A recipe for good teaching

Image_article_BernardineStudents have definite opinions when it comes to what they need in a teacher. How can we make sure we deliver on teacher excellence?

As leaders and managers in schools, we know that teachers also need to have time for self-reflection and personal and professional growth. If our focus is on providing relevant support to teachers with a good understanding of resilience and its beneficial impact on psychological wellbeing, then support structures for teachers are strengthened and our teachers can flourish.

Teacher feedback in recent PESA (Positive Education Schools Association) studies has indicated the importance of wellbeing and resilience to daily life both at home and at work. CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Leaders, Aasha Murthy, encourages us as teachers and leaders to “Focus on the root cause of success rather than on failure.” The real source of power for all of us is confidence which is all about belief.

Both students and teachers need to connect with others in a meaningful way that allows skill development and is facilitated by a growth mindset. If we are able to learn and apply new skills, we build our self-efficacy which reinforces self-confidence. The implication here is that we have spent the bulk of our time on buoying the spirits of our students but with a tweak in how we approach our teachers, we could magnify the success and wellbeing of everyone on the learning journey.

Of greatest importance is that students need to feel confident about their teachers. At the ACEL Wellbeing conference this year, feedback from students on their teachers was illuminating. One Year 6 student said “Teachers need to be consistent and confident in their skills and they need to care about us.” A Year 7 student explained that as far as he saw it, “Confidence is all about belief. Self-belief means that you can rely on yourself because you are being supported by your family, school and friends.”

When the students were asked if they could give us a ‘recipe for good teaching’, their responses were insightful, provocative and affirming in that we are all in pursuit of the same end: an increased sense of self-belief and successful endeavour.

Here’s what the students told us:

  • Provide positive reinforcement – to improve our self-esteem
  • Set achievable goals – give us things we can do
  • Stop using labels – avoid using them about us
  • Believe in us and we’ll believe in ourselves

When asked what qualities are important in a school leader, the students responded with:

  • A leader who cares about us and who knows us
  • One who does everything with us and wants to get to know us
  • A kind-hearted person who looks on the positive side
  • It’s important to have a good connection with students
  • One who is interested in the student voice. Ask us what we want
  • Open opportunities for all students at school – help students love to learn

I’ve attended numerous conferences on how to develop teacher capacity and quality and how to improve assessment and results for students but this honest and unique forum of students has resonated with me. I am investigating how best to enhance teacher quality through our appraisal for development program as well as examining approaches to teacher professional learning. With these student observations as a starting point, I find that they have indeed ‘flipped’ the learning process for me. After all, the better we understand each other’s needs, the better our schools will be for everyone in them.


Bernardine Knorr
Head of Teacher Excellence
BA Dip. Ed. M Ed. Leadership MACE MACEL

The terrible teens. Or are they?

Recently, there have been a few articles in the news about how tough it is to be a parent of a teenager (see these links 1, 2, 3). I often read these and think of them in light of what St Catherine’s is teaching students about positive psychology.

There is no doubt (it has been empirically studied), being a teenager is the worst – especially between the ages of 14 and 16. We know this as adults because we remember it well. We know this as teachers because we see it every year, and in 10 years’ time I will know it all over again when my innocent cherubs become teenagers. Why is this so? What can we do to prevent it or decrease its impact? And how do we get through these years to be the fabulous Year 12 girls about to sit for their HSC?

One of the first things I did in my role as Director of Positive Psychology was to analyse the data of the ACER Social-Emotional-Wellbeing testing we have been doing here at school since 2014.

As I stare at the spreadsheet, I notice  the ‘teenage slump’ in wellbeing is happening a bit earlier – from Year 10  down to Year 9 and sometimes even in Year 8.  But, and it’s a good but,  at St Catherine’s the girls are rebounding out of it faster than they were a few years ago, and this recovery is long-lasting.

