Teacher well-being: it’s not about the doughnuts!

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Back in 2008, Gwyneth Paltrow started sending out a newsletter for her Gloop empire. It was founded on a simple premise: ‘being well’ was no longer defined by ‘not being unwell’. Being well means actively preventing harmful things from entering your body or mind as well as actively undertaking behaviour which leads to a healthier body and mind.

Dial back to the message being sent out to teachers in that 2000s era and it’s about ‘resilience’ and preventing snowflake teachers from wimping out of the hard yards of being a teacher. It was only when they noticed huge numbers of teachers leaving the profession that they started to really take these things seriously and we started to see initiatives about well-being and workload being brought in. And some of these initiatives have had an impact. Certainly the ‘deep marking’ years of triple coloured pens seem to be finally behind us. The ‘verbal feedback stamp’ has been ground down to a pernicious stubborn nub. But all of these things are not really getting to grips with just what we need to do with our profession.

If wellbeing is no longer ‘not being unwell’, what alternative definitions are there? Cambridge University’s Wellbeing Strategy and Policy offers “Creating an environment to promote a state of contentment which allows an employee to flourish and achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and their organisation”. The DfE offer an Education Staff Wellbeing Charter which says wellbeing is “A state of complete physical and mental health that is characterised by high quality social relationships” saying soberly and perhaps presciently “it is critical in recruiting and retaining high quality education staff now and in the future”.

When a teacher has to work extraordinarily long days and weekends, sacrificing time that could be spent with their family or on their health – the effect is not just tired teachers. It’s teachers without well-being. Teachers unable to achieve well-being directly because of their profession. It’s effectively like being unwell. These teachers know that their job is harming their personal physical health and they know it is harming their relationships with people important to them. In teaching, there’s little flexibility alas. You either work long hard hours or you move schools to a school that doesn’t make you work long hard hours, or you change profession. But don’t people in non-teaching jobs work long hard hours? Sure, but not every week, every weekend and week in and week out. And if they do, they’ve got a similar problem with well-being or it’s likely their employer are offering something else which people accept to offset the harm – such as a high salary.

When you see a school offering doughnuts, or well-being days – it is easy to think these are good things. However, it’s not really targeting well-being. A reduction in workload initiative which hands back time to a teacher to spend with their family is much more powerful as a well-being initiative. When teachers are stressed from work intensity, behaviour management issues or even toxic colleagues and managers then this causes cortisol levels to rise. Today, instead of having resilience to high cortisol levels, teachers are increasingly leaving the source of this stress and finding alternative places of employment. It’s why leadership and retention of staff is seen as so important. Whilst praise and appreciation of the hard work and sufferance undertaken by a teacher is sometimes well received, it does not remove the source of the workload or the stress. Teachers all pull hard on singular occasions – a school play or a parents’ evening. But when it happens every week the praise starts to wear thin.

In some trusts, the job descriptions and role outlines are clear – you are expected to have a worklife balance whether you are M1 or UPS. In some trusts, the job descriptions are the opposite. We all remember ”that” advert: “High energy and sacrifice are required to excel in this position. We cannot carry anyone. We need a commitment from our assistant headteacher to stay until the job is done.” The suggested hours of 7am to 6pm are beyond those with young children or upper pastoral care responsibilities. Should some roles really be exclusively for those without children or responsibilities?

That is not to say teachers cannot work hard without harming themselves. Going to see plays, visiting a museum, listening to a show on Radio 4, getting up early on a Saturday to travel to a ResearchEd event are all extra hours related to work, but they are not toxic hours. There is a balance to be had.

When I look at parts of the profession, I see harm to well-being and unwell teachers. We know that toxic people lurk in our profession. We know that no matter what Ofsted does to its inspection framework, its inspection process causes perpetual harm and a constant state of unwellness to those in our profession. It needs to rethink just how the process does this. Is it possible to protect children through safe-guarding and ensure high standards of teaching with less harm? The constant threat of inspection reduces well-being across the profession and some of Ofsted’s work clearly pushes teachers out of schools and out of teaching. It’s not about developing resilience and toughening up snowflakes any more. It is about cultivating healthy well-being and that means our profession is driving teachers away from teaching because these teachers want to be actively healthy and if they cannot achieve it in teaching they will leave and find a place where they can.

