Wellbeing is not a new idea, but one of the many positives coming out of the tough times of the pandemic has been the increased awareness and realization that we all need to actively manage, not just be aware of, our mental and physical health. I have presented at several conferences on this theme whilst in China. I see signs of improvement here in China, escalated by the pandemic, but there is still a long way to go.
Overall, I have been very pleased to see the increasing importance placed on wellbeing in the school contexts in which I have worked around the world. This was particularly noticeable in Dubai, which introduced a Minister of Happiness and placed wellbeing at the top of the school agenda, coinciding with the time I was there at Greenfield Community School (GCS). In fact, the minister came to our school to officially open our new wellbeing room!
How do we make a school healthy? How would you rate the health condition of your school? How can you measure it?
Part of it — with staff — is created by making all of the staff feel valued and empowered, and that the school is run transparently. Ultimately if these things are in place and the school feels happy, staff will stay, not just because of compensation. There are much more basic features that a school can establish to create a healthy atmosphere, and I just wanted to share some small changes that have made a considerable difference in my experience:
1. School Bells
A simple one, for me, is not to have any deafening bells clanging. I have worked in schools with and without bells, and I don’t think they compare. I don’t buy the argument that the children, and the teachers, need a bell going off, when they can easily train themselves to get to class on time. Bells make a school feel institutional and have connotations of a factory, whereas the sound of children chattering and laughing and birds tweeting around the school, and other natural elements, is wonderfully soothing for both staff and children. In fact, for the whole school community. Since experiencing and observing these benefits, I have insisted that all of my schools operate without bells.
“The sound of children chattering and laughing and birds tweeting around the school is wonderfully soothing.”
In Dubai we put in bird boxes and took out the alarms, none of this is expensive, but the effect is transformational. We introduced a mindfulness room, and a focus on wellbeing not as a luxury, but as a necessity. This initiative was led by one of our primary teachers and provided a meditative space that could be utilized by the whole school community. At GCS the parent teacher association (PTA) was very active in organizing events to show appreciation for our teachers.
The winter picnic was a great hit, and the end of year appreciation day gave our teachers not just free coffee, but also opportunities for some pampering: facials, massages and messages of appreciation from the community. Having observed this, I encouraged our parent association in Shenzhen to organize appreciation events for teachers in Chinese tea drinking.
2. Use of space
Another key feature a school needs is the sense of space and how you use the space. In Dubai we had a teacher that was a keen gardener introduce class allotments. Alan Titchmarsh, the British gardener, happened to be in town and happily agreed to visit and open our allotments and more importantly share his passion for gardening. Since then, I have worked with staff to have gardening as part of the CCA program in China, to teach children how to grow vegetables and the importance of connecting with nature. It’s amazing how many teachers have been keen to get involved.
“In Latvia the temperature is minus 20 in winter, but they still insist children spend time outside and recognize the benefits.”
A school that is cooped up and compressed can feel very claustrophobic, and this can be a real challenge for some schools that just don’t have the space to expand. Equally as grim is having no outside areas for children to play. Whatever the surface is, children need to get outside and get fresh air where possible. The difference in the mood of students is noticeable when they have been outside during their breaks.
In Latvia the temperature is minus 20 in winter, but they still insist children spend time outside and recognize the benefits. In my current role in China, I insist that we provide balance to children’s education, and give them time outside wherever possible. Denmark sets a great example in this field as children up until the age of six set most of their time aside for play.
3. Creating a community and sense of cohesion
Ensuring that schools are places where students and staff feel they have a voice, are respected, and listened to, is a crucial factor in creating a healthy atmosphere. This creates powerful unity, and the sense that everyone is working as a team might function on a mountain rescue or on a life raft. Find the teachers who buy into the culture in a positive way, and ask them to share about it and to encourage others to join them in local pursuits. Over time it is great to see teachers heading off for weekends together and creating their own sense of wellbeing through comradery with their colleagues. In Oman and Dubai many of my teachers headed off for desert camps together which was great to see!
4. Have fun together
Work should be fun. As the saying goes: those who play together, stay together. Find ways to have fun and relax together, encourage positivity and a glass half full attitude. In times of stress, promote the use of breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and time in the natural environment. In China we have teachers leading meditation with staff, and we organize several trips and events to bring teachers together. In the last four years these have included hiking, boat trips, cycling, barbecues, drop everything and read (both face to face and virtual) and staff dinners. These don’t have to be massively expensive occasions. Small gestures go a long way.
“Many schools are now placing coffee shops and shared relaxation spaces at their heart.”
As a CIS evaluation school visitor, I have been delighted to see the increased importance placed on wellbeing for school communities. Many schools are now placing coffee shops and shared relaxation spaces at the heart of their school. Schools are rethinking classrooms and removing the institutional environment feeling. Schools such as ISHMC , for example, in Vietnam promoting a “no cells and bells” ethos, and a very open feel to the environment. The classrooms, such as the “AC/DC” Music room were named by the students, and the corridors were set up for table tennis time between classes.
I also remember visiting a school in Lithuania, where there was little red tape, and classes regularly went out together for a walk through town or to museums. The community also walked to school or cycled – all of this helps. Encourage children to appreciate wide open spaces and nature, take them camping and nurture all kinds of experiential learning. Put plants in your classroom. Have inspiring and thought provoking quotes on the walls. Have a Twitter feed and a rolling video celebrating school achievements.
Small changes can make a big difference, and inspiration for better wellbeing can come from lots of different places… enjoy the journey towards continually creating better schools for everyone!
This article first appeared in the lastest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine.