Five B.C. educators with different roles and a shared interest in supporting well-being, came together in a collaborative project to grow well-being across the Langley school district. Here’s how they did it, and what they learned from the process.
What started out as four individuals from different work roles, each of us having a shared goal of supporting well-being in schools, has become a collaborative passion project to grow and sustain well-being across our district. Through this article, we look back on our journey of learning and collaborating, reflecting on some of the insights we have gained about supporting staff well-being in school districts.
Thanks to an assistant superintendent who saw an unusual, but natural, alignment in our work, we formed our district wellness team in the fall of 2017. We each had different but complementary roles – a district principal for student services, a district teacher/counsellor and a human resources manager. We also brought a health authority partner onto our team, providing a valuable broader view of the communities within which the students and educators work and live.
We started our plans with a district-wide learning series on social emotional learning and well-being, to help staff understand the importance of this learning in schools and the amazing outcomes these skills and practices provide around student health, happiness and success. It became apparent that these were the same skills and practices that we needed to build as adults, both so we could model and teach them to students and for our own health and happiness. We were starting to see the importance of adult well-being to positive outcomes for both the adults and the students.
We decided to make teacher and staff well-being our project focus. One of our first objectives was to gain an awareness of how our staff were doing, and to understand their sense of well-being at work. We wanted to gather people together to start a discussion and generate some ideas to support well-being in our district. As with many exciting and challenging tasks, this project became much more complex than we anticipated, and also very rich and rewarding. We are now at the stage of reflecting on all that we have learned, to inform our plans for how to continue the work of supporting teacher and staff well-being in our district. We’d like to share some of the themes that have emerged for us so far as we analyze and reflect on our experiences and data.
Three interconnected parts
Our work to date has underscored that well-being is holistic, encompassing interconnecting aspects. In particular, we have become aware of three important facets of staff well-being.
1. Well-being is individual. An important part of increasing well-being lies with the individual person. This assumption was our starting point, and it has remained an important aspect of how we understand well-being as holistic and interconnected. Focusing on growing staff well-being had us thinking about how to support practices of self-awareness and self-care. Much of the first year of our project was learning about social emotional skills and bringing that back to the district as learning conversations in the workplace. We found that sometimes just acknowledging that self-care matters and sharing what that looks like can go a long way in supporting people to take care of themselves, especially in helping professions where we are so used to caring for others.
2. Well-being is relational. The second interconnected part that became very clear is that well-being is relational and that we are better together, both in terms of productivity/success and in terms of health, happiness and overall well-being. The main focus of our second year was on the relational aspects in our well-being work. This led us to connect with Dr. Sabre Cherkowski. She was completing a multi-year research project on teacher well-being, where she and her colleague, Dr. Keith Walker, had built a theoretical and practical understanding of what it means for educators to flourish in their work.1 Her research was framed within a positive organizational perspective that highlighted how focusing on and supporting positive human capacities at work, such as compassion, humility, kindness, and forgiveness, had a positive and generative affect that often led to increases in other aspects of work such as creativity, productivity, innovation, and commitment to the organization.
We were interested in Dr. Cherkowski’s research approach of using a strength-based, appreciative perspective to notice and nurture what was already working well and what already gives staff a sense of well-being in their work. We were also interested in learning more about an appreciative approach to positive change, focusing on what happens when the whole system is invited into the conversation to reflect on how we might promote and support well-being across our district. With Dr. Cherkowski and the consent of our district, we designed a continuation of our learning series, inviting staff across the district to join us for three dinner events that offered an opportunity to:
- learn about research on well-being in educational workplaces
- engage in conversations designed to gain a better sense of what well-being means to different individuals and teams across the district
- learn how to design a collaborative, appreciative inquiry project to further build on what is already working well
- ensure opportunities to analyze, tweak and share progress of the inquiries
- provide a model for how staff might create conditions in their work contexts for appreciative conversations at and about work.
At each event, Dr. Cherkowski guided some 150 attendees through a sequence of reflections and activities focused on:
- Purpose (what makes us feel alive, engaged, connected and well in our work?)
- Passion (what are our strengths, gifts, talents that we can draw on to help live out our purpose at work?)
