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Adrian Bethune, alumnus, PGCE

'It may not be part of the National Curriculum, but learning how to be happy might just be the most important lesson of all' says alumnus Adrian Bethune

Meditation and positive thoughts

So far, so familiar – after all, in the last few years meditation has gone from fringe to mainstream. But this is no yoga class full of avid seekers of enlightenment.  Instead, it’s a classroom full of lively 10-year-olds in a challenging state school in South East London.

You might think it would take a brave teacher to turn to meditation rather than more conventional forms of discipline, but according to Adrian, the impact was immediate.

"We start each morning with a short meditation and sharing positive thoughts. I knew I was on to something when one of the toughest boys in the class came up to me in the playground and said:

Mr Bethune, when are we going to do meditation again?

Inspired by this response, Adrian went on to introduce more changes based on his own research into positive psychology and neuroscience, triggered by a spell of anxiety and depression in his late 20s. ‘I was working in the music industry,’ he recalls. ‘Work was great, but my personal life wasn’t so good. I’d taken on a mortgage, fallen out with a really good friend and split up with my girlfriend. The pressure was too much.’

Route into teaching

Keen to understand more about what was happening to him, Adrian started reading and exploring. ‘I saw a counsellor, who helped me identify some practical things I could do to help me cope, such as cutting down on caffeine and alcohol and taking regular exercise. That was when I started my own meditation practice, too.’

He also decided to become a mentor. He was paired with a nine-year-old boy in Hackney, east London. ‘It was pretty challenging,’ he admits, ‘and there were definitely times when I felt out of my depth, but by the end of our year together, he was back in mainstream school, and he’d signed up for a local martial arts group and football club. I felt like I’d been able to make a difference.’

At around the same time, Adrian decided to make a change and began to explore teaching as a career. ‘Looking back it was kind of staring me in the face,’ he says. ‘I needed a salary, so I opted for the graduate teacher route and joined the PGCE course at LSBU.’

Challenging days

Those early days were challenging. ‘The stress of it all started to get to me. This was something I’d wanted to do for so long, and I wasn’t enjoying it. I felt so far out of my comfort zone. I remember talking to my wife and telling her I was worried that I might be going down the road towards anxiety again. But the second time round it was different. I recognised the signs, and I was able to do something about it.’

Adrian’s ‘aha!’ moment came during what he refers to as a ‘Friday moan’: a session at LSBU when all the trainee teachers could come together and share the good – and the not-so-good – experiences from the week. ‘A friend from the course gave me a book called Teaching Happiness and Wellbeing in Schools. I couldn’t put it down.

Every single page just made me think ‘this is why I wanted to become a teacher.’ I started incorporating some of the ideas from the book into my teaching, and as the children became happier, I did too.

Seeing a difference

As well as the morning meditation sessions, those ideas include a weekly ‘What Went Well’ session, where each child writes down on a Post-it three things that have gone well for them that week and sticks it on a board. ‘It takes 15 minutes', he says 'and it means everyone leaves school in a positive frame of mind. The children are calmer, better behaved and more focused. They’re going to learn more if they’re actually in class paying attention rather than sitting outside the headteacher’s office, waiting to be disciplined.’

Colleagues could see the difference, and soon Adrian was sharing his ideas with other teachers, initially at his first school in Lewisham and now in his current post at Westfield Primary School in Berkhamsted.

Spreading the word

He’s also looking to spread the message more widely, combining his work as a classroom teacher with running training sessions for both teachers and pupils under the banner Teachappy – and publishing a book, Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom: A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness.

My long-term goal is to get these ideas about teaching happiness out to as many schools as possible. My aim is to plant some seeds so that these children have simple practical tools to help them lead happier lives. And if they experience difficult times in the future, they’ll know what to do.