International leaders and wellbeing: The research view

In the second of a series on wellbeing in international schools, academics outline the challenges facing leaders when it comes to helping staff thrive - and looking after themselves, too

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge

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In our last article, we looked at what wellbeing should mean in an international school context, arriving at the view that creating a community where relationships underpin a sense of belonging is vital to keeping teachers happy and engaged.

Doing this though is no simple task – yet it is one international school leaders must address.

The difficulty of doing so becomes clearer when we consider that the job of school leaders keeps expanding, with new demands frequently emerging from parent expectations, education policy formulation and academic research.

There is no doubt that contemporary education is more than the “three Rs”.

On the agenda 

Furthermore, it is undoubtedly the case is that “wellbeing” is now firmly on the agenda for school leaders. For some, it may feel like yet another thing to take care of, another key performance indicator to be reported at the next board meeting.

But if a leader truly wants to lead well, then wellbeing cannot be seen as simply another item on school leaders’ job descriptions.

The purpose of international school leadership, like all educational vocations, is quintessentially relational, and to see wellbeing as merely an addition to the ever-growing to-do list is to look through a neoliberal lens that reduces everything – even human relationships – to the measurable and the instrumental, and hence to distort leadership’s relational function.

Competing demands 

The real issue, we suggest, is that international school leaders, like their teachers, live within the tension of an essentially relational role, in the context of an environment where performance and accountability can – and usually have – become the dominant concerns and the primary, de facto focus of activity.

In this article, we reflect on the challenges faced by international leaders and the opportunities they have to create an environment in which teachers, and consequently students, can flourish.

This, in turn, can help them to experience what researchers Renea Acton and Patti Glasgow describe as “personal professional fulfilment, satisfaction, purposefulness and happiness, constructed as a collaborative process with colleagues and students”.

Challenges and opportunities for international school leaders

International school leaders have more than their fair share of problems. They will rarely have received training in leadership from their school and are usually expected to take on a role that appears to be more like a business manager than an educational leader.

They are often not from the same cultural background as their school’s host country and, like the teachers for whom they are responsible, may be isolated and vulnerable, perhaps especially so owing to the nature of their work.

They also occupy highly demanding and often ambiguous roles in challenging and fast-changing environments, may experience limited support from boards and governing bodies, and high levels of accountability, accompanied by shifting expectations and interference.

They may also be employed on short-term contracts with no guarantee of renewal, little employment protection and a great deal of uncertainty. The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened these difficulties.

At the same time, leaders of international schools can wield a great deal of influence on their schools and teachers, given the high profile role they occupy.

Alexander Gardner-McTaggart, a British researcher in the field of international educational leadership, describes international school leaders as “culturally powerful individuals who transform schools to fall in line with their own societal values”.

Many variables are outside of their influence, of course, but research shows that when heads of school and principals are genuine and authentic in their leadership, and when they can communicate a convincing, shared vision, then teachers feel a greater sense of connection with, and commitment to, the school.

The skills required 

For example, researchers in Turkey concluded that qualities of authentic leadership, including self-awareness, transparency in relationships, taking into account different perspectives in decision-making and ethical behaviour, were associated with teachers having more positive perceptions of their school’s culture.

Research in China found that teachers’ organisational commitment and wellbeing were stronger when there was a shared vision, and that school leaders has a “significant impact on teachers’ engagement and commitment”.

But how, exactly, can school leaders learn from this, and set about strengthening connections and a sense of belonging among the school community?

Enacting an ethic of care

A shared vision provides shared purpose but the question still remains as to the kinds of factors that act to motivate a school’s vision and purpose.

One piece of recent research that involved a sample of international schools’ “taglines” and vision statements revealed “community” to be the most commonly used word.

Despite this, it has become increasingly common for school leaders to focus on student progress through the lenses of metrics and accountability.

We suggest that a focus on relationships between teachers and their students in the classroom, the nurturing of an affiliative climate between colleagues, and the enactment of meaningful caring practices ought to be central to the shared vision formed by leaders and teachers, and should be reflected in principals’ leadership.

Data versus people

In our last piece, we mentioned research conducted in the UK, in which teachers said that they experienced “joy” when working with students in classrooms, and a recent study, using data on Portuguese teachers, which concluded that relationships, particularly those with students, were the best school-level predictors of job satisfaction.

A recent study in Thailand found that, when principals were more authentic – taking time to understand teachers, being transparent, not exerting power over members of staff and being role models – teachers experienced greater efficacy and optimism.

In another article, we suggested questions that school leaders might ask as they lead a shift in focus from human performance to human being, and they are pertinent to a consideration of teachers’ wellbeing:

  • What do leadership meetings and internal professional development sessions suggest about your school’s priorities?
  • To what extent is the focus on trying to understand and support people compared to the analysis of data and discussions about how to meet external requirements or improve “performance”?

Recent research carried out in international schools concluded that the key determinants of teachers’ wellbeing were “appreciation, relationships and belonging”, a list that sounds very much like the definition of wellbeing we mentioned earlier by Acton and Glasgow as “fulfilment, satisfaction, purposefulness and happiness, constructed as a collaborative process with colleagues and students”.

Walk a tightrope 

As such, finding ways to genuinely foster these qualities in their organisations – in other words, to establish an ethic of care – is an essential task of international school leaders.

This is a huge challenge, given the neoliberal, marketised environment in which international schools operate and the enormous stresses on their leaders.

But, if we believe that schools ought to be communities in which human flourishing is a primary aim, the simple yet strangely difficult antidote to teachers feeling used is to provide them with genuine care.

After all, as the educator and philosopher Nel Noddings has said, “the maintenance and enhancement of caring” is “the primary aim of education”.

The essence of the vocation

After 12 months of moving between various arrangements of school closures and openings as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Noddings’ argument from her 1992 book, The Challenge to Care in Schools, that schools need to nurture an environment of caring, not of competition –and that we should make caring more important than accountability – feels more relevant than ever.

Of course, care and accountability are not mutually exclusive but making sure that the former always eclipses the latter – in concrete ways experienced by teachers, through policy, practice and example – is, we suggest, the essence of a leader’s role, and the need for international school leaders to inhabit this role is more pressing than ever.

It is our view that the best leaders – indeed, the best leaders of schools where wellbeing abounds – will not be those who come up with the shiniest and most impressively marketed wellbeing programmes and initiatives but those who embody and exemplify a deep commitment to the care of people, however difficult this might be.

It is the essence of the vocation.

Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge have all been teachers and leaders in international schools, including in Asia. They now work in the Department of International Education at The Education University of Hong Kong, where they teach and conduct research on critical aspects of international schooling

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