Articles abound about the neurological reasons for the teenage years being tough, so I won’t delve into that, but instead I will talk about what St Catherine’s does to promote resilience in teenagers. In Year 8 we focus the Academic Care program on forming positive relationships, because it is these relationships that will help the girls through the challenges of Year 9. We organise professional speakers from the Black Dog Institute, Beyond Blue, Headspace and also some sleep experts to talk to the girls about the real mental health issues facing their age group. Our mobile phone policy (namely, no phone until the school day is over) has promoted better conversations at recess and at lunchtime. Many girls now play handball (always beating the teachers who join in the game!) which improves wellbeing and decreases stress.

We promote kindness and service through charity works and give Year 10 students the opportunity to give back to the community through Project STC in Term 4.  Students always return from STC with a renewed perspective on the world, and a greater appreciation for the impact they can have in the world. Studies constantly show that demonstrating kindness to others, whether it be toward friends or to the greater world community, increases a person’s happiness more than being kind to yourself. This is why at the end of this term all Year 12 girls will be crocheting homeless mats for One Million Women; and it is also why we are taking the social pressure off Year 10 students by not having a formal from 2018. St Catherine’s promotes growth mindsets by always reminding students that they have opportunities to improve through the Prep Centre, mathematics and English workshops, and Wednesday Week B masterclasses. And, ultimately, we can say these measures are working because the teenage ‘dip’ is getting shorter.

As parents there are many things we can do, but I would say the worst is to stress out about it. Professor Lea Water’s book The Strength Switch has some great strategies about working with your child’s strengths rather than focusing on her weaknesses. What does this look like? It’s quite simple – imagine you have a daughter who is very good at organising her social calendar, but not so good at organising her bedroom. You want to yell at her for having a messy room. Instead, remind her how good she is at organising events with friends, and how it would be great if she could use that strength to organise her own area at home. By showing them that you know they have strengths, you are filling the gaps with their strengths rather than pointing out weaknesses.

In family downtime, encourage conversations about what is happening in all your lives instead of overfilling the family calendar, because as Water’s writes, time to goof off  (if you’ll pardon the Americanism) is much more important than you think. Try using something like the Forest App to measure how much screen-free time you are having as a family. Give your teenagers responsibilities at home so they can learn some independence; spend time talking to them about issues beyond their own; and share some of the challenges you are facing, so they know they are not alone.


Headshot_Daisy_TurnbullBrownMrs Daisy Turnbull Brown
Director of Positive Psychology
B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)

Follow our dedicated Positive Psychology Twitter account: @StCathsPosPsy



True grit

Image_Article_ResilienceAt the ripe old age of 17 I was out on the road – P plates in tow. I had no GPS, no reversing camera, no phone connection, but I had the skills to navigate my way around town (well, to be honest Lennox Head, which is very small).

Driving was not my only skill. I left home at 17 to live in college at a university many hours away. My parents put me on the train to Armidale, and that was it. No teary farewells at the station, no texts to check I was OK – I just managed. I learned to save my 20 cent pieces for that Sunday phone call, live in relative harmony with 500 other students and personally and proactively manage conflicts. I balanced my meagre budget and dealt with disappointment. I developed resilience.

It might interest you to note that ‘adulting’ was nominated as the word of the year by the American Dialect society. It is a word coined by a generation that has been shielded from life’s challenges by living in their parents’ homes for extended periods of time.

(Adulting: A word used by ‘immature adults who are proud of themselves for paying a bill’. urbandictionary.com)

Anyone over the age of 30 would have similar experiences to mine – experiences of when we developed independence. But are we giving our children today the same opportunities to test themselves, to learn new skills?

We need to ensure that, as parents, we pass skills on to our daughters. Can they write a shopping list? Set up a bank account? Do they have a budget they need to stick to? Can they deal with adversity when required?

Saying ‘no’ to your child does not damage her self-esteem. No 14-year-old needs their own credit card or the ability to ‘UBER’ home after a party. No medals are required just for participation, and as a parent, it is not your sole role to intervene in every problem arising for your daughter.

