How leaders can promote staff wellbeing

There is a recruitment and retention crisis in education. School, college and university leaders have a critical role to play to improve staff wellbeing to help address this. Our factsheet outlines some key ways to promote staff wellbeing in an education environment. 

Leadership versus management

The modern world seems to have replaced the traditional "top-down" management approach, where one high-level executive decides how everything should be run, with the idea of fostering personal leadership among many levels of staff.

In education, the "top-down management" comes instead from government edicts, changing educational demands, continuous social change and other external forces. All of these bring a wide range of challenges in the classroom itself.

However, it is essential for those in leadership positions in the education sector that staff remain motivated and be given the freedom to perform and deliver first-class education. In the words of the Teaching School Council's 2016 report on effective primary school teaching, "Effective leaders have a passionate and relentless drive to continually improve outcomes. ...they delegate the operational aspects of their job to other key staff" (Keeble, 2016). This is where everyone comes in!

What follows is a series of tips as to how leaders can promote staff wellbeing within an educational environment.

Having a clear vision (and communicating it)

It's easy to dismiss the concept of "vision" as vague and woolly, but the best school leaders are visionaries with a clear sense of moral purpose. However, it's not enough to have that vision. It must be shared and understood with all teachers and staff, requiring the involvement of the whole school. Everyone should be able to relate to the vision and understand where they fit in with that vision. Being able to communicate the vision is also vital to staff wellbeing and the success of the school. Leaders need to be able to communicate clearly so that staff understand and want to contribute to this vision. This gives staff a sense of purpose and ownership toward the goal of the education institution as a whole.

Communication

Keeping staff motivated is all about good communication. A poor school will be rife with misinformation, second-guessing and fear. This is why effective communication is a key skill that good educational leaders master. You may look no further than the advice provided by Cheryl Paull, who outlined four tips on effective communication. These include the following:

  1. Know how to communicate best with each of your team (through email or phone or over a coffee — everyone has their preferred method).
  2. Recognise that communication is a two-way street: When you receive feedback, take time to consider your response and how it will be best received.
  3. Take care as to how you communicate, even down to your body language and tone of voice, especially when around the school. Body language can betray your words if it contradicts them. Make sure you reflect positive body language that is consistent with what you are saying.
  4. Follow a 24-hour rule of feeding back to your team. Don't leave them hanging indefinitely, awaiting a response from you. "School staff members want their voices heard, so it's important for school leaders to acknowledge them, because we truly want to address their concerns or questions in a way that results in positive relationships" (Paull, 2015).

Knowing everyone's strengths

In effective schools, regardless of the school's structure, the most senior leaders take responsibility for leading teaching and learning. This includes using resources effectively by knowing your staff's strengths, plugging skill gaps and minimising any weaknesses. Sometimes the last of these requires a performance discussion, or ultimately coming to the conclusion that a person in a certain position does not have the skills necessary to fulfil the current role. Potentially difficult conversations will follow.

Empathy, compassion and respect

When difficult conversations need to be had, make sure that these are not held in public but are carried out confidentially and without undermining anyone. Make sure to conduct any sensitive discussions with a heavy dose of empathy, compassion and respect. This should be for every single conversation a leader has, since such qualities allow trust to be fostered and more open and frank discussions to take place. This allows all parties to move forward in a collaborative way. Avoid sensitive discussions in front of other colleagues, and avoid choosing favourites, which only fosters resentment and staff-room gossip. Your empathy, compassion and respect should apply to everyone equally.

Coach; don't tell

Top leaders do not bark out orders but employ the "coach approach," concentrating on strengths and finding ways to build on them so they meet educational objectives. As mentioned above, this includes identifying skills or performance gaps.

With any coaching session, the meeting should always start off with positive re-enforcement. Starting a meeting with what is wrong or with overt criticism will mean that any constructive coaching messages intended for the recipient will not be heard.

The concept of coaching is embraced within the educational sector through initiatives such as the National College for Teaching and Leadership's initiative inviting women teachers at all stages of their career to develop their leadership skills through coaching (2016). The coaching is at no cost to participants. The same organisation provided guidelines in 2010 on fostering coaching in schools. This GovUK document is another good starting point if you'd like to learn more about this technique.

Lead through example

Set a good example to your students by being a fine, upstanding expert in your profession and demonstrating high levels of commitment. It follows that leaders in education must also demonstrate this with their managers, peers and team members. It may mean rolling up the sleeves to plug gaps. Take the odd lesson or two, or take the lead on an initiative instead of delegating it. This fosters team spirit and togetherness.

