Creating a culture of well-being and character
Natassja Williams believes that student well-being depends on a strong, values-based culture at the heart of a school, created and defended by a committed team.
Warrior: (especially in former times) a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. (Oxford living dictionaries)
Around the world, schools link values and the development of positive character traits to their statements of strategic vision and ethos. Those who are able to make this link valuable, purposeful and meaningful differentiate themselves from others by creating a genuinely values-based culture as opposed to those that simply pay lip service to ‘what they should do’. It becomes part of their DNA.
The International Positive Education Network (IPEN) also speaks of the double helix of a school’s DNA, in which academic matters are entwined with character and well-being. Placing a values based education at the centre of a school’s being, however, is not easy and has to be fought for by ‘warriors of well-being and character’. The foundations of this warrior require a number of elements:
- A common understanding (shared values and virtues)
- Positive relationships (community and giving)
- Communication and connectedness (taking notice and talking)
- Learning through experiences (growing and developing practical wisdom)
Developing warriors of character and well-being requires commitment, experience and a willingness to take the necessary risks. Creating a character-based environment starts with the teaching staff and continues up to the Senior Leadership Team, who drive these values and virtues forward through everything that the school does, stands for and models each day. Everyone needs to have a strong belief that character and well-being are just as important as academic studies and that one cannot succeed without the other.
Training, strategy and example
Do these warriors need training and support? Too often we presume that people innately understand what is needed for an initiative like this and that the expected outcomes are clear from the outset. On the contrary, training is essential and a programme like this must be strategically driven and implemented across the school and most importantly with conviction from the leadership team.
Someone once told me it requires a leap of faith to believe that children who develop strong character and a solid sense of well-being will inevitably do well academically as they will have developed the necessary traits to flourish. This is where leadership comes in and the experienced warrior is revealed. If the head teacher has taken that leap of faith and believes all areas of the school – especially the academics – require a focus on character and well-being to be successful, then the tone is set. This is where the warriors build culture. If, on the other hand, the head teacher still allows the pressure of league tables or timetabling to get in the way of focusing on character and well-being, then the school will continue to teach in a one dimensional fashion.
It is important to understand that creating a culture of character and well-being takes time. It has to be brought alive through everything; the micro-connections, the language, the relationships in the corridors, the cross-curricular activities, the messages in assemblies, the school development plan, the displays, the actions and demeanour of the warriors, the focus of meetings, the target setting, the curriculum maps, the lesson planning – and more.
In other words, in every single behavioural pattern of the school. In this kind of environment students build the practical wisdom to take risks, challenge arguments, build self-confidence, break boundaries, develop independence and ultimately reach their true potential.
The programme in practice
Cranleigh Abu Dhabi has been laying these same foundations since it’s opening in 2014. It is more than just the pastoral side of the school, it is the school. We have implemented an additional tutor time in the afternoon for 1:1 tutorials to take place as well as key messages to enable reflection and thought provoking discussions. The morning registration consists of mindful activities, reflection bubbles as well as a show and tell to develop social and emotional skills at every opportunity.
Thought for the week is placed in the children’s planners alongside a value of the month which is driven through academic lessons, the cross-curricular programme and tutor time. The school calendar includes a kindness day, well-being week as well as mindful march where the children throughout the three schools focus on such character and well-being elements. Cranleigh has a timetabled lesson once a week that follows a Moral Education Programme and includes opportunities for workshops, outside speakers and team activities all focused on character and well-being topics.
Not just an add-on
Character and well-being development is not the purview of any one warrior. It can’t be just an extra ‘layer’. It has to be endemic. In fact, I believe that schools should review traditional structures in the context of what we know a modern education needs to deliver. The days of managing pastoral, academic and co-curricular programmes separately are all but over. If you agree that developing pupil character and wellbeing is essential for successful learning and that education has to be about the whole child, then a school’s organisational structure surely needs to reflect this. And for success you have to have the warriors who are prepared to fight for what they believe in.
Natassja Williams– Cranleigh Abu Dhabi (2019)
Deputy Head (Pastoral) Prep School, Head of Dance.
Cranleigh, Abu Dhabi was a finalist in 2019 International School of the Year Awards, nominated for its character and well being initiative supporting children of all ages