Mental Health and well-being in our schools are hot topics at the moment and for good reason! Too many teachers and school leaders have left and continue to leave the profession because the system has given short shrift to taking care of the person in the role.
It is my belief that if we are to preserve the personhood of our teachers, then alongside strategies for reducing workload etc, they must also be supported and empowered to take control of their own responses to stress.
This blog outlines four key habits that Head teachers can encourage their staff to adopt to enable them to take greater responsibility for their own well-being. The premise from which I am starting is that well-being is about having a healthy and courageous relationship with self. It is concerned with doing the inner work that brings integrity and authenticity to the outer work of being human.
Most teachers know that the best teaching happens when they are alive to their subject, fully present for the children in their class, and when they have a deep resonance and respect both for their craft and the children that they teach. That’s when the magic happens!
How teachers maintain their vocational vitality is fundamental to their well-being. It is about care of the inner self; the world of thoughts, feelings and emotions. If teachers are to protect their well-being, they must be supported to develop the habits that will sustain them for the long haul.
There are four key habits that I believe, with a bit of support, Heads can help their teachers to develop…
Habit 1: Help your staff develop their listening skills
To relieve the sometimes-heavy burden of teaching, teachers need to be listened to. Empathic listening is a type of listening that allows a person to be listened to with ‘unconditional positive regard.’ This psychological term relates to the ability to suspend judgement, to listen in such a way that the person knows their own self-worth is not dependent on anything that they say or do.
To develop this habit, encourage your teachers to meet one-on-one with a trusted colleague at least once a half term, more if possible. It must be someone with whom they can be completely themselves. Where possible they should meet in place where neither of them will be disturbed. Prior to each meeting they should be encouraged to consider their responses to the following questions:
– What have been the highlights of the past half term?
– Why have these been significant for me?
– In what way do these highlights relate to my reasons for being a teacher?
– Have there been any ways in which my reasons for being a teacher have been challenged?
– How have I addressed them?
– What have I learnt?
– How have I grown?
– What are the implications for next half term?
They should then decide who will have the first half of the meeting to share their answers. Then gift one another half an hour of listening time each. The person who is sharing talks freely sharing their answers. They are not interrupted, cut off in mid-sentence, spoken over or ignored. They are simply given the gift of being listened to.
When it feels appropriate the person who is listening can summarise back what they have heard or ask a question, nothing more – no anecdotes or sharing their own ‘war stories [as can so often be the temptation].
After half an hour or so, the roles are reversed. Cultivating this habit will help your staff to slow down and supports mindful enquiry. Developing empathetic listening skills can not only help teachers to build successful relations with students and colleagues, but will also help them to listen with greater empathy to themselves.
Habit 2: Help your staff learn to accept praise
Most teachers that I have come across are fantastic at celebrating the strengths and achievements of their students, but many struggle to accept praise that is directed at them.
However, when they can, they learn how to increase their own levels of resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity. It arises from a strong sense of self and a grounded appreciation of one’s strengths and abilities.
To build this habit teachers needed to be supported to develop a much healthier relationship with their own inner dialogue. Too often it seems, when a teacher hears someone say, “Well done” or “That was a great lesson” They find themselves thinking “They don’t really mean it” or “I’m not really as good as they think I am.” Thoughts like these only serve to diminish their resilience.
To change this pattern of thinking, teachers need to be encouraged to simply thank whoever has paid them the compliment and not diminish the power of their words by saying, “It was nothing” or “It wasn’t only me, it was x, y & z as well”.
An often-voiced fear is that accepting praise can somehow lead to arrogance. However, when individuals are in the service of others and rooted in their values and beliefs, accepting praise is simply another way of shoring up their roots and ensuring that their behaviours are aligned with the vision that they have for themselves and the pupils that they teach.
Habit 3: Help your staff to become reflective practitioners
Reflection enables individuals to deepen their connection with their values and can bring insight to their personal and professional development.
