What if we, as a society, were to publicly express how valuable teachers are? What if we were to recognise that teachers are the most valuable resource in education? What if we invested in their wellbeing? Would that reduce the number of teachers leaving the profession each year? Would it raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools? Would it raise the profile of teaching as a profession? What if every teacher mattered?
These were some of the questions posed by Kathryn Lovewell this month when we met at a school in Surrey for the launch of her book Every Teacher Matters.
“They don’t train teachers how to manage the emotional rollercoaster that is teaching,” Kathryn said. “The day-to-day emotional demands are huge, never mind the pressures of institutional change, the exam results, the league tables and then of course all of the judgements made by the media.”
Kathryn worries about a culture of self-sacrifice, where teachers believe they must work every hour of the day. As an NQT, Kathryn took these messages to heart: working unsustainably hard, she found herself in hospital after her probationary year, burnt out. Her recovery was hampered by feelings of guilt about having “let down” her students and colleagues.
Kathryn’s experience is vivid but not unique. Last year, we received 1,221 calls or emails from teachers reporting problems with their work/life balance. We received 3,210 calls or emails about anxiety and 2,779 about low mood, while 1,429 teachers reported sleep issues.
Fortunately, Kathryn recovered from her illness. Furthermore, she learnt from it and she grew into a stronger person – and a resilient teacher. She now insists that others should not have to learn the hard way. Instead, she imagines a society that prioritises emotional health in the workplace. Her vision is a world where teachers and learners have a high level of emotional intelligence. This, she says, will result in “effortless teaching and learning”.
Kathryn is right. Emotions are often a barrier to effective communication. How often have you been met with an inexplicably hostile attitude to a reasonable request? How often have you had an idea rejected not because it was bad but because of the mood the person was in? As a culture, we have a long way to come to comprehend how emotions affect behaviour in organisations.
Thankfully, many teachers are blessed with superb social literacy. My son’s former mentor from secondary school is an example. His patience, tact and wisdom allowed him to be an inspirational teacher. I later realised these qualities were enabling him to mediate between his colleagues and to bring about organisational change.
When teachers like this help colleagues to develop emotional intelligence they make a school a more empathetic place. In doing so, they help make society more humane. Yet 79 per cent of teachers think the profession has a poor public image, according to a survey we conducted. It seems the public does not fully recognise the value that teachers add.
What if they did? A society where teachers matter would value emotional intelligence and would invest in teacher wellbeing. Its leaders and policy-makers would engage in meaningful consultation with teachers’ bodies over changes that have the potential to affect wellbeing. Education initiatives would recognise the primacy of the professional relationship between teacher and pupil and would not involve excessive administrative demands for teachers. Most importantly, a society that values teachers would give them time each day to recharge, to do those things that bring them happiness, in order that they can be healthy role models for their students.
Teachers like Kathryn can help us imagine the future for teachers and students. It is for us all to hold on to that vision and turn it into reality.
Julian Stanley is chief executive of the Teacher Support Network. Visit www.teachersupport.info or call 08000 562 561 (England), 08000 855088 (Wales).