Moving beyond the teacher wellbeing crisis: flourishing in teaching and leadership | Education Support
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Teacher wellbeing crisis - surviving and thriving

Moving beyond the teacher wellbeing crisis: flourishing in teaching and leadership

4th December 2019

Emma Kell interviews Karen Edge, who through her role at the Institute of Education, offers some brilliant ways forward on some of the issues illuminated by our recent Teacher Wellbeing Index.

It’s genuinely hard to know that so many fellow teachers are struggling, as illuminated starkly by Education Support’s Teacher Wellbeing Index published last month. It can be all-too tempting to throw our hands up in despair, declare the system ‘broken’ and admit defeat. But, given that children are always going to need teachers, the only real option is to keep trying to find some answers – not wait for the system to change first.

I was particularly interested – though not surprised – by the high levels of vulnerability to mental health problems of school leaders and in reflecting on the potential impact of that on their colleagues.

It’s all about the evidence in UK education at the moment. This is just as it should be, but the gulf between teachers’ lived experience and the pontifications academics or the rumbling us against them rows on Twitter can understandably put some teachers right off. So it was with a sense of genuine joy and excitement that I heard Dr Karen Edge of UCL speak at Townley Grammar School’s appropriately named ‘Inspire’ conference last month. Even more inspiring was to see how much it meant to teachers to hear from an academic who truly ‘gets it’ and who, furthermore, has practical and concrete suggestions for how they deal with some of the struggles that come with our noisy and hungry and demanding job. What course of action was there but to stalk her to insist on an interview so we can shout some of her findings from the rooftops – because I know they’ll help!

Karen led the Global City Leaders research project, funded by the ESRC on an initial 4 year journey to explore the experiences of Generation X leaders (those under 40 years old) in London, New York City and Toronto. Karen’s mission is to take this extensive research and generate from it simple, meaningful and effective strategies to help school leaders and their colleagues flourish in teaching and leading. It is notable that whilst the findings are based on leaders, many of the outcomes are equally applicable to teachers.

Karen isn’t interested in ‘quick and easy’ tips but in an emphasis on the choices we make – and the habits we break – to make our own lives more fulfilling and productive and, by extension, have a positive impact on those around us. At the centre of her analysis is developing an awareness of how we are perceived by others; what messages are we sending out about our profession or our role to inspire others to take it on if we are openly struggling?

When I asked lots of teachers what action could be taken by teachers struggling, most fellow teachers suggested they ‘leave’. But, as Karen says, the answer is rarely that simple:

"Leave isn’t an option if you’re a parent who needs the money or a single person who has a mortgage… only really helpful if you have other options. That isn’t a message that’s going to help our system get stronger."

Is it as bad as the Teacher Wellbeing Index would suggest?

Well, yes. In each city she visited, Karen encountered at least one incident of grave illness caused directly by the stress of school leadership.

"We had someone in Toronto who’d be read their last rites because the doctors thought they were dying and having a heart attack – it turned out it was stress-related exhaustion. We had somebody who had major reconstructive surgery due to stress in England. We had somebody who’d been told that if they did not stop their job, they would die."

The message that Karen emphasises is that it does not have to be this way. Each of the leaders made radical changes – all are still in the profession. But Karen emphases that hitting extremes of stress is not the way forward.

"Getting to rock bottom is not the place to bounce back from, because on the way to rock bottom, you’re taking your colleagues, your family, your friends and yourself, and the deeper down you go, the harder it is to climb back up.

Being exhausted is not an accomplishment. Being exhausted is a sign that things are going to get worse."

What can we – as leaders and teachers and those who work with teachers – actually do to address the mental health crisis in school?

Check in

The findings from the GCL study would suggest that simply noticing and asking someone how they are in a non-judgemental manner can, on its own, have a huge positive impact on our colleagues:

"For every teacher working in a school just now, look around and check that your colleagues are doing ok. And if they’re not, simply asking someone if they’re ok can make a massive difference."

Slow down

How fast do your school leaders walk? asks Karen at the Inspire conference. A knowing chuckle from the audience of teachers.

‘Slow down’ is Karen’s advice.

"Unless you’re a competitive runner, there’s no real reason to run at work. It sends a message to other people that you’re not organised or good at your job because you’re constantly running to catch up – this is the physical manifestation of being behind. At the same time, you’re sending your body a message that says, ‘you’re late – get going!’ and it’s exhausting. You’re adding physical exhaustion to emotional exhaustion, which is crazy."

Given that many school leaders do move very fast, what does this suggest about their jobs?

"This is really poignant when you look at the retention crisis – we have many teachers who don’t want to be middle leaders; middle leaders who don’t want to be leaders; deputies who don’t want to be heads. The main issue for me is if you’re making your job look unattractive.

Most people don’t want to physically exercise in their work clothes – if it looks like you’re running a race at school, the perception of you is either that you aren’t good at your job (because you’re always late and always running) or that the job requires you to travel at that pace. Most people do not want a job that requires them to run from place to place. It doesn’t build confidence in your followers."

Carry one bag

When I first met Karen in person, she asked me how many bags I carried. At the time, I was trying to arrange my bags – my canvas one from the last conference containing books I might need and a pair of kids’ socks; my bag from this conference and my impractical handbag - so as not to cause an alarming health and safety hazard. My life has since been revolutionised by the purchase of a single, practical backpack.

Karen explains:

"[Teachers] carry the emotional burdens the job brings, but they also carry around the physical burdens. So there’s the everyday stuff like your lunch and the stuff to drop off for your family. And then there’s the flip side - all the other stuff. The stuff that you take home at night that you never get do in the evening.

We have a colleague – a principal from Bolton - who calls it the ‘guilt bag’; you take it home and you take it back and it doesn’t do you any good at all, because all you’re doing is carrying around the reminder that you think you should be working. Carrying four bags at a time is just unnecessary. It also makes you feel bad for all the stuff you’re carrying around. You’re not a Sherpa!"

How does it look if we’re walking around like Sherpas?

"If you are one of those people who are taking home a suitcase or an enormous bag full of marking and you’re not doing it when you’re at home and you’re carrying it back… people don’t know what happens behind closed doors… usually you’d leave it in the boot of the car or take it inside – and then you’d feel bad about not doing anything about it. Our message is: leave things you don’t need to take to school at home, leave things you don’t need to take home at school – start projecting an image that this job is doable and you will slowly convince yourself that it is."

What I love about Karen and her advice is that it comes from a position of genuine empathy and appreciation of the reality of teachers’ lives. What I love even more is that these three pieces of advice are so simple. Easy to apply? Not always – it’s about changing our habits, challenging our preconceptions about what it means to be efficient and effective and genuinely considering how we are seen by those we need to be inspiring and supporting – not least, our students.

If you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing please call our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.