The Happy Teacher


The final 15 minute forum of 2014-15 was led by Andy Tharby.  Andy started the session with some alarming data from a recent YouGov survey – which demonstrates why we need to focus on happiness:

  • 34% say they plan to leave by 2020
  • 22% plan to leave in 6 to 20 years

Of those who say they intend to leave:

  • 45% – retirement
  • 40% – excessive workload
  • 24% – unreasonable demand from management
  • 19% – pay and pensions
  • 13% – student behaviour

Andy has a hypothesis:

  1. Happy teachers = better outcomes for students
  2. Putting yourself (and each other) first = putting the students first
  3. Work and life are not separate entities

What follows is a transcript of a blog that Andy wrote on this topic a few months ago, that formed the basis for the rest of his talk.


I’ve just finished reading behaviour and public policy expert Paul Dolan’s marvellous Happiness by Design. Originally it shone out invitingly from the shelves of Waterstones, but I didn’t take the bait until Mark Healy recently recommended it in this blogpost. I have often thought that we teachers are very adept at making ourselves needlessly unhappy – at work and in life generally – and this book has helped me to conceptualise this and find some potential solutions. For me, at least.

I am going to simplify Dolan’s theory as it is difficult to do it justice in a blog post, especially as I am no psychology expert. Essentially, Dolan redefines our understanding of happiness: he divides it into two separate parts, pleasure and purpose. Happiness through pleasure – fun, enjoyment, relaxation, etc – is not a new definition, but considering happiness through the medium of purpose – meaningful tasks, like teaching –  is perhaps a more revolutionary idea. Some of us, Dolan suggests, are more driven by one than the other, whereas others are better-balanced. Dolan suggests that although some will always be more orientated towards one than the other, we should seek to find more balance. If all your happiness comes from purposeful tasks, try to find more equilibrium by countering them with more pleasurable alternatives…and vice-versa.


Furthermore, Dolan questions how we measure happiness. We often focus on global, evaluative measures, such as how happy we are generally in life, work and relationships. For Dolan, these constitute an over-emphasis on inputs. He argues that we should concentrate on how these aspects of life really make us feel on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis – the outputs. In other words, we should pinpoint when and how we genuinely experience happiness, not when and how we think we should experience happiness. A new house, an attractive partner, a new gadget, a job loaded with kudos will only provide genuine happiness if they make us regularly attend to this happiness. Dolan gives many examples: a new car, for instance, will only make you happy if you are constantly attending to the happiness it creates. The truth is, when behind the wheel of your expensive new car on a busy morning, you are much more likely to be worrying about work, getting angry about the traffic or listening to the radio than thinking about the happiness the vehicle you have chosen to drive gives you. We are, therefore, in thrall to the idea of happiness. Yet it is not a theory. It is a feeling experienced now, in real time.

To create our own happiness, we need to design it. First, we must listen in to the feedback that we constantly receive. When am I feeling happy? When am I not? Am I paying attention to and noticing the things that genuinely make me feel good or the things that I think should make me feel good? The solution lies in using our insights into these feelings to construct our future actions. We should nudge ourselves in the right direction so that we design simple daily habits that will be conducive to happiness.

The book chimes with my nascent feelings about what makes me happy, both professionally and personally. However, it goes much, much further, providing a theory and practical framework for me to work from. Like many teachers, I think my happiness comes predominately – although certainly not exclusively – from the sense of purpose my role as a classroom teacher entails, not necessarily from the pleasure it imparts.

This post, therefore, is about the small, habit-changing decisions I am intending to make to balance the books, to chisel out more happiness for myself. I must apologise as this will be a navel-gazing blog, but I hope you will find it useful. I think that worrying about  teacher happiness is not a selfish act.  Surely a school of happy teachers is a better place for children to learn than a school where we all shuffle along in the pits of despair?

Anyway, Dolan suggests that a good way to commit to change is to tell others of your new routines so that you feel compelled to maintain them. That is the principal purpose of this post. I will start by sharing some routines I have already embedded which have had some impact on my happiness over the last year.

