I led a workshop last week for 25, mostly senior, leaders from schools around Hong Kong on school leader wellbeing. I welcomed each participant as they arrived and almost without exception they spoke of what they were hoping to get out of the workshop to take back to their school to support the wellbeing of their leadership teams, teachers and students. During the introduction, I thanked them for coming and praised them for prioritising wellbeing at such a busy time of the year. I mentioned that while their focus may not be on their own wellbeing, it should be. I reminded them that they were precious to their families and friends who cared about them and pointed out that they should care about themselves too. There was an awkward silence and people shifted uncomfortably on their chairs. I find it hard to understand why school leaders find it so difficult to address issues relating to their own wellbeing.
There is plenty of research to support the importance of the school leader to the success of a school. Strong, stable school leadership is closely associated with improved student outcomes, the goal of every school. We know that leadership performance is likely to be more effective when leaders are flourishing. In general, healthy employees across a range of industries, have been shown to be more committed to their job, harder working, more resilient and better able to cope with change, uncertainty and ambiguity. It it is in everyone’s interests that our school leaders are well and able to operate at an optimum level. I can understand why others may not be able to see the importance of this, but it shocks me that school leaders themselves are burying their heads in the sand and working themselves into the ground.
We know that school leaders are experiencing increasing levels of stress. This is not any less the case in international schools than elsewhere. In the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, education systems are experiencing a serious crisis in the recruitment and retention of school leaders. This is closely linked to the perceived challenges of the role and the stresses it brings. Many of the issues are systemic and governments can clearly do more but what responsibility are school leaders themselves taking for their own wellbeing and that of their senior colleagues?
Student and educator wellbeing are currently hot topics. More schools are adopting programmes to support student wellbeing such as Positive Education and there is increasing attention being paid, although still not sufficient, to supporting the health and building the resilience of teachers. I would argue that this journey needs to start with school leaders, if for no other reason than that we are role models for our communities. Improving wellbeing should be a community endeavour, which should start with adults. With the time pressure that teachers face fitting everything into the school day and the fast pace of educational change, the embedding of wellbeing into the programme of any school is only likely to be successful if teachers see its value. The best way for educators to see the value of any approach to wellbeing is by living it themselves first. Then when a programme is introduced to students, it will not be seen as an add-on but as an integral part of the school culture.
In order to get teachers interested in programmes like Positive Education, school leaders need to fully understand the concepts involved and be able lead through doing. Wellbeing is an attitude, a culture, a way of life. It is not a subject. Only by fully committing to improving out own wellbeing as school leaders can we begin to understand this and bring others along on the journey with us. Educators, parents and students are currently hungry for guidance on matters related to wellbeing but before we can satisfy them, we must first nourish ourselves. It is time to stop being selfless and putting everyone else first. School leaders deserve as much as the next person to be happy and healthy but the wellbeing of whole communities will be served best by us prioritising human flourishing and modelling what this can look like for all.
For more of educator and school leader wellbeing go to www.drhelenkelly.com