'We must change our thinking about teacher wellbeing'

Five years ago, in October 2014, over 44,000 teachers responded to the Department for Education’s (DfE) workload challenge survey.
As a result of feedback received, the DfE made commitments to establish key working parties to explore work-life balance and wellbeing around issues of marking, planning and resources and data management.
And herein lies the rub; there is a gap in the knowledge frameworks that inform current wellbeing policy and initiatives. Much of the research and writings around teacher workload acknowledge that there is a wellbeing issue to be addressed, but very few solutions move beyond remedies for the observable aspects of the role i.e. marking, planning, displays, data management etc.
It is my belief that discussions around teacher wellbeing do not go far enough and although well-intentioned, they will have minimal impact on increasing levels of job-satisfaction and related teacher recruitment and retention figures.  To reverse the current downward trend, the profession has to view the current crisis through a wider lens. That lens has to take into account not only what teachers do – the observable aspects of the role, but also who they are and why they are in the profession.

Surface level care

It was Einstein who famously said, that you cannot solve a problem with the same level of consciousness that created it. And yet, this is where I feel we are at with the current well-being debate. Predominant solutions for addressing the wellbeing crisis mainly focus on the public facing aspects of the role. They do not chart or address the inner landscape of teachers; their motivations, their hopes, their fears and their very reasons for being in the profession.
Neglect of these aspects has often meant that wellbeing polices inadvertently fall into the trap of treating teachers as cogs in a machine; as ‘human doings’ and not ‘human-beings’. It is their ability to be productive (albeit in smarter ways) that is seen to be in need of attention. Attending to subsistence needs, such as these, is care at a surface level. The message conveyed is that teaching is a profession in which individuals can only be expected to survive, thriving is not part of the wellbeing equation.

A Human Endeavour

Most teachers are motivated by something greater than their ability to perform. Teaching is first and foremost a human endeavour. It is about relationships and it is about connections. Wellbeing strategies must include approaches for enabling teachers to remain well in the world and for them to thrive as fully functioning human-beings. Therefore, attention must be given to taking true care of ‘the soul in the role.’
My own experience tells me, that for many in the profession, teaching is a vocation, a soul calling. It is a role that they have chosen to take on because they have felt that in making a difference to the lives of others, the role would facilitate an authentic outgrowing of who they are as a person. The malaise that the profession is currently facing has as much to do with increased levels of bureaucracy, as it has to do with the profession’s inability to nurture what some have termed, ‘vocational vitality.’
By vocational vitality we are talking about a teacher’s ability to be:
– Fully alive and engaged with the profession, their students and the subject they teach
– Present to themselves and engage constructively with the range of emotions that show up in any given moment
– Authentic and act with integrity, compassion and purpose
– Engaged with the deep questions of identity, personhood and values that so often arise when we are forced to move outside of our comfort zones
– Self-aware enough to identify the people, circumstances, etc that will invite new perspectives and opportunities for growth

Steps towards thriving

The reality for many is that whilst the profession stays fixated on subsistence remedies there are more than a few teachers who are asking for something more. These are the teachers who want to thrive, who want to flourish and who want wellbeing policies to also encompass matters of meaning, purpose, relationship and connection. If you are one of these teachers, here are three things you can do to take charge of your own wellbeing and to help ensure that you remain well in the world.
1. Identify: As our roles change, so do we as people. So much inner dis-ease, that teachers can sometimes feel is because they haven’t identified and hence acknowledged this. Identifying what has changed about you and why, then identifying steps to address these transitions, can be an empowering act of self-service in support of one’s own mental and emotional wellbeing.
2. Reflect: Plan and make time for deep reflection not only on what you have done in a week, but also who you have been; How have you shown up, how have you embodied your values and what difference has this made?
3. Connect: Find others either inside or outside of work, with whom you can have conversations that enrich your sense of purpose and deepen your commitment to your why and the work that you do.
Such is the teaching profession that whatever the context, teachers will always be required to go the extra mile. Thinking that we can prevent burnout and disillusionment by solely addressing workload issues is short-sighted. It is only by the provision of generative solutions, that take care of the person in the role, will our teachers find ways to remain happy and well in the profession for the long haul.

Preventing Burn-Out

When you are working in a school, engaging day-to-day with children and their families, teachers, support staff, Governors and other adults, you know that in addition to expending great amounts of mental and physical energy on your workload, you expend equal (if not more) amounts of energy meeting the emotional needs of others.
So in order that you can effectively manage your workload, you must also ensure that you invest the time in meeting your needs. If you don’t, you can end up carrying a huge emotional debt and become increasingly emotionally overdrawn, with no readily identifiable means for bringing your emotional account back into credit. This is particularly dangerous if you’re like most Heads in our school system, you’re incredibly under-supported.
For many of our teachers and School Leaders, there are few people who you can talk to who really gets your job and all the stresses that come with it, leaving you stuck with coping mechanisms and busy-ness to get you through the day — not a great set up for thriving in one’s role.
As a result, you run the risk of emotional ‘burn out’. When this begins to happen, not only do we experience extreme levels of mental and emotional exhaustion that can be debilitating, but we also can begin to derive less satisfaction from our lives.
Having been a Headteacher myself, I know all too well what this feels like and equally what must be done to prevent it! It is for this reason, that I now offer free “Coaching for the Soul” support calls, for those who feel that they could benefit from a confidential space that will allow them to:
–  Talk through the challenges they’re facing and find solutions
–  Receive support and encouragement in their current situation
–  Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
–  Gain clarity around their thoughts and plan a way forward

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