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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Teacher wellbeing: once more with feeling

Teacher wellbeing has been a major professional interest of mine for well over a decade. I have been writing on it and supporting teachers and lecturers through training and personal development, visiting many schools and speaking to hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers over the years. What do I mean by wellbeing? Not necessarily an absence of stress or challenge; these are useful motivators and can be excellent sources of personal development in the right quantities. Wellbeing is more likely to be characterised by resilience and a sense of relatedness to others. We feel it when life is going well and we feel able to deal with any challenges we face.

Wellbeing: why it matters

The extent to which we need to focus on teacher wellbeing never ceases to amaze me. Teachers and other school staff are suffering tremendously if recent surveys are anything to go by. Despite millennia of thought from philosophers, social commentators, theologians, psychologists, academics and researchers among many others producing excellent theses on how to live a good life so that we may achieve our best and thrive, still we persist in our detrimental treatment of teachers. Why would we do that? When I began to look at wellbeing issues in the profession, the view wasn't a good one. Workload pressures and fear around inspection were combining to make life very unpleasant for many. Teacher unions started stepping up their support for teachers suffering from negative stress and the Teacher Support Network continued its excellent work in helping us understand teacher wellbeing, promoting a life in the profession that is more sustainable and, ultimately, more enjoyable. Yet still, time and again, I am contacted by teachers for whom school life has become unbearable. In some schools it seems that utterly unrealistic and unreasonable workload pressures, unsupportive colleagues and leadership teams still prevail, and teachers and other school staff are suffering as a result.

Supporting teacher wellbeing

No one would deny that we all need a certain degree of pressure in order to achieve, but excessive stress is bad for us on many counts. Yet there is one very simple message for school leadership teams to absorb and act upon: people work better when they feel supported, listened to and understood. A couple of major workload and wellbeing surveys this year have painted a grim view of life as a teacher; the Teacher Support Network Education Staff Health Survey makes for a particularly depressing read. While it will take time to transform schools into places where all can thrive, there are some immediate steps we can take to support wellbeing and to make sure all school staff have an understanding of the impact that negative stress can have on their lives. These are best divided into actions for schools and actions for individuals. These ideas may help just for starters:

Schools

  • Talk about wellbeing. This is an issue affecting most members of the profession to a greater or lesser extent. It should at least be an item on staff meeting agendas and have a very visible presence in the staffroom and around the school to help banish all unhelpful attitudes towards wellbeing and focus on solutions.
  • Take action on meetings. No bulging weeks and last-minute demands to meet that will cause stress.
  • Create rules around communication. For example, no expectation that emails will be responded to after 6pm or at the weekend.
  • Prioritise wellbeing. Before every new initiative or change in working patterns ask: “how will this support staff wellbeing?”
  • Understand the wellbeing needs of staff. Teachers and other school staff will work best when wellbeing is supported; it’s very simple.

Individuals

  • Find out about the New Economics Foundation’s Five Ways to Wellbeing. These are evidence-based actions that support wellbeing. The actions are: connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give.
  • Take small steps to wellbeing such as journaling or meditation – research has found both to be effective in supporting wellbeing.
  • Say no. Easier said than done, but there is simply no point in agreeing to work in a way that will result in ill health. The more who say no to unreasonable demands, the better schools will be for their core purpose: teaching and learning.

Go well!

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