Staff wellbeing: Regard, dialogue and feedback

Written by: Mark Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Personal and professional regard, dialogue and feedback – what approaches can help staff during the testing months that lie ahead? Mark Burns advises on how we can invest in personal and professional regard to support our teaching staff

Conversations, over the last four months, with hundreds of teachers and leaders across the country have uncovered a huge diversity of experience during this lockdown period.

There has not been a uniform experience and some have really struggled. Drained by challenges linked to relationships, parenting and home-schooling, wrestling with unfamiliar online learning platforms, coping with family illness and, in some cases, bereavement too.

In addition, many teachers have said how much they miss the day-to-day interaction with colleagues and the learners themselves. One, who captured the mood well, reflected: “I’ve been left with all of the bits of teaching I dislike (the marking and preparation) and have lost the bit that brings me joy – the warmth of relationships and those eureka moments in lessons when learners get it.”

For others, lockdown has given them more time to engage in collaborative professional learning either through reading or online CPD. One leader’s comment typified this: “We’re having slower, deeper conversations about solving issues that we wouldn’t have had time to address if school was in ‘normal’ mode.”

Not only that, but on a domestic level the chance to spend more time with family and eat healthily and exercise is a positive.

As the country emerges, what we are faced with is the recognition that uncertainty is the “new normal” and is likely to be for some time ahead. So how do we sustain and grow staff wellbeing in the face of these “stormy seas”? After all, unless the wellbeing of adults in schools is prioritised, then there will be no-one to hold an emotionally stable umbrella over the rest of the school community.

Drawing upon research in the field. There are two key areas that it is important for schools to invest in if they are commited to sustaining wellbeing. The use of the word “invest” is key. It may be that the level of wellbeing in your school pre-Covid was good, but this may not be enough to sustain staff through the more challenging times ahead.

Investment in personal regard

How we work and interact as adults can have huge impact on wellbeing in schools. Personal regard is where individuals are valued, first and foremost, as human beings. Its absence can cause untold stress and can derail team morale. Where this happens, it is sometimes because the focus has been solely on the wellbeing of the children, without applying the same principles to adults.

Ask the question: “How would someone behave who demonstrates personal regard for their colleagues?” This usually leads to a diversity of responses: different people feel valued in different ways.

A simple example: it may be that one individual may not need others to say “good morning” to them, whereas another would feel this to be uncaring. Diversity emphasises the importance of treating people according to their needs.

It also means that assumptions should not be made that all in a school community will have a common understanding of what personal regard means. Therefore framing a dialogue to renew and co-construct how we work together can be incredibly powerful.

One powerful concept to frame or underpin personal regard is the concept of unconditional positive regard. Developed by writer Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard requires us to value and respect other people regardless of what they do or say. By doing so, Rogers posits, this will help any relationships be strengthened to cope with change (for details, see online, including Cherry, 2020).

In schools, this may take the following forms:

  • When we talk about others not present, we do so only in ways that you would feel comfortable with them hearing.
  • Avoid interrupting and instead practise active listening.
  • Always saying please and thank you when engaging with colleagues.
  • Avoid negative pre-conceptions of others clouding your judgement.
  • Being aware of how your own energy can influence others.

Another incredibly powerful approach to maintain personal regard is to encourage all staff to practise thinking stoically. A key aspect of stoical thinking is to focus solely on what can be controlled and what can be influenced. Anything that lies outside these two zones is, according to stoicism, a waste of precious energy. Thinking stoically can liberate individuals within a team from suffering from excess stress. Indeed, many of the triggers that cause stress for individuals come from worrying or getting frustrated with things that are outside their control and influence.

Adopting this approach as a team can really support each individual’s resilience – for example, by agreeing protocols about framing dialogue only to discuss issues within the control/influence of the team. This can be a difficult habit for some to change, yet it can have a transformative impact on the energy in teams.

Investment in professional regard

Another key aspect that research into staff wellbeing points to is the extent to which teachers feel valued as professionals (Ofsted, 2019). In these challenging times there are three foundation areas that can really enhance that feeling of professional regard.

