What can school leaders do to develop resilience?

There is currently a crisis, both nationally and internationally, in relation to teacher recruitment and retention. Alongside reports from the Department for Education that a third of teachers plan to leave within five years, there are also widespread concerns about the health and wellbeing of those teachers who remain in the profession.

Within this article, Dr Steph Ainsworth from Manchester Metropolitan University explores what schools can do to support teacher wellbeing.

Teacher resilience: context matters

In the face of concerns over teachers’ capacity to cope with the increasing demands of the profession, researchers and schools have attempted to identify ways to support teachers in building their resilience. While early work considered resilience to be a trait which resides within the individual (in the sense that some people are more resilient than others), more recent work considers resilience to be a social process which operates through interaction between the individual and their environment.

This shift in emphasis away from the individual teacher towards their environment is important because previous approaches tended to put the responsibility of coping solely at the feet of individual teachers. This has led to an unhelpful blame culture, which does not take into account the adverse conditions that require teachers to be resilient in the first place, and can make things harder rather than easier for teachers.

More recent ‘social-ecological’ approaches to teacher resilience emphasise the importance of tackling the challenges that teachers face across multiple levels. For example we might try to address factors relating to the individual teacher (e.g. by supporting teachers in building their self-confidence), while also looking at how to improve conditions within school (e.g. by taking measures to reduce workload). A recent study conducted at Manchester Metropolitan University (Ainsworth and Oldfield, 2019) found that factors relating to the school environment have just as much as impact on teacher wellbeing, job satisfaction and risk of burnout as individual factors. The key message of this study then is that context matters.

School level factors associated with teacher resilience

Within the study mentioned above four school level factors were found to be strongly associated with teacher wellbeing, job satisfaction and risk of burnout: support from management, workload, school culture and support from other colleagues. The study showed that teachers were not all equally happy (or miserable!) within their roles. Levels of wellbeing, job satisfaction and risk of burnout varied considerably across the 226 teachers who took part, with the four factors listed above playing an important role in how well teachers were able to cope with the challenges of the job. These findings suggest that school leaders can have a significant impact on teachers’ ability to thrive within the profession by ensuring that their teachers feel supported, moderating teacher workloads, creating a positive culture and providing opportunities for colleagues to support one another.

What does supportive management look like?

Within our study the aspects of leadership that correlated most strongly with teacher resilience were communication of a clear vision for the school, regular feedback and recognition for the achievement and effort put in by teachers and opportunities for teachers to contribute their own ideas. Other important characteristics found to be important were visibility and availability of leaders to discuss issues with teachers, fair decision-making and effective use of staff development time. Our research suggests that when these aspects of school leadership are in place, teachers are much more likely to feel satisfied and well.

How can school leaders moderate teachers’ workload?

With the launch of the Workload Challenge for Schools and subsequent School Workload Reduction Toolkit the government has demonstrated a commitment to reduce teacher workload. The new Ofsted inspection framework and Teacher Retention and Recruitment Strategy were also designed with workload reduction in mind. Key strategies recommended by the Department for Education include effective use of technology, review of feedback and marking practices, efficient collaborative planning using and adapting existing (shared) resources as appropriate, review of data collection and management systems and efficient communication practices within school. The importance of bearing workload implications in mind when managing change and developing procedures related to performance and behaviour management is also emphasised. One of the key principles that cuts across all these strategies is the need for work to be proportionate to the value gained from it.

The suggestions made by the Department for Education to reduce workload seem sensible and are supported by case studies which illustrate how they might work in practice; however, the extent to which the drive to reduce workload has had a positive impact at scale is yet to be established. Within the last month, two conflicting sets of results have been published. On the one hand, the Department for Education has just released a report which claims that teachers’ workloads have fallen by almost five hours per week since 2016. In contrast, a recent project conducted by University College London, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that the average number of hours that teachers spend working each week teachers’ has not changed significantly in the last twenty years. This report suggests that teachers in England continue to work longer hours than teachers in other countries and that any significant reduction in workloads will ‘likely require additional, more radical action on the part of policymakers’ (Allen et al., p.27).

On a more positive note, our research and other work within the literature shows that despite the many challenges faced by schools in terms of top down pressures and high stakes accountability, some school leaders are able to successfully moderate workload practices leading to higher levels of teacher wellbeing. What is needed now is systematic research into which specific strategies to reduce workload are most effective in particular contexts so that school leaders can adopt an evidence-based targeted approach to the workload challenge.

How might leaders establish a positive and collegial culture within school?

As highlighted above, school culture and colleague support have been shown to be important factors in the resilience process. Positive school cultures are characterised by a sense of family or community among school staff, a sense of belonging, optimism and the freedom to express ideas and opinions.  In our work with teachers they have talked about a range of different ways in which leaders might foster such a culture, e.g. through team building activities both inside and outside of school (e.g. staff doing weekly Park Run together), a regular programme of wellbeing and social activities, taking care to adopt a positive approach to leadership (praise, recognition, careful use of language, etc.), and establishing both professional and personal trust. It has also been noted by the teachers that we work with as well as within the wider research, however, that the culture of a school is not solely the responsibility of school leaders and that every single person within a school can have a positive impact on generating a positive culture.

The creation of a collegial culture where staff feel they have multiple sources of support within school has very strong support from the literature. An important idea which has been applied to schools in recent years is the notion of relational resilience, which suggests that resilience is not something that comes primarily from within but from a sense of connectedness with others. It is therefore important that school leaders provide ample opportunities for teachers to support one another, for example, through collaborative planning, coaching and mentoring or buddying systems and networks with other schools. Given how central relationships are to wellbeing, it is important for time and resources to be devoted to developing supportive systems and practices within schools which prevent the feelings of isolation often reported by teachers.

Take home message:
School leaders can support their teachers by adopting supportive leadership practices which help to reduce unnecessary workload and foster a positive and collegial culture. At the heart of these practices should be strong positive relationships, professional trust and a genuine commitment to autonomy.

Ainsworth, S., & Oldfield, J. (2019) ‘Quantifying teacher resilience: Context matters’. Teaching and Teacher Education, 82, 117-128.

Allen, A., Benhenda, A., Jerrim, J. & Sims, S. (2019) New evidence on teachers’ working hours. An empirical analysis of four datasets. [Online]. University College London. [Accessed 3rd October 2019]. Available from: https://johnjerrim.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/working_paper_teacher_hou...