How to improve retention with simple wellbeing tweaks

Staff retention is a challenge for the majority of schools, but according to one expert there are some simple tweaks that can help

Tes Editorial

Improve retention with wellbeing

A guest blog from Tes News wellbeing columnist Jo Steer

In June last year, figures published by the Department for Education showed a continuing decline in teacher retention from the previous year, in spite of government strategies aimed at solving this problem. 

Now, in 2020, we have a global pandemic on our hands, the effects of which – in terms of mental health and staff retention – remain to be seen.

What is clear is that there's still much to be done to keep teachers in teaching.

And while it’s by no means an easy job to ‘dress up’ these days, school leaders have perhaps a better chance than politicians, especially if they make some small but impactful adjustments.

So here are some simple changes that could help keep your staff happy, and in their jobs.

Ditch the high-effort, low-impact tasks

Workload is often cited as the primary reason for why teachers quit the profession, but it’s not just about the long hours, it’s about the type of work that staff are expected to do.

If staff don’t believe in what they’re being asked to do  if they feel that their time is wasted on work that isn’t useful, necessary or beneficial, then bitterness and cynicism set in.

The answer? Get clued up about how much time your staff spend on different tasks and ditch or streamline the stuff that pulls down morale, without really making a difference to student outcomes.

A good place to begin is with something like marking, because it’s often one of the biggest drains on time and energy. Investigate, preferably as a team, how you might reduce the time required by staff without compromising the quality and effectiveness of the feedback.

A growing number of schools endorse a policy of ‘live marking’ as a workload reducer and wellbeing booster.

Meanwhile, a primary colleague of mine sings the praises of a marking system which relies on a simple symbol being written into student’s books. Each symbol relates to one of four "moving on" comments, photocopied from a single sheet and distributed to all each morning. Not only does this save hours of writing individualised comments each day but children actually seem to get more out of it. 

Listen to staff, continuously

Taking the time to speak to staff – on a personal as well as professional level – makes a big difference to how motivated they are at work. In terms of retention though, listening is even better.

Whether through termly drop-ins or anonymous questionnaires, scheduling time to gain honest feedback as to what’s working and what isn’t, is just priceless.

It gives staff a means of voicing concerns and it allows them to feel both heard and respected – things which seep into school culture if this happens frequently enough. Plus, it’s a chance to remedy problems (where that’s possible) rather than reading them in an exit interview. 

Develop non-negotiables surrounding wellbeing

If you’ve dipped your toe into honest feedback, you might have an idea of the things that really upset staff, day to day. Things like: three-hour staff meetings, PPA being ‘borrowed’, last-minute drop-ins, Sunday-night emails requiring a response, and so on.

Some of these things are more easily fixed than others and of course, one-off problems will always crop up. If they’re the norm, however, staff will often have one foot out of the door.

Thus, it pays to take a pro-active approach  to decide on a list of rules surrounding wellbeing, aimed at ensuring that the bigger problems happen rarely to never.

For example, make sure the staff meeting ends at 4.30pm, with any other business detailed in email. Or make it clear that there’s no expectation to respond to emails sent past 6pm or over the weekend.

What you decide to do depends on your staff and their particular wants and needs, so if you can make this a collaborative process, it’s going to have more impact and meaning.

Jo Steer is a wellbeing consultant working with schools. She is also a former teacher and Tes News columnist.

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