Staff wellbeing: Time and money

source: @nikkotations at unsplash.com

In 2019 I blogged about the increasing concerns about teacher and school leader wellbeing. I’ve lately been thinking a lot about wellbeing in education. It was brought into stark focus during the pandemic reality of 2020. I wrote in this journal 2020 article in the Journal of Professional Capital and Community that:

At this time more than ever, we must consider humans before outcomes, students before results and wellbeing before learning.

I discussed wellbeing in this 2020 contribution for the special edition e-book Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined: Responses from education’s frontline during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, published by the World Innovation Summit for Education, Salzburg Global Seminar and the Diplomatic Courier. In it, I stated the following.

We need to put safety, health, and wellbeing before formal education, curriculum, pedagogy, and especially assessment. Community, connectedness and relationships need to be at the forefront of education decisions and practices. This is a time to focus first on the humanity in education, from a position of seeking to understand and accommodate for the complex circumstances of those in our communities.

Wellbeing continues to become a hotter and hotter topic in education.

Wellbeing is noted as part of a ‘right driver’ in Michael Fullan’s new paper ‘The right drivers for whole system success’ in which he argues that wellbeing and learning are inextricably integrated into a foundation based on equity, knowledge, engagement and connection to the world. The Association of Independent Schools of NSW has just launched a 12-18 month program on navigating whole school wellbeing. This week the Gallop Inquiry released its findings around the complexity and workload intensification of teaching, and the need for teachers to have more time to plan, collaborate, and monitor student learning. Ask any teacher what they need more of and the answer will be: time!

Yesterday, a UK educator tweeted about the use of school funds to send care packages to staff while they are in lockdown and working from home. A long thread of replies ensued, with a range of responses from ‘school leadership do/should pay for gifts and wellbeing initiatives for staff out of their own pockets’ to ‘this is improper use of school funds’ and ‘staff wellbeing is more than buying treats’. Many tweeters invoked the Nolan Principles, suggesting that buying food or paying for things that might be considered wellbeing initiatives for staff constituted unethical or dishonest use of school funds, or that every dollar or pound spent in a school needs to have a direct impact on student outcomes.

In my view (although it is something most of us do or have done), teachers shouldn’t be expected to buy classroom materials out of their wages, nor should school leaders have to provide staff wellbeing initiatives out of their own salaries. Teaching is a caring profession, but the trope of the hero teacher who sacrifices their own needs, money and health for the good of their students is unhelpful. Educators need to give themselves permission to fit their own oxygen masks first, so that they can serve others. Schools should be able to consider ways in which they can take care of their staff, appropriate to their own budget and context. Looking after staff takes time and money. A school leader’s time spent checking in with a staff member; a thank you card; tea and coffee in the staff room; providing relief cover for a teacher’s lesson so they can collaborate with colleagues, attend a course or address a personal matter; a morning tea; the flu (or coronavirus!) vaccine; investing in professional learning. At what point does spending money on staff and on developing the wider culture of a school, become controversial?

Wellbeing is one of the pillars of my school’s new strategic plan, so we are having robust discussions about how to support the wellbeing of all in our community, and about what being well really means. Our discussions are about culture, feel, belonging, workload, teamness, a sense of purpose and togetherness. Wellbeing and learning are the foundation of my school’s framework for our K-12 learners to explicitly engage with those attributes found to be those of people who continue to learn and engage in meaningful work throughout their lives.

Wellbeing (as well as learning and teaching) is at the heart of our new staff development suite, which is based in Martin Seligman’s PERMA framework, as a way to support staff’s (P) positive emotions, (E) engagement in valuable work, (R) rewarding relationships, (M) meaning in their work, and (A) achievement and feeling of accomplishment. The suite of staff development options is based not on evaluation and surveillance, but on a sense of belonging, authentic connectedness, vibrant professional community, purposeful collaboration, central purpose, and meaningful feedback. It is focused on the voice, choice, ownership and agency of staff. It takes time and investment in people. Professional learning, too, costs money, and is part of improving student outcomes and teacher expertise, but also about wellbeing through valuing and growing staff, and supporting them to reach their goals.

When it comes to staff wellbeing, as I noted in the above recent blog post,

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Trust, too, is key to the wellbeing of the teaching profession. Schools need to cultivate cultures of trust. Teachers need to be trusted by parents, the media, and government. Trusting teachers to be the professional experts they are allows teachers to focus on their core business of teaching and supporting the students in their care. Looking after staff is key to retaining them within positive cultures of people working together for the good of their community. Nuanced attention to staff wellbeing takes intentionality, thoughtfulness, a framework for decision making, time, and often money.

