Welbee CEO: ‘Teachers are always putting pressure on themselves and are often perfectionists’

Mark Solomons, CEO of staff wellbeing specialist Welbee, speaks to ET about putting teachers first and his hopes for the future of wellbeing in schools.

Welbee, founded in 2018, is an online evaluation and staff wellbeing improvement tool, designed to help senior leaders and HR directors create mentally healthy schools, retain and motivate staff, reduce costs and drive up student  attainment. It was named the Best Wellbeing Solution in The Education Resources Awards (ERA) Awards 2022.

How did Welbee come about? Can you pinpoint a few moments that pushed you in this direction?

I’ve always had a fascination with education, culture, and leadership. My mum was a teacher and I’ve been a governor for over 20 years. Effectively, this is my second career. I spent 23 years in retail banking, ending up as a director and on the operating board. I then found myself working with with schools and I started supporting hundreds of schools and their senior leadership teams in cultural development and leadership development. I was really interested in wellbeing because people weren’t looking at it.

Welbee focuses on providing clear actions for schools rather than just data collection – can you explain how this works in practice?

We want to be more of a school staff wellbeing improvement organisation, not just a survey, and so we’re very much focused on what happens after the data is collected, although there’s plenty of data in the platform if people want to go and look into it themselves.

We worked with a panel of schools, and the thing that they said to us was “whatever you do, don’t just give us a load of data”. We pull the data into a really comprehensive report, which not only shares things like highlights and strengths, but also recommends actions that schools might take, and shows which staff groups those actions might be relevant to.

There’s immediately downloadable PowerPoint presentations as well, so the results can very quickly be shared with staff or stakeholders. We always encourage our schools to make it more of a shared journey rather than the SLT thinking of all the actions and implementing them. All that does is put more pressure on SLT and their wellbeing.

You’re well-versed in coaching and development of people – how has your approach changed over the years?

I’d actually started my journey focusing on students, and particularly on character education. I built a 63-lesson character education plan and co-wrote a book on resilience. That’s where I got this idea of helping the next generation really build their skills, not just for academia and attainment, but also having a successful, happy life; finding the right work and how to get there.

But I very quickly realised, actually, that if we want an education system fit for the 21st century then we have to start with staff. I thought that the best way to help young people is to focus directly on them but actually, it’s focusing on parents and schools, and helping teachers be their best self every day.

If teachers come to work, enjoy it, and are being supported, then they’re going to deliver the best lessons. I went on a journey of research and discovery and found causal evidence from education and health sectors showing how staff self-reported wellbeing has a causal link with outcomes, attainment, retention, and financial performance.

It became obvious to me that if you want to do the best with the children, you need to put staff first, which can sound counterintuitive. Clearly there’s two sides – there’s the quality of the teaching, but the second part of that is how the teachers feel, and their energy, their passion and their motivation every day to deliver their best work and thrive in their environment.

Mark Solomons and the Welbee Team collect their Education Resources Award (ERA).

What are the main challenges schools and staff are facing right now?

It’s a sector struggling for capacity. The DfE stats show one in four head teachers that started since 2015 are no longer head teachers, and one in three teachers leave teaching within five years. As a governor, I know we’re starting to struggle to recruit support staff, because of factors like low pay, and the fact that they’re not included in performance appraisal systems.

In sectors like banking when you take on a leadership role, you are 80% leading and 20% doing, and this is flipped round in teaching. When you move from teaching to department head, for example, you’ve still got to do 80% of your teaching, and yet we expect them somehow to manage this leadership role in a very small amount of time. And we also in many cases, don’t provide them with the training or the development that enables them to do that.

Another big issue is accountability.

Teachers carry the weight of being accountable to the children, parents, and the school leadership team, as well as being inspected by Ofsted. Teachers are always putting pressure on themselves and are often perfectionists.

Although workload is clearly a big issue, it’s more about helping people understand that they are in a high workload environment, but it’s okay not to get everything done. You can only do your best and you can choose the hours you work – people forget they’ve got choice. If you let your work dictate your hours, we’re more than willing to work from midnight, every night. So you need to make a choice.

What are your hopes for the future of wellbeing in schools?

I have this vision in my head of teachers all skipping into work every morning, with big smiles on their faces. Hopefully over the next one, two or three years, I want us to help many more schools to come into this more systematic, cyclical approach to wellbeing, where it’s being thought about all the time, and it’s not something that happens away from the school development plan and on one wellbeing day a year. In any organisation it always comes down to whether you feel trusted, whether you feel supported, that you feel you can speak up and give feedback safely.

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