Just one week into the new school year and a new survey, this time published by Ofsted, reiterates the long-standing message that teachers are “highly stressed and anxious”. Whilst it’s good news that “three-quarters of those surveyed are satisfied by their jobs”, it’s going to take some time for the researchers to get around to recommendations and action at leadership level to bring about long overdue changes.
So, in the meantime, we all need coping mechanisms in place for surviving the longest and arguably most gruelling term in the school year. I’m very much in favour of Natasha Devon’s maxim that we should look after our mental health. So with that in mind, here are my top 10 strategies for improving wellbeing:
Too often teachers allow the voices of the many “stakeholders” in education to erode their sense of self-worth. There has never been a time when the profession has not faced criticism. Good holistic initial training helps teachers to build a professional identity that encompasses both principles and skills; it’s very much needed when your early optimism and idealism are fading fast in the real world of the classroom.
2. Keep your personal narrative optimistic
Along with a strong professional identity goes an upbeat personal narrative. It’s not always possible to find a stunning success in every day, and no one ever achieves everything on their to-do list. Congratulate yourself for the things you achieve and celebrate the things you have done well. The world is full of hard knocks; we don’t need to give ourselves a bad time, too.
3. Problem-solve your way out of difficulties
Australian studies of teacher wellbeing make a strong case for employing a cognitive approach over an emotional one. Breaking down the problem into manageable pieces is one way of combating the draining feelings of powerlessness that engulf us all when the workload seems too big or the criticism too hard to handle.
4. Focus on the future
It would help us all if performance management involved less retrospection and more emphasis on what can be done in the future, especially if it could entail the right dose of support. Avoid beating yourself up about past mistakes and perceived imperfections.
The biggest problem is that work seeps into our evenings and weekends. When my children were young, I worked later in the evenings so that I could have the weekends free for family time. Workload has increased since then, so a new strategy is needed. This year I’m determined to make arrangements involving family and friends during weekends. Then, and only then, will I try to fit in any work that is urgent.
6. Use the commute wisely
I came across a gem of an article in which “daily commuters should claim the journey as part of their working day”. Teachers don’t have such clearly defined hours: but now that trains have power points for commuters to plug-in their laptops, some ICT chores can enliven the journey! If you drive to work, you could use the time to listen to the huge range of teaching podcasts. For putting the world into perspective, I have my 10-minute walk across the common on the way to and from school.
7. Share problems
Too often there is a fear of showing weakness, and people battle on alone. Some of the most comforting conversations are the ones where we can let down our guard and confide our problems in others. Sometimes just getting the issue out in the open is enough. For some reason, it’s very reassuring to know that even the most unflappable of colleagues are furiously treading water beneath the surface at some point in their careers: it takes a great teacher and manager to admit this. And never underestimate the value of a good moan. We all need to let off steam occasionally in the privacy of the staffroom.
8. Consult experienced colleagues
I have been so lucky in my career to know wiser, calmer people who can step back and take stock of things. A few hours in their company chewing the cud, so to speak, can put the world to rights – even if only for a short time. Just being listened to does help, and any assistance with solutions is more than welcome.
9. Have other interests
Teaching can be all-consuming – we need time off physically and mentally. Sports are obvious outlets, and opportunities to maintain fitness are great. Yoga is wonderful for those able to undertake transcendental meditation. Book clubs and writers’ groups provide excellent escapism and places to talk about something that isn’t teaching. For me, the greatest distraction has been watching my son compete in speedway. Maternal anxiety – as he hurtles into each bend – trumps worries about MidYis and Alis targets any day of the week.
10. Keep up social networks
Friends remind us that we are human, and groups keep us connected. We have selves that are more than the teacher persona of the school day. Keeping up contact via any means available is a good foundation for the networks that we tap into when the holidays start, or even when retirement begins. Ultimately, we all need a self to come home to.
Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the South of England