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On school culture, educator energy and M&M’s. 

by Nicole Dyson, Founder & CEO, Future Anything

What a whirlwind the last week has been.

On Sunday afternoon, I flew to South Australia ready to deliver our Ignite program at Loxton High School.

Within hours of landing, I was back on a flight to Brisbane after a dramatic series of domino border closure announcements around the country.

Less than 12 hours later, I found myself back in SA – albeit virtually; projected onto the big screen in the Loxton school hall to a room full of Year 11 students.

The students have been engaged, and the ideas they’ve generated have not only been innovative, scalable, and sustainable solutions to the real-world problems the students care about, but some could be truly transformational for the Riverlands,

This time tomorrow, these enterprising young people will be pitching their ideas to a packed room of their peers, parents and caregivers, and a host of community leaders and key stakeholders eager to support the best next innovative youth-led enterprise to launch out of Loxton.

This experience has, again, reminded me of the superpowers of our educators.

With minimal notice, the teaching team at Loxton High School set up the technical requirements to pivot a physical program to a livestream experience. Perhaps most importantly, they worked their magic to re-arrange the timetable for the week to shoulder the responsibility of managing the supervision and motivation of students in the room in my physical absence.

All this on top of the weeks of planning they’ve already put in to create an epic large-scale‘ shark tank’ pitching experience for their students and the wider community.

The success of this week is a testament to these passionate educators.

Because it doesn’t matter how energetic my (virtual) facilitation is.

It doesn’t matter how engaging my slides are or how great the content is that I’m delivering.

The magic is in something that can’t be seen or heard, but instead felt; school culture.

And, the foundation of school culture is relationships.

Brené Brown has a helpful metaphor for understanding relationships: the marble jar. Brené uses marbles, but given the week we’ve just had, let’s go with M&M’s.

In building relationships of any kind, imagine that you and the other person are working together to fill up a jar full of M&M’s.

Each moment of interaction between you contributes in one way or another to the number of M&M’s in the jar. Positive interactions, such as kind words and actions add M&M’s to the jar. Conversely, negative interactions remove M&M’s.

What’s important to know is that negative interactions far outweigh positive ones. So, whilst one positive interaction might add a single M&M, a negative interaction will often result in removing many M&M’s. Sometimes, an interaction can be so negative that the jar itself shatters; never to be the same again.

I think it’s paramount that we recognise that energy levels play a crucial role in defining our capacity to invest productively, proactively, and positively into our relationships.

When we feel tired, exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious we often don’t have any M&M’s in our own jar, let alone the spares to invest into the jars of others.

Healthy habits, such as good sleep, nutrition, hydration, and exercise all add to our jar. As does quality time with those we love and engaging in activities that bring us joy.

Schools have jars, too. And, their jar fills- and our school culture is formed- through the moments of ‘flow’ when young people and their educators are empowered with the space, time, and support to flourish.

However, long hours outside of school marking, reporting, and responding to emails slowly deplete those jars, leaving very little energy left to engage in the activities and people that replenish our energy.

As our jar gradually empties throughout the course of the term, we move into survival mode, crawling to holidays; often spending the first week in bed as our immune system waves a white flag.

In these moments of overwhelm and exhaustion, it can sometimes be hard to see through the fog (or from under the doona) to work out what the best next step is to recover and re-energize.

It can be harder still for those that love us to know how to support us.

So, these school holidays, consider taking some time to think about your own jar.

From a relationship point of view, what fills your jar? What actions, or words, deplete it? And, from an energy point of view, what are the moments that drive you? What experiences drain your energy?

Once a year, I take the time to revisit these questions, using the template here (PDF) to scaffold the process. It’s a great one to do with your significant other, or as a family.

It’s also an interesting class activity with students, or one to do with colleagues or as a leadership team to explore how, together, you can build those mutually supportive, energising relationships that will lay down the foundations of a truly great school culture.

Whether you’re spending part of your holidays in lockdown, or if you’re finally seeing some freedom (here’s looking at you, Victoria), I hope you find the time to connect with the people and places that bring you joy.

And, in the words of Madonna…

Holiday (ooh yeah, ooh yeah),

Celebrate (come on, let’s celebrate),

Holiday (just one day out of life),


Want to know more about building the entrepreneurial mindsets of young people in your classroom?

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About the author: Nicole Dyson

As a teacher in the USA, UK and Australia as well as a Head of Department and Head of Year at some of Queensland’s top-performing public schools, Nicole has repeatedly led the design and implementation of whole-school changes to support future ready learning; placing young people at the forefront of co-designing contextually relevant learning experiences.

Nicole is an engaging and skilled facilitator, panellist and speaker who is a passionate advocate for equity, the future of education, and empowering young people to bend the future; one youth-led idea at a time.

Connect with Nic on LinkedIn here or Twitter here.

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