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School Community, Well at Work, Well-being

Finding Wellness in the Work

Co-designing a professional learning experience for Principals

The Generative Listening Experience is the result of a radical question: could we improve the mental health and wellbeing of students by creating professional learning opportunities for principals? 

In 2022, Alberta Education announced funding for Mental Health in Schools pilot projects. The goal of the funding was to support the mental health and wellbeing of students through a continuum of supports, including universal, targeted and individualized. With strong community partnerships in place and robust targeted and individualized supports available to their students, Horizon School Division (HSD) and Prairie Rose Public Schools (PRPS) were ready to embrace a more pro-active approach to fostering mental health and wellbeing in our schools.  

Recognizing the strong connection between student and staff wellbeing and the important role principals have in shaping the school environment, HSD and PRPS partnered with the EdCan Network to propose a universal approach to promoting mental health in schools. We knew that the project needed to emphasize the being aspect of the “being – knowing – doing” framework. When principals are well, they are better able to foster safe, caring, welcoming and inclusive environments in their schools 

The goals of our project were to design a professional learning program that would: 

  1. Support the personal wellbeing of the participating principals;
  2. Foster relationships among the participating principals; and
  3. Give the participating principals the tools and confidence to shape safe, welcoming, caring and inclusive communities in their schools.  

Shifting school culture requires school leaders to implement new leadership strategies, therefore our project focused on creating a collaborative learning community for our principals. Cohort-based models of professional learning create opportunities for ongoing practice and reflection and are effective at building community, enhancing collaboration, and improving professional effectiveness.1,2,3 Rather than make assumptions about what would support principals to shape healthy school environments, we involved them in the design of the project. Co-designing the professional learning experience with a small team of principals ensured that it would be relevant to the local context, while helping to build momentum and excitement around the project. 

Co-design involves working with the people who are closest to the solutions, prioritizing relationships, being honest, making sure people feel welcome, using creative tools and building capability. Co-designed learning has been shown to foster the development of shared responsibility, respect, and trust; create the conditions for collaborative learning; and enhance individual’s satisfaction and professional development. 

The Generative Listening Experience 

The pilot project was broken into two phases. In the Winter and Spring of 2023, the design team, consisting of three principals and one division lead from each school division, worked with their Well at Work facilitator, Felicia Ochs, to co-design a series of six full-day professional learning modules. These modules would be offered to all principals from HSD and PRPS interested in participating.  

The co-design process introduced the design team to new skills (e.g., generative dialogue), new ideas (e.g., building a common agenda) and new mindsets (e.g. letting go of your ego, accepting complexity). It quickly became apparent that the decision to co-design the program was significant. Principals participating in the co-design process shared comments such as, “This is by far the best PD I have attended where you leave inspired” and “I always walk away with a renewed sense of wellbeing and a revived energy for this work and its importance in education.” This positive experience led to the team integrating the principles of co-design and generative listening into the design of the six modules.  

The Generative Listening Experience, as it came to be called, launched in October of 2024. The six days were designed to create opportunities for connection and deep learning around the topics identified by the design team: 

  1. Building a Common Agenda 
  2. Creating Compassionate Listening Experiences 
  3. Wellbeing: Root Causes and Ecosystems 
  4. What’s Working? Asset Based Community Development 
  5. Accelerating our Impact: How to Facilitate Culture Change in Schools 
  6. What will Foster Leadership Wellbeing in Our System? 

Each of the learning days took place in a different school, celebrating the unique assets of that school community. By showcasing success, principals were inspired with new ideas to bring back to their own schools. 

Impact and Benefits 

Adopting a new approach to fostering mental health and wellbeing in schools raised questions about how to measure the project’s impact. In a little over a year, would a project aimed at supporting principals have a measurable impact on the school environment or student and staff wellbeing? A review of the staff wellbeing and student assurance data suggests that one year is not long enough for the benefits reported by the principals to be reflected in the student and staff data. 

Knowing that indirect impacts are difficult to measure, our project integrated a developmental evaluation approach that included guided reflection, surveys, learning journals (“thought books”), observations, and a three-minute thesis.  

