Since starting my teaching probation this year, I've frequently been asked what I'm doing to look after myself. It makes me wonder why I need to ensure that I take special care of my wellbeing. Is it because the teaching profession is a pressurised and stressful career? Is it because the role of the teacher has become ever more complex, to the point of teachers routinely being verbally and physically abused?
Looking after the health and wellbeing of our children and young people is a top priority in Curriculum for Excellence. Our understanding of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the cycle of poor life outcomes is increasing and placing a greater emphasis on mental health. The role of the teacher has changed to take on qualities of other professions, from counselling to social work.
But are teachers and other school staff in schools ready for their increasingly complex roles?
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Multiple recent surveys seem to indicate the answer is "no". Research from the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland found that 71 per cent of teachers surveyed felt that they lacked training to help them address mental health concerns of children and young people. Research by Barnardo’s indicates that 79 per cent of teachers believe more needs to be done to make sure that schools can recognise and respond to trauma and adversity.
Supporting teacher wellbeing
To me, these statistics suggest that there needs to be a greater emphasis on practical training to support mental health, both during initial teacher education (ITE) and within continuing professional development (CPD).
During my ITE at the University of Edinburgh, myself and a couple of my peers recognised this need and, alongside university staff, organised a one-day conference for around 90 student teachers to gain further training in mental health. However, one day is not enough to prepare you for what might lie ahead – this training needs to be embedded in ITE and CPD.
Training is crucial but will not solve everything. As a friend from university, Kat Brack, summed up perfectly, training can give you skills and knowledge to support children and young people, but it will not prepare you for the way it “feels”.
In 2018, the Education Support Partnership Teacher Wellbeing Index revealed that 67 per cent of professionals in education described themselves as stressed, increasing to 80 per cent among senior leaders. How do we expect our education staff to support young people experiencing trauma and mental health issues when they themselves are feeling under strain?
The answer is not simply to encourage or ask teachers what they are doing to look after themselves, but to ask what our education system is doing to look after them.
In my second and final year of ITE, I was lucky to experience a pilot programme taking place at the universities of Edinburgh and Stirling . Both are working closely with Place2Be, a leading children’s mental health charity, focusing on not only equipping student teachers with the skills and understanding to support children’s mental health, but also helping the next generation of teachers to deal with the way it “feels” to be a teacher.
Place2Be does this through "reflective supervision", providing a safe space and protected time to speak with an experienced and knowledgeable mental health practitioner about your teaching practice and the emotional impact of teaching.
Teachers have engaged with the service for a variety of reasons: to reflect on what lies behind behaviour in the classroom; to make sense of challenging conversations with colleagues and families; and to work out how to support an individual in a difficult situation or in crisis.
You may ask why we cannot talk about these areas with a line manager or colleague. Firstly, some teachers will not feel confident or comfortable having these conversations and require an independent perspective. Secondly, even if these discussions take place, often they can be interrupted and cut short due to other responsibilities.
Finally, although I am advocating for further mental health training in education, teachers will never be fully trained mental health practitioners or counsellors. This means that for reflective supervision to work and truly support our teachers, it needs to be protected time with an independent and experienced mental health practitioner.
I truly hope that, alongside mental health training, reflective supervision becomes an integral part of teacher education and career-long CPD.
Lizzie Hay is a secondary teacher in Fife and a graduate of the Transformative Learning and Teaching MSc at the University of Edinburgh