It is January 2023, and I am at my first school leader conference since coming to the Netherlands to lead an international primary school in the north of the country. The theme is Wellbeing and Leadership. The venue is comfortable and warm as the snow falls outside. The conference has been well-organized, the presenters are knowledgeable and thoughtful.
And yet I feel uncomfortable.
How Do Schools Define Wellbeing?
The conference begins with a facilitator drawing out a shared definition of wellbeing as involving a sense of meaning and purpose, fulfilment and happiness, physical health, sleeping well, tools to maintain resilience in the face of challenge and adversity and a positive and supportive environment.
During the conference we explore tools for promoting wellbeing, with several hands-on and experiential sessions including guided walks, meditation and relaxation sessions, guided coaching and visualisations.
At one point we were asked how we measured wellbeing, an increasingly common practice in schools. Colleagues shared survey and questionnaire tools they used as well as the value of measures such as pupil and staff absence, impressions noted in professional meetings as well as informal “temperature-taking” through walks around schools.
But I felt something was missing.
What Is Not Well With Wellbeing?
Harrison, Chatelier, and Van dermijnsbrugge (2021) in their article “Wellbeing, Relationships and Teaching as a Caring Profession?” find neoliberalism to be a useful lens for looking at the problems with the discourses around well-being. In her book, Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown conceives of neoliberalism as “extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices and metrics to every dimension of human life” (2015, p. 30). I argue that the extension of economic values, practices, and metrics to human life through the discourse of wellbeing was evident in the way wellbeing was conceptualized at the conference.
The key to this extension is the notion of human capital, which describes the process by which humans are figured as sites of investment, with education a key process of that investment. Our experience, qualifications, networks of support, and our wellbeing are all examples of our human capital. There are three important problematic implications of this figuring for our discussion of wellbeing.
First, we think of wellbeing in terms of what can be measured and compared. This kind of reasoning is at play when our immediate response to considering the wellbeing of those within our school community is to look for how we can measure that wellbeing. A current example is the International Baccalaureate Promoting Wellbeing Around the World project which asks participating schools to begin by defining wellbeing and deciding how to measure it.
Second is responsiblization, the process by which we all become responsible for ourselves as capital, and thus for our own wellbeing. The value of the work we do as educators is measured against how well we increase the well-being of the human capital in our care.
Thirdly, we are all individuals in competition with each other. This leads to a flattening of difference. The only difference that matters between us all is that which is measurable. Differences of gender, race, personal history, wealth, and physical abilities, etc. are all elided.
So, wellbeing is increasingly perceived as being purely about the measurable aspects of individuals, responsible for their own lives and seen as comparable to each other in a way that flattens out the differences until only those measures matter. The problem is that this conception of wellbeing ignores the complex relationships of power that come with gender, race, history, etc. It also ignores the complexity and messiness of authentic relationships in favor of simplified and surveyable measures. And it disregards the many existential challenges facing us today which should impact our wellbeing and demand our attention such as climate change and global inequality. During the conference, when asked to engage with strategies that support wellbeing, we were encouraged not to ask the very “why” questions that underpin our struggles. I argue that it is essential to grapple with the why of who we are and how we feel and relate, as those conversations can lead us to approach wellbeing differently. It moves us away from a narrow and quantified measure of wellbeing and brings us to a conceptualization of wellbeing that relates to the complexities of our individual and collective existence, amidst global challenges.
Harrison, Chatelier, and Van dermijnsbrugge (2021) point out that when wellbeing becomes a service delivered through programs and products designed to improve measurable outcomes narrowly defined as quantifying wellbeing, it is the very opposite of caring, authentic relationships. They suggest that “the key change that needs to take place is as simple as it is seemingly difficult to practice: schools need to prioritise relationships over tasks, outcomes, metrics and programmes—even those focused on wellbeing!”
Additionally, they note that international schools are privileged and quite particular environments with families who (are encouraged to) expect a homogenized global measure of their child’s progress and are deeply invested in how their scores in all areas compare with others. This may well be the case at the same time as the children are removed from traditional family and community networks which could provide support and care in other circumstances.
I have used the lens of neoliberalism, and more specifically, the notion of human capital, to critique a narrow focus on wellbeing conceptualized as measurable and the responsibility of the individual figured as in competition with others. I have drawn out concerns that this approach to wellbeing disregards the privileged status of many international school settings. So, is there a way to wrest the good aspects of wellbeing, and the associated conception of hope, from neoliberalism?
The conference I began this piece with shared many useful and valuable tools such as coaching, meditation, and mindfulness that can enrich our offers to students and each other. The current discourse around wellbeing encourages educators to expand their focus to a fuller sense of what it means to be human beyond a narrow focus on academic subjects which is welcome, yet very much entangled with the desire to measure and compare.
As I have suggested here, we need an additional focus that looks at how wellbeing may be linked to inequality, race or gender, climate change or pollution, starting with a recognition of our own, often privileged, position. We need a practice of wellbeing that can be activated and located within a (global) community, acquiring a critical edge and political engagement. The barriers to wellbeing such as the negative emotions we feel remain our responsibility but are no longer our failings; rather, they can provide information both about our own lives and aspects of the status quo that we should challenge all within the framework of authentic and caring relationships.
Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. New York: Zone Books
Harrison, Mark G., Chatelier, Stephen E. , & Van dermijnsbrugge, Elke M. (2021). Wellbeing, Relationships and Teaching as a Caring Profession?
The International Educator (TIE Online). [online] Available at: https://www.tieonline.com/article/2925/wellbeing-relationships-and-teaching-as-a-caring-profession-
International Baccalaureate®. (n.d.). Join our student wellbeing learning journey with schools. [online] Available at: https://ibo.org/join-our-student-wellbeing-learning-journey-with-schools/ [Accessed 27 Aug. 2023].
Douglas Kidd has worked as a teacher and school leader in both the primary and secondary sectors of the United Kingdom and international education for over 30 years, and has particular interests in curriculum innovation and the development of alternative and out-of-class education. He is the team leader at the International Primary School of Groningen in the Netherlands.
LinkedIn: Douglas Kidd