Jo Mason, Director of Innovations and Professional Learning at the Principals Australia Institute, spoke to Education Matters magazine’s Kathryn Edwards about the importance of harnessing teacher and principal health and wellbeing in our schools, encouraging positive relationships and how principals can best deal with greater autonomy.
In what ways is principal and teacher wellbeing critical to student wellbeing?
I believe it’s like a domino effect where the culture and the energy and the enthusiasm of all of the groups are interdependent. So when one group has good health and wellbeing it tends to flow on, and it flows on both ways, but mainly in a principal to teacher to student direction. It is quite capable of flowing the other way of course, if kids aren’t feeling good you can certainly tell – and it’s not only about that it’s about the empathy and understanding that it’s really in wellbeing. So we’re talking about health and wellbeing and its wider sense. We’re talking about not only physical health, but we’re talking probably more about social and emotional health and wellbeing – and that’s why empathy and understanding comes into it. So if principals and teachers have health and wellbeing themselves and they also have talked about it in a conscious way, and just haven’t accepted it exists, then they’re likely to understand that some students come to school perhaps needing the school to bolster their health and wellbeing in some way. Perhaps all students need to have their health and wellbeing sustained through school at the very least. Principals and teachers also understand that an organisation where everyone’s feeling good about themselves, being there and working with one another is basically going to be more productive. So I think that’s the point I’d really like to make there – that it’s a conscious intention that’s coming from each group and so people are aware of the nature of health and wellbeing and their options and possibilities rather than just assuming it’s already in place, because it may not be for some people.
What’s some of the notable work going on in schools in regards to harnessing principal and teacher wellbeing?
With the principal and teacher wellbeing there’s a lot of work going on, if I can start at the other end, on student health and wellbeing. There are some big Federal Government programs and in an interesting way, because principals and teachers are really focused on student outcomes, having programs that focus on student health and wellbeing inevitably flows over to teachers and principals. First of all principals make a conscious decision to do it since they understand the relationship, and therefore it starts the domino effect or the circular effect happening in the school – even if it wasn’t happening there before. The second thing is that when teachers are teaching something naturally they think about it and quite often, if not all the time, they have a think about where they’re placed in the relation to the topic they are teaching. So in the early days of [mental health initiative for secondary schools] Mind Matters it’s interesting to note that to start with we thought we were engaged with teachers in only talking about students. Student health and wellbeing was our major target outcome. In the early days of face-to-face professional development, we thought of teachers as the professional communicators. What we then started to understand was that in engaging in discussions about students on this particular subject matter, teachers also reflected on their own health and wellbeing. And in a lot of cases they picked up and applied ideas and thoughts because many teachers over the years have never thought in terms of their own health and wellbeing. Increasingly they are now but that was something that we noticed as we went further on with this project. So the same has happened with principals to some extent, sometimes they think, “oh yes that’s a great idea” and they don’t engage with it as an individual or professional. But if they do engage with health and wellbeing many of them have started to reflect on it in their professional life. That’s where most people have begun because all of our efforts have tended to be focused on students. Over the last couple of years however, people have now started to think about a teacher’s health and wellbeing as a separate topic on its own. And this has been a more extensive than the general occupational health and safety focus which every organisation in education looks at. The focus has included taking into account the nature of teaching and the teaching environment, and the changes, and therefore that we need to attend to these aspects specifically. Many teachers are also engaging with students who have a greater range of needs and this puts more pressure on teaching and on people’s responsiveness to students. If you don’t have a mechanism to renew your enthusiasm or at least sustain it and keep it going, then over time your organisational capacity will diminish – and the same is true for principals and teachers personal capacity to keep pace with educational change.
Now there are not a lot of programs that are really focused on teachers alone mainly because money is short, and many people also feel slightly nervous about focusing only on teachers or only on principals’ health and wellbeing. The Principals Australia Institute is one of few organisations that offers it in the educational field and that’s because we’re outside the employment relationship so this doesn’t have any industrial or employment connotations, if I can put it that way. We also try and link it up with student wellbeing because they are interrelated. We’ve had to work backwards in a sense from student wellbeing to our own personal understanding of health and wellbeing before but now we’re trying to get people to understand and think about principal wellbeing particularly in a time of principal and school autonomy directly – and understand it’s not self-indulgent and it’s not a waste of money. We need to be focusing on students. As long as we keep this outcome in mind any support for our own professional health and wellbeing will flow through to better support for students.
How can principals best deal with the greater autonomy placed on them these days?
First of all there are different concepts of autonomy operating in Australia and in different states. Some people have complete autonomy already, or at least close to it, andthis includes independent schools and they operate often with a board. And so even when you have an autonomous situation you always have to pay attention to the needs or the accountability in some way. For example you’re always accountable to the community to a certain extent if you’re in a remote community school. Those people who are looking at autonomy that are currently within systems and sectors will find the autonomy is going to be measured in some way. With autonomy there will be some aspects that the principal can operate with, in a much wider sphere than they have in the past, but there’ll also be some leadership areas which they will still have restrictions or requirements. So autonomy is a little bit of a loaded term in some ways – it may mean different things in different locations. But if you’re going to address autonomy it’s a bit like when any job changes, first of all you have to have a sense of what the change is going to be for you. For a lot of people who’ve operated in a system or sector, this is really a brand new ballgame isn’t it?
