Well-being is a critical movement led by the province of Ontario that is essentially a response to the ever-increasing mental health issues of our students. While this is a complex issue with many factors, the one factor that we do control is the messages we send to students. Again this is tricky. On the one hand, it is our duty and privilege to empower students. We want them to realize their potential and see things that may not even know exists. We want them to feel as if they can change the(ir) world. On the other hand, this message often turns into a high-pressure environment where unreachable, unattainable goals and achievements have students consumed with stress. So how do we provide both messages?
How do we empower students but at the same time protect and build their mental health?
I think a missing conversation is about contentment. Contentment is defined as being satisfied and not wanting more. The idea of being content can be seen as anti-innovation. Contentment is not very inspirational. It doesn’t do well on in a pretty image quotation. For some, it’s almost a downer or even a step backwards. Innovation is the buzzword of the day and is what every district, school, classroom and teacher wants to be labelled as. Innovation is perceived as progressive and creative. I don’t disagree and I don’t disagree that pursuing innovative ideas and practices is a worthy goal. However, if you look at the cumulative messages and communications, there seems to be an overemphasis on innovation and little room for contentment. The ratio of innovation/improvement to contentment messages is overwhelming. I think many view contentment as a synonym for complacency. They aren’t the same thing. Complacency is defined as a “smug and uncritical satisfaction with oneself”. That’s not contentment. When I speak about joy, I’m careful to define it and always use the definition that suggests it’s the outward expression of well-being. The “being” part of well being is about now, not the future. It’s about being okay with who you are and where you are. I’ve heard leaders use the expression, “It’s okay to be where you are, it’s not okay to stay where you are”. I understand that sentiment but without careful framing and context, that statement suggests being content is not okay.
When I consider the state of schools in general, I’m fairly impressed. Are there areas that need improvement? Yes. In some instances could we use a major overhaul? Yes. But when I think about the individual teachers and schools I work with, almost to a person, I feel proud and grateful to know these folks and feel our students are in good hands. We have a great deal to be content about.
So what does contentment look like in schools? I’m not 100% sure but I do think it requires us to ensure our messages to students are clear. Students need to be reminded that being a child is a special time and while it’s natural to be looking ahead, we could do better at honouring their childhood. That’s what caring adults offer: a perspective that they may not have. I also think we could back off a little on the college and career readiness and future-ready messages. I think we could do a better job of celebrating success. Regular times to celebrate and be together as a community reminds us all of how good we have things.
It’s not an easy balance to strike. We want students to grow and improve. We want them to find their passions and potential. We want them to be innovative. At the same time, we should want them to slow down. We should be helping them to appreciate the good things in their lives, even for our most underprivileged students. Learning to be content is a major life skill. Perhaps this is about recognizing which students need this skill more than others but as a community, we can certainly make contentment a goal right alongside innovation. It might be a tougher challenge than I realize, partly because I don’t think many are even thinking about this and also because the dichotomy around these ideas can be complex.
I regularly share this video because it’s a good reminder for me and I’d love us to get serious about helping our students to live fully now as well.
Update: Thinking about this idea in 2020 has some additional connotations. It’s perhaps easy to think about being content when your basic needs are being met. Today, I imagine there are many more people in the western world in particular, who are not having these basic needs met. At the same time, many are being challenged to consider their lifestyle and wondering if the life they built before the pandemic was the life they really wanted. I think we’re all working through this idea. With the current uncertainity it reminds us how much of our lives we don’t control. My personal goal is to get more comfortable with this uncertainity and embrace those things which are good of which there are many.