Teaching has always been a high pressure job, despite what some may say with regard to the length of holidays and about those not being able to ‘do’, and who instead ‘teach’. Teaching is in fact a vocation, not a backup profession, which is why educators are able to handle the pressure of teaching under the trying circumstances of today’s society.
As a teacher, it is your responsibility to educate and help shape tomorrow’s future. You are single handedly impacting the lives of hundreds of children, and that holds you somewhat responsible for their success. Not only do you have the self-prescribed pressure to ensure you help your students achieve their best, you also have the demands of their parents, Ofsted and your seniors - whoever they may be. These are pressures that teachers are aware of when they enter the profession and not the additional burdens that have surfaced in the past couple of years.
In addition to this, teaching is an isolated profession - the majority of teachers’ time is spent with their students or in their classroom, resulting in a sufficient lack of adult interaction in comparison to other jobs. Companionship at work is one of the greatest remedies that helps to ease some of the pressures of the job. Being able to confide in and talk to someone who understands the demands of the job helps to make it more manageable. However, this is sometimes harder to come across when in such an isolated environment which can add to mounting stress.
There are multiple facets of the profession that can lead to teacher burnout or mental health issues which indicate that teacher wellbeing needs to be a top priority in schools to ensure staff health and happiness. This means looking after our own wellbeing as well as our peers’.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the teaching crisis in the UK began but teacher retention and wellbeing has been following a downward trajectory for at least the past couple of years. The most recent figures relating to this cite that England alone needs 47,000 more secondary school teachers by 2024 to accommodate for the rise in secondary school pupils. This, coupled with reports that teaching is becoming a less attractive job, where NQTs and veteran teachers alike are leaving the profession, seems like an unfathomable task, most notably when we consider that this number does not take into account the additional teachers required to replace those who leave the profession during this period.
The pressures of these shortages alongside the demand for growing class sizes have of course taken their toll on those still in the profession. A recent YouGov survey found that 75% of teachers surveyed had experienced psychological, physical or behavioural symptoms relating to mental health because of work, significantly higher than the average for the overall UK working population. Not only have these stresses impacted teachers’ mental health, but they’ve taken their toll on their personal relationships and some educators have to take time off from work as a result.
The Education Support Partnership who are a charity dedicated to improving the wellbeing of teachers in school and providing support for troubled teachers, have also commented on the worrying impact the teaching crisis has had on school staff in recent years. The amount of calls they received from teachers seeking support rose to 35% between April 2017 and March 2018 with callers citing issues relating to ‘ever-greater accountability, a growing testing culture and workload’.
The consequences of these types of actions are inevitable and to the detriment of the staff and school. Despite any person’s extra effort, the responsibilities that were meant for multiple people will not be carried at to the same standard if entrusted to just one person. Additionally, creating a huge workload for an employee isn’t healthy and subjects them to increased risk of burnout.
While we can’t solve the teaching crisis overnight by conjuring up more teachers and money to help our education system thrive and alleviate some of the pressure they’re under - we can make changes internally in our approach to wellbeing and culture which will have a positive impact on teachers’ stress levels and mental health. What’s most surprising about low teacher wellbeing is that despite it being low across the board, there are practices and techniques that can be put in place at little to no cost that can help make long term improvements in this area.
Reasons for these strategies not being put in place include wellbeing not being a main focus for schools, when in fact putting wellbeing firmly on all teachers’ agendas would in turn benefit the entire school ecosystem. Although, in order for this to be effective, the practice of good wellbeing needs to come from the top, with SLT promoting and practising positive mental wellbeing.
Benefits of positive teacher wellbeing
Teaching is one of the few professions whereby a person’s actions have an immediate and personal impact on others. How engaged a teacher is in the classroom affects how well their students are performing: a more engaged teacher equals a more engaged class, and a more engaged class results in higher academic achievement. A teacher’s performance is affected by their mood and mental state, which is why as a school, promoting positive and healthy wellbeing is not only beneficial to teachers, it’s also beneficial to students. In fact, a 2016 study found that students of teachers who were reporting higher levels of burnout also had higher levels of cortisol each morning, suggesting that their stress was rubbing off onto their students.
