Ian Vickers joins Justin Baeder to discuss his work to help improve teacher well-being around the world.
Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
About Ian Vickers
Ian Vickers is Deputy Principal at Sancta Maria College, a secondary school in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a winner of the 2013 National Workplace Wellness Award.
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Ian, welcome to Principal Center Radio.
Ian Vickers: Lovely to speak to you again, Justin.
Justin: Likewise. We spoke a couple of years ago on Eduleadership Radio. I’m very excited to hear what you’ve been up to in terms of promoting teacher well being, which is something that, I would say in my experience, it has been treated mostly as a personal matter. We see it as a teacher’s own job to take care of themselves and not necessarily in our profession of school administration as our responsibility.
We see ourselves as responsible for students and making sure that, as educators, we do everything we can for students, but you’ve taken the perspective that teacher well being should matter a great deal to us as administrators. Is that right?
Ian: For sure. I think if you look now, 21st Century model, and again it goes into teaching, but if you look at the business and industry, 20th Century model was flogging people to death, just to get as much out of them as you could.
But the 21st Century, I don’t know, if you want to get that quality, you want to get loyalty, you want to reduce your turnover of staff, productivity’s up, you’ve got to invest and look after your people.
I think that’s a starting point in that we embarked on this three years ago is, yes, you want your teachers to be the best. You’re looking for excellence. You want them to be great. You want innovative, highly motivated, put in the hours.
You also need to look after these people. They need to be well. They need to be happy in their workplace, good levels of morale.
Care for these people. That’s where I started this project three years ago. I think the first place was in my old school.
I called them together, like minded colleagues, said, “Look, this is difficult. We’re really working hard, but people are constantly sick, sick on the holidays, really struggling with their job, death by paperwork, and classroom teaching is very, very demanding, the intensity. What can we do about it?”
From the humble beginnings, we got together for an hour. People had a really good moan and groan about the working conditions as teachers do sometimes.
But from that, we built a teacher well being program within the college. It’s based around a little bit often in terms of keeping on the agenda every single week.
We have a different theme for the week. Things like, obviously, look after your hydration levels with water, fruit week, no email week, which has been a success rate every time every time we’ve run no email week.
Justin: I could imagine.
Ian: Encouraging tidier workspace. We did a nice one this year where we said, “OK, we’re not going to have a big staff meeting on Monday after school. We will put a big garbage, rubbish dumpster in the back of the school. Please go to your areas, your classrooms, your departments, and tidy up your workspace. Boxes, rubbish, equipment you want to throw out, please throw out.”
That dumpster was full after 20 minutes. Absolutely overflowing, the biggest we could get. After 25 minutes, our Art Department is actually inside the dumpster taking stuff out.
I guess, one person’s rubbish is another person’s gold. That was good. You come back to work the following day and your classroom looks brilliant, and your drawers and shelves are all tidy.
We have things like date night. We said, “All right, next week, you’ve got a week to organize it. Please do something special with those people around you, your loved ones, your family, your partner, your wife, your husband, good friends that you haven’t seen for months and you keep promising to catch up. Do something different. If you go out for dinner sort of regularly, that’s OK. But can you find something different to do?”
That went down a treat. Some of the stories of people going to the beach, going to the theater, who haven’t done that for many, many years, etc., etc. It just runs through themes like that.
Was it a success in our first year in 2012? I’d say, absolutely, yes. We measured our sickness rates for that year. Across the whole year, it averaged out with a 27 percent reduction in sickness rates.
The highest one of the terms, was actually 40 percent reduction on the previous year. We’re a healthier bunch. We’ve grown.
Every year, we’ve added new things to the program.
This last year, we negotiated a deal with our board of trustees that run the school and said, “OK, will you come to the table in terms of cost and funds if we set up a regular neck and shoulder massage opportunity for the staff?” The staff pays $10, the board subsidizes that with $10, and every week we have a professional masseuse comes in to give us 20 minute massages [inaudible 5:53] contacts.
That’s been really, really helpful. We’ve got a wellness clinic next week. We started last year where one of the local schools of nursing. Obviously, these students go through the year, and as they finish their course, they need to get practical experience.
So we’ve got them in, and they come into the school. We’re offering a 20 minute wellness fitness check, if you like. They’ll do the body mass index or do blood pressure.
They bring a high tech blood test kit, and they can check for diabetes, or do urine tests for all the hydration levels. If things come out of that, then they encourage, obviously, then to shoot off to the doctors to investigate further. Actually bringing the health people in has worked a treat.
When you start doing this within your own school, then word gets out to school communities alike so some of the other schools get wind of what you’re doing. Our program is driven by this booklet, this weekly theme. It’s called the “The Good New Habits” book.
All the schools are, “Look, can we get a copy of that?” I’ve made it that is a free resource for anybody who wants to take it. It’s only a starting point.
