'Investment in helping teachers to look after their own mental health will only benefit our pupils'

If teachers are to be fully effective in promoting the wellbeing of their students, they need to prioritise their own mental health first, writes one headteacher

Chris Jeffery

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Although I’ve sat through – or rather, ignored – many aircraft safety briefings over the years, it wasn’t until relatively recently that the relevance of one of the standard phrases became clear. A wise man pointed out to me that the phrase "fit your own mask first, before helping children to fit theirs" contained a not-too-hidden metaphor about how important it is that parents, and those who work with children and young people professionally, prioritise their own wellbeing if they are to be fully effective in promoting the wellbeing of those they care for. Or to employ a helpful cliché: "You can’t pour from an empty cup."

As headmaster of two successful UK independent schools for the past 13 years, I have seen a progressive growth in the need for that principle to be both understood and employed, and relatively little evidence that it is happening at all widely. In recent years I’ve heard, with increasing concern, many brilliant, positive and dedicated colleagues say something like "I’ve never known a term like that one" or "I’m not sure that I can cope with much more of this". To my great shame, I’d often put that down merely to tiredness or evidence of diminishing societal levels of personal resilience. When I started to analyse it (most helpfully by comparing the lot of a teacher today with the life when I entered the profession 30 years ago), I began to realise just why they might feel that way.

When I started in 1988, the expectations of teachers were much simpler. I wasn’t expected to be expert in depth about the range of special educational needs and how to address them; to understand complex neuroscience and learning styles; to know and be able to recognise and react to the signs of abuse or radicalisation of my pupils; to be brilliant at using IT in my lessons; to be an expert in using data to inform progress; to write risk assessments and know health and safety legislation inside out. All great things, of course, that help young people immeasurably and have made education better… but all of which are expected in addition to what teachers were doing back in the day, with no extra time and little extra support.

On top of this, accountability – through onerous inspection regimes, newspaper and government exam performance tables, and growing parental expectations – looms large. The government can’t stop meddling, and the profession has suffered a loss of societal esteem.

Mental health support

However, the thing that appears to have tipped the balance for many teachers is the emotional strain and time consumed as they find themselves on the front line in helping young people to manage increasing levels of mental "disease" and illness. All this within a national health support system insufficiently resourced to do more than scratch the surface of the issue.

A survey run by the HMC Wellbeing Working Group in 2015 showed, for example, an 85 per cent growth in schools citing pupil depression as a serious concern over the previous five years. Not that it’s just a private school problem: far from it. Evidence clearly shows that all schools in all settings have experienced the same. And this whole conglomeration of factors can affect teachers badly: a survey of Scottish state school teachers in 2016 showed that almost half rated their mental health either "poor" or "very poor". Indeed, Tes reported on the alarming number of teachers on long-term stress leave as recently as January 11.

That’s why I have been searching for some time for a tool that would effectively help staff as well as students to understand, measure and progress the quality of their wellbeing, and in doing so make them more physically and mentally healthy as they face the pressures, unpredictabilities and occasional injustices of life. And it’s not just about training teachers in Mental Health First Aid (called for by the Scottish Association for Mental Health, for example, last week); it’s about schools actively helping teachers to look after their own mental health as an investment in the care of their pupils.

The Flourishing at School model, developed by Jason van Schie, of People Diagnostix in Western Australia, promises to do that. His tool measures wellbeing against the PERMA model of personal flourishing, provides a detailed report, makes suggestions for incremental improvement and – for staff at least – a whole bank or resources to support goals set in response. Student data is available to the school on an individual by individual basis as well as a cohort basis, and on the staff only in aggregated form, to preserve anonymity. While it cannot, of course, address pressures of workload or stress outside school, it can promote the development of skills, mindsets and knowledge that make individuals better prepared to face and respond positively to the challenges that come from such things.

As a long-time fan of the work of the school of psychologists around Dr Martin Seligman (and very recently, having at last proudly developed the ability to pronounce Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), I was pleased to come across such a professionally presented tool that incorporated the wisdom and scientific validity of PERMA with an understanding of the importance of physical health to mental wellbeing. Furthermore, as head of one of Britain’s eight Quaker schools, it was good to join the dots to reveal how that model chimes so clearly with the central tenets of a Quaker education.

So we’re trialling Flourishing at School. And we’re starting with our staff, partly to evaluate its potential use for our students, partly to help to develop a better lexicon around wellbeing, but largely to see whether it can enable our staff to better to flourish, and can fill their cups to help them keep pouring good things into the lives of the young people they care for so much. Let’s see what happens.

This article was first published as a blog on the Flourishing at School website, and is reproduced in amended form with permission. Flourishing at School will be exhibiting at the Bett ed-tech show at ExCeL London from 24-27 January 

Chris Jeffery is the headteacher at Bootham School in York

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