Perspectives #14 - "School Leadership, Communication, and Wellbeing"
"Perspectives" is a series of blog posts written by people different to James, the usual writer of this blog: a white heterosexual non-disabled male. Through this series, we will hear from people from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic, LGBT+, and faith communities, as well as women, people with disabilities, and people from a low socio-economic background. Each individual is speaking from their own experiences alone, not speaking on behalf of a group of people. The aim is for all of us to hear voices of those who are different to us, so we can understand and build a culture in our schools and organisations where the wellbeing of all is at the centre, not just the wellbeing of those who are the same as us.
Dennis Simms is a school leadership specialist, Co-chair of Heads Forward (Teach First's Ambassador Headteacher Network), and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice's Education Policy Unit.
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As a school leader, I often thought about staff wellbeing in the context of workload, the physical working environment and stress reduction. I championed and sought to model a work/life balance and encouraged activities that boosted morale and strengthened relationships. I also tried to be careful with the timelines I set for work-related deadlines such as end-of-term reports, carefully managing a school calendar to ensure the staff weren't overloaded.
These things are all fairly common sense considerations, but were only based on assumptions of the likely and most significant factors and triggers affecting staff wellbeing. In order to go beyond these assumptions, I surveyed staff bi-annually. This was an anonymous survey which provided staff with the opportunity to identify barriers to wellbeing and factors which were negatively impacting them. These survey results were more effective in pinpointing issues than my observations and assumptions were.
Recommentation 1: Get direct feedback from staff about their work and wellbeing.
One of the most valuable learning points from surveying over the years was that communication is key. On a number of occasions, the timeliness of communication and an actual or perceived lack of communication regarding particular situations and changes were often cited as being detrimental to staff wellbeing.
Recommendation 2: Consider how your communication may positively and negatively affect staff wellbeing. As a self-assured, strategic leader of few words, I can often plot a route through challenging circumstances and can navigate my team or organisation through it. I analyse situations, create a plan, and implement the solution. However, I often neglect to effectively narrate the journey. This default setting of mine works well for some staff, however, for others, it leaves them unsure, unheard and unable to follow with confidence. At my last school, my staff were so hardworking, committed and determined. They knew that tough-decisions would often have to be made. By providing them with the rationale behind key decisions or with the limited information I was able to share during the decision-making process the potential for uncertainty, disquiet and anxiety was greatly reduced.
Recommendation 3: Consider how decisions and communications will affect different people differently. Everyone has a unique personality and set of past experiences that impact how they respond to new situations. Nevertheless, there are some common occurrences and some responses that can be foreseen. One method is to play out in your mind how a particular change might be perceived by 'Mr Taylor' or by considering how 'Miss Ali' might respond to this information being shared at this time. Having specific people in mind when leading through changes and challenges can be a helpful tactic for refining our approaches and actions as leaders. This tactic can also be supported more robustly through the use of personality assessments. There are numerous tests, they all have their unique ways of categorising individuals and they are by no means perfect in their assessment methodologies or findings. However, they can provide insightful and actionable intel. I have used CliftonStrengths 2.0 and Enneagram myself and with colleagues to great effect. Often these assessments are effective in identifying and articulating our ways of working, natural responses and personal preferences. When these descriptions resonate they provide us with helpful language that can enable us to better understand ourselves and relate to others.
In summary, do take a common-sense approach to wellbeing, but then go beyond broad-brush strategies to understand the specific needs of your staff and organisation. Reflect on communication as a key to healthy leadership, and consider your team's unique personalities and preferences and plan for their likely responses in advance.
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