Anne Johnstone on Positive Education, Passion, and Purpose
WORDS BY EMILY WORTHINGTON
Current Principal of Ravenswood School for girls, Anne Johnstone has a rich academic background and a passion for wellbeing in education.
Anne carries herself in a way that is completely inspiring and welcoming. Stepping into her office was like entering her home. With the chatter of the playground in the distance, and the offer of tea and fruit, I was lucky enough to gain an insight into Anne’s views on topics very close to her heart – education, wellbeing, and purpose.
Before pursuing teaching, with a Bachelor of Arts and Laws degree (with Honours), Anne practised as a lawyer, specialising in commercial litigation; followed by work as a consultant advising schools and law firms in the areas of positive psychology, leadership and communication skills; and lecturing at Macquarie University in Modern Corporate Governance and Labour Law. In 2003, she received The Teachers’ Guild of NSW Award for Excellence in the Early Years of Teaching.
Most notably, Anne holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania where she worked alongside the founding father of Positive Psychology, Martin Seligman.
How would you explain Positive Education to someone who has never heard of it?
Positive education is founded in the principles and strategies of positive psychology, which is basically a scientifically validated framework for wellbeing. Martin Seligman’s framework is exemplified by the acronym PERMA:
- Building Positive Emotion
- Finding ways to develop Engagement
- Building more positive and effective Relationships
- Finding a greater sense of Meaning and purpose in life (in other words serving a cause greater than ourselves)
- Achievement or accomplishment, recognising the significance of grit and the fact that the pathway to excellence is paved by it.
So it really bases itself on this evidence based approach to building wellbeing and flourishing. Positive education seeks to implement that in an educational setting and recognises that schools are about learning, but also that wellbeing and learning are inextricably linked. We need to have both support for students achieving their best academically, but also being the best versions of themselves. So it’s really about combining learning with character and wellbeing development into education generally.
“…wellbeing and learning are inextricably linked, so we need to have both support for students learning outcomes and them achieving their best academically, but also being the best versions of themselves.”
Do you think Positive Education is a fad?
Not at all. I really believe that schools are so much more than about being academics in a vacuum. More than ever today, students need our help, young people need our support.
I love the quote by Martin Seligman that says, “wellbeing is every child’s birthright.” As educators, if we are really about allowing students to achieve their potential and flourish, then we need to help them fulfil this in their learning but also develop their wellbeing. We want them to be able to have the resilience to navigate through the vicissitudes of life.
At the moment, positive education seems to be a ground roots movement. What do you think is the next step integrating it into our schooling system?
I think that work for organisations such as PESA, (Positive Education Schools Association), of which I am the Deputy Chair, is important to be able to develop a network of practitioners and educators willing to share their practice and help each other to develop effective school setting approaches. Teachers are so good at sharing resources with one another and we really should be focussing on students everywhere flourishing. I also believe it’s important to have the opportunities, through workshops and conferences, to understand which approaches are most effective.
"It’s not a “happy-ology”, it’s not just about feeling good about yourself and putting on a smile, it’s actually about deeper matters around meaning, purpose, resilience, and grit."
Where do you see the future of education?
I really believe we can’t ignore the importance of wellbeing in education. When we hear from futurists, from people who consider the rapidly evolving technological landscape, often there’s a consideration about the importance of developing not just highly academic, agile thinking skill base, but we also need to help our students develop an empathic approach to one another, connect effectively, and ensure they can collaborate. Education has a role to play in all of these different facets, and education by its nature should be multi-faceted. So I do believe education will continue to develop a very broad set of skills, it needs to, and I think positive education has a very strong place in that picture.
Education has a role to play in all of these different facets, and education by its nature should be multi-faceted.
You’re currently the principal of Ravenswood, Deputy chair and Founding Board member of PESA – but you come from a law/arts background. How did you figure out your passion for teaching?
I had an absolutely wonderful set of mentors throughout my life and role models as educators. Both my parents have a background in education. I began my career as a lawyer, but I also studied English, Politics, and History at university as part of my Arts degree. In practice as a lawyer, I was given the opportunity to teach a course for my honours thesis supervisor. He was such an inspirational lecturer, an amazing teacher, and he gave me the opportunity to take over his course while he was on sabbatical. That’s where I had my absolute epiphany and a real sense that I had discovered my calling. I could make a better contribution, probably a more meaningful contribution, to young people through my work. So while I love the law, I definitely felt this really strong sense of calling to education and I’ve never looked back.
How did you know you were following the right path with teaching?
I think it was the feeling that I could see a tangible difference being made – those moments as a teacher when you see a student’s eyes light up and you feel you are making a positive contribution. I think it was those validating moments for me.
What advice do you have for students that don’t yet know their path or purpose?
My advice would really be to try and explore and follow your passions. Consider where you believe you can make the most meaningful contribution. Really get to know yourself. Explore new horizons, different horizons, and be true to yourself. Also, don’t worry about risking failure, because failure and difficulty are just part of the journey of life and so be willing to give things a try that may fail, but keep going, it’s an exciting path ahead. We do know students today will experience so many different careers and professions in their path ahead, so it’s all part of the journey.