Wellbeing Spotlight: Dulwich College Suzhou, China

Don’t let wellbeing initiatives feel like another thing that staff have to do, says Jess Byrne, from Dulwich College Suzhou

Spotlight on Dulwich College Suzhou, wellbeing

Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine interviews Jess Byrne, director of sport and wellbeing at Dulwich College Suzhou, about what is being done to maintain and improve wellbeing at the school.

Could you tell us about the wellbeing work that you do at Dulwich College Suzhou? 

Due to the new nature of wellbeing as an area within its own right, we have worked on several cross college projects. These have come in the form of Internal Trips Weeks, a full week of on-site activities that aim to develop the students as we hope to on external trip weeks. Having these on-site not only reduces the need to adapt to Covid but also achieves more sustainable outcomes, as events are repeatable and already embedded within the college culture.

We have also had a number of staff wellbeing events during professional development days, such as bake-off competitions, swimming lessons and staff sports tournaments. Community Tuesdays have been a great success, where teachers teach other teachers a range of skills, from knitting to finance to swimming, all finished off with some evening refreshments.

“Having activities on-site achieves more sustainable outcomes, as events are repeatable and already embedded within the college culture.”

Currently, I oversee our KS3 PATH Wellbeing Curriculum and work with the deputy head on wellbeing for the senior school students, whilst providing all staff with opportunities to enhance their own wellbeing during the college day and beyond. Being in a three-school college, which stretches from EY to IB, each area has their own specific needs, so providing tools college-wide for staff and students to access in their own way is essential.

At what point did you feel that you need a wellbeing policy or programme? 

Post-Covid we were one of the first schools in the world to re-open. We did so in April 2020 after a period of about 12 weeks online. The first day back felt strange, with only one year group returning at a time and everyone in masks. School was very different: social distancing, small groups, separated desks and no communal activities. It remained like this for some time. It was evident that we needed to place emphasis on a targeted programme that went beyond the usual “make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and exercise,” giving us the tools to be proactive in our integration of activities.

At first, we began with some hap-hazard initiatives: karaoke (KTV) on a Friday lunch; The Friday5, a weekly one mile run/walk around the grounds; and some student leadership groups. Some worked, some didn’t. I invested hours in The Friday5, created videos and an app to support the tracking of student participation, but it didn’t fly. The students just weren’t keen on it. Instead, we pivoted to a much simpler initiative of responsible usage with Year 12 & 13, where students could sign a “contract” to agree to use PE facilities responsibly. We filled the sports hall daily with badminton players without so much as a poster.

“It was evident that we needed to place emphasis on a targeted programme that went beyond the usual ‘make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and exercise.'”

Following the initial activities, we developed these into Look-up and Bloom: Community Tuesday, a weekly device-free day where a variety of activities are available. These include sport, karaoke, student action groups such as our LGBGT society, The Rainbow Club, House Competitions and student feedback sessions where younger students can meet the head girl and boy to talk about the issues which affect them most.

One of the latest developments has been the introduction of R.U Sport for all Senior Students, a strategy to develop student ownership and responsibility. Students are trusted and encouraged to come and book a sports court space at lunch-time to play badminton or basketball, setting up their own equipment, managing their game and ensuring everyone is included. This supports the students to develop their skills and character to make the right choices as young adults: respect for self, respect for others and responsibility for actions are essential. The product of this has been successful student-organised tournaments and a buzzing sports hall every day!

The cherry on the cake came last year when the PE department placed a bid for an extra hour of KS3 Curriculum time to launch something called PATH, an active timetabled wellbeing lesson. Each weekly lesson has an overarching theme related to: Pursuing their Passion, Aspiring Leaders, Teamwork, and staying Healthy.

“It is  tempting to spend an hour educating students on the theories of how to start a hobby or why movement is important; however, ultimately we want them to do those things.”

The key to the success of PATH lies in protecting the students’ time. It is all too tempting to spend an hour educating students on the theories of how to start a hobby or why movement is important; however, ultimately we want them to do those things. Keeping lessons punchy and activity-driven is essential. We therefore must let go and allow them some freedom of exploration during lessons to simply have time to do the things they enjoy like working with younger students or engaging in House activities. As cheesy as it sounds, I like to think of PATH being about the journey rather than the end point. If we get to the end of the lesson and it took a different direction than the original intention, so long as it supports wellbeing, that’s OK.

What was your why?

