Coaching and wellbeing for teachers and school leaders

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
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Wellbeing has become a key priority for many schools in the UK. In response to this, coaching is increasingly being employed as a CPD strategy to support staff. Helen Webb discusses the ways coaching can be used to improve staff wellbeing

The annual Teacher Wellbeing Index (Education Support, 2018 & 2019) highlights a variety of issues affecting the wellbeing of many teachers and leaders. These include work-related stress, high workload, lack of work/life balance and negative impact on personal relationships. Such issues are linked to under recruitment, poor retention and staff absence.

Furthermore, the NASUWT Big Question Survey 2018 of 7,000 teachers highlighted that 84 per cent reported that their job has impacted negatively on their wellbeing, 78 per cent stated that they have experienced more workplace stress, and 64 per cent stated that the job had adversely affected their mental health in the previous 12 months.

It is now generally acknowledged that wellbeing is tied to optimal performance. Consequently in schools, staff wellbeing can inevitably have an impact on student outcomes. In response to this, schools are increasingly using coaching as strategy to support staff in navigating some of the complex issues mentioned above.

Coaching can be truly transformational. Personally, it has been some of the best CPD I have ever received and it has also had a huge impact on my own wellbeing and motivation.

Research by Sardar and Galdames (2018, p57) agrees, reporting that school leaders view coaching as beneficial to staff in a number of ways: “Coaching is beneficial to increase resilience and confidence, cope with stressful situations, bounce back from obstacles and emotional detachment from a practical perspective. It helps to break typical thinking patterns, broaden views, opens trainees up to receiving feedback and gives them the chance to ‘see the forest for the trees’.”

However, professional one-to-one coaching programmes can be expensive and the implementation of coaching models within schools may paradoxically also be contributing to increased workload pressures, a key issue affecting teachers’ wellbeing.

According to the Teacher Wellbeing Index in 2018, 72 per cent of the 1,502 education professionals surveyed said that workload is the main reason for them considering leaving their jobs. In 2019, this figure stood at 71 per cent.

Coaching invariably takes place in a teacher’s limited planning, preparation and assessment time, which can further compound the workload issues noted above. Despite these additional pressures, the growth of coaching in schools may reflect the fact that many teachers recognize that the benefits of coaching outweigh the drawbacks here.

The following summarises just some of those benefits and explains how coaching can support staff and help to improve wellbeing.

The gift of time

I do not think you can underestimate the power of simply being listened to. Having space in the working week where you are the priority is gold dust. The frenetic nature of education in the current climate of tight budgets and high workloads has meant that many educators have very little time to think about what they are doing as they are too busy doing it. Coaching therefore provides staff with “headspace” and allows time for reflection, evaluation, motivation and inspiration.

If needed, coaching also provides the opportunity for staff to discharge difficult emotions in a “safe” and private space. This can be extremely cathartic and in some circumstances, may also help to tackle toxic working environments. Having a supportive relationship, someone with whom you can confidentially discuss personal and professional issues has also been shown to relieve stress and anxiety too (Myers, 1999).

Goal-setting

Coaching provides staff with the time and space to work towards their personal and professional goals. Simply, the process of setting self-concordant and personally valued goals, and then purposefully working towards achieving them, can enhance wellbeing and build self-efficacy (Sheldon & Houser-Marko, 2001). Conversely, coachees may wish to articulate SMART goals directly related to improving their wellbeing.

Goal-setting is a hugely important part of the coaching relationship and if done well can also increase the likelihood of “flow”. Flow, synonymous to “engagement” or “being in the zone”, is an intrinsically rewarding highly absorbing state in which people lose a sense of time and the awareness of self, leading to joy and elation. Flow states are more likely when individuals choose their own activities, goals are clear, performance feedback is immediate, and the challenges of the task are high but within the individual’s skill-set (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Signature strengths

One evidence-based coaching exercise that improves wellbeing focuses on signature strengths. Signature strengths include honesty, loyalty, perseverance, creativity, kindness, wisdom, courage and fairness. Seligman (2011) believes that you can get more satisfaction out of life if you identify which of these character strengths you have in abundance and then use them as much as possible in school, work, hobbies and with friends and family.

Encouraging staff to focus on their strengths, rather than simply correcting weaknesses can also be beneficial in harnessing both a positive and growth mindset (Dweck, 2017). This concept has gained a high profile in schools, as when students have a growth mindset they are more likely to take on challenges and learn from them, therefore increasing their abilities and achievement (Mindsetworks, 2017).

