Teacher Wellbeing

I must say at the outset that the #teacher5adaySlowChat idea is a great one. I am honoured to have been asked to chip in with some thoughts on teacher wellbeing.

In this post I hope to spell out concerns I have before suggesting some things that we can do about them, and the challenges that we face in doing so. In this I hope I will find and indeed build common cause with teachers everywhere.

I write this and, no doubt you read this:

not as a journalist nor as a politician

not as a councillor nor as a governor

not as a pundit nor as a consultant

not as an economist nor as a government minister

I speak in the role that we do have – the role that matters most in education and in society…a teacher.

Before there was any such thing as a journalist or a politician…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a councillor or a governor…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as a pundit or a consultant…there were teachers.

Before there was any such thing as an economist or a government minister…there were teachers.

And after all those who pontificate have passed from the education scene…there will still be teachers.

“There is no higher calling. Without teachers society would slide back into primitive squalor.” So said the late Ted Wragg.

But how are we teachers, so central to society’s success regarded? How are we treated? How are we supported?

If you are naive enough to believe the pundits and the politicians, then we’re treated quite well. Indeed, the ‘Get Into Teaching’ website preaches that as a “valued professional” you can look forward to:

Job satisfaction, “competitive salary, generous pension”.

It goes on to tell about long holidays in which you can: “pursue your interests, travel and spend time with family and friends.”

Not for them the lower life expectancy that has seen several of my former colleagues die just after retirement.

Not for them the tension and stress brought on by the challenge of behaviour management, increasing workload and poor relationships.

Not for them the conclusion of Mike Finlayson the then Head of Teacher Support Scotland nearly a decade ago that: “The [teaching] profession is approaching a collective nervous breakdown.”

A collective nervous breakdown.

Is that the reward?

The recognition?

For us valued professionals?

Research into teachers’ health and well being shows that the problems of stress-related illness are not recognised, far less looked for and even less still, adequately dealt with.

The now defunct Teacher Support Scotland reported half of teachers finding their jobs very or extremely stressful; nine out of ten believing that the situation had got worse.

More than three quarters of teachers believed that the psychological stress at work had had a knock on effect on their physical well-being. With cases of mental health problems and depression especially bad in male teachers – and higher than amongst health workers.

They also pointed to the link between teacher length of service and burn out, and that with an ageing profession it could only get worse.

In short, we are not just a caring profession. We are a profession in need of care.

But what of the support for teachers given by those who have a duty of care? Employers think that levels of support are adequate yet in reality they are not. Few teachers are aware of employer support mechanisms, indeed they are only used by less than two percent.

Teachers are more likely to suffer from occupational health problems than health workers yet have less occupational health support.

There is a gap between the rhetoric of the pundits and reality of the professionals. It is a gap that leaves teachers stressed not supported with employers who have a duty of care taking a license to ignore. We run the danger of seeing not a profession at ease with itself but a profession on its knees.

My starting point is: ‘teacher working conditions are pupil learning conditions’. How staff in schools are treated impacts upon the pupils in their care. This is not as simple as paying teachers more to ensure improved attainment or achievement. It is about the specific cultures that exist within a school and the prevailing culture within society as to how the teaching profession is valued.

It is my contention that schools as institutions are simply rubbish at looking after the wellbeing of staff. In fact, if we failed our pupils in the same way in which we so badly fail those who work on their behalf, there would be a national scandal.

It is my further contention that schools rely on the fact that they are so bad at staff wellbeing and that consequently, any real attempt to solve the problem may be doomed to fail.

In Radio Scotland’s 1980s ‘Only An Excuse’ mockumentary, they parodied the late James Sanderson. (He was a Saturday night radio phone-in pundit who would ask callers: ‘were you at the game?). They had him criticise a fan who couldn’t get to the game (because it was his wife’s funeral) by asking ‘how long can that take, surely you could have made it along for the second half?’

What was the stuff of 80s satire is now the reality of 21st century attendance management policies. These target maximum staff attendance at work through little other than bullying them into turning up to work regardless of the state of their health.

In schools there is much more we are doing but still need to do to support those pupils who have carer responsibilities at home. We massage deadlines for them, provide additional help or resources to prevent gaps in their learning from developing into chasms.

Yet, when was the last time in your school, a teacher was permitted to complete a bureaucratic task after the imposed deadline due to family commitments or a sick child say? Does our desire to help carers in school stop when they are the teachers? All-too-often it seems to.

Even the normal running of a school is based upon a whole series of lies.

In Scotland, a full-time teacher has a contract that states that they are employed for 35 hours per week. For this work they are paid the appropriate salary for their post. Strangely, the only part of the bargain that is kept is the salary paid. Indeed from both parties, employee and employer there seems little expectation that the other part will be kept.

Each local authority-run Scottish school annually creates a ‘Working Time Agreement’ that pools together all of the available time for all of the work to be done. All of it. Every. Single. Second. Yet, again, nobody sticks to it.

In both the basic contractual relationship and the WTA people are often heard to say things like: ‘Oh, I could never do all of my work in a 35 hours week.”

Worse still, there are some who expect that people will simply ignore any working time commitments. These folk are the workaholic types who can be found bragging about how late they were up working or how many hours they spent doing something.

To them I say this: Good for you! If you choose to give free overtime to your employer, I am sure they are happy. However, don’t expect this of anyone else. Further do not even dare try to brow beat others into giving similar donations.

Such folks are the ones who label others as clock watchers, yet without a trace of irony also talk about having to balance budgets? Labour is a factor of production. A price is paid for it on the basis of an exchange. Both the time given and the price paid for it are fixed. Which part of this needs to be explained further?

Oh, I forgot: the morality of the work of teachers as providers of a service. This makes acquiescence all the easier.

It is all of these pressures that serve too often as barriers to teachers taking ownership over their own well-being.

Yet there is hope. Some local authorities are paying attention to the problems of teacher stress. They see that teacher well-being is fundamental to excellence in education.

There are numerous examples of work based schemes that have the support of teachers because they give support to teachers. More work is being done to speak to teachers about stressors and in making commitments to tackling them.

But more has to change than simply rediscovering the problem or providing a helpline. And it must be done by all who have a duty of care for teachers – working together with teachers.

The culture in our schools must change. Support must be available, reliable and confidential. School managers must be equipped with the skills to create that culture and respond to individual need.

Stress affects us all in our job at different times and in different ways. More must be done to create and then individualise appropriate mechanisms that offer teachers support and coping strategies.

Best practice must be identified and shared.

Fundamentally, the main causes of stress: behaviour management, too much admin and poor relationships must be minimised if not eradicated.

We cannot solve the problem of teacher stress by giving teachers coping strategies and doing nothing about its causes.

Teachers are already doing an excellent job – but even more could be achieved if teachers were given the support to do so.

If we wish to have the best possible learning experience for pupils then we must have the best working conditions for teachers. Central to that is the well-being of teachers.

However, at a time of cuts and with more cuts to come, how much hope is there that things will get better?

The communities which we serve are seeing the closure of the very facilities that help them to be sustainable.

All-too-often it is teachers who step in to fill the void when other services cannot.

But, who will step in to help us?

We may have to count on each other even more than before.

Ted Wragg was right, there is no higher calling than teaching.

We achieve so much and can achieve so much more.

The challenge to our employers, to our colleagues and to ourselves is to work to create the conditions to do so.

This challenge is growing but it is one that we have to meet.

For the sake of our pupils – and ourselves.