Why teachers need to ‘emotionally vomit’

Safe spaces where teachers can talk openly have the power to stave off burnout, says wellbeing coach

Emma Seith

Stressed-out teachers need the chance to ‘emotionally vomit’, says wellbeing coach

When Claire Lavelle was living and teaching in Abu Dhabi for three years, the frequent use of the phrase “Insha'allah”– which means "God willing" – was the source of both frustration and inspiration.

If you were looking to get a practical task off your to-do list, such as having your wi-fi hooked up, it could be maddening to be told “Insha'allah” in response to your questions about whether it would be up and running that day.

However, Lavelle also found something to admire about this relaxed attitude and the refusal to be a slave to impossible timetables.

Teachers might learn something from this, says Lavelle, a former primary head, who set up her Hive of Wellbeing coaching business in 2016 when she returned from the United Arab Emirates.

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Background: What is teacher workload like in Scotland?

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If teachers are under pressure, they can make a big impact on how they feel about their work with small changes to the way they think, and the expectations they place on themselves, she argues.

Teachers usually come into education with big dreams and a big vision. When Lavelle asks teachers why they entered the profession, they almost always say “to make a difference”. But when they work hard and fail to achieve their goals, they start to find the job “tough”, she says.

Teaching teachers to feel good about work

However, they can start to enjoy their work again if they “reframe how they think”, Lavelle explains.

 “If you go to the gym on Monday you are still looking pretty much the same by Tuesday," she says. "But a few weeks down the line, certain changes start to take place, and it’s the same in education.

“If a teacher looks at the value they have added to a class over the course of six weeks or a year they see how far the children have come, but people don’t often focus on that – they focus on what has not been done, and what they would like to get done.”

The truth is, though, the work will never be done, points out Lavelle, who taught for 20 years, including spending four years as a primary headteacher.

“The fact of the matter is no teacher has ever walked out of a class halfway through the term and said, ‘They can all read now – I’m taking the rest of the term off,'" says Lavelle, who will be a keynote speaker at the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow in September.

She suggests, therefore, that teachers need to focus on what they can influence – which is what she tries to help them to do through professional learning and CAT [Collegiate Activity Time] sessions in schools, as well as in group and individual coaching sessions.

Lavelle suggests that teachers should reduce their to-do lists to just two or three items. When they achieve these it will “put them in a position of greater empowerment”.

“When you feel like you are not making a difference, everything feels out of control. But if you focus your attention on what you can do and you achieve those things, that makes you feel good. You build up a new habit of feeling good about work.”

She also challenges teachers’ perceptions of what they “should be doing”.

“Generally speaking, teachers have this underlying belief that if you work hard you will get results, but how you get children to succeed is not clear cut. A more supportive way of thinking is if you rest more, you will be more effective.”

All of this is important, of course, to stop teachers dropping out of the profession. Statistics from the Department for Education in England show that around 30 per cent of new teachers left the classroom between 2012 and 2017 and that there they have the lowest number of teachers since 2013. 

In Scotland back in 2017, the General Teaching Council for Scotland commissioned some research into the 700-plus teachers aged between 21 and 45 who had lapsed from the register the previous year. The body found that one of the most common reasons for failing to renew registration was workload.

Tackling teacher workload

However, given that excessive workload is a very real problem, is it realistic to think that teachers can tackle it by changing their mindset? Lavelle advocates a two-pronged approach: teachers need to push to get that workload reduced, but there also needs to be “personal reflection”.

She also believes that there should be more of a focus on teacher wellbeing and that documents like How Good Is Our School? – the self-evaluation tool Scottish schools use to see where they need to make improvement – should explicitly mention it.

“There’s a bit of a focus on culture and relationships but in terms of being explicit about teacher wellbeing, there’s not the emphasis there should be,” she says.

Yet there is, she points out, a correlation between teacher wellbeing and positive outcomes for children.

Lavelle admits that she might not be “everyone’s cup of tea”. But the vast majority of teachers, she says, really appreciate the time and space to talk that her sessions provide even if, after school on a Tuesday, they are initially reluctant participants.

“Teachers need a space where they can emotionally vomit. My vision when I set up the Hive was to have sessions where people don’t feel judged, where they can suspend their beliefs about what teachers should be doing, and where it is safe for them to say they are finding it hard, or tough, or that they are not enjoying work just now.”

She set up the business, she says, because she did not want to have any regrets.

“Setting this up was a death bed moment. I didn’t want my last words to be ‘I had a good idea once called The Hive...’”

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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