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Wellbeing Ranks High Among International School Staff & Students

By Anne Keeling
Wellbeing Ranks High Among  International School Staff & Students

Over 1,000 international school teachers and leaders have participated in the first-ever research on student and teacher wellbeing. The study asked respondents about their own wellbeing as professionals working in an international school, as well as about the wellbeing of their students.
The research was conducted by International Educational Psychology Services (IEPS) 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 percent) were classroom teachers, 22 percent of whom had management responsibility. Twenty-one percent were in a leadership role, 11 percent were specialist teachers, and 5 percent were teaching assistants.
The international experience of the respondents was extensive; 40 percent had between 4 and 11 years’ experience teaching or leading in international schools, and 35 percent had over 12 years. The size of schools varied significantly: 46 percent of the schools represented in the study had over 1,000 students enrolled, while 24 percent had less than 400.
The balance of challenges and resources
The definition of “wellbeing” remains a subject of debate. For the purposes of this study, researchers followed the definition proposed by Dodge, Daly, Huyton, and Sanders, which appeared in the International Journal of Wellbeing in 2012: “Stable wellbeing is when individuals have the psychological, social, and physical resources they need to meet a particular psychological, social, and/or physical challenge. When individuals have more challenges than resources, the see-saw dips, along with their wellbeing, and vice-versa.”
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. The research suggests that 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 among teachers, and mobility between schools and academic pressures among students.
The balance of challenges faced within international schools and the resources that many teachers and students have at their disposal appeared positive. “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 recognize what was working well for them,” reported study authors Angie Wigford of IEPS and Andrea Higgins of Cardiff University School of Psychology.
Relationships matter
The survey, which included quantitative and qualitative questions in addition to a number of interviews, 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 have the greatest impact on student and staff wellbeing.
“Positive 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.”
The research suggested that teachers and counselors 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.”
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.
Strategic support of wellbeing
Several clear objectives for international school senior leadership teams came out of the results of the wellbeing study. One of these was recognizing 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.”
Frequent and unexplained change causes significant challenges to wellbeing, while clear communication in preparation for change is beneficial.
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.
Staff responsibility for wellbeing
Teachers and counselors play a central role in the wellbeing of students and their colleagues. “What they do can make a huge difference,” said the authors.
The manner and attitude with which teachers and counselors work with parents and students is significant; positivity and respect are very important. Vulnerable students are a minority, but the research identified that most people have some concerns that could impact their wellbeing and teachers need to think more about how these can be addressed and supported.
It is important for teachers and counselors to understand the balance model of wellbeing, said the authors. “Anyone can become vulnerable when their challenges exceed their resources (their ability to cope),” they said. “Teachers need to understand and develop their own personal coping strategies in order to develop emotional resilience and be able to support their students effectively.”
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 at ISC Research.

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