Stressed out at school - 7 reasons why supporting teacher wellbeing matters
1. Giving back makes a difference
Teachers give. All the time. For almost ten years I worked in education in the UK and I experienced this every day. Most recently as a Behaviour Specialist in a City Council Outreach Team for Education and Inclusion in the South of England. We guided staff towards the tools they needed to manage challenging events, develop resilience, and feel empowered to meet children's needs, with better outcomes for themselves and the children and their families. We supported 53 primary schools and some post primary schools, with a large focus on providing Coaching, Work Discussion Groups, and Inclusion Training for school leaders and staff.
Last year, I made the decision to return home to Ireland. Coming back to my roots has emphasised for me why I have always wanted to work in education. It is the same reason we all go into education: to give something back. Teachers make a difference in people's lives and change our communities and our society for the better.
2. Looking after teachers looks after our children
As the Aer Lingus staff demonstrated their inflight safety briefing on my flight home to the west of Ireland, I was reminded of an analogy in an article about teacher wellbeing in the Guardian newspaper:
During the safety briefing on every plane journey adults are reminded that, in case of an emergency, they are to secure their own oxygen masks before they help their children fit theirs. Why? Because it helps you look after children more effectively
The simplicity of this analogy always helps refocus my mind on the purpose of what I do. What I experienced on the job as a Behaviour Specialist is increasingly supported by research which shows the positive relationship between looking after teacher wellbeing and better outcomes for children and their schools.
3. Providing time to reflect helps staff respond positively to
Giving teachers time to reflect means that they are better able to mentally and emotionally navigate and respond to the demands of their work.
Teaching unions in Ireland have done a good job in recent years commissioning research, providing information and guidelines on relieving stress and advocating for improving wellbeing. A recent ASTI Teacher Welfare leaflet warns of the 'psycho-social hazards' that could impact the education workforce if staff wellbeing is not cared for and stress persists. Meanwhile research commissioned by INTO supports a person-centered and holistic approach. The research argues that this approach must incorporate time for staff to reflect and reinterperet their environment. It cannot be "prescriptive" but must be "adaptive" and be embedded from the Principal's office to the classrooms, throughout the school, local community and beyond.
The Principle is very much the focus of a new initiative (Feb 2017) by the Centre for School Leadership (CSL) in Ireland - a joint project between the recognised professional bodies for primary (lPPN) and secondary schools (NAPD) and the Department for Education and Skills. Through their leadership coaching service, the CSL hope to support school leaders to discuss challenges, address difficulties and achieve goals.
Additionally, education staff can benefit from a government contracted Employee Assistance & Wellbeing Programme. The programme offers free access to InspireWellbeing (formerly Carecall), a 24 hour helpline of trained, accredited counsellors. This is a vital and valuable service for staff who access it to seek help with bereavement, financial difficulties or a traumatic life event.
4. Balancing the needs of one balances the needs of everyone
Much of the discussion in the UK is now focusing on finding a workable balance between accountability, professional development & best practice, status, and wellbeing. There is recognition that school leaders need support but also a strong emphasis on the need for leadership in the area of staff support and wellbeing.
Great emphasis is being put on the wellbeing of teaching and support staff for two equally important reasons - the link between teacher wellbeing and student outcomes, and the large number of teaching and support staff who are leaving the education sector due to stress and burnout.
UK teaching unions such as the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and education charities like the Education Support Partnership are advocating to the Department for Education for a reduction in teacher workload with some success, as well as providing ongoing support and advice on staff wellbeing.
Mental health charities have been advocating for a number of years for a better and more holistic approach to wellbeing in schools. Children's mental health champion Natasha Devon has placed particular importance on looking after the wellbeing of school staff in order to care for children's mental health.
5. Preventing burnout sustains wellbeing
Every year, large numbers of teachers continue to write on forums and other online platforms looking for support to meet their growing needs. Daily, they search for solutions, express concerns and relay stories of their day or week about the increasing needs of their students and their families, their evolving roles in their schools, and the new education policies creating increasing administration and workload. All factors which make a work life balance or a sense of wellbeing difficult to maintain.
With all the efforts being made in Ireland and the UK, there remains growing concern around teacher burnout and the need for sustainable wellbeing of all education staff.
6. Practicing Reflection, Adaption and Action develops best practice
In the autumn of 2016 I co-founded Teach Happy, an exciting new project being developed, which advocates for and provides education specific support for education staff - leaders, teachers and support staff - in both Ireland and the UK.
Our Coaching service is designed to give education staff a safe space to talk about work-related stress with a confidential, independent and experienced ear.
Within its framework of Support, Training and Professional Practice, Teach Happy's Coaching service has developed its signature response to restoring and protecting teacher wellbeing: Reflection, Adaption and Action.
Our positive, person centred and proactive approach will help teachers and support staff to use Reflection, Adaption and Action in practical ways throughout their day to reduce stress and prevent burnout. This leads to not only improvements in staff retention but also allows staff to develop best practice and gain confidence in their work.
7. Valuing teachers improves our communities
Despite the stresses of their work, education staff continue to see their role in society as valuable. Now is the time for us to reaffirm the value of teachers in our communities and society. Giving them the opportunity to access education specific support services dedicated to their needs is much like us all being told on a flight to use our oxygen masks first before assisting children. It not only improves teacher wellbeing - it allows our children and young people to be looked after more effectively, improving their life outcomes, our communities and our society.