Positivity in Public Education

December 11, 2013

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What is the purpose of school? Many would say it is imparting academic knowledge to students. However, is that the most important duty of an educational institution? A few weeks ago, I attended a Huddle session led by Organizational Psychologist and Associate Professor (University of Melbourne) Lea Waters, and she shared an even more crucial and foundational purpose of an education system—that is, teaching well-being to students.

Well-being is “the condition of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” It is a state of mind that affects how we take in experiences and deal with setbacks, and is thus crucial in shaping our thoughts, emotions, and lives. This, coupled with the fact that our schooling years are the most critical psychological development years, proves the need to imbue our children with a good sense of well-being early in their lives. And what better place to do so than at school? A place where caring and qualified teachers guide children to be the best they can be.

Associate Professor Waters shared many examples of how to increase the well-being of students through education in public schools. She showed us photographs of the myriad activities schools in Australia have carried out for this purpose, such as the “Character Strengths Garden,” which helps students identify and hone their character strengths. There is also the “Gratitude Tree,” to which students attach notes, saying what they are thankful for, which frames a sense of gratitude and happiness in students. Seeing the photographs of children with such big, smiling faces in Associate Professor Waters’ presentation was extremely heartening, and I thought about my own joy when I took part in a similar activity back in middle school.

The activity was simple. My classmates and I were tasked to write our names on a piece of paper and stick it to our backs. Then, we were to walk around with markers, and write our favorite thing about our friend on his or her paper, and sign off with our names. Imagine the excitement and chaos that ensued! My friends and I grappled to write on each other’s backs, and I remember how ticklish it was when my friends wrote on my paper and I couldn’t stop laughing.

I had a ton of fun writing to my friends that day, but nothing can compare to what I felt when I took my paper off my back and glanced at it. Emotions welled up inside me, and the entire class was silent as we each read our own paper and the wonderful words, phrases, and even drawings. I experienced this overwhelming feeling as I read my paper, and in hindsight, I would describe it as a warm, fuzzy, pure and simple joy.

It has been five years since the activity, but I still have a vivid memory of the experience and recall it fondly. Through this event, I got to know myself much better, and came to appreciate my friends more deeply. I still have my piece of paper – it is now tucked away safely in my “box of treasures” back at home, and is an artifact I will keep forever.

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