So you need to know what you’re actually going to be accountable for as a leader. And about what levers or what things you can influence or use to reach that accountably requirement. Because sometimes you’re given a lot of accountability but the number of systems that you can use is actually a bit limited because the system or sector still expects you to meet a set of requirements. You also need to understand as a leader that when you’re placed out there just a little bit further from being in the system in a traditional sense, there are going to be some other factors that might impact on your ability to reach your accountabilities. That means that you personally as a leader have a new balance within the job and you need to be aware of what that is now. If you have a new bargain or balance for your job you actually have a new job. So you then have to have a think about how are you going to approach that new job. If you’re in a system or sector it may be because some aspects have been taken care of in the past even though you might not like the way it was done then, this new capacity actually frees you up, let’s say to do a bit more in the teaching and learning area or in the personnel selection. If that system or sector support is no longer there and you’re expected to do it, you have to have a think about how that will make your job different. It may mean that you might have less time to do perhaps an area that you really love. Let’s say it’s professional development or it might be having lots of contact with parents, because the leadership role has expanded and the balance has changed. It may mean that you have to also negotiate with your leadership team and change their job, because there will be a flow down or a flow across effect. So because jobs are so important in the modern world, and teaching, I think is so much a job that depends on people’s passion and energy means the wellbeing link is really closely there in the autonomy sense. As a leader you have a huge opportunity here because you are freed up – which is both interesting or slightly frightening sometimes. At the same time you might have the capacity to do more in health and wellbeing than you’ve ever done before, and to orientate the school, to meet the needs of the kids even more than you do now.
So autonomy is a mixed bag. Once you’ve defined what it is, be clear about what it means and what it means to you personally, but at the same time have a think about what it might mean for health and wellbeing. It could be that you stop being in the middle of a hierarchy ‘sandwich’, which causes a lot of health and wellbeing difficulties for principals, and you may in fact have a lot more capacity to take action rather than being a bit frustrated. So that’s one of the great gifts of it. On the other hand you might be asked to be accountable to a whole lot of factors, but you’re still constrained by how much you can move around to meet that accountability.
Are you able to shed light on what ways principals can best encourage student-teacher relationships to flourish at their school?
First of all obviously you need to believe that they’re critical. I would say that 100% of principals do believe that. But I think you actually need to continually acknowledge that this issue is important and the reason for that is because there’s so many resources, materials and frameworks, all sorts of things that people have to focus on in their role as teachers. And they’re out there demanding attention, mostly content-based, and while the resources are fantastic, at the same time people can get drowned in those and lose sight of the essence of for getting it all operating is in fact relationships. The second thing I think is principals need to communicate is as students will learn if they have a sense of belonging and this is engendered by an adult who’s at the school who cares about kids, who encourages them and supports them to achieve what they want to do. So the principal needs to get that message out there and they need to enable everything that’s going to give that sense of belonging to be put in place. And they need to do that by emphasising certain sorts of teaching and learning approaches that are relational rather than totally driven by content. They need to give people confidence to work on relationships first as a basis for achieving all of the other things that we have to achieve, and I think that that’s probably the most important thing. If you’ve got good relationships, you know the belonging and the stability and the connection which brings attendance, by far the most important thing, and the teachers managing teacher-student relationships but also student-student relationships. If it’s working, old or young in a safe place in all senses of the word then you optimise learning. Because children have the ability to examine things calmly and they’re also going to want to have their choices validated so therefore they extend themselves and so it goes on. So it optimises the learning in the schools and all principals understand that.
Looking at the impact of the parents and the wider community, how can principals best encourage positive relationships between themselves, the parents and the school community?
I’ve seen quite a lot of this happening across the board and it’s terrific. Let’s take health and wellbeing which is what we’re talking about now at the moment, and I’ve seen a lot of people use this topic as a way they open up a dialogue very early about student health and wellbeing and then, student health and wellbeing and the school as well as parent health and wellbeing, they have positive conversations with people very early on and it’s about something obviously we all care about. They talk about its connections to learning and then they gain common ground on it and then they talk about, and if things go wrong, contact us. I seriously think that that this almost is the way that you approach working with parents. You need involvement, having parents and schools working together is the best possible thing for kids. But strangely it’s also really good for principals and teachers. I think working in isolation or “working at odds with what’s happening at home” is a really difficult position to be in for everybody particularly the child, but certainly for people at the school. So if you can talk early and make opportunities to do that, get common ground and then have a method to talk about it if things go a little bit awry, that’s the way to have that. Working with the community on positive things early on, which includes health and wellbeing, is one way of operating. I’ve seen schools and communities come together on the very big issues, and another key topic of course is learning. But one thing I do know is that principals and teachers are really quite sensitive to community views on schools and staff flourish when someone gives them a compliment that’s due to them because of their hard work. They really need that positive feedback so we should create opportunities for people to have this feedback. On the other hand we also have to accept that a lot of people perhaps might not have caught up with some of the changes in education so we have to provide a lot more information in a way that people can actually access it.
