How can schools address teacher wellbeing?

To support teacher wellbeing and ensure schools keep incredible teachers, senior leaders need to shift their mindset about what wellbeing is. Kat Howard from Duston School explains how

Since it shot to the top of the agenda for schools, ‘wellbeing’ has received some bad press. As a result, staff wellbeing has been miscommunicated as something of a process – a journey that we take staff on to ensure that our teachers feel a sense of fulfillment and job satisfaction in our schools.

External pressures, poor relationships then leading to further emulation of poor relationships, and a complete lack of effective leadership training means that wellbeing in some scenarios, even with the best of intentions, has led to a skewed definition of what it means to be well. In an earnest bid to improve conditions, senior leaders have provided staff bodies with yoga classes, cake Friday and mindfulness courses – then scratched their heads, somewhat puzzled when the classes are empty, the cakes are left discarded and no one wants to be ‘present’ because they’re too busy marking, too despairing at the lack of time to exercise and in too much of a rush to get home to loved ones on a Friday to watch clouds float past on a DVD loop of the summer sky.

Where are we getting it wrong?

I would argue that it requires a shift in our mindset when it comes to what wellbeing is. Simply put, wellbeing is the outcome of all that we do in schools, and not the prescription that we offer teachers in how to get there. It would be patronising of me to dictate to others what makes them happy, and fulfilled outside of work, and so as a senior leader, all I can do is support teachers to spend most of their time in work feeling as close as possible to their overarching sense of purpose, to teach, and make sure they feel a sense of autonomy and collective purpose. Sounds simple, right?
Start by time costing your existing systems. What are your teaching staff, trained academics that are experts in their subject speciality, spending most of their day-to-day time in school doing? If it is inputting data, logging behaviour, holding detentions, calling parents, then they have become a very expensive administrative team. If it is excessively marking, planning in isolation, trawling the internet for outrageously priced resources which they then pay for form their own pocket, then they have become little more than an operative.

What would we like them to spend their time doing instead?

Teaching, of course, but teaching a curriculum menu that feels meaningful and knowledge-rich to them as the experts. Do not underestimate the value of a decent curriculum provision when it comes to considering the wellbeing of staff; as intellectuals, staff hold the freedom and space to teach the very best of their subject is absolutely invaluable. The capacity to discuss the etymology and origin of language, the impact of history upon literature, or the very dissection of characters themselves, as an English teacher, is what I entered the profession to do.
Of course, at times, I am required to do other things, but we must nurture and protect the teacher’s right to this core purpose if we are to retain the very best of people. Equally so, we must enable them the time to develop as subject experts: our specialisms are broad and vast, and we can only become experts with a CPD provision that achieves exactly that. Gone are the days of whole-school INSET twelve times a year, delivering the same message to all subjects in a one-size fits all approach. Whilst entities like behaviour, curriculum do carry inclusive messages, we must temper that with a high regard for our subjects.
To enable staff to form such relationships, we need to make time for real-life conversation, which means we need to ease up on the email. Personally, I would argue that email has a limited function in schools, and we must work hard to enable staff to meet as much as possible to speak to one another to ensure ideas are sounded out and given a test run, but also to avoid a loss in translation that we can fall foul of with electronic conversation. Furthermore, we are not senior surgeons or government Ministers; we do not save lives or make national decisions, and so could probably afford to leave our staff alone of an evening or a weekend. For that reason, there needs to be a consistent message for email usage in school that understands flexible working, but also draws boundaries for staff that means there is a sense of ‘switch-off.’ Whilst I understand that this needs to work for your context, I would encourage you to speak with staff to decide upon the whole-school approach so you don’t have the 11pm night bird emailing, followed by the 5am early riser, sending staff into somewhat of a 24/7 operating frenzy.

The impact on all levels

On that note, when making change or deliberating over new initiatives in schools, we must think carefully about how we have considered the impact that such change will affect every layer of the staff body, from the NQT, to the 22 hour teaching timetabled teacher, to the middler leader, to senior level. And where have we explicitly asked their opinion, the obstacle or challenges that they anticipate with such a change and most importantly, the solutions that they may suggest to reach resolutions and a refinement from the original idea? Creating working parties empowers staff to think through, consider and implement change, but also feel like an integral part of the collective purpose of the school itself; to know that they have helped to shape and mould the school journey will not only develop them professionally, but will make it more likely for them to want to stay, to see out the process to fruition.
I need to set the caveat that none of this is possible without a dual narrative between the senior leadership team and the teaching body; if we are to create a narrative of ‘done with, not done to’ with staff, we must ensure that we are providing a doors open approach to new initiative, and cultivating honest, solution-driven feedback with our teachers.
Finally, we must make room for flexibility in the educational sector. Somewhat behind other industries here, the fact that almost a third of our leaving teachers are women aged 30-39 should be a stark indicator to us that for whatever reason, we are asking parent teachers to choose between their career and feeling like a committed parent, when I would argue with the correct systems in place, both in synergy are entirely possible.
If we are to keep incredible teachers in schools, we must value the way in which we use their time, and ensure that it is to foster purposeful discussion, drive and a sense of community to continue to build a profession with longevity and a sensible approach to people-centred development.

About the author

Kat Howard is an Assistant Principal at The Duston School, an all-through school in Northamptonshire. Kat is also Founder of Litdrive, a resource and CPD provision for English teachers with the key aim of reducing workload through effective curriculum planning and subject enrichment. An advocate for improving teaching conditions for teachers in schools, Kat is regional representative for the MTPT Project, a charity that supports parent teachers. Kat’s recently released book, Stop Talking About Wellbeing works to take a pragmatic look at how we can improve conditions for teachers in schools through systematic change and a practical approach, shifting the focus from tokenism to takeaway strategy.