Speaking out: teacher wellbeing in 2020 | Education Support
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Speaking out: teacher wellbeing in 2020

2nd December 2020

Deputy head Andrew Cowley looks at what the Teacher Wellbeing Index reveals about the impact of this extraordinary year on the wellbeing of teachers and education staff. 

As November arrives, so does the fourth annual Teacher Wellbeing Index. Even at the best of times, the Index is a useful tool for school leaders, governors, local authorities and trust leadership to be aware of, but this has been a year like no other.

Providing education in a pandemic

The pandemic has affected every industry and sector, but the impact on schools has differed considerably from other workplaces. National lockdown began on 23rd March and though we were told schools were ‘closed’, in reality they weren’t. We continued to offer education for vulnerable children and those of key workers. We also provided an education online for pupils at home. A staggered and partial return to school in June was complicated by working around tight risk assessments, before our full reopening in September.

There was fear and trepidation surrounding the return in autumn, outlined here. From the first week in September, infections began to rise and it was only a matter of a couple of weeks before we heard of the first bubble closure.

Impact on teachers

As seen in the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2020, the coronavirus crisis has sent stress levels spiraling upwards, from an already high base. In addition to the pressure that we feel due to monitoring and evaluation - and the usual challenges any class presents - we have the constant nagging fear that our actions, or those of our students, might be the trigger that closes our class, year group or whole school.

The initial research for the Index took place in the summer, in different condition as to those faced now. A follow-up survey indicates that 84% of the teaching workforce felt stressed in October and this rises to 89% for school leaders.

What has been very telling this term is the extent to which teachers have felt difficult symptoms, including tearfulness, insomnia, difficulties concentrating and focusing. This can only have been exacerbated by the pressures of maintaining bubbles, but also by the fact that we are missing the staffroom, the interactions and banter, the letting off of steam over a cup of tea and a jaffa cake.

On top of this, the upsets, traumas and ongoing matters of day-to-day existence haven’t disappeared, but appear magnified on top of the current predicament. Sometimes our colleagues just need a hug and a shoulder to cry on; social distancing means we can’t even do that.

School culture under pressure

Schools rely on the strength of their interpersonal relationships to thrive. Wellbeing in any school setting depends upon the strength of culture in that school and the ability of it to support professional relationships. Now, more than at any time in the past, that culture and those relationships are under pressure like we have never known before.

There are some indications of a shift in culture in some institutions. More are offering in-school counselling services, supervision for class teachers, senior leaders and Designated Safeguarding Leads. Yet still, 57% of us still feel uncomfortable disclosing stress and mental health issues. There remains a stigma about this, a fear that perceptions of us will change if we reveal too much. There is also a feeling that wellbeing isn’t taken seriously, with 58% of respondents revealing that that wellbeing surveys haven’t been conducted at school and many don’t even know if they have a wellbeing policy in place.

Retention

Retention and recruitment needs to be seriously considered. The recent NAHT survey indicated that 49% of headteachers thought they would leave the profession at the end of this crisis. The Teacher Wellbeing Index shows that 52% of teachers feel that they wish to leave the profession because of the impact on their mental health and wellbeing.

If this number of headteachers and senior leaders leave the profession, where are their replacements coming from? Will they possess the experience, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence and empathy required to lead a school? If classroom teachers leave at the same rate, the investment in their training, in their ongoing professional development and in their vast experience will count for little.

What next?

Teachers, senior leaders and schools are under immense pressure, and attendance in some schools has dropped to 65%. Increasing numbers of schools are closing bubbles because of Covid infection and the lack of teaching capacity to cover some classes. Yet despite these challenges, we still face testing and inspection.

Graded Ofsted inspections may resume in the summer term and examinations and statutory assessments will still take place. Year 2 teachers are preparing for the delivery of a delayed phonics check, in the week in which they would usually be preparing for their Nativity play.

The volume of administration and amount of stress that testing and inspection bring, impacts upon the mental health and wellbeing of our teachers and pupils. Some consideration has been given to this but, for the sake of our profession and our children’s futures, is this enough?

The Teacher Wellbeing Index makes for sobering reading. Please share it widely.

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at Orchard Primary School in Sidcup, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of “The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff”  published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit

How we can help 

Teachers and education staff who are feeling stressed or anxious during these uncertain times can get confidential emotional support from our free and confidential helpline: 08000 562561.

What can you do?

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