In order for teachers to achieve healthy wellbeing, a good place to start is addressing their work-life balance. A teacher’s job is a challenging one, and unfortunately it’s nigh impossible to avoid the occasional late night. However, what is avoidable, is complete burnout. Senior members of staff should create a culture where extra hours are recognised and rewarded when they have to happen, but are not expected or taken for granted. Schools can’t simply expect teachers to put it additional effort purely for the benefit of students; a good school will show reciprocal flexibility. By rewarding, recognising and praising staff, schools can enjoy a whole host of benefits which impact each stakeholder positively.
Benefits for schools:
Operating in the above manner will mean your staff are not only more productive, but will also be more inclined to put in this extra effort. Not to mention, fostering this type of culture will attract new teachers whilst retaining your current teaching body.
Benefits for staff:
On the flipside, staff will feel valued, their job satisfaction will increase along with their confidence and concentration, which in turn will have a positive impact on their teaching. As well as this, the respect they feel is reciprocated, they’re better equipped to manage their work life balance which has a positive impact on their personal relationships and general happiness.
In order to encourage and foster positive teacher wellbeing in your school, you need to put it firmly on all agendas and have a dedicated team of people who monitor improvements and implement initiatives. Research suggests annual check ins however, you need to analyse the success of actions soon after implementation and check in with your staff throughout the year - this can be done through anonymous surveys as well as face-to-face meetings. Records of these should be kept so you can show your staff and Ofsted that you’re actively working at improving school culture and take the wellbeing of your staff and students seriously. Here are some steps that can be taken to promote positive wellbeing, schoolwide:
Staff wellbeing team
Assign someone to lead on promoting positive wellbeing and set up a wellbeing team. These members of staff can create your staff wellbeing policy and work together to encourage members of your team to contribute ideas and make sure people are getting the support they need. The introduction of wellbeing teams in schools helps to make whole-school improvements with schools reporting not only improvements to school culture but also in Ofsted ratings.
Promote a healthy lifestyle
Happiness and wellbeing are attributed to both a healthy mind and healthy body and this should be encouraged school-wide. Schools are at an advantage in that they have the space to accommodate for workshops, whether this is before school, during lunch or after class. Sports such as yoga promote positive mental health and are a good source of physical activity whereas workshops after school can also include mindfulness and language clubs. Engaging the brain and body in stimulating activities helps promote positive wellbeing, not to mention the additional health benefits that eating well and exercising provide.
Staff are only one part of the puzzle when it comes to promoting wellbeing - it’s important that every stakeholder is taken into account and contributes to the entire school culture. Ask for the opinions of staff (admin and teaching), students and parents, ask to hear their feedback and take onboard their opinions when making wider school decisions.
Spend time together
When working in a school, the majority of time you spend is with children and the hours can be long, it’s for these reasons it’s important that you promote healthy and happy working relationships. Include half termly nights out for departments and regular staff-wide activities, include your support and office staff and open up dialogue to encourage respect between colleagues. These activities can include team building games, nights out, meals, cinema trips or even after work drinks on a Friday. Getting along with your colleagues and having work friends make the job much more enjoyable and boosts happiness levels.
Regardless of whether or not you think wellbeing is a cause for concern in your school, it should be firmly on your agenda with members of your team working to constantly improve it. Irrespective of the current mood of your school, focusing on wellbeing provides whole-school benefits, such as higher retention rates, increased staff happiness and engaged students. Furthermore, having wellbeing as a focus means that it’s constantly at the forefront of everyone’s mind - it means that mental health becomes a talked about subject - not a taboo one - and reinforces the importance of looking after your physical and mental health.
Finally, making wellbeing a focus doesn’t have to be a strain on time, resources or budget - the hardest part of this is changing people’s priorities and attitudes toward workload, communication and sharing ideas. Start by conducting a wellbeing survey to gauge the current mood, introducing a wellbeing policy all stakeholders adhere to and assign members of the staff body to champion wellbeing throughout the school. By taking these simple steps, you’ll be able to understand your staff more, put theirs and the students’ wellbeing at the top of your priority list and reap the benefits of happy teachers which is, more engaged classes, better managed classrooms and inevitably, higher academic achievement.