Wellbeing DIY

Wellbeing DIY

Guest blog by Esther Gray (@_Esther_Gray)

Staff wellbeing is a hot topic at the moment and it is great to see schools and colleges taking it so seriously, for their staff as well as their students. Whilst there is much debate about what good practice looks like in terms of wellbeing (to yoga or not to yoga, that is the question), I think it is admirable that schools are prioritising staff wellbeing, sending out surveys and talking to staff about what will make the difference for them.

Last year, in my role as deputy head of a large school secondary school in Bedfordshire, I sent out a wellbeing survey to find out what the main issues were for staff. Amongst the many questions it asked, I found the following pair of questions quite revealing:

What can the school do to support your health and wellbeing?

What can you do to support your own health and wellbeing?

In response to the first question, staff listed lots of (mostly helpful) points about how the school should avoid lengthy meetings, revisit the marking policy, review the number of reports sent to parents each year. In response to the second question, staff either left it blank or wrote ‘nothing’. Can it really be true that people look entirely to the school to manage something as personal as their wellbeing?

The memory of this survey came back to me recently because, in my current job as a trainer and advisor, I increasingly see people around me who refuse to accept this subservient view of health and wellbeing. Wellbeing is a very personal business and it is great to see so many teachers and leaders using their agency to decide how to best manage themselves.

I spent some time in Hinckley recently working with Headteachers and senior leaders looking at how to lead mentally healthy schools. I co-led the session with Felicity King, a former science teacher who specialises in staff wellbeing and sustainability. She has developed her own unique approach to ‘mindset mastery’. It was powerful to see her share this approach with the senior leaders who were nodding and smiling as she described how to best support people in schools.

Felicity teaches us that our feelings are real; they are the result of hormonal secretions and homeostasis. The trouble is that we often don’t acknowledge those feelings as they occur and interrupt the natural lifespan of the experience – about 90 seconds. Instead, we avoid them or ‘park’ them if they are negative emotions, or we don’t pay them enough attention if they are happy ones, and so those feelings are left to fester unresolved in all the wrong places in our bodies – the throat, the gut, the joints. Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification. Felicity urges us to take the time to observe our feelings and ride the 90 second wave of feeling them deeply, thus allowing them to re-set in our brains. This approach seemed to resonate with the senior leaders there who felt that even this description alone could help some of the staff who were struggling back at school. There are approaches that school staff can use to help themselves, but sometimes, as leaders, we have to signpost them.

Although Twitter can sometimes be a breeding ground for the less heathy stuff, I feel that we have seen the best it has to offer more recently. Firstly, it was encouraging to see so many leaders and educators tweeting about what they planned to do with their February half term break: cooking, eating, spending time with family, reading books, running, long walks, etc. It was so refreshing to see so many people managing their own wellbeing, putting themselves and their families first. Secondly, did you see the post from Headteacher Helena Brothwell who responded to an NQTs desperate tweet about having to spend the whole week’s half term break planning and marking? Like a call to arms, Helena asked the Edutwitter community ‘Anyone happy to help?’, ‘who’s got resources to share?’ declaring ‘we need to look after these folk…let’s give them a boost’. 122 retweets and 444 likes later, the whole community has pulled together to help struggling NQTs by signposting them to high quality, ready-made resources. Truly inspirational and another example of how the Edutwitter community can make a difference thanks to the kindness of strangers.

How we support others has an impact on our own emotional wellbeing. For further insight into this, I would recommend Susan David’s TED talk on ‘The Power of Emotional Courage’ which resonates on so many levels. She tells us that how we deal with our inner world drives everything – every aspect of how we love, how we live, how we help and how we lead. She describes parking your emotions as ‘toxic’ and talks about her own journey of refusing to accept her grief following the loss of her father until her eighth-grade teacher handed her a blank notebook and said ‘write what you are feeling. Tell the truth. Write like nobody’s reading.’ From this point she was able to “show up authentically” to her grief and pain. Writing in her notebook enabled her to move beyond denial to what she now calls “emotionally agility”.

