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The helicopter and the mosaic: wellbeing in schools

The opportunities to make the school workplace a place of greater wellbeing, and the academic research that backs up its importance.

Dr Emma Kell, Those That Can

Session summary 

We’re pretty awesome at mantras and bold statements of our values in UK schools: many of us are idealists, big-idea thinkers, providers of inspiration and weavers of magic. But the magic can’t happen without attention to detail. 

Dr Emma Kell has conducted ten years of research into teacher wellbeing. Her research has demonstrated with increasing urgency that the small things really matter: a broken photocopier, a confusing instruction, a stress-inducing email, a mouldy coffee cup. 

On the flip side, a small gesture like a smile, a cup of tea, an acknowledgement or a check-in during stressful times can stay with people forever and gain precious discretionary effort from our teams as well as genuinely boosting performance. 

Emma explores the apparently insignificant moments and gestures that have huge impact on staff wellbeing, and in turn on effectiveness and retention of our best school staff. 

Possibly the most immediately impactful speaker we’ve heard lately, Dr Emma Kell leads our thinking on wellbeing, one of the emerging repeated themes at ScomisLive. 

Emma rounds out our knowledge of wellbeing in education with academic rigour, and improves our working lives and resilience with easy changes we can make. Wellbeing in education, as for all sectors, can be at risk of being all talk and no action. Emma leaves us in no doubt of our responsibility – and most importantly our ability – to practice wellbeing for ourselves, as professionals in the workplace, and modelling it for students in the learning environment. 

Dr Emma Kell’s bio Emma Kell Photo

Dr Emma Kell has over 20 years’ experience as a teacher and leader in UK secondary schools and is a qualified Performance Coach. Emma speaks regularly on teacher wellbeing, recruitment and retention. She writes for a variety of publications including TES and BBC Teach. Emma has completed a doctorate on teacher well-being and parenting at Middlesex University. 

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Session Transcript

I am going to expound on this subject, about which I am very passionate. I am a mum, I have two daughters (they are 12 and 14); my first research for my doctorate was into balancing teaching and parenthood and whether it was possible or not. Spoiler alert – it is. I wrote two books about teacher wellbeing and selfcare: the first one about how to survive in teaching, and the second containing a number of practical steps on which this talk is based. I am also a coach, which is a huge privilege, and I get to work with people from across and beyond the education sector from brand new teachers to school leaders.  

Wellbeing: what it is and why it’s important 

So – wellbeing. What is it? Why is it important? “So what?”, as a coachee said to me the other day. “There is a war in Ukraine – why would my little worries matter?I want to talk about why it’s so important. The world is a terrifying place at the moment. Absolutely terrifying. I can speak first-hand: my husband has recently been in Ukraine as a journalist and was there when the invasion happened, so we as a family have had quite a tumultuous couple of weeks – he just told me as I started talking that he has been asked to go back. Why do we need such strong leaders? Why should Ofsted matter, or us getting a 20minute break during the school day matter, when there are so many huge things going on?  

I am going to argue that we, as schools, are the centre of the community more so than ever before. We stayed open. A lot of organisations didn’t. Now the consequence of that has been a mixed blessing because we are carrying much greater loads than we were before the pandemic, particularly in terms of the wellbeing and mental health of our young people. But we need shining lights, we need visions, we need values, and we need those moments by the school gate when you stop and you ask a parent how they are doing, how are they coping and how are they managing, and those moments that make a real difference. It’s that great quote: it doesn’t matter what you say, it doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how you make people feel.  

The key principles

So a little bit more about some key principles around wellbeing, just to be absolutely clear, because wellbeing is often misinterpreted as compulsory yoga or extra chocolate in the staff room – and I think I might be eligible for those goodies because I have tweeted about Scomis. But it’s deeper than that – it’s about the fact that we are human beings first and professionals second. Someone commented on a post I’d written the other day, saying “being a headteacher is a lifestyle, accept it.” Maybe for some people that works, but for most of us we need to feel that we are humans first. The people who love us at home, whoever they are, matter more than anything. Wellbeing is about all of us. It’s not about the queue at the headteacher’s door of people saying “what are you doing for my wellbeing? The headteacher of course matters and I am going to talk about that later, but everything we do – the canteen staff, the caretaker, the office staff, the way we greet each other – it all sends signals about the culture of a school and the way we do things around here. 

