Owning My Story: Why I Do What I Do…

“When we deny our story, it defines us.
When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.”
– Brené Brown. 

In recent months, I’ve been increasingly inspired to open up about my own personal struggle with anxiety – either through writing, teaching or speaking – as a means of both allowing myself to be imperfect and vulnerable, but also as a means of better connecting with my audience.

Today, I figured, was as good a time as any to share a little more about myself here, as a means of explaining my reasons behind doing the work that I’m doing in and out of schools. 


I went to school in the nineties, daughter to lovely parents, student to lovely teachers. I worked really hard and as such, managed to achieve a solid set of GCSE results. To the abstract observer, I was a success story. Inside, though, I was miserable. 

My shyness was exacerbated in the high-school environment, over time morphing into something much bigger; anxiety, self-loathing, fear, panic and dread. Every day.

My method of coping was avoidance of anything that made me uncomfortable, especially socially, leading to a hardwired habit of avoidance that amplified all that I was afraid of. When I was forced into a situation where I had to ‘step up’, I hated every moment and got through it as quickly as possible, seemingly unable to cope with the eruption of physical sensations that ran through my body. I didn’t know it then, but I’d developed a fear of the sensations of fear, rather than the actual situation that triggered it.

See…mental health just wasn’t spoken about back then, not at home or school; not by me, or anyone else. 

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So nobody explained to me that I’d simply become stuck in a cycle of listening to unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and visualisations, that fuelled what I felt, said and did (or didn’t do.) Nor did anyone point out that the physical sensations I experienced, when I was asked to participate in class discussion, didn’t mean that I was insane; that it was simply my body going into fight, flight or freeze as a means of protecting me; something that I could manage with my breathing, body language and focus. 

Had I learnt these things, maybe my experience of high school would have been a happier one; maybe I’d have chosen university courses I liked, rather than the ones that didn’t involve a speaking element; maybe I wouldn’t have wasted years in an IT job that I had zero talent for or interest in; maybe my PGCE year wouldn’t have been the worst year of my life; maybe I wouldn’t have needed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, years of mindfulness and an obsession with self-help, to get me to a point where I can even begin to imagine myself capable of what I hope to achieve.

I’m not complaining here. Without my experiences – without my struggle – I would never have found my way to the path that I’m on today; a path more fulfilling than I could ever have imagined. 

teacher profile picWhen I walk into schools today, ready to talk wellbeing and emotional intelligence, I take my struggle with me. After all, it’s this that gives me the empathy, knowledge, skills and understanding to do this kind of work. It’s what allows me to break down barriers with the children and adults I work with. It’s absolutely what gives me the courage to walk forward, despite feelings of fear, self-doubt and discomfort.

I do what I do, because I don’t want my story to become the story of others.

I want kids today to know that they can challenge limiting thoughts, beliefs, reactions and habits; that they can achieve what they set out to; that they’re enough, even when they don’t look or act like their favourite social media star. More than anything, I want them to learn these things now, in school, rather than hearing them from a therapist years down the line.

The following slides from staff training demonstrate what we’re working towards, in school:

We can’t ‘cure’ mental illness just as we can’t foresee the direction that our students’ lives will take. But if we arm them with knowledge, skills, strategies and self-awareness, chances are that they’ll have an easier time finding their way towards purpose, potential and happiness.

There’s just one last point I need to make. In today’s climate, overworked teachers are increasingly stressed, anxious, depressed and resigning. Expecting them to pull together a lesson on mental health without any warning/training/experience, feels ineffective if not slightly unethical. We need our schools to acknowledge that our teachers often need as much support in this respect as our students do – and there’s an increasing number of organisations around the UK that offer this.

Put upon, as teachers so often are, it’s so easy to roll our eyes and view mental health as just another thing to do – another box to tick. Hopefully, in sharing my story, I’ve shown you that it’s so much more.

