Wellbeing in schools
Thank goodness you’re a people person he said as he strolled out the office. I sat in surprise and rolled the phrase around my head … A people person.
It continued to float there for some time, I had never thought of myself as a people person, I wasn’t sure I wanted this label. I liked my privacy, isolation and was constantly irritated so I thought, I didn’t suffer fools gladly. How dare this man sum me up as a woolly people person. This was in a previous position where I had temporarily taken over from a head who had been ‘removed’. The staff (not a team by this point) were on their knees when she went , soul destroying lack of wellbeing had resulted in a team of near zombies who were off work constantly, tearful, snappy with the children and desperate for out. It had taken energy to give them purpose and pride again, to see how fabulous they were.
I had however misunderstood in these early days of school leadership what a people person was or in more recent terms someone whom sees the true relationship between team wellbeing, motivation and ultimately successful school improvement.
There is a dynamic in a school that is tangible. You can sense how content the team are from being amongst them. In my opinion, or my experience this isn’t created by giving the team everything they want, saying yes to every demand, being best friends with all. It is by creating a collective sense of integrity. The team understand expectations, what’s required and the need to give your all with honesty and passion. It’s the relentless role modelling my leadership of a consistent single minded determination to be fair, firm and empathetic. Ultimately though everyone in a school should put one thing before everything else, the children, the whole child. Pastorally, educationally and that is sacrosanct.
Wellbeing in school is a many layered and deeply embedded thread that is constantly worked on and reflected upon. The top layer, the one you see is only the fluffy butter icing on a very substantial and rich cake if it is to work on anything but a superficial level. When it works you can measure it in not only smiles, laughter and dancing but tangible attendance records, staff turnover and recruitment figures. The hard relentless slog is worth it.
Wellbeing being a priority seeps into every decision we make at school. All the team, just like the children, need to be in the correct place to learn, teach and develop. Class placement is thought about carefully not in terms of friendship groups necessarily but the yin and yang of personality. I need to know each member of the team well enough to know who they will work well with, support and challenge. It goes without saying that I consider recruitment to be one of the most important jobs we do. Each time we recruit regardless of the role required I carefully consider the mix of personalities we have in the team already. I view it as I do making a cake. I’m a keen baker and understand the need for balance. Strong fiery characters are brilliant if the balance is gained with calm reflective members. As a school we love a diverse mix of personality and encourage debate and discussion when done with understanding and a view to each other’s self confidence.
We get it wrong, I get it wrong, but it is tackled. The team are wonderful at role modelling the way we treat each other and intervene when required but there are times when someone’s natural disposition doesn’t lend itself to team work and if this is causing upset we support.
Much of the support the team offers is around awareness of each other, being mindful of each other’s quirks and personality traits. We do buddy scheme every other term. Tea and coffee is on tap… the arguments of who’s paid in the fund are not worth the trouble. Staff nights out are organised but optional. Various groups go out together too, that’s okay obviously friendships are organic. We have weekly Thank Crunchie it’s Friday, which I regularly forget. Birthdays are remembered and made evident so everyone can wish them many happy returns.
As a head it’s about being present, judging the mood and taking action. I hope to notice if someone’s having a bad time if not I’m usually told. I’m not one to hear all the details or sit with tea and sympathy. In my opinion that’s not usually my role, it is my place to ensure they do have access to a caring ear, outside support if required, a place to bolt if it gets to much. This is however balanced with a need to minimise school disruption and drama. We cultivate a no gossip culture and work hard to eliminate the corner complainers so anyone’s natural curiosity about other people’s dips on the roller coaster of life is short lived. We are all human and over time I have seen everyone in the team in a bad place at sometime.
We have trained mental first aiders on the site and whilst we don’t make a big deal about mental health as some do we are very much accepting of the fact that everyone is on spectrum and some of our team need more support at different times, that’s okay. It’s largely private and keeping an eye on each other’s moods helps to support before a dip occurs.
I believe wellbeing at school is about not getting lost in the progress machine. School leadership is a many faceted diamond. You can not profess to be passionate about the well being of children up to eleven and then treat the adults like robots. Just like in a class there is a rainbow of personalities, each with their nuggets of gold to bring to the mix.
It’s a challenge when one of those personalities is negative. I find that usually they are self contained ranters who always have something to say. They cast out shards of negative comments to other team members who, luckily, ignore them but the issue comes when a normally buoyant team member is low and then is more susceptible to the negativity of the other. Luckily in a team of 50 ish I have only two or three negative personalities, you don’t need a psychology degree to spot them they are the jelly fish type all soft and smiley on the front with a sting behind, swimming around looking for scraps of an issue to magnify by dropping seeds of discontentment. It is of course my job to keep an eye on the whole picture but my team are just as aware as I am and tend to close ranks when required.
It’s not at all about the schemes, freebies or policies in a workplace it’s about core values. I am aware that the success we have at school is due to the team we have. I am a facilitator and the precious nature of my lot does not escape me, I feel the accountability. I am responsible for learning, development and pastoral support for everyone in the building. I need to know everyone is doing okay, it’s not okay for someone to come to the school to be miserable. We have a clear consistent approach and this has been embedded over the years. Of course if someone joins the team and doesn’t like it then they can leave, it’s happened!
I do think it’s important to keep consistency in ethos, I care passionately about the wellbeing of the children in my school, stop, hold on …all children. Therefore it makes sense that if the team have children in primary school they should be allowed to go to their children’s sports days, Christmas concerts etc.
I am not a pushover I have a reputation of running a tight ship and staff attendance is exceptionally high at our school. Performance support and challenge is rigorous, lesson visits are regular and requirements for effective subject leadership non negotiable. But I am after all, it seems, a people person. I like the personalities in the team, I enjoy the interactions with them. I love seeing them develop grow and question. I smile at the raucous laughter, at the dancing down the corridor, at the times when someone will come in my office, shut the door and pack in more expletives than sardines in a can, smile say ‘thank you’ and walk out without me saying a word. This is my world, my people whom I respect and am in awe of.
We have many visitors and they always comment on the amount of smiles, laughter and obvious respect we have for each other. Ours is a school you walk around to lift your spirits to reaffirm that you are a part of a team with purpose. We are a team of individuals allowed to be themselves but required to work and act within high expectations and above all act with integrity. We are human and make mistakes.
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by Laura Knight
by Kyrstie Joslin
Reflective Headteacher in a large Junior school,wonderful children, superb team.