The PERMA model of wellbeing

Coaches often use models to inform their practice. One such model that addresses many of the issues affecting teachers and leaders is that described in Martin Seligman’s book Flourish (2011). His theory suggests that wellbeing is comprised of five elements summarised by the mnemonic PERMA: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

Models such as PERMA provide a framework to aid our understanding, raise awareness and further enable coachees to consider what can be done to maximise each element to improve their wellbeing.

Using Seligman’s PERMA model to frame wellbeing goals can also be more constructive as positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment have both objective and subjective components as opposed to the goal of “being happy”, which is a mood that by nature is transient and hard to measure.

Value, meaning and purpose

Coaching teachers to recognise their purpose and values in relation to wellbeing is well supported by classic research on what motivates us.

Maslow (1943) argued that people are motivated to achieve a range of needs, ranging from basic to more complex areas of growth. The highest of these needs, self-actualisation, reflects the motivation to find value, meaning and purpose in life.

One powerful coaching strategy is to encourage teachers to connect their professional role to their intrinsic values (e.g. what really motivates them to work in education or why did they enter the profession in the first place?).

Identification of a teacher’s values can help clarify what is really important to them and may provide a greater sense of perspective when dealing with daily work challenges. A renewed sense of purpose can improve wellbeing and may also provide greater agency in managing stressors, such the antagonistic demands of work and home.

Resilience

For many teachers and leaders, resilience is a hugely valuable trait to possess. Education budgets are tight; the numbers of staff and support mechanisms are shrinking yet the demand for results remains.

Teaching is a complex profession requiring staff to constantly manage and respond to the varied needs, demands and personalities of the students they teach and the members of their team.

Teachers and leaders also receive and have to manage a huge volume of feedback (often critical and judgemental) from students, line managers and parents. In this context staff, despite the challenges to wellbeing that these issues cause, require greater levels of resilience.

Albert Ellis’ (1958) ABC model of resilience explains how beliefs (B) about an adversity (A) – and not the adversity itself – cause the consequent (C) feelings. The power of raising awareness of this model to coachees is that they can be encouraged to understand that their emotions do not follow directly from an external event but from what they think about those events.

Coachees can be encouraged to slow down this ABC process through more flexible and accurate thinking and apply this to their daily lives, particularly in challenging heat-of-the-moment situations – an invaluable life-skill that can also be cascaded and modelled on to students and colleagues.

Celebrating success

Coaching is an ideal opportunity for celebrating accomplishments. In the frenetic world of education, these opportunities can be easily overlooked on a day-to-day basis, and the immediate impact of recognition on mood and wellbeing can be profound.

It also encourages the coachee to recognise and acknowledge achievements outside of the coaching space. However, Whitmore (2017) further argues that: “For people to build their self-belief (thus improving personal wellbeing), in addition to accumulating successes, they need to know that their success is due to their own efforts. They must also know that other people believe in them, which means being trusted, allowed, encouraged and supported to make their own choices and decisions.”

The prerequisite for a successful coaching relationship is that the coach has genuine and unwavering belief that the coachee holds the solutions to their own problems, has the ability to make the right decisions and thus provides the coachee with the time and space to do this.

In this regard, coaching not only empowers teachers and leaders to recognise and take advantage of the choices they do have, but coaching can also support in the development of a leadership style that recognises and incorporates these needs of personal responsibility and choice in their own team.

Personal coaching can therefore lead to the development of a coaching culture, indirectly benefiting the wellbeing of others.

  • Helen Webb is a professional freelance coach and an experienced science teacher and lead practitioner with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. Helen works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. Visit https://helenfwebb.wordpress.com or follow her @helenfwebb. Read Helen’s previous SecEd articles at http://bit.ly/2cLa6UZ

Further information & research

  • Csikszentmihalyi: Flow: The psychology of optimal experience, Harper and Row, 1990.
  • Dweck: Mindset (revised edition), Robinson, 2017.
  • Education Support: Teacher Wellbeing Index 2018: http://bit.ly/2yUWm2m
  • Education Support: Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019: http://bit.ly/2US5pgw
  • Ellis: Rational psychotherapy, Journal of General Psychology, Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, 1958.
  • Maslow: A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review, 1943.
  • Mindsetworks: Decades of scientific research that started a growth mindset revolution, 2017: http://bit.ly/2Kwb5r6
  • Myers: Close relationships and quality of life, in Wellbeing (eds Kahneman, Diener & Schwartz, Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.
  • Sardar & Galdames: School leaders’ resilience: Does coaching help in supporting headteachers and deputies? Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 2018.
  • Seligman: Flourish, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2011.
  • Sheldon & Houser-Marko: Self-concordance, goal attainment, and the pursuit of happiness: Can there be an upward spiral? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2001.
  • Whitmore: Coaching for Performance (fifth edition), Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2017.


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