A small outback town at the junction of the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks, and an inspirational mentor opened my eyes to the power of a contextual approach in education, the role of the teacher and an enriched understanding of wellbeing. Although, little did I know as a first year teacher in the Marree Aboriginal School this would spur an interest in what I now know as Positive Psychology.
Entering the vast outback town, as a city slicker was a daunting experience however, on collection of house keys at the Marree Hotel (the last two story building as you head North onto the barren South Australian plains) a familiar face and a calming figure sat. A man who taught with a sense of purpose, who had a rich understanding of the world through experience and who had a dedication and passion of inclusive and equal education for all children and young people, despite their socio-economic status or background. That man, my teacher at Pembroke, a man who taught through narrative, who inspired me to teach and fulfil my goals and dreams, and inspire others, was Campbell Whalley.
But, how does Mr Whalley and the Marree Aboriginal School link to my appetite for Positive Psychology?
Positive Psychology really is about Character Strengths and Emotional Regulation, these two work in concert to direct behaviour. It looks to advance every person (despite their background and social status) to achieve a state of flow, to look at the positives despite the challenges. Our capacities to grow in life depend on our capacity to kindly and positively deal with mistake and see failure as a point of growth rather than the end point. This capacity enables us to give to others, to contribute, to add meaning to our own lives and the lives of others.
Mr Whalley created quality relationships and explicitly and implicitly provided the knowledge that they are a gift, a gift we can give to other people and ourselves. He provided opportunities for himself, staff and students to stop, be present in the moment and be mindful. We were taught that it was ok to take time out for ourselves – sometimes these mindful opportunities occurred on a rock, under a dead-tree in the dry Farina Creek on the beaten Marree track. He added meaning to the lives of others by teaching through narrative and telling stories, stories of compassion, happiness and success but also stories that had challenges and times of difficulty. But, never were we told of stories where he or others gave up, we were taught to have a growth mindset and use failure to grow and learn.
The children, young people and adults he worked with were taught about hope and the ability to create opportunities and treat every day as a gift, to be grateful for the good things in life. I basked at the opportunity I had been given to learn from a humble man who appreciated all that was around him. Surround yourself with positivity and positive things will happen – I learned to love and appreciate the outback, the sweltering heat, the piercing sun, the lack of technology and social media and the inability to be contacted 24/7. I learned to appreciate the people who provided me with knowledge, the knowledge of our land, and our elders. I appreciated the barren plains, tourist season, stories of the bush and the ability to make connections.
My biggest lesson learned from my mentor was altruism. The human quality that reminds us to think of others. Mr Whalley instilled this quality in me from my time as his pupil at school, to my time as his colleague and mentor. His Teddy Bear programme is widely known and began in 1987 at Pembroke with a focus on service to the community. The environment in the bear making space was a place for service to others with a focus on relationships and social interaction across age groups, while creating something for another person. A person, who may be grieving, seriously ill or injured, traumatised and may be a child or an adult. Students at Marree and across outback South Australia also participated in this process, learning the true quality of altruism and positive relationships from a truly humble human being.
The passion for Positive Psychology stems from the research and theory but is deeply embedded within my practice from this selfless human. Seligman states, ‘Positive Psychology is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work and play’ this is how I was mentored to teach and build connection with others. On reflection, this is where my story begins.