Teacher wellbeing is vital - here's what we can do

Aidan Severs

Aidan Severs is both a Primary assistant vice-principal (AVP) and a MAT's primary lead practitioner (PLP). He is concerned about the wellbeing of teachers and of the profession as a whole, but is optimistic about the future of education.

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Image credit: Pixabay // Originally published on 19th June 2017. Image credit: Pixabay // Originally published on 19th June 2017.

I've always had the privilege of working in schools where a network of teachers look out for one another and support each other's wellbeing in numerous ways. Even at moments when it seemed that the leaders didn't have wellbeing at the top of their list, the relationships between members of staff kept us all afloat in the more testing times. Although I think I have the ultimate responsibility for my own wellbeing (after all, I'm the one who knows my own triggers, warning signs and limits) I have also recognised the value of these relationships where teacher wellbeing is concerned.

From the morning chats in each other's classrooms to the nights out just having plain-old-fun together, my colleagues have always had a bearing on my wellbeing. For example, in my first year I was placed alongside a super-organised and highly-enthusiastic teacher who patiently worked alongside me, sharing the load of all the planning and preparation ensuring that I could enjoy work-free weekend jaunts to visit my “The leader insured me on her car so that I could drive home.”then-girlfriend (now-wife) at university. The organisational skills that colleagues modelled back then still support my wellbeing to this day. I currently work with a leadership team who are always willing to offer a listening ear and a helping hand when the going gets tough, even when the issue doesn't relate to their own area of responsibility. I could not maintain my wellbeing without the aid of my colleagues.

I have been in the hands of leaders who have truly understood and cared about my personal wellbeing. Those leaders were the ones who understood the long-term gains of supporting their staff, even if the immediate effects appeared detrimental to their school.

Not so long ago I had my own annus horribilis. In short, it involved the death of family members and the very near loss of a sibling. In those instances, the leader in question recognised the warning signs before I did and made the necessary steps to ensure my wellbeing was at its best, even going so far as insuring me on her car so that I could drive home from a Year 6 residential. I also recall times when, whilst still being held to the same high expectations as everyone else, it was taken into consideration that I was lacking in sleep due to having a newborn baby, or times when, despite my protestations, I was alleviated of my duties in order to ensure that I recovered fully from illness.

More recently, now that my own children are just a little older, I've benefited from being allowed to attend school award assemblies and Christmas shows - anyone who has been able to do the same will understand the unexplainable sense of wellness a parent gains from being present at such events. The goodwill that is generated by such actions I'm sure outweighs the fact that a teacher misses an hour of work!

Where leaders prioritise wellbeing they provide opportunities for their staff to be open and honest about their workload: I have been able to admit to leaders that I am struggling to complete work and have felt free to ask for the time I need to get things done. When given an afternoon out of class to perform some leadership duties which otherwise would have had to have been completed in my own time certainly helps to lower the stress levels.

Gestures like these will stay with me all my life, and have already informed situations I've experienced as a leader.

And I've been able to contribute to the wellbeing of staff in other ways as a leader. It's not always the things that were modelled well to us that shape us - sometimes the things that were done badly teach us more about how we want to be.

I've worked under leaders who appear to have put very little thought into the possible negative impact of their requirements. I have had to comply to policies which have been decided upon with little thought as to how teachers' wellbeing will be impacted. My experiences of having to deal with last minute decisions, contradictory expectations and a mounting workload have made me determined not to inflict the same on my own staff. Whenever our senior leadership team discuss new ways of doing things, for example, I will always raise the issue of how it will impact on teachers' workload, work/life balance and ultimately their wellbeing. As a result of such an approach, our feedback policy now emphasises feedback given in lesson, encourages symbol-based written feedback and doesn't specify regularity of work recorded in books, all of which lighten the load for staff.

Whilst workload and behaviour are the most oft-mentioned reasons for lack of wellbeing, I have experienced something else which I have found to be just as detrimental to a teacher's wellbeing: a lack of appreciation and recognition. My own experience of this culminated in my not being considered for a middle leadership role despite having already been through the application and interview process for a similar role in school - another teacher was given the role without having to apply or be interviewed. This left me feeling undervalued and led me to start seeking opportunities elsewhere. I moved to another school where my skills were recognised and nurtured quickly, even to the point where after only three years I was ready to move into my current post as an assistant vice principal. This experience has left me keen to always let my team know when I am thankful for the work they are doing and to support them in their own professional development.

I know that it's in everyone's interests to protect the health of a school's staff - I have witnessed a school gradually lose most of its best staff members as a result of leadership which did not consider their needs well enough. Some of them, brilliant teachers, left the profession altogether. With recruitment and retention currently high on everyone's agenda it only makes sense that wellbeing must be prioritised in order to see teachers remain in post. Where children have had to endure a succession of struggling teachers I have never seen positive outcomes, only children who are missing out on the education that they are entitled to.

Having been a Year 6 teacher for the past few years, I've been very in tune with how the mental wellbeing of leaders and teachers can impinge on the wellbeing of children. It would appear that where leaders and teachers are put under pressure to produce particular results, there is stress which is passed on unintentionally to the children. Having been well-supported by leadership and colleagues myself, “I will always raise the issue of how it will impact on teachers' workload.”I have managed to maintain a good level of mental health. I believe that as a result the children I have taught, regardless of ability or setting, have always approached SATs week with confidence and without a hint of any unhealthy stress or worry. My wellbeing as a teacher, in my experience, determines the wellbeing of my pupils. And I've certainly found that when the children feel good, I feel good too - it's a virtuous circle. With such an emphasis currently on the mental wellbeing of the children we teach, it seems very important that we address this partially through attending to the wellbeing of the staff who work with them.

I have spoken to many teachers who complain about their low levels of wellbeing and of how their workload negatively impacts on their lives. In doing this I've experienced something that shocks me: many of them place responsibility for their wellbeing on someone else such as their leaders, the government, or the children they teach. Whilst there do need to be systemic changes which impact on workload, pupil behaviour and so on, there is also a need for groups of teachers to work together to make a difference. I was challenged a few years ago to channel my energies not into complaining, but into campaigning. Ever since then I've made sure that I voice my concerns, always combining a problem with a possible solution, with the hope that someone will listen and things will change. My experience on the whole is that school leaders are willing to hear what their colleagues have to say. I certainly have tried as a leader to canvass opinion to ensure that I am being as supportive as possible and that expectations are achievable.

The Matthew effect describes the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer; I have seen that good levels of wellbeing amongst a school's staff not only leads to continually improving wellbeing, but that it also leads to greater engagement, a better work ethic, higher quality teaching and learning and a generally positive and resilient atmosphere. In the best educational settings it's been clear that teamwork, where everyone looks out for each other (including teachers looking out for their leaders as well as vice-versa), is absolutely key to the wellbeing of staff and pupils. I've also observed that wellbeing can be prioritised to the benefit of all other aspects of school life and that focusing on wellbeing doesn't mean that people won't work hard, in fact, I've noticed the opposite: the levels of commitment are high at schools where wellbeing is prioritised.

For me, wellbeing will always be a priority - people are too precious for it not to be. I'll constantly look back on my experiences, both positive and negative, and use them to influence my own decisions as a leader, always striving to look after the wellbeing of all I work with.

How do you ensure wellbeing in your school? Let us know below.

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