I would consider myself a kind leader who understands the significance of staff happiness. So much so, that there have been occasions where I’ve gone over and above, only to wonder why I had bothered. Let me share a very short scenario to offer some context.
We know that parents’ evenings can be demanding on top of the daily workload. To help to counter this, I bought in some slow cookers. On the day, each cooker was lovingly heating up soup, to be served with crusty bread, before the doors opened. The next day I asked a member of staff if it was OK and was told that the soup was a too hot. It was a throwaway remark, but it made me rethink what my contribution could look like. I learned that whilst this may have been a kind gesture, nobody had really expected or asked me to do this. I’m sure that many leaders will have made gestures like this only to question if headship is really all about making people happy.
Wellbeing is a fascinating aspect of leadership because it often depends on how we define the expectations in our school setting. This means that whilst we will need policies, HR, frameworks, surveys and initiatives, it’s critical that we personalise and lead with clarity. It’s also about what the headteacher’s personal contribution should look like; they should be able to provide their duty of care whilst promoting that staff should be independent thinkers when managing their own wellbeing.
Let’s take a step back from the long list of gestures and initiatives that we may initially consider and prioritise exactly how we can lead wellbeing. The real aim for the headteacher would be to enable staff to safely hit peak performance. To create an environment where stress can be positive, without causing overload, fatigue or burnout. Once we see this as our goal, we can then consider all of the actions required to support this. This would place sustainability at the heart of our mission, making satisfaction and happiness a fundamental biproduct of our actions.
I learned from my experiences that a healthy school would be one where everyone can take responsibility for their own wellbeing (staff), in an environment where there is a duty of care (me). I recognised that staff valued job satisfaction, recognition and fairness much more than head massages and hot chocolate. I had stated, in jest, that I could not ensure people’s happiness because that would be far too complicated, but I would be committed to providing them with the right conditions to thrive professionally. This enabled me to focus on the big things like lesson planning, directed time, collaboration, engagement and the channels for feeling valued. There were, of course, additional gestures too, in the interest of making the school a good place to work.
Recognising individual responsibility
As a result of taking this approach, other profound things began to occur without my involvement. Staff would often down tools and go for a run together at the end of the day. They line-danced and did Tai-Chi. We had staff netball, rounders and football teams, regularly playing against other schools and when new staff joined, they quickly became involved. We even had a joke that we only recruited staff who were good netball players. Our staff recognised and demonstrated an individual responsibility for staying well and the personal benefits of doing so.
As you would expect, I curated my own wellbeing with a selection of obsessive behaviours and strategies that would become engrained habits over time. This enabled me to effectively discharge my responsibilities, to walk the walk and to be a good example.
One quote from our inspection captured the cause and effect of this approach. It’s an unlikely and rewarding statement, and it proves that whilst we may try our best to make our staff happy, if you can provide the slow cookers, then they will take care of the soup.
‘The headteacher is unwavering in his vision to ensure that all pupils have a happy, healthy and positive start to their school years. All leaders and staff commit to this vision. Staff morale is high. Many staff comment on the positive atmosphere within the school, and when one teacher said, ‘I love this school – this is the best job I have ever had!’ many others enthusiastically agreed.’
David Rushby is a former headteacher and director of Nautilus Education.