Staff development and wellbeing

Source: @suju pixabay.com

Wellbeing is an area in schools that is becoming increasingly important, including the wellbeing of staff. Being well, and being an organisation that supports staff to be well, is complex. This is especially true in schools where work comes in intense, relentless waves, and caring for others can deplete staff resources for looking after themselves.

Staff wellbeing is more than free food and fitness classes, although these can be nice to have. Nurturing staff wellbeing might take various forms, such as providing initiatives that support staff health, modelling sustainable work-life behaviours, maintaining predictable timelines, ensuring clear policies and procedures, streamlining communication, considering workload issues, ensuring a range of internal and external support mechanisms are available for staff, recognising staff efforts, celebrating staff achievements, leading with empathy, and making decisions with the needs of staff in mind.

Meaningful work, a sense of community, shared values, and a feeling of ‘fit’, are also important. Investing in staff professional learning, valuing staff by supporting them in pursuing their own goals, and working to develop staff sense of belonging to community, are ways to foster staff wellbeing. We feel buoyed when we feel that through our work we are part of something bigger than ourselves and that we are making a positive difference beyond ourselves. We want to know that what we do matters. And we want to be able to contribute professionally without eroding our own wellbeing or burning out.

Collaborative, vibrant cultures of trust allow staff to flourish. I have often quoted an excerpt from Susan Rosenholtz’s 1991 book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She describes educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (p. 208). I love to imagine a school’s staff as a mass of fuel rods, huddled together and buzzing with an energy that feeds the group, creating fission that results in a chain reaction of positive changes rippling through the organisation.

Somehow, in 2020, in my teaching and learning portfolio at my school, we managed to review and redesign our student school reports, craft a Teaching and Learning Philosophy, and develop Learner Attributes that describe the qualities of lifelong learners that we aim to cultivate in our students. All while working with Executive and Council to finalise the school Strategic Plan. In addition, we managed to develop a refreshed staff development model, which I am thrilled to launch with staff this week as they return for the new academic year.

Importantly, the staff development model has emerged out of collaboration and consultation with staff in all areas of the school, in all sorts of roles (from teaching to administration), from multiple faculties and multiple year levels. The meetings I had last year with groups of staff passionate about the professional growth of themselves and others were always energising and left me filled with excitement for the possibilities. Emerging as it did from people within the school, I am pleased that the resulting model aligns with the best of what research says provides meaningful opportunities for professional learning, and with my own belief that staff development should be focused on growth and support, and on trusting and empowering staff to develop themselves in ways that are meaningful to them.

The staff development model builds on what has existed previously. Key features include:

  • Alignment with school strategy while honouring individual needs.
  • Opportunities for all staff, not only teaching staff. We are and educational organisation committed to the development of all our people, so staff development needs to reflect this.
  • A focus on staff individuality and agency. The COVA principles apply: choice, ownership, voice, and authenticity.
  • A range of development and review processes that include self-reflection against professional standards, goal setting, easy-to-generate feedback from appropriate stakeholders, and intentional, supportive conversation.
  • A suite of options from which staff can choose, with differentiation for career stage, professional interests, and vocational aspirations. These options were developed by a range of staff who know their colleagues and the school culture. I’m eager to see how they are received and taken up.

I look forward to building on the foundation of this model, and working iteratively with staff to improve it over time based on staff needs and feedback. Tomorrow, staff return and we will feel the buzz of the beginning of another year, grateful to be together (although at a physical distance appropriate for our COVID-19 times) and ready for what lies ahead.

Pause

Bigurda Trail by Deborah Netolicky

walking alone on the Bigurda Trail last week (Kalbarri, Western Australia)

Last year I worked with a coach. During one of our first conversations, he said, “It sounds like what you need is to pause.”

That sounded right.

“Yes!” I said. “I do pause, though. I often pause, see where I’m at, re-assess, and make a new list for what to do next.”

My coach’s wry smile stopped me. He said, “That’s an active pause, but I think you’re talking about the need for a non-active pause.”

A non-active pause? An actual pause where nothing happens but the act of pausing? I wondered what that looked like. I had spent so long working on habits and systems for efficiency and productivity that I struggled to consider the why and what this kind of pausing.

My coach emailed me the goal of ‘finding pause and energy’ after our conversation. He additionally suggested the following actions.

  1. Take moments through the course of the day to pause and just be present—not think about what’s just happened or anticipate the next step.
  2. Identify and prioritise some opportunities to just ‘be’ with husband and friends—put some energy back into those aspects of life.
  3. Identify what ‘energises’ in work and outside—perhaps identify moments in the past (at various stages) when you felt most energised.

He also sent me Adam Fraser’s framework for finding the ‘third space’ and a link to this youtube clip on ‘the third space’ (the micro transition between one activity or role and the next).

Ok, I thought. I can work on pausing. I immediately changed the mini-blackboard message in my office from ‘start now’ to ‘pause, breathe, be’. It reminded me about finding pauses in my day, but the challenge was actually taking them!

