If we are serious about student wellbeing then we have to be equally serious about teacher wellbeing. And this goes well beyond advising them to get enough sleep and exercise.
Burnt out teachers tune out. They might be going into school every day but their motivation and ability to link constructively with students is impaired. Hattie’s meta-analysis of effective education emphasised the quality of the teacher-student relationship for optimal student learning. A stressed adult is less flexible, less tolerant and less creative. Teacher wellbeing needs to be embedded throughout education everywhere.
I have just spent a few days with teachers in the Northern Territory, including at a symposium at Charles Darwin University on teacher wellbeing – and what they say is mirrored in conversations nationally and internationally. Some teachers are working in environments that are demanding but rewarding. There is a high level of social capital where staff collaborate to achieve agreed goals. Others are in schools where the atmosphere is toxic. Levels of trust and value are low and teacher resilience is undermined.
Most teachers go into the profession because they care about kids – they want to make a positive difference. Teachers rarely go into teaching for the money. They often stay because they see students make progress and this is deeply satisfying. But many teachers leave the profession. We have high teacher attrition across the western world. They rarely leave because the job is too hard or they decide they don’t like kids – they walk away because they feel undervalued, overwhelmed, unsupported and unheard. They feel more like cogs in a wheel than in a professional learning community. They perceive that the demands from on high often stop them doing their job properly rather than facilitate it. They are dispirited by colleagues who operate in cliques and play power games.
So what helps teachers maintain their wellbeing, be effective in the classroom and enjoy what they do? None of the following suggestions are rocket-science, nor time consuming nor expensive. It just takes the will to embed them in school practice.
Teachers need their efforts to be noticed – not just by students and parents but by school leaders and colleagues. A school culture that acknowledges all staff, teachers, admin., ground staff, cleaners and even leaders on a regular basis – not just for the big things, but for everyday good work, develops a level of social capital where people feel valued and are more willing to collaborate. There are so many ways to do this – a word in the corridor, a comment in a staff meeting, a thank you card, a mention in a newsletter. It doesn’t require praise – just noticing and saying you noticed. Everyone takes responsibility for each other – this is not where one person chooses the ‘teacher of the week’, an intervention that looks positive on the surface but can lead to competition and resentment.
Schools that are led by leaders who show they care about the whole child – and the whole teacher – make wellbeing core business. The social and emotional wellbeing of everyone is actively addressed – not something tacked onto the end of academics. When wellbeing is a central platform everything else follows – more pro-social behaviour, better academic outcomes, improved mental health and resilience – better home-school interactions and enhanced teacher satisfaction. One principal I know had a masseur come in once a month to give teachers a quick neck and shoulders massage – this was not only good for easing any aches and pains, it was a very loud message that teachers were valued by the school executive and this alone lifted spirits and a sense of being in a team.
School leaders who encourage authentic consultation with staff are building a democratic culture where the school is a partnership between stakeholders. Being included fosters a willingness to collaborate and work together. The way staff meetings are run affects levels of participation. Some Circle Solutions strategies are ideal to elicit teacher voice, so that no-one dominates and everyone feels heard. Mix people up so they are not sitting next to their mates and then introduce ‘pair shares’ which explore commonalities about an issue. When views are fed back ways forward can be identified. Solution-focused conversations – what do we want, rather than what do we want to get rid of – discourages negativity so that ‘yes but …’ conversations are replaced with ‘yes and …’
Schools that see themselves as learning communities develop positive environments for learning. Professional development and professional practice matters. Staff feel valued and supported when they are encouraged to access good quality learning for themselves. And if someone comes to speak with the whole staff it matters that school leaders are there too. What message does it give when the principal finds ‘more important’ things to do?
I know very few teachers who do not spend some of their weekends and some of their school holidays on school related activities. They are willing to give their time on Saturdays, for residential camps and for evening meetings. But when this willingness to go the extra mile becomes an expectation, so that their family life suffers, this is not respectful. A reasonable work life balance needs to be recognised as critical to wellbeing
Dan Pink’s research says that people are motivated to give of their best not by being paid more, but by having meaning and a sense of purpose in their work, the opportunity to get better at what they do – and autonomy. Micro-managing teachers does not get the best out of them, it does not respect their knowledge, skills, creativity or professionalism. Unless there are problems, let them get on with it – and offer support when needed. Where possible allow teachers to keep admin to a minimum so that they have the time to build relationships and an optimal environment for learning.
Is it too hard to develop a culture of respect in all our schools? Not a culture of deference and competition, but an environment where all staff feel valued as individuals, professionals and members of a team.