Subscriber OnlyEducationThe Secret Teacher

‘There is a lesson that will never feature on a school timetable but which we could all benefit from’

To complain is to hand over all responsibility to another. We have offloaded and feel a temporary relief

'To complain is to hand over all responsibility to another. We have offloaded and feel a temporary relief as a result.' Illustration: iStock

Does the education we offer our young people enable them to navigate challenges, reach their full potential and contribute positively to society?

For all the league tables and inspection reports, these are other unexplored ways to measure the effectiveness of a school. How empowering is the current system for the children and families who experience it?

The Junior Cycle framework at second level identifies six wellbeing indicators which invite us to consider core aspects of our daily life and relationships through a wellbeing lens. These are: connected, respected, resilient, aware, responsible, and active.

Specific questions for each one heighten our awareness of our capacity to relate to others and are worded to emphasise the importance of “I”, which challenges us to take ownership over our wellbeing.


While the questions are kept relatively simple, they nonetheless serve as prompts for very complex thinking. “Do I believe that with effort I can achieve?“ for example, slows down any notions of fast-track or gratuitous rewards.

Real achievement requires effort, and early messages to the contrary merely risk setting up future resentment when it turns out life is not that easy. What a timely message with end-of-year assessments just around the corner!

Wellbeing indicators are already established and promoted and I am more interested in yet other aspects of school life that are right under our noses but not so much spoken about.

These are very common and you will easily come up with more of your own if you observe daily life closely.

Anti-bullying has rightly been brought to the fore of school-related dialogue — best practice means it is now included on a formal level at staff and board of management meetings.

Yet embedded in the challenges of daily life, many levels below this openness among adults, there is a powerful social dynamic which requires young people not to tell. To snitch is to sign away one’s kudos among peers. It seems to be top of the list of the most awful things a young person can do.

As if that was not enough, there is an unhelpful additional layer of complexity when parents support their children in not telling. Fear of reprisals is a powerful force, driving young people away from what they perceive to be telling tales, and when a child is suffering enough already it is nigh on impossible for parents to go against them.

This leads to multiple households fighting the same private battle. There is a problem that young people are convinced can only become greater if others find out, especially if they are known to have “told”. It results in parents supporting their children as best they can, but thereby unwittingly promoting the very behaviour from which their child needs to be protected.

What is not called out and dealt with is unintentionally permitted to grow. And grow it does, especially within the perpetrator, who is not receiving adequate signals that this behaviour is unacceptable. They, too, always lose out when they are not made aware of the impact they are having on others.

We often complain about the pointlessness of many timetabled subjects at school and cry out for more effective curricular reform. Significant time and energy is spent lamenting both the lack of teachers and the quality of teachers. The workload is a problem for everyone at school: a caretaker has too much graffiti to clear and a principal too much admin; teachers lack planning time and students are overwhelmed by CBAs [classroom-based assessments]. Through no fault of anyone, parents often rely on their children to relay information from school accurately — a futile ask if ever I heard one.

There is a lesson that will never feature formally on a school timetable but which we could all benefit from devoting more time to. It manages to feature both subtly and powerfully in the wellbeing indicators and was Glinda the Good Witch’s core message in The Wizard of Oz:

“You’ve always had the power my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself”.

We choose to give our power away very easily and then have to live with the tough consequences, not recognising that we have brought them upon ourselves.

To complain is to hand over all responsibility to another. We have offloaded and feel a temporary relief as a result. This relief comes “without added preservatives” and so it dissipates rapidly, leaving us confused. This confusion is significantly heavier if we have offloaded on to someone we perceive as having the power to change the situation. Expectation grows in us, and this will eventually be replaced by disappointment when the supposedly powerful individual turns out not to be so.

This pointless triangulation results from us having had the power to manage our reaction to our situation, but delegating the power to change it to an entirely different person from the one who had created it. If this person even passes it to a third at all, it is now at so many removes from us that more is likely to be lost than gained. The power simply never lay further away. And to pass it on, as one might pass the ball in a game, is to risk never getting it back again. Quite simply, it never lay further away; power lay in us all the time.

Such automatic transfers of power contribute to the highly stressed state many spend their daily lives in, teachers, parents and students alike. We have conditioned ourselves to ways which serve as forces against us and that we seem to think we have no power over. Having created them in the first place we surely have the power to uncreate them.

But, as Glinda points out, we just don’t seem to realise it.