Growing a culture of wellbeing in your school | Education Support Partnership

Growing a culture of wellbeing in your school

“Effective wellbeing is all about relationships and about culture. About half of what we do in schools is about culture and relationships; the other half is about relationships and culture.”

In “The Wellbeing Toolkit” these words feature in the final paragraph of the introduction, not as a soundbite, but as the core principle of that will allow all our teachers to not only survive but thrive in our profession.

Teacher recruitment and retention is in crisis. Not enough new, young teachers are entering or emerging from training. However it is retention that readers of this piece need to concern themselves with. Department for Education figures suggest that one third of new teachers don’t remain in education within five years of training. My research and observations from other schools I have visited, are of schools with groups of younger staff and a core of older teachers, yet few, if any, in the middle ground. Whilst some of this might be explained by relocation or breaks for parental or adoption leave, much more comes down to pressures of workload, the impact on staff wellbeing and how school leaders manage.

So how can a culture be developed that keeps teachers in the profession but also protects and values their mental health?

Wellbeing is more than “being nice” to your staff, and it needs more substance than the offer of weekly yoga, mindfulness or the occasional wellbeing day. School leaders need to be strategic in their thinking.

Below are some ideas to help develop a wellbeing culture in your school: what do you want your staff wellbeing to be?

Be…celebratory

Some leaders can never say “thank you” and others can only find fault or a problem to every solution. This can be incredibly wearing and disheartening. Your teachers go the extra mile on a regular basis, for their students and their colleagues. Genuine thanks aren’t gushy, nor are they tokenistic. A quiet word and an authentic show of gratitude can go a long way within a positive culture.

Be…fair and collaborative

Value everyone and do so equally. A respectful approach, where you value your cleaners as much as your office manager, your teaching assistants as much as your assistant head, will enable you to build team spirit. Though some people carry greater responsibility, every role is a vital cog in the clockwork of our school. Successful schools have a culture of collaboration at the hub of their operation. Even the mavericks and the individualists might subscribe to this ethos.

Be…aware

  • Of work and of workload: There is a difference. The DfE has produced three very effective documents on aspects of workload but in my research there were Headteachers who either hadn’t heard of them or who dismissed them as unworkable. Initiatives which add work to teachers’ burdens proliferated from the late 1990s onwards, but as a rough guide for this era, for every new initiative, we need to take something away.
  • Of time: It is our most precious but undervalued resource. Spread out the ‘pinch points’ such as parent evenings, data drops and performances to avoid burn out.
  • Of cliques and gossip: Staffrooms should be a place for calm and tranquillity, but equally can be a hotbed of discontent. Be aware of who comes to the staffroom but more so for those who don’t. What is it that keeps them away? Is it work or is there something in the staffroom atmosphere keeping them out.
  • Of “loud voices”: There may be a dominant or outspoken personality, vocal about school matters but who may be unduly influential upon the thinking of less experienced or less confident staff. There is a massive difference between “letting off steam” and being provocative. Good leaders will challenge this.
  • Of workplace bullying: It is a myth that bullying in schools is carried out entirely by school leaders. Some of it is of course but equally, and my research evidence clearly showed this, bullying behaviours can be exhibited by anyone including middle leaders and support staff.

Be…empathetic

Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experience of others. Some people are naturally empathetic; others lack it totally, whilst the majority would fall into a category of being somewhat or sometimes empathetic. Empathy can be learned, but it takes coaching and practice to embed this attitude into the mindset of leaders.

Be…a listener

Listening jigsaws perfectly with empathy, but avoid the traps of inauthentic attention. Avoid being:

  • The leader who can’t listen.
  • The leader who won’t listen.
  • The leader who can only listen, but not act.
  • The leader who doesn’t listen but ‘talks at’ the recipient rather than talking matters through.

The leader who listens and acts is in effect a mentor or coach who facilitates the change that might be required for the individual concerned. The change may be something minor, dropping into class once or twice a day or giving a reassuring word about an aspect of work causing anxiety, or may involve a shift in organisation to address a more pressing concern. Such actions demonstrate the visible empathy that demonstrates how each member of the team is valued.

Schools with a positive but genuine and reflective culture are going to be those who support and develop our young and our more experienced teachers. We don’t want to see teachers burnt out and on the career scrapheap within years. As a caring profession, as much care needs to go to the wellbeing of our staff as to our children.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at Orchard Primary School in Sidcup, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of “The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff” published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit

How we can help

Working in education is demanding so we’ve designed a set of services to help you check how your teams are coping, troubleshoot problems and boost everyone’s wellbeing. Find out more