Wellbeing Around the World: The Sunshine Crew

We head to Egypt to hear how a school in Cairo has given staff a chance to get to know one another outside school – and why regular check-ins are vital for wellbeing too
12th January 2022, 10:00am
Matt Topliss

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Wellbeing Around the World: The Sunshine Crew

https://www.tes.com/magazine/leadership/staff-management/wellbeing-around-world-sunshine-crew
Cairo wellbeing

In our Wellbeing Around the World feature, we speak to leaders across the globe to see how they're nurturing positive staff wellbeing, whatever challenges they may face.

In this article, we head to Egypt to talk to Matt Topliss, the British school principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, to hear how making time for staff to bond and provide an outlet to talk about any issues has been paramount during the past two years.

Why does staff wellbeing matter to you as an international head? 

Staff wellbeing must be at the centre of any school and is especially important where teaching staff are away from their families and their usual surroundings.

International teaching is an excellent experience but the ongoing pandemic has meant that many colleagues have been away from home for longer periods of time.

As a school, we must ensure that our staff feel supported and valued so that they are comfortable in their surroundings and role.

Teaching is centred on valuing and developing the young people and children that we have in our care each day. This must extend to all members of a school's community to ensure that people, and the school, can develop and thrive.

Are there any wellbeing issues unique to your school? 

The prospect and reality of being locked down and being asked to move to online teaching meant that many staff were faced with different challenges and felt isolated.

This produced great uncertainty for colleagues and took them away from their comfort zones. Many also faced long periods of time when returning home was impossible and costly.

The last-minute enforcement of a "red listing" on a country also provided colleagues with a dilemma of leaving their classes or missing the chance to see loved ones over the longer summer break.

As a school, we were able to ensure that staff were able to make it home, without significant disruption to students learning.  

While the lockdowns in Egypt weren't as severe as in other countries, staff still faced prolonged periods away from school, their classes and students.

While retention of staff is not usually an issue, many may take the opportunity to move this coming summer as more certainty had seemed to be on the horizon in late 2021. This certainty will perhaps allow a window for some staff to move to different areas as they come to the end of their contracts.

What wellbeing initiatives have you introduced in the last two or three years?

Like many schools, we have set a staff social club, called the Sunshine Crew, to ensure that staff have opportunities to meet and relax away from school.

In many international teaching environments, there is usually lots going on in the city or country where the school is based and this initiative allows our overseas and local staff to sample many of the opportunities that Cairo and Egypt have to offer.

Many of these opportunities are low cost and give staff the chance to experience the local culture whilst interacting and bonding with colleagues from across our school community.

From felucca rides on the Nile to painting and golf, running clubs and camping trips to the desert, photography, language lessons and mindfulness: the programme looks to immerse staff in the local heritage and culture and build relationships with colleagues.

We also host a regular "first Thursday" event each month where staff can join a social event as each month begins.

Wellbeing surveys and a dedicated website have also been used to ensure that staff have an outlet should they need to speak to anyone and during the lockdowns, check-ins with our school counsellors and senior staff were undertaken with those staff who were isolating alone.  

How did this idea come about?

We were conscious that staff needed an outlet to bond and relax away from the uncertainty and rigours of working in a fast-moving school that was still dealing with the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic.

We wanted to ensure that staff felt valued and appreciated and that we could really see who they were as people away from the professional role that they had and to ensure that activities and events that Cairo and Egypt are renowned for could be experienced by our staff, whether they are local, expatriate and new to a role or those who had been in school for longer.

How involved were staff in this work?

We have asked staff members to lead on this and ensure that this is not just something that is driven by the leadership team of the school.

Staff were then surveyed to see what they would want to be part of and asked if there were any activities they would like to lead on. Events are then announced and staff sign up for these events.

How was this initiative rolled out on a practical level?

A calendar of events was published to staff so that the activities didn't clash with any other priorities. Staff then have the chance to sign up for events and then bookings are made.

What was the impact and how did you measure this?

We have surveyed staff to see how they are feeling and, where needed, we have spoken to staff individually to ensure that we are doing everything that we can to support them.

Our staff retention remains at the usual levels and in many cases, people leave for reasons that are unrelated to the school environment or to move their careers on. Everyone is supported and concerns are heard and resolved where we can.

What advice would you suggest to others based on this approach?

My advice would be to survey staff to see what they would like to be part of.

These initiatives can also fall flat if the school community is not unified, as staff may see these initiatives and events as hallow if the core values and direction of the school does not value staff and their work and initiative.

How do you look after your own wellbeing?

I like to find a balance between being organised in my role and staying ahead of things with exercise, socialising and travel.

I have been able to make more local trips within Egypt and, when the pandemic allowed, to travel to parts of Europe, as I find I only really switch off when I am away from school and home in Egypt.

My exercise sees me running regularly with colleagues and I was able to take part in the 10km race at the Pyramids of Giza last weekend.

Above all, spending time exploring the region and finding a work-life balance is one of the exciting experiences that international teaching and leadership provides when compared to teaching in the UK.

Matt Topliss is British school principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, Egypt

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