 

 

 

 

Five Ways to Stop Procrastinating

In the past, I thought of my procrastination habit as a rather annoying but slightly amusing personality quirk. But it’s really not. As much fun as it is to switch report-writing for rearranging furniture, the truth is that when you waste time consistently, you’re effectively lowering both the amount and quality of the free time that you have.

This week’s TES article gives you the tools needed to stop procrastinating once and for all. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of guilt-free relaxation after a day of mega productivity.


My name is Jo and I am a procrastinator (in recovery).

It is as an age-old problem, described as “hateful” by Roman statesman Cicero in 44BC.

For the modern-day procrastinator, with the myriad of distractions available to us at all times, it can be much harder to avoid procrastination, and much harder to beat it.

But speaking from the viewpoint of a casualty in recovery, it is doable. Here’s how:

1. Get real about the cost

While it may seem like a rather amusing personality quirk, procrastination is no laughing matter. Not only are you missing out on guilt-free leisure, which only comes after you’ve done the thing you’re dreading, you also risk shelving other important “life stuff” as you’re forced to sit typing long into the evening hours. When you feel the urge to pause the report-writing in favour of scrolling through Facebook, ask yourself if it’s worth missing that bubble bath, phone call or family dinner later.

2. Apply a policy of ‘Worst First’

When you’re hell-bent on avoiding a particular task or project, it’s easy to trick yourself into doing something else; often a “something” that’s less important, non-urgent and a whole lot more fun. Arrange your tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix of urgent-important tasks to ensure that you don’t find yourself haunted by pressing matters at the end of a seemingly productive day.

3. Break large tasks into small steps

Many of us struggle to even start tasks simply because they appear overwhelming, but they don’t have to be. By setting smaller, achievable goals, tasks appear much more approachable. Let’s say you’re stuck with a huge set of assessments to mark – why not mark three per night? Or maybe you’ve got a unit of work to write – just focus on getting the first lesson done, or even the first starter task, perhaps with a lovely cup of coffee as your reward. Negotiate with your inner dilly-dallier until it’s at least willing to start. With any luck, momentum will do the rest!

4. Set clear, short time limits

As Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Give yourself an hour or three to plan a lesson and either way, you’ll fill your time and get the same results. No deadline at all? Then it’s very likely you’ll fall into the abyss of teacher resources online, endlessly searching for the perfect one. Use whatever technology is nearby to set yourself regular time limits and brain-breaks to keep you recharged and efficient.

5. Set yourself up for success

Observe your habits over the next week, taking note of what your triggers are before beginning to make small adjustments. Maybe you always end up chatting to a colleague in the workroom – could you work elsewhere? Perhaps your attention is constantly being pulled away by the pinging of emails. Why not put your phone away, allowing yourself to read these emails at a later point in the day? As with any addict trying to quit a bad habit, determination and willpower will only get you so far. Get a solid plan in place to ensure you don’t slide back into your old ways.

Seven quick-win lifestyle hacks for daily happiness

Apparently, I just can’t shut up when it comes to wellbeing advice for teachers. Here’s the latest TES article, with some super easy and effective hacks for anyone forced into this ‘adulting’ lark.


That education has acknowledged a problem with mental health and wellbeing among teachers is undoubtedly a good thing, but not everything that has come out of it has been positive, or easy to interpret. For many teachers, the advice offered to keep yourself healthy is overwhelming, off-putting and conflicting.

This is a shame, as the truth is: there’s no need for a dramatic lifestyle overhaul. Small, subtle changes often yield big results and ones that you’re much more likely to maintain.

Here are some of the small lifestyle ‘hacks’ that have been making me happier over the last few years.

  1. If you’re working, keep your phone on but out of sight
    I keep it on vibrate so that I’ll hear work calls, but my brain is no longer being pulled in different directions by social media or untimely personal messages.

