You're happy and you know it

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Forget doom and gloom. There's an unprecedented level of joy in the staffroom. Hannah Frankel reports on the findings of a TES Magazine survey

Smile - you're a teacher. Go on, you know you want to, and now we've got the facts to prove it. An exclusive survey by The TES Magazine shows teachers are a pretty happy bunch who feel good about themselves, enjoy their job and are happier than they were a decade ago.

More than 500 readers replied to our online survey, which aimed to gauge the extent of well-being in the staffroom. Its findings counter widespread opinion that teaching is a downtrodden, browbeaten profession. On a scale of one to 10, with one representing misery personified and 10 being a nirvana-like state of contentment, more than 73 per cent rated themselves as six or above. And teachers would rather have Peter Kay, the comedian, as the profession's "happiness tsar" than any politician.

The survey paints a picture of a profession at ease with itself, even though heads may be deluding themselves about their ability to spread happiness and light.

Nine out of 10 heads told us they felt their school was a happy place.

"Everyone is generally and, in some cases extremely, thoughtful and we try to work as a team," says one primary head from the North-west. "We also laugh a lot."

But their enthusiasm was not matched by teachers. Despite their personal happiness, almost 40 per cent said they do not work in a happy school. The reasons are predictably varied. Fraught relationships with pupils and colleagues are frequently cited, alongside a lack of good management, job satisfaction, praise, time and support. "Teachers feel their ideas are not listened to and that decisions are made by the head whether or not a consultation has taken place," is one typical reply from a secondary teacher in the South-east.

Such findings come as no surprise to Elaine Wilson, a chemistry teacher trainer at Cambridge University. She noticed that a lot of her students, many of whom had come from highly prestigious jobs, were leaving education within the first three years. In 2005, Elaine started to conduct research involving hundreds of teachers into why some of them flourish while others flounder. "I'm coming to realise it's all down to well-being," she says.

"It is crucial teachers feel competent about themselves, feel valued, get on with their colleagues and have some sense of autonomy.

"More successful teachers are also quite resilient when things go wrong.

They learn from their mistakes instead of immediately labelling themselves incompetent."

Although many teachers blame external factors for leaving the profession, low self-esteem is the more likely (undiagnosed) cause, Elaine says. "If behaviour is so bad, why do some teachers deal with it while others don't?"

she asks. "If you believe you can manage these children, they will pick up on it and a positive outcome is more likely."

However, if teachers are thrown in at the deep end before they have built up their confidence, they may not last the distance, she says. In the first three years, staff should celebrate the success of less experienced colleagues and step in if they begin to show signs of flagging.

"One head of department noticed a newly qualified teacher looked exhausted and offered to cover his lesson," says Elaine. "It's not rocket science, it was just a humane thing to do. The teacher then went the extra mile for his line manager the next day. It's about showing you care for each other and for the children."

Paul Grant, head of the Robert Clack School in Dagenham, east London, is working all hours to ensure teacher well-being is his number one priority.

As such, this school - where 85 per cent of the pupils come from white, working-class families - has a full cohort of specialist staff, even in the shortage subjects; there are no vacancies.

Meanwhile, results make it the most improved school in the country. In 1997, just 16 per cent gained five A*-Cs; in 2006, 79 per cent hit that benchmark. Good behaviour is central to the school's ethos. "You can't have happiness without knowing where you stand. It's the clear parameters which help pupils feel safe and secure," says Paul. "All teachers want backing when dealing with poor behaviour. We only close the book on an incident if the wronged teacher is happy it's been dealt with."

But the school is no boot camp. Good behaviour and work are constantly recognised in assemblies and teachers are expected to treat pupils kindly and fairly. They respond by talking to staff in a friendly and respectful way. In addition, any problems can be discussed with Paul when they arise.

"You have to put the time into being visible and approachable and then delivering the goods if teachers are to feel content. I must look after the people in my charge and my senior managment team must do the same," Paul says.

Wellington College, a private school in Berkshire, may have markedly different issues to Robert Clack, but it is also taking happiness seriously. Well-being is a curriculum subject and the happiness of pupils and teachers is paramount. "You cannot be an effective teacher unless your well-being is safeguarded," says Ian Morris, head of PSHE at Wellington.

"It can be a stressful profession but if you're happy, it's bound to get better."

What you told us

On a scale of one to 10 (one being desperately unhappy and 10 being blissfully content), more than 73 per cent rated themselves as six or above. Most - 26 per cent - placed themselves at level eight.

70 per cent of primary teachers believe they work in a happy school, compared to 57 per cent of secondary teachers. 92 per cent of headteachers think their school is a happy place.

57 per cent of teachers describe teaching as a happy profession.

67 per cent are happier than they were 10 years ago.

Family is the most important contributing factor to happiness, followed by health, love, friends, work and wealth (and in that order).

Peter Kay, the comedian, should become the profession's "happiness tsar".

Other popular choices included Lenny Henry and Ken Dodd.

Turning misery into joy The pursuit of happiness can be an entirely futile exercise, according to people who should know.

"It is the con of modern society," explains Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers' Magazine. "We are constantly promised happiness by the advertisers but life can never live up to it. Instead of craving happiness, it's best to achieve it indirectly by taking part in acts you find meaningful and get satisfaction from."

For Nick Baylis, co-director of the Well-being Institute at Cambridge University, adults must first accept the flipside of joy.

"Happiness is just one tiny bit of life - no more important than sadness,"

he says. "It's the contrasts which matter. Sitting round a hearty fire is much more enjoyable if you've just walked in out of the cold - and it's the same with happiness."

Meanwhile, negative feelings should be channelled into something constructive, Nick says. "Life is a skill and you've got to practice the bits you're not so good at. If you're painfully shy, use every opportunity to speak out. If you feel jealous of a colleague, congratulate them. These emotions are seen as negative because they are painful, but they can be wonderfully creative.

"People who don't know how to harness them end up becoming depressed or turning to alcohol or even drugs."

10 top tips that could change your life

Nurture constructive and caring relationships with friends, partners and family.

Get eight hours sleep a day and avoid caffeine, alcohol or stress before going to bed.

Eat well and exercise three times a week: it can be a more effective anti-depressant than prescribed drugs. Smile and laugh as much as possible.

Take time every day to be still and attempt to clear your mind.

People who meditate daily (even for just five minutes) report lower stress levels and better health.

Try to respond positively to difficult situations.

Immerse yourself in activities until you lose track of time. This will help you live in the present instead of worrying too much about the past or future events.

Get an hour of broad daylight every day by walking to work or eating a meal outside. Meanwhile, improve your man-made or office environment by tidying up and putting up pictures which inspire you.

Limit time spent texting, emailing and watching TV and have conversations instead.

Get out of your comfort zone and learn a new skill. If you keep stretching your own boundaries of ability, it dramatically increases self-esteem.

Take charge of your life by making positive choices. You may not be able to change what has happened, but you can change the way you respond.

Taken from Wellington College's programme for developing well-being

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