Well-being, Purpose and Community

This blog comes from Headteacher of Brundall Primary School, Rick Stuart-Sheppard.

Having been in education for several decades now, I’ve had plenty of chance to witness what leadership at its very best looks like in our schools.
In that time, I’ve observed how great leadership often comes when individuals feel empowered from the inside out, are able to take decisions that are right for their own settings and on a personal level, they are emotionally and psychologically ok.
However, I’ve also seen how the circumstances of our education system in the last few years has begun to hinder this, such as the undercurrent of fear that now exists within our profession resulting from an accountability system – that at times, has seemed to be more punitive than supportive.
Meanwhile, there has also been rising stress levels amongst Heads, who are increasingly expected to manage change that is driven by external forces and in a direction that many feel is the wrong one, such as the imposed Curriculum a few years ago and enforced academisation more recently.
The ‘symptoms’ of stress, over-work, external judgments and demands can end up taking up so much space, that it is easy to forget to look at the aspects of life that can help us build resilience, persistence and capacity for learning and growth.
This inevitably has had an impact on our schools as after all, ‘When the Head sneezes, the whole school catches a cold’ as one education guru remarked.
I can’t remember which leader said it, but I think it really crystallises the impact of how the Head conducts him or herself about the school as, if the head is stressed, that stress flows from the Head throughout the veins of the school and circulates.
Equally, a Head attending to their own well being communicates that sense of okay-ness as they move through the school, and everyone moves a little further up the scale of being able to make a positive contribution to the school community and learning.
I believe if we are to ensure that the latter is the case for our leaders and in turn, our schools, we need to focus on two aspects of well-being and mental health that sometimes get overlooked: purpose and community.
There is considerable evidence such as from The Ministry of Social Development in New Zealand, that our connectedness with social groupings helps people to feel happier and more able to take charge of their lives and find solutions to the problems they are facing.
Meanwhile research from Stanford University, showed that there were very real health benefits to our social connectedness, with their research showing that it can help people live longer, recover from disease faster and protect against illness.
Moreover, their studies also showed that those who feel more connected to others, tended to have lower levels of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem and greater empathy and trust for others.
As Helen Keller is quoted as seeing in the recent book “Deep Learning” by Michael Fullan, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much more’.
There is nothing we do in school that stands in isolation, and so the quality of every single relationship in the school matters. Crucially, this should also include the head’s own relationship to self and whether they are looking after themselves to a sufficient degree, so that they can create and enable positive, constructive relationships.
I certainly know from my own experience that the more I can connect with my (moral) purpose, that education is a force for good and for helping ourselves and the world get better, the more empowered, creative and alive I feel.
This, in turn is strengthened by my connectedness to others-my relationship with Governors, my relationship with the leadership team and staff, as well as groups I belong to outside of school.


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