  2. Take some time to prepare food the night before
    Even with the best of intentions, chances are that if you leave food prep to the morning rush, you’ll end up with a packed lunch of hot-dog salad. Making extra portions of dinner, roasting a batch of veg or freezing batches of healthy soup are all simple ways to make this a super-quick evening job. (check out these healthy packed lunch ideas, too)

  3. Look for opportunities to be active in your day
    If you’re struggling to fit gym time into your busy schedule, don’t sweat it! Instead, set yourself a secret fitness mission to move as much as possible through your day. Take the stairs, walk the long way around, make the journey to the staff room at break. Download one of the many free pedometer apps if you’re keen to occasionally measure your progress or check out these exercise ideas you can do in the classroom.

  4. Have a water bottle nearby
    I’ve lost count of the number of days I intended to drink my 2.5 litres of water, only to finish a lesson-packed day crawling towards the nearest water cooler. I simply forget. Having a full bottle nearby has reminded me to hydrate more often, resulting in fewer headaches and more energy.

  5. Working at home? Stick to the same room
    Restrict work (and work-related items and reminders) to just one area of the house – preferably not the lounge or bedroom. Having a clearly defined workspace can help you to ‘switch off’ along with your laptop.

  6. Notice noticing your thoughts
    Before you listen to your thoughts, add a little distance between you and them by inserting the words “I notice” into your head. For example, “I notice that I’m thinking that I have X to do when I get into school; I notice that I’m feeling a little anxious about Y this afternoon.” The more I’ve practised this, the more I’ve found that I’m much less phased and more accepting of work-life stress.

  7. Explore what relaxation is to you
    Just because it’s called downtime, doesn’t mean you have to spend it lying down aided only by a family-sized bag of Doritos and a show about Hoarders. Get curious about what makes you tick. You might just find that playing sports, writing a blog or practising an instrument offers you exactly the headspace and relaxation that you were looking for.

3 Mindfulness Exercises to fit into the School or Work day

If, for whatever reason, you find that you’re interested in trying out this mindfulness lark… you may well enjoy this past article that I wrote for TES.

Included are three simple activities that are easily incorporated into your working day, whether you’re a teacher, a non-teacher or barely human (I spend at least two days a month in this latter state).


As teachers, we strive to go above and beyond to make our lessons enthralling and engaging for those we teach. We know that for pupils to develop skills and retain knowledge, they need to be “present” for more than answering their name on the register.

Yet, how present and engaged are we throughout the school day? When was the last night you heard and felt your fingers typing an email, or tuned into the sensations of your feet on the ground, as you stood in front of your class?

Research into the benefits of practising mindfulness is still in its infancy, but already looks promising. A 2007 study, conducted by Hölzel, Lazar et al, took FMRI brain scans of patients, before and after an eight-week programme of mindfulness training; the results displayed clear changes in the grey matter of brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, information processing and perspective.

Still think it’s just a fad? You may be right, but why not try incorporating the following mindfulness activities into your daily routine before you make up your mind…

1. Mindful listening

This is something you can do anywhere, simply by exploring the sounds around you. While it’s natural to label the sounds at first – “that’s someone typing”, “that’s a passing car” – try to go further by considering the features of these sounds. Ask yourself: where is the sound coming from? Is it near or far? Is it smooth or sharp? Is it deep or shallow? Noticing everyday sounds with an attitude of curiosity can add an element of wonder and tranquillity to even the dullest of days.

2. Mindful eating

We all eat food, but how many of us pay attention to the taste of it? Awaken your senses by examining what you’re eating closely, noting the textures, colours and fine details, before drinking in the scents and bringing the food to your lips. Chew slowly, noting the tastes and textures of your food, and the ways in which this changes as you chew. Notice any sensations as you swallow, including any aftertaste that might be present.

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Whether it’s a bite of your breakfast or lunch, a breaktime snack or a single Malteser, learning to savour your food can add some much-needed pleasure to your day.

3. Mindful thoughts

We all have those days (or terms) when our minds jump chaotically from one thought to another – days when we’re endlessly busy, but achieve very little.

Clear out the mental fog by learning to notice thoughts from a distance, rather than being inside of them. You might like to imagine the thoughts are clouds passing through the sky, or different channels on a radio.

