When asked what sparked my interest in wellbeing, I always respond that it is based on observation and experience. We are all shaped by our experiences, positive or otherwise, and these experiences determine our values and our responses to challenges that we encounter in life and in work.
We should also learn from these experiences, not to make us embittered from what has happened, but to make a positive difference for ourselves in our own practice and in improving life for those we work with. This is one of the foundations of wellbeing, making a difference to enable everyone to survive and thrive; this is true in any workplace, not just in schools.
One challenging time in my career came when I was a new parent, as our daughter was first with a childminder. Having children does change our lives, alter our working patterns and cause us to reevaluate our self-care. My particular choice around self-care was to maximise the time with our daughter, quite a natural and not unexpected choice for new parents.
I was also concerned, early in my career, to continue doing the absolute best for the children in my class, so I decided to spend my lunch and break times focussed on my marking and classroom, together with an intensive hour and a bit marking after school. I still ended up taking some work home to do, but all these actions were my choice: I was up to date and had a degree of work-life balance.
On the last day of term, I was asked by a colleague to see them after school. I was told it had been noticed that I hadn’t been coming to the staffroom at lunch and that I was gone before 5pm. Who was noticing? No response. Other staff leave earlier than me. No response. I’m marking, prepping resources and displays and then picking my daughter up because my wife doesn’t drive. Response: you're using your child as an excuse.
Using my child as an excuse! I was taken aback and deeply hurt by this. To add a little more context, as I said, this was the last day of term, and the head, deputy and other colleagues I trusted had all left already.
This was a time before everyone had a mobile phone and before staff emailed each other. I fretted for a fortnight of the holiday over the words that had been said to me, but decided to speak to the head on my return.
I was assured that not coming to the staffroom wasn't a concern and neither was the time I left, nor was there an issue with my marking or the classroom. I was also supported over the hurtful comment, and was assured that it would be dealt with; I had no apology, but there was no recurrence.
Reflecting on this experience, it contributed to shaping my thought processes, particularly around empathetic leadership and the broader topic of wellbeing. It shows that we shouldn’t judge individual choices around self-care nor comment upon personal and life decisions. If we do have staff who don’t come to the staffroom, think why this is the case; are they focussed on their work or is there another reason? Whatever the reason, empathy, compassion and the need to support must be in the toolkit of the emotionally intelligent leader.
There was also a lesson around timing, souring the end of term feeling. There are difficult conversations to be had, but a considerate attitude will dictate not only what you say, but how and when you say it. We impact the wellbeing of others with our thoughts, words and deeds and this impact could be neutral, positive or negative. A negative interaction takes anywhere between six and ten positive interactions to restore any degree of balance.
We should also think here about respect for the lives of others and how lives change. We are human beings, not human doings. In the workplace and in our real lives we have feelings. We experience joy and despair; have episodes of great happiness and times of grief; have times to celebrate and times to reflect.
For every colleague welcoming a new addition to the family, there may be others experiencing a relationship crisis. We work with people, with human responses, not with soulless automatons.
Wellbeing is about people after all.
Andrew Cowley is the author of The Wellbeing Toolkit and The Wellbeing Curriculum, both published by Bloomsbury Education. A former primary school deputy headteacher, Andrew writes and speaks about wellbeing for both staff and children, and acts as a coach for the Carnegie Centre of Excellence for Mental Health in Schools at Leeds Beckett University.