Susan Andrews is a teacher of German, Business, and Philosophy at Temple Carrig School in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. In 2021/22 Susan was Wellbeing Coordinator for the school. Susan holds a Higher Diploma in Education as well as a B.A. (Philosophy and German) from University College Dublin.
Thinkful was interested in interviewing Susan because of her career-long commitment to listening to and talking with the students in her care. Susan’s role as a facilitator of philosophical enquiry has given her a unique insight into the questions and concerns that preoccupy young people at this formative stage of their lives.
For Susan, supporting students’ wellbeing in schools doesn’t need to involve new programmes or added classes.
In her own words, “school life is full of lots of joyful, fun, and unforgettable ‘together’ moments and protecting those carefree moments will allow us to feel well”.
Áine Mahon: Susan, I love listening to you talk about your students and how they experience their world. As someone who has listened closely to young people over the past twenty years, what is your sense of the difficulties and challenges that they typically face?
Susan Andrews: To be honest the same patterns of challenges manifest themselves over the years, rooted in a need to feel more connected to peers and finding acceptance for who you are. Everyone struggles with finding themselves within a group and like the tide it ebbs and flows whether you try to fit in or try to express your individuality. There are always plenty of home situations and developmental problems that interfere with wellbeing, too. Being fearful of changes and becoming more aware of others’ perceptions cause different degrees of anxiety for every young person at various stages.
the same patterns of challenges manifest themselves over the years, rooted in a need to feel more connected to peers and finding acceptance for who you are.
Recent surveys we conducted with students showed that friendship issues, isolation and social anxiety were most common, followed by exam pressures, feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy and the weight of expectation of others. Other patterns have emerged recently of disillusionment sparked by the pandemic, and uncertainty about future security.
In addition, there is a heightened sense of anxiety intensified by the polarising nature of social media and the constant barrage of news threatening existence. Young people must deal with much more information that challenges their existence than I would ever have had to and I think they do not have the time or space to process it in a supportive way. On the one hand their awareness of the world and ability to articulate ideas and feelings is much more sophisticated than even ten years ago, but their natural lack of maturity, experience, and skills to deal with relentless feeds of information lead to a type of unbearable pressure cooker and a feeling of lack of control that either manifests itself in withdrawal, school refusal or struggling to manage themselves emotionally.
Áine Mahon: Do you think that young people have the words available to them to talk about these challenges?
Susan Andrews: Interestingly one of the reoccurring comments from students is that they struggle to find the words to ask for help in person or to know which words to help a friend in distress.
There are positive and negative influences of their online environment on their ability to talk about their difficulties.
Young people have more opportunity to discuss difficulties and find others going through similar challenges online which can be incredibly supportive and beneficial. On the other hand, the speed of how online discourse evolves can create a knowledge gap between teachers/parents/guardians, where we are providing guidance and support while being unfamiliar with how these experiences are discussed online.
Although they are more mental health literate and exposed to language in relation to Wellbeing online, it is a different matter entirely when they must use it to describe their own experience in person.
the speed of how online discourse evolves can create a knowledge gap between teachers/parents/guardians, where we are providing guidance and support while being unfamiliar with how these experiences are discussed online.
Áine Mahon: What is the role for schools, perhaps, in helping them find words or describe experience?
Susan Andrews: Schools are pivotal to helping students find those words. Words build you up and break you down. Students learn how to guide themselves internally from the way we guide them with our words so firstly we as teachers have to be mindful of the language we use and role model how to communicate.
It starts with how we give instruction. Positive wording is so important to show students how to talk to themselves and manage that inner critic. Basic psychology has examined the differences between how ‘happy’ people and distressed people talk to themselves. When I hear students say “I am worthless” or “I am not good enough” or “I am lazy”, you know that this hasn’t come out of the blue and is a message they have got from a young age. When you are developing as a child or teenager you are still heavily influenced by the adults and how they talk to you. As you develop your identity, statements that begin with ‘you are’ becomes recorded in your brain.
