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Wellbeing Around the World: Focusing on what matters

In the latest article in our Wellbeing Around the World series, we chat to Liz Free, CEO and director at International School Rheintal (ISR) in Switzerland, an IB World School, about how she made improving staff wellbeing a key focus when she took on her role and the initiatives she introduced to deliver on this aim.

First Published 15th December 2021, TES

Why does staff wellbeing matter to you as an international head? 

Wellbeing matters as it is a core and fundamental prerequisite of learning. We only have to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from our teacher training days to know how important being well in yourself is in order to learn.

You can’t learn if you do not feel well, healthy and safe. As learning is a collective endeavour, it follows that leaders of learning can only be at the most effective if they too are well.

The international dimension throws in an additional layer of uncertainty and complexity in that you are away from your natural support networks, and can sometimes be in a country where you do not speak the language or understand the culture and health systems.

International contracts can be volatile and there is also an impact on your family around you. International schools need to be proactive in building networks, community and safety quickly for new staff as well as ensuring strong support for the wider community.

Are there any wellbeing issues unique to your school or region?

The biggest attack on international school staff’s wellbeing during the pandemic has been the loss of physical connection. Whether this is during the periods of remote learning or, most personally, in not being able to see family and friends from home.

As the years have now passed, many international staff are not seeing family, particularly more elderly family members, in the way that they might normally, and this is taking its toll.

Whether it’s missed weddings, Christmases or, indeed, funerals, the natural rhythm of how we keep our roots while travelling the world have been frayed. This creates disconnection, anxiety, fear and loneliness.

Being in Europe, with a predominantly European and American faculty, we have seen stability in our staff, no one is leaving. However, when we have advertised roles, we see hundreds of applications where many cite the need to be closer to home and closer to family.

What wellbeing initiatives have you introduced in the last two to three years?

Since joining ISR in the middle of the pandemic, I have prioritised minimising unnecessary workload, as this is the biggest cause of stress for teachers.

Everything a teacher does should be about teaching and learning. If it isn’t, we need to remove it. If there is anything we have learnt during Covid, it’s that we need to focus on what matters.

I’ve seen all kinds of initiatives where people have massages on Inset days and a calming room installed with fluffy cushions. All very lovely, but I fear that these are mere sticky plaster gestures.

We have chosen to focus on removing distractions from a teacher’s core purpose. So, what have we done to reduce workload?

  1. Meeting only when there is a clear purpose and only for the people that it affects. Mass staff meetings discussing an issue that involves 10 per cent of attendees is not ok. We are working hard to avoid this.
  2. Inset days that are used meaningfully and with a clear intended purpose to improve practice. We try to avoid a generalised approach and target the time with specific staff and teams to ensure the activities are useful for those engaged with them.
  3. Flexibility in CPD. As an advocate of professional learning as a core level for school improvement, I fundamentally believe this is how schools improve. However, this has to be integral to the job and not on top of everything else.

    For the learning aspects of CPD, I allocate one Inset day a year that staff can use for their own learning linked to the individual learning priorities that they choose.

    If they would like to do it in the evenings throughout the year or on the nominated day, I do not mind. But the time has been protected and quality time is given.
  4. Mandatory compliance training for areas such as health and safety and safeguarding are completed online and time is given from staff meetings and Inset days for this.
  5. Email etiquette is enforced. No mass emailing unless it is information for everyone, no reply all unless everyone needs to know.
  6. Day-to-day operational information is shared through a daily written briefing and weekly written update.
  7. Digitising systems – such as ManageBac and attendance manager, an online planning, assessment and reporting platform that means parents can message directly on the app, and using systems like BlueSky for CPD sign-off and other digital approvals systems – leading to increased visibility, clarity and time efficiency.
  8. All parent consultations are now online so maximum numbers of parents can attend and also the timings are fixed so no overrunning! Everyone is very happy.
  9. Removal of performance management and implementation of an individual professional learning cycle. We are not compliance-driven.
  10. We have reduced the number of events and targeted them to specific age groups to make them more impactful and avoid timetable compression that has a negative effect on core teaching and learning.

How did these ideas come about?

Report after report details the stress factors for teachers and almost all of them come down to workload, administration and inconsistent scrutiny and judgements about teacher effectiveness.

If the international teacher is already faced with external factors that decrease wellbeing, we have to do everything possible to manage the negative factors that are experienced in the workplace.

My priority as a director is to ensure that all staff can be well and fulfil their role as effectively as possible. It is my job to remove any possible distractions to this and to empower the staff.

How involved were staff in this work?

We have developed the practices based on staff feedback, leadership team observations and reviewing how things are going.

We constantly have our eye to the questions, is this helping or hindering our teachers and our students? It is core to our culture of self-awareness and desire for self-improvement.

What was the impact and how did you measure this? 

We have outstanding retention rates; losing between 1 to 2 teachers out of 39 each year (before 2020, it was slightly higher than this).

We look at staff absence rates, which is a good measure of wellness. Our staff sickness rates are lower than pre-Covid too.

Also, the nature of sickness is not generally stress-related at this time. However, we are not complacent and recognise that this prolonged period of uncertainty, disconnection and volatility could affect anyone of us at any time.

We need to be listening and immediately responsive to staff.

What advice would you suggest to other leaders based on this approach?

Our approach has not been rocket science. We have not done anything particularly special beyond prioritising what teachers need to be able to teach.

I think this period has sought us all to take stick and prioritise what is important in our lives; in teaching, it is no different.

How do you look after your own wellbeing?

I am highly disciplined about my working time and my family time. I have two children and I ensure that between 4pm on a Friday to Sunday evening, I am able to focus on my children and family.

I do not have school emails on my personal phone and do not send emails to staff on the weekend. Being a great leader is not about being an exhausted leader.

Looking after your own well of self-care is as important as looking after the community that you lead and serve.

Liz Free is CEO and director at International School Rheintal (ISR) in Switzerland, an IB World School


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