Shining a torch on teacher wellbeing… and keeping the candle burning | Education Support
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Shining a light on teacher mental health and wellbeing

Shining a torch on teacher wellbeing… and keeping the candle burning

10th November 2019

This year, I had a bit of time to steel myself before reading the Teacher Wellbeing Index report, but it didn’t make it any less painful a read than last year. I use the word advisedly. I have spent my entire adult life working in education – as a teacher, as an advocate for, mentor to, writer for, leader of teachers. It actually hurts to read about the state of our teachers’ mental health as laid out in this detailed and thorough report. I actually had to read it in small chunks, walking away at regular intervals. Writing this piece is just as hard. I want to jump straight to the ‘it’s not all bad, though, because LOOK!’ section. But just as, when I had to confront the reality of the ‘teacher crisis’ when writing How to Survive in Teaching, now is another time to shine a light into the darkest corners of our profession, lest the shadows be allowed to multiply as they have continued to do in recent years.

So, here goes. This is what stands out for me. Rates of anxiety and depression are significantly higher than for the general population; over a third of education professionals have experienced mental health problems in the last year. So far, difficult to take in but possible not beyond management with a supportive network, now? Someone to talk to, a bit of time out could well alleviate many of these issues. But hang on – almost half of teachers say they feel they have to go into work despite being unwell. With so many teachers feeling the same, surely there must be a culture in which mental health problems are discussed openly? Well, no, apparently not, because 60% of education professionals, according to the report, would not feel comfortable even disclosing mental health issues to their employers (let alone discussing them!) and a quarter feel there is a stigma around discussing mental health problems in schools.

There had seemed to be the beginnings of a sea change a few months ago, with the surge in popularity and status of the Chartered College, an increasing number of informal staff training events such as BrewEds all over the country, an apparent increase in numbers applying to teach, and an acknowledgement on Ofsted’s part of the importance of wellbeing and workload for teachers… but it hasn’t been enough. Indeed, the tendency on the part of many schools to try to ‘second-guess’ ‘what Ofsted want’ seems to have resulted in significant increases in workload and general anxiety

It seems that the pervasive fear around our accountability systems has gone nowhere.

There are two groups that stand out from the report as being particularly vulnerable, and they are those at either end of the spectrum of experience: newly qualified teachers and school leaders. The learning curve of an NQT is tough – I know it was the hardest year of my adult life, but with 43% reporting mental health issues (compared to 34% of other education professionals), this is a serious cause for concern. With attrition rates of new teachers already a serious issue (NFER research shows that a third of teachers leave within the first five years), the need for action is greater than ever. It is a source of significant hope that the Early Career Teacher Framework is coming into place to address some of these issues.

One of the most worrying things about the report, for me, is the acute vulnerability of school leaders; 84% of senior leaders would describe themselves as ‘stressed’ (compared to 72% of other education professionals) and 68% report working more than 52 hours a week.

It can be so tempting, when analysing the issues which contribute to teacher stress and burnout, to point the finger directly at a school’s leadership, but we need to take a moment out to consider how we are effectively ‘supporting upwards’ – and in every direction. Remember, these are the people with the ‘job security of a football manager, but without the pay’.

Having lost a headteacher colleague and friend to suicide some years ago, I am all too acutely aware of this.

At his funeral (there were so many people, they spilled from the building), his daughter had chosen the Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ to play loudly as we said goodbye. He was indeed a glorious feat of nature. Maybe we all need to ensure that we keep the candle burning steadily rather than letting ourselves burn out too soon.

Those working tirelessly in education, thank you for all you do for our children. We need you to keep doing it. When I think of the bright and hopeful and determined faces of new teachers I’ve meet in recent weeks, I think of our duty as their friends, relatives and colleagues to show them how to look after themselves. Presenteeism will never be anyone’s friend. Challenge unreasonable practices, duplicated pieces of data, last-minute ‘urgent’ requests and the urge to burn the midnight oil for the sake of the latest governors’ report. ASK FOR HELP when you need it – it’s there, if not within your school then with Education Support's helpline (08000 562561). Not only do you owe it to yourselves and your loved ones, but to those coming through the profession beside you who look to you to role model that teaching, whilst challenging, doesn’t – and can never -  preclude being a human being too.

Dr Emma Kell is a teacher, researcher, speaker and author of How to Survive in Teaching 

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