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'Teachers need to model happiness'

Overworked teachers should react to stress by focusing on getting happy, writes Georgia Holleran

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Overworked teachers should react to stress by focusing on getting happy, writes Georgia Holleran

Those with long memories will know that the first concerns about teacher wellbeing began to emerge around 15 years ago, with a number of studies reporting teacher "burnout".

Even though there has been much researched and written about the pressures of teaching since then, things are not improving. In fact, the situation is getting dramatically worse.

Having qualified as a teacher in the 1990s and worked in many capacities in different schools since, I have experienced for myself the significant increase in teacher stress. Like a frog being boiled by the gentle heating of the water it's in, teachers have noticed the increase in workload – but now it seems to be an almost accepted fact of teaching life.

I’m not the first person to suspect that there is a link between the nature of a successful teacher and their susceptibility to perfectionism, which drives them on to always be doing "just that little bit more". That particular facet of teacher behaviour can indicate a dedicated and caring educator. But when someone with a predilection for perfectionism is required to perform target-focused measurement while being given increased reporting responsibilities, and all accompanied by hefty budget cuts, the outcome can be an unbearably high stress level.

It’s this that can cause the emergence of protection behaviours such as anger and denial. 

I first noticed these reactions to stress when I was working as a change-management consultant, a job that nicely dovetailed in with my work in education. Often I would be engaged to support people who were employed by companies undergoing vast structural reorganisation. My role was to assess aspects of emotional intelligence via an online diagnostic tool and a follow-up interview. It was during these interviews that I began to notice adults exhibiting very simple, childlike reactions to extreme stress by demonstrating either rebellion or passivity.

Take responsibility for your own wellbeing

The parallels with the state of education today are easy to spot: the system has been undergoing massive changes, some of them at a break-neck speed, but the workforce has not been prepared, trained or even consulted on these changes. This lack of control can trigger deep reactions in some people and cause the same two reactions: either rebellion via walking away or passive acceptance by doggedly keeping going until becoming unwell.

But I believe there is another way teachers can react to the extreme pressures of working life. I’m going to put it out there and suggest we focus instead on getting happy.

I’m not being flippant. Yes, the government should send more money our way. Yes, Ofsted should be more nurturing. Yes, your SLT should be taking some of the burdens of teaching off your shoulders. But the only person who you can genuinely change you is you. So I’m afraid wellbeing completely, absolutely HAS to start with yours truly.

Which brings me to the idea of TeachWellFest. In the few short months since I first hit on the idea of celebrating teacher wellness, I have been amazed at how many people associated with teacher wellbeing have come forward to offer their ideas. I’m sure the laser-like focus on teacher wellness will attract the interest of teachers and school staff who have a personal or professional interest in wellbeing. In fact, it would make an incredibly cost-effective CPD. But my hopes for TeachWellFest attendees are much more ambitious. TeachWellFest is going to be an upbeat, optimistic and, above all, fun event. I want to capitalise on the impact that having fun can have because the side effects include increased endorphins, more positive outlook, boosted immune system and an enhanced sense of community. A pretty comprehensive description of wellbeing, in my view.

If you’re not happy, you are compromising on too many aspects of your life. Being happy enables you to stand up for your rights, being happy puts your life and your work into perspective, being happy allows your skills and capabilities to come shining through.

Happiness can only be determined by what you, yourself, feel, and surely it is all our duties, as teachers, to find it and model it for all the young people in our charge.

Georgia Holleran is a part-time teacher and founder of the Teacher Wellness Festival


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