When your inner-monologue says “I’ve got X, Y and Z to do before 8am and I’m already stressed”, try changing this to “I notice that I’m thinking about what I have to do. I notice that I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.” It doesn’t sound like much, but separating yourself from these negative thoughts can really weaken their grip on your emotional and mental state.

‘Emotional Athletes’: Emotional Intelligence & Resilience in the Classroom

‘Emotional Athletes’ is the latest wellbeing-based Learning Experience, geared towards developing emotional intelligence and practical strategies for resilience in students.

Of course, I’m completely biased, because these days are like babies to me – but it’s an awesome day.

Information and activities throughout the day are routed in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Mindfulness, child-friendly Neuroscience, Growth Mindset and Positive Psychology. There’s even a bit of Yoga thrown in!

Here’s what we’ll cover:

We begin the day by considering what it means to be ’emotionally athletic’, considering how and why it might be useful to understand where our thoughts and feelings come from. Using Dr. Dan Seigel’s child-friendly ‘Hand Model’ of the brain, we learn about how different parts of the brain work together, as well as what happens scientifically when we ‘flip our lid’ and become overwhelmed with emotion.

Morning activities involve engaging clips, quizzes, speaking and listening tasks and role play. There’s a small amount of writing as children are asked to think back to their own positive and negative feelings, considering how these emotions presented themselves in their bodies and thoughts.

As a class, we look at the 5 Part Model (CBT) of thoughts, feelings, behaviour and reactions, in any given situation, as well as considering the things in life that we can and cannot control.

Children are taught to take control of what they can in emotional situations; their breath, relationship with their thoughts and their attention overall. Mindfulness-based activities and meditations, sprinkled through the day, give them a chance to put this into practice.

In the afternoon, we focus on building our emotional resilience. Children move from table to table, trying out a variety of tasks in groups, aimed at either maintaining daily happiness or bouncing back from negative thoughts or emotions.

At the end of this action-packed day, children create their own origami fortune tellers, labelled with their favourite techniques from the day. This becomes a self-supporting tool that they can use independently the next time negative thoughts and emotions creep in.

Like I said, it’s an awesome day!


Jo Steer is an experienced teacher in primary, secondary, SEND and life skills-based education. She is also trained in Mindfulness and Yoga for children, and CBT (APT level 2).

If you’d like her to deliver this particular package or something similar in your school, call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to discuss ways forward.

Teacher Wellbeing: My top ten TED talks

I’ll admit it: I’m a geek. While other people lie in on Saturday mornings, I wake up early and complete household chores as I watch and listen to TED talks. I love it – I’m getting things done, but I’m learning at the same time. When you work in this profession, you spend most of your time working out how to motivate and inspire others. Sometimes we forget that we need this too.

Here are ten of my favourite talks that always give me a boost:

1. Amy Cuddy will teach you to tweak your body language and ‘fake it until you become it.’ Moving and brilliant. I highly recommend hiding in the toilet to perform the ‘Wonder Woman’ for 2 minutes before staff presentations. And yes, we get the irony.

2. Michelle Poler’s inspirational talk is the end product of 100 days ‘without fear’, a project in which she faces 100 different fears, ranging from uncomfortable to mess-your-pants terrifying. You’ll be facing off with the spider in the shed before you know it and maybe even encouraging your students to do the same.

3. If you’re a self-confessed loner; if you’d rather have a night in with the cats than go out and see your favourite band; you’ll love Susan’s Cains’ talk about why it’s friggin’ awesome to be an introvert.

4. Having one of those days where you feel like you’ll never be confident enough to face that class/speak at INSET/join the ‘Thriller’ flashmob at Tesco next Saturday? Watch Dr. Ivan’s Joseph’s talk and remind yourself that confidence is a skill to practise and grow, rather than something you either have or don’t. Growth Mindset isn’t just for the kids.