One way to develop this habit is for individuals to keep a reflective journal. The keeping of such a journal is a way for individuals to process their private thoughts and sharpen their reflective skills. Individuals can develop this habit by committing to journaling at least once a week. The end of the week is usually the best time.
At the end of each week, teachers can be encouraged to reflect on questions such as:
– How much of myself was given expression to this week in my role as a teacher?
[in reflecting on this question, Individuals can begin to discover what aspects of their role help them to be their best. This deepens their connection with their vision, passion and purpose]
– Were there any circumstances which limited full expression of myself? How did I address them? What did I learn?
– What important aspects of me haven’t been given expression to this week?
[It is all too easy for teaching to become all consuming. This question helps individuals to think about the meeting of their needs on a holistic level. It reminds them that they have external needs, outside of their classroom role as a teacher, that must be met for them to remain healthy.]
– How will my reflections impact on my role in the forthcoming week?
This reflective process should create a higher level of self-awareness and could also help individuals to develop other habits that will bring greater balance to their lives.
Habit 4: Help your staff to develop greater Self-Compassion
Self-compassion involves showing ourselves the same levels of kindness, love and understanding that we would display towards a friend going through hard times. When we are compassionate towards ourselves, we experience much greater degrees of happiness and well-being. In these present times of high levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability, it is a must for any teacher.
To develop this habit, individuals need to know where they are in the self-compassion stakes. A good start for staff could be simply being to begin with a reflection on their responses to the five questions below; using a scale of 1-10, (where 1 = totally unable and 10 = very able), give yourself a score.
|In relation to each of the questions below, ask yourself….||Score: 1 – 10 [1 = totally unable, 10 = very able]|
|1. To what degree am I able to let go of the need to be perfect?|
|2. To what degree am I able to talk to myself kindly when faced with difficult emotions/circumstances?|
|3. To what degree am I able to silence my inner critic?|
|4. To what degree am I able to reach out for help and support?|
|5. To what degree am I able to stop comparing myself to others?|
For areas where individuals score below a six, encourage them to ask, “What can I do to raise my score and what difference will it make to my overall well-being?”
Helping your staff to developing these four habits with will take time; when the focus around well-being has been predominately on the external stress factors, for some it may need something of a paradigm shift. As they encouraged to consider how their own internal responses to stress impact may also be contributory factors to their own sense of well-being.
However, commitment to their development, set firmly within the context of maintaining one’s vocation and purpose, should help staff to see that they can have far more control over their well-being than they may have first realised.
Supporting Well-being in your School or Academy Trust
We believe that true and sustained educational excellence can only be achieved when the need to provide a first-class education for our young is accompanied by the need to meet the emotional, mental and vocational wellbeing of those who teach them.
However, over the last few years, we’ve seen the challenges that schools, in particular, those in MATs face as they seek to raise and maintain standards. Many of these centre around relationships, people management issues and harnessing individual will for the collective good.
New structures, new systems, new roles, new policies and practices can lead to intense periods of transition and uncertainty which can evoke feelings of anxiety, doubt and worry. These feelings can quickly spread from one school to another and if not managed effectively can seriously undermine efforts for creating a unified approach to school improvement across a MAT. Common issues that can arise as a result, include…
– Low levels of Trust
– Poor communication
– Conflict in leadership styles
– Role adjustment fatigue
– High attrition rates
Left unaddressed these feelings can seriously inhibit the performance and well-being of those who lead and work in our schools which can, in turn, impact on the outcomes for our children.
That’s why we are now offering an Academies Wellbeing Programme designed to help CEO’s, Head teachers and senior leaders as they seek to overcome the challenges of leading in a MAT, support the well-being of themselves and those they lead and above all, enable them to achieve outstanding results for their Schools. This programme is designed to support leaders to create schools that are:
– Places in which communication is open, constructive and honest
– Emotionally resilient environments in which all adults and pupils thrive
– Characterised by strong, supportive, professional relationships
– Healthy and happy and help to foster a true love for learning and in which personal transformation is possible