Review by Natasha Devon

MBE, writer and campaigner

9 Jun 2019, 5:00


The Wellbeing Toolkit

By Andrew Cowley

I really wanted to love The Wellbeing Toolkit. Its foreword is by one of my heroines, the magnificent Jill Berry, and I recognise Andrew Cowley as a (much-needed) voice of support for wellbeing strategies in education on social media.

Indeed, the book does have a lot right with it. The section in which Cowley emphasises the importance of differentiating staff wellbeing from self-care, for example. The former involves ensuring staff can manage their workload and providing a harmonious working environment; the latter is access to activities such as mindfulness sessions and yoga, and is too often offered to staff in place of genuine wellbeing. This observation had me punching the air in agreement.

There is some brilliant, clear guidance on supporting staff who are attacked or have their privacy invaded on social media. Cowley also shares the results of anonymous surveys conducted through social media that give a clear indication of some of the common pitfalls, mistakes and challenges arising in teacher wellbeing.

But a reluctance to properly acknowledge the causes of increasing teacher workload and contradictions within its pages let it down.

In chapter one we’re told decisively, and rightly, that wellbeing shouldn’t be a tokenistic gesture, but instead involve real, structural change. Yet a few pages later the reader is asked to look to the example of a “proactive” wellbeing leader whose strategies include meditation sessions and giving all staff lemons to make lemon water. Cowley repeatedly emphasises the importance of not overworking people and anticipating the need for staff cover, yet also advises senior leadership teams to “celebrate” those staff members who “give 110 per cent and stay beyond their contracted times”.

There is some brilliant, clear guidance on supporting staff who are attacked

The chapter entitled “Births, Marriages & Deaths” might just as well be called “Try Not to be an Arsehole”. The reader is asked, for example, to “show empathy” to colleagues who are going through IVF, a typically specific scenario with a very vaguely articulated solution.

And this speaks to the central tension at the heart of this book: who is it for? I don’t think even the author knows. Those school leaders already predisposed to value wellbeing will have their views confirmed, but are offered little in terms of tangible strategies; those who have never thought about wellbeing are essentially presented with a long list of where they’re going wrong. In this sense, calling it a “toolkit” is slightly misleading.

The mere fact of highlighting current issues and challenges may, of course, potentially have value. It can, for example, help to challenge the world view of the sort of person for whom it genuinely might never have occurred that not every member of school staff enjoys team-building days and nights with colleagues in the pub. Perhaps this kind of blithe ignorance is more common than I think; perhaps, as someone who mostly deals with pastoral teams in schools, my understanding of the prevailing attitudes towards wellbeing is unjustly generous.

There are, however, a lot of significant challenges listed that are directly and unarguably created by policy. The ones that spring to mind are cuts to school funding, burnout as a result of having to juggle larger class sizes amongst a dwindling teaching team and a subsequent nationwide crisis in teacher retention. These are the sort of problems that the senior leadership team can mediate to an extent, but can never hope to solve, no matter how savvy they are at stretching budgets. Cowley begins his book by declaring that wellbeing is “not a political issue”. I couldn’t disagree more.

As a call to arms or discussion-starter on wellbeing in the workplace this book is a useful addition to any staffroom, but practical strategies for implementation of its worthy ideologies are disappointingly thinly spread.

*Book Rating: 2.5 Stars

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