Are you OK? How leaders can act on wellbeing

July 2, 2018
Michael Speziale

Michael Speziale

Senior Leader at La Fontaine Academy

Are you OK? I remember being surprised at this question when I first began teaching in London in 2005.

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This blog is part of Ambition:Feed's pupil wellbeing challenge. Find more tips and discussion on the Ambition:Feed homepage.

The question could be fired at me from anyone, at any given moment in time; arriving at school early in the morning, just before a lesson observation, walking quickly to the printer or just after enjoying my own homemade cheese sandwich in the staff room.

Then it came again… are you OK? Clearly my colleagues had often noticed something not quite right about me. I would always check for the obvious outward signs: hair, shoelaces, buttons, un-ironed shirt.

Later in my teaching career, having gained a few unnecessary pounds, even children would pose the question? Are you OK? Yes, I would reply, “I'm fine and thank you for asking”. In hindsight, I have now come to realise that there were no outward signs that I wasn't OK, perhaps later there was the obvious middle-aged spread and slight memory loss, but that in fact some people in UK schools are not in OK, neither staff nor students.

How leaders can improve wellbeing

Alarm bells should have gone off when I worked in a coastal secondary school (which shall remain nameless) where a teacher actually passed out after morning briefing and was laying on the floor. She had been the victim of harassment by pupils for many months and the leadership’s response was that she was not ‘engaging’ with the kids.

The rest of the teaching staff, having been given their daily war plan, stepped over her in order to get their photocopying done in time. They justified this with a look that said children's learning comes first.

What are the implications for learning and wellbeing when teachers don’t feel supported by leadership? Strong leadership is based on positive relationships and trust, a feeling of knowing that you are appreciated for who you are and what you bring to the school, knowing that in times of crisis you are valued as a person.

In my experience, too often leadership opts for the quick and easy option; not tackling the root of the problem.

So, I’d advise every school leader to let your team know that they have your support, that you value them.


Wellbeing is for all, not for some

I've always believed that if the adults aren't OK, then the children definitely can't be OK. This is why if an airplane loses oxygen the advice is that the adults take the oxygen before they give it to the children.

If parents aren't OK, how can families be? If teachers aren't OK, then surely this will have a negative effect on children in schools. Wellbeing can only work if there is a sense of community wellbeing.

Wellbeing is for all not for some. One day, some of the children that we teach will move into the same system that we work in. They will have the same stresses and pressures. Are we OK with that?

We’re the ones in control of the future that we want for our young and it is heart-breaking to hear stories of young pupils who are suffering from anxiety, depression and even attempting to end their lives. Can we really live with this?

The Good Childhood Index published in the Good Childhood Report 2017, looked at drew qualitative data from 30,000 children across the UK aged 8-17. The findings concluded that school was part of children and adolescents lives that they were least happy with.

This does paint a concerning picture of how many children and adolescents feel about their schooling and I would argue about their wellbeing and happiness.

"One day, some of the children that we teach will move into the same system that we work in. They will have the same stresses and pressures. Are we OK with that? "

What’s the solution?

There are no simple answers to the problem of wellbeing and its impact on mental health but there are places that we can start.

1. Ensure that, as leaders, we create and sustain relationships with our staff that are based on trust and support and enable opportunities for social time and community building.

2. Be sure that every child knows that there is someone in the school who gets them and appreciates them for who they are.

3. Don’t remind children of their past failures through charts and seating plans. Why not use mixed ability grouping wherever possible?

For pupils to thrive in a healthy way, schools must be a place where self-worth and hope are built up, regardless of past academic success. Happiness naturally flows from feeling able and secure. These things come from a strong and healthy school culture where pupil happiness ranks above everything else.

Do you have any tips for leaders on pupil wellbeing? Get involved in the discussion over at Ambition:Feed - tweet us using #ambitionfeed or join our Facebook group.

Michael is a graduate from our 2015 Future Leaders cohort. Future Leaders is a two-year intensive leadership development programme for senior leaders who aim to become headteachers of schools in challenging contexts within three years.

This article originally appeared on the website of Ambition School Leadership. In March 2019, the Institute for Teaching merged with Ambition School Leadership to form Ambition Institute.

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