The secret to well-being for us all in education…

The origin of this theory actually comes from medicine. At our university, we train individuals from the ‘helping’ professions such as teachers, social work, and healthcare professionals including  nurses, midwives and allied health (not good for your league table positions on ‘salaries after five years’, but we just ignore that). This means we’ve got experienced professionals from these fields who have then become academics. It’s a fantastic thing really – these people aren’t traditional academics, but people who’ve forged two careers and stand on the boundary of both. We also share practice across helping professions – there’s a lot of similarities: caring nature, mentoring models, standards, excess work, high stakes accountability, unbelievable stress and so forth.

As part of our enrichment programme in teacher education we wanted to introduce more well-being sessions, but ones that were grounded in theory. So we turned to our healthcare practice colleagues. Podiatrist, Dr Adrienne Sharples duly came and offered a session for the trainees and the session was theoretically quite interesting. Adrienne asked questions like: who is checking their work email in their own time? Who thinks about work outside work hours? And of course all the teachers in the room were putting their hands up. The idea she introduced was ‘bounded empathy‘ – the notion that as caring and empathetic professionals we had not established firm boundaries between our duty to empathise during working time and our ability to switch off this empathy during our own time and subsequently we had ‘unbounded empathy’. Her research demonstrated that those with ‘unbounded empathy’ experience poorer well-being. We become ever more involved in loco parentis as teachers, taking accountability and empathy from our professional persona and bringing it with us, through the boundary to our own persona where it reduces our well-being.

Now that this idea is with us in the teacher education department we’ve taken it further and developed the notion of ‘bounded professionalism’. The reason we are checking work emails, working excess hours and generally sacrificing our personal well-being for the sake of a micro-point on someone’s spreadsheet is not solely due to unbounded empathy. Quite often, the things we are doing in our own time don’t really contribute very much to learning at all. Excess marking, data drops – there’s actually quite a lot we’d happily remove. However, in the teaching and education profession we’ve cultivated a notion of what a professional is like and what a professional does. And a ‘professional’ sacrifices well-being and personal family time in order to ‘do the job to a professional standard’. We’ve got a wholly soft boundary that leeches and leaks from one side to the other. I frequently meet senior managers who think that working 55-65 hour weeks is what is expected of a senior manager and that having a soft boundary, that lets them work all weekend, is expected and that only seeing their family for a limited time at the weekend, let alone during the week, is the ‘price paid’ for being a senior manager. Why should a senior manager give more of their own time than any other professional? Do they deserve less time with their family? They are paid extra because the decisions they take carry more risk for the organisation, not because they do 15 hours extra per week. One reason we haven’t substantially reduced workload in the profession is because senior managers are reluctant to let go of the extra work and ensure bounded professionalism is in place. That attitude then permeates the profession: those who already work 55 hours a week and who then complain about 20 hours a week of winter mock exam marking are seen as not fulfilling their professional demands. Having family commitments is almost seen as unprofessional when they prevent a teacher from pulling enormous hours at pinch points in a year.

As a profession, then, we need to have ‘bounded professionalism’. This means to inhabit your professional persona within firm boundaries. When you exit your professional persona you no longer operate in work mode – checking emails, working on marking or plans. You can move from one persona to the other with your empathy checked and your professionalism checked. There is also a realistic and sensible work loading on this professional persona.

When the work load is too high and the bounded professionalism is too weak, then the only option is to sacrifice well-being in order to meet the excess workload. And we all know the end game of that: they leave their job and sometimes they leave the profession. If they don’t, their well-being and their physical and mental health suffers (and quite possibly their family and relationships). Senior managers and teachers alike have to establish new firm boundaries: turning emails off over the weekend and cultivating a culture of not working on the PC into the late hours. Further, they need to be reviewing the high impact events which can shock the professional boundary – the mock exam season just before Christmas, the endless run of late night open evenings, parent evenings and options evenings or even just weekend emails requesting work. Sitting down and planning directed time means these things can be done and people can have hard professional boundaries. It’s time to reclaim the profession and for all of us to reclaim our well-being.



Cognitive Load Theory and Assessment

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Recently, we did a CPD session on using Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) as a lens through which to view teaching and assessment in HEI. There’s scope for teaching practice to be improved in universities: use dual coding, stop reading out slides word for word and so forth. We also focused on summative assessment design. The difference between schools and HEI is we can design our own formal awarding assessments. To highlight an example of poor assessment design for our session we used the QTS Numeracy Skills Test. When you are trying to work out the question, someone starts reading the question out again, overloading your working memory. It’s an infuriating, but excellent example of poor assessment design through the lens of CLT.

