An Exclusive Interview with Andrew Cowley, Author of The Wellbeing Toolkit

We caught up with Andrew Cowley, author of The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff, who shared his thoughts on affordable wellbeing, and not being recognised in Sainsburys (yet).

What sparked your interest in school staff wellbeing?

I suppose I have always had a deeply ingrained sense of fairness, something my grandmother instilled in me in her role as a local councillor and which I took with me through my own education and working opportunities before I trained as a teacher. As my experience in leadership grew, I soon recognised when people should not have been in work and spoke up on their behalf.  I also recognised times when there was a lack of empathy and sometimes workplace bullying and the impact that these had on some colleagues and their decisions to remain in the school or the profession.

As I left to take up my Deputy Headship, one colleague sagely said to me, “Well at least you know how not to be a school leader!”

Once in role I was already active in the education Twitter community and sharing my thoughts online led to connections with like-minded, namely Maria, Helen and Matt, and it was this connection that led to the Healthy Toolkit account and blog and eventually to my contract with Bloomsbury.

How does it feel to be a best-selling author? 

Well I am not going to be selling-up and becoming a tax exile and I have yet to be recognised in Sainsbury’s.

Seriously though, it makes me very proud. On the day after publication I was at number 1 in three Amazon categories and had the 822nd best-selling book on that day. This pride however is shared by my wife, daughters and parents and also by my colleagues, pupils and friends in the Twitter community.

The greatest impact though has been in the opportunities this has given me to reach out further. I have spoken at the Festival of Education at Wellington College and at the Cambridge Festival of Education and have also been asked to contribute to the Education Support Partnership blog.

Then at the end of the summer term I was delighted to have my work endorsed by the NAHT in their end of year newsletter.

Though I have had a good deal of attention, I am still me!

How would you describe your wellbeing philosophy?

Wellbeing is for everyone and for every day; for every second of every day. It should never be tokenistic and delivered on a training day or with the occasional session of yoga thrown in. Wellbeing needs to be embedded in the fabric and culture of the school and crucially needs to be about relationships. Schools depend on relationships and without sound foundations these cannot thrive or survive. Also, wellbeing is sometimes about making hard decisions, challenging those who do not buy into it, and pointing out that our words, deeds and thoughts impact on everybody.

Wellbeing begins with ‘we’ not ‘me’ and though we often hear the phrase “Put your own oxygen mask on first,” our colleagues will not be able to conduct their own self-care where the culture doesn’t support them doing so.

Given the current funding crisis in schools, what low cost strategies could leaders implement to support the wellbeing of school staff?

We may have little money, but we can have principles and principles are free. If the school leadership can at the very least have the principles of compassion and empathy at the heart of what they do and can make a guarantee to protect the time of their members of staff, which is a good start.

Be a listening school, but more than just listen. Act on concerns to show you care.

Be realistic with workload. Look at what is being suggested and trialled with feedback marking. Don’t insist on written plans and certainly don’t insist on them being handed in.

Give plenty of notice for everything!

What impact would you say that the current wider mental health debate is having in schools?

At least it is on the agenda, but what it has unleashed is a conversation about mental health, not all of it pleasant. When I hear and read phrases like ‘snowflake’, ’man up’ or ‘grow a pair’ I despair, and of course a high profile tweeter made a rather foolish comment recently which unified Edutwitter in the criticism of it, but also triggered some anxieties in some teachers.

We should be grateful for the work of Clare Erasmus and Dr Pooky Knightsmith and of the great team at Place2Be for the accessible means they have enabled to have a sensible and principled discussion in schools.

Who are your wellbeing heroes?

Too many to mention but must include Maria O’Neill, Helen Dlamini and Matt Young my Healthy Toolkit co-founders for certain, as well as Anoara Mughal who joined us on our way.

For mental health, Clare and Pooky and other people I have met on my journey to publication include Chris Dyson, Hannah Wilson, Patrick Ottley-O’Connor and Victoria Hewett.

My fellow authors Adrian Bethune, Emma Kell, Angie Browne and Daniel Sobel.

Kelly Hannaghan; Kelly gets a case study in The Wellbeing Toolkit, works in the same authority as me and is an absolute bundle of wellbeing energy.

To round off my list, I will return to the beginning of this interview and my grandmother, my ‘shero’ who I wrote about here.

Thank you Sam for the chance to share my journey with you and your readers.

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