adults and students offer a supportive environment that leads to better performance and happiness.

Date published: Fri 12 Oct 2018  

Well, it’s always nice to be told that people read your blog, but it made me doubly guilty when talking to some parents at last night’s Second Form drinks and realising that I hadn’t written anything for nearly a fortnight. Hardly sensible, you might think, with reports coming out and the obvious temptation to say ‘Could do better, Headmaster’.

Still, my excuse is that it has been a busy week, though I usually go on to say that busy (as opposed to hectic) is generally good. We’ve had a few parent events, and this just goes to underline how important relationships are in education, none more so of course than those between teachers and students. And I’d go further here: we deliberately have here at Whitgift a healthy number of coaches, graduate assistants and others who supplement subject teaching with a close eye, a good relationship and words of advice. One of the many reasons why a strong co-curricular programme, lots of sport and societies, is so crucial, is that it gives so many more chances for good relationships. Which lead to support, better performance. And happiness.

And that too has been on my mind this week. On Wednesday I was at the University of Bristol, since as some readers may know, I do occasional work on school links with Higher Education. Now, Bristol has had a pretty torrid time in recent months, much-criticised for student mental health (that is, poor mental health, critics say), and its proposed solution. And I have to say straight away that the university staff take this incredibly seriously, are deeply concerned, and are spending time and money to make things better.

But I think (and they know I think) they are still sometimes missing the point. Students are happiest when they have a sense of purpose, enjoy what they are doing, and are productively busy. And they are happiest when they know someone else cares. It doesn’t have to be a mental health professional (though in severe cases professionals are of course needed). Yet universities so often cut back on Hall wardens, graduate helpers and friendly faculty support staff, and employ smaller numbers (because they cost more) of highly-trained professionals in (heaven help us) ‘hubs’. Students on the edges of unhappiness, unsure of themselves or just feeling a bit down won’t go to hubs. They want a friendly chat with an interested older adult. They want jolly common areas and communal kitchens, sports clubs they don’t have to pay a king’s ransom to join and lots of stuff to do that is meaningful. Good teaching, that is.

Aristotle knew this. His concept of happiness (the Eudaimonia he writes about) is all about purposeful activity, the mind and body meaningfully occupied and a sense of direction. Mr Martin confirmed, I think, that I had summed the concept up reasonably well. And schools like Whitgift instinctively know it too.

So, busy isn’t all bad. That said, half term comes at a good time. When it does, enjoy. 

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