Teachers – are you looking after your wellbeing?

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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Talking about our mental health is key to tackling stress and anxiety. Geoff Barton looks at some simple ways of protecting school staff

One of the curious features of teaching is its sense of public privacy.

People who work outside education don’t often see this. But if you are a teacher, or you have ever been a teacher, you will recognise what I mean. Even with a class of 30 or so young people sitting there in front of you, whether they are being compliant or challenging, there is often a feeling of being oddly on your own.

It is you, the adult in the room, and it is them, the pupils. Teaching – a role of public privacy.

At its best, this is quite liberating. When I started out as a rookie English teacher more than 30 years ago, it was in an era when people rarely watched you teach. If another adult came into your classroom, it was because they wanted to borrow a stick of chalk or ask how the Betamax video player worked.

These were the days before performance management, learning walks and Lesson Study. Even in my training year, I was largely left to get on with it, trusted to learn the craft of the classroom through trial and error, observed – if my memory is correct – two or three times during the year.

And the liberating part of all this was that – on a good day, or at least in a good hour – this was your domain, your fiefdom.

It is where – in a syrupy Dead Poets Society kind of way – you wove the magic of being in command of your subject, of having gained the confidence of the class to relax into the rhythm of teaching, and the realisation that there’s no more exciting, exacting and important role in the world. You were teaching. Just that.

Pace of modern life

And for many it is still like that, at least much of the time. Except that nowadays the pressures are greater – the pressures of being a teacher, a leader, of being a human being in a frenzied world.

Because the pace of modern life, and the ubiquitous “unswitchoffable” presence of social media means that our connected lives can often feel more fraught, more anxiety-ridden.

In my role I represent around 19,000 leaders of schools and colleges across the UK. When we talk to our members, wherever they are, the same set of issues come up – funding, recruitment, retention, pupil behaviour. Plus, one other...

Because since I took on this role, there is another concern that teachers and leaders have mentioned with increasing frequency. It is a concern about mental health – of young people, but also of ourselves.

This is where the public privacy of the classroom can be a bad thing. Because that sink-or-swim ethos of my early years is the last thing anyone needs if they are struggling with their own mental health. We need solidarity, not isolation.

So here are a few things we could be doing in our schools to help make sure that in a profession that carries with it significant stress, we are doing all we can to support our colleagues and to tend to ourselves.

We are not alone

First, and importantly, the fact that public figures talk about mental health publicly is a significant advance. This should reassure us that we’re not alone. Except that it is not enough for mental health to be a discourse beyond the school gates. It is something we have to talk about inside our staffroom and to pupils in the assembly hall.

For example, many of us in education are more than a little familiar with the concept of imposter syndrome. In fact, teaching is built on it – the assumption that a group of young people will somehow heed the authority of us as their teacher. We know that when we are feeling uncertain about something we are teaching, when we are asked an unexpected question about a topic, our first instinct is to play the part of being more confidently knowledgeable than we might feel.

Similarly, many of us will have stood up in assemblies or in staff meetings, using every sinew to motivate the troops, to keep them going towards exams, to hold staff morale together through the unforgiving days of winter – and we’ll do this even when we may be aware of our own fast-beating heart, our sense of vulnerability, the memory of a fretful sleepless night.

That’s why I think our training and induction of teachers and leaders should be explicit about the sense of anxiety we can all feel, sometimes occasionally, and sometimes far, far too frequently.

We should acknowledge that these feelings surface, can sometimes feel as if they will overwhelm us, but that there are ways of coping.

Wellbeing programmes

Part of a school or college’s wellbeing programme should have some of those techniques at their heart. We know that regular exercise, whether through competitive sport or recreational physical activity, is an essential factor in maintaining a healthy mental outlook.

Being able to switch off, to lose ourselves in music or other arts, to not feel guilty at not working – we know that all of these are likely to contribute to a lifestyle less riven by anxiety too. So, staff social events – after-school badminton, a choir – will be important reminders that it is not just our role in the classroom that matters.

Professional learning opportunities will do the same – the chance to work with other colleagues on developing our own knowledge or pedagogical skills – and to do this not because of performance management or chance of promotion, but to do it because learning is in itself hugely rewarding, and working with others helps haul us out of the silo of our own classroom or department.

It will be important also that any education institution provides staff more formal access to some form of wellbeing service – the opportunity to speak to someone anonymously, to ask for advice and support beyond your own colleagues. This provides a kind of personal safety net for our toughest times.

One more thing

Then there’s one more thing which school and college leaders can do to support the collective mental health of the staff they lead. It is something I regret not doing more during my 15 years of headship. I used to talk about work/life balance. I’d bring doughnuts in the day after parents’ evenings. I’d encourage staff not to stay in school late.

But I’ve since learnt from Dr Karen Edge at University College London that there’s something I should have said and done that went beyond good intentions: regularly in our weekly staff briefings I should have said a sentence like this: “I just want you to know that on Wednesday I’ll be leaving school at 4pm. It’s not because I have a governors’ meeting or a report to write. It’s because I want some time at home with my family. And I want you to make sure that at some point this week you’re doing the same.”

None of these ideas are going to make anxiety disappear from the workplace. But they will help to acknowledge the fact that it’s something we all experience, that there are techniques for dealing with it, and that there’s a strength in the shared recognition that attending to our mental health must not be an afterthought.

Teaching can be a deeply private business, but we must not allow mental health to be.

  • Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. For previous comment and best practice articles from Geoff – and other SecEd content featuring ASCL – go to http://bit.ly/2C8BNkg


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