The Elephant In The (Staff) Room - Why We Need To Talk About Teacher Wellbeing
It is impossible to support the social and emotional health of young people, if we as teachers do not attend to our own emotional health.
Anyone who has worked in schools or who knows a teacher will be aware that they are often stressed, tired, and running on empty until the next school holiday arrives. Reports suggest that high workloads, increased monitoring and accountability, challenging pupil behaviour or emotional difficulties, ongoing policy changes and toxic school cultures are among the many factors that contribute to poor teacher wellbeing.
It is increasingly pressing that teacher wellbeing should be viewed as a serious concern. Worrying figures show teachers are reporting poor physical and mental health as a result of their work, and of course this all has an impact on absence rates, motivation, and staff retention, both for individual schools and for the whole profession.
Teacher wellbeing is not only a profound issue for our teachers – it also has a major impact on pupil outcomes. Research has shown that teacher wellbeing not only significantly impacts pupils’ SATS results, but also has an effect on pupils’ own social and emotional wellbeing, creating a negative learning environment and damaging the quality of relationships between teacher and pupil.
But how can we improve teacher wellbeing? Many solutions arguably lie within the wider education system, such as by creating fair and appropriate expectations around teacher workloads, as exemplified in the Nottingham Fair Workload Charter, and reducing the pressures faced by schools from accountability processes, there are many strategies that schools or teachers can employ themselves to improve teacher wellbeing:
- Firstly, schools need to talk about teacher wellbeing. Recognising that high stress and poor mental health are common, not exceptional, experiences in the profession is an essential step in making a difference. Figures suggest that up to 1 in 10 teachers have been prescribed anti-depressants due to school pressures, and 1 in 3 teachers have taken time off because of stress. School leaders need to provide appropriate channels where teachers can speak honestly about their wellbeing, and put strategies and support in place to either pre-empt or respond to concerns. Often, investing time and money supporting teacher wellbeing will more than cover the costs associated with stress-related absence. I know of one school where the Deputy Head sets time aside each week so that teachers can request cover if they feel overwhelmed. This not only enabled them to monitor how things are with their staff, but also creates a supportive culture where teachers feel safe to express that things are difficult. Another school I know of hires supply teachers at particularly stressful times of the school year, such as when reports are due, to give teachers extra time to complete paperwork.
- Teachers need to acknowledge the impact of their wellbeing on pupils and prioritise setting time aside for themselves, without feeling guilty. When you are on an aeroplane, flight attendants instruct travellers to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others in an emergency, and this analogy is applicable to teacher wellbeing. Leaving a few books unmarked to get an extra half an hour of sleep, doing some exercise or practising mindfulness will have a far greater impact on pupil outcomes than spending the entire evening marking or planning to the point of exhaustion. This is easy to type, and harder to achieve, I understand. As a profession, I believe, we need to choose to find a different way ahead.
- Schools and teachers must find time amongst the stress and business of school life to support each other, because it really does make a difference. In my former teaching days, after a particularly difficult afternoon, I remember the deputy head making me a mug of tea, and sitting and listening while I offloaded. This gesture had an enormous impact on my wellbeing, as I felt valued and supported, and had a healthy outlet for my emotions. Research has shown that when teachers perceive a school to foster high levels of compassion, stress levels reduce and job satisfaction goes up, while teachers’ commitment to school life can also increase. A whole-school approach to emotional health aims to create a positive school culture, with supportive, empathic relationships between staff, as well as with pupils and parents.
It is crucial for schools and teachers to take action now to support teacher wellbeing, and the strategies here give examples of how this can be done. By making these changes to foster good emotional health in our schools, a positive impact can be made on pupils’ academic, social and emotional learning, and the teaching profession at large.