The Unspoken Covenant
Creating my own wellbeing plan: Is my EQ up to it?
In recent years there has been considerable research undertaken into the wellbeing, job satisfaction, retention and workflow of teachers and educational leaders, not only in Australia but worldwide. Two significant bodies of research have originated from Monash University (1) and Sydney University (2). Both studies identified several key findings about recruitment, retention, workload and wellbeing.
The study that originated from the Faculty of Education, Monash University 2019 (1), indicated there were significant concerns about teacher job satisfaction at all levels. Only 54% of teachers experienced job satisfaction with 34% of teachers surveyed expressing dissatisfaction. This study concluded that teacher workload was a major concern as well as personal health, safety and wellbeing. The research undertaken by Sydney University leading to the 2019 Report to the NSW Teachers Federation Understanding Work in Schools (2), indicated a negative impact on teacher career aspirations due to work demands. Today we are confronted with the reality that unless these issues are addressed the success of the Australian schooling system will be severely compromised.
This significant challenge for all Educational Systems has been on the agenda for many years, yet governments and bureaucratic entities responsible for addressing these concerns have either achieved minimal progress or done little to address the widely accepted research data so readily available, as outlined in the above noteworthy studies. As an educator, with a long career in leading six schools over twenty-four years, I have come to the realisation that there is much that can be done personally by individual teachers or school leaders locally within each school context that can enable a positive response to overcoming this challenge.
Waiting for governmental bodies or educational bureaucracies to meet the challenge is no longer something that I believe we can rely on. It really isn’t a matter of anyone not caring, but more a problem of knowing how to remedy the situation. I realised this about ten years ago when I was appointed to a school in the southwest of Sydney that came with considerable challenges and my leadership was tasked with responding to them. This is a story from my own personal wellbeing journey, and I seek to share and inform others in education that there is much we can do individually to make our professional life joyful, hope filled and positive to the growth and development of young people.
About a decade ago I was approached to consider a principal position in a small school on the rural/urban fringe of Sydney. It had enrolment challenges, where over time, it went from a strong two hundred plus school to an enrolment of approximately one hundred and fifty students. The current principal had given dedicated service to the school for thirteen years and had decided to retire. The Regional Director felt that the school needed a principal with considerable experience that would enable the school to create a new story within the community it served. The school was being monitored closely by the School’s Rationalisation Committee as its viability had come into question, unless its current enrolment trend was addressed.
The first year at my new school provided great challenge but also professional satisfaction as we began to get real traction in turning things through creating a new story for the school. However, the hours became long and weary. With the assistance of the central office, we implemented a focused marketing strategy aimed at achieving maximum positive impact. This involved visiting and building close connections with the preschools in the area. We used the local media to share our educational and community story wherever and whenever possible. In addition to this, we initiated several open days where we also used various community-based initiatives to encourage families to experience our school setting and the great facilities we offered. Much of this occurred outside the normal school-working day or on weekends.
Whilst this was incredibly time consuming, it was highly successful, but this alone would not motivate families to make the school their choice for their child’s education. There were also several performance issues that needed addressing. This was impacting on the quality of education provided and there was talk in the community about the inconsistencies in classroom practice. Dealing with such matters was always going to be stressful, but the courageous conversations needed to be had and after my first year, a staff turnover process began that needed to occur for the sake of all in the school community. Whilst this brought considerable stress to my work, I approached it with the primary focus to lift classroom practice and improve the learning experiences for the students. Change is always difficult, and I knew for some staff this time was not easy.
During this period, schools were accessing funding to employ teachers with pedagogical expertise to mentor other teachers in their classrooms as a means of improving their classroom practice. They were given the title “Teacher Educator”, the contemporary term today would be “Instructional Coach”. The work of the Teacher Educator assisted in building teacher capacity and efficacy which was important in creating our positive new story about teaching and learning. However, there was still considerable resistance by some staff as some individuals saw the role of the Teacher Educator more through an accountability lens rather than that of a professional mentor and colleague whose focus was to support their professional growth.
Whilst I started to get a sense that the parents were beginning to appreciate our work and the atmosphere within the broader school community was lifting, the work of the Teacher Educator for some continued to be met with resistance, no matter how much the focus was on authentic transparency in the role and the genuine positive outcome of working with teachers in their classrooms based on their professional goals about teacher pedagogy. This tension made staff morale at times challenging and was another huge element that weighed heavily on my decision making. There were occasions when I would walk the house late at night thinking of ways to be more invitational to those who were unable to see the work of the Teacher Educator as a positive addition to our improvement journey.