It’s not mine. It works in our environment, but please take it. It’s a Word document.
You can rejig things. You can take things out you don’t like. Put new things in.
That’s probably in at about, I don’t know, 900 or 1,000 schools in New Zealand now that people have created and rejigged for their environments. People catch it with articles that are written about our program.
Again, that spirals. I’ve got a termly article in a school magazine promoting teacher well being.
Today, I’ve had, I don’t know, in excess of 6,000 emails from all around the world. I guess, the power of the Internet, people from Argentina, people from the States, UK, Canada, Australia, and, obviously, up and down the country.
You get into discussions with the politicians then. I’ve actually been face to face with the top politician, the Minister of Education. She came to my school.
We talked across the table about, “What can you do to help look after the teachers in New Zealand?” We talked to the top administrators.
We talked to unions. Slowly, it’s not always about just looking after or caring about my own school community, but it’s banging a drum on more of a national footing.
Justin: And a global scale now it sounds like.
Ian: Fantastic, yes. Along with that, we’ve managed to get for the first time, we had a publication released to all the senior teachers and to New Zealand last year which was entitled, “Well Being in Schools.”
But when you open this draft document, unfortunately, it should have been titled, “Well Being for Students,” because it was actually nothing about the teachers.
I can understand the schools have got rafts or layers of structure and resources and support mechanisms to look after young people, quite rightly so. But my argument is, “OK, that’s fine. But, again, if you want the teaching and learning and all the good work you demand, you must also spend time and develop systems for your teachers.”
Again, word gets about and start talking to the right amount of people, and for the first time in New Zealand, next October, we’re going to have a conference that is entitled “Well Being Conference: Well Being in Our Schools.” It really will be well being in schools.
It will be looking after your students and resources available for those young people, but also they’ll be a strand there for well being of teachers. It’s really important, that’s on the agenda.
I guess, personally as well, this work I’ve been doing, there’s been, I guess, a little bit of a reward there from our Ministry of Education. They’ve granted me a sabbatical next May, June, and July to have 10 weeks out of my school and, obviously, a little bit of refreshment time, but also to allow me to move on now.
We’ve made a start on this well being program, this wellness, morale boosting programs in our schools. Can we take it to the next level, whatever that next level may well be? Exciting times.
Justin: Absolutely. Just in terms of cost benefit analysis, if we’re to look at this in purely practical terms, you said you saw a 27 to 40 percent reduction in illness and basically teacher absenteeism. Is that right?
Ian: Yeah. For sure. When you’re doing your sick colleagues…It was strange, actually. We just finished our third term. We just went through our last one in our New Zealand winter. The winter terms are notorious only for huge sort of sickness in students and also for staff, just as a quick snapshot, the last sort of three weeks of last term.
You look through who is away for the day and why they’re away. You might have ten people who are away for the day. But surprisingly, days like where there’s one person sick. Where’s the other nine people? They’re all doing conferences. They’re doing PD work. They’re out of school because maybe some events.
Just that sort snapshot gives you an idea that we’re tracking OK, but money wise, certainly. You certainly save money and covering for sick call. That’s what I said. When I’ve been to the politicians and say, “If you invest in people, in industry it’s proven, in this workplace wellness program, you see these rates are reduced.
You come and you say, “Yeah. We get more people that come to work and the productivity goes up.” It’s certainly going to save costs. Our mass society is probably an example that OK, the money will divert into covering for sick teachers. We’ve got some spare cash now, so we’re able to divert that into supporting the staff around massage and other opportunities.
Justin: There’s also an instructional rational to this too though. The idea is not only do we have lower costs and lower absenteeism, but that it actually directly impacts the quality of teaching and the learning experiences that students receive. Could you speak to that?
Ian: Yeah. Fantastic. It’s been a pleasure. I mean just the last sort of three years, two and a half years, I think. The last time we spoke there was some sort of growth there, that some of the teachers, it’s just gone up a notch. But like I said, the last couple of years, there’s been some phenomenal teachers.
The teachers are well. They still work very, very hard. But they sort of feel loved and valued and yes, sort of walking through classrooms, absolutely fantastic. The whole range. Innovation is there. Creativity is there. Very forward thinking, as well. Staff has taken on some great initiatives this year using the gadgets in the classrooms.
It’s been a pleasure. Again, an industry model, they would say, “OK. Can we put all of this against also productivity?” We are a new school. We’re a new school, 10 years. 11 years. 11 years ago, the grounds of the school in our system was just a bare field, a pair paddock. Now, 10 or 11 years old now, last year across nationally, our school probably got in the top 15 of the exam results in the country. That’s developed.
The three years that we’ve been on this journey, in terms of looking of looking after our people, alongside it, for the last three years, our exam results nationally have gone up. We’re tracking around about 92 to 94 percent success rate depending on our top three year groups. That’s fantastic.
