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Dealing with teacher wellbeing

By Sam Di Sano on 11 April 2018LeadershipWellbeingUKstaffroomNSWstaffroom

Staff wellbeing is an important part of a mentally healthy school - and is essential for effective teaching and learning. (Mindmatters)

Twelve months ago, Nick Haisman-Smith, Chief Executive at Family Links and the Nurturing Schools Network, in his blog article in March 2017 on teacher wellbeing, said that it is impossible for schools to support the social and emotional health of young people (which is at record high figures), if teachers do not attend to their own emotional wellbeing as well.

Factors affecting teacher wellbeing

Wellbeing in teachers is generally determined by three factors:

  1. What we can do for ourselves and have control over
  2. The climate and other things we generally cannot change; and
  3. The relationships and connections we have with each other, built on trust.

Increasingly high workloads, greater complexity, increased compliance, monitoring and accountability, challenging student behaviour and constant policy changes are among the many factors that contribute to poor teacher wellbeing.

Teacher wellbeing tends to manifest itself as it does in many other professions - absenteeism, lack of motivation and poor physical health, but we now realise it is having a detrimental effect on more than just us. Teacher wellbeing also has an impact on student outcomes.

A University of London 2007 research study into the links between staff wellbeing and school performance suggests that there are links between how teachers within a school on average feel about their work and the performance of pupils in that school.

Principals don’t get it much better

The 2017 Australian Principals Health and Well-being Survey report also provided alarming data about principals’ exposure to stress, burnout and offensive behaviour well above average for the Australian population across all three sectors.

So what do we do about it, and whose responsibility is it?

Local issues within schools affecting staff morale and wellbeing need to have local solutions. Many solutions also lie beyond the school gates at the feet of the broader education system, things not easy for individuals to have a positive impact on. All of these are genuine concerns which often lead to the most acute forms of mental ill health within the teaching profession.

Two key coping strategies

There are many strategies that schools, school leaders or teachers themselves, can employ to improve teacher wellbeing:

1. Tackle the stigma

Schools need to open the door and talk about teacher wellbeing. They need to name and recognise what stresses their teachers the most. Often, just investing time and money supporting teacher wellbeing demonstrates an employer’s genuine approach to the issue and will more than cover the costs associated with stress-related absence.

2. Seek out and employ strategies to foster wellbeing

For many years I contracted the services of a corporate health and fitness company specifically to improve staff wellbeing. The services and initiatives they provided (hopefully) demonstrated to staff that their employer genuinely valued their mental and physical health and was prepared to allocate a significant budget item to ensuring staff felt valued.

Over the years staff were provided with:

  • A weekly fruit box
  • Free flu vaccinations
  • Free health checks including blood sugars, cholesterol, skin cancers
  • Head neck and shoulder massages
  • Reflexology
  • Health and fitness expo
  • Fitness training group
  • Nutrition workshops
  • City2Surf training program
  • Yoga and pilates
  • Voice care workshops
  • Access to subsidised professional external counselling services

Taking responsibility

Teachers, like all professionals also need to take responsibility for their own mental health and wellbeing by acknowledging the impact of their own wellbeing on their pupils. They need to prioritise setting time aside for themselves, without feeling guilty. An appropriate analogy I recently heard explained this was much like the necessity of putting on your own oxygen mask first before fitting one to others.

Schools and teachers must also find time for a whole-school approach to emotional health which, managed well, will lead to a positive school culture, with supportive relationships between staff, as well as with pupils and parents.

Needless to say there are thousands of tips I could pass on. Many I have used, many I haven’t, but I think the most useful piece of advice I can pass on to any school leader is to invest in the welfare and well being of your greatest resource and asset: your staff.

What are my top 5 tips for a school leader? Try these:

  1. Notice and appreciate your staff’s actions - highlight good deeds. Everyone loves a pat on the back, delivered publicly or privately. Mentioning them in some way not only gives the recipient a boost but also demonstrates a leader’s connectedness.
  2. Connect with your staff - make time to be available or commit to having morning tea or lunch with them.
  3. Encourage and support an active staff social group to celebrate novelty events, morning teas, birthdays, monthly drinks - the more engaged and included your staff are, the better they are going to feel about their workplace.
  4. Random acts of kindness - encourage a culture of doing something for others and lead by example.
  5. Foster a learning culture among your staff - encourage your staff to exercise their minds as well as their bodies - subsidise further study by providing grants to help pay for post graduate courses or higher accreditation levels

The major implication here is that if we want to improve school performance, we also need to start paying attention to teacher wellbeing.

Overall

How teachers feel on a daily basis is likely to affect their performance and so, in turn, the performance of the pupils they teach. At the same time, it may also be the case that improving school performance has positive impacts on teacher wellbeing.

So - it works both ways - schools and teachers need to work together at ensuring their mental health and wellbeing, both on a personal and corporate level, is in a positive space.

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