St Swithun’s School Head of English Naomi Anson on the powerful wellbeing and creative benefits of enabling young people to tell their stories

Last September I was asked to be a guinea pig for some coaching training. The idea was to pick something unemotional for a demonstration session. Languishing on my ‘to do’ list because it felt too big to tackle was this: ‘start a national conversation about writing for wellbeing’. Thirty minutes of very effective coaching later and St Swithun’s was set on a course to start a social enterprise beginning with a national writing competition: Write Well.

No one in this wonderful profession can fail to be moved by the current challenges our students face and the need to support their wellbeing. I have always been a die-hard academic when it comes to my teaching, wedded to the sanctity of my literary classroom space and the power of Shakespeare and Iris Murdoch to ‘wipe away all tears’. But over the 20 years I’ve been teaching, I find myself embracing pastoral support and powerfully convinced of the value of our award-winning Positive Education model, where learning is underpinned by a focus on feeling good, doing good and functioning well.

Research shows that the decline of writing as a pastime amongst the young has reached a crisis point; most children just don’t put pen to paper anymore by choice. But perhaps our students just have a new version of this in the powerful sense of their online presence and the need to constantly define themselves. The nomenclature of the digital universe has abducted the lexicon of ‘story’ as something that must be told in soundbites and short videos – but the fact remains that most of our students are powerfully connected to the idea of their own narrative: Who am I? What have I experienced? With whom do I share this?

Our school assemblies are frequently framed around the retelling of personal experience – what it’s like to live with autism, to undertake the Three Peaks Challenge or travel to Turkey for aid work. These moments mesh our school community in ways that create immeasurable positive outcomes – successes we can’t add to league tables and university entrances, but we see in the smiles and laughter in our corridors, in students supported by friends – even in the refugee who pours out the tale of her lost homeland in her class presentation. In fact, we could argue that this is a generation who have a better idea of ‘story’ than ever before; all we need to do is give them the opportunity to find their voice.

“We could argue that this is a generation who have a better idea of ‘story’ than ever before; all we need to do is give them the opportunity to find their voice”

Our competition was born during a lockdown online book launch for Debora Harding’s memoir Dancing with the Octopus when she explained the moment she found her narrative voice. It was when her daughter encouraged her with the phrase: “You have a story to tell”. Debora’s story was one of trauma and survival but the fire from which the phoenix rises isn’t always one of brokenness; it can be cleansing, hopeful, reflective, desperate, joyful, adventurous and even the small voice of perseverance. Whatever it is, we have to be here and be ready to listen.

I have never lost the rush of emotion I felt in that first coaching session when I realised just how much I believe in the power of personal story telling as a tool for wellbeing. In setting up the competition and the social enterprise we hope will sustain it, we are celebrating the importance of the voices of our young people as they tell us what it is like to be them – and teach us who they are.

St Swithun’s School

Further reading: Two children’s books to inspire creativity