Wellbeing isn’t about having an easy life. Our young people have one bite of the cherry and don’t we know it more than ever. Our current kids in Year 2, they have barely known real school, have they? Those of you in early years will be really feeling the impact of that on our youngest students. It’s about sustainability. That is what the big picture is all about. You might be able to pull off a 60, 70, 80, or even 90hour week for a couple of weeks running in preparation for a big event. But if you are still doing that three months down the line what is the cost of that?  

It’s different for all of us. So different things wind us up. For me, if you ignore me in the corridor, it will wind me up; for you, if I come and borrow your stapler without your permission, that will be the end of your world for the week. Finally – this comes with a trigger warning – I am not just talking about work. Everything I talk about in my coaching and wellbeing work is about life and people. Life is short – some of us know this more poignantly than others at the moment – and there are references in here to the brevity of life and to illness and to death.  

The key challenges 

So – what are the key challenges? We said we would focus on some of the small things, but I wanted to look at the helicopter first. Ever since I have been working in this area, there has been a teacher crisis. That word “crisis” – that almost feeds on itself. I looked into it when I first started 12 years ago, and I had to admit that the word crisis was an apt word. We actually had a bulge in the number of people coming into teaching in the pandemic – there was some really good news – but unfortunately the most recent research (2021, Education Policy Institute) says that this is no longer the case. So from 30% of teachers leaving the profession within five years when I did my research about six years ago, we are now looking at a projected percentage of teachers – over 40% are planning on leaving the profession within five years. Those new, amazing people who came in during the pandemic because they wanted to make a difference are already talking about probably not staying. That is a huge issue.  

Checking in

In addition to that, it’s looking no better for school leaders. I do a lot of work with school leaders; please check in on your head teacher and your business manager, because it’s been really lonely and tough for them. So take them a chocolate biscuit. But more importantly, look at what they are saying about coming into the profession. Look at the statistics when it comes to the percentage of headteachers who would recommend the role or the route to other aspiring headteachers. The percentage of them who would say “don’t do it” is going up dramatically as a result of the pandemic and you will (if you are a school leader) probably relate to many of these adjectives that people associate with being a headteacher. I work with someone who is a very talented deputy head, and she told me that she cannot contemplate ever becoming a headteacher if it means giving up her life.  

School Leaders

So we have a steeply rising dissatisfaction with school leadership as a career choice, coming back to that issue of needing school leaders. This is urgent, this is really important; where would we be without our strong principled school leaders? How many of them have we seen implode, explode, walk away, or face even more tragic outcomes in the course of our career? This stuff on wellbeing isn’t just fluff – it’s urgent and important. Let me provide a couple more harsh realities around wellbeing and mental health. The Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index is published every year: in 2021 it reported extremely high levels of stress and sleep deprivation. It really is a crisis and every year someone always asks me how they compare to national statistics. They are dramatically higher.  

The wellbeing paradox at the heart of working in schools 

So there is this kind of paradox at the centre of our profession. Because we are givers. Not just teachers – it’s people in social work, people in the NHS, any kind of profession which is about changing lives, we have this central paradox. The central paradox is the fact that what we do makes a unique and special difference. That feels really good. It has a direct impact on our happiness levels, our endorphins, when we know we have made a difference to someone. Then someone else asks for something or someone else knocks on the door. Then there is another demand from the DfE or another email or someone crying in the staff room, then a parent who really needs you. And what happens after a while is what I am calling this paradox, which is that the very passion and drive and love that brought us into this profession starts to extinguish itself. It starts to turn into resentment and into snappiness, those early signs and then later sickness – sickness which we ignore because we don’t have time to go to the doctor because we are too important. So we need to be really careful, because nobody is going to put those boundaries in unless we do.  

Fur coat, no knickers? 

One of the other issues, looking at the overall mosaic, I like to call “fur coat, no knickers” – the idea that things have to look really good. We are absolutely terrified of Ofsted; I understand that. There are good reasons for that. We work in a really odd system. I tried to explain it to a group of teachers in Slovakia not long ago and they looked at me as if I was mad when I said that house prices are linked to Ofsted ratings. It’s this notion that everything has to look good. If you submit your knowledge organiser and it looks beautiful then everything is okay. I work with a very talented leader, and she often talks about this idea of needing to clear out the underwear drawer. For things to be genuinely high quality, for our profession to have real integrity and for our children to be getting our best, it’s never done. It’s never finished or glossy, it’s messy. We need to pull out the PE cupboard and empty the English store cupboard of all of those old textbooks and look at what we’ve got and what we need.  