5. Caroline Casey’s talk is so moving and so inspirational. No spoilers – I’ll just say it’s all about perception baby!

6. When we grow up, we want to be Dr. Pam Peeke. Her insights and research into sugar addiction are just fascinating, and she looks (and talks) like she could star in ‘Dallas.’

7. Who doesn’t love a bit of profanity with their housework? Sarah Knight doesn’t disappoint.

8. Andy Puddicombe (the voice of the Headspace app) has such a soothing tone; if he can’t convince you to meditate for ten minutes a day, then you may as well give up now – you’re a lost cause.

9. If like us you’re prone to a little (or lot) of self-destruction now and again,  you’ll appreciate Mel Robbins’ candour, humour and tips to get things done.

10. If you take away even just one thing from Caroline Myss’s talk, you will be a better person for it. This is one to watch again and again.

 

Brave new world: Act II (a plan is formed)

Since September, I’ve been earning my money through supply teaching in local primary schools. While I was nervous at first, I quickly realised that this was actually a fantastic opportunity for me to continue enjoying the best bits of teaching while dropping the worst. Teaching spontaneously like this – keeping students that I’ve only just met happy and engaged, well behaved, learning – has definitely allowed me to add to my own skill-set. Every day when I enter the classroom, I set myself the secret challenge of being the best supply teacher the children have ever seen. I make it my mission to make these children feel good about themselves. This doesn’t always work – supply teaching isn’t without it’s challenges – but like we tell the children, when we reach for the moon, we land among stars even if we miss.

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One upsetting aspect of leaving your job is that you can no longer use ‘marking books’ as a legitimate reason to avoid the gym.

I had thought that I might have a problem with traipsing to different schools where I didn’t know anyone, but actually I’ve found it fascinating to visit schools that are vastly different in the makeup of their students, staff and approaches. When you have a permanent job in school, you can become very insular and set in your ways. Yet, we can learn so much from seeing the way things are handled in other schools.

Even where schools appear to be very different, they often have much in common. Right from the bustling, multi-cultural inner-city academies, to the leafy lane one-form entry religious schools; teachers gripe about Ofsted, excessive workload, student behaviour, learning and attitudes. Across the board, many staff feel that they have to cram in curriculum content in a series of fast-paced, prescriptive lessons, without any real time to focus on other things that should matter just as much.

As a passionate facilitator of skill-based learning, I recognise that children everywhere are being pushed academically by some fantastic teachers and support staff; but that their life-skills have been mostly forgotten. At best, words like collaboration, communication and confidence are mentioned at a shallow level. At worst, they are unheard of within the school dialogue. Even the truly brilliant members of teaching staff and leadership are often just too busy trying to keep up with ‘aspiration data targets’ to truly consider how best to instil an ethos of independent learning and resilience throughout their class or school.

In the current educational climate, anything that isn’t measurable in the form of a data spreadsheet or written exam, just isn’t a priority. So this is where I plan to come in.

Though I have often been prone to bouts of insecurity, I have never wavered on my decision to leave my job and ‘go it alone.’ Even more so, I am certain that I can use my own knowledge and skills more effectively under my own banner, and pass these on to a much broader community of students and staff. For this reason,  this month I officially registered ‘Skills with Frills Education Ltd.’ I plan to launch in January, 2018, offering my teaching services to schools within Yorkshire, promoting my newly-created ‘Fishing Net’ skills.

What we need to consider as educators is that not only do we have a duty to develop the whole-child alongside their academic abilities; but also that if we were to inspire qualities such as resilience, independence and communication within our students, then they would no doubt reap academic benefits alongside an abundance of others.

 

Olympic inspiration

The 2016 Rio Olympics will begin today: a time when the elite athletes of the world come together to compete, showcasing years of hard work and proudly representing their countries. The focus – certainly from the press – is all about who has a realistic chance of winning: who might just bring home the gold for Britain. And it’s so easy to get swept up in this.

But why? Is it just the entertainment of watching competitive sports? Is it patriotism?  

