the image often linked with that of a teacher; frazzled, harassed, clutching their umpteenth cup of coffee and making a mad dash to their next class, eventually settling down later at home to spend their evening beavering away at marking books, planning the next day's lessons, and all whilst drowning in a sea of that notorious 'paperwork'.
And sadly, there are many teachers out there who fit that description, and, as a result, they run the risk of struggling to provide meaningful educational outcomes for the children they teach. I've known teachers like it and there have been times when I've experienced it myself.
No, an empowered teacher is one who manages their workload carefully and has both work and life evenly balanced, and who consequently is an effective classroom practitioner. But very few teachers set out to have a heavy workload, a poor work/life balance and low levels of wellbeing. It is true that every teacher attempting to maintain good levels of wellbeing ideally needs the support of their leaders. And with schools increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of their pupils it is important that those who have the most contact with them - teachers - have good physical and mental wellbeing.
Maintaining one's wellbeing is an ongoing task which is often seen almost to be a selfish act. However, in considering our own wellbeing we must be aware of how our actions impact on the wellbeing of others. We all have a responsibility to those we live and work with to ensure that the things we do and say have a positive effect on them; improving levels of wellbeing is a collaborative act which should benefit all.
Every teacher can lead for the wellbeing of their pupils and their colleagues. We should stop waiting for someone to provide opportunities for us to improve our wellbeing and begin to create opportunities for ourselves and those within our sphere of influence. Regardless of position or status, we all have the opportunity and responsibility to lead for wellbeing. Having said this, there are very clear and important messages for those with formally-recognised positions of authority.
With these things in mind, let's look at:
- The responsibilities and challenges for school leaders (i.e. those with recognised positions of leadership)
- The responsibilities and challenges for teachers
- The influence on (and of) students
This structure is intended to demonstrate that high levels of well-being should ideally be cascaded down from the leadership, to the teachers and then to the students.
The responsibilities and challenges for school leaders
A leader who does not prioritise their own wellbeing is easily identifiable; they probably run a tight ship, but to the possible detriment of the health of them selves and their staff and pupils. A leader who does prioritise their own wellbeing will also be identifiable by the happiness and willingness of their staff and pupils - they too will run a tight ship. It's just how the ship shape-ness is achieved that's different - that and the longevity of the ship shape-ness.
In order to for their staff to reflect well on them, a leader's staff must reflect their leader. Thus, leaders must model good habits - they must be seen to be taking care of themselves and making decisions which don't impact negatively on their own health. Of course leaders might be expected to put in more hours than those they are leading - they are paid accordingly - but this should still not be to the detriment of their health and wellbeing. When teaching staff see that their leaders prioritise wellbeing, they will feel able to do the same; by leading by example the leaders will have created a culture which values high levels of wellbeing.
Leaders who lead successfully on wellbeing will also have careful expectations of what is achievable and they will ensure that workload is manageable for each individual in their circumstance. They will pass every new initiative through a filter, ensuring that what is expected of teachers does not cause undue stress or demand extra work. It is also the responsibility of a leader to point out where and how expected tasks could be carried out more effectively and more time-efficiently; often it is the time a job takes that impacts most on wellbeing. If time spent working can legitimately be reduced then a more well-rested staff will be better prepared to work with children.
Successful wellbeing leadership depends on leaders listening to their staff. Each teacher knows their limits and should feel that they work in an environment where they can voice their concerns. For the sake of the children as well as the staff member, leaders should always be in tune to the thoughts and feelings of their employees, gaining ongoing dynamic feedback on the impact of their expectations on health and well-being.
Many leaders are attempting to respond to the increasing awareness of the presence of mental health issues in both teachers and pupils. This is a positive move but leaders should not enforce any particular health and well-being activities; what might improve someone's wellbeing might have a negative impact on another's. If someone takes part in such an activity but thinks to themselves 'it'd have been better for my well-being to have gone home and done my own thing' then they're probably right. Leaders can't assume to know what will positively impact a person's wellbeing. If they do want to give CPD time over to wellbeing it should be aimed at improving skills such as management of time and workload.
The responsibilities and challenges for teachers
In an ideal situation a school's leaders will be doing all of the above to ensure that a their members of staff have a good level of health and well-being. But the buck does not stop with leaders; teachers have a responsibility for their own wellbeing and must do all they can to ensure they are well, for the good of themselves, their relationships and the children they teach. Teachers must lead on their own wellbeing, even if, and especially when, their leaders are not.