I think it is so important to raise awareness of how casual banter, using terms associated with mental health incorrectly, is very hurtful and minimises someone else’s experiences. Using words like; ‘OCD’, ‘bipolar’, ‘pyscho’ in a casual negative way to describe behaviour incorrectly is very stigmatising and comes from lack of understanding. Similarly using person centred language recognises that a person’s mental health condition is only one aspect of their lives eg they are depressed vs they experience depression. It is important that we understand the context of the words we use and why using it as sensitively as we can removes judgement or blame. Just think about how we would have said ‘commit suicide’ which was used because someone who died by suicide was viewed as ‘committing’ a crime.
That is why education around language and raising awareness in schools is so important. And that is before I even get to formal lessons at school on Wellbeing including SPHE, Lifeskills etc
Engaging in doing Philosophy can be a path to self-knowledge which in turn helps make sense of what Iris Murdoch called this “ alarmingly formless rubble of a life”.
Áine Mahon: Susan I know that you have taught philosophy at Temple Carrig for many years. Do you think that there is a role for philosophical enquiry in supporting young people’s wellbeing?
Susan Andrews: Philosophy starts with the quest to “know thyself”. Engaging in doing Philosophy can be a path to self-knowledge which in turn helps make sense of what Iris Murdoch called this “ alarmingly formless rubble of a life”. Students thinking about themselves, and the world can be explored through the lens of philosophical stimulus in class to help support wellbeing.
If you directly ask a young person about their wellbeing you will rarely find out the truth there and then. Schools need to create spaces and opportunities for this to emerge in a safe and supportive way as well as having measures to deal with someone in crisis. Often, we think that by covering content in Social, Personal and Health Education classes, we are responding to students’ Wellbeing. As vital as the content and knowledge gained in these classes are, do these classes really meet the students where they are emotionally and mentally? They are often so crammed with content to be covered and this can leave little room for enquiries.
Philosophical enquiry gives ownership to the students, building up their self-belief and confidence. The beauty of a Philosophy class is that it has this freedom to give more space and time to questions that students generate themselves in response to a stimulus.
If you directly ask a young person about their wellbeing you will rarely find out the truth there and then. Schools need to create spaces and opportunities for this to emerge in a safe and supportive way.
Storytelling plays a big part in my philosophy enquiries with young people. When humans look for meaning in life, we look for stories. But in today’s ever-changing world, there is no clear story. Before technology and constant news streams, we focused on cramming information at school. This made sense as information was scarce. Although young people are fluent in telling stories to each other on social media, they are bombarded with streams of information, with no time to absorb or understand it. This can cause feelings of hopelessness and anxiety about what’s happening in the world. Maybe the last thing a teacher should do is give their students more information.
Philosophical enquiry in the classroom offers a safe place for students to figure out what they value. Students' moral questions about the world are stimulated by stories they experience in their own lives, in the news, online or in the classroom. Exploring their own questions which are sparked by these stimuli, offers a version of truth without prejudice in a group setting, showing young people that during modern chaos their moral questions about relationships, gender, violence, climate, education and more, matter.
Moreover, enquiring into the history of philosophical thought can offer students hope and help them to think better. It may sound overstated to say Ancient Greek Philosophers can help modern Irish students steer their lives in a positive direction. But in class I have noticed that the practical advice and tools for life offered by the early Greek philosophers are especially appealing to teenagers navigating the bumpy road to adulthood. Aristotle, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato and Seneca among others, encourage you to create new habits of thinking, to have a more flourishing or happy life. You can intentionally strengthen inner skills such as resilience and compassion through developing habits of thinking which we practice in philosophical enquiries.
As a Philosophy class emphasises open discussion and dialogue, it creates a culture of thinking transferable to all subjects, giving students opportunities to test out ideas with peers, practice active listening, negotiate different opinions, spot bias, and develop mental flexibility to meet all the changes our students are going through.
