We recently grabbed the chance to chat with the inspirational Jill Berry
about wellbeing, communication and social media!
1 – How do you look after your own wellbeing?
I know it’s challenging, but I’ve always been good at putting things into compartments and carving out time for myself, even when I was a head (which could require the occasional 80-hour working week…) I would set aside time at weekends and in holidays when I wouldn’t even think about work. I wouldn’t check work emails (and I always ‘pulled’ communication that was school-related, rather than having it constantly ‘pushed’ at me. My Chair of Governors and PA always knew how to get hold of me in an emergency) on the days when I was focussing on rest and relaxation. As a result, I always felt refreshed and re-energised when the new term or half-term started. I think you can get better at switching off as your experience and confidence build. I knew that if I COULDN’T switch off, it would make me a less effective school leader anyway.
So, exercise is good (I do half an hour every morning, which sets me up well for the day); I love reading (and absorbing myself in a good novel is the best relaxation I know! If I can sit in the sun at the same time, that’s a bonus!); I sing in a choral society which I find really helpful for well-being – it makes you breathe properly, and focus, which has so many physiological and psychological benefits; and I love spending time with my husband, family and friends, including on holiday, which happens more frequently now I’m not working full-time. This all sustains and energises me.
2- As we approach the end of the school year, what would be your wellbeing advice for the end of the summer term?
I think we’re all exhausted by the end of the academic year – and because we are tired we are more likely to make mistakes or be irritable with one another, and for the same reason we are perhaps less tolerant of the mistakes we, and others, make. So my main advice would be to try to be kinder – to ourselves and to those around us – and to show more understanding.
In terms of reviewing and evaluating what has gone before, and planning for what is to come, make judicious decisions about what can perhaps be left until you feel fresher. Sometimes you just need a rest and a break before you tackle things that require clearer thought and a little more energy. Look ahead at the summer holiday in its entirety and work out when you will spend time on reviewing and planning, and when you will simply relax and recharge. I found being systematic about this really helped me.
3- You are very active on Twitter, how would you say social media has influenced the debate on wellbeing in education?
I am heartened by how much Twitter and blogging activity (and the work of people like you!) is wellbeing related and encourages mutual support and encouragement and the exchange of ideas and strategies which can help people focus on their physical and mental health. I think a lot of good work has been done in recent years. It’s certainly raised our awareness of the importance of looking after ourselves, including working to achieve a sustainable balance in our personal and professional lives.
I didn’t have a Twitter account when I was a head – I started tweeting in 2011, having finished headship the summer before. If I were still working, and wanted to use Twitter for social reasons as well as professional reasons, I would keep two separate accounts so at those times when I was trying properly to unwind from work, I wouldn’t check educational Twitter.
My life now is different (I call it #lifeafter) and so I access my Twitter account to see what’s new even when I’m on holiday. Although I still do consultancy work in education, I’m not working at the same pitch now, and I don’t experience the exhaustion and levels of stress that can characterise full-time work – so I don’t need a break in quite the same way. It perhaps also helps that I use Twitter to lift and energise me! I don’t engage in Twitter debate which could suck out my soul and grind me down!
4-You’ve blogged about the importance of communication in establishing a positive school culture. What would you consider to be the most effective ways of establishing communication across a staff body?
As I said in my blog, I think communication is complex and challenging and can be extremely difficult (perhaps impossible!) to get completely right, but this shouldn’t stop us trying. We need to use multiple channels, to be sensitive to the possibility of false assumptions and miscommunication, and to strive for mutual respect and empathy. We need continually to hone our listening skills if we are to build the most constructive working relationships. Positive relationships are key to successful communication, I think, and we should work hard to resist an ‘us and them’ mentality in schools. We are all on the same side, which is, of course, the children’s side.
We communicate our vision and values through the action we take, too (and sometimes through what we choose NOT to do). I’ve just read Adam Kahane’s book ‘Power and Love’, which I found compelling. I was taken by the idea of the need for a balance of both power and love in our dealings with each other – power in the sense of “to achieve one’s purpose, to get the job done, to grow” and love in the sense of “the drive to connect”. I think this balance can help us in schools to get communication and relationships right.
5- Your career has spanned both state and independent schools. Would you say there are any differences in the way the sectors approach staff wellbeing?
I think there are FAR more similarities than differences between the sectors, and the differences are to do with the specific context (which can affect processes and policies) rather than underlying principles and priorities. People work hard in both state and independent schools, though the nature of the challenges they face can vary. But in my experience, teachers and leaders in both sectors have the same kinds of vision and values and are committed to doing the best they can for the children and young people in their care. And I think in all schools, whatever their type, there is a growing conviction that unless we respect staff wellbeing, and do what we can to protect it, we cannot do what we need to for the children. We work with and through the staff to reach the pupils. We can’t do a good job if we ride roughshod over their physical and mental health.
6- School budgets are increasingly under strain. What can senior managers do to support wellbeing on a limited budget?
Yes – it’s one of the huge challenges we face in education in the current climate, along with (and related to, teacher recruitment and retention and teacher workload). But I don’t think investing in staff wellbeing has to cost a huge amount. It’s about relationships, communication, understanding, empathy, respect – the different things I’ve talked about above. Of course, if financial constraints mean people are teaching more (and support staff working harder), with bigger classes, pressured to teach outside their specialisms/comfort zones etc, that can have an adverse effect on their general state of mind and health. But teachers have always worked hard – I’ve kept a diary since 1972 and rereading my diaries from the early 80s when I started teaching I’m struck by how hard I worked, and this was pre-Ofsted, pre-National Curriculum, key stage testing and league tables – pre so many of the things we feel add to the demands and the pressures of the job now.
I really don’t think teachers object to putting in the time, effort and energy, as long as they feel the work they are doing is worthwhile (so directly related to teaching and learning and the quality of care for pupils), and they feel properly valued by those who lead them. Similarly, middle and senior leaders need to feel appreciated by those who lead them (and, ideally, by those they lead!) and heads to feel their efforts are recognised by their governors. This isn’t about money. It’s about respect, humanity, warmth, consideration. Invest in people, support their development (which, again, doesn’t necessarily cost a lot – it can be about encouraging their career journey and facilitating school-based – and social media-based – CPD which is targeted, relevant, useful) and ensure you do all you can to model sustainable balance and to help those you work alongside to get this balance right themselves.
Read more of Jills’s blog, follow her on Twitter or read her book – Making the Leap; Moving from Deputy to Head, published by Crown House Publishing.