Kirsty Knowles explores ways that schools can foster a sustainable teaching profession, how narratives can be reframed, and how the neuroscience of behavioural change can be used to empower and reposition the story of teaching.
At a time in the history of education when voices are calling for reimagining the curriculum and schooling systems, I feel compelled to shine a light on the opportunity for teachers to rewrite their narrative. As the new academic year in the UK or another term/semester in other parts of the world commences, I encourage educators to positively and proactively pivot towards a story of the teaching profession which joyfully describes deep and clear purpose, robust confidence, celebration for inspiring and empowering impact, dynamic agility, and human sustainability. Every professional is the author, illustrator, or narrator of their own teaching tale and so I challenge educators to resist remaining doggedly predisposed to, or perpetuating an old limiting script.
The ‘why’ for pursuing a teaching career might be a different reason for currently teaching but I emphasise the importance of connection with the ‘why’ for being an educator or leading in education. Identifying and understanding an authentic purpose can help find meaning in the sometimes repetitive day-to-day of school life or unforeseen circumstances such as the unprecedented Coronavirus pandemic. Indeed, “...working with purpose is a potent oxytocin stimulus” (Zak, 2018). If we know and feel that our work matters, then this positive ambitious ethos can ignite different behaviours which foster a new story rather than settling for the horizontal ‘everything remains the same’ plateau of the old.
Drawing inspiration from Drake’s narrative coaching (2018), the tired story of teachers in school could be: “We work from a ‘them’ and ‘us’ model,” which can create feelings of inequity, exclusion, hierarchical control and command management, under-appreciation, distrust, disempowerment and being a slave to the system. With reframing, the new narrative could be: “We work from a coaching model,” which generates empowerment for everyone to flourish from its inclusivity and safe framework for thinking, feeling and contributing without interruption and judgement.
Celebrate the ‘why’
Elevating who teachers are and what they bring through the work from which they find meaning would redirect attention from external scrutiny around outcomes or crude measurement of performance against imposed targets which can restrict freedom to innovate. I believe that a ‘why’ for working and indeed a ‘why’ for living is the deepest and most sustainable intrinsic motivator. And for me, the enfranchisement of purpose is in its ability to evolve; it is not fixed. In times of uncertainty purpose can illuminate the pathway forward, in times of threat purpose can instil resilience, in times of change purpose can be a mooring and in times of questioning or doubt, purpose can be a compass for direction (Inam, 2020). When there is resonance with purpose and it is revered, confidence builds and flows for educators.
To help prepare young people for a future in a global landscape of high change and often ambiguity, educators need to flex their agility muscles. Habitual and often entrenched mindsets which tend to be made up of values, beliefs, assumptions, agendas and expectations easily limit the ability to shift our brain and nervous system out of survival mode when we feel under threat. How we think and feel can trigger undesirable behaviours and engender a negative outcome. Rather than anticipating and experiencing tricky meetings with parents and colleagues for example, become aware of how neuro-emotional agility can enable movement with ease through content which might otherwise ignite highly charged, defensive and obstructive reactions.
If the human brain has evolved to adapt – neuroplasticity, then it seems that beliefs can challenge the fostering of a growth mindset. Believing there is no point in trying something new or resisting by claiming it has always been a particular way and will not change can be overcome by re-calibrating our emotional scale and responses (Riddell, 2020). Naming emotions (Lieberman, et al., 2007) to gauge if the language is proportionately accurate or re-examining the event (McCrae, et al., 2009) through a different lens provides opportunities to decide if the emotion is appropriately calibrated.
Drawing on empathy and curiosity to spark and expand our neural pathways and state enables emotionally intelligent and creative thinking, which in turn can be manifested into innovative, collaborative actions. This is the ability to drive emotions in a positive direction for constructive results. Neuro-emotional agility rewires the brain and refreshes the narrative.
Adopt a sustainable approach
Teachers usually set out on an aspirational trajectory from the inception of their career. Thus, purpose can be the anchor for teachers when pessimistic thought traps and limiting assumptions activate behaviour and provoke initial reflexes around attachment to the familiar and often worn out, gloomy narrative of the teaching profession. From years of experience in education and current coaching and consulting, I offer heartfelt encouragement for educators to comprehend, clarify, live and share their purpose to germinate self-belief, trust in teaching expertise, relationships with stakeholders and an agile mind for a long, joyful career in education. And this version of a teachers’ story is uplifting and sustainable.
Founder/Owner of Think Being®
Accredited Coach, Consultant, and Writer illuminating humanistic change for People, Leadership, Culture & Education
Drake, D. B. PHD. (2018). second edition. Narrative Coaching: the definitive guide to bringing new stories to life. Canada: CNC Press.
Inam, H. (2020). Wired for Disruption: The Five Shifts in Agility to Lead in the Future of Work. Kindle Direct Publishing.
Lieberman, M et al., (2007). Putting feelings into words: Affect labelling disrupts amygdala activity to affective stimuli. From: Psychological Science, 18. pp. 421-428.
McCrae, K et al., (2009). The neural bases of distraction and reappraisal. From: Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 22. pp. 248-262.
Polman, K and Vasconcellos-Sharpe, S. (2017). Imaginal Cells: Visions of Transformation. London: Reboot the Future.
Riddell, P. (2020). Neuroscience Coaching. From: J. Passmore. (ed). The Coaches’ Handbook: The Complete Practitioner Guide for Professional Coaches. London: Routledge. pp. 243-256.
Zak, Paul J. (6th June 2018). How Oxytocin Can Make Your Job More Meaningful. Workplace. From: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_oxytocin_can_make_your_job_more_meaningful