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Busy Lives

Each half-term, one of our Assistant Heads, Dr Egan, publishes a Teaching & Learning newsletter for our teaching staff. This half-term the theme was ‘busy people’.

She had asked pupils in every year group to detail a typical week at South Hampstead. It was an illuminating exercise and a reminder of what busy lives some of our pupils lead.

One of the articles in the newsletter reflected on the advantages and disadvantages of being busy. I thought I’d share a few of these snippets with parents as I suspect most of them are also very busy people. Being busy gives us a sense of purpose. Humans are unique in the animal kingdom in having a consciousness but that sense of self is so often the undoing of our happiness. Being busy means that we can become immersed in our activity and drown out the voices of our consciousness asking unhelpful questions such as, ‘What is the point of this?’ and ‘What am I doing with my life?’

At teenage level, being busy means there is less time to worry about being popular, less head space for FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), less bandwidth to compare ourselves with not just our friends but the entire world of Instagram. As a teenager we naturally spend quite a lot of time thinking about ourselves. It’s in our teenage years that we forge our identity and the uninhibited joys of childhood are replaced with a far greater self-awareness and self-consciousness. Some of the busiest pupils I have encountered in my career have also been the happiest.

Being busy means we are less conscious of every micro thought that creeps into our minds to undermine our confidence and contentment. I will sometimes channel Ariana Grande after a tricky meeting or phone call. ‘Thank you, next!’ It’s a remarkably effective and cheap way of moving on from a situation that has the power to pull one into a downwards spiral. It also makes me laugh and being able to see the funny side is an important skill for busy people to master. Because…

Being busy isn’t always brilliant. Being the right level of busy can stop us analysing every cough and sneeze of our lives (I’ve never thought that was a recipe for happiness). But being too busy can also make us very self-centred and tunnel-visioned. And that happens when we feel stressed and overwhelmed. Then we wear the ‘Badge of Busyness’ with passive aggressive pride. Nobody understands our lot, nobody else is quite as busy as us. We think nobody understands us but equally we are too busy to try to look beyond our own frame of reference. We forget to ask friends, family and colleagues how they are.  We refuse to listen to others’ ideas because we are too busy to consider them.

It is in moments of acute ‘busyness’ that we most need an outlet whether it’s laughing at ourselves or at some inane mishap. Education has many such inane and indeed insane moments. A well-honed sense of the absurd is something I heartily recommend to all busy people. And if you are in search of the ridiculous look no further than your nearest school! Schools are communities – busy, complex and sometimes highly strung due to the emotional stakes riding on pupils’ education and the intensity of a typical school term. They therefore produce their fair share of the ridiculous and this is one of the many reasons working in education is so much fun. Schools are havens for the eccentric, the quirky, and occasionally the plain bonkers. And long may they stay that way! Schools are thoroughly human places – passionate, idiosyncratic, full of human foibles as well as inspiring moments of greatness. And it is the busy nature of schools that creates these traits. They are about as far removed from a certain stationery office in Slough as you could get…

Schools are thoroughly human places – passionate, idiosyncratic, full of human foibles as well as inspiring moments of greatness.

So how busy should our pupils’ lives be? There isn’t a straightforward answer. There’s a homework allocation for each year group, and we have minimum expectations for engagement in our Mehr Licht co-curricular programme (two clubs per week in Years 7 to 9 and one in Year 10 and above). But, in practice, many pupils want to do more than the minimum – certainly when it comes to clubs. It is not uncommon for girls to be busy 4 out of 5 lunchtimes and to have a couple of after-school commitments too. It is also not uncommon for pupils to want to go above and beyond the homework time, even though we tell them repeatedly that we do not expect them to do this and want them to work smart.  This is one of the reasons we don’t set holiday homework for pupils in Year 7 to 10 – to encourage them to read, to explore and to relax.

Each girl will have her point of equilibrium and this will change over time.

As pupils get older, they are able and indeed expected to work harder. They have not created more hours in the day but they have developed the academic muscle to focus for more sustained periods of time. There will be flashpoints where we need to coach the girls through the pain and encourage them to work smart to get through it, or cut back to give them much needed head space.

The beauty of the school calendar, and yet another reason to become a teacher, is that it is perfectly designed to accommodate purposeful periods of busyness in term time and wonderful blank canvases of contemplation and freedom and planning in the holidays. That’s the theory at least, a theory that will quickly be debunked when I realise, with only days to spare and postal strikes upon us, that I have done no Christmas shopping. But after the inexorable busyness of the pre-Christmas period, perhaps there will be a few quiet days of doing frankly not very much. Bliss!

Mehr Licht to you all and Season’s Greetings.

Blog post by Vicky Bingham, Headmistress from 2017 to 2023.  


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