This expert interview is with former Headteacher, executive coach and well-being expert, Samantha Jayasuriya.
1. How do you define Wellbeing?
The way I would define “Wellbeing” is a state of positive physical, mental and emotional health which enables a person to live a creative life.
2. How has Wellbeing become a particular area of interest for you?
My interest started around the same time as I became a Headteacher, and began to notice how exhausted I was around the ends of term. Like many of my fellow Heads I spent too many holidays fighting flu instead of sharing joy with my family and friends. A chance meeting with an artist friend who had spun, naturally dyed and knitted an autumnal jumper made me reflect on how I used my time out of work.
By placing boundaries on my work, leaving at 6pm and not looking at emails at home I created the space to think and enjoy time with my family and friends, who helped to keep me grounded.
I recognised that rest was vital for me to recharge, and a chance for me to take off the mantle of responsibility that I wore as a Head. I took up knitting again, enjoying the creative process as well as the finished product. This became my kind of mindfulness or meditation. Research backed up my knowledge that my well-being was being enhanced. The repetitive nature of a simple pattern de-stressed me, quieted my mind and had the added benefit of creating new neural pathways in my brain.
It became increasingly obvious to me that enhanced wellbeing was a powerful tool, both for leaders and their teams.
3. How can School Leaders Safeguard their own Wellbeing?
In my day-to-day work I had always assumed that I was very active. People would say “You are always on the move and so busy”. However a movement tracker revealed the opposite. It is so easy to come into school, switch on the computer and be busy on a keyboard all day.
Sitting in a hunched position in front of a screen for a long period of time gives you a posture like a pterodactyl and knee joints that are completely unsupported by any surrounding muscles. Using the Pomodoro technique of 25 minutes on a task and 5 minutes movement, I made myself move and built this into my craft time as well.
Many Heads spend hours advising pupils about getting a good night’s sleep and avoiding mobile phones before bed. But like so many of us, I too found myself falling under the sway of my phone and like an unwanted bedbug it nibbled away at my sleep. By removing it from my room I cut out the scanning, swiping, surfing routine and I immediately improved my sleep. I was more rested for the busy day ahead.
By building in a full lunch break into my day I modelled good habits to other staff, who left to their own devices might stay in their classroom to quickly eat a sandwich. By eating regularly, or preparing a small meal together, I shared the message that everyone needs a break in the school day.
I talked about the changes I made with my colleagues and listened to the ways in which they too were focussing on their wellbeing. It became clear that wellbeing starts with the self, and that only then can you extend it to the team.
A team takes their lead from their leader. If all the staff see is someone working a 60 hour week, who doesn’t look after their physical or mental health than it will be hard to get the team to develop.
It’s important to remember you are a person not a title. Take off the mantle of responsibility from time to time and instead recall the excerpt from the airplane health and safety routine and ‘first put on your own oxygen mask’.
A leader can build their own well-being by : –
– Being curious about themselves and their routines
– Being courageous enough to make changes and develop weaker areas
– Seeking support from their communities
What obstacles prevent School Leaders from maintaining their Wellbeing?
– Workload and work pace
– Poor time management
– The mistaken external perception that a Headteacher must be flat out busy 24 x 7
– The internal critical voice that berates rather than applauds
– An emphasis on the tactical rather than the strategic
These are very common factors, but that’s not to say that leaders are not aware of them. People I have coached usually come to sessions knowing what is missing in their life. They want to take back control of their wellbeing and their schools. They know that their own wellbeing leads to a much more connected school community.
Recent research carried out by the City University of London 2017 on teacher wellbeing concluded that one way to enhance wellbeing is to reflect on small actions that would give you more autonomy, competence, and relatedness. But there’s a difference between knowing something and acting on it. That’s where coaching can help.
What’s your advice to School Leaders who want to improve wellbeing in their school?
1. Revisit Maslow’s hierarchy. Look at each of the pyramid sections in turn, you can address how well you and the school are doing to meet these needs. The recommendations from the City University research link very closely the top tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy – self actualisation, self esteem and belonging.
2. Work with a coach to develop wellbeing with the whole team and get the word out that the school will thrive with a balanced view on physical, mental and emotional health.
3. Keep it simple and link any change to what you would want for your pupils. At my last school the introduction of the Daily Mile was a hugely positive experience for both the pupils and the staff. If you want pupils to be more active you need the staff to be more active too.
4. In schools, we focus on safety and safeguarding but it is important to make sure the environment is warm and welcoming as well as secure. We can use colour and shape to help do this as it is now known that these things have a big impact on our wellbeing as Ingrid Fetell Lee explains in her fantastic TEDtalk on joy. Her work in this area is fascinating and can be easily applied in our schools.
5. Read the work of Shawn Achor who is one of the leading experts on happiness, success and potential. In his book Big Potential, he concludes with a telling reminder about community.
He talks about the Masai warriors of Kenya. When they greet each other they ask “How are the children”. For everyone, even those without children, the correct answer is “all the children are well”. He goes onto state, “That’s because according to their social script things can’t be fully good for one individual unless everyone in the community is thriving.”
That’s certainly true for schools, but so is the inverse. If we flip it on it’s head we get:
“How are the leaders?”
“All the leaders are well.”
Mindfulness in Schools – Expert Interview with Judi Stewart
With growing research supporting the benefits of mindfulness, Integrity Coaching associate Judi Stewart explores what “mindfulness” really means, how schools can be transformed by mindful practices and shares some fantastic tips about becoming more mindful amidst life as a school leader.