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Q&A with Donna Cross, an author of ‘Leading improvement in school community wellbeing’

Q&A with Donna Cross, an author of ‘Leading improvement in school community wellbeing’

Tuesday, 21 Nov 2023

More than ever before, the wellbeing of students, staff and the school community are an important priority for principals and school leaders. Leading improvement in school community wellbeing by Dr Donna Cross and Dr Leanne Lester provides a framework for a set of high-impact strategies that individually and combined can support leaders working to improve wellbeing across the school.

Recently, we sat down with one of the authors, Dr Donna Cross, for a chat about the book, and what actions school leaders can systematically take to improve their school community’s wellbeing. You can read some of the highlights below or watch the full insightful conversation here.

The role of leadership in improving wellbeing

Dr Cross highlighted the significance of ‘visible wellbeing leadership’ in schools and the need for a whole-school approach that engages all members of the school community in actions to improve their own and others' wellbeing.

‘Leaders within the school – not just the principal, but all those in leadership positions – need to model behaviour and set standards and KPIs that are aspirational for staff,’ she advises.

Additionally, for schools embarking on the journey of improving their school community wellbeing, Dr Cross recommends forming a wellbeing leadership team.

‘That is not to distinguish wellbeing as something that sits on its own, because it needs to be fully integrated into academic outcomes, but to ensure there is a group who are watching and making sure that actions to support policy and practice are occurring,’ she explained.

‘And of course, that leadership team ideally needs to be given some time. In some schools, staff are also given some funding, so this important role is seen as a promotional opportunity within the school.’

Improving staff wellbeing

Another crucial first step, according to Dr Cross, is understanding the wellbeing of staff. ‘You can't improve students’ wellbeing if your cup is not full,’ she asserts.

She recommends checking in with teachers about existing wellbeing measures, seeking their input on what needs to be done and tailoring responses to different career stages.

‘The wellbeing needs of early career teachers will be different from those of mid-career or senior teachers,’ she points out, advocating for thoughtful, staff-led bespoke actions.

Throughout the discussion, Dr Cross emphasised how small changes can have a big impact.

‘What's been interesting in our research is the relative impact of small actions that didn’t take a lot of energy from the school that can make a big difference.’

She described an example where in one school, the junior school staff had a much longer walk to the main staff room than the senior school staff. This meant by the time they arrived at the staffroom there was no food left for morning tea.

‘Simply putting some food in their staff room in the morning that they could bring to the main staff room made the junior school staff feel like somebody was listening and caring about their needs.’

School climate and the importance of belonging

Dr Cross noted that school climate is ‘the strongest predictor of wellbeing outcomes.’

‘Probably the simplest way to describe school climate is formed through everything you feel, say and do in the school environment, and how that builds trust and safety and a sense of belonging for all members of the school environment,’ she says.

Dr Cross explained that the best way to measure school climate is to look at how much the school community feels like they can identify with the school, and with actions that are going on in the school. 

‘When we get belonging right, we get wellbeing right,’ she says.

‘And that sense of belonging is obviously built with reciprocated teacher to student and student to student relationships. And so, fundamental to school climate, is encouraging, enabling and strengthening those relationships.’

Finetuning your wellbeing practices

Dr Cross acknowledged how hard it can be for some schools to implement wellbeing initiatives. With this in mind, she and Dr Lester have provided a practical guide that shows educators how they can improve wellbeing by finetuning what is already happening within schools.

Dr Cross described how important it is to map and review wellbeing practices and determine their effectiveness with a view to stopping those wellbeing-related activities that add to staff workload without effectively contributing to the wellbeing of the school community.

‘The goal is to not add to school staff workloads, but instead deeply consider which practices are gold and must remain, and which are promising but could be improved, bringing more precision to the ways that we address wellbeing.’