Education Leadership Coach, Jenny Swift, considers how positive psychology can shift intent to impact.

Positive psychology

Martin Seligman defined positive education as “education for both traditional skills and for happiness.”1 This was an extension of his positive psychology work which promoted a shift in focus from what makes us unhappy to what helps us thrive. Since then, our knowledge of how we achieve happiness has grown significantly through research in areas such as self-compassion, resilience and character strengths.

Despite this growth, some critics have argued that positive education has focused too much on wellbeing curriculums without a concurrent focus on whole-school culture and ethos. As a former school leader, this doesn’t come as a surprise. From my experience, shifting culture is where the harder, more nuanced work lies.

Studies show that student wellbeing is affected by that of educators and there is a growing consensus that wellbeing approaches ‘must also include teachers.’2 There has been little research in this area and much of it has focused on individual strategies such as teachers employing mindfulness. However, there is now a greater emphasis on the wider systems that impact our wellbeing. In light of this, the term ‘positive schools’ seems more fitting than ‘positive education’, as this encompasses school culture and pedagogy and implies more than just wellbeing education for students.

Flourishing educators

To better understand the contributing leadership behaviours that support educator flourishing and teacher wellbeing, we can explore two studies from the field of positive psychology. Rehal and Nieuwerburgh’s Ecological Model of Educator Flourishing (EMEF), defines flourishing educators as those who: “Feel seen, trusted and valued. They are treated as a professional and encouraged to be authentic. They have autonomy, integrity and agency and experience positive relationships along with personal and professional growth.”3

The EMEF represents its findings through the metaphor of the educator being the tree, with the soil representing leaders prioritising educator flourishing, the water symbolising the leaders demonstrating trust, and finally, leaders earning trust is represented by the sun.

Similarly, Cann et al.’s study, identified that teachers with high wellbeing felt valued and had agency in decision making and experienced meaningful professional development. This study also showed that it was vital for leaders to have skills in “relationship building, social and emotional competence and respond to context.”4

Let’s delve deeper into those common themes.

Feeling valued

When breaking down the components of feeling valued, both papers mention being listened to and feeling heard and highlight the importance of empathy. Leaders need to be approachable and receptive to feedback, so staff are able to voice their opinions and have opportunities to share and lead on their knowledge. The EMEF model details that when staff were asked to choose areas for feedback rather than being directed, they felt more seen.

Professional development

One misconception of wellbeing is that it is about cosseting and avoiding anything difficult. In fact, those with high wellbeing noted the importance of being challenged, as this helped them reflect on their practice and make improvements to their teaching.

Agency

Caution comes from Cann et al. that teachers with low wellbeing experienced their professional development as too prescriptive and not allowing for agency. Rehal and Nieuwerburgh build on the idea of autonomy, defining agency as having the necessary support to carry out informed, self-selected development goals.

Relationships

Both models include positive relationships between leaders and educators. The EMEF model also includes assuming positive intent and breaks down earning trust as demonstrating integrity, vulnerability and humility. Finally, Cann et al. highlight the importance of leaders being responsive to teachers’ needs.

You may realise that most or all of this is something you already know. I am sure we can all think of a time we have not felt valued and the impact this had on wellbeing and motivation. Cann et al. acknowledge this, highlighting the distinction between aims and impact. How are our positive intentions perceived and how consistently are leaders applying these factors? An example of this comes from the 2023 Working lives of teachers and leaders report which found ‘… twice as many leaders reporting that their school recognised high performance from the staff (68%) compared to teachers (33%).’5 The realities of busy school lives and the accountability measures that many schools operate under can present barriers to these identified factors being the true lived experience of staff.

Intent to impact

Actively fostering personal connections

It can be hard when the to-do list of education leaders seems to grow exponentially, but positive relationships can be built in the smallest of interactions. Research shows that active constructive responding can build trust. Alongside this, it is worth looking at your performance review strategies – can longer and less frequent reviews be switched up for shorter more frequent development conversations? This way, you can foster agency by checking in to see what support teachers need to reach their goals.

Working from a strengths perspective

Working with character strengths is one of the most researched areas of positive psychology. There are various ways to identify your strengths – such as completing this free survey – as well as those of your team, helping them feel appreciated. Another way to adopt a strengths-based lens is to use appreciative inquiry as an approach to school improvement.6 Often, schools look at deficits as a starting point, but appreciative inquiry begins by celebrating what is going well, and involves all staff, giving them agency within the school improvement process.

Coaching

At the heart of coaching is deep listening – helping people find their own strategies for personal and professional growth. From personal experience, when I changed the format of lesson observations to lesson reflections where I used coaching questions to guide teachers to their own goals, the conversations were always richer. The more you engage in coaching conversations with staff, the more you will build relationships and develop trust.

As a leader, having your own coach provided by external agencies such as Light Up Edu-Leadership, can be invaluable to help you develop social and emotional competence whilst giving you the space and time to take considered action. Through proactively focusing on educator flourishing, school leaders can help turn that knowledge into a lived experience for teachers which will then ripple through whole school communities.

References

1 Seligman, M. E. P., Ernst, R. M., Gillham, J., Reivich, K., & Linkins, M. (2009). Positive education: positive  psychology and classroom interventions. Oxford Review of Education, 35(3), 293–311. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054980902934563

2 McCallum, F. (2021). Teacher and Staff Wellbeing: Understanding the Experiences of School Staff. In M. L. Kern & M. L. Wehmeyer (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Positive Education (pp. 715–740). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3- 030-64537-3_28

3 Rehal, B., & Nieuwerburgh, C. van. (2022). Understanding the factors that contribute to Educator Flourishing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 12(2). https://doi.org/10.5502/ijw.v12i2.1931

4 Cann, R. F., Riedel-Prabhakar, R., & Powell, D. (2021). A Model of Positive School Leadership to Improve Teacher Wellbeing. International Journal of Applied Positive Psychology, 6(2), 195–218.
https://doi.org/10.1007/s41042-020-00045-5

5 Working lives of teachers and leaders – wave 1. (n.d.). GOV.UK. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/working-lives-of-teachers-and-leaders-wave-1

6 Whitney, D., & Cooperrider, D. (2011). Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change.

Author

  • Jenny Swift

    Jenny has worked in education for over 20 years in international school leadership. She introduced coaching to two schools she worked in and is now coaching leaders in education worldwide. Jenny is EMCC accredited and is studying an MSc in applied psychology and coaching psychology.
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