Do you remember in 2011 when the school term dates were rejigged to align with the Rugby World Cup tournament? This made one of the winter terms 12 weeks long and I can recall the increased numbers of students and teachers who had time off due to sickness.
Numerous colleagues also reported that they were sick during the holidays, some in the first week, others in the second and some were unfortunate to be sick for the whole of the two-week break. It was around this time that two principals I knew extremely well, sadly passed away. They had mentored me in my earlier years and were both passionate, intelligent, innovative leaders who lived and breathed education. They worked long hours: first in, last out, plus were often around school during the weekends and large chunks of the holidays. One dropped dead at age 55 and the other took early retirement at 55 due to major health issues and struggled on for another nine years before departing.
The shock of losing two close friends, together with teachers coughing and spluttering all around me, finally jolted me into action. Being a teacher in the 21st century is an unbelievably challenging job and the intensity of working with young people is unique and unlike any other profession. I believed something had to be done to help and support us during the hours at work. So, after discussions with many colleagues, we launched a teacher wellbeing programme at Sancta Maria College, Flat Bush, Auckland in 2012.
To help focus on our wellbeing each week, I wrote a resource called the The Good New Habits Book’ and photocopied a booklet for every staff member at the school. It contained a theme for each working week of the year such as ‘Drink Water’, ‘Stop for Lunch’, ‘No E-mails’, ‘Go Home Early’. All very straightforward ideas, not rocket science and the weekly themes were promoted by the leadership team through video clips, colourful notes in cubby holes, verbal presentations at staff briefings and lots of other creative ways.
While we knew we were responsible for our own wellbeing, having a supportive wellbeing culture in the workplace was very well received by the majority of the staff. Water consumption increased as the value of regular hydration was understood, the staffroom was busier at interval and lunchtimes as colleagues took time to have a quality lunch break and laughter and smiles returned. We reviewed the 2012 sickness data for our teaching staff and over the four terms, our sickness rates were down 27 per cent on the previous year. Pleasingly, all the main benefits of a workplace wellness programme, which is commonplace in industry and business, were also seen at the college. We saw a reduction in sickness rates, increased productivity (increased NCEA exam results performances over the last three years), happy staff, reduced staff turnover, and professionally we are now comfortable talking about our wellbeing at school.
We are now in our third year of our wellbeing programme using our third edition of the The Good New Habits Book and going well. The programme now involves all the staff, not just the teachers, and we have added an annual health WOF to our calendar and make a weekly massage opportunity available for those who are interested.
Our workplace wellness programme was acknowledged by the Heart Foundation/HAPINZ with the college receiving the foundation’s prestigious 2013 Innovation Award. Word has spread of our wellbeing programme to many other schools and educational centres around the country, with our themed resource booklet now in about 600 schools. Through my various presentations in schools and conferences, there is also much interest from teachers in Australia, the United States, Canada and the UK. Five thousand emails from concerned teachers and principals have clearly indicated that this is indeed an area of our profession that urgently needs some attention.
In future editions of School News we will suggest a few ways for you to look after yourself during the hours at work. They are all common-sense ideas. Some of them you may be doing already, which is great, and for others this might just be the nudge you need to tweak your normal routines and behaviours. We are trying to develop good new habits for improved wellbeing.
Tip 1: Drink water
Do you know that most people have lower hydration levels after a night’s sleep? A glass of water is a recommended first drink of the day to top up your levels. During a busy school day, teachers can often go some time between drinks so having a water bottle in your classroom for regular sips is a great way to keep dehydration at bay. Please ‘Google’ to see what unhelpful behaviours develop when we start to dehydrate.
Our students have their bottles and we encourage them to drink frequently, to look after their wellbeing and to keep them alert for learning. So start today and get a drink bottle and look after yourself.
Tip 2: Quality food break
I have heard many excuses over the last few years from teachers about why they don’t have time for a proper lunch break. Sorry folks, but we are always busy and flat out! What are the consequences for you and your students later in the day if you do not stop, even for 15 minutes, to have some food and a drink? Yes there are crazy days but most of the time with good organisation and the ability to say “No”, you can find time to stop, gather your thoughts and have a quality time for some healthy food and a well-deserved drink. In the afternoon you will feel invigorated and be dynamic in your teaching.
Tip 3: Start a Teacher Wellbeing Programme at your school
Do you fancy starting a teacher wellbeing programme at your school? At the ‘School News’ website, click on the following link https://www.schoolnews.co.nz/good-new-habits-book to find an electronic copy of the 2014 ‘Good New Habits Book’ resource that we use at Sancta Maria College. Please feel free to download a copy and then customise it so that it is appropriate for use at your school.
Ian Vickers is the Assistant Principal, Sancta Maria College, Flat Bush, Auckland