principal vision

Principal Vision: A Foundational Step in Creating a School Culture That Prioritises Wellbeing

The first step in creating a positive school culture is having a vision where staff health and wellbeing are front and centre. Then, by communicating this vision to leaders and staff and ensuring they’re all on board, we can begin to make the necessary changes to improve school culture. 

The pandemic has created unhealthy spoken and unspoken “standards” in schools for how staff “perceive” they should be performing at work or interacting with their profession. In most instances, these standards and expectations are not sustainable nor conducive to a positive workplace culture. 

The mistake many school leaders make is lacking a vision for staff wellbeing or not including it as part of their messaging. When the message about vision only includes school instructional or administrative priorities, it leaves staff to fill in the blanks about how they are “expected” to work, interact with their peers, and function in their classroom.  

Having and communicating a clear vision and direction for the school’s culture, which considers staff wellbeing, enables principals and senior leadership to be strategic about the changes required to improve school outcomes and performance. 

This article will explore:

  • The importance of having a vision
  • The benefits of having a vision
  • Building a vision centered around staff wellbeing and school culture
  • Who creates and drives the vision
  • The first steps toward creating a people-centered vision

Having a vision is key to successful change

Schools are filled with dedicated leaders, teachers, and staff who, at times, can put the health and wellbeing of others before their own. But with increasing staff shortages, teacher absenteeism rates, and a flurry of complications caused by “making up for lost time” due to the pandemic, teacher stress and burnout are hitting an all-time high. 

Many school principals and senior leadership teams have worked hard to keep their schools and staff afloat over the last few years, and many of their hard-working staff have matched this energy.  Unfortunately, for some schools, this has created conditions for unrelenting exhaustion, stress and burnout for staff, with no reprieve in sight. The flow-on effect of impacted staff wellbeing in the classrooms can’t be ignored. Hattie (2013) illustrated long before the pandemic hit that “when teachers become burned out, or worn out, their students’ achievement outcomes are likely to suffer because they are more concerned with their personal survival.”

So if senior leaders want a transformation of culture that leads to improved school outcomes, it is a good time to sit back and reflect on the next leg of the journey and envision a future where their people have the energy to be able to carry their school towards success and improved performance and make it there in one piece.

The benefits of having a vision

Strategic vision and good leadership go hand in hand. The best leaders deepen a sense of purpose for staff by clarifying their vision. Globally, just one in three employees strongly agree that the mission or purpose of their organisation is clear and makes them feel their job is important (Wellbeing at Work, Clifton, 2021). 

  • A clear purpose drives resiliency, wellbeing, and school outcomes as staff know and can work together towards a successful future – this focuses staff during challenging times
  • Having vision and communicating it well enables senior leaders to be transparent in what their work stands for
  • Having a vision thereby sets a standard and gentle expectations for all staff to follow and have involvement in
  • Communicating vision helps staff to see their role in it, and gives them opportunities to talk about it, which builds trust and opportunities for positive communication and collaboration 

 – Wellbeing at Work (Clifton, 2021), Built to Last (Collins, 1994)

The M in the PERMA(H) Model for workplace wellbeing acronym denotes ‘meaning.’  

Positive Psychology and the PERMA(H) model are embedded into all the work we do with schools to improve staff wellbeing. 

Positive Psychology pioneer Martin Seligman included meaning in his five-pillar approach to wellbeing emphasising that when there is a shared sense of purpose in the workplace, staff are more likely to feel satisfied with their job. 

We are lucky enough to have a head start in the education world, as many teachers end up in their role due to our desire to educate and contribute to the development of young minds. However, amidst excessive workplace stressors, staff are more likely to lose their sense of purpose alongside a lack of consistent and clear vision, rhyme or reason from the leadership, which only creates confusion, frustration, and anxiety for staff (Built to Last, Collins, 1994), Similarly, the Knoster Model of Change highlights the confusion that results with a lack of vision.

A vision for staff wellbeing and school culture

Visionary leaders have a higher purpose for their existence than merely chasing improved student academic outcomes. I would argue that a good vision in this current climate extends beyond students’ academic successes and focuses heavily on the school culture and climate required to retain and attract staff to this dwindling profession – The rest will follow!

When I commence my work with a school, one of the first strategy sessions is spent clarifying the principal’s vision for their staff’s wellbeing and school culture. This requires lots of redirecting away from the school’s vision or mission statement (typically heavily focused on student performance and success) and getting clear on a vision that focuses on the staff and culture of the school. From here, this vision develops as leaders take an inquiry approach to understand the current state of staff wellbeing and culture in their school. After this, they identify their short and long-term priorities by consulting with their staff. 

We know that a school’s performance requires healthy, happy, and well staff to achieve those desired student learning outcomes. Student mental health and wellbeing are heavily reliant on the wellbeing of their teachers (Bond et al., 2007), and student wellbeing and mental health influence learning and life outcomes. 

When the vision does not consider the wellbeing of staff, or when the vision isn’t communicated clearly, staff might be left working themselves into the ground towards “perceived” expectations and ultimately an undesirable future. As a result, schools might be experiencing or heading towards low staff morale, impacted staff and student relationships, high staff burnout rates, and perceptions of a more “negative” school culture. 

In the book ‘Built to Last,’ author Jim Collins highlights how together with the (school’s)’ core values, a clear vision or purpose forms a set of stable principles that guides a (school) through both highs and lows. This may suggest that if we had a vision for our school that prioritised the wellbeing of our people, we might be more likely to emerge on the other side of this challenging time with our staff standing loyally by our sides. 

