When you find your element

What’s your thing? Everybody needs a thing: that skill or hobby which absorbs you and beckons you into a flow state, being ‘in the zone’ and free of distractions. It may be something artistic, musical, or perhaps a sporting activity. Or it may be a collection – a fascination for something that captures your interest and pleases you.

As a headteacher, one of my most important tasks is making sure that our school provides ample opportunities for children to try out myriad skills and activities precisely so that they can find their thing. Yes, the academic curriculum is important, of course it is, and it may even be that some children will find their element in a maths or science lesson. But equally important are those fringe activities, the extra-curricular clubs and events that bring enticing opportunities to write, ride, play, climb, paint or dance. We all have hidden potential just waiting to be discovered and there is nothing more pleasing for a teacher than seeing a child engage with a new activity and then discovering they have a hidden talent for it.

I frequently champion the deep-down-things that really matter in education: qualities like stamina, pride and self-worth. When children are immersed in a pursuit which they love, they invariably demonstrate all the hidden characteristics of effective learning that we could ever wish for in class, often without even knowing it; so immersed are they in their flow state that such attributes come naturally – because they are invested in what they are doing and it matters to them. A favourite pursuit is, after all, by definition something we need to ‘pursue’ and stamina is a pre-requisite for a high level of engagement.

A child who has found their thing, who has a passion for something, is topping up their reserves of stamina and pride so that they can take on anything, even the things which don’t motivate them. In finding something we’re good at, we are finding our self-worth; and self-worth allows us to take on new and difficult challenges with renewed strength and resilience. The child who is gifted at something will be better at reading or arithmetic than they might have been had they never discovered they had those other talents. That’s not to say that kicking a football like Lionel Messi automatically qualifies you for an A grade in mathematics, no more than playing the trumpet like Louis Armstrong means you can achieve top marks in science, but it does mean that you can stick around a little longer when the going gets tough, because you have done precisely that on the sports field or in music lessons many times before – and you can do it again.  You can achieve the same high level of engagement because you know what it feels like and it can be transferred. I have often said to students who are struggling with something in class, what would you do if this were a football challenge, or a new piece of music you had to tackle?  Or a drama script? Find the same mind-set and use it here!

Having a hobby to which we are committed teaches us self-discipline too – and there are few attributes more valuable to learners than self-discipline. The challenge is making the connection between how you perform in your favourite hobby and how you perform in class – because the context is often so different and because, crucially, you may not have the same freedom of choice in class as you do when engaging in your own passion.

A hobby is something you have chosen to do; a learning activity in class is often, though not always, something which you are instructed to do by a teacher, relating to a learning objective. This fundamental difference sometimes zaps the student of his self-motivation and reduces his engagement and interest in class. But it needn’t.

The real challenge is tapping into and re-channelling the ‘best-self’ you become when immersed in your hobby, so that you can draw on the same attributes again when faced with other things. The same self-worth can be embedded in us so that it is no longer dependent on the activity we are engaged in, it is innate within us, part of our nature. We are high engagers.

This is another important part of a teacher’s job – helping children to remember that they really can show resilience and stamina, or pride and self-worth because it was these qualities which brought them success and satisfaction in their hobbies. And they can draw on them again.

As an adult, I have tried and still enjoy many pursuits, not all of which I’m especially good at, but all of which hold my interest and make me feel good. I love writing, sketching, playing the drums, gardening, walking, camping and swimming. I wouldn’t win medals in any of these pursuits (except perhaps in drumming, which I feel confident enough in, after practising Buddy Rich’s snare-drum rudiments since the age of ten). But winning medals is not what drives me; it is the intoxication of being immersed in something to the point where I forget my worries and let the activity lead me. Playing paradiddles does it for me.

If only I could step outside myself and watch me engaging in these activities! I could then see that I have stamina, self-discipline, self-worth and a decent amount of talent. I could then remind myself of these qualities when the next difficult challenge comes along, which for me is analysing school performance data or completing any kind of online form.

When you next engage in your favourite past-time, it is worth consciously focusing on what until now may have been entirely sub-conscious – the qualities you are exercising when you are ‘in the zone’: you can manage distractions and remain focused; you can overcome difficulties and reach the high points; you can show creativity and flair; and you can master a skill that makes you feel good about yourself.

And aren’t all these qualities transferrable? I think they are.

First published in the Bury Free Press, Friday 3rd May 2019






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