Who helps the helpers? Why teacher wellbeing is vital

The reopening of schools is an opportunity for leaders to focus on supporting teacher wellbeing, writes Julia Manning

Julia Manning

Coronavirus: Why teacher wellbeing must be a priority when schools reopen

From the start of the pandemic, the health and wellbeing of healthcare staff was a priority as they bore the brunt of the coronavirus trauma – from the focus on supplying personal protective equipment to the weekly clap for carers.

Now, as society seeks to return to some form of normality, it is teachers who are bearing the brunt.

We may not be clapping for them weekly but, as we seek to reinstate on-site schooling, it is essential that we must focus on their wellbeing as we ask them to care, in different ways, for the traumatised – both children and each other.

Coronavirus: The risk to teacher wellbeing

Teachers demonstrate some of the highest prevalence of burnout among professional groups. Occupational stress was already a given in the education sector.

Then the pandemic arrived and forced significant and demanding adjustments on staff as they reorientated to working from home.

This included achieving technological prowess, accomplishing teaching online, navigating hasty changes to rostering, managing their domestic caring responsibilities and sometimes their own infection, and dealing with rising reports of mental illness and domestic violence amongst their pupils.

The announcement on schools opening was immediately engulfed in frantic discourse centred around material practicalities, second wave infections and bubbles.

Some misgivings were expressed about the psychological implications of enforcing social distancing on children, banning toys and preventing traditional play and interaction.

All understandable, but where are the voices of reason around equipping teachers psychologically first?

Mental health matters – a lot

We know there is a correlation between staff wellbeing and academic achievement, that educators are deeply impacted by the trauma experiences of their students and that traumatic experiences have a contagious nature to them.

Yet, despite academic and policy acknowledgment of the importance of teacher wellbeing support, dating back over decades, widespread conversion to frontline provision has only just received ministerial approval.

The pandemic offers a chance to normalise and embed wellbeing support, as well as to encourage teachers to talk openly about the experience of workplace stress, something that many say can still rarely be admitted in school without fear of stigma.

This is particularly important now as teachers who support children who have experienced trauma are themselves at risk of secondary traumatic stress (STS), a concept like compassion fatigue.

STS is where a trauma is experienced indirectly by hearing about or knowing about the traumatic event.

“Every professional educator and school employee who interacts with and tries to help traumatised young people is vulnerable,” according to a 2019 essay in the Harvard Educational Review by Dr Hal Lawson. The same paper asks: “Who helps the helpers?”

In our current situation, STS is a compounding threat to school staff who have already, to varying degrees, experienced the primary shock and ordeal of the pandemic.

Thus, already emotionally depleted, and with no established systemic psychological or wellbeing support, teachers are expected to go back into segregated classrooms and teach traumatised children – exposing staff to secondary stressors.

Lead from the front

Education leaders have an opportunity.

School opening is currently a request, and limited. School leadership can rescue an unparalleled opportunity from the wreckage of coronavirus in the weeks ahead to spend time with their greatest asset: staff.

Exploring teachers’ experiences, listening to their needs and considering the school culture and climate means that whole-school wellbeing – one where the entire school community thrives – could start to become strategic, coordinated and embedded.

It requires a holistic approach to the school organisational, cultural and physical contexts and consideration of what interventions could span physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs.

In my research, I have listened to senior teachers’ workplace descriptions that vary from little access to staff toilets, to unprotected learning time, to departmental segregation and isolation, to an encouraging school climate, to a helpless blame mindset, to acknowledgment that stress is an organisational responsibility.

The excellent Education Support Partnership (ESP) has already produced some videos for teachers and school leaders to help them understand some situations and symptoms that coronavirus has triggered. These are a great starting point.

Where you can find help

I wish I could point you to an existing comprehensive whole-school wellbeing model, but it is still emerging.

There are some resources that can help. 2020health started exploring a comprehensive Head of Wellbeing concept theme back in 2014 but other great resources include Mentally Health Schools, TeachWellAlliance, IPEN and hot-off-the-press Putting Staff First.

Policy leaders could also learn from healthcare, where UK government support has led to NHS Practitioner Health, and the more strategic US National Academy of Medicine hosts the Clinician Wellbeing Collaborative.

The longer-term agenda for education should be similar: being one of identifying and of sharing good practice and comprehensively reviewing systemic demands that fuel burnout.

After all, just as we ask education to deliver lifelong benefits, we must also focus on the whole of teachers’ lives, too.

Julia Manning trained as an NHS optometrist then went on to form the health, technology and wellbeing thinktank 2020health

She is now in the third year of a PhD at UCL in computer science, looking at digital solutions for stress management in the context of secondary schools. Her husband is an inner-city comprehensive schoolteacher

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