Vision is driven by our middle leaders

Building and communicating vision involves all school staff but begins with the principal and the senior leadership team. Without clarity and direction from the top, our middle leaders may lose sight of the end goal we are hoping to achieve. They, after all, are the ones dealing with, interacting with, and responding to their individual teams and staff on the ground, so our messaging must be consistent and clear – especially when it comes to staff wellbeing, relationships, and culture. Without consistency, teachers and staff end up engaging in behaviours or thought patterns that are disconnected from the principal’s vision, which will likely result in minimal changes or outcomes.

Senior leaders are involved in taking their school from its current situation to a changed and improved state in the future. In the book Developing Successful Leadership, Davies & Brundrett (2010) acknowledge how a change in both the structure and focus of schools is difficult, especially if it involves a change in the culture. The role of senior leaders is paramount as they are often ‘change champions’ – building coalitions of staff to create conditions for change and embedding new ways of working. 

Setting standards for a positive school culture 

A principal’s vision outlines the future they desire, the standards that they, their leaders, and staff operate by, and describes each of their roles in the process of change. 

Creating and communicating a vision for a more positive school culture sets gentle standards and expectations for staff to work towards. In the book ‘Great Leaders Have No Rules,’ Kruse (2019) shares how carefully considered standards are something a team can collectively uphold. They encourage staff to be accountable to each other and to their leaders. This is far more empowering than dictating rules, which only erodes trust. During any challenging time, a  return to vision and shared agreement for our roles and responsibilities in the change process keeps everyone on the same page. A vision also helps us to recognise and value our achievements during the good times. 

A case study

A school principal I work with as part of my ‘Well-Led Schools’ Partnership Program experienced great success when she identified her vision and communicated her standards and gentle expectations to her leaders and staff. After we spent time getting clear on her vision, she indicated how valuable she found the process to be for aligning her leadership team to work towards her vision of prioritsing relationships and a harmonious work environment. 

Until recently, staff relationships had been mostly positive, but staff were perceiving some conflict between some staff as unmanaged and indicated that they desired more opportunities to build relationships across the school.

After communicating her vision of everyone feeling included, valued and connected across teams, the school was able to gently communicate expectations of professional behaviours and find practical ways to plan for more opportunities for staff relationships to flourish using a range of team and relationship building strategies outlined in their school’s ‘Staff Wellbeing Action Plan.’

Your first steps toward a people-focused vision 

I know you may be thinking – where do I even begin creating and communicating a vision that emphasises my people’s wellbeing and a more positive school culture?

The step-by-step process for strategic vision setting involves:

  1. Creating your vision. Envision the kind of school you imagine for you and your staff as principal. What does it look like, sound like, and feel like? 
  2. Identifying your core values as a school leader and why these are important.
  3. Breaking the vision into smaller steps and focusing on 1-3 priority areas first – a one-year ‘Staff Wellbeing Action Plan’ is a great starting point. 
  4. Identifying specific goals and markers for success; how will you measure your progress?
  5. Considering the roles of all involved. What is your role as the senior leader? How do your middle leaders deliver and promote your vision? What is the staff’s role in this change?
  6. Communicating your vision and standards. Seek the consultation of staff to achieve buy-in and ensure the collective and collaborative efforts of all staff. 

Conclusion

A clear vision of what you’d like your school culture to look and feel like helps inform your next steps for improving staff wellbeing and culture. Once you’re clear on the direction you want to move towards, you can communicate and discuss this with staff and embed a strategic approach that involves and sets expectations for everyone involved.

It’s important to understand that while the vision starts at the top, you can’t carry out your vision without buy-in from all levels of staff. When we have a shared goal or vision we’re collectively working towards, with an understanding that it will improve the quality of life for everyone in the school community, it’s easy to get on board and feel driven by a sense of purpose.  Better yet, when our vision takes our people’s needs into consideration, it shows them they are a valued and essential component of the school’s culture and, ultimately, its success. 

School Partnership Program

Those who lead with wellbeing in mind have a clearly articulated vision that puts their people front and centre. 

Our new and improved ‘Well-Led Schools’ Partnership Program takes leaders through a journey of creating, defining, communicating, and enacting a wellbeing-focused vision that leads to happier and healthier staff and a better-performing school. 

Over the course of a year, school leaders will work to define and refine what it takes to achieve increased student and school outcomes with a school-wide focus on wellbeing. 

With the ‘Well-Led Schools’ Partnership Program, you will:

  • Have a clear plan for addressing staff burnout and creating a culture that prioritises wellbeing
  • Create a positive school environment where staff feel valued, well, engaged, and work together collaboratively towards a shared vision.
  • Empower leaders and staff to feel more confident, aware, and effective in their roles. 

If this sounds like what your school needs, then be sure to get on the waitlist for our next program opening.  Spots are limited, and doors open once per term so I can give schools the most tailored and individualised support!

Resources

Developing s Strategic Leadership Perspective from the book ‘Developing Successful Leadership’ (2010)

Book: Wellbeing at Work by Jim Clifton 

Book: Built to Last (Collins, 1994),

Book: Great Leaders Have No Rules (Kruse, 2019)

Book : Start with Why by Simon Sinek

Book: Find Your Why by Simon Sinek 

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