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The value of a positive teaching culture.

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

Today I visited Priorsford Primary School in Peebles to begin work on a place-based art project headed by master P4 teacher, Teresa Pickburn. Though I am excited to share the details of this project, I will save it for another post once the work is completed.


The rain was quite heavy during my visit so, around mid-morning, what was meant to be snack and outdoor time turned into snack and indoor playtime. As Mrs. Pickburn and I got our things ready to have a break, 3 upper-elementary pupils entered the room, sat on a counter and began observing the P4 pupils as they played. I was surprised to discover that the US equivalent to 6th grade students were trusted to chaperone a class of 29 8-year-olds. They do this each day with very few problems. This arrangement provides teachers with valuable time to meet, and builds leadership skills for the older pupils. It is common practice for other adults in the building (head teacher, deputy head-teacher, janitors and aids) to be in the halls as a support if needed.

For our break, we headed to the faculty lounge. As we entered I was surprised to see 30 or so adults sitting in a large square that made up the perimeter of the room. There was tea and coffee in hands, smiles on faces, lively discussion, and a therapy dog making her daily rounds of the lounge at break time. A filled faculty lounge is the norm at Priorsford and teachers use it as a way to stay connected with each other, avoid the isolation that can accompany classroom teaching and to make work joyful. I shared with some teachers that the faculty lounge is rarely used at my school in the US, and that our teachers often have working lunches filled by paperwork or students needing extra help. This seemed to really shock the Priorsford teachers and they concluded that without this time to speak with other adults, their efficacy as teachers would be diminished.

Priorsford therapy dog (her name escapes my memory) She makes her rounds each day to see both students and teachers.

At lunch (which ran a full hour) Mrs. Pickburn was free to leave the building to let her dog out. There was no feeling of guilt or disobedience; just the freedom of any other professional to use her time as she wishes. I spent my time walking through Peebles, enjoying lunch at a café.

Back at the school, the head-teacher and deputy-head greeted the pupils as they entered the dining hall. The long tables were lined with pitchers of water and reusable cups for all to share. There was noticeably very little plastic.

Outdoor time is high on the priority list in Scotland and Priorsford is no exception. After lunch, most of the high winds had passed and pupils were once again playing outside. As I’ve noticed with my own kids, the school grounds are far more open to pupils in Scotland. They are able to use the space as their own and are trusted far more than in the states.


My bus ride from Peebles to Edinburgh was an hour long and I used this time to catch up on some TED talks. I chose a talk about depression delivered by author Johann Hari. Hari spent time searching the world for wisdom from leading experts on depression and anxiety and discussed the scientific evidence for nine different causes of these all too common diseases. He states that most of the causes of depression are not rooted in our biology but are factors in the way we live. Though this came as no surprise, it was the factors that he listed which caught my ear, as they seemed immediately relevant when comparing my own school to what I had just experienced at Priorsford.

“… if you're lonely, you're more likely to become depressed. If, when you go to work, you don't have any control over your job, you've just got to do what you're told, you're more likely to become depressed. If you very rarely get out into the natural world, you're more likely to become depressed.”

Isolation, loneliness, lack of professional control, lack of down-time....

I fear that many of my colleagues can relate to these conditions and I wonder how much more effective we would be as teachers if they were addressed in the same positive ways that they are at Priorsford. I put hope into a future where professional health and well-being is a top priority for administrators and I am relieved to see the work that is being done at a small primary school in Peebles, Scotland.

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