Building a healthy and happy school culture starts with resilience - expert

Building a healthy and happy school culture starts with resilience - expert

A recent report, conducted jointly by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute, found that one in four young people in 2020 said they experienced mental health challenges – a significant increase since 2012 when one in five young people were facing similar concerns.

With October marking World Mental Health Month, governments, communities and private sector organisations will be shining a light on this profoundly important topic. For school leaders preparing to welcome their staff and students back to face-to-face learning after an extended lockdown, the challenges are obvious.

However, there are also significant opportunities.

Springfox, one of Australia’s leading providers of evidence-based resilience programs for individuals and organisations, is an organisation that has been helping schools build resilient school leaders and promote healthy cultures.

Below, The Educator speaks to Peta Sigley, co-founder and Chief Knowledge Officer of Springfox, about how principals can ensure psychological safety in their schools, how to spot signs of burnout and toxic culture and the important role of resilience in building a high-performing leadership team.

TE: What role does psychological safety play in enabling a healthy school culture?

Psychological safety is created by leaders who choose to lead with compassion and trust. In schools that have successfully established psychological safety, there is a culture of trying and failing, where attempt and failure are both celebrated and rewarded rather than just honouring the highest test scores or the best sportsperson or team.

Creating an environment of psychological safety is important for both staff and students.  Teachers working in an environment without psychological safety may find that their creativity, risk-taking and ability to be authentic is stifled. They may fall into a state of hypervigilance to negative signals, suffer from high stress, do just enough to get by, or focus on protection of self.

In an environment with a high level of psychological safety, teachers can express themselves, try new ideas, feel supported by their colleagues, and focus on the greater good and the education of their students.

For students exposed to a learning environment that lacks psychological safety, bullying will be rife, introverts will shut down, and students who may be different from their peers by way of race, disability, sexual orientation or social inhibition, for example, will be targeted.

In stark contrast, learning environments where psychological safety thrives will foster students who can learn with an open mind and be openly curious. Students will present as themselves, show humour and humanity, be able to experiment, take risks and grow.

TE: How can teachers and principals spot the signs of occupational burnout or a toxic workplace culture?

Educators suffering from burnout might repeatedly miss deadlines or their once organised classroom might become increasingly messy over time. These educators might also work long hours, look continually exhausted, overreact to setbacks, become disengaged with colleagues and students, or suffer from frequent illness.

There are several signs to watch out for when it comes to toxic workplace culture.  Malicious gossip or a lack of conversational integrity, or the formation of an ‘in-crowd’ that marginalises teachers who are considered different are both signs that the work culture has turned toxic. Increased sick leave and EAP usage, high staff turnover or a lack of motivation or discretionary effort within the team are also signs to look out for.

TE: Schools are preparing to return in October and there is a big focus on ensuring that staff are properly looked after. What can school leaders do to help protect their employees mental health?

Initiating a well-being program that encourages educators to embed key resilience practices into their daily routines is one of the first steps to protecting mental health.  Formal resilience training is also available, but encouraging daily exercise, nutritious eating, promoting regular sleep habits and doing short meditation sessions are simple ways that we can look after ourselves and build resilience.

In addition to these resilience practices are a number of other strategies educators can put in to practice to prioritise their team’s well-being, build collective resilience, and mitigate against burnout.

Encourage staff to build in relaxation activities or down time into their day.  This could be in the form of short breaks or quick breathing exercises that enable teachers to pause and refocus.

Ensure that teachers have an opportunity to regularly debrief.  This could be during a weekly one-on-one conversation or during an ad hoc meeting when required, but having an open door policy and being ready to listen to concerns shows support for colleagues.

Delete unnecessary activity and identify what activities can be de-prioritised to ensure that workloads are manageable and that teachers are empowered to achieve their objectives.

Re-focus on the school's values and purpose and ask staff to test their activity against this set of criteria.  Are they working in line with the greater purpose of the school and how can you help them re-align their activity?

Lead with compassion and trust, both of which are underpinned by deep care and should be aligned with the principles of self-care and positive student outcomes.

TE: You say organisational resilience starts with the leadership team. Can you tell us more about this and what school leaders can learn from it to ensure they and their school workforce are both happy and high performing?

A school’s leadership team is responsible for setting the tone.  This includes living the school values, setting pace, leading activity, and laying out clear expectations.  In our current environment of uncertainty, values, pace, activity, and expectations need to be revisited and slowed down to accommodate the unprecedented challenges schools and teachers are facing.

COVID disruption will have impacted the mental health of both educators and students.  We know from research that a growing number of children and adults are presenting with mental health concerns.  These must be supported through internal counsellors or external professionals, and offering time for colleagues and students to seek support will enable a healthier learning environment for the whole school community.

To lead well, school leaders must themselves be happy, optimistic and energised which can be achieved through resilience training, self-care and self-awareness.  

When it comes to educators, leadership styles need to be based on compassion and trust.  Compassion and trust build strong relationships, support staff and students to take risks, and is the ultimate pathway to psychological safety.  Publicly acknowledging displays of compassion, altruism and support is one way to lead by example and build compassion into the school culture.