Wellbeing: 3 reasons teachers don't leave my school

Teacher wellbeing is about more than free cake – staff need to feel they are being listened to, says Kulvarn Atwal

Teacher wellbeing: How can schools make their teachers happier?

When I hear concerns about teacher wellbeing, I am often left frustrated by the short-term, tokenistic measures that are suggested, such as buying cakes for the staffroom.

This is fine as a nice gesture, but it won’t make any difference if my day job is characterised by being overworked or undervalued.

The high percentage of teachers that leave the profession every year clearly reflects that more needs to be done.

As a school, we have been very successful in retaining our teachers as well as recruiting, which is, in part, due to a focus on staff wellbeing based on structural and cultural change that ensure all teachers have a sense of worth and feel valued.

Boosting teacher wellbeing

Our approach can be neatly summarised in these three points: 

1. Professional learning

The greatest factor that impacts on children’s learning is the quality of teaching, and the greatest factor that impacts upon the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning.

As such, we invest heavily in strong professional learning activities such as action research, master's study, coaching, peer learning and lesson study for staff.

The rationale for a teacher is that if the school invests in me and values me as a learner, I feel a sense of attachment and wellbeing. Additionally, I become more confident in my practice and this enables me to develop autonomy and efficacy. If I am more confident in my practice, I will have less anxiety. 

Research I conducted for a PhD demonstrated that teachers value choice over their professional learning – so we pay towards every teacher completing an MA and they choose the elements of practice they wish to develop.

2. Workload pressures and involvement 

Often we cite external pressures as impacting upon teacher wellbeing – for example, statutory testing or the Ofsted inspection framework.

However, it can be argued that, more often, workload pressures are influenced by internal decision making and the learning environments in individual schools. 

Anything that you ask a teacher to do that they do not understand the purpose of is inherently demotivating. So involving teachers in decisions on the outcomes that you want to achieve and the strategies to achieve those outcomes is key to avoiding this. 

This requires an authentically distributed leadership model. And we make sure we have that. I not only observe teaching, but I am observed teaching; anything I ask my staff to do, I do, too. Phase leaders have genuine authority for their area of responsibility and teachers have genuine power over their classroom. 

Wellbeing comes from feeling you have a voice in school and that you are genuinely listened to. It is also influenced by the extent to which you are working alongside colleagues with shared values.

And Ofsted etc? It's our job as a leader to make sure those pressures do not reach the classroom.

3. Truly value staff wellbeing

If we truly value our children, then we have to value our staff. This is about asking: do I ensure that teachers feel listened to and am I clear, consistent and inclusive in my approach to leadership? 

We view our staff team as an extended family and, at any time, one member of that family may need more support than others. We are never judgemental, and we are always supportive.
 

Wellbeing not about cake, it is about knowing staff well enough – and having a system of transparency - so that we notice when someone is down, when they need help or when they are overworked. And it is about stepping in to offer support in that moment. 

Kulvarn Atwal is executive headteacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge and author of  The Thinking School: developing a dynamic learning community

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