School Wellbeing: Getting past ‘the noise’

August 9, 2023

During my travels with youHQ, I’ve had the privilege of meeting educators from all corners of the globe. Engaging in conversations with diverse individuals at various events, the question frequently arises: What does youHQ do? The one word that sums up our work best is ‘Wellbeing’.

School Wellbeing: Getting past ‘the noise’

Now, you might wonder, what exactly does “wellbeing” mean? It’s a valid question, and one that deserves thoughtful consideration. At times, the term “wellbeing” may seem like a buzzword, a piece of abstract jargon thrown around by governments and SLT. However, it is a notion that far predates OFSTED and KCSIE. Wellbeing is at the core of building a successful and inspired school community for everyone.

Take a brief look at the history of the word. The concept of Eudaimonia, created by Aristotle, refers to a contented state of feeling happy, healthy, and prosperous. Centuries later, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson (and their contemporaries) advocated for the “pursuit of happiness,” making links to how contentment provides liberty or freedom. The word’s etymology traces back to the Italian ‘benessere,’ defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the state of being healthy, happy, or prosperous; physical, psychological, or moral welfare.”

With this in mind, the youHQ team has crafted our own definition of wellbeing:

“Strong mental and physical health, high levels of life satisfaction, and a genuine sense of purpose.”

In addition to the varying philosophical definitions, wellbeing can mean different things to individuals on an emotional and physiological level. For me, physical wellbeing is closely linked to my mental wellbeing; a day without exercise can significantly affect my mood and overall well-being. Others may prioritise a sense of purpose, calmness, financial stability, or a combination of factors.

For modern schools, understanding the essence of student and staff wellbeing is more critical than ever. The pandemic brought great uncertainty worldwide, impacting each one of us in some way – and schools across the globe are being asked to develop new whole-school wellbeing strategies. For many, the negative effects of the last three years have been truly traumatic, leading to psychological reactions that shouldn’t be underestimated, especially for young, developing minds.

But the ambiguity surrounding wellbeing begs the question: How do we cut through the noise around wellbeing in schools and get to what truly matters, particularly during the current global mental health crisis?

The answer lies in listening. Educational leaders must provide a platform for staff and student voices, demonstrating genuine intent. Not only does this make the key stakeholders feel valued, it also facilitates a culture of self reflection and emotional intelligence. Schools can gather and garner this data in a number of ways; meetings, surveys, ideas boxes, apps, staff room questionnaires etc. Whichever way the schools choose to do this, clear action must be taken.

As a former teacher of fifteen years, I have personal experience with superficial box-ticking versions of collecting wellbeing data, with no clear strategy or outcome. If any organisation (school or otherwise) is trying to create a culture of wellbeing, then the voice of the common room, student body or employees as a whole must be captured, listened to and acted upon.

Drawing from my own experience as a teacher and a wellbeing specialist, two invaluable commodities stand out for wellbeing in schools. Time & Support.

Teachers don’t get into the job for the money! They are not motivated primarily by monetary incentives. There’s no big bonus. No incentive scheme or company car. Yes, the holidays are great and the pension (was) a selling point. But a large proportion of teachers believe they are overstretched, according to Education Support’s recent Teacher Wellbeing Index. 77% of teachers experience poor mental health due to workload issues and 72% report being stressed and overworked.The Teacher and Learning International Survey (TALIS) delves further into the matter, highlighting that the opportunity and time for staff to collaborate with the support of senior leaders are vital in creating a culture of collegiality, support, professional development, and ownership. The teacher strikes are a testament to the current unhappiness in the ranks.

Establishing a culture where key stakeholders embrace this approach is no easy task. A consistent focus on mental and physical health is crucial, emphasising intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. While schools are obligated to deliver their chosen curriculums, there is a growing emphasis on teaching genuine life skills. Skills such as goal setting, decision making, values, emotional awareness, and teamwork are more important than ever for both students and staff. By instilling these skills in students early on and effectively modelling them as staff, improved life satisfaction becomes highly probable. As for purpose, the International Survey results speak for themselves: a striking 94% of secondary teachers agreed that a key reason for becoming a teacher was “impacting the development of young people.”

Schools, ultimately, are only as good as their teachers. Look after them and listen to them. Act on their voice, their unique motivations and wellbeing, value them holistically as people – and they will deliver the goods.

This article was written by Jez Belas. He is the former Head of PE and Wellbeing at an independent school in Berkshire, UK and the co-founder of youHQ, the school wellbeing and personal development platform. Developed through in-school testing and trusted by thousands of users, youHQ unlocks meaningful emotional health insights and provides specialist tools to help staff and students flourish.

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