How to help busy teachers improve their wellbeing

In our new monthly Wellbeing Workshop, Tes columnist Jo Steer addresses some of the most common wellbeing concerns faced by school leaders
18th January 2020, 7:02am
Jo Steer


How to help busy teachers improve their wellbeing
Exhausted Teacher

Dear Jo,

I really appreciate my staff and I want to support their mental health, but I can't free up any extra release time or money for fancy wellbeing initiatives. What can I do?

First, know that you are not alone. In today's climate, many school leaders struggle with managing increasing pressure, expectation and workload, despite having less time, money and resources to do so. 

On top of this, you strive to motivate, inspire and support your staff - a number of whom might be somewhere between struggling, burnt out or ready to sign off.

You may even fit into one or more of these categories yourself.

In truth, there's no easy answer to the question of staff wellbeing (not in the current climate, at least).

So perhaps we'd benefit from looking at the question instead and asking what it is that your staff really need.  

What can you do to ease the burden?

Of all the teachers I've ever heard complain, not one has ever cited insufficient school yoga sessions among their concerns. 

What are your staff actually struggling with the most? What would make things easier for them? These are the questions that need asking first.

Of course, most staff don't feel comfortable sharing complaints and concerns with senior leaders.

But they may well fill in an anonymous wellbeing survey (genuinely anonymous - not the kind where the staff fear retribution once the headteacher has finished their handwriting analysis course).

A number of schools have begun using these surveys; some opting for an analysis of school strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; others opting for a more personalised approach that tracks staff motivation against current school initiatives.

What matters most is that you find out what the biggest causes of stress are in your school - which things are having a really detrimental impact on morale - and that you use this information to implement change.

If your staff are in need of extra release time, this implies that they're struggling to get their work done within a reasonable amount of time. Again, how much do you know about your staff and what they do?

Do you know how long certain jobs are taking them? Once you're out of the classroom, it's easy to forget just how long marking a set of books can take, especially after a long day of teaching, and with the new marking guidelines demanding that spelling, punctuation and grammar be highlighted five times a page. 

Keep a task diary

Ask someone trustworthy to write down a diary of their work for the week, detailing the tasks they're doing and how long it's taking them.

From here onwards, you might consider whether what you're asking of people is reasonable/smart/an efficient use of their time.

Where it isn't, negate the need for that extra time out of class by taking things away or simplifying what's already there. Maybe that new marking policy is just a little too ambitious for where the staff and school are right now.

Maybe marking key pieces of work is enough for now. Maybe using symbols for "moving on" comments will allow staff to cut marking time in half.

Get creative in your approach. Look to tasks that allow for less staff effort but more student impact, not the other way around. Carefully consider any new initiative before introducing this to staff, asking whether the impact on workload and wellbeing truly warrants the impact it will have on the students.

These might not be comfortable conversations to have - I did say this wouldn't be easy - but it's incredibly worthwhile.

If you're willing to look honestly at staff workload and implement changes that help them to reduce the amount of time and energy they're putting into their job, their appreciation (and lesson quality) will likely last far beyond an extra PPA session.

Finally, if you truly want to support wellbeing, think about the basics of what it's like to work at your school; the things that don't cost anything to improve.

Take a step back

If you haven't already gathered this from the wellbeing surveys, try pausing for a moment and putting yourselves into the shoes of one of your employees.

What's it like to work here? In what ways are staff shown that they're valued, respected and supported? In terms of communication, are they always in the loop or the last to know?

Do they know what to expect when they turn up to work, or have they come to expect a constant onslaught of last-minute changes and ensuing chaos?

These are the things that staff care about; the things that determine whether someone will give it their all, survive, or start preparing their resignation letter.

If you don't like the answers to these sorts of questions, that's great news, because improving communication and organisation shouldn't be that difficult or that expensive. And it will make a real difference to employee wellbeing.

When the results do come in, don't forget to reference back to that survey so that staff know it wasn't just a tick-box activity; then they will know you listened and that you care.

Jo Steer is an experienced teacher and Tes columnist

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