I recall with a tinge of sadness, a real story told to me by a good friend who is a teacher. He recounted his first teaching experience as an idealistic trainee teacher in a neighbourhood school many years ago, where some of his students were not in the best state of mind to pursue their studies. The reasons were varied, but not surprising to many who have worked the ground – family circumstances, poverty, peer influence, self-doubt, inability to cope, an ingrained sense of resignation etc.
One student, Ahmad, left a deep impression on him. Ahmad’s dad was in jail for a drug-related offence, while his mum was rarely around, being divorced and had to work 2 jobs to support the family. Ahmad had to stay with his grandma in Bedok. With his school situated in Bukit Batok, and possibly coupled with the emotional pain of challenging circumstances, he had little motivation to go to school, and he didn’t. Of the 3 months my friend was teaching at that school, Ahmad turned up only once. My friend reached out and tried to encourage Ahmad when he finally met him. It felt like a feeble attempt, not for the lack of good intention, but because he didn’t know what else he could have said and done. That short ten-minute meeting was the first, and also the last time he saw Ahmad before he was posted to another school.
Big questions are often asked about education. How can we learn better? How can we teach better? What is the latest research about pedagogy? How can positive education improve learning?
In many ways, these are essential and worthy questions, because finding the answers can raise standards, increase proficiency, promote growth, improve systems, and create better educational outcomes. Without discounting these key concerns, it is also helpful to go down to the individual level and ask a fundamental question – how can schools and teachers better help someone like Ahmad?
There is probably no silver bullet, or a one-size-fits-all approach, but it will be worthwhile to explore briefly, what Positive Psychology and Coaching can bring to the table.
As an applied science, Positive Psychology looks at the positive aspects of human characteristics such as strengths. We are only beginning to see the possibilities of the impact that Positive Psychology can have on education. While there are numerous proven positive interventions that can potentially be applied in classrooms, they are contingent on the fact that students need to go through the interventions and take them seriously. As with all programmes, activities and interventions, the individual motivation and willingness to be a part of the intervention are often overlooked given the reality of time constraint and efficiency of lesson delivery.
In the professional practice of coaching, tapping on the existing inner resources of the client to help achieve a goal is one cornerstone principle. The future orientation of coaching sits well and overlaps with the (desired future) well-being orientation of Positive Psychology. Given the natural fit of these two fields, there is huge potential in the integration and application of Positive Psychology Coaching in the context of education.
Positive Psychology Coaching addresses the limitations of both fields by combining the scientific rigour of positive psychology necessary for systemic accountability, as well as policy and programme design, with the relational aspect and humanistic techniques of the coaching critical to effect personal change.
Going back to the case of Ahmad, addressing well-being challenges (beyond discipline) should arguably be the priority. There is no doubt that the appropriate positive interventions would have been helpful. At the same time, a coaching conversation with powerful questions led by a skilful coach could have uncovered the unconscious narratives Ahmad had about himself in relation to the school and the family, and allowed him to see how it had impacted the results he had created in his life. While this realisation may not change his immediate circumstances, it could have built the foundation for a trusting relationship and provided a spark of motivation that would help support him through other positive interventions, and perhaps more fundamentally, give him the confidence and desire to be a student again.
Subduing negative emotions, overcoming adverse situations, fixing weaknesses, changing undesired behaviour, or solving problems - these are all familiar and (to some extent) necessary approaches to life in general, and in our interaction with students. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to “get rid of the bad stuff”, we very often forget about the human being who is a unique individual with the innate drive to grow, change and overcome. Very often, the missing link between intervention and the subject is unconditional humanism – the belief in the inherent worth and agency of a human regardless of the person’s actions.
Ahmad may not be a “good” student by conventional standards. Regardless of what he did, and whether we think his behaviour was justified, perhaps all that is needed for start is a belief by a reassuring adult that he is worthy of dignity and capable of change. Many a time, we would want students to meet us across the chasm of expectations. Perhaps if we were to take the first step to meet Ahmad where he was, to let him show us the way into his world, we might have a chance and the permission to show him the way out.
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