Can SLT really improve teacher wellbeing? | Education Support
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Can SLT really improve teacher wellbeing?

5th February 2019

In 2018, secondary school teacher Bonnie Harrington would have said teaching was broken and that there was nothing senior leaders could do about it. After recovering from an of episode of work-related stress, and moving schools, she's realised there is a huge amount senior leaders can do. 

If you’d asked me in 2018 if I believed senior leaders could make significant wellbeing changes, I’d have said no.  Firstly, I had just about every symptom of work-related stress possible (crushing dread, drastic negative thoughts, anxiety, sleeplessness) after teaching in two different, but difficult schools.  I thought if opposite schools could be equally as damaging, then teaching itself was broken.

Secondly, I had never seen, or heard of, a Senior Leadership Team (SLT), actually having a positive impact on teacher wellbeing. The most I’d known SLT to implement was some stiff, brief thank yous at the start of a weekly meeting and an occasional bar of chocolate in a pigeon hole at the end of term. There might have been an obligatory wellbeing INSET forcing staff to meditate. That’s it.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful - simply, the reality of teacher workload had never, in my experience, been adequately managed by SLT. Pizza before parents’ evening doesn’t quite cut it when you haven’t been home before 6:30 once in the last two weeks, you’ve cried most days and you’re seriously considering crashing your car on the way to work to avoid setting foot in the building.

So, no. 2018 me would have told you that teaching was broken, leave now and accept that SLT was as stressed as you were.

It turns out, I was wrong.

After recovering from my episode of work-related stress, and moving schools, I’ve learned there is a huge amount SLT can do. No school is perfect, but my current school is doing extremely well at supporting wellbeing.

For example, in the last week of term (when staff are usually exhausted) meetings are cancelled for “wellbeing time”. This extra 2 hours can be devoted to lesson preparation or marking, or possibly a precious lie in, which directly benefits health, teaching and stress management.

There are regular staff voice meetings, led by SLT, where staff can honestly discuss issues. As a result of these meetings, there has been a limitation on ‘all staff’ emails, with central communications coming once per day, or once every few days. There are no emails sent on weekends or after 9pm.

SLT are present around the school, and approachable. You will receive a warm and friendly greeting, and you can discuss anything. There are planned staff socials, Friday fitness and free breakfasts after parent evenings.

Evenings are protected, with only one meeting per week after school. Other meetings are on a rota and have been shifted to the mornings while students are in learning assemblies. We finish on Friday at 2:35, meaning staff who are parents can collect their own children from school. There are a weekly recognition messages on Monday morning of genuine thank yous from colleague to colleague read out by SLT.

Key areas of stress for many teachers are book looks and observations. My school handles this by treating us as professionals. Observations are not “surprise” but are scheduled within a two week window, and are a supportive discussion. Targets were not imposed on me, but rather, I was able to reflect on how I’d like my teaching to improve. There are planned book looks within departments, where good practice is discussed, no nitpicking or negatives. I’ve always left these meetings with good ideas to take into my classroom and I’ve never felt “caught out”.

Once, after a bad day, the second-in-department came to quietly find me and check on me. I was absolutely fine, but it meant so much that she cared to enquire.

There was a time when I covered an assembly last minute and I was publicly thanked by the head teacher for my team spirit. I didn’t expect to be noticed for it, but I can still remember what a great feeling it was to be recognised.

Perhaps most importantly, my head of department is tuned into supporting us, rather than being a “yes person” to SLT. She puts us first and listens. She models good practice in rarely staying late, and encouraging us to use weekends and holidays to rest. A few weeks ago, I was due to have a lesson drop in and I was tapping my pen unconsciously. She noticed, and told me I had nothing to worry about, because I was a great teacher. I practically skipped into my classroom! Each positive comment has been key in rebuilding my confidence as a teacher.

She, and the members of SLT in the school, typify something I’ve long believed. When a leader is confident in their abilities as a leader, they trust and support their staff. Positivity can flood the corridors. Teachers are able to flourish and thrive, and wellbeing isn’t an add-on INSET activity, it’s part of every day.

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Bonnie is an English teacher from Bristol, passionate about teaching and teacher wellbeing.