3 min read
10 Dec

Building a culture of trust is essential when it comes to staff wellbeing. This starts and ends with the headteacher, and can often involve all manner of strategies and techniques. Chris Foley, Headteacher of St. Monica's RC High School tells us more.

It's week 14 of the longest term, staff are tired and leaders in schools continue to find themselves in the education equivalent of Brexit negotiations. Each and every day a decision needs to be made that will be popular with almost no-one. 

The phrase, “I’m not the Headteacher of the people who agree with me” must have been said by myself every day. Yet simultaneously, I love the job I do. I increasingly find joy in the day-to-day school mundane. If you’ve done the job you know what I mean. 

Last week, I walked around the Science Department and Year 7 were all learning about the body. (Kudos to my Head of Science for getting his implementation precise!) In each of the five rooms, the diagram of the male anatomy was on the whiteboard, and not a single 11-year-old was sniggering. Until I walked in, and five teachers suddenly became quite embarrassed. 

There is something miraculous and soothing when we see children and young adults respond with maturity and focus. For me this has helped my wellbeing enormously. It has been a challenging time for all who work in schools, and too often perhaps the “wellbeing” (what that actually means is for another time) of the lead professionals is dealt with by phrases such as: “Well, they chose the job.” And my all-time favourite: “Well, they are paid a lot...”

Here then are some reflections on how we have managed the wellbeing of people in our school.

1. Find humour in adversity

The first COVID case in schools is always a shock. It takes time, and at each point you ask yourself, 'Have we done all the right things?' As time progresses, we have developed a new vernacular to describe this. Initially we talked about where we were with regard to being on the Nando’s scale. For a time in mid-October, we discussed each school day in terms of whether it was “Lemon and Herb” or “Peri Peri”. Silly? Yes. But It helped relieve some tension. 

As the term went on, we started calling a positive case, “Bagel”. Code words and everything. During one live assembly led by the Deputy Head, her walkie talkie went off as she was delivering to the whole school. “Mrs K, this is reception. We have a Cream Cheese Bagel for you.” What made this episode funny was that all the pupils heard this, and one pupil said, “Ooh, I’d love a Bagel right now as well please Miss!"

Let’s not misconstrue humour with idiocy. We are serious people with a job to do, but if we couldn’t find something to smile about each day, we would go spare.

2. Focus on a small number of things

We have all been in schools where everything changes all the time. By this, I mean each year there is a new CPD initiative, and so on. It rarely works, as organisational improvement is built up over years. To promote the wellbeing of our leaders we all have very tight remits. Person X’s job is to support improving teaching (note – not making it better overnight), Person Y’s job is to make sure Personal Development programmes are in place. My job is to make sure each job is done well, and not to do each job. 

When I took over my current school, things were not as they should have been. The wellbeing lesson learnt from coming out of special measures is doing less, but executing it to perfection is key. We try to apply the same to our staff. Heads of Department are clearer on what they are meant to do, and their lives are easier. How do I know? There isn’t currently a rush to leave our school, so that must be a positive sign.

3. Classroom teachers are the most important people

This seems obvious, but it often isn’t. If someone teaches a full timetable, they should be given all the tools they need. Keep them in the same room. Avoid giving them a duty when they teach a full day. We often provide breakfast. For example, last Friday was our one year “Ofstediversary”, and everyone got a bacon sandwich. Not much, granted, but people appreciated it. 

There also needs to be clarity about how things are planned, delivered and communicated. Tell people well in advance what will happen, and then re-tell them and then re-tell them again. I send a weekly email; its usually the only whole staff email I send each week. Teachers need routine, and we never change the calendar mid-year unless there is an emergency. (Note: This post was written before the DfE INSET day announcement.)

4. My wellbeing is dependent on school wellbeing

Walking round a school as the Head is fascinating. I walk around the school each day. Without fail, this always improves my mood. I see teachers doing what they have been asked to do, and pupils who (almost always) want to be in our school. Continuing to build a culture of trust helps everyone’s wellbeing. It is the single biggest thing that has improved my wellbeing in the last year. When COVID hit I was worried about planning how to comply with government guidelines, not with how staff would respond.

It is a hard job right now – and will always be. For me, wellbeing is intrinsically linked to uncertainty. When we returned to school in September, we were all on edge. DfE guidance made out that a few positive COVID cases would mean the Spanish Inquisition were going to appear. That’s not really how it played out. As certainty increases then I feel better. We see this with our Year 11 pupils, who have been placed in such a challenging position. 

If I could give one wellbeing piece of advice? Make your work environment a place that reflects your educational values and ethos. And never forget: You are not on your own. My Chair always tells me, “Take a break this weekend Chris,” and he is right. Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing to do!

Chris Foley is Headteacher of St. Monica's RC High School and a Local Leader of Education. He blogs on leadership at On The Bus Education and can be found on Twitter @HT_StMonicas. Chris tells us that his Twitter bio pic is the only decent photo he's got which is why we've had to use it above. 

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