I have just returned from a refreshing few days at the Association for Science Education’s Annual Meeting at the University of Birmingham. There was a wealth of fun, exciting, creative, and innovative ideas, practicals, and demonstrations there…..more than enough to inspire a generation of Nobel Prize winners.
But the paradox is that it seems that the more exciting things get, the more stressed schools become. Recently Natasha Devon, the DfE’s champion for mental health, wrote in the TES1 “The explosion in anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders among under-21s means every school should have a teacher trained in Mental Health First Aid”. So while we have all been focused on the magical pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid of needs, the children are quietly feeling more and more unsafe. And as the need for safety is the second layer of the pyramid, we are eroding its very foundations even as we are exhausting ourselves in trying to create an environment in which every child reaches their potential.
It is a fact of life that the world is a scary place. It is also a fact of life that each and every one of us needs to learn how to not only cope but ideally live happy and fruitful lives. We learn how by experiences at home, in the community, and at school.
The enneagram is a way of understanding personality which starts from the premise that each of us is anxious that we will not survive and thrive. Each of us is awash with many emotions but the most basic of them all, the emotions which have driven our instinctual drive to survive are
FEAR of the dangers surrounding us,
ANGER that those dangers should exist at all,
INADEQUACY, the realisation that we cannot survive on our own.
Each of these is the primary driver for three coping strategies:
FEAR drives the Observer, Questioner, and Adventurer
ANGER drives the Asserter, Mediator, and Perfectionist
Feelings of INADEQUACY drive the Helper, Achiever, and Individualist.
A classroom contains a multitude of interactions between these personality types. The students are relating to each other, and all are relating to the teacher. If any are feeling at all insecure then the drivers of feelings of Fear, Anger, and Inadequacy are in the drivers’ seats: imagine a classroom of 30 students plus 1 (or more) adults and it is easy to see how a classroom can be a very stressful place.
Although the enneagram starts with insecurities, however, its focus is on the understanding that all human beings are works in progress. Each personality has a unique set of gifts to offer the group. These are able to flower when the personality feels safe. The language of the enneagram enables people to discuss what is going on in their heads in a cogent way, developing emotional intelligence. Understanding how the undesirable behaviours are the flip side of the coin to the strengths of each character can help foster a growth mindset and ultimately resilience.
Speaking Out of Turn (or Not Speaking at All!!)
In my experience the characters generally referred to as ‘class clowns’ are showing traits of the ‘Adventurer’ personality. This personality is driven by Fear! The Adventurer’s coping strategy is two-fold: push the boundaries to ascertain where it feels ‘safe’, and put a sugar paste coating over everything to hide the Fear. Other personalities in the Fear triad cope differently. The ‘Observer’ stays on the sidelines, collecting resources (which can include useful information) so they are prepared for whatever happens. The ‘Questioner’ is totally preoccupied with where and how serious the ‘dangers’ are.
All of them will expect the teacher to understand and protect them.
The ‘Observer’ can be frustrating for a teacher if it is perceived that s/he is not ‘joining in’. The ‘Questioner’ can be annoying by continually throwing out ‘red herring’ questions. Too often, a teacher’s response does not allay the Fear but rather exacerbates it. When this happens, the negative traits of the personality become more evident. In the case of the ‘Adventurer’ these can include rebelliousness, restlessness, and self-destructive behaviour. When the teacher creates an environment perceived by the ‘Adventurer’ to be ‘safe’ then the enthusiastic, productive, and imaginative sides of the character are able to blossom.
Looking for Reassurance or Order
There are subtly different dynamics going on with the Anger and Inadequacy personality triads. The Helpers, Achievers, and Individualists who populate the Inadequacy personality triad are also looking for understanding but are asking for reassurance. The Achiever type can be seen to be a dream student but in the current climate I have seen their constant need for affirmation misused by school structures which feed their insecurity in order to get the grades to push the school up the league table.
The Asserters, Mediators and Perfectionists who populate the Anger personality triad are looking for understanding and order.
Understanding these dynamics means that we can take the steam out of conflict between our egos and theirs. We are enabled to truly be ‘the adult in the classroom’ because we can see and address the insecurity at the heart of the undesirable behaviour, rather than reacting to the effect it is having on us.