So doing a good job is a messy process and we need to be aware of the “fur coat, no knickers” phenomenon as I call it. To all the school business managers – hats off to you, you have kept this profession afloat, you are amazing. As teachers, we are a bit rubbish at systems, policies, and protocols. We are dreamers and difference makers. We are weavers of magic – why would we be worried about turning off our projector at the end of our day or checking we have changed our passwords so no one can get into our system? But the more work I do on wellbeing, the more I find that these things – the stitching behind the tapestry – are so important. If someone hasn’t got a proper coherent job description, they don’t know what is expected. Fundamentally, as human beings we need to know: what do you want me to do, how do I do it, and how will I know I have done well? If the clear goal posts aren’t there, around everything from break duties and logging in protocols to when emails are expected to arrive in people’s inboxes, then things start to fall apart. We work in a job where the to do list is never done. It’s hungry, noisy, and messy: it eats us up and we have those days, as a new teacher once said to me – “I had one of those days that chewed me up and spat me out. We could work 24 hours a day and there would still be someone else who needs something.  

A hungry, noisy, messy job 

If you are a parent you will know your life is so noisy. You go from “miss, miss, miss”, to “mum, mum, mum”. No one is going to put those boundaries in place for you. So what brings us down, first of all? I asked some teachers using social media (which is one of my best sources of research – I don’t care what anyone else says about that). I asked some educators: what brings them down and what winds them up and what can ruin their day? Some of these have been mentioned, but I suspect they will speak to your hearts: 

  • Photocopiers I made a promise to myself about three years ago I would never again cry over a broken photocopier. I spent too many mornings of my life at 7:30 with my mascara running down the face because the photocopier was broken again. It matters and stressful – if you have three minutes before the kids are queueing up before your room and the photocopier isn’t working, it’s massive. It’s one almighty lashing to your wellbeing – before the sun is even up, sometimes. 
  • Glue sticks Children and glue sticks… am I allowed to do product placement? Invest in Pritt Stick – all the rest are rubbish. When children leave your glue sticks behind the radiator when you are off sick with COVID, that can ruin your life as well.  
  • Mouldy coffee cups. What does it say about a staff room when there’s at least one person who thinks fairies are going to wash up after them because they are too busy and important to clean it up? That is important, too. It is about the culture of an organisation.  
  • Long, faffy, pointless meetings. I recently wrote an article for Education Support about having a headship and having a life. One of the heads I spoke to said “I never have meetings for the sake of meetings. If there is no need for the meeting, I cancel it. We are not very good – dare I say – as a profession, at being efficient in our meetings. I work with Now Teach, an organisation for more experienced people coming into teaching; many come from other sectors, and they are appalled at the way some meetings are run and how they just eat time.  
  • Paperwork. The endless piles of paperwork which really get us down.  
  • Have you heard the phrase “I just need you to do this, I need you to stop your Year 9 lesson and provide this document to me because the governors need it before 3.00pm.” Nothing is guaranteed to wind teachers up more.  
  • Hypocrisy. If you have a leader who says to you that you should be running your performance appraisal documentation in a certain way and you know full well that they are not doing it, that again is something that really brings us down. 

Wellbeing in schools: the ways forward 

Let’s move on to the positives. 

We have looked at the context; we have looked at the challenges – what are the ways forward? First of all, back to the amazing work of education support. This is again from your teaching wellbeing index, which will be in the resources shared with you. They talk about a culture of wellbeing – reducing stigma, modelling vulnerability, being clear that it’s okay not to be okay. The sign on the inside of the toilet door which says, ‘If you are struggling, here is a number.’ We have bought into this support programme: it’s all right, you are not alone.  

Looking after your leadership means support in every direction. Our system is so oddly hierarchical, and we seem to imagine our school leaders are made of Teflon – they’re really not. I used to be terrified of heads; now when I work with them, I am stricter with them than I am with ECTs because they need to hear it, it’s tough at the top. Support everyone in every direction.  

You’re not replaceable at home

A bit more detail on this. Where can we just shift our mindsets – switch the frame to really be looking after ourselves? There is this whole idea that yes, of course what we do is precious, but our job isn’t the only important job in the world. I know again that might be controversial. It’s the best job in the world, but it’s not necessarily the most important. What we do is really important and will make differences to the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of young people. But there was a meme which went around recently you might have seen: it said, “You are totally replaceable at work; you’re not replaceable at home.” I know we don’t want to believe it, but when I went on maternity leave for the first time, I thought my department was going to crumble; I was actually quite offended to walk in a couple of months later and learn that they were still absolutely fine. 

