A recent blog post by Kevin McLaughlin prompted me to write this piece. His heart-felt article, entitled ‘The Depressed Teacher’, outlines his journey from being rated as an ‘outstanding’ teacher by Ofsted to being evaluated as ‘requires improvement’ by the new headteacher only one month later. From 2012 to 2016 his health suffered so badly he was admitted to A&E twice with suspected heart attacks, which turned out to be stressed-induced physical symptoms. He finally left the school.

This resonated with me on a personal level as two of my close family members left the profession due to stress-related health problems, and another ended his career feeling very undervalued and depressed. Given the current issues with recruitment and retention of staff, this issue is of paramount importance now more than ever. This article outlines some thoughts and offers practical suggestions, but its main purpose is to further the discussion so that positive change takes place. The current situation is untenable and school leaders must act to improve the wellbeing of all staff. A child’s education depends on their teachers being happy, valued and highly motivated. Without the right conditions to be successful as a teacher, everyone loses out.

The extent of the problem

In May 2017, CUREE launched a study on teachers’ professional identities, looking specifically at how they are impacted by policy making and cultural factors. There are some positive findings. Over 90% of teachers are actively trying to develop their teaching and better than 7 in 10 believe that evidence-based practice is important. Yet at the other end of the scale, 77% of teachers in Scotland (where I work) feel unable to have a good work-life balance. 72% feel they have no control over how they are assessed as teachers. Finding reliable statistics on recruitment and retention is frustrating but it seems clear enough that teachers feel overworked and the processes that evaluate them are beyond their control.

No wonder then that wellbeing is such a major issue. One thing I would like to make clear is that wellbeing is not a new, trendy thing – you just have to read the 1776 Declaration of Independence where Jefferson calls ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ a self-evident truth. What, then, are the self-evident truths of teacher wellbeing?

The causes of pressure

Broadly speaking, I think there are three sources of pressure on teachers.

  1. Outwith school: national policies which impact on workload, such as curriculum change and assessment reform.
  2. Within school: leadership teams and line-managers that make demands of teachers and evaluate their performance, difficult colleagues, or dealing with difficult pupils/parents.
  3. Personal: the pressure we put on ourselves to excel at our jobs.

The people with the most significant ability to influence levels of pressure are school leaders. They do have to respond to external edicts that are mandatory, but the way in which policy is implemented can be controlled or ameliorated to an extent. Leaders clearly set the conditions in which teachers work, and they also hold responsibility for ensuring that staff don’t overload themselves. One uncomfortable truth here is that teachers can can be mental self-harmers: we push ourselves past breaking point because we know the importance of what we do. In doing so we don’t fully recognise the damage that we do to ourselves. Kevin even goes so far in his article to say that “now I point the finger of blame at myself”. Finally, school leaders have most influence over the nature of the relationship between teachers, pupils and parents. They can either support their staff and back them in times of difficulty, or throw them to the wolves.  

What can be done?

This means that effective change is most likely to come from leadership teams. A starting point is to make wellbeing a priority for all. I firmly believe that a school is a community and that provision for wellbeing must cover all staff – teaching and non-teaching – as well as all pupils. An  excellent response to Kevin’s article came from Naureen Afzal who set out a list of key questions for school governors, which puts staff wellbeing firmly within view of people who have significant authority over decision-making.

There is no silver bullet to the problem of workload, but all decisions taken need to consider the impact they will have on how many hours teachers will be working as a consequence. Carl Hendrick and I have argued that being research-informed as a school will reduce workload by cutting out the fads and fluff that increase teacher workload without improving pupil learning. For a concrete example, have a look at Dylan Wiliam’s ‘four-quarters marking’.

One truth here is that capacity for work is not a uniform thing: it varies for each teacher. It also depends on what pressures we’re under outside of our job. Understanding the personal situation of each teacher is therefore important and requires leaders who take an interest in their staff, i.e. a human touch. It also depends on what work is being done. Reading to improve subject knowledge is something I do happily during term time and in the holidays. Knocking out spreadsheets isn’t.

I’ve come to realise that my capacity for work increases if what I’m doing fulfils three criteria: it is stimulating, rewarding and valued. When this is the case, I can work very hard and feel that my wellbeing is not under threat. I don’t actually know how many hours I work as I’ve never counted, but my workload has never bothered me. That’s because I enjoy what I do, but if I didn’t I’m sure I would start to resent the late night/early morning/weekend session where I could be doing something different. Essentially, a 50-hour week of stress-inducing work is far worse than a 60-hour week of work that is intrinsically motivating.

On this point, another truth is that it’s not about the money. I definitely agree that teachers in Scotland are due a salary increase after a decade of erosion, but this alone will not resolve the issue of wellbeing.  There will still be a major problem with work-life balance and impact on health. For me, provision of staff wellbeing should be centred around enhancing those things that speak to our intrinsic motivation. This means looking after our mental and physical health.

Practical steps

This week I added something new to our inset day: a voluntary wellbeing hour. I asked staff to suggest activities, and we ended up with a menu of eight options. Some of these were physical like spinning, aquafit and walking (I run 5-a-side football, which is all the wellbeing I personally need). Others were geared at mental health, so yoga, pilates, knitting and reading were options too. We are lucky to have an amazing school library right at the heart of the main building, so I loved what one colleague said when she suggested reading. She pointed out that the library is often a thoroughfare as we run from one place to another on a mission, so we rarely get a chance to sit down and use it for its true purpose. A quiet reading hour with a good book is bliss. The point of all these activities is to start the term on a positive note and to allow staff to get to know each other a bit better. It builds mutual respect and enhances the sense of goodwill and strong relationships that are the foundations of a great community.

Another task I’m working on is writing a guide that covers our wellbeing ethos and provision. Sometimes awareness of what is available is a problem, such as access to a counsellor. I’m very keen to hear from other school leaders who have done a similar thing as we need to share as many ideas on this as possible.

Getting in the right people

One thing I loved was a recent job advert posted on Twitter by @jon_brunskill:

Jon Brunskill

There is also a lesson here on recruitment. I did Values, Behaviours and Attitude training last year and found it to be immensely useful. A VBA is an additional interview to the standard competence one, and the aim is to see if a prospective candidate shares the values and ethos of the school. It’s a good way to identify staff who are supportive and caring, rather than arrogant, egotistical bullies. Whenever you recruit new staff, see it as a chance to add to the wellbeing wealth of your community. Also, if you are the teacher going to interview then ask searching questions about the school’s provision for wellbeing. If you’re not impressed walk away – and tell them why.

The most self-evident truth of all

I’ll leave the final word to Kevin, who concluded his article with this message:

“Too many schools are putting too much pressure on their staff. Too many schools are ignoring common sense. Recognise the signs and act upon them. Your good health is more important than turning up for work as a quivering wreck. Your school needs to understand this. If your school doesn’t, resign. No school is worth ill health.”

Amen to that.


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