If we attend to their unanswered questions about the world in the present it will help deal with young people’s fear and anxiety about the future.
Maybe the last thing a teacher should do is give their students more information.
Áine Mahon: What about the broader school curriculum Susan – do you think that enough space is made for wellbeing? Or, to turn this question around somewhat, do you think that we should be thinking about wellbeing in curricular terms?
Susan Andrews: I think we are beginning to think in these terms. The reformed Junior Cycle has placed wellbeing at its core which is a great signal to what our Education system values. There is overwhelming evidence to show that students learn more effectively if they feel their wellbeing is supported. ESRI research found that students with higher levels of emotional, behavioural, social, and school wellbeing had higher levels of academic achievement. There are six indicators of Wellbeing to be developed at Junior Cycle: active, responsible, connected, resilient, respected and aware. This has cemented our resolve to plan our curriculum with the wellbeing indicators at the core. When we conducted our Jigsaw One Good School surveys, we were able to pin point gaps in the curriculum to be filled and develop action plans to meet the needs as expressed in the feedback. This can only work when our subjects are not planned only in isolation but we collaborate and think ahead, making connections between our subjects that could affect a students wellbeing.
Examples of this could be Philosophy and Science collaborating on the ethics of gene therapy or Home Economics and PE collaborating on body image lessons, History and English using P4c model enquiries to introduce complex concepts such as genocide and war. When we communicate as a staff on these concepts and emerging questions, we show students that we are making connections between their learning. If we plan our curriculum asking how the indicators of wellbeing will be met in our lessons, this will meet the student not only as a learner but a complex, sensitive, maturing human being. But this is everyone’s responsibility, not just “Wellbeing” subjects.
Áine Mahon: What about the wellbeing of the broader school community, Susan – not just students, in other words, but school leaders, teaching staff, special needs assistants etc? Do you think that this broader sense of wellbeing is supported in Irish schools?
Susan Andrews: This could well be a big challenge for schools in the coming years. We are beginning to realise the importance of meeting our student's wellbeing needs as integral to their school experience but recent surveys such as the study for the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals (NAPD) and the Irish Primary Principals Network show worrying results in how demands on school leaders have had on their wellbeing.
The first part of a three-year study conducted between February and April this year, led by Professor Philip Riley of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia, found that we are experiencing an unsustainable level of stress in school leadership. I was alarmed but not at all surprised by the findings - two in three second-level principals and deputy principals are experiencing burnout due to stress. As many as two in five were diagnosed with stress-related medical conditions in 2022. And two in five reported requiring prescription medication in 2022 – more than double the figure of 18pc in a 2015 survey.
The reality is that schools are full of the most passionate, committed, selfless people you will ever come across and are trying to do their best for the wellbeing of young people in their care.
A TUI study from 2020 reports that 97 percent of 130 secondary schools experienced teacher recruitment difficulties. Teaching is losing good teachers because their wellbeing has not been a priority. Teachers experience a lack of respect in the wider society. The press often vilifies teachers as lazy and entitled and online there is a lot of anger directed towards teachers. This jars so much with a teacher’s actual day to day experience where we often face high-stress situations, competing demands and priorities with limited control over policies or resources.
The reality is that schools are full of the most passionate, committed, selfless people you will ever come across and are trying to do their best for the wellbeing of young people in their care. The needs of young people are complex and continuous and requires plenty of compassion and understanding but no one has an infinite well. Teachers need their own emotional resources to build relationships with the students we teach - subject knowledge and teaching pedagogy is not enough. This means taking time and space to think and talk, connect with others, and share and practice self-compassion too. .
As a Wellbeing Committee in our school we recognised that staff need to develop an awareness of their own self-care needs and develop a self-care plan as a priority. We are planning some teacher workshops to learn new ways to cope, reflect, connect, and share.
We encourage students to ask for help and mind their mental wellbeing so we have to lead the way.