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.