The Rocket Science of… Wellbeing

Posted on October 10, 2015

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This is the first of what may become a series of posts written principally because I am fascinated by the fireworks-like ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ I get whenever I write or speak on the subject of school leadership. Digital colleagues on Twitter, and those sometime analogue colleagues I meet at Saturday conferences, frequently have very kind words to say to me about the waffle I come out with and they tend to fall into one of two camps. 

The first, predominantly those from a non-leadership perspective, say things like “at last, someone who is saying something sensible”. The second, more often than not those with a leadership role, say things like “this is really interesting, I’ve never thought of it this way” and quite often go on to thank me for being so brave to say what I have said. 

In truth, they are both right but I have a lot more time for the former group because they’ve fully got where I’m coming from when I write or present. I don’t think I’ve written a word on this blogsite that is anything close to being rocket science and yet, if the members of the latter group are to be believed, these posts are the next generation of Trident. In some ways I hope so, and in others I very much hope not. 

I’m aware here that the start of this post may sound egotistical (perhaps the whole process of blogging is the very essence of egoism) but nothing could be further from my mind. I can’t abide the reification of (predominantly male) bloggers, which seems to me antithetical to the principles of both Twitter and the open source miracle of blogging. I make no claims to universal truth here, merely my universe’s truth, but I can’t bear the homogenisation of teaching and school leadership into a series of pseudo-scientific, technocratic, systematised and inauthentic Newtonian truisms that  divide our profession into those that are ‘on the bus’ and ‘off the bus’ when, in reality, we are all pootling along in our own jalopies down the B roads and country lanes of our own, highly organic school networks. 

And so, to come back to the point of this post before the whims of an extended metaphor take hold of me, this ironically titled ‘rocket science’ post has in its sights the (now DfE-sanctioned or even DfE-mandated) nonsense that is wellbeing. 

A little over ten years ago, the issue of wellbeing was riding high on the DCSF agenda too and, at that time, I worked with a colleague on a Wellbeing project in the school where I was an acting Deputy Head. She was very much the lead on it and did as fabulous a job as anyone could given the mood music of the time, one that all schools were expected to dance to: such was the way of the top-down National Strategies. 

The end results were a series of ‘cures’ for existing issues related to staff wellbeing, with a few dubiously preventative measures thrown in for good measure. A space was cleared in the staffroom for a ‘Wellbeing notice board’, mainly for SLT to take credit for the staff socials that would have happened anyway, regardless of the board itself. A Wellbeing INSET day or two were set aside, in which a good proportion of the training budget was set aside for Yoga and Reiki and other such things that had no right to belong on a professional training day, however much they were enjoyed by some colleagues at the time (and of course, the loss of financial resources was as nothing to the loss of intellectual resource from the theft of that vitally important staff development time). 

And so the list went on. Plenty of Wellbeing Audits to capture the state of the nation and to preserve in aspic for the day the inspection team came knocking, even though we all knew in reality that they would care not a jot for the state of the nation if the Gross Domestic Product of exam results were not up to scratch. We didn’t really scratch the surface of long-term wellbeing with a small ‘w’, even as we were putting a huge dent in the short-term, upper-case Wellbeing. 

In reality, we were probably doing more harm than good to small w wellbeing in a number of ways as a leadership team because we were devising and implementing ever-cleverer, structural and systemic processes that were antithetical to the reality of the human-scale, relationship-driven, organic entity that is a school. Big W Wellbeing was a figleaf and one that we should have been ashamed to wear, but we had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge that was the Blairite reform agenda and we couldn’t see ourselves as we really were. 

On timetabling, the single biggest factor in small w wellbeing, we had concentrated solely upon the perceived needs of the children (in reality their ‘need’ to be more efficient at passing exams) and had introduced a completely staggered school day. Staggered starts and ends to the day meant that KS3 lessons began at 8.15am and KS4 lessons ended at 4.00pm. What that meant for staff was that a number of days started early and finished late. Oh yes, they had some days they could start late and leave early, but that would be subject to the lessons they taught and the kids came first. Their personal and familial wellbeing would just have to cope somehow. 

We also opted to stagger breaks and lunches in order to optimise resources, and so lessons 2 and 3 always had breaks within them. Each was 100 minutes but some were split 10/90 or 90/10, and others 30/70 or 70/30. Most importantly these breaks were staggered for students not staff, with Y7 having an early sitting and Y11 having a late one. 

The impact of this staggering ‘staggering’ on staff small w wellbeing was at least fourfold. Those who taught Y7 and Y11 consecutively either had a stupidly long period between breaks or, if the other way around,  stupidly short period between them. Secondly, with some students pretty much always on breaks over a 250 minute chunk of the day, lessons were constantly being disrupted by ne’erdowells on the prowl to make mischief (hence the appallingly bad Mosquito Moment of this blogpost). Thirdly, with kids always on the move getting some of them back into split lessons was a nightmare, especially those ten minute slots at the end of lessons (what were we thinking?). 

