It’s OK to feel inadequate when facing pupils’ problems

There are situations teachers face that will horrify and distress us – it isn’t a badge of honour to deal with them alone, says Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Woman, sitting on sofa, with arms across her face

It’s mental health awareness week, and there are many resources being made available online for teachers to use for themselves and to support their pupils. 

In their education staff wellbeing charter, the Department for Education and Ofsted have made 12 commitments, placing staff wellbeing and driving down unnecessary workload as top priorities. 

Schools, colleges and trusts signing up to the charter promise to “empower staff to take ownership of their own wellbeing and look out for the wellbeing of others”.

It’s an overdue recognition of the emotional drain that teaching has on staff – never more so than in the pandemic, which is far from over. But how far do the provisions of the charter really “empower” staff to look out for their own and their pupils’ wellbeing? 

Teacher wellbeing: a feeling of inadequacy

Ensuring that all staff are “familiar with the different dimensions of wellbeing” and “know how to access appropriate guidance, support and tools” doesn’t necessarily provide the support to sustain teachers when they’re dealing with the pastoral side of the job. It’s never predictable and can throw them into emotional distress.

I remember so well my early days as a teacher and how inadequate I felt in the face of pupils’ life problems, which were so much larger than my own experience. What could I say to make things better for them? Where could I acquire the expertise? Was there a list of the right phrases? I watched more expert colleagues in pastoral posts looking so much more in control than I was. 

It wasn’t until our local authority funded a number of RSA courses in counselling in the development of learning that I realised I wasn’t alone in that fear: many teachers with far more experience felt exactly the same. The year-long course, a combination of one evening session a week, with several residential weekends, was not just the best professional education I have ever had but undoubtedly the best life development.

The residential weekends were an intense experience, combining theoretical frameworks with practical sessions. Teachers worked in triads to observe, counsel and be counselled. We developed self-awareness from the feedback on how we had applied our skills and how we come across to other people.

Most taxing were the “encounter” sessions, in which we were encouraged to raise our own problems, in a safe space, where we gave and received mutual support. 

A common outcome from such courses is that participants who have long been struggling – perhaps unconsciously – with overwhelming life events become more aware of what support might be available, not least from their colleagues. We learned how to listen. Properly listen. 

Usually we see personal development as a teacher in terms of assimilating new theories and applying them to learning in the classroom. Counselling goes very much deeper. It changes something within us, perhaps because we have opened ourselves up to our support groups and developed new relationships.

Not a badge of honour 

Significantly, the wellbeing charter recognises that teachers have limitations and should know how to refer pupils to other agencies. This is vital. We all want to help our pupils. Sometimes we believe – naively – that it’s a badge of honour to cope with anything that’s thrown at us. 

This can be a dangerous belief. There will be dark nights of the soul where we wonder whether we could have handled things better – that is only natural. There are times when teachers need more than their own sensitive listening ear and a thick skin. We shouldn’t be afraid to lean on our senior pastoral heads. They often have better knowledge of the specific family and the situation.

The truth is that there are situations that will horrify or distress us: we aren’t superhuman. There are some occasions on which we will recognise a situation that resonates too closely with tragedies we have witnessed or experienced. Old wounds may be reopened and things that seemed resolved brought painfully to the surface.

For staff struggling with their mental health, friends can offer sympathy. But there may come a point where more expert help is needed. All teachers can self-refer to the services of charities like the Education Support Partnership or a private organisation if they are experiencing unbearable life events, are struggling with the organisation culture or workload – or a combination of all of these.

The wellbeing charter pledges that “for individuals whose role is known to have a significant emotional component, we will give extra support, such as supervision and counselling”.

This is emphatically not the kind of supervision that teachers suffer through endless monitoring. Properly supportive supervision is a vital service, defined by the Association of Coaching Supervisors as “on a 1-2-1 or group basis…the formal opportunity for coaches working with clients to share, in confidence, their caseload activity to gain insight, support and direction for themselves, thereby enabling them to better work in the service of their clients”.

Counsellors and coaches have access to such a service. It is well-known that counsellors need counsellors, so it is right that teachers should have such access, too. Their need is perhaps even more urgent because they aren’t as qualified; nor do they routinely work in the controlled appointment space that trained coaches do.

In this week of mental health awareness, we should welcome the acknowledgement that staff wellbeing matters. At the very least, all schools should sign up to the wellbeing charter. 

But if we are serious about tackling the mental health problems of staff and pupils, we should go beyond those provisions. Since 2017, there has been a proposal for funded training for school mental health; even if this actually happens, there is still a long way to go to embed mental health support in the culture. 

I would advocate that all teachers in training should undergo in-depth coaching or counselling continuing professional development to give them the experience and confidence not just to support their pupils but also to strengthen their inner selves. Self-knowledge and self-awareness, combined with acute listening skills, are an enormous boost in any aspect of teaching, especially when you are young, inexperienced and uncertain.

Then schools could build a self-sustaining coaching and counselling culture. Staff who had been trained could take further qualifications to develop the skillset required for supervision and thus extend more expert help to their colleagues. 

Yvonne Williams has spent nearly 34 years in the classroom and 22 years as a head of English. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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