Staff, like I said, are working extremely hard in their classrooms and it’s been a pleasure to witness and see this sort of vitality around our school. The staff room is buzzing and laughter. We have laughter week. I remember one morning walking up the staircase up the staff room and thinking, “Gee. A bit noisy up there today.”
But we’ve asked them to laugh as well and have some fun. You go in and it’s absolutely a pleasure. It’s been a wonderful journey and I think I was out talking to sort of our young people, our final year, which are going to leave in about three weeks’ time from their final examinations. We just sat and talked on the bench and sunshine and, “Talk to me about your best teachers.”
The whole range. Some of the stories. “Why is this your best teacher? Why do they do this? Why do they do that?” “They care for me. They look after me. They’ve got their empathy. They encourage me when times are hard or sit alongside me and really work me through it.” The feedback from the young people as well, is very appreciative of having a very competent and very sharp and a very well staff that are always there.
Justin: As you were speaking to the changes you’ve made and the investments that you’ve made in teacher wellbeing, I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that a lot of the excellence that you’re seeing, the extra mile, kind of effort that you’re seeing from people is a result of the trust that you’ve built by showing concern for teachers’ wellbeing.
I think the tendency, as you mentioned earlier, is for us to just to kind of squeeze every drop of effort out of people without investing anything back. We think, “Well, if only we could get people to work a little bit harder and stay a little bit later and do some tutoring after school and come a little bit better and put some extra time into collaboration and evening events and everything. If only we could squeeze more out of people, we could get better results.”
I think what you’re saying is such a breath of fresh air to us because it really is the opposite approach of investing in people so that they have more to give. They have the capacity to be healthier and basically bring more to the table rather than just have more squeezed out of them.
Ian: It’s definite…I’m trying to grow a coach here, really. This is a huge monumental shift for some people. The politician’s side and when you’re working with some of these key people that formed their skills…I’m getting better at it. I think I was pretty naive three years ago but you’re trying to change a shift.
As I talked about for the 20th Century model, as you said, it’s wringing everything you can out of these people. You’ve got to look after people. You’ve got to invest in these people. The problem is that some of the people that are making these decisions about school and a lot of them are ex teachers as well, is they have not been in a classroom for 20 years.
It’s like amnesia to some extent. “What was school like?” and the 21st Century classroom is a million miles away. The young people, socially, the different use of technology. I sat down with some of the main tutors that do tutor training in some of our universities. I’ve say a lot, “Have you got teacher well being actually as part of your program for young teachers coming through?”
“No? Why not?” There’s a concept…they don’t understand. I think if you haven’t been in a classroom in the last five years, you’re off the base. You have not got a clue what is going on and the demands and the intensity of 21st Century education.
That trust from the teachers side of it and in the moment, I’ve actually gone… this is like Herbalife and Amway. This is pyramid selling. I go to the teachers, to the principles and say, “OK, guys. I’ll work the politics. I will work with the politics with the politicians and the ministry, with the unions, who drive the chain as well.”
Whether I think about it and whether they want to sort of make it flip from the old thinking to the new thinking, guess what? We’ll do it ourselves.
So here you go. Here’s an idea, you bring your own ideas to the table. What can you do for your school? What can you…and then share it.
Share it with another school down the road. If you’re in a rural community, can you Skype? Can you do, you know, at a principal level.
I was horrified two years ago to read that the principals of New Zealand, they were surveyed in the back of the 1990’s about how things were, and the feedback was, “Hey, Principals, you are working very hard, working very long hours, your workload is you know pretty heavy, and you’re pretty stressed, and burnout is actually on the agenda now, OK.”
2003, they did the same survey. They said, “Look, we’re just touching base to see how things are, and the results were the same. You know, your workload is actually even heavier. The stress levels are high, and burnout is not just on the table now. It’s actually happening.”
The author went back and said, “OK, 2007,” [laughs] tongue in cheek, “I’ve just come back guys to survey you again to see if you’ve still got all these issues. I expect you will have, you know, but we’re just checking, and low and behold, you are working incredible long hours. You know, the workload is crazy. Stress levels are now really sort of really high, and burnout is major for you guys.”
I went to the Principals’ Association whether that be primary schools, kindergarten, all the way up to the high school level, and you sort of say, “Yes, you’ve had three reports. You are the brain’s trust in our schools. You’ve been told you’ve got issues. Show me what you have done about it please.”
What have you done? You know it’s like “Mm hmm.” We’ve actually…I’ve gained with myself and my principal. We actually wrote…we produced a desk as a starter point, Justin, just as a starter point. Look, let’s do something.
We produced a desktop planner for the last three terms. It rolls over. Again, it’s on a weekly theme, but these principals are all locked in together. So we’ve got 400 principals around New Zealand saying, “OK, on my desk now, I’ve got this planner. So 2/4, next week, week two, is Positive Health Week.”