So how do we move ourselves to a position of ‘emotionally agility’? David advises that we look at emotions as data. When you feel something strongly, take time to pay the feelings the attention they deserve. Rather than saying ‘I feel angry’, try to say ‘I am noticing that I am feeling angry’ and give yourself time to explore how that really feels. Give yourself the time to work through it. Don’t deny your body its opportunity to process and deal with that emotion. Felicity King tells us that this is just as important with positive emotions too. She said that when she had embraced her son that morning, for a second she felt a surge of love and warmth inside but she didn’t spend enough time actually feeling it; instead she grabbed her laptop and thought about what she was doing next. When we feel love, warmth, pride, joy, we need to stop and savour the feeling, and enjoy it until it naturally fades. We need to notice our feelings, good or bad, and allow the natural responses of our bodies to be fully, truly felt. This way our body can respond and take care of us as it is designed to and as a result, we learn to get comfortable with all our feelings and find confidence, strength and capacity in spades.

Whatever schools can offer in terms of health and wellbeing support, we all have a responsibility to ourselves to manage our emotions first. Without this, not the yoga, nor the shorter meetings, nor the reduced data drops or even the time given to attend your own child’s assemblies, will impact on our inner emotional-self in a lasting way.  Our schools and employers can help, but our emotions are always personal so perhaps it is time to return to a little wellbeing DIY.

The Stakeholder Problem

I have a distinct memory of a Deputy Headteacher explaining to me that every time I entered a grade for a child, that grade should incrementally rise to show progress.  I recall saying, ‘but what if that child hasn’t made progress?’  The Deputy Headteacher then said, ‘that means you haven’t taught the child well enough.’

Their argument was, with good teaching, all children should make progress; the kind of progress that can be measured through a series of rising symbols put into a spreadsheet across an academic year.  I remember saying, quite quietly, that you might as well just let me put all the grades for the year into the spreadsheet in September then.

At the time, I knew instinctively that this was a nonsense.  Of course each child would not make regular, incremental progress through my subject in such a way that could be captured in a half-termly symbol. But this was what my Deputy Headteacher wanted and he must know best because he’s been in this game a lot longer than me and what do I know anyway. So, instinct suppressed, I became a voracious data-inputter.

Not only did I become a voracious data-inputter, I became a data-believer, a slave to the spreadsheet.  I fell wholeheartedly for the myth of data. And I did see progress. Oh yes. Each half term I made more and more green boxes appear.  Hurray.  That feeling when an orange box becomes a green box.  Wow.  Or even better, when a red box becomes a green box. Now that’s how you know you’re a great teacher.

Inevitably, the failings of a system that have no basis in assessment validity become abundantly clear on that terrible day in August when all the green boxes count for nothing. Then, you do the hand-wringing and the hair-tearing and the head-shaking and think of every reason possible for the failure of green boxes to transform into pass grades for real children.  Blame the grade boundaries, blame the exam paper, blame the rogue marker, blame the heat, blame the croissants. Blame anything and everything except the teaching.

The Deputy Headteacher had been right.  I hadn’t taught them well enough.  What’s really weird though, is the Deputy Headteacher didn’t want me to be a better teacher the next year. No, he wanted me to be a better data-inputter. He wanted my green boxes to equate to pass grades, my orange boxes to equate to just-missed-the-pass-mark grades and the red boxes to equate to was-never-going-to-pass-in-a-million-years grades. This is what happens when data is king.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself in those Deputy Headteacher shoes, albeit high-heeled ones.  Had I learned my lesson? No. The demand to show progress from starting points so skewed our actions that instead of really focusing on teaching and learning, we became obsessed with diagnosing the ailments of the 3a, 3b and 3c kids, and we became obsessed with various ‘therapies’ – all of which would only work if they took place outside of lessons.  Think about that for just a second.  Outside of lessons.  How on earth did we get to a place where the prevailing thought was that we could only help children to learn outside of lessons? Surely, surely the place where children learn is inside of lessons?

