What would happen if you listened to your staff and students about what their reality is like, and then wrote a school-wide wellbeing framework and curriculum that responded specifically to their needs? At Indie School Elizabeth in South Australia, a targeted approach to addressing the complex wellbeing needs of students led to a brave reimagining of staff wellbeing strategies and processes. In today’s Q&A, Assistant Head of School Kim Brady and Head of School Scott Dirix explain how they went about addressing staff wellbeing, the research they used to inform their approach, and the impact it has had.
Could you tell us about your school and its context?
Indie School Elizabeth is a small independent school for young people aged 15-19 years who are educationally at risk due to disengagement in schooling. We are located in the northern suburbs of Adelaide, in one of the lowest socio-economic regions in Australia. Our students have a diverse range of social, emotional and behavioural needs, and many have diagnosed special needs.
Why did you decide to write a wellbeing program in the first place?
One of the strategies we employ as leaders is ‘deep listening’. We spend deliberate time with our staff and students listening to their ideas and what’s important to them. Our ‘deep listening’ with students made us aware of a range of issues that could be encompassed under the banner of ‘wellbeing’. Mental health was critically low, community health resources had not been effective, emotional literacy was poor, many of our young people were utilising maladaptive coping strategies and engaging in risk-taking behaviour, and eating and living habits were unhealthy. Responding to these needs quickly became our most important work.
Your approach to improving student wellbeing began by first addressing staff wellbeing. How did you do this? What did it look like in practice?
Over a holiday break, we undertook some reading (Evidence-Based Approaches in Positive Education: Implementing a Strategic Framework for Wellbeing in Schools, 2015) where we learned, amongst other things, that the outcome of our student wellbeing initiatives would be directly dependent upon staff wellbeing. Thus, we planned several professional learning days to explore wellbeing initiatives for both staff and students.
We examined why we do the work we do, learned about the PERMA framework (Seligman, 2011), reflected upon our results from the VIA Character Strengths Assessment, and undertook research into evidence-based strategies. As leaders, we proposed that our school will be, ‘The Good Workplace: a place of work that provides meaning, which is characterised by a moral vision enacted in day-to-day practice, and places people in jobs that allow them to do what they do best’ (Peterson, 2006).
We launched our staff self-care plans, which utilise our Top 5 character strengths to frame strategies to place ourselves in the ‘Flow Channel’ at work. Having ourselves and our team in the flow channel (a state where a person feels strong, in effortless control, and at the peak of their abilities (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) is the pathway to what Seligman calls ‘flourishing’, an enhanced state of wellbeing and performance. Our staff self-care plans also outline our personal signs of stress, and the support we require from colleagues when stress occurs. We list self-care strategies in physical, psychological, relationship and workplace domains, and then share these amongst the team, offering suggestions and support to one another.
The highly collegial manner in which our team engaged in the self-care plan process, and the feedback given, then led us to rethink our professional learning plans. We built upon the standard learning plan template (goals, strategies, links to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, feedback from performance reviews) and asked staff to reflect upon areas for growth from our collaboratively-developed list of staff values. We have also added to the ‘things I need to learn’ section, a ‘things I want to learn’ section, which asks staff what learning might put them in the flow channel at work. We then held an ‘Ideas for Growth’ forum where we offered suggestions to each other about areas for improvement.
What research did you draw on to do this work? How did it inform your approach?
Professor Kitty te Riele’s concept of ‘a pedagogy of listening’ (Putting the Jigsaw Together, 2014) underpins our deep listening philosophy. Simpson, Peterson & Smith’s Critical Program Components for Students with Emotional and Behavioural Disorders (2010) influences our work daily, but in the context of wellbeing, reinforces our belief that staff need to be at the centre if any educational program is to be successful. We used Helen Timperley’s Who is my Class? to ensure we had a direct focus on wrapping the wellbeing program around the needs of our students, and, ultimately, our framework is based on Martin Seligman’s PERMA model.
What have the results been thus far? Have you noticed any improvements?
One of the unexpected benefits of our work with staff wellbeing has been the establishment of an extraordinarily high level of collegiality. We share our wellbeing and professional learning plans openly, and challenge and support each other in equal measure. This has generated trust and understanding amongst the team and bonded us together. Because of this high level collegiality, we have established a culture and expectation of ‘real talk’ amongst the team. This translates to our work with students where we expect them to be real with us and to approach issues authentically, which has flow on effects for their overall wellbeing.
Our teachers tell us the following:
Since the implementation of the wellbeing focus, I am more aware of my own energy and the influence that it can have on the learning environment. I have been a more consistent and even presence this year and because of this, I can help students co-regulate their emotions.
I have noticed that our students are now more open and honest with us.
It’s been incredible coming into a work environment that does wellbeing right. I have seen students open up in the realisation that they are truly cared about and valued.
Do you have any advice for other schools wanting to improve staff wellbeing in their own contexts? Have you learned any lessons along the way that you’d like to share?
Wellbeing at work starts with people knowing what their job is and how to do it well. One of the best things we did early on was work collaboratively with staff to create active role descriptions. This, and opportunities for regular, specific feedback about how they are inhabiting their roles, forms the basis of staff wellbeing.
Open dialogue and high levels of collegiality are both unexpected benefits and integral to the success of our wellbeing philosophy. The ability to do ‘real talk’ and have feedback given in all directions amongst staff and leadership, is key. For students, ‘real talk’ has strengthened the culture of our school. It is not uncommon to hear students check one another with a, ‘Hey, we don’t do that here!’ or, ‘Are you regulated? You need to take a break.’ Our students have become the keepers of our culture and guardians of each other’s (and our) wellbeing.
Resist the urge to implement pre-made wellbeing programs. Although these can be used to inform or enhance a school program, we found there was more value in doing the ‘deep listening’ to properly understand student needs, and then write a tailored program that wrapped around the students, rather than expecting the students to wrap themselves around a pre-made program.
Invest in leader wellbeing. We realise this is counter-intuitive for school leaders who are used to focusing on students and staff, however, we began with a student-focused approach, went to a staff approach, threw everything we had into it, and ended up exhausted. Too late in the piece did we consider our own wellbeing, but once we did, when we developed a leader wellbeing framework and stuck to it, we found that we were able to lead with more energy and authenticity.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper & Row
Peterson, C., & Park, N. (2006). Character strengths in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 27(8), 1149-1154. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.398
Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Free Press
Simpson, R. L., Peterson, R. L., & Smith, C. R. (2011). Critical educational program components for students with emotional and behavioral disorders: Science, policy, and practice. Remedial and Special Education, 32(3), 230-242.
te Riele, K. (2014) Putting the jigsaw together: Flexible learning programs in Australia: Final report. Victoria Institute for Education, Diversity and Lifelong Learning.
Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development: Best evidence synthesis iteration. Ministry of Education.
White, M., & Murray, S. (Eds.). (2015). Evidence-based approaches in positive education: Implementing a strategic framework for wellbeing in schools. Springer.
Does your school have a staff wellbeing policy? What support networks and programs are in place for staff? What impact does this have on student wellbeing?
As a school leader, how often do you seek staff input and engagement on the topic of staff wellbeing and mental health? How do you demonstrate that you’ve listened to the feedback from staff?