Being our best selves at school

Most Saturday mornings when I’m here I go to the farmers’ market in the local primary school which my kids attended. I was intrigued to see this appended to the door.


The first thing that struck me about it is how confusing it is: who, exactly is the audience? Is it the children, the staff, both?  What would a child of five or six make of it (given that this 50-something adult finds it difficult enough to comprehend)? Mostly the poster encourages us to live in the present – this is a new day, and we can make a new start on what happened yesterday. But surely today isn’t just a blank page for us to make an impression on because we are so bound up with others: there are all kinds of things unresolved from yesterday which may trip us up today. There are responsibilities and demands beyond learning in school to which we will need to respond. The poster invites us to learn from yesterday, although it’s not exactly clear what we might learn, and how we might do so if we’re exclusively focused on today. We’re encouraged to stop stressing about tomorrow, but we are supposed to stress about today. There are precisely 1440 minutes from which to extract the maximum, as if we were milking a cow. This creates what we might think of as the Extractor’s Paradox: that the more focused we are on getting the maximum out of our time, the less likely we are to do so. It’s just like the pursuit of the butterfly of happiness – the more you chase it, the more it eludes you. And 1440 minutes make 24 hours – shouldn’t we sleep? How anxiety-provoking to lie awake at night worrying about making the best of lying awake not sleeping. Today we’re going to be the best version of us, but how will we know? What happens if we’re not? Who decides? Will we find ourselves endless repeating the day over and over again, like Groundhog Day, until we reach enlightenment?

I realise that this is supposed to be harmless encouragement to everyone in a school to do their best. Unfortunately I find in it the conventional anxiety narrative of the neoliberal society: motivational, slight sinsiter platitudes as a veneer over relentless striving. Don’t rest; maximise; extract; be the best you can be; never stop remaking yourself; yesterday’s achievements count for nothing, because you have to prove yourself all over again today; the world’s your oyster; you can achieve anything.

I know that good schools, particularly ones with very young kids such as primary schools, accept kids however they turn up, ‘best self’, average self or even worst self, partly because they know kids bring with them all kinds of invisible baggage that has been packed for them, unconsciously at home. The school will cope with the cornucopia of selves who present. They acknowledge that school life can sometimes be tedious, that sometimes kids will be bored and will find themselves staring out of the window, and that they won’t be 100% motivated everyday. Kids are likely to enjoy playing and hanging out with their mates in the playground as much as learning in a committed way. They’ll be happy when they are completely absorbed in what they are doing, with no particular end in view. Learning will sometimes be deliberate, and sometimes accidental. And one of the most important lessons will be about learning to rub along with others, being in the mess of life with other people, noticing oneself in relation to others. We bring out the best in each other, we bring out the worst in each other: that’s what we have to learn to live with in school.


3 thoughts on “Being our best selves at school

  1. Pete Burden

    I really know what you mean Chris. I also can hear the anxiety you mention. But the question I have is how could a school – or any other institution – encourage that kind of moment-to-moment freshness without creating that reaction? What could we say instead?

    1. Chris Mowles Post author

      I suppose I am reacting against the edifying ‘inspirational’ thinking, and the relentless positivity that often accompanies it. I was reading an academic paper recently which pointed to the increasing use of positive psychology in employment centres, where a similar attitude is taken towards job seekers. If they can’t find work, then it’s because they are not being positive enough. This is positivity as tyranny: the perspective individualises social problems because it starts and finishes with the individual job-seeker. So it’s not that there are structural inequalities in the economy, it’s just that you don’t want a job enough. Equally, this school poster, although it uses the term ‘we’, places a heavy burden on the child to be good and to focus on the self. An alternative would be an emphasis on forgetting the self and paying attention to what’s going on around in the school community: be curious, help one another, ask questions, think about what your friends need to learn. As it stands the poster advocates radical subjectivism. What we require in order to rub along with each other is group mindedness.

      1. Pete Burden

        Yes, I like that. A poster might also encourage us to ‘forget the self’ and instead be curious about what is happening inside ourselves – at a feeling as well as a cognitive level? Into our response and reaction to other people in that community? A shift away from explaining the world to enquiring into it?

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