And finally, but most importantly, with staff always on different breaks and lunches, that most vital component of small w wellbeing, the staffroom, became a ghost town  The spirits of once ribald conversation that lifted the gloom, of former peals of laughter that mended the broken, and of culled camaraderie rattled their chains in mockery of the two or three colleagues silently sipping their soup in the hopelessly dour half hour they had in which to fill their stomachs and the gap between servings of students. Perhaps some of them snorted into their soup at the sight of the wellbeing board in front of them. Certainly, ever fewer of them signed up for the staff socials because, like charity, staff socials start at the home that is the staffroom. 

The real failure of this Frankenstein’s monster of a timetable was that staff were telling us all along that it would have these unintended consequences, but it is an unfailing attribute of contemporary school leadership that we know how to hear without listening or listen without hearing. 

Such was also the case with another innovation we introduced at the same time as Big W Wellbeing, that of replacing detentions with ‘restorative justice’ style meetings between the offending students and their offended teachers. On paper this was a fully well-intentioned way of reducing recidivism. In reality as, once again our staff forewarned us, it was a highly cumbersome mechanism for having the same kids meet with the same staff on an almost weekly basis but, unlike detentions, with a perceived platform for airing their own grievances about how unfairly treated they were because they were expected to behave and work. It placed pupil and pedagogue on perceived parity and it was pants. And yet we persisted with it (what were we thinking?). 

How many staff left those meetings with their small w wellbeing enhanced, I wonder. Or how many felt that their adult authority, their most fundamental mechanism for doing their job well, had been eroded. How many of them, during their once-a-year, school-funded massage session were having knots in their muscles painfully worked out that we had put there? Big W Wellbeing as a salve for the bodies of staff and as a salve for the consciences of school leaders. 

You see, for all my fine words on this blogsite and at these conferences, there are scores of skeletons in my leadership closet, and most of these are the corpses of commonsense approaches that have been blown up, burnt to ashes or broken apart by my participation (either at centre stage or on the fringes) of rocket science experiments. 

In reality, small w wellbeing is far from being rocket science. It is not something that can be found in a staff survey (or government consultation for that matter), on a staff notice board (or DfE communique for that matter) or on a staff INSET day (or DfE-validated course for that matter). Most importantly, small w wellbeing is not something that can be subcontracted to staff themselves (that way lies victim-blaming), because schools are employers not franchisers, and school leaders are managers not facilitators (regardless of the jargon we sometimes utilise). 

Instead, small w wellbeing is our most important ‘duty of care’ for our colleagues (morally speaking) and employees (legally speaking). As such, it must be our core function and at the heart of our core processes, notably timetabling, professional development and behaviour management. Anything else without these things is merely window-dressing. 

And so, to finish, three sets of questions. 

Are staff, in the main, happy with their timetables?  Are they well-balanced in terms of frees for everyone?  Does rooming of students take such priority over the rooming of staff, that some are virtual nomads?  Are teachers able to work with students of all abilities and, if not, is that of their own choosing?  Are they teaching to their specialism and, if not, are they content with the training and support they receive?  

Are your INSET days well used to help your staff be better at their jobs?  Do you seek and act upon feedback from INSET days to ensure there’s something for everyone’s professional development over time?  Is there a good balance between trust and expectation in non-directed CPD time? Does staff development at your school take a deficit approach or do you utilise the surplus of talents you already have?

Does your behaviour management system back adult authority or undermine it? Do expectations of consistency apply equally to SLT and top-end sanctions as they do to those in classrooms and corridors? Are staff happy, or at least content, with decisions about sanctions that are out of their hands?  Do students believe that disrespect to anyone other than the Head will have the same consequences as disrespect to the Head?

These are only some of the questions that school leaders need to be asking themselves and, more importantly their staff, about the three core aspects of small w wellbeing. There are dozens of others that are equally important because, make no bones about it (and remember that I’m the skeleton man) timetable, professional development and behaviour management are three of the hourly, daily and weekly threats to authentic, small w wellbeing in our schools and in the lives of the school staff that we, as leaders, must serve in order to deserve any sort of professional respect. 

But remember, listening without hearing and hearing without listening are the natural predispositions of school leadership  (and if you have an argument coming to your lips here, you are merely proving my point). If you are tempted to take to Survey Monkey with a Wellbeing Survey, you’ll be hearing but not listening. And if you sit in the staffroom to pick out bits of information, you’ll be listening not hearing. To do both you’re going to need to get out of your comfort zone and really get your ear to the ground. What that looks like is not for me to tell you, but it sure ain’t rocket science. 

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