Breaking the Rules

Updated for Keynote to Barnsley College pre-service PGCE students and Certs 2014 at The Northern College 18.4.16  Please click through on the links for access to deeper research.

(If you read one thing after this, please make it The Centre for Mental Health’s ‘A Day in the LIfe‘ Report – and follow @markoneinfour on Twitter.

Slides accompanying this blog will be are here: Breaking the Rules April 2016

Link to an Adobe Voice recording will follow.

A troubled face, with the caption Welcome, Breaking the Rules Affirmative Mental Health Leadership, ELMAG 3 Mental Health. Also includes logos for Time for Change, The Education and Training Foundation and the Learning and Work Institute

This blog post reflects on our experience of the ‘Breaking the Rules’ affirmative mental health leadership project, funded by ELMAG, the Education and Training Foundation fund which makes possible so much brilliant work around leadership, always on a short timescale; an adrenaline-fuelled experience, a rollercoaster ride.  Inspired by the growing movement of neurodiversity, which tells us that mental ill-health and learning disabilities are not just not a deficit but an actual JOY to the WORLD, we put together a leadership programme called ‘Breaking the Rules’.  Note that, for us, leadership is something we all do, it’s not just the remote preserve of those who sit at the top of hierarchies.  We refer to it as ideas – or thought – leadership, an extension of democratic professionalism.

What was ‘Breaking the Rules’?  It blended a face-to-face Thinking Environment day with an online, reflexive programme; there were options for one-to-one coaching and leadership analysis work.  It gave the opportunity for current and potential leaders to affirmatively explore the leadership of mental wellbeing, with the support of leadership coaches. It absolutely rejected the othering of those who experience mental ill-health, who are often us (though we maybe dare not say so).  Mental health diversity is not a deficit, it is an actual thing and many of the people in the room with you are experiencing it right now, whether they are prepared to go public with it or not (I increasingly am and it’s proving to be a virtual spiral of liberation as others share their strategies too).  What’s more, mental ill-health can be a thing that is actually caused by the work we do, so maybe our ‘sector’ (whatever that means) has some responsibility here.


One of the unspoken ironies of adult and further education – whether sausage factory or social purpose – is the mental health cost to its staff.  The irony, of course, is that adult education, done properly, is one of the greatest contributors to improved mental wellbeing.  At places like the Exchange Recovery College Barnsley, transformational pedagogies are integral to the recovery process; staff are properly teacher trained and partnerships with local adult education providers nurtured.  And they are making a difference.

But if the staff themselves achieve these successes by pushing themselves to the max, limiting their own potential in the process, the net cost to education is tragic.  We are all in danger of forgetting that we have ‘mental health’ too; that we are all vulnerable (particularly under stress), and that users of mental health services make up only a proportion of the “1 in 4”.  We define diversity (in part) as “being present as yourself”.  At those times when your mental health is fragile, can you truly be yourself at work?

Pretty much everyone who works in adult, further and community education means well. Increasingly, in this world of pay freezes and zero hours, none of us do it for the money. We are likely to have invested in our own training, for a pay-off of doing rewarding work in precarious circumstances.  We arm ourselves daily against media slingshots and political A complicated Cubist paintingsneering.  We live with our profession being deregulated and downgraded from ‘education’ to ‘skills’. We find it impossible to meet anyone socially who doesn’t assume we work in a school. Somehow, in all of this melee, we raise families, maintain relationships, grieve and care for loved ones.

We’re fighting back but that takes it out of us too; added to the emotional labour of believing in people who don’t – yet – believe in themselves is the terrifying courage needed to challenge statuses quo. And we are likely ourselves to be people who don’t quite fit the mould of the ‘professional’, who are maybe developing our own cutting-edge definitions of professionalism. Many adult educators are people who benefited from adult learning ourselves and who are now pedagogical pioneers. We have ‘passion’*. We want to ‘give something back’, ‘make a difference’.  We are good at what we do because we’ve been there.images-3

And so our own mental wellbeing gets eroded. The early starts…the late finishes.  The long (unpaid) ‘holidays’ so envied by our non-teaching friends packed to the gills with marking and the secretive checking of emails. Family members resentful, bank accounts in the red. Panicky organisations over-regulating, micro-managing, Ofsted-petrified.Traditional autonomy replaced with tick-boxy bureaucracy. Teaching observations. Paperwork. Loss of dignity and control, yet sort of publicly ignored at the same time**. Under this level of pressure, no wonder many of us become ‘mentally diverse’; life gets harder as we struggle to keep it all in balance and the vicious spiral begins.  As long as we are in a culture which sees mental diversity as something lacking, rather than something potentially creative, we risk being attached to a label that will haunt us endlessly.

And we know, of course, that even before considering the needs of the most marginalised in our society, such as refugees, that if in our individual identities we are diverse from the #whitecurriculum ‘norm’; if we are female, if we are black, if we are poor, if we have other ‘disabilities’,  we are likely to experience both more mental ill-health and less helpful support.  ‘A Day in the Life‘ makes that absolutely clear.