So I have this thing in my face on a Monday morning. “Oh right,” [sarcastically] but I’m not alone. The principal has got the same calendar…planner. Right, Positive Health Week, so maybe we’ll phone and contact each other. Should we do something else? Should we go for a run?
Should we play a game of squash? Should we do this? Should we do that? It rumbles through weekly themes like we have at school.
Again, there’s some trust developing there and some really good work. You get reminded weekly through a sort of principals’ newsletter, “Guys are you looking after yourself?” So yeah, the trust issue is really important, but we are looking after ourselves.
That’s…if you’re a better principal, one of the things principals moaned about the top of the…when we did a survey last year, the number one for principals in New Zealand of what concerned them most was being out of touch and not up to date with their professional reading and what was going on.
OK, so that was identified. This is a major issue here. We need to be able to do some more reading time. Why can you not do it at school?
“Oh…” and the excuses galore. I must have an open door policy. Why can you not shut the door? “Oh, I couldn’t do that.” Again, you’re trying to bring a culture change for an individual.
Do something, don’t just moan about it and then maybe the next holiday break you just spend…you’ve got a mountain of reading to do, which you may not get through anyway.
What can you do today? Can you shut your door for one hour? Can you come to school late as a principal? Can you arrive at 10 o’clock rather than 9 o’clock or whatever?
Or can you go home early? But find a way, that’s the difference between industry. They say, some of the big leaders in industry say, “I go to work to work on my particular job, and then I go home and have my personal life.”
School principals and teachers will do some stuff at school, and then we go home and carry on doing work. Try and get a divide there. In answer to your question, massive, the trust and…but if we’re doing it ourselves, teachers are very, very wary of being told or being lectured at by people that are not in their profession.
You’ve got to be a very special person to get inside a teacher’s head. If you’re in an industry model or a business model, there was a teacher well being program that was delivered here to a school in Auckland in January this year.
It was a one off. It was run by a business who said do this, do that. Well, they’ve got no concept of how a school functions, and it wasn’t repeated.
It was interesting when I went to the organization, “Why have you not repeated this little program you did?” “There isn’t a demand.”
Justin: Yet, you’ve had 6,000 emails from all over the world from people who are using your materials. Is that right?
Ian: Yeah, I mean that…he said there’s no…the thing about the no demand is actually…
Ian: School has a budget doesn’t it? School has a budget, so we need to do this, this, and this for our learning. Yes, we’ve got to do this, this, and this for our learning. All the money’s all gone unfortunately, and the next one down on the list that probably could’ve/should’ve been covered was looking after your teachers.
Well, next year we’ll have another go at it, so it’s not there’s no demand. There’s actually no money available to go further down the list to look after teachers. Anyway, we are doing something about it, and it’s going brilliantly.
Justin: Well then, kudos to you for putting that on our agenda, and I think you’ve sounded the alarm so successfully in the work that you’ve done over the past three years. If people want to get a hold of your materials or get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to find you online?
Ian: Right, two things because that’s the plan for next year is when I’m on sabbatical is to actually crank up my own website and do that, but the moment…the best way is just use a simple Google search. You just type in “Ian Vickers teacher well being,” and it’ll give you a link to lots of articles, I’ve written in magazines, links to get the resource, and then the other way is to send me an email.
I’ve got a Gmail account which is [email protected] is the best way to track me.
Justin: Well Ian, thank you so much. It has been a treat to speak with you and hear what you’ve been up to these last couple of years and the difference you’ve made in not only reducing absenteeism but really just helping people be healthier and helping school leaders pay more attention to this absolutely critical issue. Thank you so much.
Ian: It’s been an absolute pleasure, Justin, and thank you very much for your time.
Justin: So high performance instructional leaders, as you heard, Ian Vickers has set up a program of well being to help the staff in his school pay attention to how they’re doing, pay attention to their own health, and take steps to not only do a great job on behalf of the students, but to invest in their own well being and in their own health.
The reception to that around the world has been tremendous, and I think the key thing that he’s asking people to do is really to develop good habits. If you recall in the high performance triangle, which consists of strategies, tools, and habits, habits are what give us consistency over time.
If we want to be at our best, not just on some days, on the days when we happen to get a good night’s sleep or when we happen to not be sick or happen to have had a good breakfast, we’ve got to invest in building those habits that create success and that put us at our best.
We’ve got to do that for our teachers as well. We’ve got to help them pay enough attention to themselves that they can be at their best for students, so I want to encourage you to look on our website, the page for this interview or Google “Ian Vickers teacher well being” and take a look at some of the resources that Ian has created.
The calendar of activities and basically health promotions that you can do to promote well being among your staff. Take just a minute to take a look at that and see what you can do to help your staff develop healthier habits.