How a lack of wellbeing support for teachers could lead to an education implosion, from Lynn How.

A repeating narrative is the lack of retention of new staff and an increasing number of experienced staff leaving the teaching profession. My union rep reports that new staff have, on average, a five-year retention rate. Experienced staff are starting to consider that the ‘grass is greener’ outside of education.

Recent Government initiatives to increase the starting pay of Early Career Teachers (ECTs) will not address the fundamental issues in education. It will not help retention either, even if it does initially attract a few more people. These new teachers, although starting on a reasonable salary, may still suffer the five-year burnout fate of those who have gone before them. At the other end of the pay scale, experienced staff are somewhat disgruntled that in real terms, with the cost of living, the money left in their bank at the end of the month has steadily decreased. This is only going to get worse in the current economic climate.

Education implosion

My Facebook group is full of wonderful teachers at the end of their tether when it comes to their own wellbeing. In a recent poll about teacher wellbeing, members overwhelmingly voted for ‘needing support’ with it. Unfortunately, so many work environment factors negatively impact people’s ability to have a good work-life balance. More worryingly, teachers are so busy that they cannot get off the hamster wheel and are struggling to look objectively at the situation.

The pace of life is not sustainable. I have been there, working until midnight, responding to emails at weekends and spending hours in my classroom over the school holidays. Prioritising becomes overwhelming when you have so much thrown at you from all angles. These issues are prevalent in friendly schools – this doesn’t even factor in schools where there is a culture of bullying and one-upmanship. I’ve heard shocking accounts of gaslighting, staff being pressured to work when off sick, line managers bullying employees and a blame culture.

I don’t know any teachers who would currently recommend teaching as a career path, despite most loving the actual ‘teaching’ aspect of the role. We are losing excellent teachers as the teaching element has had the joy beaten out of it by endless targets.

Dr Kristin Neff, a pioneer who has conducted extensive research into the evidence base states: “Self-compassion is one of the most powerful sources of coping and resilience we have available to us, radically improving our mental and physical wellbeing. It motivates us to make changes and reach our goals not because we’re inadequate, but because we care and want to be happy.” 2

Positive young minds

In my post-teaching life, it has become my mission to support other educators in their ‘next step’ decision making. This includes building their confidence when it has been shattered by the system. I’m helping them see that they have excellent transferable skills and companies outside of education would really value their amazing work ethic, skills and resilience. This came about after starting my blog in June 2020, Positive Young Minds, which has gone from strength to strength, giving me the confidence to branch out further. I’m proud to support staff and young people as they navigate the education system by championing their wellbeing.

If you know of anyone who is struggling, please direct them to my Facebook group where there is support for colleagues to improve their own sense of self-worth, wellbeing and work-life balance. There is also support for anyone considering moving on to other educational or non-educational roles or those who find themselves in a tricky work-related situation. There are free monthly meets with information on areas such as boundary setting and career ideas – and a range of tools and coaching videos to support individual journeys.

My guide to a mentally healthy school working environment

How does your school compare to these attributes?

  • Individuals have autonomy in how they complete tasks. Where autonomy is a challenge, the reasons for uniformity are clear.
  • Staff are actively involved in decision making. They feel that their views are listened to and taken into account.
  • Line managers are trained to manage delegation and decision making, with staff wellbeing at the centre.
  • Good leadership and relationships are promoted by good role modelling.
  • Staff all buy into the aims, values and ethos of the school.
  • Greater flexibility in working – allowances for staff, such as ability to apply for leave and flexible working time.
  • Empathy and understanding for staff when issues arise, such as sickness and family emergencies.
  • Appreciation of communication and effort is communicated.
  • The school sets healthy boundaries for working hours and communication outside of school.
  • Staff are actively encouraged to discuss workload issues.
  • Staff are trained to look out for stress and low wellbeing in themselves and each other.
  • There is a culture of care and mutual respect.
  • Senior leaders are supported to ensure a healthy work-life balance and positive mental health.
  • A wellbeing policy is in place to share and promote good practice.

If your school falls short of these areas, is there anything you can do?

  • Petition your SLT to let you start a wellbeing committee that isn’t about cake and yoga and addresses some of these fundamental areas. Ensure you have regular slots at SLT meetings to discuss concerns.
  • Ask if you can all do a mental health first aid course as part of your whole-school professional development.
  • Hold a staff meeting to set a wellbeing policy that supports all staff.
  • Set healthy communication boundaries as a school.
  • Ensure union guidelines are followed for directed time, lunch duty, etc.
  • Reflect on how far you are willing to go in your individual circumstances in order to improve things.
  • Consider what you wish to do if nothing improves.

Personal work boundaries

We all need to set our own wellbeing boundaries. This can be a challenge to do in a busy work environment, but as a profession, we need to challenge the current conditions. These boundaries safeguard our time, our energy and our overall self. Healthier boundaries are clearly linked to a positive work-life balance. Some are functional and clear, such as needing to leave to collect children. Others are more intangible and flexible, such as not usually taking books home but changing your mind when you get ‘the call.’* Without these boundaries, there is no recharge time, leading to more stress and potential illness. Here is my guide (right) to setting your own boundaries.

*‘The call’ is a term used by UK educators to refer to the phone call telling them that they will have an Ofsted Inspection the following day.

7 interconnected circles with advice for maintaining workplace boundaries. They read (right to left, top to bottom) 1. "Understand your worth - even if no one else at work does. We need to be aware of and appreciate what we can offer." 2. "Think things through before saying 'yes'. Pause, reflect, decide." 3. "Identify communication boundaries. For example, I won't read school emails after 5:30PM and before 7:30AM." 4. "Don't apologise for setting those boundaries. Starting a conversation with, 'I'm sorry but...' leaves you on the defensive when you need to be assertive." 5. "It's okay to change your mind. It's okay to ask for a deadline extension. It's okay to state you cannot fit all the work in." 6. "Identify non-negotiables. Write them down, make them pretty, print them out. Stick them on the wall of your classroom." 7. "Recognise signs of stress in yourself. Write them down and refer back to check you are okay."

Author

  • Lynn How

    Lynn is a SEND and wellbeing consultant, author and is the editor of @TeacherToolkit. She has 20 years of teaching experience during which time she has been an assistant head, lead mentor for ITT and SENCO. She loves to write and has her own blog. She also hosts a Facebook group which supports teacher wellbeing.
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