Adopting An Inquiry Approach to Staff Wellbeing and School Culture in Our Schools

Blanket approaches to staff wellbeing don’t work. Outsourcing staff wellbeing workshops, throwing the odd morning tea, and encouraging teacher self-care are all helpful strategies to employ at our school – but alone, they are band-aids for a more complex issue. Taking a deep dive into our schools’ very unique requirements is the first step on a journey to pinpointing challenges and deploying the right strategies, learning opportunities, and resources to make the biggest difference to each school’s own priorities. Imagine the difference we could make to staff wellbeing and school culture if we inquired into what was happening for our staff, why this is so, and what we can do to meet the complex very unique needs of our staff. Helen Timperley’s ‘Spiral of Inquiry’ has made the rounds in education as a means for diving into pedagogy and curriculum and the impacts on student learning. We can apply the same thoughtful and considered process that we use to aid in students’ learning to our staff to attend to our school culture and staff wellbeing needs.  

This article will explore

  • What the ‘Spiral of Inquiry is
  • The 6 Stages of the Spiral of Inquiry
  • How we can follow the spiral to inquire into staff wellbeing and school culture
  • How this all ties together into my ‘6 Step Approach.’

What is the Spiral of Inquiry 

The spiral of inquiry is an action research model used to bring staff together through an inquiry approach to understand students’ learning experiences across key areas of learning, student well-being, and pedagogical practice (2). Embarking on an inquiry into a specific area aims to change outcomes and suitably tailor a school’s professional learning approach to the area of need.  This process is informed by research on mindset, assessment, social, emotional learning, and meta-cognition. Recent research suggests that the spiral of inquiry is one of the most impactful examples of professional learning in the world, consistently delivering demonstrable outcomes for learners (3). 

What distinguishes the spiral of inquiry from other forms of teacher action research is its constant emphasis on understanding what is going on for learners (and staff!) from an evidence-informed perspective. What stood out to me about this model was the curiosity it drives to pinpoint and then explicitly solve a problem for our students. Solving our school culture and staff wellbeing problems is another area of dire need, especially in this current climate. Staff health and wellbeing are the foundation of a school’s success. Without it, it is more challenging for our staff to form positive relationships with their colleagues, students, and themselves! So, while we spend the time working to understand the experience of our learners, we must also invest the time and resources in our most precious and valuable resources – our teachers. That is why adjusting this model to tend to our staff’s wellbeing needs is a viable approach.

The spiral of inquiry involves six key stages:

  • Scanning
  • Focusing
  • Developing a hunch
  • Engaging in new professional learning
  • Taking new action
  • Checking that a big enough difference has been made, and then re-engaging to consider what is next. 

Although the stages in the spiral overlap, paying attention to each aspect is critical in achieving the greatest benefit for all staff. At every stage, inquiry teams ask themselves three important questions: 

  1. What is going on for our staff?
  2. How do we know?
  3. Why does it matter?

The first two questions prompt schools to constantly check that their staff’s wellbeing and best interests are at the heart of what they do (side-by-side with their learners!) and that their decisions are based on not only their observations but also multiple evidence sources. The third question helps to ground leaders and staff to understand the directions/vision they are pursuing.

The 6 Stages of The Spiral of Inquiry Model

Stage 1: Scanning

As the name implies, scanning involves taking a broad look at what is going on for our staff. Of course, many school leaders and staff will have vast opinions about what is going on, but the scanning process is about identifying what is actually taking place. This involves exploring an array of relevant data over a process of about a term.

Data sets might include:

Reviewing these data sets helps us reach an informed conclusion about what is happening for our staff, where to focus our energies moving forward, and which strategies will make the most difference in our setting. 

Learn more about a school scan here and download my FREE school scanning tool to record your scan observations and discussions.

Stage 2: Focusing

In the focusing phase, the leadership team asks: Where will we concentrate our energies to make a big and lasting difference for our staff?” Gaining greater clarity about the situation by hearing from staff directly before deciding on a course of action is at the heart of the focusing phase. 

Selecting one or two areas on which to focus means that leaders/inquiry teams consider the strongest possible new areas of learning and focused attention — ones that will help staff make big leaps forward. To do this, we first look at the evidence that emerged in the initial scan and then select one to three areas on which to focus. Choose an area of high impact that will address important issues. Unlike scanning, which requires a broad perspective and a willingness to listen to diverse views, the focusing phase challenges the inquiry team to decide among competing priorities. 