Prioritising and delegation

The art of good leadership is knowing what the priorities are and assigning projects and tasks to those best and most likely to be motivated to carry them out. It's accountability versus responsibility. Delegation is not losing responsibility for what needs to be done. The accountability is there, although the responsibility to fulfil it lies in the hands of another. The key skill here is ensuring that those best suited to the task are brought on board to complete it, enhancing their job satisfaction and promoting wellbeing. Everyone feels good when they accomplish tasks that they enjoy and do well.

Have fun!

This is not merely having a night out with the team, it's also building a fun environment within the educational setting. Even when it isn't the holiday season, these gestures don't go amiss. Invite ideas from your staff on group activities that they think would foster team spirit and togetherness. Consider team events outside of the school or as part of inset-day itineraries. These could be weekend team-building events, the odd evening meal out and so forth. The relationship and trust built during these activities will go a long way to foster a sense of belonging in the school team.

Build trust through consistency

Trust isn't bought, it's earned. If you are already following these suggested essential ingredients of fostering staff wellbeing, then you will be going a long way to building trust within your team. However, if you organise weekends away and the evening meals with your team, but you fail to communicate or inspire your vision, or you fail to treat everyone equally and with respect, then you are likely to have a low level of trust and poor staff wellbeing regardless of your other efforts. Earning real trust requires the full commitment.

Set team goals, not individual goals

If you promote individual goals over team goals, this does not foster staff wellbeing. Team goals foster a team's working with a sense of shared purpose. As Dennis Sparks says in his article "Strong Teams, Strong Schools" (2013): "Schools rise and fall based on the quality of the teamwork that occurs within their walls. Well-functioning leadership and teaching teams are essential to the continuous improvement of teaching and learning."

Share your own shortcomings

Sharing your own mistakes openly with staff fosters open and honest communication. It shows that you are not afraid to admit you're not perfect either, and it emphasises that everything is based on a learning process. Mistakes are inevitable in any learning process; it is important that you also explain how you learned from them.

Final thoughts

Final thoughts about how leaders can leave a lasting, positive effect on the running of a school and thus staff wellbeing is in recent research carried out in the UK educational sector by Harvard Business Review. According to this research, the most successful type of leader is the architect, who redesigns the school to create the right environment for its teachers and the right school for its community. Amongst other things, the architect improves teaching and leadership by introducing coaching, mentoring and development programs (Hill et al., 2017). Other archetypes presented by this article include the surgeon, soldier, accountant or philosopher. To find out more about these different types of leaders, and to find out which role you fit into (architect, surgeon, soldier, accountant or philosopher), read the full Harvard Business Review article. You may well be able to think of more initiatives as a leader, but these top 10 tips can get you started.

How we can help

  • Helping you
    Sometimes work (or just life) can be tough. A challenging student, an Ofsted inspection, personal financial worries; there are many stresses on those who work in education. That's why we offer free, confidential help and support, no matter what your problem.
  • Helping your staff
    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.

 

 

References

  • Hill, A., Mellon, L., Laker, B., & Goddard, J. (Updated 2017, 3 March). The one type of leader who can turn around a failing school. Retrieved 18 September 2017 from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org
  • Keeble, D. R. (2016). Effective primary teaching practice 2016. London: Teaching Schools Council (TSC). Retrieved 18 September 2017 from https://www.tscouncil.org.uk
  • National College for Teaching and Leadership (2016, 9 September). Women leading in education: Get leadership coaching. Retrieved 18 September 2017 from https://www.gov.uk
  • National College for Teaching and Leadership (2010, 1 July). Coaching for teaching and learning: A practical guide for schools. Retrieved 18 September 2017 from https://www.gov.uk
  • Paull, C. (2015, 14 August). From the lens of a school leader: 4 key ways to effectively communicate with your school staff. Retrieved 18 September 2017 from MI Choice: http://mi-choice.com
  • Sparks, D. (2013, April). Strong teams, strong schools. Journal of Staff Development, 34(2), 28–30. Retrieved 18 September 2017 from Ealing Grid for Learning (EGfL): https://www.egfl.org.uk
  • TeachFirst (2016, November). The school leadership challenge: 2022. Retrieved 18 September 2017 from https://www.teachfirst.org.uk

Additional reading

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.