Yoga has always helped me tap into ways to be present. Last year, I began flotation tank floating, which showed me the power of sensory deprivation, of unplugging from sounds, sights and from the feeling that at every moment I should be doing something useful and productive.

Yet while I could schedule gym sessions and floats, I still found it difficult to find small ways each day to tune in to pausing or being present.

At the beginning of this year I talked to a friend whose motto for ordering coffee was to ‘have it there’. That is, when he orders coffee from a café, he takes the time to sit and enjoy it there, before moving on to the next part of his day. I wondered about the impact of ‘have it there’, instead of ‘drink it on the run’, or ‘multi-task to save time’, or ‘have it while driving or engaging with a computer or device’.

I committed this year to eating lunch away from my desk. When I’m feeling under pressure I tend to eat and work, but I decided it was important that I find 15-40 minutes per day to sit, alone or with colleagues, and mindfully eat something. I have broken that commitment twice only so far this year. I told colleagues about my lunch promise, so they have helped to keep me accountable. More than once someone has walked past my office and either invited me to sit with them, or asked, “You’re not eating lunch at your desk, are you?” So I have ended up with a little lunchtime community, as well as a pause in my day.

I have also tried to find a few minutes each day to breathe mindfully. Sometimes I find these minutes at work, sometimes at home, and sometimes just before I go to sleep. On occasion I turn off the music in my car and drive in silence. I go to the gym three times per week and try to find other activity on other days, with varying degrees of success. I have been floating in flotation tanks about every 6 weeks.

Despite my attempts at finding pause, and my focus on light-ness, I finished Term 1 feeling rushed and frantic. Last week I took leave from work, during the school holidays. During the week I tried to focus on slow, deliberate living focused on relationships and experiences, rather than goals and actions.

I read fiction in the sun. I walked. Contemplated. Embraced stillness and movement. I stayed out of social media discussions about education. I didn’t write. I didn’t read for work. I gave myself permission to eat a nutritious breakfast, and to sit and enjoy it. I played board games and had long conversations with my husband and children. I spent time outside, in nature, and alone. I hung out with friends and family. I enjoyed going to the gym and having a leisurely coffee afterwards, looking out over the ocean.

Pausing is difficult but what is even more difficult is prioritising it as important rather than ‘nice to have’. What seems so possible during a holiday is challenging to bring into the busyness of everyday working-parenting-living life.

Where do you, or where could you, find a pause in your day, your week, your month?

Doing even better things

My word for 2018 is metamorphosis, which for me is a lot about letting go. I’ve been thinking about what ingrained habits, automatic behaviours, and stale dreams, I can shed this year as I move towards my next zero birthday and my anniversary of ten years since I returned to Australia from the UK. To move into metamorphosis right now feels like I need endings before I can think about any butterfly-esque new beginnings.

I’ve been thinking on what Professor Dylan Wiliam often says:

We need to prevent people from doing good things, to give them time to do even better things.

It’s not that I am filling my days and nights with wasteful things. I do many fun, productive, worthwhile things. In fact, perhaps part of my problem is my constant feeling that every minute I spend must be worthwhile, as though an unproductive minute is a wasted minute. It was my personal trainer who challenged me to reconsider my downtime. He said my health is being affected by an unceasing stress response cycle and that my body is constantly overloaded with adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.

I have gotten into some not-so-helpful habits, probably ones that working or studying parents often get into. It started in 2011 when I returned to work part-time after my first period of parental leave. My first child was 6 months old. I felt anxious that I might be perceived not to be working hard or long enough, or that I might be late responding to something, so I put my work email on my phone and responded to emails in the playground, in the supermarket queue, and in life’s cracks where I might previously have been daydreaming or looking around. Then in 2012, after having my second child, I returned to work again. I also enrolled full-time in my PhD (because: nerd bucket list!) and so I spent all my spare time (between work and parenting 2 children under 2) working on my doctorate. I managed to submit my thesis within 3 years of enrolling, and completed shortly afterwards, but I had set in motion a dangerous pattern. Once my PhD was done, I presented at more national and international conferences, and ramped up my academic and blog writing. I went from part-time work back to full-time work.

My downtime had become a different kind of work. I wasn’t having breaks. I was switching from teaching work to leadership work to domestic work to research work. Or I was using my non-work non-productive time to prepare for the next bout of work or productivity. Or I was so tired that in the evenings I would halfheartedly watch bad tv or trawl social media in the name of ‘time to myself’. I continued with all of this through some very rough personal patches and did my utmost not to let work, home, or doctorate, be affected. I had some good tricks, like seeing my PhD as intellectual ‘me time’, using calendars and to-do lists with military precision, and switching off from the rest of the world when I was playing with my kids. But is checking social media or writing a blog after the kids have gone to bed the best way to spend my time? Is it helping me to wind down for a good night’s sleep? Multiple work trips and conference presentations can be rewarding and invigorating, but can also negatively impact family time and lead to more stressful work weeks before and after. Is moving from the paid work of my days to the unpaid writing of my nights and weekends stoking my internal fire, or just exhausting me in a relentless cycle of Doing The Things.

