The issue - Want happier pupils? Try de-stressing staff

17th October 2014 at 01:00
From gym sessions to meditation and social events, a programme that boosts teachers' well-being will benefit the whole school

Staffrooms don't usually look like this, particularly at 10.30am on a Friday. There are few signs of the stresses of the week having taken their toll: coffee cups are not being clung to for buoyancy; people are chatting amiably rather than complaining; no tired eyes are staring vacantly at walls; not a single person is rushing around and flapping papers, pleading for someone to "please make the photocopier work".

It's relaxed. Stress-free. And unnerving.

You know you're in trouble as a profession when this happy scenario - a reality in our school - is viewed with suspicion rather than seen as the norm. But the truth is that teaching is now a highly stressful occupation.

In a 2013 survey by financial services provider Teachers Assurance, cited by the NUT teaching union, 76 per cent of teachers in Britain said their stress levels were having repercussions on their health. And 56 per cent felt they would be better at their jobs if they were less stressed.

Although schools are excellent at coping with student anxiety, the majority are not doing enough to alleviate teacher stress. We were perhaps guilty of this at the Deanes School, until we decided to put teacher well-being at the top of our agenda.

The spur to action was that in May last year, Essex County Council made the surprise announcement that it planned to consult on the closure of our school, owing to a decline in pupil numbers. Despite the school being rated as good with outstanding features in a recent inspection, the local authority proceeded with its plan. But staff, pupils, parents and the local community, with the help of councillors and MPs, rallied together, and in March this year the Office of the Schools Adjudicator ruled against the council.

Despite the jubilation of the whole Deanes community, we could see that the process had taken its toll on staff. As well as the usual day-to-day pressures that teachers encounter, the prospect of closure had prompted worries about job security and the future of pupils' education.

Heart of the i.Matter

We needed a solution, so we developed our own: a wellbeing programme called i.Matter. Each day, staff have a choice of activities designed to encourage them to make time for themselves in order to combat distress or anxiety. As part of the programme, staff receive free personal training sessions in our gym after school, provided by external coaches who work with us regularly because we are a specialist sports college.

Lunchtime walks take place in our beautiful grounds twice a week. In addition, staff can participate in badminton and tennis lessons after school, and weekly boxercise classes and "dance yourself fit" sessions are on offer, too. For those not looking to exercise, group relaxation and meditation sessions are available, along with personal nutrition workshops and therapy sessions including reiki and emotional freedom techniques.

Social events are also built into the programme. We have started a staff choir and a book club, and once a week we hold "laughing lunchbox", when a staff member brings in a comedy show or a stand-up sketch and plays it for our entertainment.

Finding the balance

Alongside these all-staff programmes, specific interventions are available for middle leaders. All staff at this level have been offered the opportunity to participate in a six-week "rebalance course", covering life-coaching skills, work-life balance and developing healthier habits.

Of course, we have to practise what we preach: there is no point offering these opportunities and then demanding that staff work into the night to get things done. Hence, we insist on email-free weekends. No work-related emails are allowed to be sent between 6pm on Friday and 6pm on Sunday. This ensures that staff have no excuse for not winding down and spending quality time with their friends and family.

Making time

Unsurprisingly, we had a few operational issues to overcome, such as funding. A lot of the activities - including the book club, lunchtime walks, badminton and tennis - are free. Staff have to pay for sessions such as reiki and personal nutrition, but we have negotiated a reduced rate with a practitioner who has contacts with the school. Other initiatives, such as personal training and the rebalance course, are funded from the school's CPD budget.

Another operational decision was to do with the timing of events. They all happen at lunchtime or straight after school, so staff can get the maximum benefit. This convenience - along with support from the senior leadership team, including managing demands on teachers - has addressed the expected "I don't have time" excuse from staff. Leaders, including the headteacher, can often be found in the gym after school, working out with colleagues.

So, we have conquered the potential problems and the rewards have been substantial. The scenario described at the beginning of this article is genuine - our staffroom is more stress-free and relaxed than it used to be. And our teachers' well-being is now as big a consideration as that of our pupils. This makes not only for happier teachers but also for happier students - and a better environment for learning, too.

Yes, the money can be difficult to find and the workload management hard to implement, but the benefits are surely worth the hassle.

Desi McKeown is a vice-principal at the Deanes School in Essex. For more information on the i.Matter programme, email


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