1, Create a ‘stop’ agenda

A common area of negative feedback in wellbeing surveys over recent years has been the extent to which individuals feel they suffer from processing overload. “There’s no time to do things properly,” was one plaintiff cry from a middle leader. Indeed, if there is one thing that grinds down the most passionate, open-to-learning teacher, it is to place them in an environment where there is too much to do and not enough time.

The GB Men’s Rowing Eight crew, who won gold at Sydney 2000, had a mantra, which turned them from perennial also-rans to success: “Will it make the boat go faster?"

It focused them on streamlining their approach to improvement. Stripping out aspects that did not “make the boat go faster”, or which even on reflection slowed development.

This mantra works well when thinking about our schools. What are the things that slow yourself, your team or your school down? Here are some of the common ones I come across:

  • Poor email culture and protocols.
  • Ineffective prioritisation.
  • A meetings culture.
  • Inefficient internal processes or systems.
  • Teaching processes, protocols or aspects of quality assurance that have no basis in research.
  • Ineffective implementation plans.
  • A prevalence of monologue over dialogue.
  • Poorly designed or facilitated professional learning.
  • A poorly planned calendar.

Time spent reflecting on personal and organisation “stop” actions will hugely increase the time for dialogue, reflection and planning. It is likely to enhance staff energy levels too.

2, Deepen dialogue

Several years ago, I was involved in some research with the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE) into the processes underpinning a nationwide professional learning programme. The research (which was not published publicly) was seeking to identify which of the processes the participating teachers felt were most important to their growth.

Some of our team were convinced they knew what the findings would point to. They were certain that the teachers would pinpoint the importance of having a high trust environment.

Indeed, a key part of the programme was that it was confidential, to ensure a “safe” environment for teachers to take risks with their teaching.

However, when the findings emerged, it shocked those in our team who had predicted trust. Once teachers had this safety, they then discounted it as being important. Instead, what teachers valued most, was the importance of the time and space to analyse their teaching and engage in deep, developmental dialogue about their craft.

Little (1990) provides a model which can be a useful assessment of the depth of collaborative dialogue. It is a model that can help frame reflection in school on what depth of dialogue is the norm for your staff – and how to remove barriers that stop it deepening. See here:

Through deep dialogue, teachers and leaders can, for example, disentangle the effects of unwelcome events from their causes and therefore focus on preventing the causes from occurring in future.

Daniel Kahneman (2011) points to the importance and value of “slow thinking” in ensuring that we avoid our own cognitive biases and do not overlook important information that could aid better decision-making.

3, Leverage the impact of feedback

A final fertile area to invest in is to leverage the power of feedback in schools. Where schools have developed shared clarity on the why, what, where, when, and how of “beautiful” feedback between adults, many of the fears, uncertainty, resentment, and ultimately the ineffectiveness linked to this area dissipate.

Not only this, there is the potential that feedback becomes a dialogic process that is focused on growth and overcoming barriers, rather than deficits.

Where we look for gaps, they will always be found. Yet noticing that the gap has closed significantly, and the growth that led to it can motivate much more. If this is an area of interest in your team, here are some questions to start the dialogue:

  • What is the purpose of feedback in our team?
  • When you have received high quality feedback, why was it so impactful?
  • When you have received ineffective feedback, what made it so?
  • What are the components of high-quality feedback when it is given and when it is received?
  • hat are the barriers that could inhibit feedback from being effective in our team?
  • What protocols do we need to make explicit on how feedback should be given and received?

  • Mark Burns works with school leaders to identify and overcome barriers to developing the quality of teaching. He taught for 12 years and is now the director of Plus One Learning Limited. Visit

Further information & resources

  • Cherry: Unconditional positive regard in psychology, Very Well Mind, May 2020:
  • Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow, Penguin Books, 2011.
  • Little: The persistence of privacy: Autonomy and initiative in teachers’ professional relations, Teacher College Record (91), 1990.
  • Ofsted: Teacher wellbeing at work in schools and further education providers, July 2019:

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