In HEI, however, we can design out some of these poor assessments. We can also go further. We can look at whether the right assessment vehicle is being used for the intrinsic load being assessed, whether the assignment briefs contain too much extraneous or ambiguous information and other enhancements. In our session, we also acknowledged criticisms of CLT which are that it is a lab based concept: some extraneous load is normal in the field or discipline. This means whether you are learning or accessing schemas of knowledge, it’s not always possible in real life to remove extraneous load. When one of our trainee teachers is teaching, they have to deal with substantial extraneous distractions on their working memory whilst trying to access their schemas of knowledge in order to run the logistics of the lesson, perform in-action reflection and still teach. These can be unexpected answers or questions from a child, an observing SLT listening in on a learning walk or the mother of all extraneous loads – the rogue wasp. In all situations, they will be expected to demonstrate the Teachers’ Standards despite quite a lot of extraneous load (be reassured trainees, we do get better at managing it all). In seriousness though, if we are considering CLT then assessments have to do two things. First, you need germane laboratory style assessments to see if they can achieve the intrinsic load of the topic. For example, at Oxford University, they have increased the amount of time available for the mathematics paper to increase outcomes of all students. The intrinsic load was more important than the ability to cope with the extraneous load of a limited amount of time.  Secondly,  you need field or discipline based assessments to check they can access their schemas of knowledge as required despite the extraneous load provided by real life. As Mark Enser says in his blog, we do get better at this. So handling intrinsic and extraneous load together is something we can improve with practice and experience.

This brings us back to schools. Schools have focused a lot of their efforts on CLT as a means through which to raise the intrinsic load of the content being taught through germane teaching. So far, so good. But secondary schools are spending huge amounts of learning hours teaching towards GCSE assessments – sometimes from year 7 onwards despite the knowledge needed for these requiring just 120 guided learning hours per GCSE. Teachers in secondary school can look at their GCSE assessments through the lens of CLT and ask, critically: are these well designed? I recall the infamous GCSE English question, ‘Is George and Lennie’s dream in Of Mice and Men futile?’ The extraneous load of the unusual vocabulary choice in the question prevented many students from accessing their schema of knowledge about the text rendering the assessment of their knowledge inaccurate. Mathematics papers are notorious for containing higher reading ages than the students sitting them. If the assessment is the same intrinsic load, but starts to test working memory or things other than the intrinsic load of the assessment, is this poor design? Is it failing to test the schema of knowledge held by the student sitting the test? Well, only if it is not done deliberately.

The current GCSE papers have some sections which have a low extraneous load. They also have some sections which are so fiendish that teachers spend disproportionate time preparing students for it, and some sections which deliberately raise the extraneous load (e.g. the English unseen poetry section). If an assessment has a high extraneous load, then it should be because this is what happens in the discipline. If there is no need for a high extraneous load, then the assessment should be as germane as possible.

Those assessments which contain unnecessary extraneous loads also have higher ‘failure’ rates. This is where the assessment has not successfully accessed the schema of knowledge that the students have. They also raise the stress levels of teachers who are held accountable for these poor performances. How many times have you sent a student into an examination confident that they have the knowledge needed to do well only to be baffled when the grade comes back? Preparing students for assessments in a high stakes environment is fraught with difficulties. It can be as simple as not knowing one unusual word that prevents them accessing their schema of knowledge. You cannot control for a poor assessment in the same way we can in HEI. We can redesign the assessment to improve the ability of our students to access their schemas of knowledge and to demonstrate their knowledge effectively. We can also deliberately reproduce tasks from the discipline to better prepare them to work in the discipline. Schools have had this type of assessment (coursework and experiments) stripped from them because in a high stakes environment it is easy for an adult to assist students in managing the extraneous load in the assessment.

What then for schools? Well, currently, they still have scope to design their own assessments from KS1 up to KS3 (government NCTs notwithstanding). They don’t need to reproduce the poor assessment design of KS4 which eats up precious learning time and introduce it into years 7-9. They can also work on allowing them to work on subjects as a discipline. English students can work in the fast moving world of journalism, writing copy to speed; geographers can go out into the field and match the real world to their schemas of knowledge: there is scope for excellent curriculum design where assessment is designed for the students not the accountability system. There is a match between HEI lecturers and teachers for KS1-3 in terms of the ability to design curriculums and assessments.

I’m wary of calling for redesign of KS4-5 assessment because it does nothing but create more workload. However, there is a case for a fresh review of the assessments through the lens of CLT. Can we improve the ability of these assessments to enable students to access their schemas of knowledge and for teachers to spend more time teaching content and less time preparing students for the unnecessary extraneous loads of the poorly designed assessments? I’d be interested to hear from teachers who know their key stage or secondary subject assessments in fine detail and how they view the assessments through the lens of CLT.