The life of a principal has some high points. Last week I caught the ferry from Fremantle, to the turquoise waters of Thomson Bay, Rottnest Island. I was fortunate to be supporting the launch of our new Year 11 Leadership Program, BE BOLD.
Based on the research of Professor Brené Brown, the BE BOLD Leadership Program aims to develop brave adolescent leaders and courageous cultures. I am passionate about the program because there has never been a more urgent time to teach students to be courageous, to understand their strengths, vulnerabilities, and purpose in life. Canadian Education Professor Michael Fullan put it well when he said: "The new moral imperative in education is not just ‘college ready’ but rather becoming good at learning and good at life.”
Getting good grades is sometimes easier than being good at life. Recent research on the wellbeing of children and young people in Western Australia, The Speaking Out Survey (2021), conducted by the Commissioner for Children and Young People WA found female students, “particularly those in Years 7 to 12, rate their wellbeing less favourably than male students, particularly in areas relating to mental health where one-in-four girls report poor life satisfaction, self-perception, conflict, relationships, personal safety and independence".
A third reported their lives had been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. They said they were experiencing emotions such as anxiety and stress or not feeling confident about the future.
Less than five per cent of high school students reported being strongly affected by feelings of hopelessness and experiencing high levels of anxiety due to the pandemic. These impacts were felt most acutely in secondary students.
The Speaking Out Survey reported most “students in Years 4 to 6 reported liking school and learning”. However, “many students in Years 7 to 12 said they do not like learning, do not feel like they belong at school and feel it’s less important to attend regularly".
I am concerned by these findings. I am always struck by how pressured today’s students feel, pressured to optimal, particularly academically. While we were away on our leadership retreat, a small number of students expressed concern that they might be missing curriculum time and precious study hours. Does anything really matter if you are not assessed, a few wondered?
Yes, some things do matter more than other things, I shared. Snorkelling and joy are hard to measure but deeply worthwhile.
How do we bring students back to the joy of living and to the value of introspection?
I’m not sure of the precise way this has happened but somehow some students are still hearing that what matters most is their study score.
I worry we have placed them in perpetual preparation mode. Always jumping through hurdles and never watching the sunset.
I don’t want to be heard incorrectly on this. I am a massive fan of the pursuit of excellence.
However, I feel like we’ve created a context where students are trying to be perfect rather than excellent.
Perfection is the belief that what you do has to be error free. Such attitudes tend to be negative for learning because learning, by design, thrives off error and correcting errors. Perfection is negative for self-esteem too because nothing is ever perfect. And perfection is negative for wellbeing, because trying to be perfect is a torturous mental road to travel.
By contrast, excellence, the pursuit of progress, accepts failure as part of a necessary learning process. It is more interested in goal setting, goal monitoring, iterating and moving forward.
The World No. 1, Australian tennis player Ash Barty, very recent winner of the Australian Open, has linked her success and rehabilitation as an elite player to the ability to shift from a perfectionist mindset to a purpose mindset. Some of her success in this arena she attributes to her mindset coach, Ben Crowe.
Crowe helped Barty develop an authentic approach to her life as an athlete. He helped Barty separate her performance from her persona. She learned to get good at life, as Fullan would say, before she worried about being good at tennis. Reflecting on the lessons Crowe shared with Barty, Crowe argues there are three questions an athlete needs to answer to achieve authentic success:
- Who am I?
- What do I want?
- How do I get there?
I believe students and educators can learn a lot from the Barty-Crowe approach. At Perth College, we are trying to create a curriculum that answers those three questions, and one more.
What can I contribute?
On the ferry ride back to Fremantle, I wonder how I can answer those questions on behalf of our school.
Who are we? We are a nurturing place for young people.
What do we want? We want our young people to grow in confidence and shape the future.
How will we get there? We will arrive in the future being brave, prepared, and curious.
What will we contribute? We will help others know that they are safe to be themselves, make mistakes and explore their potential.