Although there is plenty that I enjoy about living in Britain, I don’t really consider myself to be patriotic…just fortunate. I’m not really a fan of watching sports either – at least not many shown in the Olympics. Yet, somehow I do find myself on the couch every four years, my breath held, waiting to either groan or cheer.

So what is it? Why do I care? Why do we care?

When we watch athletic superstars like Usain Bolt speed towards gold in the 100m race, it’s with an atmosphere of excited curiosity. Will Bolt do it again? Could he best his last time? Might something go wrong? Will he entertain us with his signature move at the finish? We watch with a sense of awe and wonderment because we know we’re often about to see the impossible achieved.

Alongside this, the press allow us to peek into the lives and stories of British hopefuls, which are so often a tale of effort and commitment, sacrifice and determination. Sometimes there’s a secondary storyline involving talent, good luck and opportunity, but the central narrative is centered around hard work and resilience: a battle against the odds. That’s what we enjoy.   

This morning, I happened across a classic clip from the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, when Olympic Gold Medallist Derek Redmond tore his hamstring in the 400 metres semi-final. Sobbing in pain, his dreams crushed, Derek limped towards the finish line alone at first then quickly joined by his father, who jogged at his side. It was a truly beautiful and moving moment that has become one of the most memorable events in Olympics history, more so than whoever won that race. Because as much as we love to see people achieve and win, we equally love to see someone who keeps going, who battles in front of our eyes, win or lose.

The Rio Olympics are sure to bring more incredible wins and gut-wrenching losses: we will continue to see the impossible made possible. Though the timing tends of fall over summer, there are still opportunities for Olympic-themed lessons and discussion, either to send students on their summer holiday or start the year afresh in September. I always discuss stories of the year’s hopefuls with my students. Regardless of whether they finish first, last, or limp along with their dad at their side, all are fantastic examples of what the human spirit can achieve.

Role model: Nick Vujicic

If you’re looking to inspire students with a positive role model – someone who showcases a can-do attitude and resilience through times of hardship; someone that makes other people’s lives better just by being there; someone who inspires others to be the best possible version of themselves – you’d be hard pressed to find better than Nick Vujicic.

I’ve come across Nick’s story a few times and it never loses its impact. Born with a rare condition called Phocomelia syndrome, he is a man without arms or legs, earning a living as a motivational speaker.

He is the human equivalent to Ghandi’s quote, “My life is my message.”

He travels the globe, selling his message of hope and faith in times of hopelessness, ‘changing obstacles into opportunities’ and using words to build rather than break others down. What I really like about Nick is that he often speaks in schools, reminding angst-ridden adolescents that they ought to be kinder to each other and themselves; that they’re not worthless and nor do they need completing or improving in some way; and that any negative situation, no matter how dire it seems, can be turned around with the right attitude.

I’ve shown the clip above to various classes across year groups. I follow this up with a few key questions: ‘Why do you think I’ve chosen to show you Nick’s story? Is there anything that you found interesting about this? If you were in that situation, do you think you would feel the same way? Would things work out differently for you…why? What can we learn from this man?’  

When I have students in detention – specifically those who make endless excuses for their poor work/effort/behaviour – I like to set them off on the ipad or PC, researching Nick’s story and answering questions, under the guise of completing a comprehension task.

Many kids who struggle to behave in school have home lives that are the opposite of what a supportive, steady and nurturing home life should be, and it’s easy to understand why they make excuses for themselves. They feel ‘hard done by’ – and many truly are.

But in order for their negative home environment not to become ‘their story’ for life, we need to expose them to inspirational people like Nick Vujicic, who remind us all that anything is possible.

From their perspective, they see someone who is ‘worse off’ than them, but somehow still perseveres, achieves, inspires and conquers.    

You can follow Nick on Twitter @nickvujicic or visit https://www.attitudeisaltitude.com/ for more information. I’ve included a link at the top of the page to a 4 minute highlight clip from YouTube – this is just the right length to throw into lessons and prompt discussion – but there are a range of lengthier clips to choose from if you feel like delving deeper.