Teacher wellbeing: put your own oxygen mask on first | Education Support
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Teacher wellbeing: put your own oxygen mask on first

23rd August 2018

I am sure we have all sat down on a plane, excited to be jetting off somewhere hot, exciting, and different. But before the pilot takes off, there’s the safety briefing. Make a note of the exits. Check. Lifejackets under your seats. Check. Put your oxygen mask on first, before helping the children with theirs. Wait, what? Yes, if the oxygen masks drop down from above, adults must place their masks on first and then, and only then, do they help children place their oxygen masks on. This has always jarred with me. Maybe it jars with the instincts of all teachers (and parents). So often we put children first, and then attend to our own needs. But the reason for ignoring our instincts on this occasion is very simple and also very important: if you don’t put your oxygen mask on first, you may not be able to help the children in your care.

Why teacher wellbeing matters

As the oxygen mask analogy implies, if teachers are not taking care of themselves, this will inevitably have a knock-on effect for our children too. Evidence shows that when teachers burn out, not only do they not teach as well but they cannot care for their pupils as well and so pupil wellbeing and attainment falls (Black, 2001). But the opposite of this is true, also. Studies demonstrate that when teacher wellbeing is high, there is a positive relationship with increased pupil attainment. One report by the Education Support Partnership entitled, Healthy Teachers, Higher Marks, showed a ‘statistically significant positive correlation’ between teacher wellbeing and pupil SAT scores. 

Teacher wellbeing also matters because we are significant role models in our children’s lives. If we want our children to lead happy, fulfilling lives then we, as teachers, must do our best to model how to do that. A report on mental health commissioned by the government in 2008 stated that, ‘teachers who are stressed, or demoralised, make poor role models for young people.’ This does not mean we should be inauthentic and pretend we are flourishing when, deep down, we are not. Teachers are human too and we are allowed to show our children the full extent of our humanity. Being a good role model for wellbeing simply means we start to care for and nurture ourselves as much as we care for and nurture our pupils.

Practical ways teachers can nourish themselves

On the surface, much of what depletes teachers (hyper-accountability, lack of time, high-stakes tests, etc) may seem beyond their control but there are, in fact, many practical things teachers can do to improve their situation, look after their wellbeing and even flourish. Below I suggest three ways in which teachers can begin to nourish themselves more. Think of each of them as a deep inhalation of oxygen from your mask.

1. Foster positive relationships

“Relationships are themselves a crucial part of psychological wealth, without which you cannot be truly rich,” according to psychologists, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener. But teachers often work in separate classrooms, in isolation from each other. Teachers need to feel part of a team and part of a tribe. So, why not try these ideas to foster positive relationships in your school:

  • Set up a social committee in your staffroom
    Arrange regular nights out – comedy nights, trips to the pub, meals out, 10-pin bowling. The activity you choose is less important than the act of getting staff together, away from school and socialising.
  • Encourage all staff to take at least 30 minutes for their lunch break
    Come together and eat. Connect with your colleagues. Share successes, vent frustrations, and laugh. Laugh often!
  • Set up a staff-wellbeing team
    Their job would be to find ways to make work more conducive to wellbeing. Look at ways to work more flexibly, cut-back on unnecessary paperwork and meetings, embrace effective marking strategies that reduce workload. Find out how Brimsdown Primary School set theirs up.

2. Perspective

Given our brains’ innate negativity bias, it would be very easy for us to dwell on the depleting and depressing aspects of our jobs. But, is there another way we can perceive our situation? In the book, Man’s Search For Meaning, holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, writes these immortal words: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” (Frankl, 1946). This reminds us that we have a choice in how we perceive our situation. This is not to diminish the bullying, stress and shame that many teachers experience on a regular basis. The point is to realise that we are not powerless, even if the situation seems largely out of our control. An important question to reflect on regularly is:

What is your purpose for being a teacher?
One of my reasons for remaining in the classroom, despite thoughts about leaving, is to be there for my children, to teach them the skills of wellbeing and to help change the system from the inside out. So, what is meaningful about teaching to you? Let that purpose guide you and give you strength in times of need. Allow your sense of purpose to keep your perspective wide.

3. Laughter

Laughter serves many purposes but one of its main functions is to counteract the negative effects of anxiety and stress. “Humour helps people handle stress within relationships and communicate difficult information by lightening the mood” according to Prof. Louis Cozolino. Apparently, we’re 30 times more likely to laugh when with other people than when we’re alone. This is because laughter is contagious. So, laughter helps with social cohesion. Us teachers are lucky that we get to work with children every day. Yes, it is stressful but it also gives us many opportunities to laugh during the day.

What is your funniest ever classroom moment?
One of my funniest moments in class happened when I was guiding my class through a listening meditation. It was summer so we had the doors and windows open. I was asking my class to notice sounds nearby and far away. I asked them if they could hear the sounds of birds outside, or the distant sound of traffic. I asked them to notice if the sounds were pleasant or unpleasant. At that exact moment, a child accidentally broke wind extremely loudly. Cue rapturous laughter than lasted for several minutes! Do not let your funny classroom moments go by unnoticed. Savour them and join in with the laughter.

Adrian Bethune is a primary school teacher and author of Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom – A Practical Guide to Teaching Happiness (Bloomsbury, £19.99). This blog contains excerpts from a chapter in Global Perspectives in Positive Education (John Catt, £16).

www.teachappy.co.uk @AdrianBethune

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