With high stress levels fuelling the recruitment and retention crisis, schools need to prioritise maximising teachers’ wellbeing. Five tips presented here, with input from educational consultant and wellbeing advocate Therese Hoyle, encourage schools to empower their staff, celebrate their achievements (no matter how small) and dissolve the barriers to open discussions about mental health

Still East of Eden

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes made a bold prediction about the 21st century. Reflecting on the speed-march of progress in technology and infrastructure he forecast that, by the turn of the century, most people would only work a 15-hour week.

Sadly, Keynes’ augury has proved false. Surveys report that the working hours of most have remained static over the past 30 years, (and indeed increased in many cases), with self-reported stress levels being significantly higher.

Nowhere is this worrying trend more visible than in the profession of teaching.

It’s common knowledge at this point that teachers regularly work 60 hours or more per week, clocking in the most unpaid overtime in the country. Concordant with these figures are reports that teachers feel overworked, disempowered by new managerial structures and saddled with a lack of self-efficacy to do their job properly. Such stressors make teachers especially vulnerable to professional burnout and mental health issues, with recent reports showing a dramatic increase in the number of teachers being signed off work for such reasons.

Analysing and explicating the causes of the stress epidemic in teaching has been a preoccupation of Teacher Booker. In our anthology on the subject, we gestured at the exponentially increasing expectations of teachers, and the abrasion of optimism that comes from dealing with challenging behaviour. The purpose of all this dissection is simple: to understand how we can make the profession less stressful and improve net teacher wellbeing.

Teacher Booker are fortunate to have friends and fellow travellers on this journey who want to help. That’s why we sought out educational consultant and teacher wellbeing advocate, Therese Hoyle, to get her input on what schools can do to help improve the wellbeing of their staff. Below are 5 practicable steps distilled from our conversation and other research. Don’t forget to respond on Twitter and Facebook with anything we missed!

  1. Appreciate that low wellbeing is a push factor out of your school

Job satisfaction in the public sector has historically tended to be quite high, despite low pay and challenging work conditions. This trend resulted in the managerial (and ministerial) mantra that public sector workers could be treated however you want; whatever happens, they won’t leave the job.

But yesterday’s mantra quickly becomes today’s myth – and in this case a stubbornly persistent one. One need only glance briefly at the news to see how high rates of attrition are in teaching, coupled with historically low rates of recruitment. Exiting teachers repeatedly report ‘stress’, ‘pressure’ and ‘a lack of work-life balance’ as the factors that pushed them out the profession.

Conscientiousness about staff wellbeing can no longer be dismissed as a luxury for prospering schools. It needs to be a priority for any school that wants to recruit new staff and retain its present faculty. Of course, we’re all loathe to think about the wellbeing of fellow humans in such instrumental terms. But linking wellbeing to performance measures may be the fulcrum needed for substantial improvements in working conditions for teachers. Plus, it can help everyone appreciate that staff wellbeing is strongly linked to student wellbeing and performance.

  1. Ask staff about their wellbeing

Lost in the vaulting cathedral of the education system, it’s easy for teachers to feel like their voices go unheard. This imbues a lack of self-efficacy in the profession, leaving teachers to feel at the mercy of the cruel and indifferent machine of progress.

Consulting staff about issues in school management that are relevant to their professional expertise should be routine in any school. But asking about their wellbeing is of equal importance. Every staff room has teachers already having these discussions about what’s generating stress and angst within their school and how things could be done better. One may as well formalise this process and channel the information towards school improvement.

Naturally, formalising discussions about staff wellbeing (in the form of a working group or staff consultation) will involve asking hard questions and hearing hard truths. Senior leaders may suddenly see a very different side to their school and their staff that they had otherwise been shielded from by their professional distance. These difficulties, however, can be drivers of real change, bringing the whole school into sync on what issues are present and what needs to be done to resolve them in favour of higher staff wellbeing.

  1. Promote a higher sense of egalitarianism

In their landmark book, The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett present reams of evidence that inequality in income and social capability is positively related to a range of health measures – including stress and wellbeing. School leaders should be conscious of how much such effects might pervade their own institutions.

School leaders earn several orders more than teaching assistants and early career teachers. The pronounced hierarchy of the school structure, theoretically for pedagogical purposes, typically ends up affecting the working conditions of teachers as well. Indeed, belief that one is being paid or treated unfairly is a powerful predictor of wellbeing in any job.

This isn’t to suggest that your school should convert into a kibbutz – but school leaders can benefit from appreciating that teachers have a set of skills that allow them to do things they often cannot. A teacher remarked to me recently that teachers returning from absences to find that they have been covered by SLT often have to repeat those lessons because they’ve been taught so poorly. A more collegial atmosphere in which teachers are valued as having a different, but equally valuable, set of skills will help mitigate the effects of school hierarchy to the benefit of all.

Evangelism for equity cuts both ways: as well as elevating teachers, it’s also about humanising leadership teams. As Stephen Drew points out in his recent post on leaving headship: “It is too easy to slate headteachers and the wider senior leadership teams in schools. The job is incredibly difficult to get right… Perhaps we could all remind them of how good they are every once in a while”. When Leaders are doing their jobs well, they desire and deserve praise the same as anyone else. Teachers should feel comfortable to share this praise openly with them.

  1. Findings reasons to celebrate

“Every day is a festival somewhere” goes the aphorism and schools can harness this fact to great effect in promoting wellbeing. Putting on special weeks and co-ordinating activities associated with them can be great – from Eurovision to Wimbledon, religious festivals and world international days. Finding volunteers in the staff body who would like to lead on organising these, with the appropriate support and allowance, can empower staff while facilitating them to pursue a passion project. By shifting the climate of a school to one of celebration, however arbitrarily, wellbeing of students and staff alike is improved.

There need not be a big reason to celebrate either. Getting through a long week during Winter term or exam season can be just as worthy of festivity. Being imaginative and creative in finding things to celebrate can yield a list of great opportunities for making staff feel valued and special. Putting on afternoon teas, staff sports events, giving out tokens of gratitude – all of these can be deployed to mark such celebrations. As with students, adults don’t need much to feel valued – and much of it can be provided for free.

  1. Talk about Mental Health

A failure of many organisations is that they assume only optimal outcomes when planning. This means they fail to prepare what to do when things go wrong. Clearly something has gone very wrong in an organisation when a teacher has such a catastrophically low wellbeing that they have to leave. Schools need to take this seriously as a possibility and plan for it.

A few modest suggestions here. Once they appreciate that there are systemic features of the profession that result in teachers getting burned out and suffering mental health issues, schools need to provide literature and guidance to help teachers and middle-management identify these issues in their embryonic stages. A particularly powerful intervention here is to have a staff member with a history of mental health issues speak openly about this in a staff meeting. It demands great courage, but many who have suffered with mental health issues are keen to help steer others away from having the same experience they’ve had. Schools can also be mindful of circumstances where particular challenges are likely to be present. Schools know in advance from transition data and other sources whether a cohort is going to be challenging and can plan appropriately. At a more local scale, school leaders can make themselves aware that a particularly challenging class is being given to a relatively inexperienced teacher and make efforts in advance to offer their support. All of this can be readily planned for with a more practical and prescient mindset.

Conclusion – A coda for burnout?

Some schools do an excellent job of managing and promoting staff wellbeing. Other schools struggle in this area. Wherever your institution falls on this continuum it’s important to appreciate that staff wellbeing should be a priority for all school leaders and is intrinsically linked to recruitment, retention and student performance. We have no doubt that in schools with the right orientation and culture towards wellbeing, staff may feel like they’re only actually working 15 hours a week. Let’s prove Keynes right!

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