Obviously the focus is a lot on the system at the school level, but what can principals do to help take care of themselves?
One of the things is, principals are often, sort of left on their own or they have a sense that they are on their own in relation to health and wellbeing. This is mainly because I guess a lot of systems are focussing on so much and education is not over funded, let’s put it that way! So if I was able to I’d say that while we need to balance organisational requirements to look after teachers and principals and other staff, because there are other staff working at schools, in terms of what you can do personally there’s a great deal. I did a lot of work for Mind Matters on staff health and wellbeing, and I covered around 20 or 30 thousand people by myself and the team. I’ve also talked to about 800 principals and leaders across Australia, but mainly in NSW, about what you can do as an individual. The first thing is I guess if you can stop for a moment and consider it and think about what their beliefs in relation to health and wellbeing are. I mean many people have never even considered that they have to support their health and wellbeing. Because the job is changing people need to recognise that just with the passage of time, but also with the changes that are occurring, that they may need to do this much more consciously perhaps than they have in the past. And some of our belief systems, you know the fact that they’ll recover from stress by the next morning or, say to themselves “yes that was deeply distressing but I’ll get over it”, need to be examined. I mean some of these matters tend to accumulate over time and so we’re talking to people about getting together collegially and having some structures to talk about sustainability and recovery and not just exchanging stories or, having a bit of a complaining session and saying what a tough day it is, but instead really examining things and coming out with positive ideas about going forward. And that’s quite difficult for principals; it’s about making some time for it. The other key point is to take care of ourselves in a range of ways, for example we believe that the physical aspect of health and wellbeing is really important to professionals who work in a knowledge industry and who work as managers. Quite often we find that principals and teachers are talking about intellectual things and if they’re involved in very good strong relationships, very emotional things, but they also need to have a sense of their own physical health and wellbeing. So Principals Australia Institute really believes the physical side of health and wellbeing, and also the social aspects are as important as anything else.
So, Principals Australia Institute has developed a model that also includes the physical as well as community and altruistic aspects. These aspects are really important to get back in touch with as professionals because otherwise people get overloaded with work and they can lose their way. We’re talking to people about, if you look after yourself more physically, you’ve got all that energy, and so then how can you motivate yourself to take care of yourself? Because a lot of these people are very smart but they still don’t do exercise for example. It’s all about making some choices and understanding that perhaps choosing physical health and wellbeing will enable them to enjoy the job more.
The other thing we’re talking about besides collegial action, is to get people to consider getting in touch with what’s really important to them in the job. Finding ways talk and express about some of the difficulties because they come across some pretty tough situations as a profession, and that includes journals and protocols for proper professional discussion. Some of the latest research that’s coming through is about mindfulness and ensuring that you’ve got good strong social networks that are outside work that can act as a nice balance in life. Mindfulness really is enabling people just to move and take a break, instead of going from one big crisis and then you’ve got another meeting, it’s enabling you to find ways just to let the stress and the build-up go for a moment so that you’re able to operate really well and to come out of the day still feeling that you want to go back the next day.
We need to also ensure that you’ve got a strong team who works with you. So we’ve been also talking to people about ensuring that that’s helping as well. And those things do make a difference to people.
I think being a principal is similar in terms of health and working risk as other high-level stress occupations like the police. These are service industries and quite often we’re really working as hard as we all can but we have to understand that some of the events that we’re hearing about or we’re witnessing or we’re dealing with, have a huge impact on us personally. So we do need to think about this stuff, it’s a very important topic for the future of education and to attract people to it. That’s why Principals Australia Institute is doing work on graduate teachers and we’re talking to them right from the beginning of their career about looking after health and wellbeing. Some of the people I’m talking to are saying they’re really worried that new professionals in education have this strong sense of doing as much as they can for kids but they’re not sustaining themselves and they haven’t got a sustainable method of operating in the job.
I do think that for students, teachers and the other staff at school who are not teachers but who perform important jobs, principals, and the community, if you’re doing health and wellbeing you need a slightly different focus on each. But you do need to relate to them all because in one school community certainly, these approaches need to have congruency. A principal might have a greater sense of isolation perhaps, I don’t know than other people or a greater sense of accountability. I also think that we need to discuss it more, not as an industrial issue but from a positive sense about how we can address this. We have very intelligent people in education I believe, and I think this is bigger than the occupational health and safety perspective, it’s about the nature of the way that we do teaching and learning in Australia. We don’t do it from worksheets and from rote we do it on the basis of what’s happening between people. Learning is a social thing and we need to acknowledge that it doesn’t occur in isolation it occurs as a whole societal thing really – and this is why the relationship of learning and health and wellbeing is really important.
Jo Mason is the Director of Innovations and Professional Learning for Principals Australia Institute.
Jo currently undertakes PAI professional development and services including online services for school systems, professional associations, individual schools and other organisations in the area of leadership, whole workplace health and wellbeing, child protection curriculum, leading curriculum and staff professional development, change and performance management. Jo works across education and the private sector.
PAI is the professions own provider of professional development and runs a number of major national schools programs on diversity, community participation, health promotion and international and national leadership in Australia.