Last week, The Educator Leaders’ Summit 2020 brought together education leaders from across the sector to help teachers, leaders and department heads share what they have learned from their own experiences – particularly experiences that have led to improved outcomes across their schools.
One of the speakers who shared some important anecdotal and research-backed insights at the Summit was Bob Willetts, principal at Berry Public School and vice-president of the NSW Primary Principal Association.
Willetts is also the founder and champion of The Flourish Movement, which recently won a global research award from The International Academy of Management, taking home first prize in the action research category for the design and structure of the program.
The topic of Willetts’ presentation at the Summit was how his school found strength in gratitude, and the many academic and health-related benefits that come from harnessing this simple yet powerful practice in school and social settings.
“The importance of a strong wellbeing culture for your entire school community can’t be overstated,” Willetts said.
“There’s a saying: ‘Maslow’s before Blooms’, which refers to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Bloom’s taxonomy. In the current environment, what we’re seeing in schools is that students are being caught up in the challenges and uncertainty facing our society through the COVID-19 crisis”.
Willetts said children need the basic needs of safety and a sense of belonging well before educators can hope to see them improving learning outcomes or progressing into higher order and critical thinking.
“A core belief that underpins anything I do is that the health and wellbeing of the principal and staff underpins and directly correlates with student academic performance,” he said.
“There’s another saying: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. In any school reform, program or initiative, it relies on the people and relationships in the school. To be successfully implemented and embedded, the critical factor is people”.
Willetts said a school’s people and the relationships that are formed between them are markedly more important than any strategy that could be written down on paper.
“In the words of the great Sir Ken Robinson, the school culture creates the conditions for students to learn and flourish,” he said.
“The culture and beliefs and collective efficacy of our school around the importance of wellbeing adds to the authenticity that sits behind all of our wellbeing programs and the impact of the strategy at our school”.
Willetts said there is also an expectation that everyone, whether staff or student, contributes to the shared goal of a happier, healthier and more productive learning environment.
“As Bruce Sullivan said: ‘there is no neutral. You’re either putting in or you’re taking out. There is an expectation that at our school, everyone puts in”.
Research proves gratitude is key
In the course of his research on the subject of gratitude, Willetts has drawn from the work of University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman, as well has studies from Harvard University, to inform his own practices at Berry Public School.
“There is tonnes of research that shows that while there are great social and relationship benefits, the great kicker is that research also shows there is a range of health benefits for the person giving the gratitude,” he said.
“In terms of physical health, what the research shows is that if you’re the person showing the gratitude, you feel less physical pain, get better sleep and experience a reduction in cortisol, which is the stress hormone”.
Willetts said research has also found that those who show gratitude exercise more and generally take better care of their physical health.
“In terms of psychological health, the research has found that if you’re expressing gratitude, you will be a happier person and will experience significantly less anxiety and depression,” he said.
“In the current environment, that is such an important factor and it’s been done in clinical trials where it’s being used as a mechanism to reduce anxiety and depression in adults and children”.
Willetts pointed to some simple gratitude strategies for students, teachers and parents to practice.
“You can write an email thanking someone, whether it’s a staff member or a friend. This is something we actively do at our school, and we’re seeing a wealth of gratitude coming from parents and students,” he said.
“You can also write a list of things you’re grateful for, keeping a gratitude journal or even thanking someone mentally”.
Willetts said gratitude has a “stacking effect” in that the more someone shows it, the healthier and happier they – and those they’re expressing the gratitude to – become.
“It’s a wonderful thing that builds on itself over time,” Willetts said.
“If you’re the one who starts it and you lead this in your school community, it will trigger some amazing things in student health and wellbeing”.