I’ve realised that lunch duties make me tired and stressed in the afternoon. For a number of years, rain or shine, I did an outside lunch duty every day. I would eat my lunch on the hoof, break up juvenile squabbles and watch litter blow across the field. Although I would earn an extra £100 a month for this privilege, it would also leave me drained and unprepared for the last lesson of the day. I jacked it in this year – and I’m never going back. Now I spend my lunch time chatting to my colleagues and cracking bad jokes. My day is so much more enjoyable. And guess what? I haven’t given the money a second thought.

I’ve realised that taking work home with me makes me anxious. There’s nothing more soul-destroying than a box full of unmarked books or a bag full of admin. Even sat innocently in a dark corner of the room or hidden away in a cupboard, I would find that the mere presence of unfinished work would taint my evenings and weekends. A year or so ago my bag somehow became smeared in luminous yellow highlighter ink and at the time I didn’t have the money to replace it, so instead I just stopped taking a bag to work.  I haven’t taken one since. I’ll take my lunch, yes, and sometimes a book or a kindle, but that’s it. In other words, I carry with me only pleasure-giving items, not purposeful ones. The physical lack of a burdensome bag seems to have had a psychological mirror-effect too! I feel light and free as I arrive and leave, like every day is an INSET day.

I’ve realised that receiving work emails on my phone makes it difficult for me to switch off from work. This all came to a head a couple of years ago when, at a beer festival, I flicked open my emails only to find a 1000-word tirade written by a parent and aimed at me. From that day on, I switched off my emails and, to be honest, I have never experienced that particular pain again. If I need to look at my emails in my own time then I will choose when to.

And now, here are a few adjustments I intend to make over the coming months.

I’ve noticed that riding my bike to school makes me happier and more energetic. Even though I made the resolution to ride into school every day this year, I failed almost before I started. This was for a good reason: I was knocked off my bike on the first day of term. In truth, I was lucky to escape with a couple of bruises. Nonetheless, after reading Dolan’s book, I have realised I must persist. My journey along the seafront is a beautiful one, however inclement the weather. Besides, even if I am knocked off again, research suggests that my projections of how unhappy I will feel after a serious injury are far more extreme than the reality would be itself (once the initial physical pain is over, of course)! To prime myself for riding every morning, I will leave my cycling kit next to my bed so it is unavoidable in the morning.

I’ve noticed that I am happier when the blinds are open. Dolan notes that natural light can cause increased alertness. He also shares the finding that a view of nature can lead to greater happiness – this is probably because it keeps changing and adapting, so never stale. This rings true for me. Sometimes, halfway through the day I will realise that my classroom is bathed in darkness, the blinds closed. I have a simple trick to counter this: before I go home in the evening as well is closing the windows, I shall also open the blinds. When I arrive at work the next morning the blinds will be already open and, in my busyness, I will not forget to do it.

I’ve noticed that I constantly check my phone for Twitter/WordPress updates and this distracts me from what I am doing. The edu-Twitter world takes as much as it gives (in my humble opinion). I have developed many habits since entering this world a year or so ago which distract me from enjoying ordinary life. One of these is to check my WordPress stats with obsessive regularity. So, what I’ve done is to delete the app from my iPhone. This is already working a treat. And, to be honest, I always know they will tell me: when I have just published a blog my stats will go up; if I haven’t written a blog recently numbers will stay at a stable level. Similarly, I have also today switched off my Twitter notifications; the benefit being that now I shall only check Twitter – like my school emails – when I feel like it.