Focusing helps us choose a manageable direction. Resist the urge to do everything all at once because if you do, your energies will be scattered, the learning will be cursory, and the change will be superficial. Have the courage to slow down and develop a deeper understanding of what is worth spending time on before moving to action. (5) 

We can also consider what we hope to achieve and what constitutes enough of a difference in the focusing phase. 

Stage 3: Developing a hunch

The hunch phase asks the team to probe for evidence that will clarify what is leading to the present situation and, just as important, how we—the professionals—are contributing to that situation. This asks schools to probe ‘what’s leading to the situation?’ and ‘how are we contributing to it?’

It is essential to stay curious about our impact on the situation. Blaming the system, the learners, each other, or anyone else will only stifle inquiry. Instead, we must be open to the possibility that our hunch is offside. Getting strong views on the table where everyone can discuss and test them is fundamental to moving forward together. 

Leaders may need to reconsider their leadership approaches, review their capabilities and reflect on their emotional intelligence. At the same time, staff should carefully consider their part and note the joint responsibilities of staff wellbeing. Only then can we start taking the foundational steps necessary to work together collaboratively and cohesively. 

Stage 4: Engaging in new professional learning

In this phase, schools carefully design actions and professional learning opportunities to test and develop their hunches. The goal is to make meaningful changes in staff’s professional practices regarding school culture and collective staff wellbeing. 

Through developing a ‘Staff Wellbeing Action Plan,’ leaders and inquiry teams can begin to plan for a tailored approach (including staff development initiatives) that identify and tend to areas of need for the school.

Examples of key areas of learning related to school culture and wellbeing may include Mental Health First Aid training, assertive and respectful communication skills, conflict management, leadership approaches and capacities, time management, etc.

Both internal and external expertise may be required depending on the context of the school and the current capacity of the staff in the area of focus. New learning also requires us to pay attention to both research evidence and powerful practices. 

Stage 5: Taking Action

The action phase is about real change, where new learning leads to new practices. By enacting the school’s ‘Wellbeing Action Plan,’ schools can collect evidence of their actions for reflection and checking. 

At this stage, school leaders or the inquiry team must ensure that staff are clear on the school’s ‘Wellbeing Action Plan,’ that they’re supported to try out the new practices and that there is plenty of opportunity for dialogue, observation, and reflection along the way.

Stage 6: Checking

Your inquiry aims to make a difference in outcomes that matter for our staff. Changes in the way we do things or how we attend to wellbeing and school culture do not always lead to substantive improvement or useful innovations, and it is in this part of the spiral that inquiry teams ask whether they are making enough of a difference(1).  This might be resolved by having a general agreement set ahead of time about what evidence to look out for and what constitutes enough of a difference. This stage is where we can check back in with our goals highlighted in the ‘focusing’ stage and ask, “have we been able to achieve our vision?”

The checking questions ask:

  • Are we making enough of a difference?
  • How do we know?

My 6 Step approach to improving school culture

In my consulting sessions with schools, I use a 6 step approach informed by the Spiral of Inquiry model and Positive Psychology’s PERMA model, among other relevant educational and leadership research. This evidence-based approach helps you increase staff buy-in by giving them a voice and meeting them where they’re at, and unlike blanket approaches that simply don’t work, it provides schools with the framework to make lasting and impactful changes at their school.  With my 6-step approach, you can learn to weave wellbeing into the fabric of your school so you can improve school culture, boost staff job satisfaction and engagement, and student learning outcomes. 

Just like the first step in the ‘Spiral of Inquiry’ model, my approach to whole school wellbeing encourages schools to start with a scan of wellbeing.  One of the best ways to scan your school and give your staff a voice is through an Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey. This isn’t like any survey you’ve seen before but rather one that is focused on uncovering the root of the problem so leaders and staff can collectively make better-informed decisions moving forward. This 70-question survey is split across four sections that assess general staff wellbeing, burnout risk, workplace wellbeing, school culture, staff attitudes, and the school and leadership processes currently in place. 

To learn more about my Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey or to get started with running your own, visit the Anonymous Staff Wellbeing Survey page here

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