An interview with Minerva Virtual Academy’s wellbeing and holistic education expert
After a career working in various educational establishments around the world — including a role as Deputy Head at leading UK secondary school Bryanston — Suzanne Lindley has brought her experience and expertise in student well-being to Minerva’s Virtual Academy.
In this interview, she discusses her journey through teaching, online versus traditional schools, and how wellbeing has to come before anything else.
Let me flip the question round: how can it not matter? The wellbeing of students has to come first — if they don’t have a strong sense of their own personal well-being, they won’t be able to thrive and learn successfully.
Just today, in fact, I had a conversation with some parents about their child not having the strongest report: they thought I might want to talk about the academic side of things, but I was most interested in the student’s well-being, their mental and physical health. Because if we can get that right, everything else follows.
It's the heart of everything, and a top priority. Everything else — and particularly the academic — follows from it.
There is no typical day: my job involves a constant re-thinking of all the elements we offer at MVA that create a safe space where each individual student can thrive and be the best version of themselves.
Having the right relationships — that’s often at the heart of things. The strength of MVA’s mentoring programme is how it can constantly re-model a student’s relationship with their academic context, whilst offering teachers as role models, too.
We also think about the right type of language to use in order to make MVA a safe and welcoming and warm environment: how do the ways students and teachers interact with each other close or open conversations?
Then, of course, there is the wellbeing programme…
MVA is fantastic because the holistic approach I opt for — creating a wellbeing culture that thrives across the entire school — is enabled already via the flexibility and personalised approach that the school was founded upon. But we also run and follow a wellbeing programme akin to the PHSE model in traditional schools.
In that traditional model, there are three components, roughly divided into health and wellbeing, relationships and ‘living in the wider world.’
Our programme is slightly different, however, because I don’t pigeonhole them as such: wellbeing runs across all of these things, and particularly thrives in the interrelation between them. For example, positive relationships support communication which supports success in the wider world.
Our programme has a good deal of flexibility, which means I can constantly adapt it if something particular is cropping up with students. This flexibility means I can drop what I’ve planned if particular themes arise or seem important at particular times. These themes bubble to the surface in discussions students have in their social rooms, or in assemblies: I take these points and flip the well-being session that week in order to tailor it to the needs of students at that specific time.
This gives them a sense of ownership: we can have an open discussion and create an open, safe space, where they feel they can say and ask anything, and be heard and respected.
Another big part of our programme is focussed on online safety — how to communicate successfully and how to be online whilst keeping themselves safe from things like exploitation.
Every student has a weekly mentoring session — a half hour slot in which they can discuss anything they’d like. Then there are weekly wellbeing sessions for each year group: sometimes the theme will be different depending on specific year groups, and sometimes it’ll be school-wide.
Additionally, on the student dashboard — one of the first things they see when they log on — is the worry button. If they have a worry about themselves or someone else, they don’t have to wait at all: they can submit it via the button and it goes straight through to our pastoral and safeguarding team.
We train all our teachers, with specific training for mentors. Equipping mentors with the right skill set, like active listening skills, is crucial. Creating a successful dialogue between mentor and student, and then right along the chain of parent-student-staff-mentor, is so vital.
One of the big focuses at the moment is the increase in mental health challenges. We’re focussing in particular, right now, on stress and anxiety with relation to the upcoming Year 11 exams. We’ve got an external agency coming in to deliver a lesson for our Year 11 cohort, that the teachers will be privy to also.
But staff training goes right back to how we attract the right staff to MVA in the first place — people who embrace online learning, as well as the challenges it might present.
Teachers also use their first names. We’ve broken down traditional school barriers in order to better empower our students. Our assemblies are non-hierarchical, and students and teachers can all chip in and ask questions at any point. Students then see other students speaking up and it all fosters a culture: it’s OK to speak out, nothing bad happens if I speak in assembly, and the Head himself might respond, or someone might message me on the chat and agree or take things further. So, in all, there are certain things we can do online that make it a special experience for students.
I speak to people who work in physical schools who struggle to understand why MVA’s online nature makes it so successful. Most schools were forced to take on online elements over the pandemic — it wasn’t a choice — and when you don’t have a choice in something, there’s more resistance to it.
But my taking on this role — and students choosing MVA — it’s a positive choice, we’re choosing to do it. Which changes a lot. You get over a lot of those basic stumbling blocks when you actively choose the move online.
I’ve worked in physical schools before, and I’ve also worked internationally — so I’ve worked with a broad spectrum of young people across the world.
I started in state education, at a boys’ selective school as a biology teacher. Soon after, I developed an interest in working with students pastorally, and I became Head of Year — then Head of Lower School, then Head of Inclusion, where I worked with physically disabled students and SEN students.
After that, I moved to Bangkok, which gave me a global perspective, as well as the opportunity to use my state sector inclusion work and broaden it working with students from across the world. (That was actually one of things that attracted me to MVA — the fact it attracts students from different places geographically, and for niche reasons — so there’s a broad spectrum of students.)
During the lockdown in Bangkok, students and teachers were forced to work at home. My daughter was doing her GCSEs, and so I saw from a parents point of view what it was like for a young person to learn and work from home — as well as from my teacher’s perspective, where I witnessed some students thrive whilst working at home and not being in a traditional environment. This paved the way for my work at MVA: the recognition that for some students it really works more successfully than at a physical school.
Then I developed into thinking about how to enable teachers to even better support students, and this led me into the professional development world for a bit — working pastorally, academically, with middle and senior leaders — the whole spectrum.
And so finally I was looking for new opportunities that would challenge me professionally, ones that used my entire background and skill-set, and MVA embodied all this, but, crucially, in a different setting. Online was the next challenge for me.
This is a question parents often ask when investigating the school — and when I joined MVA, it was asked of me, too: how do we increase the social side of things?
There are trips at regular intervals throughout the term. We want these to be as accessible as possible. For some students it's a big thing to meet in a physical environment, perhaps due to social shyness or issues that encouraged them to join an online school — rather than a traditional one — in the first place.
We also introduced social rooms this year, after asking ourselves how we replicate those opportunities like playgrounds or common rooms in the online world. So these social rooms are run by year-group at the moment, but we’re already having conversations with students about opening this up — maybe they could be run by older students — maybe there could be wellbeing drop-in rooms — questions like this. We also encourage students to set up their own social groups, which they often do outside of school.
Our students also might just hang out on calls whilst doing their school work. Students find their own ways of socialising — just as they do at a bricks-and-mortar school.
But in terms of the question of socialisation in general: some of our students would, if they were in a physical school, be socialising actually far less than they do at MVA. Things like a chat function increases these students’ opportunities to get involved — they have control, they can choose their own socialising targets, do things like work towards un-muting, popping something in the chat, building up to dropping into a meeting room. They’re more in control — even with something like volume, which for some is overwhelming. They can regulate their stimulation and sensory processing. This boosts their confidence. So in some ways they’re more social online, as opposed to just hiding out in a physical school, running up against the same challenges.