As someone with a soon-to-be four-year-old, I am visiting schools for talks and tours with a view to making a decision on where I want him to be educated for the next seven years. It feels daunting and the need to make the right choice weighs heavy (not to mention the fact that we might not even get a place in the school of choice). But once questions about how each school proposes to teach the wider curriculum in the face of the ever encroaching tide of phonics have been answered (and in my experience this is a concern of many parents), I always ask the head, “how do you look after teacher wellbeing in your school?”
Anyone who has seen Russell Howard’s sketch on teachers will have laughed, and cried, at the reality of life at the chalk face in this developed country in 2017. In it he describes teaching as one of the hardest jobs, highlights the rapid rise in the number of teachers signed off with stress and other physiological and mental health issues, alarmingly increasing class sizes, the devastating effects of austerity, and more. It’s funny, ironic, and desperately sad.
Recent research from Education Support Partnership also paints a picture of a profession on its knees. Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Education Profession 2017 is well worth reading, not only to reassure teachers who are feeling the strain that they are far from alone, but also to see precisely what needs to change. The research was undertaken by YouGov and shows that 75% of 1,250 school and college staff and leaders surveyed said they had experienced “psychological, physical or behavioural symptoms because of work”. This figure is significantly higher than the remainder of the UK working population (62%).
That’s not all. Just over half of those surveyed (53%) said that they have considered leaving the education sector in the past two years due to pressures on health, and 45% feel they don’t achieve balance between work life and home life. It’s a devastating picture. And there’s yet more…
– Almost one in five said they experienced panic attacks
– 56% had suffered from insomnia
– 41% had difficulty concentrating
There is no shadow of doubt that teachers in England are at the limit of what can be thrown at them. As stated by Julian Stanley, Education Support Partnership’s Chief Executive, it’s a “perfect storm”, and one that requires urgent government attention. While schools and associated organisations such as the Chartered College of Teaching are often doing their best to support wellbeing, there are no silver bullets; no fixes that will suit all, or strategies with miraculous outcomes.
Dr Tim O’Brien leads the Chartered College of Teaching Teacher Wellbeing programme. He feels that: “Wellbeing is a very slippery construct that can be understood from many perspectives. Any school that adopts a whole-school approach to teacher wellbeing has to identify what ‘wellbeing’ actually means for the teachers in their specific professional context.” This contextualisation is essential, but also Dr O’Brien explains, “The key aspects of any strategy for improving wellbeing is to understand what dimension of wellbeing is actually being targeted and assessing whether the strategy is having an impact.”
Teachers in England work longer hours than almost anywhere in the world. Teacher Tom Rogers has been vocal about wellbeing on social media. He notes on twitter that: “When teachers have to set aside a day of every weekend for work that doesn’t include planning lessons, the most important thing got lost somewhere. There’s surely a contradiction when a school says they are serious about mental health but insist teachers perform progress miracles daily.”
While the causes of excessive workload and therefore teacher stress need tackling, the experiences of the workforce must be addressed. Teachers are vital and they change lives for the better each and every day. The wellbeing of teachers cannot be a passing fad or a box ticking exercise. Wellbeing matters. Let’s commit.
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.