Christopher Lewin, residential teacher of English, Drama and Projects, reflects on building resilience in students at Brockwood Park School in Hampshire.
‘Man has done everything on earth possible to run away from the actuality of daily living.’ Jiddu Krishnamurti. Founder of Brockwood Park School.
When was the last time you cried until your whole being shook? Felt wholly connected to and accepting of your body? Felt a violent jealousy towards another human being? Is it better to be able to answer these quickly? Or find it hard to recall? Should we express or repress? Cope or crumble?
These questions are difficult. Grief, sadness and loneliness are the common lot of all human beings. The brain that has split the atom and HD’d Mars has not, in millennia of trying, been able to free itself of fear. A fact that sometimes eludes us teachers when a student turns bleary eyed for answers.
Before we tackle the task of building resilience in our students shouldn’t we be inquiring into how we are doing ourselves?
At Brockwood Park, an international boarding school in the heart of Hampshire, we are deeply interested in whether it is possible for human beings to live free of fear. In fifty years, we have found no approach, no alternative system of education on which to hang our hats. There is no secret ingredient hiding in the miso soup.
Yet we welcome alumni back to our regular reunions and hear one word consistently applied to the legacy of a Brockwood education. Resilience. Brockwood may have done little to prescribe the path their lives took, but seems to help with the observation of each step.
At Brockwood we know it all begins with that first step. The step away from their parents, from what they know. That first crunchy step across our pebbled drive with heads as heavy as luggage. Mum wants me to do good at Maths. I hate Science. Will people talk to me? I am determined to be nice. I hope I will stop crying before bed. I am an artist. I bet their English is better than mine.’
The staff members greeting them will (at this point at least) have just one thing in mind. That this student feels totally welcome. That they feel care and attention, not as a vague sense or abstract idea. An actual fact. They are at home.
With this established, students have a chance to let external pressures lift. To feel safe in a community that is not trying to mould them, with staff that hold no expectation for them to be any type of student, to reach any kind of goal.
To understand the teacher’s mindset we can delve into reports written for students at the end of the first term.
I urge her not to solidify judgements around this search. To resist the urge of saying ‘I am a certain way’ or ‘I just can’t do that’ and then closing the book. Just keep observing, making little adjustments and observing again.
This is allowing her to be honest and authentic with herself and others, realising that she doesn’t need to impress anyone, because just being herself is already a joy to have around.
In such an environment, we find students un-learning what they think they know about themselves. Questioning collected assumptions. There is then space to distinguish the extrinsic motivators that have accompanied them to Brockwood. Like all realisations, when each one is seen, it is often gone for good.
Much of Brockwood education is best understood as an invitation. There is no set philosophy or approach. No ideology allowed to take root. The staff, between us, simply hold a space for each student to find and pursue what they are passionate about. To find a flame of interest they are free to extend. A large part of the Brockwood experience is students becoming responsible for this flame.
‘After being a student at Brockwood for two months- I noticed a new feeling. A feeling of actively wanting to do schoolwork. An experience entirely my own. It was such a novel feeling; glorious and wholesome.’ Grace, student.
At the start of the year students, helped by their Academic Advisors, build their own bespoke timetable. Those over the age of 16 can choose to do a Project, in which they devote anywhere from 10% to the entirety of their timetable towards something they want to learn. Staff members supervise in order to ensure learning is always present, but beyond that the students decide and drive the process. Whether it’s building boats, writing poetry or studying for a biology A-level, the school encourages students to engage fully and to strive for excellence.
‘You are not forced to work towards arbitrary goals and consequently I developed my own standards. Because of this, I have developed a sense of intrinsic motivation that is not impacted by external forces.’ Néa, student.
But at Brockwood we extend learning far beyond the classroom. It concerns the whole movement of life, our relationships, our habits in thought and action. In educating the whole human being, we seek to activate the five senses, to help students feel comfortable in their skin and observe their thoughts without judgement.
For me, all this comes to life on Wednesday morning. After eating and cleaning the house together, the whole school relinquishes their usual timetable to gather for a class called ‘Inquiry Time’. Here we huddle for an hour and a half, sometimes in small groups, sometimes as a whole school and ponder questions that have always puzzled mankind.
‘Is it possible to know yourself?’ ‘How do we live in uncertainty?’ ‘Are we ever satisfied with what we have?’
No two discussions are the same but there are common themes. Shared silences in the face of a good question, an analogy that makes everybody laugh and, underlying, a constant frustration that whatever words we choose never do justice to the actual thing we are trying to describe.
‘Having the space for discussion often lets underlying feelings and prejudices surface, and the nature of Brockwood allows us to reflect upon these reactions, rather than feel ashamed of them.’ Meher, student.
After enquiring, it’s Human Ecology, a class in which staff members join students to work in the garden. Harvesting apples, weeding the rose garden, raking the leaves. Rain or shine. Together. In this simplicity something more than the daffodils seem to flower. An understanding that where learning is, comparison is not.
Comparison is recognised easily in it’s superficial forms. The envious glance at the Jaguar, the tight torso or the A* exam. Look a bit longer and there’s the flip side. The amplified voice when articulating one’s own competence, the memory gilded in your favour, the reassurance that you aren’t as messed up as Aunt Maggie. Deeper still we see the subtle. The comparison of what I am now with what I was or will be. The constant movement from task to task. Never settled, never stopped.
All this creates a movement away from the reality of what is into the fragment of ideas. It creates comparison and with it, pressure and pain. Students come with external conditioning that penetrates deep into their thought process. In fact it seems to exist wholly in thought. Parents, society, authorities of all kinds then tell us to look to these same thoughts for solutions. The brain, this functional information-gatherer, has tricked us into believing that it can also solve problems of the psyche.
‘Humanity has a common pattern of trying to solve problems by introducing rules and practices that bypass rather than address the root of those problems.’ Grace, student.
That’s not to say that we have created a bubble here. A way of living that’s unrealistic for students to sustain in the wider world. You get 90 people from across the globe, 70 of them teenagers, to live together in a house with limited distractions and everything imaginable comes up. We have to find a way to solve these problems because that person that hurt you yesterday is not going to go away. If you avoid dealing with something, it will keep getting reflected back to you day after day. It will keep inviting you to look.
It is here we may find the reason so may Brockwood students find resilience. Not because we have something special to offer but precisely because we do not. We do not offer an escape. An escape into identity. Into pleasure. Into memory. Into hope.
We ask the students. We ask ourselves. Can we stop escaping? Can we accept ourselves as we are? Can we be with what is before it becomes what was?
It’s the 8th of March. The students are back. I talk in the corridor with Gaia, a 17 year old who resides in the U.A.E. ‘Yeah, I couldn’t go home at all during Covid and when I finally do, I won’t have seen my parents for 11 months’. ‘Woah. Sorry I didn’t realise. That must be so hard.’ ‘Yeah but I mean, it’s a weird world at the moment and this is home to me as well and…’ she takes a deep breath and smiles.
‘It is what it is.’
Christopher Lewin, residential teacher of English, Drama and Projects at Brockwood Park School.