What Things am I doing, and why?

I have begun to pare back my obligations. I have turned my email and social media notifications off and buried Facebook in the back of my phone. I’ve withdrawn from my Book Club. I’m reconsidering how often to post on this blog and am thinking perhaps ‘when it takes my fancy’ would be ok, rather than keeping myself to a schedule. I am figuring out how to protect my most productive time for my most important projects and how I might schedule in regular silence and stillness. My trainer has recommended flotation tank therapy.

I’m hoping that lightening my load will help me to stop doing some good things in order to do even better things. Some of those even better things are those I am passionate about (like writing what I’m burning to say, editing an important book, or serving the community via board-member type positions) and some are in the name of self-care, like getting a good night’s sleep, protecting a regular exercise schedule, and working out how to properly stop.

For wellbeing & productivity: breathe. pause. be.

Come forth into the light of things, let Nature be your teacher. ~ William Wordsworth

Shark Bay, by @debsnet

Like many educators, I love my work and I love to work. Not only that, as a PhD researcher I love my PhD, treating it like a luxury, a privilege and precious ‘me time’.

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

While I’ve acknowledged before that we need to give ourselves permission to take a break, I’m often not very good at it. Sometimes I have to force myself to take a break.

long shadows in red dirt, by @debsnet

After an eleven week term, at the end of which I spent an entire weekend slogging away at my thesis, I was obsessed. Obsessed because all my waking and teeth-grinding-sleeping moments were taken up with work or PhD. My thoughts about my doctoral research were permeating every crevice of my mind and each nook of my time.

Hamelin Pool Stromatolites, by @debsnet

I was delighting in this immersion. I was happy to be thinking about the thesis on my walks, in the car, in the shower, in my sleep. I felt like it was a super-productive push-to-the-end mindset. My mind was on all the time. PhD-wise, I was excited about my findings, my conclusions, my writing. But I was also exhausted.

Monkey Mia, by @debsnet

And then school holidays were upon me, and with them a pre-planned outback road trip with my husband and my two-under-five. I considered taking my doctoral work with me. I have so much to do, I thought. A thesis to revise, a conference paper to write. Just imagine how much reading and editing I could get done in long car trips or at the campsite.

Shell Beach, by @debsnet

As someone who considers blogging or participating in education Twitter chats as ‘down time’ (I know – how relaxing!), how could I contemplate a complete break? How could I go from an escape dedicated to working on my PhD ~ my recent PhD writing and revision retreat ~ to a trip taking an enforced break from it?

Monkey Mia dolphin, by @debsnet

I knew it was healthier to take a rest. Pause. Cut the cord for six days of just being, exploring and adventuring. Breathe.

fiction pile on Shell Beach, by @debsnet

Thinking back to my 3 words which set my intentions for this year, taking an outdoor-family-faraway break fits best with presence. Embodying human being rather than human doing. It was about being with my husband and kids, and being in nature.

green turtle, Shark Bay, by @debsnet

There are some studies, like this and this, which explore how and why being in nature makes us feel better, improves wellbeing and enhances mental health. Anecdotally, most of us would attest to feeling ourselves melting into a more relaxed state when we spend time grounding ourselves outdoors. Curling our toes in soil, sand or snow.

Straya animals, by @debsnet

I’ve written before about spaces and places that make me feel grounded, inspired or joyful, but this trip was to somewhere I hadn’t been before: Shark Bay, a UNESCO World-Heritage listed peninsula on the most westerly point of Australia.

iron corrugations, by @debsnet

I allowed myself to luxuriate in this time out and time away. I read fiction (not academic texts or student papers!). We hand fed dolphins, visited a beach covered in pristine white shells as far as the eye could see, stomped through red dirt, went star gazing, saw the world’s oldest living fossils. The pictures in this post give you a sense of what I experienced.

Ocean Park, Shark Bay, by @debsnet

And so I have returned feeling intellectually and physically invigorated. Ready for the next round of PhD and school work, including teaching and leading my school’s new coaching model. I’ve stepped out of my obsessive space for enough time to allow for some recovery, but I’m aware that I need to nestle back into a place of productivity.

wire against blue sky, by @debsnet

As when I returned from Bali earlier this year, I’m hoping I can hold onto my present feeling of increased clarity and renewed wellbeing, channelling this into self-care as well as productivity.

Thong Shack, Denham, by @debsnet