Teacher wellbeing: 'You should never become so exhausted that you irrationally lose your temper with your pupils'

Look after your own wellbeing – and three other key lessons that mainstream teachers can learn from their colleagues in the SEND sector

Hannah Sokoya

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Summer gives us teachers the chance to reflect on life, the universe and teaching practice. Catching up with teacher mates and sharing the highs and lows of the previous year, including everything in-between, is truly cathartic.

As a secondary English teacher, I find these days that I’m learning more and more from my primary and SEND colleagues. So, when I caught up with a uni friend of over 20 years who has been a head of an autistic school for seven, we couldn't help but talk shop.

There are many more, of course, but here are a few things us secondary teachers could learn from the SEND sector.

1. Check on your own wellbeing regularly

Prioritise your own mental and physical health. Caroline explained: "If you are so exhausted that you are at risk of losing your temper or your capacity to believe in the potential of children 'written off' by others, you will burn out and are likely to damage the children in the process."

In my 19 years as an educator, I have watched too many times as teachers morph to dwarf from being the ultimate hero-teacher. Often this is triggered when the demands that the government place on us are allowed to seep into our personal and emotional lives.

The danger is we end up thinking, breathing, dreaming deadlines, targets, sublevels until there's nothing left of us, outside of our educational duties. This fatigue can lead to numbness and the inability to genuinely sympathise with the often heartbreaking predicaments of our pupils.  

2. Camaraderie is key

SEND teachers often work within a team including health and social care professionals as well as leading a team of teaching assistants. There's a seamless flow between the team and the teacher who "communicate through body language, relationships and trust" in the best lessons.

Classroom skills are transferable. Caroline and I agreed that great teachers learn approaches and theories from everyone and anyone who positively impacts students. Good teachers aren’t intellectual snobs. When there is conflict and control between colleagues, the children pick up on it and play up – just as siblings capitalise on conflict between their parents.

3. Earn your pupils' respect 

Hard to reach children have to develop trust in their teacher before being willing to learn from them. 

Rather than earning respect (respect is earnt not coerced), schools these days are too often full of endless skirmishes between lawmakers and lawbreakers that drag in senior leaders and waste vital learning time. I witness teachers exploiting their authority by silencing children who have not mastered the art of self-expression. 

Many teachers have forgotten the art of active listening and de-escalation in a tense situation, trampling all over children's self-esteem children with yet more draconian sanctions. The result is yet more rebellion from a very disenfranchised, misunderstood young person. 

Working with many primary and secondary schools as a consultant, a supply teacher as well working with looked-after children, has taught me that it's not about whizzy tricks or perfectly crafted lessons, or the latest educational craze. “You can have the most amazing lesson prepared but if they are not engaged with you, they will not learn from you," as Caroline aptly put it.

Spending less time planning and more time understanding our cohort pays dividends and ultimately allows students to embrace the beauty of academic pursuit, the art of collaboration and the mindfulness of sitting still.

4. A curriculum for the whole child

Rather than robotically teaching from some list of objectives that bears no relevance to the lives of the lives of your students, make the lessons meaningful, practical and purposeful. I relish the challenge of making Shakespeare relevant, for example. Teaching Julius Ceasar during the general election campaign this year provided me with untold opportunities to bring what was ultimately a glorified knife crime home to my urban lovelies. 

As Caroline put it: "I’ve never met a good SEND teacher who gets up in the morning to get a child from P7 to P8 on an assessment scale."

As the years go by, it is becoming apparent to me that SEND children need the same things to enable their progress as mainstream children do. The only difference is that SEND children overtly demand the things all children need – empathy, emotional intelligence and self-awareness. There’s a lesson there for anyone who cares about teaching.

Hannah Sokoya is an education consultant based in London

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Hannah Sokoya

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