Blog 2, May 2020: What can be done within schools and colleges to support teacher well-being?

Rachel Mathieson, Chris Forde, Judith Hanks

May 2020

The worsening exodus from teaching in the UK has been widely documented . Low well-being and burnout are known to be key contributing factors , as we outlined in an earlier blog . What can be done to support teacher well-being and mitigate the factors that cause problems with teacher burnout and mental health?

In this second blog and accompanying briefing document , we focus on what teachers say enables them to feel supported in their professional lives and to maintain good mental health, considering evidence from schools and colleges which are being run and led in a way which seems to avoid many of the problems reported elsewhere. In addition to evidence from teachers, we also present views from senior managers who say supporting and valuing their teachers is central to how they manage their schools, lead their staff and make decisions. Alongside this, views from union representatives and HR professionals are presented. This evidence is drawn from an ongoing project conducted in partnership with the two largest teaching unions, the NEU  and the NASUWT , and funded in part by the Leeds Social Science Institute  through the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account.

Culture

Performance management and accountability systems are key contributors to the pressure teachers say they feel, which in turn can cause stress and anxiety. Teachers told us that they needed to feel valued, and that the performativity and audit culture has the reverse effect, making them feel as though they are being found at fault. Managers who have patience with their staff, and who allow expertise to develop over time and then value that expertise and experience, are much more likely to find their staff stay with the institution and teach confidently.

‘…generally you can look at a school and how a school performs by the leadership that it has… that culture…of positive leadership….bringing staff on and encouraging them in the working environment that you can create.’ Union official

One pinch point for teacher retention is the early career: a significant proportion of new teachers are leaving the profession within three or four years of joining . It is essential for leaders to understand that these early years can be make or break, and new teachers need to be supported and encouraged through this period of rapid learning and adjustment.

Mentoring, whether on a formal or informal footing, is an example of the measures institutions can take to work towards establishing what one participant called a “steady ship”, where staff turnover is minimal. Successful leadership is about building that steady ship, having a shared vision, listening to staff, and having confidence in the teachers and what they are doing in their classrooms.

Beyond sticking plaster initiatives

Wellbeing is not tackled, our participants felt, through what they referred to as the sticking plaster initiatives being introduced into schools, as into other organisations – the bowl of fruit or chocolates in the staffroom and the yoga classes after school – but through the systemic and structural processes and expectations of the school.

There needs to be clarity over expectations and policies, so that aspects of school life such as the directed time budget are in place and allow teachers to feel comfortable with what is expected of them. Policies around issues such as marking and email burdens should be devised in conjunction with staff, to take account of their concerns, views and suggestions, and to keep staff feeling in control of their own work:

‘They’ve [staff] got some good perceptions. Ask them regularly……I think that we consult well with staff… in the school improvement plan, then, staff can see their ideas, what they wanted, students can see it, the parents forum contribute, so that that’s how you get the buy into the community.’ Secondary headteacher

The importance of considering each teacher individually in order to look after their wellbeing. One senior leader described this as “having their [the teachers’] backs”. It is also important to “be human”, as one leader put it, and recognise that teachers have a life outside the classroom. In these schools, there is more likely to be a relationship of mutual trust.

We wrote in our first briefing about the isolation which teachers can feel, especially if their school or college does not have a staff room or work areas where teachers can meet together. Some teachers told us they believe their institutions have deliberately dispensed with areas where staff can congregate, so that teachers cannot share and compare their experiences, and potentially organise together. Schools and colleges which, on the contrary, encourage and promote a sense of community and of team spirit enhance wellbeing.

Good leadership: enabling teachers to do their job

Some leaders or managers were seen by participants as metaphorically cascading down and passing on the stresses of Ofsted  and government reform to their staff, and/or using those external levers explicitly to put pressure on their staff. Other leaders were perceived to behave more like a door opening both ways, facing external agencies with compliance, whilst shielding classroom teachers from any ill effects of those pressures and allowing teachers to address the school’s priorities and exercise their professional judgement.

‘…It’s about being really well-organised, having a really well-organised school, where you’re not wasting silly amounts of time. Leadership is about looking at what needs to be developed and not changing things for the sake of it. And I’m a great believer: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’ Primary headteacher

In particular, some leaders recognise that change for change’s sake rocks the boat, causing extra workload and anxiety. Such leaders are at pains to deflect multiple initiatives before they hit staff. These kinds of leaders are highly valued and appreciated by the teachers working in those schools: this kind of practice, where leaders prioritise their own staff and students, and which may involve being quietly subversive, was described as “flying under the radar”. As one participant put it, “Good leaders forget about themselves”.

Conclusion

Many of the findings seem straightforward: good leadership and a supportive culture help teachers feel valued at work, and able to exercise their professional judgement. In turn, this is likely to have positive effects on the well-being and mental health of teachers.

Participants felt that sharing good practice should be a much greater priority, and that the culture needs to change within the profession, moving from the current situation where it is common for unions and other stakeholders only to become involved with a school once there is a problem, to one where the Senior Leadership Team engage in open and continuous dialogue with teaching unions and others to aid communication and trust.

There is already an abundance of useful information developed by unions representing classroom teachers (e.g. the NEU  and the NASUWT ) and those for school and college leaders (ASCL  and NAHT ), on promoting and embedding good practice around well-being and mental health. There is considerable potential for these excellent resources to be used more, and for trades unions to be a vehicle for positive change.