As I reflect when writing about this journey, I see so many elements that I could have done differently and still had the same outcome without the pressure it put on staff and as well as the emotional toll it placed on my leadership. For the first time in fifteen years in the role I began to feel a sense of continued personal anxiety as I went to work each day. As principals, we are constantly formulating risk assessments in our minds to establish the worth of any new initiative. If leaders are not careful, they can become risk aversive and such thinking can negate any opportunity for innovative change. Unfortunately, my leadership began to lose the spirit of that well known saying: “Instead of waiting for the thunder to pass, go outside and dance in the rain.” This overwhelming feeling occurred even though enrolments were up, the story about the school in the community was changing and teacher capacity was obviously developing.
Each term the Teacher Educator and principal attended a meeting with all schools in the region who were provided with funding for this system-based initiative. At this meeting we were given a book to read titled: The Principal As Professional Learning Community Leader, Ontario Principals Council 2009 (3). This publication focuses on outlining those components that go together to create an effective professional learning community. This resource displayed a diagram that outlined the structures needed for schools to be highly successful (Shared Vision/Mission/Values, Collaborative Teamwork, Building Teacher Capacity/Leadership, Professional Development, Learning Teams). The Professional Learning Community (PLC) Edifice was a significant moment in my leadership journey as it highlighted through a one page visual the detail behind my intent in implementing specific change processes at the school. The Teacher Educator said to me as we unpacked the content of this book with other schools at this meeting; “This is what you do!”
I shared this diagram with the staff and this visual assisted staff in understanding the reasoning behind the work of the Teacher Educator and from that time on the resistance to her work began to dissipate. Staff were able to see that we had incorporated much of what was outlined in the Professional Learning Community Edifice into the improvement plan that defined our work. This was a lightbulb moment for many staff and the resistance to change gradually disappeared. The mindset of the staff changed considerably through the work of the Professional Learning Teams where the “I” was largely replaced with “we” when they talked about their work.
My journey in leadership had started to place each component of the PLC Edifice in place, at least in some form, and this diagram finally enabled me to articulate what effective leaders do. It was also the key that unlocked the door for many on staff to a deeper understanding of the purpose behind various change initiatives. However, this multifaceted approach I chose to rebuild the school in such a limited timeframe, meant that I was working constantly under pressure with very little down time in the daily leadership of the school.
I had agreed to a two-year timeframe to implement change in a way that was going to create a new positive story about the school to the parent community and beyond. To achieve such an unrealistic expectation, I needed to work on so many different layers, all at once! The hours were long, the resistance sometimes amplified and the pressure frequently numbing. In hindsight, it was unwise to approach this with such an unrealistic time frame. With the wisdom of time in the role now, upon reflection, whilst I do regard this as probably my best leadership work, it should have been enacted with a more measured approach as it started to come at a personal emotional price.
In addition to this, due to the challenges that needed addressing concerning classroom practice, there were many student-related behaviour matters that I had to deal with, both in the classroom, on the playground and in the interactions between families. Initially, these matters occurred with an element of frequency and required many meetings with parents; about parents, student learning, behaviour and wellbeing. These meetings are never easy, even when one does everything possible to keep the conversation open and hope filled. This contributed significantly to the mounting pressure that underpinned much of my work.
This all came to a head when there was an event that occurred at the school concerning a student who needed substantial support. Like all leaders who find themselves in the middle of such situations, you methodically work through matters and try to resolve them with fairness and absolute respect for all involved. That day was a very difficult one for all as we tried to come to terms with the challenging circumstances. The Assistant Principal, upon reflection with me, said that it was at this point that she saw for the first time a frailty in me that scared her and like me, didn’t know what to do to support me. She said to me that it was like the breath of life had been completely taken from me. In addition to this, she later told me that it worried her because she had always viewed my work with a sense of strength of character and an inner conviction that was able to tackle the most complex circumstances and overcome any adversity.
