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.