This tweet sums it up:


The Dynamic Deps are right. Excellent whole class teaching is what makes the difference and is where we should be putting our energies and efforts.

However, there remains a gulf between that place where whole-class teaching takes place and everywhere else.  Never is this more acute than in the realm of assessment.  Daisy Christodolou sums this up beautifully in ‘Making Good Progress’ when describing validity.  She laments that we’re never really interested in how well a child did in that assessment on that day; we’re only ever really interested in the inferences we can make.  Daisy goes on to say that so many of those inferences are unwarranted conclusions.  Sadly, that does not stop us claiming them.

This is what I like to call the stakeholder problem.  There are a multitude of groups who hold a stake in school outcomes, and therefore in the assessment information the school produces (however that may look).  Teachers, senior leaders, governors, trust boards, parents, local authorities, regional schools commissioners, the DfE, Ofsted, the media… there are probably more. All of them want to use the same assessment information to make their own inferences.  Inferences that fit their purpose.

For example, the trust board wants to use the information to make inferences about how well the school will perform in the summer; governors want to use the information to make inferences about which teachers deserve pay progression; Ofsted want to use the information to support judgements of effectiveness*; the media want to use the information to write click-bait headlines; the DfE want to use the information to rank schools in order of best to worst.  The same information – many different inferences.

In The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall says this, ‘we cannot make up our minds what qualifications mean. Sometimes we see them as a result of teaching (when evaluating schools), and sometimes as a result of student ability and hard work (in relation to applying for work). They can’t be both, can they? Most people just accept both claims about qualifications without noticing the contradiction.’

I think this contradiction is true in all assessment information (even formative), not just in qualifications.  I also think there are more than two competing claims, as I’ve described above. Dylan Wiliam calls these claims ‘shared meanings’ and explains that because we cannot be confident in their consistency, our inferences cannot be valid. We can’t be confident in their consistency, because there are too many stakeholders.  Perhaps if we reduce the number of stakeholders in any given set of assessment information, we are less likely to make invalid claims?

I wonder if we can reduce the number of stakeholders to two – teachers and students? This is tough to consider, because I’m basically saying that senior leaders, governors, trust boards and even parents should not hold any stakes in the information; at least from any in-year data – be that formative or summative.

Two stakeholders, who consistently take shared meanings from assessment information, can act on those inferences and affect improvement.  The inferences, when you boil them down, are likely to be – what the student does or does not know, and what the student can or cannot do.  That seems quite valid to me. And useful.

This kind of thing takes trust, and professionalism, and expertise.  But isn’t that we want for our profession? Shouldn’t we assume the very best of our teachers instead of treating them like the lowest common denominator? And shouldn’t we prioritise CPD so that their assessment practice becomes the go-to tool for improving learning – instead of sticking-plaster interventions?

I’m reminded of this graph from LKMco’s 2017 report Testing the Water:


How can it be right that those conducting day-to-day assessments as part of their teaching feel the least confident, whilst headteachers – who do the least teaching –  feel the most confident? I’d like to see this reversed.  I’d like teachers to be the most confident, and most expert, in day-to-day assessment.  And I’d like day-to-day assessment to be recognised for what it is – the tool by which valid inferences can be drawn,  most useful for teacher and student, and most likely to improve learning.

I’ve come a long way in my understanding of assessment, and even now I’m just scratching the surface.  I forgive my Deputy Headteacher, and I forgive myself.  Although we may have acted in ignorance, it was an ignorance which stemmed from the zeitgeist at the time. We were trying our best to make some sense of this complex thing that is education. We still are.


* Ofsted’s proposed inspection framework, currently out for consultation, appears to recognise that valid inferences are difficult to make and is no longer requiring schools to provide any in-year data tracking relating to progress or attainment.  They will still look at published outcomes.