Simply seeing the need for connection from the students post-Covid was enough. It was clear they had missed out on interactions, fun and the opportunity to physically belong within their college community. After a relatively short period of online learning, we then faced a long period of socially distanced education which disallowed co-curricular activities (CCAs), assemblies and anything remotely fun. Many of our students had returned from overseas where they had faced exams during which they couldn’t leave the hall to ask their friends what they had written for question six!

As a college we provided all of the online teaching we could, all the assignments, tasks and video lessons, but what did the students really miss? School! Not the learning bit, but the sense of belonging, the bits you remember when you’re older: the shared jokes, shared mistakes, shared stress. This was my why, the mission to bring “school” back and better than before.

What have been some of the challenges that you have faced, and how have you tried to overcome them? 

Wellbeing itself is a challenge. As soon as you mention the “W” word it can lose half the staffroom. We know that wellbeing means something different to everyone. If I had a pound for every time someone asked if they could “just go home” instead of getting involved because that was better for their wellbeing!

“How can you create an ethos and programme of wellbeing without it just becoming another thing that staff must do?”

Avoid the “W” word as much as possible. Think carefully about your branding: what can you call it instead, and how can you create an ethos and programme of wellbeing without it just becoming another thing that staff must do? I would highly recommend that schools break wellbeing down, target specific areas, and find vehicles which facilitate and promote this as a bigger picture of a healthy community.

What have been some of your proudest achievements in relation to wellbeing, and what has the impact been? 

My proudest achievement with student wellbeing has been the Internal Trips Week we ran in May 2021. Usually, Dulwich students would go far and wide across China for this week; however, unable to leave Suzhou we aimed to recreate the outcomes through on-site events. These included:

  • A Society Day where students were vertically aligned in their CCAs, with older students leading sessions and sharing their passion with the junior students.
  • A whole-college play: Kindergarten, Junior School and Senior School all on stage. The entire performance was created in a single day.
  • Three Individual Sports Days: Kindergarten and Infants School (DUCKS), Junior School and Senior School.
  • Rule the School: a day of entirely student-led activities on anything from a beginner’s lesson on robotics to a lecture on queer media to knitting. The week culminated in a whole-college picnic where the Senior School students flew kites that they had decorated with the DUCKS students. It was Dulwich College Suzhou at its best, and I couldn’t have been prouder of our students for what they had achieved.

Staff wellbeing is slightly different. Two years ago, we launched the first Staff Learn to Swim programme, a 10-week course where non-swimming staff received a weekly swimming lesson from our swim team, paid for by the college. Drowning is the leading cause of injury death in children aged 1-14 in China, and for me giving staff the opportunity to learn to swim so that they can take their own children to the pool was something incredibly worthwhile.

Do you use any products to support wellbeing in your school? 

Habit trackers are excellent. Simple Habit Tracker is particularly good for getting students and staff to build healthy habits. There are also tools on Microsoft Teams such as Breakthrough and Reflect. These are nice little activities which provide opportunities for students and staff to check-in with themselves.

Can you tell us about how your wellbeing focus supports all your school community and how the different elements join up?

There are obvious differences for the staff and students. Largely, students are often more open minded to trying new things; therefore, we want to try and create opportunities which pull them into more social aspects.

“Don’t flog a dead horse. If you launch something and it doesn’t work, don’t be sentimental about it.”

For staff, sometimes they need a nudge, and to know from the off it won’t be more! Therefore, the staff wellbeing focus has been more on community and building relationships. We’ve achieved this through Community Tuesday activity evenings, Staff Learn to Swim programmes and Friday Morning Tea, all optional aspects, which encourage the building of relationships and actively promote time away from laptops and academic work.

If you were to give three tips to schools when devising a wellbeing policy, what would they be?

  1. Dedicate time to the programme. You need protected timetabled time for engagement which demonstrates the value the school holds for wellbeing.
  2. Make it flexible. Wellbeing moves quickly, and it needs to be all things to everyone. Allow staff to explore different aspects and ask your students to take the lead. Start small and build from there. We started with a Friday Morning Tea where staff brought snacks, and now we have a full-on baking league!
  3. Don’t flog a dead horse. If you launch something and it doesn’t work, don’t be sentimental about it; move on and offer something else. Students and staff always vote with their feet when it comes to wellbeing. Chuck it in the proverbial bucket and move on.

This article first appeared in the latest issue of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.