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Take care of teachers and their wellbeing will look after itself

Improving wellbeing is about respecting teachers’ time and their autonomy, not forced fun or ‘mindfulness classes’ intended to tick the box for Ofsted

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Wellbeing, as its name implies, is all about keeping people feeling well and content in their lives. It’s not about waiting until someone’s struggling and about to drop before sliding a cushion underneath them to catch their fall.

It’s not about initiatives that only add to workload. It should be about taking stuff away, especially the mind-numbing, soul-destroying, morale-sapping stuff, such as data inputting and triple marking.

It’s not a sticking plaster. If someone is groaning under a stack of work, the offer of a mindfulness class at the end of the day will – and should – get a rude response.

It’s not just a fluffy feel-good factor; it should be a practical response to a serious issue within teaching (as well as many other professions, too). We need new teachers. But more importantly, we need to keep and look after the teachers we already have.

A quarter of the teachers who have qualified since 2011 have already quit; four out of five teachers have considered quitting within the past year alone. That’s a problem. Not just for schools, who are finding it increasingly harder to fill vacant positions, but for all those teachers left behind who are having to do more with less.

The profession has to become one in which people can not only survive but thrive, one in which they feel valued and supported.

Senior leaders are trying to tackle the problem, and they’re going about it in a number of different ways. Some enforce an email ban, telling teachers that they shouldn’t check their messages after a certain time. Others have cut out some of the workload, easing the pressure on marking or data collection, for instance.

But there are also tales of forced fun such as a Friday night bake-off, where staff were made to stay after school to bake, or a compulsory staff jogging group, when all people wanted to do was spend time with their partners and children (bit.ly/TesWellbeing).

For most people, extra time with their families is what they want the most. The problem is, of course, that all this wonderful family time won’t tick the wellbeing box for Ofsted. Schools have to be able to demonstrate that they are doing something for their staff.

A few pay for measures such as yoga and mindfulness classes. These are all well and good but they can’t be token gestures. A yoga class won’t help overstretched, overworked teachers: it’s pointless doing the downward dog while your mental health is in a downward spiral because you’re worrying about the stack of books you have to mark.

Initiatives have to be thoughtful as well as thought through. They have to be part of a long-term plan, not a short-term solution. Respect and care for teachers’ wellbeing has to be woven into the fabric of the school.

And that means allowing teachers to enjoy their breaks, not doing revision classes or catching up on all the work they couldn’t do during term time.

Every little helps, so we asked teachers to give us their one top wellbeing tip – search for the hashtag #SmileUntilChristmas on Twitter.

We received hundreds of responses, ranging from the simple but effective (remove work emails from your phone), through the sensible (if you’re sick, stay off until you’re better; try to do one thing a day that’s for you, not for your career) to the big picture ideas, (such as the headteacher who gives all his staff five wellbeing days a year to be used for whatever they want).

At its heart, wellbeing is about empowering teachers to take care of themselves, to feel they have agency and control over their lives.

It’s not only about life at work, it’s about life at home, too. It’s not about initiatives, it’s about people. It’s about wellbeing, but, most importantly, it’s about a well being.

Ann Mroz is the editor of Tes. She tweets @AnnMroz