“The parenting style that is good for grit is also the parenting style good for most other things: Be really, really demanding, and be very, very supportive.” (Angela Duckworth, Grit, Vermilion, 2016.)

We need to build the capacity of our young women to rise to the challenge and to manage the curveballs life throws at us. Because, in the end, we all want the same things for our girls, to be young women of character, grit and resilience – and to be happy.

Grit is available to borrow from our Research Centre.



Mrs Deborah Clancy
Head of Boarding and Academic Care


How travel changed me

HowTravelChangedMeAs a young girl, growing up in the eastern suburbs of NSW Australia, you tend to have everything you need. The area is wealthy, there are wonderful schools, a plethora of jobs, restaurants and shops. The beach is at your doorstep and there’s an endless list of activities to fill your weekend. Yet, we still complain. “It’s too cold, it’s too hot, I’m tired, I’m sore, I’m hungry, my university lecturer didn’t give me enough notes, my sushi was made more than three hours ago and there was too much froth in my morning cappuccino”. Honestly a day didn’t go past, where I didn’t have a good old Australian whinge. This is true for most people I know.

A few years into my job, I was given the opportunity to take some St Catherine’s students to Nepal for trekking and to work with a charity. A free trip, AND being paid to work. “Of course, why not?” I said.

Arriving in that amazing country you are met with a beautiful array of colours, sounds, smells. It is so different to life in Australia. We had the chance to trek in the Himalayas, meet the beautiful Sherpa locals, stay in tea houses and learn a bit of the Nepali language.

However, Nepal is still under-developed. Electricity cuts out often, hygiene standards are low, children learn in classrooms of over 100 students (if they go to school at all). Marriage is often arranged, child labour exists and a high percentage of girls as young as seven are trafficked for sex each year. Yet most Nepalis you meet are friendly, hardworking, and are some of the most positive people on earth. This sure changes one’s perspective.

The critical point in ‘the trip that changed me’ was visiting Asha Nepal. It is an organisation working with girls rescued from sex trafficking. Girls who are under 18 are found and brought back to Nepal by this charity and supported  with their schooling; helping them to develop their English, business skills and their confidence. Often it is hard for them to return to regular school with a certain stigma attached and for fear of discrimination (especially when girls are already treated as a lower caste). Asha Nepal helps them to rebuild their lives.

When we visit Asha Nepal with St Cath’s students, we teach the Nepali girls positive psychology skills —  how to celebrate their strengths, goal setting and confidence building. One day a girl stood up and read a story she’d written about her life. It was of the darkness of her life from the age of seven and the trickery that caused her to be taken or ‘sold’. As she continued, she told us the impact Asha Nepal has had on her life and how it has helped her to be the confident and happy 16-year-old that she is. She was in darkness and she found light, all thanks to Asha Nepal. To finish, she sang a song of thanks she had composed herself. She was such an inspiring and resilient young woman. Despite all the difficulties in her own life, she was happy and positive and making the most of her world.

When I find myself in a country with a lack of resources, missing my morning coffee or TV series or feeling that yearning to go back home, I just think of this girl and her story and know that I want to visit Asha Nepal every year. My students are pen-pals with the girls there, and I have since travelled to Nepal seven times to see these beautiful young women continue to grow. I still see this particular girl and how well she has developed over the years. And each year she says she’s counting down the days to see us.

This impacted my life so much because we didn’t teach the girls there much at all. How could we teach gratitude or resilience to them? In fact, they taught it to us. I came home so much more grateful and realised that if the air conditioner is a bit too cold or my egg isn’t runny enough in the morning, it really isn’t something to complain about.

People around the world live in dire circumstances but often have great attitudes to life despite this. We don’t need to need to feel sorry for them, we need to learn from them and provide them with friendship and a listening ear.

So this is how travel changed me. And infinitely for the better.