I’ve noticed that I obsess about potential student failure. Much of Happiness by Design centres on the fact that we should focus on the now, rather than our projections, concerns or dreams for the future. Every year, my concern and anxiety about my students’ exam results leaves me in a panic. Even by writing these words I can feel my neck heating up, my mouth becoming dry. Nevertheless, every year the final results provide me with a mixture of satisfaction and dissatisfaction; I’ve never felt anything different. I tend to accept them pretty quickly, too. Therefore, my fear of future unhappiness and failure is far, far greater than any feeling I have ever experienced on the day itself.  Indeed, even if the worst-case scenario were to show its hand – i.e. the results were so terrible that they threatened my position as a teacher – this would not be the end of the world. Dolan’s argument suggests that major changes or disruptions – such as losing or changing your job – are usually less damaging to happiness than you would anticipate beforehand. We learn to adapt to new circumstances very quickly and, in the long-term, these are unlikely to make us significantly less happy, moment-to-moment, than we once were.

I’ve noticed that my recent lessons with Y11 have become a bit dull and lifeless. A by-product of the anxiety I described above is that I find myself projecting it upon my Y11s. I believe this has something to do with purpose, too. Preparing for an exam involves teaching students about the mechanisms of the exam itself, rather than subject content. For example, I enjoy teaching students how to write a speech much more than I enjoy, say, teaching them the best way to organise their answer to the first bullet point of question one of the iGCSE extended paper. Granted, this does have some purpose, but only because it facilitates good exam results, not because it leads to any useful learning. So what’s the answer? I think it must lie in alleviating the pressure. Exams, of course, are unavoidable. So instead, I need to give more of myself do that I do not forget the importance of relationships, humour and a little time to remember that, ultimately, young people are much more than just a letter on a page.

I’ve noticed that some types of out-of-school work make me happier than others. Once again, this is inextricably linked to feelings of purpose. Some aspects of my work feel more purposeful than others (and, indeed, give me more pleasure, too). For me, planning is infinitely more purposeful and pleasurable than marking. I enjoy putting together a lesson, doing the research, searching the web for ideas and resources and considering how I will structure it all. If you have read this blog before, you will know that I am cynical about the current fetish for marking. Quite simply, if I do take any work home from now onwards then it must be the stuff I enjoy doing as, this way, it will feel a little bit less painful when I have to give up some of my evening.

I’ve noticed that unfinished work hangs over my head like the Sword of Damocles. And finally… Even though marking and admin tasks are burdensome and feel both purposeless and pleasure-less, this feeling is exacerbated if I leave them for longer. I have to add on the anxiety caused by thinking about doing them to the tedium of actually doing them. The only solution is to do them straight away. One of the strategies I have followed for years (but will now approach with more gusto) involves working late on Friday afternoons (or sometimes Saturday mornings) and the first day of holidays. Why such madness, I hear you ask? Again, if I wait until Sunday evening or the last day of holidays, then the anticipation of the work I have to do hangs over me, damaging my enjoyment of everything I do.


Two final thoughts. One, these are some of the actions that could cmulatively help me to be happier more often; yours might be very different. Two, I appreciate that much teacher unhappiness is created by adverse conditions within the school. If that’s you then here’s an evidence-informed solution to your woes. Vote with your feet – you are likely to be happier in the long run.

So, if you have made it this far and think that Dolan’s ideas appeal to you I suggest you buy the book!

happyThanks to Andy for a really important forum.  As a school we have had a focus this term on ‘stripping back’ – what can we do to allow teachers and leaders to focus on their core purpose?  Developing great teaching and learning.  We’ve made a number of changes:

  • No graded lesson observations – lesson observations are formative and developmental.
  • No graded marking walks – subject teams meet and discuss student work, using it as an opportunity to share best practice.
  • Department Learning Reviews are now controlled by subject leaders – they decide when they will do lesson observations, to make it a more useful process for them and their teams.
  • Departments are given lots of time on INSET days for collaborative planning.
  • The focus for CPD next year will be ‘Subject Specific Pedagogy Development Sessions’ – allowing subject teams to discuss and share what works within their subject context, when looking at specific pedagogical themes e.g. metacognition; effort; modelling; feedback; difficulties & misconceptions; tier 2 vocabulary.
  • No intervention logs – allowing teachers time to plan and actually do the intervention (in most cases, teaching them well!)
  • No need for time consuming appraisal evidence files.
  • Using some generic appraisal objectives – we all do the same job, so rather than spending time mulling over the objectives, focus your efforts on the actions/CPD needed to achieve.  This is the flexibility for personalised objectives too.
  • Removing written targets from reports.
  • Exploring ways of logging any behaviour issues, detentions etc electronically – reducing the time needed to write out lengthy documents.
  • Rewriting the homework policy – so subjects can focus on the type of homework that works for them.
  • A review of the feedback policy – so subjects can identify the kind of feedback that works best for them (as opposed to a rigid, one size fits all approach).
  • Supporting staff that are/have moved through the threshold, by providing them with a range of developmental UPR roles.
  • Producing a yearly planner for Subject Leaders – supporting their planning by stating the key events/tasks that are coming up each month.
  • Slimming down exams analysis documents that subject leaders do – giving it more of a focus on lessons learned and looking forward.
  • Giving subject leaders the freedom to schedule their department meetings at a time that suits them best.

As a final tip, my wife Lianne does the same thing at the end of every term – she leaves a chocolate bar on her desk before she leaves and goes home.  So when she arrives back in her office for the new term, she has a treat waiting for her! Give it a go.

Be happy.



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3 Responses to The Happy Teacher

  1. kevincooper777 says:

    Like your stuff generally. Totally with you on the happy teacher idea. I’m recently appointed to SMT in a small independent school where I have taught for 6 years – first 5 under a tick-boxy, top-down Head, last one under a fantastic head focused on (amongst other things) giving teachers the freedom to get on with their job. I have redesigned our appraisal system in line with this – this is now the front page:
    The over-riding aim of Appraisal at ********* School is to maximise the quality of the experience of being a teacher at the school – so that:
    • the quality of learning for the students is maximised
    • the renowned ‘family atmosphere’ of the school is maximised
    • teachers are able to model for the students how work can be a richly rewarding experience

    Of course it’s about walking the walk as well as talking the talk, but one thing I have noticed is that in recruiting several quality, intelligent, vocational teachers from other schools – all taking a pay drop as because as a small school we don’t have the economies of scale to pay high salaries – is that they are deeply excited, emotional even, about working under a different regime, having become deeply demoralised by the ‘managerialism’ in their present schools [the fantastic, highly qualified, dynamic, cutting-edge Head of ICT we have recruited has even been off school with stress for the last term]. This is real stuff, making a real difference to people’s lives (and hence to the prospects of a happy and successful life for the students in their care). For me, it’s a no-brainer, but contacts I have suggest that other independent schools are actually going the other way, and introducing MORE controls / checks / evidence trails / graded lesson observations / etc.

    So, please do keep forging away with this, don’t let the cynics get you down!!

    If anyone wants to see the whole appraisal policy, feel free to email me on kevincooper777 AT gmail DOT com

    I’ll just mention one little thing from our policy: teachers are encouraged to ask to be observed with their MOST PROBLEMATIC class – and to NOT PLAN A SPECIAL ‘OBSERVATION LESSON’ – in order for feedback to have the maximum potential to make a difference to their day-to-day teaching life [though if they want to go for the ‘all-singing, all-dancing, takes 6 hours to prepare’ type lesson, they are free to do so – for example if they are looking to apply for promotion in other schools and therefore want to fine-tune their “interview lesson performance”].

  2. mrvieito says:

    Great post with lots of interesting points. I’d like to ask you and Kevin, if I may, how, as a school, you ‘trade’ the teaching if you don’t grade lessons. Don’t get me wrong – I’m trying to get the ball rolling with no grades and weekly no graded coaching (with your worst class!) for everyone but at the moment there is an insistence to still grade a formal ob along with mini departmental reviews. I need to try and overcome what I think is a fear of loss of control. How do I convince them to let go of the formals?

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