Why happy staff make for happy kids and better results

When it comes to pupil wellbeing, the first thing leaders need to do is look after their teachers

Grainne Hallahan

A Team Of Happy Teachers

On aeroplanes, in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, adults are advised to place the oxygen mask on themselves first before helping children. It’s advice that the mental health services have adopted to explain why the initial step towards helping someone with mental health concerns is to ensure that your own needs have been taken care of first.

The mental health of children in schools has been a concern for some time. Referrals to the Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Services or Healthy Young Minds (previously known as CAMHS) have increased by a third in three years.

However, if the teachers in charge of these students aren’t having their own mental health needs catered for, they are unlikely to be able to provide the level of support these children need in the classroom.

When teachers suffer, so do their students

study into depression in teachers was conducted by McLean and Connor in 2015, which went on to look at the subsequent impact on students’ test results. The study found that teachers who were experiencing symptoms of depression negatively impacted the students’ mathematical scores.

Outside of education, other studies have shown a clear relationship between depression and productivity. A 2011 study discovered how employees who were experiencing symptoms of depression subsequently suffered from a loss of productivity at work and even minor levels of depression resulted in a reduced output. 

So, how many teachers are depressed? How much of a problem is teacher wellbeing?

Leading expert on child and adolescent psychiatry Professor Tamsin Ford recently conducted a trial looking at teacher classroom management, and found “shockingly high” levels of depression in teachers.

“We were measuring teacher mental health and we found really high rates of depression and stress. That is the second trial to find these results. They were not in the clinical range, but definitely higher than the population norm.

“I think we need to look after our teacher workforce much better than we do,” she explains.

Leaders need to listen

But how exactly can schools do that? Patrick Ottley-O’Connor, executive principal at North Liverpool Academy, Northern Schools Trust, believes the solution is relatively simple: listen to your staff. 

“You have to listen to your staff,” he advises, “and then work with them to find solutions to their problems. I survey my staff three times in an academic year, and I ask them: ‘What is the best thing about this school?’ but also ‘What do you want me to change?’

“The things that come up through these surveys can really surprise you. At one of my schools we surveyed the staff and found that this beautiful big open space that was being used to teach languages was a huge cause of teacher stress and unhappiness.

“So, we put walls up. It was that simple. In the next survey, the feedback I got was that this was the best improvement to staff wellbeing.”

Does wellbeing come at a cost?

There is an assumption that improving wellbeing means reducing workload or finding more room in already stretched budgets. But Ottley-O’Connor believes that, by taking on feedback, you can find a balance between genuine staff concerns and maintaining quality of education.

“We need teachers who have a good work-life balance and good levels of wellbeing for learning to take place in the first place. But we look at what we need to achieve, and still have children and their learning at the forefront of our mind.

“If teachers all feed back that the current marking policy is too onerous then, yes, we’re going to look at it, but it requires a dialogue to happen.”

Essentially, there will be times when you need to compromise, times you need to scrap something and occasions when you simply have to say something has to stay, but offer something different in return.

‘Wellbeing isn’t fruit on a Friday’

What you must avoid, says Ottley-O’Connor, is superficial token gestures. “Wellbeing doesn’t mean organising one-off events or putting fruit in the staffroom on a Friday; all of those things are nice, but they’re just ‘stuff’.”

If you really want to bring people together, Ottley-O'Connor believes you need systems in place to make it happen. “Part of what makes the school day so difficult for some teachers is how isolating it can be.

“If you’re a music teacher working on one side of the school, you can go a whole day without speaking to any other staff members. We have scheduled weekly meetings where we celebrate moments of the week that staff feel proud of or have made them happy.

“We also have a system where staff can nominate others as ‘mental health and wellbeing champions’ and share stories of when people have shown kindness to each other.

“It becomes a series of random acts of kindness, and this then becomes our normal behaviour at work.

“What we’re working towards is trickle-down happiness.”

Want to gain a greater understanding of how your staff are feeling? Staff Pulse enables you to understand and act on issues that are affecting your teacher. Find out more about Staff Pulse.

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