Ms Sarah Charles
History teacher and Year 10 Mentor
Service Education
BA Ancient History and Grad Dip Ed



The pursuit of happiness

Image_articleWhat makes a happy person happy is closer to the question of what makes a high performing student succeed than you may think — they both work at it. Or so argues Lahnna Catalino and Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina. Catalino’s studies have shown that fixating on ‘being happy’ is not as effective as seeking out positive emotional experiences. If you plan to do things that make you feel happy, you are more likely to be happier than if you just try to be happy. Catalino refers to this as prioritising positivity.

In Catalino’s study over 230 people were asked how much they structure their day around positive experiences. This does not mean removing all responsibility from your life and just doing what makes you happy, but it refers to how people try to include positive experiences in their day. This may be going for a walk in the morning, listening to music on the bus and so on. The more people prioritised positivity in their daily schedule, the more positive emotion they experienced. This seems logical, but the study also showed that they had a decrease in negative emotion as a response to negative events — so they were more resilient, and they were generally more satisfied with life. The study also showed that positive emotions were increased in the long term as long as positivity continued to be prioritised.

So prioritising positivity is more effective than trying to be happy. Why’s that? When we aim to ‘be happy’ we often make mistakes about what actually makes us happy. Sometimes we think what we are doing is making us happy — checking Facebook and Instagram, watching mindless TV, but actually these activities may not be causing us to feel happier. In fact, the use of smart phones and social media is making us less social, and less happy. An article in The Atlantic stated that  Year 12s  in 2015 were going out less often than Year 8s did as recently as 2009.

Furthermore, rates of teenage depression have increased since 2011 (The Atlantic). These statistics show how important it is for us to truly know what experiences make us have more positive emotions, rather than just doing what we think makes us happy. By prioritising positivity instead of checking your ‘snapstreak’, students will feel more positive, and be happier. Whether it is going for a run, reading a book, making a delicious snack, spending time with a friend; if it makes you feel happier afterwards, they are your positive emotional experiences. It would be more useful to spend time dedicated to those activities than it would be just aim for happiness.

That all sounds pretty simple, but the fact remains that we don’t actually prioritise positivity as much as we should, because it all comes down to habit. The student who has a regular study habit does better in their studies than the student who stresses out about all the study they need to do; the person who goes running three times a week is fitter than the person who just wills themselves to be fit. Similarly, the person who etches out time in their day to prioritise positivity is happier than the person who just wants to be happy.

Once a fortnight I supervise detention for students. Some teachers ask students to write reflections on their detentions, some ask them to do homework, or some ask them to assist with preparing for school activities. I give the girls a crochet hook, wool, and a YouTube link so they can learn to crochet. Why crochet? Because learning a new skill is frustrating and requires grit. Achieving the new skill leads to a sense of accomplishment and an increase in positive emotion. Students who are happier are less likely to have detentions. Just this week two students were trying to figure out how to crochet and as one conquered the granny square, her mood had lifted, she felt better about herself, and even stayed a few more minutes to finish the round she was on.

Some members of staff at St Cath’s are prioritising positivity by forming a running club on Monday afternoons. We all vary in fitness levels, but by etching out an hour a week for exercise and socialising with colleagues, we experience more positive emotions. (Or at least I will once my legs stop aching!)

We are all busy, so something generally has to give in order to set time aside for positivity. And that is why the term Catalino refers to is ‘prioritising’, because in order to put time aside for positivity, you will end up losing time for something else. I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit behind with the laundry, but that’s ok because I prioritise reading to the kids, going for walks, and having downtime in the evenings. I try to use the time when the washing machine is spinning to do something I enjoy of an evening. Because if we don’t prioritise positivity, then what are you prioritising? There is not much point in working to the bone, being a perfectionist at home, being ‘on’ all the time at social events if you aren’t travelling towards happiness.

Ultimately being in pursuit of happiness is a delicate art, but it is achievable through small decisions that prioritise your own joy over other activities, at least some of the time…

Mrs Daisy Turnbull Brown

Director of Positive Psychology
B Arts B Com Grad Dip Ed MA (Theology)

Follow our dedicated Positive Psychology Twitter account: @StCathsPosPsy

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