A 76-year study on health and happiness can make us better teachers!
During the past week, I’ve had a chance to slow down and take a holiday from work to spend time with my wife, Neila, and our two boys Eli and Tai. We are currently vacationing in Manila, Philippines, hanging out at my wife’s cousin’s place, so it has also allowed us to re-connect with her family and to her ethnic Filipino roots which is always such a meaningful experience.
Being on vacation also allows me to find more time to read and to watch Ted Talks which is one of my favourite things to do as it always challenges me to think about my own life as an educator and to make more sense of the work that I do and the vision that I have. Whenever I read and watch Ted Talks, it’s inevitable that I will always have more questions than answers about what great teaching means, but this is the beauty of learning I guess.
As educators, we are constantly bombarded by messages from above that all we do in teaching should be about student learning and producing results. Although I agree with this message and believe that teachers need to focus on student learning in order to produce the best results possible, there must be other considerations that play a hand in creating a successfully rich learning environment within the schools that we teach?
I’m wondering if we are a little too activity and app focused at times? If so, can this focus on the next best activities or the newest apps sometimes be quick fixes for trying to keep our students more engaged in the learning process? Or to keep us continually motivated to try out novel things in our teaching?
I certainly don’t mean to imply that seeking new activities or apps to use in our teaching are the wrong things to focus on, not at all. I am simply challenging myself and other educators to think about the bigger picture of what teaching means. When trying to construct a meaningful learning environment, there is a lot of research out there which can help us to zero in on different strategies and approaches that have positive implications on our teaching. However, my experience with research is that much of it is outdated or simply doesn’t apply to me and my teaching which has turned me off, in the past, from digging deeper with questions that I have about education in general. I haven't been able to find applicable research.
In saying this though, I have been very fortunate over the past few years to connect with some excellent researchers who have helped me to better understand research and what it has to offer me in regards to my own practice (Dr. Dean Dudley, Dr. Ash Casey, Dr. Aaron Beagle, Dr. Amanda Stanec, Dr. Vicky Goodyear, Dr. Trent Brown, Dr. Doug Gleddie, Dr Tim Fletcher to just name a few!). They’ve been able to answer questions that I have or point me in the right direction if they cannot answer them. They’ve helped me to refine what it is exactly I am looking for which has been tremendously useful to me.
I recently came across a Goliath of a study (thanks to my wife Neila Steele) out of Harvard that has been 76 years in the making, an extraordinary project that has a simple but profound finding that I believe to be extremely transferrable over to teaching.
Robert Waldinger is the current Director of the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is in charge of a longitudinal study that has tracked the health and mental well-being of a group of 724 American men for 76 years. These men are from a variety of backgrounds and different socio-economic statuses. Although this is not an educational study (a study done exclusively in schools) and has only men participating, I do believe that the findings reveal a critically important truth that cannot be overlooked in regards to creating a sustainable learning environment in which both students and teachers can thrive and it has to do with ‘relationships’.
Robert Waldinger and his team of researchers have conclusively found that ‘good relationships keep us happier and healthier’. So simplistic in nature and seemingly obvious, but this finding carries with it huge implications for the way we set up our learning environments and work to develop the relationships within this space. And I am not only talking about teacher-student relationships but also peer relationships amongst teachers.
The findings within the study have identified the big 3 about relationships that I feel are applicable to both teachers and students in regards to their well-being.
As Robert says in his Ted Talk, which you can see below, we are told that we must lean into work, but in giving work our all, this is not the only thing that actually matters. To be more productive and happier, we must lean into our relationships. Once again, although this is not an educational study, I believe these findings to be very transferable over to our teaching and that developing positive relationships within our classrooms and schools can and will have a long lasting impact on overall happiness and well-being.
Of course, it seems so obvious that developing and maintaining positive relationships will make us happier, but will it actually enhance learning and lead to us being better teachers? I’m not saying that because a teacher is strong in building relationships that they will be an excellent teacher who profoundly shapes the learning in their classrooms, but what I am suggesting is that these teachers, without question, have a head start on things. In seeking to create positive relationships with their students and the teachers that they work with, they will be happier and their students will be happier. With good relationships comes trust, great communication and listening, loyalty, support and warmth, all key factors in maintaining an enriched learning space.
There are other important factors such as subject area content knowledge and an understanding of how students learn best, but at the very heart of good teaching must be a concern for trying to develop and sustain long term positive relationships within our schools not only with our students but also those who we work with day in and day out. And in doing so, we assist in doing our share to make school and learning a rewarding experience in which meaningful relationships are woven into the very heartbeat and fabric of the organization.
Check out Robert Wadlinger’s Ted Talk below and share it with others interested in knowing more about this amazing happiness study. you can connect with Robert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/robertwaldinger
Thanks for reading!
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.