Our research project has been guided by this question: What does it mean for educators to flourish in their school communities?
Our research was grounded in several assumptions that would offer an alternative and complementary perspective to the research that was emerging on the role of stress, exhaustion, and burnout among teachers. We assumed that what we pay attention to grows, that we get more of what we give attention to. If we focus on what is not working (negative deviance) then we more clearly see the difficulties and challenges. If we focus on what is working, then we will both see the root causes of growth and realize the results of what is working (positive deviance). Based on research, we know that attending to strengths and positive outlooks, as opposed to a deficit-model of thinking, can increase resilience, vitality, and happiness and can decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. For our research, we focused on finding examples of teacher wellbeing within the realities of their work world and learning how these educators create conditions for their flourishing within the complexities, challenges, and suffering that are daily realities for teachers. We assumed that language can be a powerful leverage for shifting how we view our experiences and noticed how the ways teachers who flourish talk about their work and their life. We assumed that findings from the recently emerged disciplines of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship could provide a theoretical grounding for researching wellbeing in school organizations. For example, Cameron and Caza (2004) describe how we can research from a positive perspective, studying “the dynamics leading to the development of human strength, producing resilience and restoration, fostering vitality, and cultivating extraordinary individual and organizational performance” (p. 3). These and other researchers have found that studying the goodness and human potential, meaningfulness, and high-quality relationships, among other positive qualities in organizations reveals connections to increased and improved work conditions and products. We used a positive organizational perspective, intentionally seeking out examples and experiences that educators’ described as flourishing ones, where they felt a sense of being engaged, connected, and thriving in their work. From these stories, we aimed to explain how it is that some educators and some school learning communities flourish most of the time.
We carried out qualitative, case study research with school districts in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. We worked with district and school administration to design studies within their schools that would give us access to stories and examples of flourishing from the perspective of flourishing and that would also provide the schools with opportunities to benefit from participating. As an example, one school in Saskatchewan engaged with us in a documentation process of seeking out wellbeing throughout the school in as many ways as they wanted. Students, staff, teachers, and administrators engaged in what we playfully called, “happy hunting” to share with us the stories of who they are at their best. The act of seeking out, describing, and sharing the stories of flourishing can be a powerful level for growing positive emotions, a sense of pride and connection to the school community, and a desire to grow more of what they found. These experiences have been described in research as “virtuous cycles” (Cameron, 2008). From these stories (pictures, oral narratives, emailed descriptions, lists, etc.) we were able to analyse this data for themes. Comparing and contrasting these themes to the research literature that supported our study provided us a set of findings that were unique to each context and that were common across schools. The slides represent the common findings that emerged through the work with the case study sites. As a token of our appreciation for participating and providing us with their time, energy, stories, insights and wisdom, we compiled a book of the findings that were unique to each site and written within the research literature from the study. These books are wellbeing artifacts that document flourishing in each school and district that engaged with us.
Through our research with teachers on what it means to flourish in schools, we have found the importance of noticing the stories that shape our work, and have developed from the participants own examples of how they grow wellbeing in their work using activities and strategies for noticing and growing flourishing. These activities empower them to shift their minds and hearts toward new and different ways of engaging in their work.
We found that teacher flourishing as integral to creating sustainable learning conditions where others may also thrive in schools. developed a model of inquiry that focuses and builds on strengths and gifts to grow more of what we desire. Teachers and administrators can use this model for personal and collective inquiry into wellbeing in their contexts. Our research established signposts, or an exemplified language to foster a better understanding of how inquiry into wellbeing impacts and interacts with a teacher’s sense of flourishing.
Types of questions we asked:
- What if the primary purpose of your work was to learn how to flourish in service of encouraging and empowering those around you to notice and grow their own sense of flourishing?
- What would that look, feel, sound like for you?
- Think to a time when you experienced contentment, joy, a feeling of being engaged and connected, a sense of meaning and purpose, maybe even joy and bliss in your work. What story (or stories) best describes or captures this experience (what was going on for you and others during that time?
- What about this time brought it to mind?
- What were some of the other features of this time?)
- If you were asked to describe the quality and quantity of flourishing (as you understand it) you notice in your work, what would you say?
- What do you think supports this sense of flourishing?
- What have you noticed about what may challenge or diminish this sense of flourishing?