- Play (how might we innovate, create, design environments that enliven our passions and purpose?)
- Plan (what resources, materials, supports and knowledge do we need to build and grow our flourishing?)
The conversations that emerged created a safe, caring, uplifted environment where colleagues shared their dreams and desires in their work, as well as their challenges and struggles. The evenings became a space for building the relational processes necessary for the work of nurturing well-being for self and others in our own work contexts.
We observed that teams and individuals were now working on plans to connect what they were learning about flourishing to things they might try out in their context. One example was a principal who designed a “tree of flourishing” that she took to her teachers and staff. She suggested they fill out all the ways that they, their students, and their school community were experiencing well-being. As they filled out the tree over a course of a few weeks and posted it around the school, this gave them a sense of pride and ownership for all that was working well. It also provided a touchpoint for conversations around struggles and challenges, as there was a sense of being cared for by a larger community that was working together to tend to the entire tree. Within the challenging and seemingly never-ending work of meeting school goals for all students, this principal developed a tool that evoked a sense of hope, of joy, and of agency about being well together at work.
While participants in our dinner series were working on their inquiries, we were planning to find out more about how teachers and staff were doing with their well-being. We decided to conduct focus groups with teachers and staff in different roles. Our deeper learning from these focus groups is still to come as we work with this valuable data, but we have already learned some things from this process. The first is to bring your district leadership and your union groups into the process early. This was such a helpful process and a good reminder that everyone wants well-being. We are all working toward a common goal. The second one is that health and well-being is something people want to talk about. People want to tell their stories and they want to be heard. If you are going to ask the questions, you have to be prepared to listen to the answers and be willing to co-create a plan that moves discussion into action.
3. Well-being is system-wide. Reminding ourselves to engage in our change work from the level of the system is an especially important piece, even though it often proves difficult to navigate and implement. Our commitment to growing staff well-being across the district meant that we needed to think about the system in all its interrelated parts to embed well-being for the long term. Looking back at our approach through a systems-lens, we:
- interviewed as many staff as possible to get a sense of their experiences and what change might be necessary
- established a structure for improving the quality of our communication about well-being through the dinner learning series
- are now analyzing the data we’ve collected to see how we can continue to grow well-being across the system.
We have learned that systems are relational entities, and that we need to take care to avoid assigning blame to any part of the system as a separate actor. At the same time, we need to avoid always looking outside the system for our solutions. We have come to understand that “we” are also the system – individuals and groups carrying out our work together toward shared goals, influencing and impacting all other parts of the system. There can be a feeling of empowerment in knowing that we are the ones who inform, create and follow (or not) the policies and practices of “the system.” Many of these practices are helpful to keep things moving. They create a sense of order and common understanding that help define and support our work. It can also be frustrating to realize that our implication in the system also means that many of our practices and our ways of doing things come from a historical context that is no longer applicable or helpful to us. As we learn more about systems change we are building the courage to look at our ways of working compassionately and to be open to the possibilities that follow.
As we begin to understand the interconnectedness of the system, we are also reminded that the feeling of efficacy around systems change is also very important. There is a balance between knowing that some larger changes take time and will require patience, and that other small actions can happen quickly. Focusing our attention on the ways these small changes can impact the larger system over time and contribute to well-being is at the heart of Cherkowski and Walker’s work on flourishing in schools. We are developing a sense of agency, a power to be able co-create an emerging future where decisions and practices around well-being become a primary component of our culture: the way we do things.
Multiple voices and ways of knowing
One of our most important learnings so far, and what may turn out to be the “secret sauce” for the work of growing well-being for all in schools, is the importance of bringing in multiple voices and ways of knowing. We also need time, space and resources for this work to become sustainable. A few passionate people cannot do this alone or in their “spare time” without it impacting their own health and well-being. In the next part of our journey we will expand our team and look at ways to make this work sustainable and impactful for the long term.
First published in Education Canada, June 2020
1 S. Cherkowski and K. Walker, K. Teacher Wellbeing: Noticing, nurturing, and sustaining flourishing in schools (Burlington, ON: Word and Deed Press, 2018).