Creating a culture of wellbeing in schools

The chorus of disillusioned voices around teaching in the UK tends to reach a crescendo around this time of year. Winter is always tough. In September, I shared some great intentions on (quite literally) a ‘blank page

Like some of the students’ folders, the page is a little dogeared by now. Amongst the shiny stickers, there is the odd scribble and the corners are getting a bit frayed and there are doubts as to whether they’ll last the year without falling apart…

‘I’m just not sure I can do it anymore’, ‘It isn’t worth the cost’, ‘I’m sure it’s harder this year’, and ‘how am I supposed to teach young teachers to handle workload when I can’t handle my own?’ are words I’ve heard from some of my most talented and respected colleagues and contacts from across the UK.

Amidst these voices, there have been some excellent, practical, sensitive blogs and article with suggestions as to how schools might improve the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers. 

No easy answers

Based on my research (questionnaires and interviews with over 4,000 teachers) this blog aims to support and enhance some of the many examples of great work going on out there. There are no simple answers – no one-size fits all. Every context is unique and every individual understands wellbeing slightly differently – for one, regular enquiries as to their grandchildren’s developments might be very welcome, for another, the line between private and professional should be sacrosanct. Many teachers may welcome sweet treats in the middle of a busy week, whereas for others, such gestures may appear tokenistic and even patronising.  

Even in the most enlightened and ‘happy’ of schools, there will be pockets of disillusionment and disgruntlement and the most thriving teacher on a Tuesday lunchtime can be brought to their knees by a Thursday as the result of numerous possible setbacks and challenges. No surprise, then, that there are no easy answers.

However, I have identified some key themes in the accounts of positive experiences of teaching and in suggestions for how wellbeing can be improved.

I have divided these into three sections: perspective, professional pride and people.

Perspective

‘It’s not about me’. This is a phrase I’ve heard recently from a couple of highly respected individuals in teaching, including the leader of a teacher training institution in the North of England. This, in answer to the question: ‘would you like to be named in my research?’ As I move towards my third decade in the profession, humility has risen to sit alongside integrity as one of the values I respect most deeply in my colleagues. I wonder, do we sometimes, as a profession, suffer a little from hero-complex? Or a misguided sense of being irreplacable?

There’s a bit of a paradox here. Jennifer Nias (1987, p.181) emphasises the high level of self-investment in teaching. It’s a deeply personal endeavour and one rooted in quality relationships (Loe, 2015).

I remember spending weeks preparing for my first maternity leave, wondering how on earth the department would survive without me at the helm. After all, to take a day-off through ill-health so frequently wasn’t worth it for the hours of self-flagelation and the persistent sense that I was letting the universe down – how on earth could I justify abandoning them all?

Cut to three months later and a ‘keeping in touch day’, when it became very rapidly apparent that they were coping very well, thank you very much. And indeed that I was so far out-of-touch with the developments that I found myself unable to formulate answers to some of the most basic questions. I got back into it in the longer-run, of course – but for those few months, the separation was not just survivable, but necessary and positive for all involved.

Which of us doesn’t thrill a little at the student demanding that you teach them for GCSE next year or indignantly demanding to know why you didn’t teach them when you were on a course the day before? I do fear that sometimes, in the best possible schools, we risk nurturing a cult of personality which doesn’t necessarily tie in with our best intentions to prepare students for success in the world beyond school.

It’s like staring at the sky and realising how small we are. Both a kick in the teeth and, in a strange way, a comfort too. It’s not about individual glory – it’s about how the values you have helped to instil in your department or school live on without you there – about trusting your class to continue to achieve when the student teacher takes over because they love the learning more than they want to please their teacher.

Professional pride

I’ve written extensively about workload and am consciously not including it here – not because it’s not important, but because I genuinely am starting to wonder whether it conceals a deeper issue: it’s around trust and integrity and I’ve chosen to call it ‘professional pride’.

It’s also about vocation and our original reasons for becoming a teacher. According to my survey, these were the top three reasons given for entering the profession:

  1. I wanted to make a difference in society
  2. I enjoy spending time with young people
  3. I wanted to share my love for my subject

Teachers were least likely to enter teaching ‘for the holidays’, ‘for the salary’ or because they ‘couldn’t think of anything to do’.. There is an active decision to engage with the profession underpinned by a true sense of social and moral purpose.

