How investing in a culture of wellbeing can transform a school

How investing in a culture of wellbeing can transform a school

When it comes to building a productive, happy and healthy school workforce, nothing cultivates this better than focusing on the wellbeing of staff.

A 2021 study by behavioural scientist Professor Donna Cross and co-author Sarah Falconer of the Telethon Kids Institute found school leader and staff wellbeing is also critical in helping students reach their full potential, creating an empowering win-win for entire school communities.

Darren Cox, the Founding Principal of Marsden Park Anglican College, and a Certified Crucial Conversations Trainer, is one leader who has seen this result firsthand.

“Supporting staff to be the best versions of themselves, so they feel they are being used for their best strengths and empowered in that process, will always translate into positive outcomes as to what they deliver in the classroom,” Cox said.

Teachers and parents consider wellbeing the top priority

Cox said many teachers applying for positions often now ask what a school offers in terms of care for their wellbeing.

“A culture of wellbeing means you are saying to your teaching staff that you fully believe in them and you’re asking them what you can do to help them be well,” he said.

“School leaders have a responsibility to ensure this culture exists. To foster it, you need to create a safe space where teachers are working collaboratively and to support a growth mindset so teachers are inspired to improve.”

Indeed, wellbeing tops the list of priorities for parents when they are choosing a school for their child, as a recent nationwide survey shows.

A significant 69% of parents indicated they would consider changing schools if they feel that their children are unhappy or not well looked after. This was compared to just 20% of parents who would move their kids to a different school due to its reputation for strong academic performance, and 16% to pursue specialised pathways. 

Cox said one of the main challenges in the teaching profession today is that teachers feel perpetually under the microscope and at work 24/7 because of technology, with the intense demand taking a toll on their wellbeing. 

“A teacher might be on their computer at night, preparing some lessons, doing some marking, or writing a report. It's 9:30 pm and they’re about to go to bed - then they get an email from a parent,” he said. “So, the last thing they are thinking about before going to sleep is a work demand. They can’t switch off and as a result, many are choosing to get out of teaching.”

Cox said a teacher who feels invested in and whose ideas are acknowledged will feel they are contributing to the greater good.

“Schools by their nature are quite hierarchical – so it’s important to recognise there is gold in the staff. Leaders need to look beyond role descriptions to the skills people have – then you get efficacy by expanding them across their ability to contribute to the wider good.”

The importance of authentic, wrap-around support

Another leader who understands the value of putting wellbeing front and centre in a school’s culture is Berry Public School principal, Bob Willetts.

The school’s work in implementing the successful Living Ripples initiative across its campus was recognised on the national stage when it won Best Student Wellbeing Program at the Australian Education Awards 2023.

“Our school community collectively believes that staff and student wellbeing underpin our performance and student learning outcomes,” Willetts told The Educator.

“Wellbeing is part of our school strategic plan. We have been on a long journey of continuous improvement, building a comprehensive wellbeing framework that includes a range of universal, targeted and individual programs with authentic wraparound support for our students.”

Since the pilot program started, the payoffs of the program have been evident across the school’s entire teaching and learning community.

“The program offered us an opportunity to strategically innovate and build on our wellbeing initiatives informed by research, and guided by expert advice,” Willetts said.

“Other important benefits for our school included professional learning, resources and program support by expert providers in the targeted areas identified by the external evaluations in the discovery phase of the program.”

Berry also now has significantly enhanced data on student wellbeing that is effectively a whole school wellbeing pulse check, Willetts explained.

“The system also creates the opportunity for teachers to identify and support individual students; and a comprehensive resource library for our entire community that allows parents to access information and support.”

Willetts said the ‘Living Ripples’ program is already setting the gold standard for other NSW schools eager to replicate its results in their own settings.

“The program has now been adopted by 29 schools across the state, with more expected to follow.”

Teacher motivation is key

Cox said inspiring students begins with the teacher’s own motivation, adding “every young person needs a champion, not just a manager at the front of the classroom”.

“They need someone with a genuine sense of ‘I'm going to help you thrive’ – and when you see them rising, you thrive,” he said.

General manager of Crucial Dimensions, Geoff Flemming, said with 47% of teachers feeling overworked, it was time for a new approach to wellbeing.

“Wellbeing must be built into the management structure of schools, from the top down,” Flemming said.

“We can’t have mentally well students without first ensuring we have mentally well teachers. In order to get there, schools must give teachers the tools they need to speak up and feel supported.”