That night, as usual, when I had arrived home, my children were watching television as they had already had their dinner. They came over to the dinner table to tell me about their day. As they were talking to me, I went to the refrigerator, opened a bottle of wine and poured a generous “large” glass. I sat quietly eating my dinner, not really saying much as my wife observed from the lounge chair my odd behaviour. After I finished my meal, with an element of effort, I lifted myself from my chair, collected my half-finished glass of wine and said to the family; “I’m going to bed!” and left the room. My wife followed me down to our bedroom, closed the door and then asked me about what had happened at work that day? At that moment, the tears began to well and I told her the story.
One might wonder why it was so necessary to share such a personal story. It is important because it was at this point in my development as a leader when I realised that for fifteen years in a very complex and demanding job I had cared for everyone else's wellbeing and had lost sight of my own. Unless I didn’t start to adjust some aspects of my leadership and do them differently, it wouldn’t be possible to maintain my effectiveness in the role and I would lose sight of the joy, purpose and good intent that the position had given my life for so long. In colloquial language, this was what one calls “hitting the wall!” I am sure many of you reading this can relate to it from personal experience.
This then becomes a crossroad with an intersection full of potholes that one needs to navigate. There are many I am sure who have come to this point in their career, where the next set of personal decisions you make determine your continued growth in leadership or where one’s mindset becomes closed and unable to break the survival at all costs story that I have heard from some colleagues in the past. It was at this point that I decided to seek out two key leadership resources that have been critical in keeping the passion alive, the emotions in check and the wisdom nurtured ever since. A professional coach and regular professional clinical supervision by a qualified psychologist are the key components of my wellbeing toolkit. I am so grateful to this story because it helped create a more effective leader and is one of the reasons, I have been able to serve communities through my role as principal for so long. This experience called upon an inner need to transform myself and change my way of behaving.
This story about leadership in a demanding workplace I am sure can be replicated by many, not just those in education. As you rise through the educational, corporate, service or manufacturing leadership ladder, you will be confronted with such experiences. This is often called the perfect storm with the worst conditions possible coming at you all at once. How you respond to these white-water rapids of change, will have a huge impact on your own wellbeing.
As a result of this experience, over the years I have created my own wellbeing plan. Included below are some of the strategies that I have used. You may like to consider exploring some of these strategies in creating your Professional Wellbeing Plan, if you haven’t already done so. At my current employment setting, the organisation places great value on such an initiative and provides considerable funds to principals to support them in their work and the associated wellbeing challenges that such a complex position entail. I believe all organisations need to be open to providing such support to their leaders who are frequently at the frontline when it comes to dealing with highly complex and stressful matters.
Some wellbeing strategies to consider
1. Meeting with a professional coach at least once quarterly
Coaching as outlined by Robertson (4), is
“...a special, sometimes reciprocal, relationship between (at least) two people who work together to set professional goals and achieve them. The term depicts a learning relationship where participants are open to new learning, engage together as professionals equally committed to facilitating one another’s leadership learning, development and wellbeing (both cognitive and affective), and thereby gain a greater understanding of professionalism and the work of professionals.”
This enables me to work within the present of the daily life of my role, the issues, people and concerns that I am challenged to understand and reflect on. Since being confronted with the challenges outlined in my story, each very different but all at once, I have had a coach. My current coach has worked with me for about eight years. She is from the world of education and has established her own leadership consultancy working with organisations both in education and beyond from the corporate world. The work of a coach is one, who through their questioning, enables one to problem solve and seek clarity to the challenging circumstances that the workplace creates on a regular basis. I attribute much of my growth in leadership in recent years to this relationship. A coach is not a mentor whom you meet with from time to time that gives advice on matters to do with your role. A good coach, through their reflection on the dialogue and their questioning, provides the opportunity for the coachee to set clear goals and develop strategies to respond to them. This involves a skillset that requires specific training in coaching, not just an individual with significant educational leadership experience.
2. Accessing regular clinical supervision
Clinical supervision through a trained psychologist is something that all counsellors are required to accommodate into their professional role to ensure their work is not impacted by their own emotional wellbeing. I have learnt that if one is not professionally conscious of their current state of mind and capacity to make wise decisions that are not clouded by a personal emotional agenda, leadership decisions can become clouded and can lack a sound understanding of the situation at hand. Clinical supervision has enabled me to reflect with clarity upon those very emotional complex situations that without such professional support can become too personal to leaders without them even realising it.