In fact, the source of discontent for many teachers is around feeling their voices aren’t heard, their professional experience not taken into account, that they’re not involved in decisions which affect the teaching and learning in their classrooms.

In a previous role, I had a line-manager who promised to support me in protecting my department’s right to focus on Teaching and Learning above all else – I was allowed – even encouraged – to question tasks which might detract from the focus on young people. The opening of this discussion was powerful – in fact, we found that the vast majority of tasks were of value, but it was useful to discuss exactly how the data would be used, how the feedback would find its way into our classrooms, how the planning would benefit student outcomes. Questioning wasn’t seen as subversive, but as part of our professional duty.

Obviously, there is a time and place for assertive decision-making in schools – around timetabling, cost-cutting or school uniform. But, where possible, involving as many stakeholders as possible, from the children to the teaching assistants to the class teachers to the site staff, in the decisions that will affect their working lives, is likely to pay off in terms of staff morale.

People

I was recently reminded of the importance of face-to-face contact. I decided, the other day, to keep emails to an absolute minimum and go and find people instead. I had conversations with students, with canteen staff, with heads of year, with mentors, with teaching assistants, and with students. Some were difficult, others were humorous, others challenging, but by the end of the day, more resolutions had been achieved than in any day in the previous half term.

Looking out for each other is another key theme emerging from my research. Whether it’s through a ‘buddy’ system where there’s someone with a secret stash of chocolate biscuits and handy box of tissues, or simply by looking in on the person who had to go home ill a few days before, such gestures can make a huge difference. I’m not talking about fuss – and some people won’t want reminding of their norovirus or their sick cat – but about keeping our eyes and ears open – because, after all, it’s not just about us.

Another piece of excellent practice I learned about recently was having highlights of the week as a standard agenda item in all meetings – a joke with a student, a moment of kindness, a moment of triumph, a lightbulb in the classroom. This works because, once it becomes part of the routine, teacher can find themselves consciously identifying, and celebrating  the moments that make it all worth it and remind us of why we came into this profession.

I’d like to end with a nod to Geoff Barton  because he reminded me that wellbeing is so much less about gestures and tokens than about knowing we are improving life chances for young people and reflecting and keeping the dialogue going as to how we can ensure we continue to do so. Geoff’s advice is on my noticeboard and below are the key themes:

  1. Celebrate more – we can be quick to blame, quick to dwell on the negatives. Find ways of celebrating our successes – from great exam results to spectuacular individual achievements both within and beyond our institutions.
  2. Lead more – that’s lead as in empowering others to do their jobs really well. ‘Of great leaders, the people will say: we did it ourselves’ Lao Tzu.
  3. Rage more – be prepared to say ‘no’ to initiatives and developments that aren’t right for your students or your school.

A few final tips which have helped me and my colleagues during dark Novembers past:

  • If you’re feeling the pressure during the long hours of darkness, put your to-do list to one side. Sit down, breathe, take stock and filter through the nonsense. What absolutely has to be done today? What can you put to one side without your students losing out?
  • Keep a box or folder of the cards and tokens of appreciation. Look at it regularly – see how much difference you make? They’re lucky to have you.
  • Remember this old chestnut of a graph from Ellen Moir. It was designed to reflect the journey of a first-year teacher, but I’d suggest it applies to most of us. 

 

  • It’s nearly Christmas!
  • Listen to the people who love you. ‘She’s really happy in her work!’ I heard my husband tell his Mum on the phone just now. No smug smiles from me – I know too much about how it can be different. But stubborn optimism – yes, always.

Emma Kell has recently passed a Doctorate in Education at Middlesex University with her thesis: "Shifting Identities: A Mixed-Methods study of the experiences of teachers who are also parents in the UK".  She is also author of forthcoming book, “How to Survive and Thrive in Teaching” for Bloomsbury Education and a practising teacher, middle/senior leader​ and mother to two girls, aged 4! You can follow her on Twitter @thosethatcan or read her blog.

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