Mental health and wellbeing issues are rife in teaching, this is not news to us and there is an increasing amount of support available for those who need it (I should know, I’ve only recently come back from three months of sick with work-related stress and panic attacks). But rather than fight fires, what can schools do to prevent more teachers suffering?
What Issues Affect Teacher WellBeing?
Mental health awareness is thankfully on the rise and the attached stigma is finally dissolving (at last!). It is becoming more recognised as the norm, this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is great because it is normal for people to suffer from mental health problems, just like it is normal for people to suffer from a cold or a sprained ankle and they should be viewed as such.
When I said it is was a bad thing that it is the norm, I was looking at it from the perspective of a rising prevalence of cases where teachers are being signed off sick from mental health/wellbeing issues.
Reported absences are SERIOUSLY ON THE RISE! A recent study stated that 40% of newly qualified teachers experience mental health problems. This figure drops to (a still WAY too high) 31% of all teachers who quit cite their reason as mental health or wellbeing in origin.
New teachers are the ones who are full of the energy and drive associated with starting a new career (and usually, but not always…youth!). They shouldn’t be quitting with stress in the first couple of years!
I will not accept the “ah, well they’re not cut out for teaching” bullshit.
It simply shouldn’t happen, FACT!
I’m a great believer in not reinventing the wheel. If you don’t need to change something, don’t do it. When it comes to teacher wellbeing; a reinvention is needed urgently.
Rather than me trying to reinvent this wheel and attempt to talk eloquently about what schools can do to help, I figured I’d rope in the brilliant, Tom Rogers.
Tom is a man of many talents; History teacher, Assistant head, an education writer and all round good guy. I’ll pop some of his links at the bottom of this article. He is well worth a follow.
Tom recently published a series of short videos on his YouTube channel which I found really useful. As I mentioned earlier I was off sick with work-related stress and up to that point, I was only thinking of what I could do to make my life easier. For some reason that I don’t understand, I hadn’t considered what could be changed within the system to make life easier for all teachers.
Enough chat, let see the videos…
1. Smart Marking and Assessment.
Why the hell are we still slogging our guts out writing a ridiculous amount of feedback in students books if there is little research to suggest it greatly benefits the students? If you’re like me, you probably find yourself doing this marking at home or staying late at school to get it done.
There have been times when I have not been able to do things with my own children at the weekend because of the mountain of books on my desk.
That’s not right, right?
I think we all agree that students need to know what they can do to improve (it’s a big part of our jobs) but, as Tom says, there are better ways. I published a post recently on this very topic (Effective feedback is not written feedback).
Even Ofsted (the UK governing body for education) quoted two studies that reported: “there is remarkably little high-quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning“.
I’m a big proponent of live, verbal feedback. We get the most out of students when we interact with them, it builds engagement and trust. Rather than writing comments in their books late at night, only for them to be, for the most part, ignored, I give them the same comments and improvement actions as I walk around the class.
“But we need to show evidence”, I hear you all shout.
You’re right, we are pressured to prove our worth as teachers so this one runs a bit deeper. Who are we responsible to? The students.
This is an area where schools need to rethink what they expect of teachers. In this digital age, there is no reason for us to be marking books the same way we did 20 or even 50 years ago.
While we wait for the system to change, take things into your own hands. Use some of the strategies Tom talks about or think of new ones yourself.
Either way, don’t let marking/grading take over your life, especially as it isn’t effective anyway (in its current form).
2. Direct Instruction.
I totally agree with Tom on this one. Teachers are experts on the subjects they teach, we chose our subject because it’s something we enjoy. I teach all three Science’s but I am a Biologist at heart, my passion is marine biology and my students know it.
I am more than happy to go off on a relevant tangent, using a marine biology example to explain the topic we are studying. I know wholeheartedly that my students remember more from my “stories” as they call them than any other type of activity we do.
It is these “stories” they quote back at me when I see them around the school and even when I randomly meet them while Christmas shopping years after they have left school (true story).
Direct instruction is important, it seems obviously counterproductive to have an expert in the room and suggest that they don’t talk much. If we want our students to be passionate about our subjects, surely we should model this passion with our own. I’m sure the teachers who inspired you are the ones who showed their passion.
Go on, think about that for a minute.