3. Regular Physical Exercise
Over the past twenty-five years my legs have run many thousands of kilometres. I run for approximately eight kilometres four to five times per week. I rise at five-thirty am on weekdays to get my run in. This has been built upon over many years. I like to take the same route each day. When on holidays, I still run and when away from home I use the time to get to know the area we are staying in. This is a very special time for me as I am at one with my mind and the many things that it processes daily. My physical examination each year has always been a positive one. I largely attribute this to my regular physical regime. I have no weight issues, high cholesterol or blood sugar concerns and a strong cardiac system. In addition to my running, I have a tennis lesson on a Saturday morning. This is great for taking out the frustration or stress banked during the week. There is nothing like hitting a ball with passion after a hard week at work! This has been a ritual enjoyed for many years that keeps everything in check.
I recommend you find what works for you in developing your own fitness regime. It doesn’t need to be comprehensive. It can be a walk with the dog or swim at the local pool. Getting out and walking for thirty minutes each morning or evening will have a positive impact on your outlook, your work and family life.
4. Regular Commitment to Family Dates
As my work became unrealistic in the demands on my time, I have learnt that I need to pay myself and my family back in some way on a regular basis. Each weekend, one needs to have a fully present date with family life. For me, this can be dinner out, a birthday celebration, an acknowledgement of a family milestone, a visit to extended family or friends or any other special occasion that will give you and your family joy. It can be as simple as a regular date with your wife or husband. On most occasions I try to make this outside the family home context as there is much to enjoy about experiencing such pleasures in settings that are unfamiliar to my weekly day to day grind. During the impact of COVID, I have become more creative in how this looks.
5. Managing Sleep
This one is very important. As I am up and out running most days at five-thirty in the morning, I know that to get adequate sleep I need to be in bed by no later than ten-thirty each night. I learnt the impact of sleep deprivation when I was leading my first school in Sydney. I had to leave by 6.30am each morning and was not getting home till after 7.00pm each night. Not having enough sleep clouds judgement and begins to impact directly on one’s physical health and emotional wellbeing.
6. Getting Rid of The Work Clothes
This strategy I have found highly effective in enabling me to change from the individual who has engaged with many complex matters most days in the workplace to husband and father in the family home. It also helps my mind switch between the two worlds that are so important to me and allows me to become truly present to my family each night. A simple strategy but a very effective one.
7. Create Some Rules About Technology and Email
I distinctly remember when email came into the school workplace as a means of communication for employees. It was 1998 and at the time I thought it would answer all our communication challenges, especially when working in a considerably time poor workplace environment. At the time I remember thinking how good it was not to speak to someone on the phone and go through the pleasantries of phone conversation when needing to communicate beyond my immediate workplace environment. Over the years, the emails I receive and have a duty to respond to, have increased exponentially. Today, the need has gone in the opposite direction where I find myself emailing back “Come and talk to me about that.” In fact, there are some days I can feel my stress level rise considerably when I open my email box to find it full. As this causes my anxiety to sometimes increase considerably, over the years I have put some rules around this method of communication for myself. I open my emails most days on three occasions only. I also inform staff that because of the nature of my work, this is an area where they can help me, especially with how we communicate. I make it clear to staff not to email me after 7.00pm each night, however, they can call me and I’ll happily talk to them. I have also included Sundays under the same banner. This significantly curtails the volume of emails I receive from staff as they reflect on their importance before sending them. If things are that important, they can call me and I’ll happily talk to them. You will find that after a while, many staff will begin to use the same approach when communicating as it helps them to separate their work life from their family life. Many staff will start to schedule emails to go out the following day, especially if they are worried that there is a matter they might forget.
Secondly, stay away from even using technology, including your phone from 8.30pm. This will better prepare your mind for sleep and ensure you keep to an appropriate bedtime and consistent sleep pattern
8. Creating An Interest and Giving It the Time
If possible, it is important to find an interest that sits away from family life and work life. The idea of creating a little bit of “me” time. For me, over the years I have turned into an avid gardener and most Saturday mornings I spend two to three hours in my garden tending my plants like they are family and cultivating that creative side in me that this activity brings. There is nothing more satisfying than sharing the produce from the vegie patch with the neighbours. There is nothing more wonderful than watching stone fruit trees, which I have espaliered onto a trellis, follow their seasonal life cycle. There is nothing more enjoyable than just being on my own and becoming one with the dirt that brings life to the garden that I nurture.
