International school wellbeing study
During the summer of 2018, over 1,000 international school teachers and leaders completed the first ever international school wellbeing research. The findings were instructive, reports Anne Keeling.
The survey, which included quantitative and qualitative questions plus some interviews, asked respondents about their own wellbeing as a professional working in an international school, and the wellbeing of their students. The research was conducted by a partnership between International Education Psychology Services and Cardiff University School of Psychology, supported by ISC Research. It engaged teachers and leaders from international schools in 70 countries, representing every region of the world.
Over half of the respondents (51%) were classroom teachers, 22% of whom had management responsibility. 21% were in a leadership role, 11% were specialist teachers, and 5% were teaching assistants. The international experience of the respondents was extensive: 40% had between 4 and 11 years, and 35% had over 12 years of experience teaching or leading in international schools. The size of schools varied significantly: 46% of the schools represented in the research had over 1,000 students enrolled, while 24% had fewer than 400.
What goes well in international schools
Supportive relationships, robust communication, effective support systems and clear, strong leadership were identified as key factors for the establishment and maintenance of staff and student wellbeing in international schools.
These factors appear to be very powerful in counter-balancing the impact of more negative aspects of international school life, which include workload demands and pressure for results amongst teachers, and mobility between schools and academic pressures amongst students.
Authors of the research, Angie Wigford of IEPS and Andrea Higgins of Cardiff University School of Psychology commented that, “although we were very aware that international schools have significant challenges, some of which are reflected in the wider education sector (for example, academic pressure), the biggest surprise was how positive many people were, how their wellbeing was high, and how they were therefore able to take a positive view on challenging areas and recognise what was working well for them.”
The survey produced some other unexpected results. It identified that a school’s environment, facilities, resources and class sizes do not guarantee that staff or students will be happy or work to the best of their ability. Rather it is relationships that impact most on student and staff wellbeing.
“We know relationships in education are really important for resilience and mental health, however, we were struck by just how fundamentally important they were for the people in the international school sector,” said the authors.
“We felt that, in part, this was because people were often moving away from their families and established relationships, and that transitioning between schools can be traumatic for anyone.”
Where belonging is nurtured . . . . .
The research suggested that teachers and counsellors play an active part in the wellbeing of their colleagues and students. “What they do can make a huge difference,” said the authors. “Attitude, positivity and respect are important. A sense of belonging is a basic human psychological need, and leaders and teachers need to be aware of the importance of this for both student and staff wellbeing.”
. . . . and where it is not
It became apparent from the research that some international schools have an ethos and practice that actively promotes and supports staff in their potentially challenging aspects of school life, but other schools do not seem to acknowledge it. The research identified that a lack of acknowledgement by the school caused difficulties for staff and presented barriers to the development of a sense of belonging.
Learning from the data
Several clear objectives for international school senior leadership teams came out of the results from the wellbeing study. One of these was recognising the value of positive relationships, which do not happen automatically but need to be enabled in strategic ways. Many respondents expressed that when positive relationships are encouraged in a range of contexts (staff to student, staff to staff, student to student, staff to parent, and so on), this impacts positively on the whole school.
“Simple steps can make a big difference,” said the authors. “Ethos is important. Interventions do not work well without also having a whole school ethos encouraging positive relationships”.
The threat of surprising change to wellbeing
The research identified that frequent and unexplained change causes significant challenges to wellbeing and clear communication in preparation for change is beneficial. It also suggested that teachers value autonomy highly, feeling respected when they are trusted to do their work independently. Micro-management and unexplained top-down decisions impact negatively on staff.
International schools may face many challenges that staff and students have to manage, but it is concluded that where they have strong, supportive relationships, people are more able to cope. The full wellbeing report, which includes analysis of both the qualitative and quantitative research, is available free from ISC Research.
For the flipbook version of the survey report, click here: https://tinyurl.com/yak5gmhy
Anne Keeling | Communications Director | ISC Research
For more background about the research see International Educational Psychology Services (IEPS) and Cardiff University School of Psychology