'Teacher wellbeing isn't just a tick list'

Teachers have been worn down by workload – and it will take more than Cake Friday to change that, says Emma Turner

Teacher wellbeing: Working in a care home, I never felt the emotional exhaustion that I do now as a teacher, says Emma Turner

I worked as a care assistant in a care home for residents with dementia for years before I began teaching. 

The shift work was long, and cases were emotionally gruelling. Complex medical procedures were carried out and, in the long, dark winter nights, the weight of responsibility hung heavy during a 7pm to 7am shift. 

I would be physically exhausted from lifting and moving residents all night, and from the miles walked on the corridors and wards. Often, I would be the last person to sit quietly with a resident, hear their stories and hold their hand as they slipped away. 

But never once did any of this impact on my wellbeing. I would be tear-stained, aching and often heavy-hearted. I was working 60-plus hours per week sometimes, but still did not feel overworked or under pressure. 

Teacher work-life balance

Once I was home, I would click back into my daily life and – despite the demanding and gruelling hours and the emotional toll – I would have clear delineation between my work and home

There was not a shadow of a hangover into my everyday life. Of course, I would often think of my residents. Sometimes, I would shed a tear that they had gone, or feel frustrated and sad that their family didn’t visit. But I did not feel as if any of it was affecting my wellbeing. 

And then I started teaching. Exhaustion, both mental and physical, was ever-present. I was constantly thinking about what needed to be done. 

This was back in 1998, when the internet was still in its relative educational infancy. Support was therefore limited to your immediate school community or your own group of friends. This was also still in the times of the five-day inspection and no PPA time. 

I was living at home with my parents during my NQT year, and so did not have the day-to-day running of a home to sort. 

I was only 21, but felt almost quadruple that on some days. It is hard to overestimate the exhaustion of a five-lesson day, five days a week. But that was the reality back then.

Despite the introduction of PPA and guaranteed weekly release time for NQTs, there is still the need to plan, deliver and evaluate the learning of five days’ worth of teaching. 

The steady drip-drip of workload

On top of this, there are all the additional pieces of work around pastoral care, attending meetings, reading current research or texts for CPD, keeping abreast of statutory changes, liaising with families, running parents’ evenings, putting on productions, completing paperwork, analysing data and assessments. And this is as well as just getting through each day with its malfunctioning photocopiers, urgent parental complaints, vomiting children and crashed files

And this torrent of work and responsibility has been the result of a steady drip, which is now finding so many of the profession not swimming but drowning. 

These are educated people. They already know the benefits of self-care and wellbeing. But their bone tiredness will not be solved by cake Fridays or chocolate bars left on desks. These are merely sticking plasters on a broken limb. 

The fact that so many teachers leave the profession each year is not indicative of some widespread national work-shy virus, spreading via the school staffroom. It is an almost inevitable battle weariness, which means that, for so many, beginning the new academic year is something they cannot muster the strength to do again. 

They are not prepared to sacrifice any more evenings with family and friends upon the altar of the work laptop. They are not prepared to accept that their only time to exercise and eat well is in the holidays.

And they are not prepared to not be fully present when in the presence of those they love, because their generous and always-professional brain simply cannot switch off from the incessant scream of the mental to-do list. 

It is this grey area – this blurring between home and school – which, when twinned with increased accountability and endless governmental tinkering, means that work gradually floods into the minds and homes of our teachers. And then wellbeing initiatives are suddenly top of the agenda. 

But wellbeing comes from doing a job that allows you to live well every day. It doesn’t come from novelty events in an impossible job in a toxic environment. 

Back in 1998, when we did not have individual teacher email addresses or smartphones or social media, it was much easier to digitally detox and to not have distractions from being present at home

We are now, unfortunately, victims of a deadly combination of advances in technology and reachability and continued dedication: we give freely of ourselves for the good of the pupils. It is not unlike giving one of my toddlers a bag of marshmallows and, as in the old psychology trick, telling them not to eat them. 

As a profession, we carry bags and bags of altruism, with which we dust almost everything we do. Sadly, as we wander through the weeks of the school calendar year, our bags become more and more depleted. We end up selling our own wellbeing in return for the magic of seeing our pupils grow and develop. 

Teacher wellbeing is a constant

But what does this leave us with? The solution is both complex and simple. As leaders, we need to recognise that wellbeing is not a tick list or a destination to visit once a year. It is a constant state of being. 

We need to allow more time for the “being” part of wellbeing. Being creative; being encouraged; being a well-rounded person who has interests out of work. Being a good role model for work-life balance, both for other staff and students. Being reacquainted with the sheer joy and wonder that comes from a lesson well-taught. Being part of a team. Being human.

We, therefore, need to recognise the impact of the tasks we ask staff to do. And we need to ensure that our staff are listened to, that their professional CPD and practice needs are met, and that their to-do lists are kept manageable and impactful. 

Because, when this generation of teachers is very elderly and weary and there is a young care assistant walking those wards at night, I know none of us will tell her that we wish we had worked more. 

I want her to be told of the wonderful lessons we taught, the fabulous students we inspired, and the families we made a difference to. And I want her to be told how we had the best job in the world. 

Emma Turner is the research and CPD lead for Discovery Schools Academy Trust in Leicestershire. She tweets @Emma_Turner75 

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