9. Delegating Work That Can Be Done by Others
When leaders don’t do this, it has negative consequences. The obvious one is that you don’t get to the important “stuff”, and you wear yourself out on the low-level matters that could have been given to other key people in the organisation to move forward. If you believe that a leader’s key focus is developing the leadership capacity of others and don’t have clarity and commitment to this approach, you will de-skill the key people you have in the organisation which is naturally counterproductive. However, once you delegate responsibility you need to accept that it may not necessarily be done the way that you would like. One must remain focused on the professional capital you are building, not just the quality of the product.
10. Nurturing Your Own Spirituality
Today’s spirituality is very diverse in its expressions. People are calling out for a spiritual anchor that can assist them in making meaning within the complexities of life. Visiting any large bookshop will avail one to an array of spiritual options: yoga, reiki, aromatherapy as well as the formal religions, namely for me, Christianity. Although many contemporary spiritualities are exceedingly diverse, there are aspects that appear to be common, they seek connectedness. They tend to be holistic in the integration of mind and heart. The search for meaning, I believe, is inherent in every individual. Zohar and Marshall (5) call this search for meaning spiritual intelligence and it is through the engagement with one's spirituality that one heals self and finds meaning and purpose.
Simply by the nature of my workplace, I am surrounded by many aspects of the Catholic tradition that enable me to nurture my own spirituality. As I see my leadership primarily through a servant leader lens, I believe the person of Jesus Christ is truly present in my work and forms part of my spirituality. Therefore, the witness of people living spiritual lives is a powerful message when forming professional connections with others in the workplace and is a means by which one can find meaning.
I place great importance on creating personal rituals that enable me to nurture my spirituality. For example, I have a daily prayer book I purchase each year that focuses on the gospel readings for each day. When I arrive at my place of work early each morning, no one is there to call on my time and I sit quietly and read the daily readings, reflections and prayers. This is just a special five-minute ritual that keeps me centred and enables me to be truly present with my God. Others may find their spiritual moments in working for justice and the common good through such community projects as Amnesty, St Vincent de Paul or groups that support the disadvantaged. This firmly grounds spirituality in the concern for others. Others may find their spirituality nurtured through liturgical celebrations, retreats or through the many expressions of pastoral care or random acts of kindness that potentially enable individuals the opportunity to find meaning in their life. You may like to add to your wellbeing plan those activities that nurture the spiritual in you.
11. Useful Websites to Explore About Professional Wellbeing
The following government websites are useful in providing strategies for professionals in the workplace to support their wellbeing. I have found them helpful, especially when developing my own wellbeing plan.
betterhealth.vic.reachout.com (home-healthy living-healthy mind-wellbeing)
schools.au.reachout.com (teacher wellbeing-self-care for professionals)
These are very simple experiences that enable me to cultivate the down time needed when having to operate at a highly demanding and stressful level for a considerable part of the week. It is now time for you to create your own wellbeing plan that will enable you to regenerate your energy levels and maintain your workplace happiness. Keep in mind that the tasks don’t need to be expensive to implement or overly time consuming. Many of the examples I have shared are very simple and cost nothing!
Reflection Task - Create Your Own Wellbeing Plan
Not everyone will have the same needs for their own personalised wellbeing plan. This will need to fit the unique person you are. Begin to draft your own strategies below that you believe will work best for you. If possible, get feedback from a trusted colleague whom you have great faith in. It is important to reflect deeply about why you have included each activity in your list. Once you have refined it, then test the impact over at least four weeks where you remain faithful to fulfilling each task. Some tasks may occur daily, others weekly.
E.g., Enlist the support of a coach
To enable professional problem solving and personal goal setting.
1.Heffernan. A. et al (2019). Perceptions Of Teachers and Teaching in Australia. Monash University, Victoria Australia.
2.McGrath-Champ et al (2018). Report To the NSW Teachers Federation Understanding Work in Schools. University Of Sydney.
3.Ontario principals’ Council (2009). The Principal as Professional Learning Community Leader.Corwin Press. California.
4.Robertson. J. (2016). Coaching Leadership. The New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Wellington New Zealand.
5. Zohar, D and Marshall, I. (2000). SQ:Spiritual Intelligence, the ultimate intelligence. London. Bloomsbury.