The HOW of Leading a Quest for Student Wellbeing

DESIGNING your school’s approach student wellbeing.

If you’ve been following the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) [1] process described in the last four blogs, you will know that in the last post I left you hanging.  Everyone doing the AI process had just left for lunch while leadership started to look for some immediate / short term wins that they could green-light, from amongst the gathered proposals.

For anyone reading this as their first post – I’m walking you through an AI process, in the first stage, DISCOVERY, we gathered a bank of stories of student wellbeing at its best from the lived experience of staff.  Next, in the DREAM phase, looked at what student wellbeing at its best could look like in five year’s time, building on what’s working well already, and sorting into themes as we went.  Finally, in the DESIGN phase, we brainstormed actual ways forward that might carry the school towards that five year goal.  Then, we broke for lunch – and sneakily, during lunch, the big wigs / school leadership gathered to see what they could green-light from the proposals straight away… But without making an announcement yet.  Cool.  Now you’re up to date!

DELIVERing on student wellbeing

After the DESIGN brainstorm time, groups it’s time to invite teams to collate ideas and set them on a tentative timeline, focusing on what needs to happen on the ground over the next year if they are to meet their five year dream (not discarding any, but setting aside ones that weren’t being immediately used in a way that they could be retrieved if needed).  The focus at this point is less on a definite timeline (keep it rough) but more on what concrete steps to take to foster greater student wellbeing in the chosen theme, and in what order these steps might go.  I have found that teachers are very good at doing this; you guys click into planning mode, becoming practical, creative, and ruthless, because you know how much will work where.  At this DESIGN stage we want to invoke this sense of real-world-constraint, (the exact thing we were trying to free people up from in the DREAM stage), because it’s time for the rubber to hit the road.  But we also want there to be a bit of give in the plan that’s put forward, because every other team will also be outing forward a plan.  And, leaders, you will want to be very transparent, flagging for the teams what will happen at the end of the day with the plans they’ve poured their hearts into.

Anyway, now teams work up and document their plans.  Sometimes this is where I’ll get them to ‘go digital’, putting plans into a shared Google document or similar, and having them include snapshots of key sticky-notes, etc., so we can see the development of ideas through the AI process from DISCOVER, DREAM, DESIGN and to DELIVER.  Also have a column where they can indicate what resources they think this will take – does it need PD?  Does it need a person to oversee a process?  Is there equipment needed?  When does it need to be reviewed?  Should there be a team of people on it?  Bearing in mind that it is a very rough take.  Seriously consider a digital element here – because it is a real pain if you’re the person everyone looks to to ‘write it up’ at the end of this amazing but exhausting process!  It would be a shame for everything to come unstuck because we didn’t plan how to document things…

Documenting your amazing work – a cautionary tale

On this point I have a sad but illustrative story to share. I once saw a brand-new leader lead his first process like the one above; his focus was on the school’s planned move from horizontal to vertical home groups, and how to take the best of the system along with them into the future through the change.  He and an entire middle school staff worked their tushies off over the course of a day, getting to the DELIVER stage still on sticky-notes.  His plan was to take it away and write them all up later.  I was present and suggested that I’d seen it work well to go digital for this stage – but he didn’t want to interrupt the flow of the day.  It had worked so well to keep things tactile and fluid, and he valued that.

“But who’ll be doing all the write up?”  I asked.

“I’ll get to it later,” was the reply.

You know what happened next.  After this fantastic day where everyone from middle school busted their butts; it all pretty much came to nothing…  He neglected to do the write up that he had intended; because it looks easy, but there is a lot of work to capture.  The leader got busy with leading, he got busy with putting the transition between systems into place, he neglected to refer to the planning everyone had contributed to, he forgot what they said so passionately, in fact he accidentally made some expensive mistakes that he would not have had he taken everyone on the journey with him.    So, let’s calculate the cost of this move.  Firstly, there were fifty middle school staff who set aside a day of their PD period before teaching commenced for the year – so, nobody needed to be replaced, which is good.  But let’s say these teaching staff were paid 70k AUD annually, divide by 42 working weeks, divide by five days:  $333.33 per person for that day, times fifty people brings the cost to $16,000 plus change.  Not good.  But that’s not the expensive part.  The expensive part is how burnt those fifty people are, after having been consulted, been involved, putting themselves out there; to then see everything they’d put forward very clearly ignored.  The bright-eyed and bushy tailed staff, who’d invested the most, had the wind knocked out of their sails.  The jaded ones had their level of jadedness confirmed.  Now what is the level of resistance that you think he experienced as he set about ‘getting stuff done,’  because he was too busy to look back over the work that’d been produced, too busy to go back to that day when we looked at that soft ‘touchy feely’ stuff?  He’d been invested on the day, but because it gradually became associated with the burden of writing up, he eventually discounted the day itself as useless.

Morals of the story

  • Don’t ‘lead people on’ – it is better to NOT run a collaborative process, let alone an AI process, if it is likely to end up as a stand-alone event without any actual impact on practice.
  • Don’t let something simple and easy to plan in advance (like incorporating digital write-up into the AI process) trip up all your good work and everyone else’s’. Give yourself a chance, make it easier on yourself.

Wrapping up your AI process

After that cautionary detour, let’s get back to wrapping up.  Allow each team to share with the group.  Let them have fun if they want.  I’ve had a groups do a relatively formal and clear write-up on a Google doc, who then decided that for the sharing with the rest of the staff they’d like to do a song (having cleverly re-written the words of John Farham’s You’re the Voice), whilst another group delivered a very staid dot point PPT with no pictures.  Whatever they want to do works for me.  As long as they have the autonomy to get their points across as they wish, and also have a clear simple write up that I don’t have to do…

Be transparent about next steps

Leaders.  This part’s all you.  You will have needed to be clear before the day about what you will do with the outcome of the day.  If you’re clever, you will have seeded some of what you’d be hoping for as outcomes well before this, whilst still allowing genuine exploration in the process.

In saying what will happen next:

  • Give a clear indication of when it will happen, and when you anticipate a final plan will be in place (or at least when you will be able to tell them that a finalised plan is in place).
  • Pull out your green-lighted plans and commit to them. (See the last post to know what I mean).  This provides a little immediate momentum.

Next post in the ‘How to lead a Quest for Student Wellbeing’ series:

‘FOLLOWING UP your AI process  – implementing student wellbeing.’

  1. Srivastva, S. and D. Cooperrider, Appreciative Inquiry into Organizational Life. Research in organizational change and development, 1987. 1.

Nahum Kozak | Psychologist

Nahum is a Psychologist who uses the power of story, humour, and data to help improve organisations.  Nahum has a wealth of experience from school and corporate contexts – as Head of Positive Education and Senior School Counsellor (John Paul College), Corporate Coach (including experience with Griffith’s Work and Organisational Resiliency Centre) and Youth Minister (in Catholic Schools across Australia). He holds a B.A.(Psychology), M.Ed.(Educational Research: Theory and Practice), and is currently undertaking a second Masters in Organisational Psychology. He has presented at schools and conferences around Australia, and has had his research on wellbeing, social connection and sleep quality published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry. Nahum is passionate about building healthy, happy organisations.