Like Tom, I believe that schools need to utilise the talent that they have and allow teachers to develop their subject knowledge as much as possible. This will, in turn, translate to better student engagement and therefore increased student progress.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it!
3. Excessive Teacher Accountability.
We all want to be good at our jobs, don’t we? We are all keen on finding better ways to do things. If you think your way is perfect, sorry, but it’s not. I say this not to anger you, the fact that you are reading this in your own time tells me you are a great teacher. I said your teaching isn’t perfect because I know that we are teaching in an evolving environment, the landscape constantly changes and so must we.
I know 99.9% of you will agree with the above statement and know where we need to improve. I also believe that the same amount of us don’t find full lesson observations or learning walks helpful. They put us under pressure and make us feel that we are not trusted to do our jobs.
This, in turn, leads to an increase in teacher anxiety, stress and discontent. They have no positive effect on teachers or students, so why the hell are they done?
I used to work in a school where one of the deputy leaders used to do learning walks with 3-5 minute observations EVERY DAY. On average he’d be in my class twice a day. Not once in the three years I worked there did he ever give me (or any other teachers) any feedback.
What is the point of that?
It was so ineffective that my students used to cough if he was coming in so I knew he was there. It got silly, I’d do deliberately and increasingly more ridiculous things to see if it would trigger a response. Nothing, Nada, Zip! (I subsequently found out that several other teachers used to do similar things and also got nothing back, ever!)
As Tom says, if school leaders had trust in us and had conversations with their staff (not in front of students), we could use the time to make mature decisions about how the teacher can improve. We would feel supported not judged.
4. Support with Behaviour Management.
This is probably the most important area schools can help the wellbeing of teachers. If the behaviour management policy isn’t set up to support the teachers, the first three issues on this post don’t matter.
I have worked in a school where every teacher had to run their own detentions. Can you guess what effect this had? Yep, detentions were rarely given. This obviously signalled to the students that there was no consequence of poor behaviour.
Luckily the school I work in now had a very strong behaviour management system. This includes:
- Centralised detentions (including all the admin) meaning hardly any extra work for teachers.
- At least one of the senior leadership team on a walkie talkie every lesson who can be called to your classroom to remove students or just show you are supported.
- Referral rooms. This is not isolation but a system where several senior teachers (including myself) allow other teachers to send disruptive students to our classroom. This allows teaching to continue uninterrupted.
If a good system is in place, the wellbeing of teachers is hugely supported. We are a team, if we act like it, teaching doesn’t seem a lonely place to be.
5. Workplace Bullying in School.
Workplace bullying can and does end careers. It’s horrible. Firstly, if you are going through this, Do something, speak out about it, it is not your fault.
I have heard from teachers who have been bullied by other teachers and/or senior leaders and whose wellbeing was so badly damaged, they never came back to teaching.
That really makes me mad!
Tom’s advice is excellent, make notes of every interaction and speak to the head. I definitely wouldn’t take the issue up with the bully, they will just defend themselves and make out that you’re the problem.
Bullies are either narcissists or they have narcissistic tendencies. There is no reasoning with them, make notes and go to the head of the school. Do not allow them to control you, they’ll never stop.
There are tactics you can use yourself to minimise their effect on you. The grey rock method of dealing with a narcissist is very good. However, a school needs a system in place to deal with it.
Teaching is hard enough without having to deal with the lack of support in the above areas. The majority of schools are good at looking after their teaching team but there will always be some that don’t.
Teaching across many countries is in trouble, we are haemorrhaging experienced teachers. Whether it is due to government cuts to education or poor leadership, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is your mental health and wellbeing and the effect this has on your life and the education of your students.
If you are working in a school where your wellbeing is at risk and you have tried everything, there is nothing wrong with moving school. Where one school will feel like working in the depths of hell, another will feel like working in a summer meadow, surrounded by friends, unlimited wine and chocolate.
(no actual wine should be consumed while teaching, the kids are bound to spill it!)
Take care of yourself folks, you’re no good to anyone if you don’t treat yourself as number one. (trust me, I have the badge to prove it!)
1. Inefficient Marking and Assessment Policies
2. Limited use of Direct Instruction
3. Excessive Teacher Accountability
4. Lack of Support with Behaviour Management
5. Workplace Bullying in School
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