But your school will still be running after you are gone. Selfcare is not an extra indulgence, it’s not a fluffy luxury. I have seen too many people get physically and mentally ill as a direct result of failing to obey or look out for the early signs of stress, not taking the doctor’s appointment and not taking the space. The cost is too great and it’s not worth it.  

What lifts us 

So I asked that same group of teachers and educators what it is that lifts them – the small things that lift them, that make a huge difference. The first one was snacks in the staff room. So whilst I will always argue that snacks in the staff room on their own are not enough – if you are going to give me free biscuits on Friday, but treat me like rubbish the rest of the week I will tell you where to stick them – but when you walk in and you have some pastries to thank you for a really tough week, that will cause a ripple among staff. Secondly, time with children. If you are a main scale teacher that is most of your day – but it’s ironic; the more we move up into middle leadership and senior leadership and exec leadership, the more we find ourselves in offices. Actually get up, get out, out of the office, however important the Ofsted action plan might feel, and walk around – listen to some children read, play some football. Even if it’s just for five minutes, it will make a massive difference. Those lightbulb moments: those I get it, miss!” moments. Or a staff member: those lightbulb moments for a trainee teacher where suddenly you see who they are in the classroom and your school has helped them get there. Capture them, celebrate them.  

Saying thank you – I have done quite a lot of research into this recently. Staff don’t want a big fuss, so if you have a hero board or a big announcement of who is good this week, that won’t always work. Staff want quiet acknowledgement – a quiet word saying, “I noticed.” I noticed, I recognised that you went above for that family. They really appreciate that. Meaningful thanks, not horrible praise. 

Lifting other people. Noticing somebody who is or could be an up-and-coming school leader. Looking at one of your TAs to say, “have you thought about training to be a teacher, because you would be amazing, we can support you to do that”. Lifting other people really makes a difference to us.  

And toilets – never a presentation without a mention of toilets, they are so important. Quality toilets – you may not have the best building in the world, but there is nothing stopping you from putting a flower or a nice plant or nice posters in the toilet so that people feel that when they’re at their most vulnerable, in their most intimate acts, that they are safe and well-looked after.  

Pay attention! 

I wanted to share from a few more things from our research what works in terms of wellbeing that are cost-free and can be implemented now – in fact, overnight. Professor Paul Dolan argues, regarding happiness, that we have more control of it than we think we do – depending on what we pay attention to. So to expand a little on that, I’m the queen of a good rant. I spend quite a lot of my life indignant, indeed quite angry with the world. There is a time and a place for that. There is enough to be angry with in the world.  

We need to be careful, because actually, I would like to make myself out to be noble. But my husband is good for this. If I rant for too long, he will roll his eyes and start checking his phone. We can drive ourselves insane by doom-scrolling through the internet. Finding evidence of transphobia, bigotry, inequality, unfairness within our society – so we need to be aware. To watch ourselves. Instead, we consciously switch attention to the things that nourish us. I have mine and you will have yours. My children are one of mine. They are stroppy, they are annoying, the house is a tip, but they are wonderful. Interestingly, my older daughter has been saying asking for months “is World War III coming? I think we need to listen to our teenagers more. They are very wise and I’m glad that they are going to be the people leading our world soon. 

And finally, a deputy that I know, goes out every day to find a field. A place of undisturbed nature, with no reminders of her to-do list. To spend time out in the weather, a couple of minutes, breathing the air, listening to the birds, existing, breathing, before going back to face the world again. Solitude – sometimes we need to be on our own. To have the guts to say, “family, I love you dearly but I’m going to spend two hours in the bath.”  

Keep the frontal cortex busy. This is brilliant advice from a coach I’ve worked with. If you can keep the frontal cortex busy – if that is Wordle, Sudoku, a jigsaw or puzzle or singing, any number of activities – it reduces the stress level; your brain is not allowed to think of the to-do list. And finally, pets – cats or dogs, whatever your pets, they make a huge difference.  

My co-author Adrian spoke recently about what he terms “rewiring the negativity bias.” The short version – brains are Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the positive. We can go through the day swimmingly, making a difference to the children without acknowledging ourselves or giving ourselves a pat on the back – and then one parent complains, as we have given too much or too little homework, and it is too hard or too easy. It puts us in a bad mood for the rest of the evening. There’s a reason for that, and the reason is that we are not designed as human beings to be happy. We’re simply designed to survive. Early man had to constantly be on the look-out for danger, for negativity, because otherwise he would die. If they didn’t get a carrot, they could always get one another day. We are wired like that too; when we recognise that, it is a relief. It is not our fault that a grumpy interaction can ruin the day.  

