Staff mental health: Are you having your five-a-day?

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Patrick Ottley-O’Connor: “My wellbeing mantra for teachers and everyone in a school is simple – see it, own it, solve it, do it."

In a three-part series, Phil Denton considers the merits of initiatives to improve mental health. In part three, he meets school leader and self-confessed ‘Wellbeing Super Model’ Patrick Ottley-O’Connor and considers the NHS five steps to mental wellbeing resource


In our vocation, we are constantly looking to support, protect and cherish the young people in our school. However, the demands of the role can take an emotional and physical toll on us as professionals, which can ultimately lead to mental health issues among teachers and a retention crisis which is damaging to the profession.

The Department for Education has reported that a fifth of teachers leave teaching within two years of qualification (DfE, 2021). And the pandemic has exacerbated the stress facing our colleagues. Education Support’s latest Teacher Wellbeing Index found that 84 per cent of teachers and 89 per cent of school leaders described themselves as feeling “stressed” or “very stressed” (SecEd, 2020).

Quite simply, if we do not look after the wellbeing of our teachers, schools’ efforts to cater for the mental health and wellbeing of students will be put in jeopardy.



Mental Health Initiatives: The three articles in this series can be found via the following links:



Wellbeing Super Model

One headteacher who has put supporting the mental health and wellbeing of his teachers firmly at the forefront of his approach to headship is Patrick Ottley-O’Connor.

Patrick – who can be found on Twitter @ottleyoconnor – has been a headteacher for almost 20 years. He often speaks to his staff about putting on their oxygen mask before they help others. It is a simple metaphor that tells us to make sure we are okay before we look to help those around us.

Patrick has a unique way of describing his wellbeing mission to colleagues and fellow educators: “I describe myself as a Wellbeing Super Model,” he told me, adding quickly: “That’s in no way referring to my looks!”

He explained: “My wellbeing mantra for teachers and everyone in a school is simple – see it, own it, solve it, do it. I believe we all have a duty to take ownership of our own wellbeing and that includes asking for support when we need it.

“I strive to encourage, engage and empower my fellow educators so that they feel a sense of control around their wellbeing.”

Patrick’s model of development allows wellbeing leadership to be devolved and systemic, therefore not reliant on any single “wellbeing ambassador” or senior leader.

At any school led by Patrick, you will see multiple examples of this wellbeing drive: “I use a recognition system and give out chocolates, wine or wellbeing star of the week awards. It’s not a soft option though. When I talk about wellbeing, it is in the context of a high-performing school which is underpinned by positive wellbeing.

“That doesn’t mean we don’t have tough conversations, but we do train the staff on how to have those tough conversations in a positive sense.”

Patrick uses the NHS five-a-day mental wellbeing guidance (see further information) and applies this to the world of education.

Patrick has also been inspired by fellow educator and senior leader Martyn Reah, who launched #teacher5aday in 2014 at a SSAT teachmeet, since when it has become a mainstay of education Twitter.

Patrick says that the NHS five steps have inspired his wellbeing work: “They help to underpin my leadership approach which I term as a ‘Culture of Care’.”

The NHS five steps are: Connect, Keep active, Keep learning, Give to others, and Be mindful.


1, Connect

To connect, Patrick often begins his tenure as headteacher or interim-headteacher with a staff perception questionnaire. He looks at the ways in which staff see themselves, the school and the school leadership. From here, he looks at approaches which can improve relationships within a sustainable model of school improvement.

This was perhaps most successful when he took over a school which had been in special measures and led it out of the category within six months without any changes to external data.

Patrick has also taken interim roles which have required a steadying of the ship or a swift turnaround. Regardless of the starting point, Patrick is steadfast in his belief that a positive, caring but aspirational culture can overcome the issues that many schools face.


2, Keep active

I get tired just looking at Patrick’s holiday Twitter feed! He is constantly sourcing low-cost, exciting holidays which involve his family trekking to various parts of the world or cycling across the UK. He believes that this is what keeps him physically and mentally healthy.

In a conversation with him earlier in my headship career, he inspired me to get up and out early in the morning and start running. I did and I must say it changed my mindset during the school day. His runs, with his wife Mel (also a teacher), are often snapped and shared to inspire others to get out and do the same.

Such activity is championed by mental health charity Mind, which points to benefits including better sleep, happier mood and reduced stress/anxiety. As Patrick would say, it doesn’t have to be a marathon or a long-distance run. It can be a simple dog walk, stroll, or exercise class.


3, Keep learning

Lifelong learning is a passion of Patrick’s. He is always looking to work with colleagues and external professionals to improve his knowledge of learning and pedagogy. He is also a very keen cook and has been championing healthy eating via social media. His nightly meal shots are quite incredible and show that Patrick is eager to focus on the small things in life, such as cooking a meal, and to enjoy being present in the moment with his family.

On his family holidays, he always has a guidebook in hand. While in the country he will learn about culture and traditions and this learning clearly begins before he arrives.


4, Give to others

As he drives home from work, Patrick will often be coaching others in leadership roles or those aspiring to make the step up. He came into my school and spent the morning coaching senior and middle leaders purely from a place of goodwill.

He takes the time to share his experience and guidance to anybody who asks for it. He sees potential and enjoys seeing others flourish which in turn gives his own mental health a boost. Such a selfless approach is reflective of his strong sense of moral purpose.

Patrick has spent many years working with the Future Leaders programme – now Ambition Institute. He has supported the NPQH and other NPQ courses, too.


5, Be mindful

Patrick has his biggest priorities focused on his family. They spend time together enjoying occasions, holidays or doing not much at all. Being mindful of family and those closest to us can be one of the first things to fall away as we get swept away with the pace of the job. Keeping them at the forefront of our thinking is a real challenge, one which I myself have regrettably failed at from time to time.


Conclusion

While Patrick would never claim to be perfect or to have all the answers, he has certainly been an inspiration to me and to many school leaders. He left me with one golden nugget as I reflected on my own approach to wellbeing: “You have to remember that one person’s wellbeing dream is another’s nightmare.

“Yoga for one group might be great but for another it could be a negative and uncomfortable experience. You need to listen to your staff and offer them the wellbeing experience that meets their needs and that of the school.”

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Lancashire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/seced-denton


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