Self-report data showed that participating in the Generative Listening Experience increased how strongly principals agreed with the following statements:  

  • I have a positive sense of personal wellbeing. 
  • I have a strong sense of community at work and feel connected to my peers in the workplace. 
  • I am confident in my ability to shape a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe environment at my school. 

Throughout the project, principals indicated that the Generative Listening Experience felt different than other professional development opportunities. Qualitative responses on the benefits of the program showed growth in all three elements in the being – knowing – doing framework.  

“It is a time to pause, reflect, and reset for the next few weeks.” 

“The ability to listen to others with wisdom and experience, connect with other admin, and time to reflect on my current practices.” 

“Allows me to focus on how the way I interact with community and make sure I am following the right path.” 

Within the sessions principals discussed observable indicators of wellbeing and a safe, welcoming, caring and inclusive school environment. These included:  

  • Are people flexible and adaptable to changing needs and priorities?  
  • Do people finish the day with as much energy and excitement as when they started?  
  • Are people collaborating?  
  • Are people generous with their time, energy and resources?  
  • Are we operating at sustainable levels?  

Over this past year, we have observed the participating principals embody these ideals. We witnessed nearly 100% attendance across all six days of the Generative Listening Experience, with the principals deeply engaged in each day. The practice of building relationships and expressing vulnerability allowed the principals to show up in admin meetings with more confidence and willingness to engage in challenging discussions. We experienced the generosity being shared in these schools, sharing knowledge among colleagues and delicious treats in the staff room. We noticed an expectation to check-in with each other, follow established norms, a spirit of collegiality and many other positive ways of being increase as the year progressed. Many of these themes were reflected in the three-minute theses shared by the principals on their last day together. In three minutes, each principal shared their insights and learning from the past year.  

As we continue to focus on our principal wellness, we know that wellbeing and mental health are human issues, and that wellbeing is something that must be experienced. We know that relationships don’t develop by accident, we must intentionally make space for them. Giving principals the opportunity to choose how they will participate enhances the learning experience and builds momentum for growth. We know that system leaders must continue to learn tools for systems change and that we need human-driven solutions embodied by our school communities. Continuing to use a co-design process builds capacity in our leaders which, in turn, sustains this important work.  

Photo: Getty Images Signature

 

Watch the Stories of Success Webinar 

THE GENERATIVE LISTENING EXPERIENCE WITH HORIZON SCHOOL DIVISION AND PRAIRIE ROSE PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Watch the Three-Minute Thesis Videos 

Melissa Gartly: Say Yes 
Rocheal Howes: Connect 
Klaas Hoekstra: Joy
Corey Steeves: Social Capital
Craig Corsie: For the fun of it

 

References 

  1. Sperling, J., Carson, M. & Rossi, F. (2020). Maximizing behavioral change in leadership development programs. McKinsey & Company. 
  2. Mauldin, R.L., Barros-Lane, L., Tarbet, Z., Fujimoto, K., & Narendorf, S.C. (2022). Cohort-Based Education and Other Factors Related to Student Peer Relationships: A Mixed Methods Social Network Analysis. Educ. Sci. 12, 205. 
  3. The Energy Factory PL and Deakin University ‘The Flourish Movement – Helping School Principals Flourish Not Just Cope (2022 Report)’, produced by The Energy Factory PL Sydney Australia 

 

 

Meet the Expert(s)

Karen Rancier

Associate Superintendent of Human Services, Horizon School Division

As the Associate Superintendent of Human Services in Horizon School Division, Karen focuses on taking care of staff by setting them up for success through motorship and metal health programming. She also supports the Counselling and Indigenous Education teams as part of her portfolio.

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Lisa Lindsay

Assistant Superintendent, Student Experiences, Prairie Rose Public Schools

Lisa Lindsay is an experienced educator with over 30 years spent teaching, coaching, and being an administrator. Most recently, she has embraced her role as Assistant Superintendent Student Experiences for Prairie Rose Public Schools.

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