Checking in with Olivia Saunders
This weeks guest is Olivia Saunders. Originally from Manchester she initially intended to be a teacher for only a few years. A summer teaching abroad in Cambodia made her realise though how much she enjoyed the profession.
She’s now an assistant head in charge of KS3 in a London school, as well as co-founder of the amazing Anti-Racist Library.
What does well-being mean to you?
Well-being for me means getting out of bed and being invested and excited about what the day has ahead, and then being present for that. It’s also about having a real sense of self and knowing what activities or people act as drains on you and what things fill you back up. I think if you've got that sense of self then you know you can navigate through your day. For example, if you can identify that a particular meeting is going to be a real drain then you can plan something later that day to fill you back up, whether that's a hot bath when you get home or a glass of wine. Knowing that allows you to better navigate your life and have more awareness around how you're feeling.
What’s one habit that improves your life?
Now this one is definitely not for everyone but I love going to the gym in the morning! I’ve always been an early morning person and find after my session the endorphins are buzzing so much that it makes me on fire for the day. I'm quite a naturally bouncy person so it probably does send me a little bit into overdrive but I find it really helps. My current goal is to go twice a week on days that work for me and if I manage more than that, even better.
What one thing makes you the happiest?
At the start of the year, I made a vision cloud. It’s something I only started this year but I’ve really liked it. Essentially it’s lots of images with a couple of goals for me to try and achieve under each one. So to give an example one is running. It’s a picture of a girl running and then under that I've got goals to run a sub 55 minute 10k and a half marathon in around 2 hours. Around the pictures are positive affirmations and I find each time I walk past there’ll be one quote that jumps out that I feel I needed to hear. I’ve found quite a lot of happiness in that but then I do love a good quote! It gives that little positive punch that you need.
What did you think being a teacher would be like vs what it’s actually like?
I was really naive in that I didn't think it would be as challenging as it is. It takes an insane amount of resilience. The role demands you to give and care so much as you always want to do a good job and best serve the children. Sometimes though that will get thrown back in your face or not received in the right way and you have to take that on board and still want to do a good job. Early on I was so emotionally invested and took everything personally. For example, if I’d spent ages planning a lesson, if it then went badly I’d actually want to cry. It can be really difficult to get that balance and detach yourself.
What do you wish you had known when you started your career?
I just didn't think it would take up as much time. You do get more efficient. You build resources and essentially build your craft so you’re a lot quicker but there's always that classic feeling where your to do list is never fully ticked off. Well, mine isn’t - if you know someone who’s is then please link me up with them!
I've learned you've got to be quite strict with your cut off points otherwise there's always something to do: another form to complete, another tracker to update or a piece of marking to do. I think you've got to create your own system where you decide, this is the cutoff point for today. It’s easy to say but it means really thinking about what needs to be done today, right now before I walk out the door and what can wait till tomorrow, or the day after, or a week later.
In education, what needs to change soon?
One of the biggest things for me is collaboration. I’m currently studying the NPQSL. My course is based in the borough of Camden despite my school borough being North Greenwich. This has been really beneficial for me to see how different schools work in another borough. The curriculum constraints and the pressures on schools mean I don’t think enough collaboration happens. Some people manage to do it independently through different organisations and different platforms for sharing resources but I think there should be more opportunities for teachers to be collaborating across schools provided from the top. There is such power in collaborating, backed up by educational research, so anything that reduces the fragmented approach to education across borders could be really important.
What’s your relationship with reading?
I absolutely love books. One of my biggest battles is always whether to pick up a book as I’ll get absorbed and won’t do anything else for at least the next hour! I love it during the holidays when you can sit with a book for hours. It’s such a good form of escapism, especially fiction, where you go to a completely different world and escape the moment. Books teach you so much about life and get you thinking about things differently. For me reading’s such a positive form of self-care, probably because it’s one of the very few activities where I’m not using technology so I cannot champion reading enough.
What personal project are you most excited about right now?
Definitely The Anti-Racist Library which I run with a friend (find them on Twitter here.) We started it on the back of the George Floyd murder. It was also inspired by personal experiences we’d had within our friendship group where we didn’t get the response or level of understanding we would have expected from certain chats. We realised it's difficult to have conversations with people about race if they've not been educated enough to know the issues that you face as a black or mixed race person. I guess the teacher in me was thinking what can we do to educate people without lecturing them but instead how can we encourage them to do their own independent work at their own pace. Initially it was us purchasing a load of books and letting people know what we had available. Anyone could then borrow a book and all we asked was that if you read it you share your main takeaways, what you’ve learned, etc. then post it on to the next person. It got really popular during lockdown when people had more time to read. Since things have opened up though it’s become a lot more admin with people struggling to finish books or post them on. We’re re-working it now and looking at other ways we can grow such as work with schools or resuming the Zoom book clubs that we ran during the pandemic. That really excites me, because I think there are so many conversations that need to be had and I think if future generations can be in a society where race is less of an issue then there's no better legacy than that.
Can you recommend a Twitter account we should check out?
Mindful Equity UK have come up with a platform for amplifying the voices of all Black and Asian women within education, which as a concept I think is amazing. I sit on a senior leadership team where I’m the only black person on the team. Personally I have no issues with that but it does trouble me that to the children it’s not very representative and poses questions as to why are there not more people at that level that look like me. So I guess the work that they do really resonates with me.
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The Check In is put together by the team at Mindfuel. Mindfuel produce fun, engaging well-being programmes for KS1 & KS2, providing teachers with everything they need to confidently teach well-being skills for positive mental health.