Staff well-being and creativity requires structural and cultural change

When I hear concerns about teacher well-being, I am often frustrated by the short-term tokenistic measures that are suggested. I have nothing against buying cakes for the staffroom, but no amount of cakes will make a difference if my daily work is distrusted and undervalued. The high percentage of teachers who leave the profession every year indicates that more needs to be done in schools to promote staff well-being. One of the reasons for writing this blog is to share how we approached staff well-being and our success in both retaining and recruiting teachers.

I will argue that the promotion of staff well-being requires a structural and cultural change to create an environment in our schools where all teachers possess a sense of worth and feel valued. If we want our teachers to be creative and independent thinkers, we should cultivate an environment where they feel a sense of personal and collective well-being. By securing this environment for our teachers, we enable them to provide a safe, creative learning environment for our students.

Professional learning

I believe the greatest factor that impacts students’ learning is the quality of teaching. Moreover,  the greatest factor that impacts the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning. Because of these impacts, we invest heavily in strong professional learning activities such as action research, Master’s study, coaching, peer learning, and lesson study. The teacher’s rationale is that if the school invests in me and values me as a learner and professional, I feel a sense of attachment and well-being. Additionally, I become more confident in my practice, and this enables me to develop autonomy and efficacy. If I am more confident in my practice, I will have less anxiety. My research has indicated that teachers value choice over their professional learning – we pay toward every teacher completing an MA, and they choose the elements of practice they wish to develop.

Workload pressures

We often point to the role of external pressures and their impact upon teacher well-being; (e.g., external tests or school inspections); however, workload pressures are most often influenced by internal decision making and the learning environments in individual schools. My research demonstrated that leaders can make decisions in schools to mediate the impact of external pressures on teachers. Anything you ask a teacher to do that they do not understand is inherently demotivating. Consequently, take opportunities to involve teachers in decision making at the macro-level (e.g., on marking and feedback, planning, curriculum, homework). Mutually agree on the outcomes you want to achieve and involve teachers in strategizing sessions for these outcomes. This will require an authentically distributed leadership model. Well-being comes from feeling you have a voice in your school and that you are genuinely listened to. It is also influenced by the degree of interaction with colleagues who share similar values.

Value staff well-being

Clearly,  if we truly value our students, then we have to value our staff. Teachers, not necessarily leaders, make the greatest difference to students’ learning on a day-to-day basis. If I value staff well-being, this will be seen in my actions. Do I ensure that teachers feel listened to? In my approach to leadership, am I clear, consistent, and inclusive? We view our staff team as an extended family, and at any time, one member of that family may need more support than another. We all have times when we need support – are your teachers supported in times of great pressure or emergency? We also embrace a culture of well-being for the whole community. Promoting our school’s value of empathy ensures all staff feels safe in the work environment. We are often asked how we can afford to pay for so many teachers to complete their Master’s degrees. It is because we spend very little on covering staff sick leave and on retention or recruitment programs. 

A Shared Sense of Values and Beliefs

In school, I feel a sense of belonging and well-being because I work alongside colleagues who have a shared sense of values and beliefs and want the same high outcomes for our children.  This sense of well-being emanates from the structures that support collaborative teacher learning which build a culture of mutual accountability and trust. These structures and cultures enable teachers and leaders to feel a sense of self-worth and self-esteem as professionals.

As a school leader, I want to nurture a creative, dynamic learning community for all. I want to develop students who are creative, innovative critical thinkers. The best way I can do this for my students is by creating a similar learning environment for our teachers and staff teams — an environment in which they, too, can be creative and independent in their thinking and learning.  By doing this, I am more likely to develop an environment that promotes positive well-being for teachers and students.

Dr. Kulvarn Atwal FCCT has spent his entire career teaching and leading in East London schools and is currently Executive Head Teacher of Highlands and Uphall Primary Schools. Highlands was recently awarded the Mayor of London’s Schools for Success award for the fourth year in a row; one of only 12 primary or secondary schools in London to achieve this award. Kulvarn specialises in teacher professional learning. His doctoral thesis highlighted the factors that impact upon teacher engagement in professional learning activities, with a particular focus on workplace learning theories and action research. He has worked with educators across the world to develop expansive learning environments in schools. He has published his first book, ‘The Thinking School. Developing a Dynamic Learning Community’. He occasionally tweets at @thinkingschool2

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