‘We need to talk about staff wellbeing’: but what does that actually mean?

Text as originally posted on staffrm…

Staff wellbeing. A term being bandied about quite a lot at the moment. And with the current challenges facing teacher recruitment and retention, it’s becoming even more important. Education magazines and blogs promote the need for a focus on staff wellbeing but what does it actually mean?  
I recently visited Microsoft’s HQ and saw their interpretation of wellbeing. Unlimited free drinks in fridges throughout the building and an Xbox room that is also open to families at the weekends in case you have to pop into work. Flexible working hours and the ability to work from home so work and life don’t have to be in eternal conflict. But how realistic is this in education and it’s this really wellbeing? Schools just aren’t designed this way.

Reducing marking expectations so you mark selectively and more effectively. Having fewer meetings. Turning school emails off on mobile devices. Not writing full lesson plans. Having free tea and coffee available for staff. These are the current in school alternatives. But does this really support our wellbeing? Does this really reduce the stress and anxiety felt by many in the profession? Or perhaps is it time to rethink?

Teacher burnout isn’t just a UK problem. It’s reported in countries as diverse as India, Jordan and the USA. And the issues are the same; including lack of resources, too much admin, volume of work and student behaviour (seeJ Rankin’s article at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/much-more-common-core/201611/the-teacher-burnout-epidemic-part-1-2). But the solutions we offer for wellbeing don’t really seem to address these.

James Hilton in ‘Leading from the Edge’ writes about the need for paying attention to physical symptoms, not isolating yourself and asking for help when you need it as a way to stop stress and anxiety spiralling out of control. In other words, is the key to supporting wellbeing really about improving communication? Are staff in school confident in their ability to say I’m struggling with this and know that they’ll get support? We wouldn’t give our students a massive project (and teaching is a never ending series of projects – the new marking style project, the develop your use of questioning project, the improve behaviour management project) without expecting them to ask for help along the way so why do we seemingly judge teachers for doing the same thing. But communication works both ways. It’s not just about leadership being non judgemental and offering support in the first instance. It’s also about teachers remembering that school leaders deserve good communication to give them the opportunity to ensure their own wellbeing too. School leaders aren’t the enemy and while they are perceived as the perpetrators of everything souring teachers’ wellbeing we won’t get anywhere. Teachers and leaders need to communicate better to work together to reduce anxiety and stress levels in schools for everyone – surely that’ll help everyone’s wellbeing more than any meetings free week ever could?

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