This blog was kindly contributed by Fabienne Vailes. An educational expert with almost 25 years of experience in the sector, Fabienne is on a mission to change the face of education, embedding wellbeing into the curriculum to create an environment where both students and staff flourish and develop the mental agility and resilience to succeed both academically and in the workplace. Fabienne is the author of The Flourishing Student: Every tutor’s guide to promoting mental health, well-being and resilience in higher education and co-author of How to Grow a Grown Up.
As a linguist, I feel very strongly about words and their definitions. It may also be partly because I had to learn English as a second language. I believe words play a huge part in our lives. They create our reality through the stories we tell and the narratives we use.
Words such as ‘wellbeing’ and ‘resilience’ are no exceptions. Within our institutions, these two words are being used increasingly by staff and students. I would like to start with a definition of these two words so that we are all singing from the same song sheet. I will then discuss what I think the role of tutors is related to them.
What is wellbeing?
Wellbeing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘the state of being or doing well in life; happy; healthy, or prosperous condition; moral or physical welfare (of a person or community)’.
There are two dominant conceptual approaches to wellbeing research which looks at the nature and key factors of wellbeing: objective wellbeing and subjective wellbeing.
Objective wellbeing focuses on the indicators of life quality, such as our most basic physiological and survival needs (food, water, security, financial security and housing) as well as social needs (education, health, political voice, social networks and connections).
Subjective wellbeing is our own evaluation of our lives, especially what we think about it and how satisfied we think we are (cognitive) and how we feel about it (positive or negative emotions).
What about resilience?
There are two key definitions of ‘resilience’ in the Oxford English Dictionary:
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
Based on the above, our societal constructs seem to be that our young people need to become ‘tough’ or need to ‘toughen up’. This line of thinking is often linked to the added comment ‘because we need to prepare them for a tough life. Life is hard, you know’.
In short, we all need to learn to ‘toughen up’ and to face challenges. Translation: we need to ‘learn to be tough now to be tough enough later’.
I am going to be completely honest with you. I do not think it is possible to be the same person and ‘spring back into shape’ after experiencing a challenge. Challenges change us and make us different people.
Putting someone in an environment that is not conducive to their wellbeing and therefore putting them under constant stress is not the answer.
We seem to have simply accepted the concept that ‘life is tough’, and, I agree, it can be. COVID-19 clearly highlighted this for all of us. But why accept it as a fact? We, the adults in their lives, could perhaps support our children and young people so that they can develop the skills, understanding and knowledge to not simply become resilient but instead start learning to love randomness, uncertainty, errors and failures?
So, what can tutors and staff do to support the young people in their institutions to do just this and flourish?
A shift in thinking
If we are honest, we will admit that we tend to consider our ‘education system’ much more a machine than an ecosystem. This has a long heritage that has played a very positive part in our growth and development over the years. But I would argue that it no longer serves us.
We cannot continue looking at and treating our institutions and communities like engines with separate parts that need to be tweaked to make it work or rev better. Our organisations are not machines. They are ecosystems. They are dynamic and influenced by the various parts that make them up. This creates unintentional consequences and affects other parts in the system. One example is how more staff members are now reporting higher levels of stress because they feel that their workload has increased due to the demands imposed on them to ensure that students are well, happy and satisfied.
In short, we are all part of the problem and all part of the solution.
We can start viewing our settings as fragile ecosystems with complex issues which, in the 1970s, Rittel and Webber called ‘wicked problems’. The Systems Thinking lens enables us to focus on the whole system looking at how the various parts of the system interact and through interrelated actions produce behaviours and lead to effects on each other.
The role of tutors
As tutors, we can start to shift our thinking and begin by viewing ourselves as unique individuals who all come together as part of the same ecosystem.
Many staff have dedicated their careers to taking care of their students. They care deeply about their wellbeing and want them all to flourish.
This is totally admirable and makes complete sense, but we cannot fully take care of others if we are unwell or stressed out. As the saying goes, ‘we cannot pour from an empty cup’. We cannot forget about our own health and wellbeing. We all understand this at an intellectual level but there is a clear gap between theory and practice. There is always one more email we could be answering or something that we have not quite finalised.
The problem is that stress is communicative, and our young people will never flourish if we, the adults in their lives, are not flourishing either.
For me, the most important recommendation is for tutors and staff to focus on self-care first. Self-care is essential. If we truly want flourishing institutions, we need flourishing staff and flourishing students.
One cannot happen without the other.