Ask IAN: Teacher wellbeing in three simple steps [interview]

Maria Brosnan

Maria Brosnan is a business and wellbeing consultant. She is MD of Striver-Challenge and The Story Spinner; companies producing primary educational resources. She was previously an elected director on the executive council of BESA for over five years, and also chaired BESA EdTech Special Interest Group. As a counsellor, she’s deeply committed to helping people develop robust wellbeing. For more information on how to implement ‘Ask IAN’ across your team or school, please get in touch on / 07790 054 230.

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Images courtesy of interviewee. Images courtesy of interviewee.

Former BESA chair of edtech Maria Brosnan is on a mission to boost teacher wellbeing. Here, she shares her inspiration, her concerns about one SLT role in particular, and her three-step method for wellbeing success.

What are the biggest issues facing teacher wellbeing today?

The top five issues people tell me about are:

1. Workload - Unrealistic expectations on what they can achieve in a reasonable working day, particularly if this work does not have a direct impact on the progress of their students.
2. Time management - Having the tools to manage their own time effectively.
3. Communications - Drowning in communications, much of which they see as ‘pointless’, either as face-to-face meetings or endless emails.
4. Safeguarding - Many teachers feel under tremendous pressure to diagnose and solve problems they don’t feel adequately trained to deal with. At the very minimum, they’re expected to have memorised specific procedures to deal with children they suspect are facing challenges. Many report the irony that this hyper vigilance is actually taking their time and attention away from the very children they are trying to care for.
5. Wellbeing - Managing their wellbeing, mainly dealing with stress, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed.

It’s well documented that, when we’re stressed, our higher cognitive functions are inhibited. This means our ability to think clearly, learn, remember, reason and make effective decisions are limited.

Yet what are we asking our children, as well as staff to do every day? Think clearly, learn, remember, reason and make effective decisions, often under extreme stress! It’s absolutely critical that everyone has access to simple tools that develop their robust wellbeing. The impact would be profound - not only on improved mental and physical wellbeing, but also, ironically, on improved learning outcomes.

You're particularly concerned about the welfare of deputy heads. Why is that?

I see a deputy heads facing a very particular kind of pressure. They have a great deal of ‘fire fighting’ to do on a daily basis; dealing with difficult behavioral issues, staff issues, providing pastoral care, dealing with physical emergencies like broken boilers or a leaking roof. They usually still teach, and most have come to this role through the ranks of teaching, so are required to take on management responsibilities with little or no management training. The vast majority feel they are under tremendous pressure. Many are questioning whether they want to go on to be head, as pressures increase and the financial rewards don’t always seem worth it.

Important strategic work - such as creating school improvement plans, curriculum design and implementation, assessment and so on - are squeezed as they are continually interrupted by ‘urgent’ work.

This leads many to doubt their ability to cope with the pressure, and sometimes even their capacity to do the job at all. This can lead to a downward spiral affecting their confidence, frequently leading to anxiety.

Just what is "Ask IAN", and how is it helping stressed teachers and school leaders?

Ask IAN” is a simple tool I developed to help people when they’re feeling stressed. IAN is an acronym for Intention, Attention, No Tension. I teach people how to use it to ask themselves questions, helping them to get back onto an even keel. Many describe the feeling of ‘drowning’, so to extend the metaphor, “Ask IAN” is a life raft!

So how does it work? Well, when you’re feeling stressed, stuck or overwhelmed, follow these three steps.

Step 1: Intention.

Start by reminding yourself of your intention. This means getting really clear on what you’re doing and why.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • “Am I clear about what I’m doing now and why?”
  • “What is the purpose of what I’m doing?”
  • “What outcome do I want?” (eg from this meeting, presentation, lesson etc)

Step 2: Attention.

Attention means focusing on the right things at the right time, and taking the right action.

Ask yourself questions about your focus and action:

  • “Am I focused on the right thing?”
  • “Am I distracted? How can I give this my full attention?”
  • “What can I do to optimise my environment and remove any distractions?”
  • “Am I taking the right action? Am I clear what this is?”
  • “What small steps could I take toward my goals?”

Step 3: No Tension.

Tension can be physical, mental or emotional. This is where most of us struggle.

When we experience mental or emotional feelings like stress, worry, anger, frustration, sadness, shame, guilt or anxiety, it creates physical tension in our body. Releasing this in our body is the first simple step in releasing it in our minds and emotions. It’s the first step towards healing.

The main principle behind “No Tension” is ease. Take a moment to ask yourself questions like:

  • “How can I ease this situation?”
  • "How can I physically relax? Take some deep breaths; relax neck and shoulders; go for a walk or run in nature?"
  • “How can I be kinder and more compassionate to myself and others?”
  • “What do I need right now?” It could be something simple like some fresh air, a glass of water, or someone to talk to.
  • “What can I remind myself to be grateful for? My health; my family; my supportive colleagues?” Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions, and is a powerful antidote to stress.

These simple questions offer us the opportunity to reflect, ground ourselves and reconnect with who we are and what we’re doing.

Tell us about the people who have helped shape what you do.

The main person who has helped me shape this work is my best friend James. James is a headteacher in Melbourne. Two years ago he suffered a terrible period of anxiety, stress and burnout. I remember it clearly. The phone rang at 10pm the week before Christmas. “Something’s wrong,” he said simply.

James went on to describe his symptoms: He could barely sleep or eat, and had terrible pain in his chest and stomach. He’d been to the doctors, who diagnosed “stress and anxiety”. Horrified, I asked what they suggested he do. Unsurprisingly, they offered him a cocktail of drugs and suggested he see a therapist.

He rejected the drugs and saw the therapist, who was stumped. “You seem perfectly fine to me, I don’t know what to suggest,” he had said. Fortunately, I was visiting Australia that Christmas, and was able to have a conversation with James on a long walk on the beach.

I was shocked but not surprised by what was happening to him. Over the years I’d seen him push himself harder and harder; setting impossibly high personal standards as his career progressed. Twice a week he rose at 5.00am to work with a personal trainer before his hour-long commute to work. His normal work day frequently extended to 9pm, where he got home, ate, caught up on emails and admin, and then crashed into bed at midnight.

He was so busy at work he barely made time to go to the toilet. Sadly his experience is by no means unusual. As an educational publisher, I’ve been in hundreds of schools, and have seen first-hand this is a widespread problem. As a counselor, I wanted to help.

I guided James through this process, and “Ask IAN” was born.

What do you hope to achieve in the next year?

Recent research by Professor Jonathan Glazzard of Leeds Beckett University showed that 77% of teachers surveyed reported “that poor teacher mental health is having a detrimental impact on pupils’ progress.” It is affecting their lesson planning, creativity in teaching, the quality of their explanations, questioning skills and physical energy in the classroom.

My personal mission is to empower educators with exceptionally simple, effective tools that build their robust wellbeing. I want every educator to be healthy, strong and clear-minded so that they can deliver an excellent education to their children. This will have the dual benefits of supporting teachers and senior leaders as individuals, but the trickle-down effect to the children will be profound.

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