In our “Time to Tackle...” series we take a look at some of the big challenges school leaders are facing, starting with teacher wellbeing.
It is no secret that the morale of many teachers is extremely low. Government recruitment and retention figures make for some worrying reading, and the statistics point to a dangerous trend in stress levels and anxiety forcing teachers out of the profession.
September can be especially daunting. Whether you’re just starting out, joining a new team or taking on more responsibility, the first term can bring with it anything from the jitters to full-blown mental health problems.
According to the Education Support Partnership, over three-quarters of those working in education experience behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms because of work.
Its 2018 report claimed that teacher stress levels were at an all-time high.
Of course, there are always examples that disprove top-level stats and there are many teachers enjoying a good work-life balance. There are also schools where wellbeing is front and centre of everything they do. But these do, unfortunately, seem to be the exception.
“I think wellbeing is a major problem in lots of different ways,” says Bukky Yusuf, a senior leader at a special school in London.
“Obviously, it’s linked to the current recruitment and retention [problem], but the pressures that school leaders and teachers are under now – it’s just incredible.”
Dr Jane Perryman, senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education, discovered in her research that teachers were leaving not purely because of the quantity of work but because of the nature of the tasks they spent so much time doing.
“We found that trainee teachers love their subject and are so excited by the idea of being a teacher, and they think they’ll be able to tolerate the workload,” she says.
“They believe they’ll be working hard at making a difference to the students. However, once they’re in the classroom, they find that, actually, the workload is made up of performative tasks.”
The result? A large number of teachers don’t make it past the five-year mark, according to Department for Education workforce data.
While Ofsted has moved towards tackling pupil wellbeing, the mental health of teachers still seems to need real attention.
Jaime Smith, from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families, believes that wellbeing is the issue of our time.
“Wellbeing has a spotlight on it at the moment,” says Smith. "At our centre, we’re thinking about how to support the whole community – so not just children but also the school staff.”
So, what can be done to tackle this low-morale epidemic? It’s often a conversation that goes round in circles. If you add wellbeing measures to a teacher’s busy timetable, they have less time to carry out their mountain of tasks, so it can do more harm than good.
We spoke to some leading wellbeing champions to find out what measures really make a difference.
Communication is key
According to Yusuf, there can often be a disconnect between the leadership team and the issues that are impacting teachers’ day-to-day lives.
“You have school leaders who don’t have a clear and comprehensive sense of what it means to tackle wellbeing,” says Yusuf.
“If school leaders aren’t sure about the wellbeing of their staff, and they don’t know what the issues are, they can’t tackle it meaningfully."
For leaders to be able to tackle morale, they need to have good lines of communication running from the classroom right up to the SLT.
“Avoid making assumptions,” says Yusuf. “Make sure you really know what’s going on. So, have your ears and eyes open, be open and amenable.”
Start as you mean to go on
With such large numbers of teachers leaving the profession in the first five years, it’s clear that getting off on the right foot is vital.
“Getting the induction programme right is crucial,” says Elizabeth Cloke, head of secondary at an international school in Penang, Malaysia. She explains how a number of measures have helped her school induct new international teachers, including a buddy system.
You can listen to Cloke and HR administrator Hannah Boydell explain exactly why inductions matter in our podcast.
Encourage some outreach
Social media is often linked with mental health – and rarely in a way that reflects positively on the major platforms. However, there are virtual communities and campaigns out there that can offer support and advice.
Teacher Martyn Reah established the initiative Teacher Five a Day. The idea, which began on Twitter, encourages teachers to commit to doing five things designed to boost their wellbeing.
“I set up Teacher Five a Day after having had a negative experience. I wanted to contribute something positive,” he says.
Reah identifies the strong link between the wellbeing of teachers and their students, and believes that tackling teacher morale can have wider ramifications.
“Happy teachers with a well-balanced outlook are positive role models and create a positive culture,” he says. “This then can impact on students and their wellbeing, and subsequently improve outcomes.”
Measure your efforts
“You can’t make your school better without finding out from your teachers what is and what isn’t working,” says Patrick Ottley-O'Connor, executive principal at North Liverpool Academy, Northern Schools Trust.
“We survey staff three times a year,” he says. “We have the standard Ofsted-style questions, and then specific questions about the school. It’s through these questionnaires we discover which of our changes have been the best for improving staff wellbeing.”
But how can you make sure your surveys don’t get lost in a congested inbox? Or, worse still, that they are dismissed as a waste of time.
In a recent piece from the Tes For Schools blog, Gemma Corby claims that timing can be key. Avoiding busy times of year, such as the exam period, is vital.
She also points out the importance of demonstrating the subsequent actions.