But we can do something about it. What we can do is this simple activity, buy yourself a moleskin notebook (sorry about the product placement). Buy a notebook – at the end of the day, make a note of three good things that happened to you that day. It was an experiment by Professor Martin Seligman who ran it with a group of people – going back to them after six months, their happiness and wellbeing levels were improved. 

Managing attention and emotional energy 

So we are in this hungry, noisy job. How do we manage our attention and emotional energy? It’s almost a cliché, but I love the idea that we are all juggling all the time – but some balls are made of glass, while others are made of plastic. Dropping a glass ball causes significant damage, but you can drop a plastic ball. And that plastic ball might something you can ignore – an email asking you to do a favour today, perhaps. Someone else will have to feed the neighbour’s dog. One of the reasons that teaching is stressful, and that schools are so stressful to work in, is that so many of the balls feel that they are made of glass. Safeguarding, mental health, wellbeing, recruitment, retention – that is why things are particularly tough at the moment.  

I can recommend the book Productivity Ninja – it’s full of practical tips. What the author, Graham Allcott, argues in it is that we forget about time management. We have had tens of thousands of pieces of information coming our way since we woke up this morning. We will never manage our time, it’s nonsense to imagine we can manage our time – but we can manage our precious attention. We each have a finite amount of attention to give – we can choose – and indeed we have more choice than we realise – where to place it. So you can choose to focus on the toxic whingeing – and in even the best schools in the world there is always toxic whingeing – you can choose to engage with it, to worry about it, or choose to sit with that person who is going to make silly borderline jokes and make you laugh and feel good about yourself and reassure you are not alone if that particular student is currently driving you mad!  

On “busyness” and the achievement culture 

Oliver Burkeman’s 4,000 Weeks contains one of my favourite quotes, as follows. 

It’s not just that this situation feels impossible; in strictly logical terms, it really is impossible. It can’t be the cast that you must do more than you can do. That notion doesn’t make any sense: if you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time – no matter how grave the consequences of failing to do it all might prove to be. So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken. 

The title of the book is based on the fact that we are each likely to be alive for about 4,000 weeks, assuming that we live to 80. He says that we wield busyness as a badge of honour. If we are busy, it means we are important, we are liked, people want us, we are competent. But this culture, in teaching or anywhere else, is never sustainable. We can’t do everything, even if it is the wonderful things: the islands that we want to visit, the people we want to fall in love with. What he says is this: technically it is irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You will do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t and the tyrannical inner voice insisting you do it all is simply mistaken! I was in the woods when I heard this on audio book, I had to stop for a second and take a breath. I thought it was very powerful – hopefully you do too. 

The bigger picture 

The final thing I will discuss comes with a trigger warning. It is from a book called The Five Regrets of the Dying, written by a palliative care nurse in Australia named Bronnie Ware, who worked with people needing end-of-life care who would, inevitably, talk to her. Many of them talked about regrets. I will share these with you, because I think they are an incredibly powerful reminder of what matters the most. 

First regret: I wish I’d had the courage to lead a life true to myself. How many of us have spent months or years in jobs that made us miserable, because some guilt or some pressure on ourselves or from outside told us we could not leave? Then we left – and what happened? It did not fall apart. Living according to your values.  

Second regret (I am so glad this one is here): I wish I had not worked so hard. I wish I hadn’t spent so long putting up backing paper or preparing Ofsted action plans.  

Third regret: I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. Have that difficult conversation. If someone in the organisation is leaving mouldy coffee cups, and your organisation is saying that it stands for fairness and compassion, then you say to that person: leaving your mouldy coffee cup is not showing fairness and it’s not showing compassion, and they’re our school’s values! I have a friend, sadly no longer with us, who would stop and admire anyone’s outfit if she thought it looked beautiful. If someone a wearing a pretty dress, stop and tell them! (I can testify it works anywhere other than the London Underground.) 

Fourth regret: I wish I had stayed in touch with old friends. You know the ones. Those friends from university you can giggle with after 10 years at the same jokes. Make a date with them for brunch – give yourself something to look forward to, before the holidays. 

And the final regret: I wish I had let myself be happier. Our job is tough. It is really tough. But it is also wonderful, isn’t it? We are allowed to take a moment to enjoy that. We are allowed to be happy. It is not about always swimming against the tide – or standing on a motorway with cars coming towards you, as one headmaster put it to me recently. Life is short. You are allowed to be happy. I urge you to pursue happiness.