We ask a lot of our teachers, I think. We ask for high professional standards, for well-planned and effectively executed lessons, for them to take time to give student feedback, be at Parents’ Evenings, deliver pastoral care; to look after the wellbeing of their learners in a number of ways. But we don’t always focus on teacher wellbeing, which led me to write this article before I went to the annual IATEFL Conference in Glasgow last week. There, one of the plenary sessions, by Sarah Mercer, was called “Connecting minds: language learner and teacher psychologies”, and it focussed on teacher wellbeing. Teacher wellbeing was also a feature of this article from the Huffington Post – The Elephant In The (Staff) Room – Why We Need To Talk About Teacher Wellbeing. You may well have read it too, as it’s been widely shared on social media. The ideas in the article are not really anything new, but they make valuable reading for us, as academic managers.
The article says ‘schools need to talk about teacher wellbeing’. This may seem obvious, but I’m not sure how many schools really take teacher wellbeing seriously enough to talk about it and, perhaps, even set up some structures and processes to support it. In my experience, many academic managers pick up on indicators that ‘something isn’t quite right’. It’s quite common where I work, for example, for one of the academic management team to say, in the office: ‘Does anyone know what’s going on with X? S/he seems a bit down at the moment….’. Other team members may be able to offer some insights, and we may talk to that staff member to support them and help them out. Because our academic managers spend a lot of time in the staffroom, our antennae are quite sensitive to even small changes with our teachers. Sometimes it’s a big problem, sometimes it’s something less serious, but we support in a number of ways, from talking, to changing classes, to providing an observation support scheme, to providing a mentor.
You doubtless have similar processes in your own schools, and they probably work well, most of the time. However, if you manage a number of off-site teachers, relying on antennae will be less effective – so what do you do then? And if you have hourly paid teachers who only come into the school once or twice a week – what then? We rely on these teachers as much as we do our staffroom teachers, but perhaps we need to think how we can ‘sensitise’ ourselves to changes in their wellbeing. Such changes can represent themselves by lateness, or teachers coming in, teaching and going straight home, without participating in the life of the staffroom. It can be represented by not attending training sessions, not wanting to try a new class/level/coursebook. Not engaging in staffroom conversations, not completing required admin – just ‘not’. Not being the teacher they had been before. Not being quite present.
How to Help
As ever, knowing your staff, and the approach to take with individuals, is paramount in terms of the style of support you offer. And with some teachers, talking and offering support will be met with either a breezy ‘No, I’m fine. Everything’s FINE!!!!’ or a rebuff, or a defensive reaction. I find that preparing myself to respond to any of those reactions, in advance, means I am better prepared when I do speak to that teacher. This ‘rehearsal’ technique can force you to consider a range of possible responses your teacher may have; this, in turn, forces you to consider a range of alternatives you can consider. Before I started doing this, I would prepare what I was going to say,
but hadn’t thought through what the teacher might say, and how I would respond to X, Y, or Z. That’s probably why I left so many conversations feeling I had prepared Act I of Macbeth, while the teacher seemed to be in Act II of King Lear…
It’s tempting to think that our more experienced staff members won’t have the same issues, but in my experience, that’s not the case at all. In many cases, I think it’s even harder for more experienced staff to admit they are struggling, as they have a certain staffroom persona which can mean they have ‘more to lose’ if they admit to things not being quite right. It can be very hard for an experienced teacher to admit that they are having problems with a class and that they might need some support, especially if they are more experienced than their manager. As managers, we can feel nervous about approaching our more experienced staff to see if everything is OK. And we also, perhaps, feel we can throw more at our experienced staff and they will be able to just get on with it. To an extent, that’s reasonable; but I wonder how often I check in with my more experienced line managees when they are teaching a new class/course. Maybe not as often as I should?
I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on the Huffington post article. Is teacher wellbeing an issue in your school? Are there specific things which contribute to, or detract from, teacher wellbeing; and are you in a position to influence these? And perhaps, in the next issue, we might look at manager wellbeing – if we are brave enough!