Teacher wellbeing: do we need in-school support groups?

Teachers have low levels of autonomy and decision-making at work – reflective practice could help, says Tara Porter

Tara Porter

Teacher wellbeing: Would teachers benefit from in-school support groups for reflective practice?

Two recent headlines about teachers were related, I think. 

The first said that there had been a fivefold rise in the number of teachers taking antidepressants, with work-related anxiety and depression increasing rapidly. 

The second said that – apart from your cousins in the NHS – teachers have the second-lowest level of autonomy among 11 professions measured, and no sense of making decisions about their work. 

It is impressive that, given these two sets of data, teachers were the least likely professionals to pull a sickie.

The psychology teachers among you will know that one of the key factors causing depression is “learned helplessness”: the sense that nothing you do makes a difference to the outcomes. 

Teacher wellbeing: learned helplessness 

As Martin Seligman’s famous (if ethically dubious) experiments showed by giving electric shocks to dogs, once they learn that nothing they do makes a difference, they give up, and fail to notice when the situation has changed.

This learned helplessness has been linked to human low mood. If people perceive that others, and not themselves, have control over a situation, they will be less likely to try, and more likely to be psychologically distressed.

It is perhaps understandable that teachers’ sense of autonomy is low, with the changes to a formalised curriculum and increased scrutiny over results.

Teachers have to teach to the test and have little time to wander off-topic into voyages of discovery. 

Management is tighter, and hierarchies stricter. Government determines policy and content in schools. There is little wiggle room. 

This is the perfect storm for depression to brew. We have highly intelligent graduate professionals, under great scrutiny, with little autonomy over their own working lives. 

Driven by whims

Over in health, we, too, have little control over what we do, but the ethos is more scientific rather than ideological. We provide treatments that science has proved are currently the best available, and they are not driven by the whims of the secretary of state for health. 

I think this is intrinsically less depressing than the situation in schools, where lots of teachers may not agree with the current fashions in curriculum, and the content is less driven by science. 

While we may not agree on the level of funding in health or the organisation of the systems, we in health are more signed up to the content, at least.

The government does accept that the medical professionals are the experts, in a way I don’t think they do for teachers in education. This, I think, is linked to the depressing lack of autonomy that teachers feel. 

So we need to tackle teacher’s sense of agency and work stress, if there isn’t to be a greater brain drain out of education. It seems we rapidly need ideas about improving teacher wellbeing

It seems ironic – given that the joint Green Paper between health and education calls on schools, senior leadership teams and teachers to become more involved in their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health – that teachers are suffering so. 

Reflective practice

Can I recommend reflective practice groups as a way of reducing teachers’ stress and of them getting back in touch with their (albeit limited) agency over their work?

Each fortnight in child and adolescent mental health services, we gather together as a team with an external facilitator, to think about the impact of our work on us.

We look at our own blind spots and biases, as well as hidden resentments or difficulties working together. We learn from talking through our mistakes and triumphs.

There is a movement for reflective practice in education, too. As the famous psychologist and educationalist John Dewey said: “We do not learn from experience... We learn from reflecting on experience." 

If knowledge is strength, then reflective practice is a way of helping teachers to gain knowledge about themselves, so they can continue to be strong and develop in their roles. 

Psychotherapist Cynthia Rousso, a colleague of mine, has worked successfully with school staff groups with this method. She says: “Reflective practice groups provide a learning environment for all; they promote staff development and growth. 

“Teachers often start out somewhat reluctant to share their difficulties – fearing they are the only ones struggling. As the groups go on, people take real solace in being open and honest and learning from each other.”

Lessened pain

This sharing can also enhance teachers’ sense of being in a team and having a shared purpose. As Rousso says, “There is a saying in therapy that pain that is shared is lessened and joy that is shared is increased.”

Talking about problems, stresses and strains, getting them off our chests, even laughing about them with trusted peers, can all be good for wellbeing and mental health. 

But, more than that, through reflecting on our work, we gain a sense of agency about our work. And that, as we have seen, is important in mental health

Through thinking about what we could do differently, we give ourselves more than one path to walk along. 

Reflective practice helps teachers activate their problem-solving capacities in a confidential and supportive setting. No judgement, no repercussions, no obligations. 

There are so many competing stakeholders around education – students, parents, managers, the state – that it can be easy for teachers to forget what brought them into teaching in the first place. 

A reflective practice group is respectful to teachers as professionals, allowing them space to think and adjust. And that sense of agency can only be good for wellbeing. 

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist in the NHS and private practice. She also works at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and is Tes' mental health columnist. She tweets as @drtjap. The views expressed are her own 

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