Workload, and therefore amount of time spent working, impacts on wellbeing more than any other aspect of a teacher's job. It must be a priority for teachers to find ways of working efficiently and creating healthy working habits. Teachers should learn to prioritise, deciding what really needs to be done and what can wait. They should also concentrate on doing one or two things well on any given day – the ones that obviously need doing soonest. Many teachers would benefit from being more organised and making time by planning ahead. Another small but effective practice is maximisation: making the most of the small chunks of time to complete short tasks. An essential time-saving habit is collaboration with other teachers; when teachers nurture good working relationships with colleagues help is at hand; lesson ideas, pre-made resources and even a sympathetic ear.
When teachers are considering how to improve their well-being they must be aware that solutions are not one-size-fits-all. What works for one may not work for another; teachers should take into consideration their own unique circumstances when attempting to make changes to their working patterns.
Teaching requires a lot of hard work; most teachers are aware of what they signed up for. Teaching is also a job for whichever there aren't enough hours in the day; teachers could fill all their time with work-related jobs but common sense and research show that this is not productive. Productivity relies on rest yet so many teachers neglect sleep and time spent occupied by non-work-related activities such as hobbies and time with family and friends. Although term time can be action-packed, teachers should consider making the most of the holidays and the other natural breaks that present themselves every now and then.
Those who don't have senior leaders supportive of the wellbeing of their staff must seek to improve their wellbeing in any way they can. In addition to the ideas already outlined it is crucial that they challenge decisions made by leaders which negatively impact wellbeing. In situations such as this teachers should work together to approach their leaders, possibly with union backing (but maybe not in the first instance), in order to seek change. It helps on these occasions to be prepared with evidence and ideas for workable alternatives.
Wellbeing should be as much a priority for teachers as lesson planning, assessment and resource preparation.
The influence on (and of) students
Although this section focuses on students, the emphasis remains on the role and responsibilities of the members of a school's staff who spend their time with the children. If a school's leaders are doing their job well, and teachers are also prioritising their own wellbeing, then half of the battle of influencing student wellbeing is already won. What teachers often attempt to pass on through motivational posters and one-off assemblies will only really be passed on by the atmosphere that is naturally created by teachers who are themselves well. There is much truth in the idea that healthy (and indeed unhealthy) habits and mentalities are caught and not taught. Many schools who purport to have a strong emphasis on student well-being forget the influencing factor of staff well-being on students.
As well as setting a good example to students teachers should also listen to and observe students in order to identify traits of good or poor wellbeing. Physical signs such as tiredness and weight loss should be monitored closely. Changes in behaviour are also possible indicators to poor wellbeing, both mental and physical: emotional outbursts or becoming unusually quiet and withdrawn could point towards well-being issues that need addressing.
If we want to listen to what students are saying about the state of their own wellbeing then teachers must teach children to be wellbeing literate - we must exhibit and encourage the use of language and vocabulary which enable students to self-reflect and verbalise their thoughts and feelings. Again, this is something better caught than taught; the use of story is particularly useful here as many age-appropriate novels and picturebooks skilfully explore well-being issues which teachers could use to promote discussion.
It is worth noting that when student well-being is good there will be a positive impact on the wellbeing of staff: Not only do we influence the wellbeing of pupils, they impact on the wellbeing of their teachers; if students are happy then teachers are more likely to be happy too. In the experience of many teachers poor student behaviour has caused more stress than excessive workload. If we prioritise staff wellbeing as well as student well-being a virtuous circle will be created.
In order for teachers to ensure that their students are not only well, but that they are learning successfully, teachers and leaders must see that there are actions to take that are within their powers. It is important to realise that where wellbeing is concerned teachers shouldn't rely on possible future policy change or successful union action to bring about improvements in their wellbeing but that improvements can be made despite the demands of the current educational environment. Teachers must understand that their remit to care for the wellbeing of students means that they have a responsibility to care for their own wellbeing. Leaders must view their responsibility to teachers and students in the same way if they want to run a successful school where student outcomes are optimised.
Further reading on teacher welbeing at the Schoolwell site: schoolwell.co.uk/staff-wellbeing-research/
Further reading on teacher welbeing at the Schoolwell site: schoolwell.co.uk/staff-wellbeing-research/