Understanding Wellbeing

Wellbeing was a word which wasn’t really mentioned in schools until a few years ago. Workload was seen to be part of the expectation and burnt-out staff par for the course. During the era of ‘Every Child Matters’ I frequently recall colleagues asking when they got the matter, especially when demands seemed to be spiralling and everyone was adding their own layer on top of the already complex workload.

I was pleased it becoming part of the conversation. Who could argue that making sure those working in schools, as well as those attending them, was a bad thing? How on earth could it go wrong?

But, as with many initiatives, go wrong it did. Wellbeing became a tick-box activity, and whilst it may be parody, waking up the SLT Newbie’s sage musings on Twitter, reminds us that many things like enforced yoga classes, mindfulness and breathing exercises, and announcements that staff wellbeing is your ‘own responsibility’ when you are sagging under a pile of marking are sadly still with us. All too frequently on a Friday afternoon, at the end of a very long week.

It was probably unsurprising then to see what happened when TES put out an old article from November 2019 on wellbeing, which suggested that staff teaching each other a new skill in CPD sessions would be a good approach to ensuring everyone felt happier in the workplace. All of our worries and cares would melt away if we just did more juggling together. Tired teachers were outraged and quickly the article disappeared, maybe never to surface again (if you want to see what the fuss was about it is here though). Not only was the advice there likely to increase workload and build resentment, but in these dark November days with mocks and the current backdrop of Covid issues, it was most certainly not the time as many pointed out.

I will admit to being party to what some issues around this though. I was instructed to arrange a one day INSET on wellbeing for all staff and I decided to spend the morning with a carousel of activities which centred on things like reducing marking, with people sharing some strategies for feedback they had found helpful, and opportunities to reflect on planning in ways which would gain back some time. At lunch Departments bought in a range of dishes to share and in the afternoon, everyone got to pick an activity to do. Some went for a run, some a walk, some read a book, some baked some cakes. I made sure everyone went home on time. Although I tried to focus the morning on finding ways to make workload more manageable, I am sure that actually letting people spend time in their teams, or even, head home earlier in the afternoon may have added more to the wellbeing of those involved.

But we live and learn, and I would like to believe that some may have appreciated elements of the approach I took, even if it could have been better.

However, if we are serious about wellbeing, and don’t want it to become about add-ons and activities, then we need to take some time to think about this more carefully.

There are many demands on schools which we can’t change. Working in schools is hard. It is intense and pressures come from all sides. We can rage against them and campaign for things to be different and I would never suggest people don’t do that as there is much that needs to change, but when it comes to being in schools there are things that people, especially leaders can do.

First, I think it is important to step outside of your own personal box. I know everyone is busy, but It can be so easy to forget what it is like to teach a five-period day, have a break duty, form time, still need to adjust plans for the next day and then head into a meeting or a parents’ evening. I know many leaders still teach, so do know what it is like to be there in front of the class and the demands that places on us, but nothing is quite the same as those five hours. It is a special kind of tired that, like childbirth, we quickly block out in the name of self-preservation when we don’t need to do it. Of course, much as we might like to ensure all teachers have a free every day, with funding as it is and recruiting teachers an ongoing challenge, that is not necessarily possible. However, at least exploring this in terms of timetabling it is worth considering. The same is true when it comes to break duties (is there a clever way we can actually allow people to go to the toilet and have a drink in their busy morning? It really shouldn’t be that hard).  

I am not for a second saying leadership is easy either. People are all trying to do their best, and there are many new demands that are placed on us once we take on those roles. Some of the decisions leader must make place an inordinate amount of pressure on those making them and I know it is impossible to please everybody.

But the bottom line is, having 30 students in a class waiting for you to teach them, is a whole different ball game. When the conveyor belt of students just keeps coming over the day, much as we might love it in the classroom, it is exhausting.

Leaders then need to try to see the school experience from a range of different perspectives. It is not okay to think, ‘well, I did my time on that- I know what it is like’, as we don’t know what it is like NOW. Nor do we know what it is like from a range of different subject perspectives, different roles in the school, including pastoral one, or with the different classes that people have in front of them now. The more you consider this, the more you realise that everyone has quite a unique experience around of working in a school, despite the commonalities.

That means it is important to take time to really explore what this looks like. Visit the lessons (in a non-judgemental way), talk to the staff, including those who may be line managing different groups, and really reflect on what that experience might be from their point of view. The more we understand the different demands people are experiencing in their day-to-day work, the better we consider how we can support their wellbeing in a meaningful way. That also means understanding the different challenges they may have beyond the working day. Child-care, supporting elderly parents, their own health and the complexities of being a human being are all things to recognise.

There is much though that leaders can do at a structural level to support real wellbeing. Centralised behaviour systems, reducing demands on planning by allowing time to collaborate, and being mindful of what every additional request might mean for that team or individual is important. That ‘just one more thing’ might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

We also shouldn’t be shy about giving people time to explore and reflect on their day-to-day work. When we start micro-managing people’s time, it becomes inevitable that issues to trust get in the way of true understanding and people quickly stop thinking more deeply as they aim to meet visible targets. Monitoring and measuring every minute of people’s time is counterproductive. If a meeting can be cancelled or can finish early, then do it. I also spoke to a leader recently who said he schedules some space in the working day to just sit and think. It makes him more productive and the decisions he makes are better as a result. I don’t think that is an unachievable or unwelcome goal for all.

Leaders then need to model good work life balance. There is a responsibility to show it is also okay to switch off. Emails sent in the evening is a contentious one as I personally preferred to send emails when it suited my working pattern, but considering the impact of sending that email on others, scheduling it, if need be, and ensuring that, unless an absolute emergency, there is no expectation to respond, is important. Arriving at work to see an avalanche of emails is not going to encourage people to switch off in the evening or make the best start to their working day.

Be aware too of what people are taking home and why, but also know who is staying in school and why too. For some staying back works well; knowing they can leave work behind once the door swings shut is important to them. However, there are still some questions to be asked around why they might be working an 11 or a 12-hour day as I know many do. Ushering them off-site might just make the work less visible could think us to thinking that means people aren’t taking huge quantities of work home with them, but that really comes back to the point about knowing people and allowing them to make their own decisions as professionals.

I don’t think this, like many things in schools, is an easy fix. Stripping back what we are doing and what we are asking others to do, can make a difference. Thinking about systems and how they might help streamline things and take the pressure off matters. Looking at the whole calendar and knowing where the pinch points are, even if they are unavoidable, is important. What is the requirement for reporting? What is the turnaround on marking assessment? Is this the same for all subjects? Is this a sensible requirement? Will it make a big difference to the students? Are there other ways we could do it if the payoff is not a really good one?

Most of all I think much of this comes back to caring deeply about staff. They are our most valuable resource, and if we want to improve things for our students these are the people who are going to make that happen. Know them, respect them, thank them, and try to understand them.

A cup of tea and a chat when the going gets tough, won’t go amiss although juggling and wellbeing games might though.

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