Rachel and I work at a high-achieving secondary school in Surrey that has flourished in the last ten years, transforming from an uncertain future to one of the top performers in progress at GCSE and A-Level. Behaviour and learning culture is fantastic, and overall the experience of working there is demanding yet extremely rewarding. And yet, staff are stressed and, at times, really struggling. Browsing Twitter, chatting at conferences, or looking at the staggering rate of teachers leaving the profession, it seems we are not alone.
So where does one pinpoint the problem?
Workload has been high on the agenda in the last couple of years, quite rightly in the lexis of the DfE and Ofsted; but how can we reduce teacher workload and reduce the working hours of a profession who for too long have exceeded a reasonable numbers of hours worked every week? Of course, sensible marking policies are a welcome introduction to many workplaces and I for one will not be found marking exercise books, but how far can that go to alleviate a grossly inflated workload? There is scant funding available to employ more teachers in order to lighten teacher timetables or reduce class sizes, let alone enough actual prospective teachers ready to sign up to the ranks.
But what if workload wasn’t the main issue? Part of the melting pot, sure. But many teachers enter the profession knowing that they will work hard and that crunching the numbers on your average hourly wage wouldn’t be a welcoming sight if you included every minute of time you put into your role. Perhaps there are other issues that are undermining teacher wellbeing and causing huge levels of stress beyond the literal notion of how much work there is to do.
Rachel and I recently attended a whole-staff INSET run by an external provider at our school. The day focused on wellbeing. At last, a chance to focus on ourselves as people and teachers. It was promising. But, five hours later, we felt a little disappointed. The model employed by the ‘experts’ left something to be desired, and didn’t really provide either individuals, or the school, with long-term solutions to improve our wellness. We reflected afterwards that staff were crying out to address their wellbeing; they wanted support in managing their stress, and they wanted leaders who created a culture of empathy and understanding. Easier said than done in a school, we thought.
And so, our project was born. With the Head’s permission, and a little funding, we were aiming to improve wellbeing among our staff at school. Chuck a survey out to staff, look at the results, make some changes. Easy! We’d be lauded as the heroes of the school, championing the staff and obliterating any stigma of mental health or wellness.
We pulled on a thread, and somehow, it is still unraveling. Quickly we realised that our aims would at best put a plaster on the wounds of the staff, and at worst, a soggy plaster flapping in the breeze. This project would need to go much deeper, with a robust evidence base and an exploration of every facet of behaviour, leadership, stress, workload and wellbeing.
Step One: literature review. We are currently reading through plenty of studies, ranging from basic psychological needs at work, to teacher wellbeing systematic reviews. This is already proving both fascinating and frustrating: there really isn’t enough out there at present.
Step Two: interview experts. We have already spoken to the Relationships Foundation (blog to follow), and are also booked in with other psychologists, corporate firms, public institutions and schools. We want to find out how they look after staff, essentially.
Step Three: primary research. We are conducting surveys and focus groups at our school, possibly with a view to roll out to other schools in our network to increase sample size
Step Four: partner with universities, research institutions or similar to continue our work.
Conclusions so far: from our experiences so far, we already overwhelmed by how cultural changes to an organisation can influence how staff feel about themselves and their jobs. This sounds simple, and obvious, but if it was so, there wouldn’t be a widespread problem with teachers’ mental health, recruitment and retention.
We have made one small step forward, but there is so much more to do and we are invigorated at what we might be able to contribute to the discussions in the future.
Please get in touch if you’d like to contribute
Sam and Rachel