The Secret Teacher: Our obsession with wellbeing risks making it taboo to be okay

People are becoming so greedy about their own wellbeing that they lose sight of what’s happening to others

A healthy community consists of members who have enough emotional peripheral vision never to lose sight of each other.

A healthy community consists of members who have enough emotional peripheral vision never to lose sight of each other.


It’s well meaning, no doubt, but the focus on wellbeing in schools has backfired massively. Why? It seems to have been interpreted as an inside job. It’s all there in the first few letters: “well be I”. We are therefore trying to be well and stay well despite these challenging times. One cannot realistically roll out a high volume of initiatives and reforms and simultaneously underline the importance of wellbeing.

When my colleagues and students have played the wellbeing card, it has been, without exception, to better things for themselves as individuals. That’s the very last thing the Irish education system needs. Schools and classrooms are dependent on collaboration and an ability to function communally. How dangerous, then, to encourage us to look so consciously inwardly at ourselves that we lose sight of the wider community that we are inevitably part of!

An emotional version of peripheral vision is vital for wellbeing in a communal setting. We may know a lot about what is going on in the lives of those in our inner circle – our family, our friends and those we consciously choose to spend time with. Beyond that, we encounter many others with whom we co-exist at work or at school. We must presume that we only know the smallest fraction of what is going on in their lives. With worrying rates of mental ill-health, self-harm and suicide, keeping an eye on and looking out for each other is more important than ever.

There is no barometer for exactly how much wellbeing a person needs at any given time to thrive, but I’d like to think that when I am thriving I put any excess to good use by giving someone else a helping hand. There are certainly plenty of days when I need others to be prepared to do the same for me. Emotional peripheral vision is what makes that possible. Looking inward means being oblivious to what those around us are doing, and this includes others needing our help or being available to help.

While at school, young people are still very much in their formative years. When among peers and having the craic, it is easy to be oblivious to the needs of others, especially those outside one’s immediate inner circle. In any class group or peer group of adolescents wellbeing levels vary enormously.

There can be events taking place privately that the school has no information at all about, but there are also times when the teacher knows but the peers don’t.

Conversely, students often share things with their closest friends and not with any adult, which is then additional emotional baggage for several members of a class group. Teacher wellbeing is highly variable too, and given our responsibility in loco parentis, we often bottle up emotional reactions because we simply do not have the luxury of outbursts while children are in our care.

These are the daily realities in any school setting. An awareness of others and an ability to empathise when required are fundamental in order to keep needless additional strain to an absolute minimum. Looking inward cuts us off from how others are feeling.

Empathy must be promoted instead of, or at least alongside, wellbeing. A healthy awareness of others as well as the self is vital if we are to ensure that the sense of community is never lost. Students are more empowered than they have ever been, but somehow they seem to have a perception that they are entitled to feel good above and beyond all else. If during their formative years we do not impress upon them the importance of other people’s wellbeing, what kind of society will they form when they are adults?

We are encouraged to be strategic and unapologetic in our approach to our own wellbeing, but that is not realistic. We simply do not exist alone or function alone. Promoting quotes such as “you can’t pour from an empty cup” and “put on your own oxygen mask first” cannot be at the expense of “there is no I in team” and “no man is an island”. The wellbeing lingo needs a community context, otherwise it rapidly becomes each man for himself, to the detriment of those around him.

A significant feature of the backfiring is the bandwagon of not being okay. While we have a responsibility to actively promote wellbeing initiatives to those in real need, at the same time there is a danger of being okay becoming a taboo. Resilience and an ability to cope are to be cherished and if these are not valued, even lauded, don’t we risk young people believing that not being okay is a more effective way to attract attention?

People are becoming greedy about their own wellbeing, and so convinced of their entitlement to do what is right for themselves that they lose perspective on what is happening to those around them. A healthy community consists of members who have enough emotional peripheral vision never to lose sight of each other.

In this way resilience and wellbeing are shared commodities, and all the stronger for it. The clue, again, is in the word: “we” comes before “I” in Wellbeing – as indeed it always must.