This is a story about serendipity, Twitter and teaching happiness and wellbeing in schools. About 3 months ago, I stumbled across a kindred spirit on Twitter. His name was Adrian Bethune.
I’d heard about people meeting on social media before. Young Happy Minds is part of a business accelerator called 50th Generation and one of the companies that is part of the accelerator, came across Carrie Bedingfield on Twitter after having watched her Ted Talk, and then joined her accelerator. All the way from. New Zealand. So, thank you Twitter.
Back to Mr Bethune, as his Year 4 class, “Team Picasso” call him. After a bit of emailing, chatting on the phone and general mutual admiration for our causes, Mr. Bethune (that’s what I will refer to Adrian as from now on) and I arranged a time for me to come and visit him in action and see the work he was doing with his Year 4s at Westfield Primary School.
After a slightly stressful commute along the M25/M40, I became rather less stressed upon entering the leafy suburbs of Berkhampsted. There is something about escaping the confines of London that manifests itself in the body. My shoulders started to relax, I felt a little weight shift and I felt a little freer.
Upon arriving at the school, I made my way to reception and I was greeted by this display:
“Ha Ha”, I thought to myself. “This has all the hallmarks of Bethune!”.
And then we met! I felt like a teenager who had been chatting to a new ‘friend’ online and was meeting them for the first time full of anticipation and trepidation. “Hi. Yvonne?” “Adrian?”
I hadn’t been to a Primary school for years! It might sound obvious, but they are so different from Secondary schools, which I am much more familiar and comfortable with. Everything is miniature and fun sized and diddy! But don’t be fooled by their size; Primary schools mean business, as Bethune’s crew were about to show me.
I walked into Mr Bethune’s classroom and immediately felt at home. The display boards were full of positive affirmations and teachings from the world of positive psychology. There was a lovely ppt slide displayed on the SMARTBoard that read, “A good laugh recharges your battery”. “How true”, I thought!
I could hear the children playing outside. Their classroom was all set up ready to greet them; their indoor pumps were organised on their chairs and their books were ready for their Literacy lesson. It was super cute.
About 8.40am, the children started to file into the classroom, one by one. I was struck by how happy and smiley all of them were. Adrian had some music playing as the children entered the room – “Lark ascending” by Vaughan Williams. It was a beautiful way to start the day. Every single one of the children who I made eye contact with, beamed back at me with a huge smile. We teach the teenagers that we work with about the contagiousness of emotions and this was so present in the classroom as the children filed in. I was beaming like I haven’t in a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a classroom that felt so effervescent and yet so calm.
Back to Bethune! What a talented teacher! If I ever have kids, I would like them to be taught by Mr. Bethune. His classroom management seemed effortless, and yet, you could tell that he had put so much thought and effort into it and that his class were very well trained.
I have to let you into a little secret now. Coming from the world of Secondary teaching, I have always thought that Primary school children seemed a little bit like hard work. But in Mr Bethune’s class, I felt none of that. These students seemed so mature, so full of life, so not hard work.
After entering the classroom to the beautiful music, all of the children sat on the carpet gazing in awe, it has to be said at Mr. Bethune (I was also a little bit in awe). As Mr. Bethune took the register, the children didn’t just answer their name, but they answered, with a positive thought for the day, like, “Doing good for others makes yourself feel good Mr. Bethune”.
Some of them would then pass on to the next person in register order and they would answer with another positive affirmation. You could tell those who really wanted to impress. They quoted, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid” - Albert Eisntein. Did I mention that these children are in year 4 (8/9 yrs old)? Already, I had goosebumps. I felt like saying to Mr. Bethune, “Whatever happens today, I want you to know that I had a really good time today” (Pretty Woman reference, which will be lost on many of you reading this, I’m sure.)
After the register, which was really more a round of positive affirmations, Mr. Bethune, moved into a morning mindfulness practice. I was now starting to feel like I was in heaven. If I could imagine how wellbeing could be interwoven into the curriculum, this was how it would look!
Next thing I knew, the mediation bells chimed and there were 30, 8 year olds meditating in their own way, either standing up, sitting on a chair or sat crossed legged. Some were more engaged than others, but they were calm, connected and present!
What came afterwards was perhaps the highlight of my day. Mr. Bethune lead a Q & A about the brain and how mindfulness, laughter and exercise affects the brain. I actually thought that I had been teleported to a Masters mindfulness course when an 8 year old girl was explaining to me what happens to the brain when we meditate. She looked at me intensely and used her hand to explain with an open palm, with her thumb attached to it.
“You see, this is what the brain is like.” She placed her thumb on her palm and scrunched it into a fist. She continued, “This is the pre-frontal cortex and this is the amygdala and when we meditate, the pre-frontal cortex gets stronger and less blood and oxygen flow to the amygdala which is responsible for controlling our fight and flight response”.
I really was quite taken aback and I think the amazement was evident on my face, because this led to a frenzy of hands going up, bursting to tell me more. Several boys explained how laughter creates dopamine and exercise - endorphins and they also spoke about other happy hormones, like serotonin and how they are produced in the brain. I was seriously in the happiness equivalent of chocolate heaven.
After this was quiet reading time. I asked some questions to some of the children about what else they do to increase their happiness and they told me, “We always write down what went well at the end of each week”, which is a variation of 3 good things, a practice developed my Martin Seligman. They also anticipate good things in the future by looking forward to something the following week. All scientifically proven techniques from the field of positive psychology for how to cultivate more positive emotions.
Next up was a literacy lesson. My favorite, having been an English teacher. It was amazing how engaged the children were and how much respect they had for Mr. Bethune.
And that was my morning at Westfield Primary school. I left feeling inspired, in awe and excited for the future. I can’t wait to start collaborating with Mr. Bethune on a Young Happy Minds programme for Primary schools. What I witnessed in his classroom is the change that I want to see in the school system. As Tal Ben Shahar says on positive psychology, “It’s common sense, but it’s not common action”. Let’s make this common action. Let’s get happiness on the curriculum. Let’s start a movement.
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