A commitment to diversity is increasingly – and healthily, wellbeingly – defined as people who can be present as themselves in any given situation. How true is that of you at work? An image of a postcard that says, "I make everyone believe that I like to be different, but really I just don't know how to fit in."How true is it of me? How does that fit in with ‘fitting in’, where there is an unspoken ideal of quiet reasonableness, of diligent and consistent graft, of neatness and order (oh yes, there is). Nancy Kline, founder of the Thinking Environment, points out that even in business (sold to us in adult ed as a hive of creativity and free-thinking), there is an ‘epidemic of obedience‘. It’s a measure of how institutionalised I am that, watching The Theory of Everything with my son over the holidays, I was mostly worried that Stephen Hawking would get the sack from Cambridge, but of course in that day and age, for someone of his background, brilliant awkwardness was almost de rigeur; his physical disability just took it to another level (Ian Walsh would argue that times have definitely changed).

The latest transformational leadership models focus on enabling the creativity of staff, affirming (more or less) measured risk taking, and the centrality of mistake-making to creativity. Nonetheless, many workplaces don’t feel like that and, despite the health-promoting paternalism of modern HR strategies, there’s a lot to be said for pro-actively taking hold of your own mental well-being before things get out of hand.

There may be a book you can take strength from – I’m reading Brené Brown’s research into shame at the moment, something that really resonates with me as kicking in when I’m under stress.  I am learning to be shame-resilient.  Therapies such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) don’t work for everyone, but are certainly thought to do no harm in the case of mild to moderate Image of the sea with the caption 'Find what feels good'depression and/or anxiety – and you don’t need a referral from your GP to try a CBT course you’ve found on Groupon, or work through exercises from the web.  It may be that you have regular coaching, or get to work in a Thinking Environment, giving you space to develop the resilience not to dwell on stress or fear.  You might practice Mindfulness. (When I was 50, friends bought me twelve bottles of Prosecco and three of those Mindfulness colouring-books, which gave me a pretty good idea of how they viewed my life).  What all of these have in common is a sense of agency.  Work on what you can fix for yourself and don’t waste energy on what you can’t change.

You may already know what else works for you – fresh air, running, yoga, lots of sleep – but it’s possible you’re not doing it because if one thing is certain, it’s that the chemicals of stress take away our desire for wellbeing behaviours. What I want to say to you, with painful self-awareness, is that nobody will do it for you and no amount of work-based stress management training will replace you doing what’s good for YOU.

Organisations have plenty of processes for identifying and supporting mental ill-health, and some of these are even genuinely about staff wellbeing, but external forces are strong and the level of stress and struggle continues to ratchet up. We need to take up the reins ourselves, itself an empowering act.  As the hugely successful (by every measure) drag diva RuPaul would say, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the  hell can you love somebody images-6else?” When we suffer (get fractious, forgetful, go off sick), our students suffer. Something has to change.

There are some brilliant resources on to help you keep yourself safe and to help you teach this practice to others. And of course the legal and emotional safety net of belonging to a trade union should not be discounted. One of the horrible paradoxes of the employment landscape in adult and further education is that the most exploited of us – those on zero-hours or fixed-term contracts – are the least likely to be unionised and consequently have the least protection from the darker side of working life.

As I’ve written elsewhere recently, we are all seeking the nirvana of creativity, but not the extreme mental stress that comes with it, because we don’t know how to handle the fall-out from that. The fact is that our entire sector, with its model of heroic leadership and its mimicry of corporate business, continues to ‘other’ and deficit mental health diversity; acceptable in ‘learners’ and pathologised amongst its own staff. Until we have leaders who get it, who are prepared to shatter #whitecurriculum thinking with their own experiences of being black/female/disabled/young/mentally diverse, we will continue to marginalise and exclude those brilliant minds amongst our own workforce, who are just the people to lead us to a brighter future.

Can I get an ‘A-MEN’?


Interested in Breaking the Rules?  Although the ELMAG Pilot has finished, we hope to continue to offer the course.  Please contact Sally Betts 

*Pah-pah-pah-pah-passion (as David Bowie might not have sung).  Certainly a double-edged sword.  In adult education we pretend it’s a good thing and we certainly mine it heavily.  But it’s not passion that gets you to places of influence; or if it does, it’s likely to be the thing that topples you.

**My heart is palpitating as I write this.  And I am one of the lucky ones, with the privilege of a permanent contract in an organisation which has tried for 38 years to live the good values it espouses.


Author: TeachNorthern

We are hard working educators with passionate interest in Teaching for a Social Purpose. Everything we've learned is through observing colleagues and students, all of whom are committed to changing the world. And reading interesting stuff. We work at The Northern College in Barnsley and its mission (and thirty-eight year history) of social transformation makes it an ideal base to face the challenges of teaching adults in 21st century England.

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