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Promoting teacher wellbeing in schools

Author Dee Doherty draws on her 30 years' experience as an educator to emphasise the importance of teacher wellbeing, offering suggestions for how to support staff mental health in your school.
Teacher Wellbeing

With teacher recruitment and retention an ongoing issue in Australia, teacher wellbeing is receiving greater attention. New teachers want to enter a profession with fair pay, good working conditions and a life-work balance. Staff health and wellbeing is now important for a productive and healthy school, creating better learning outcomes for students.

Teacher management is a key contributor to wellbeing. If teachers feel micromanaged, overloaded with work or stifled creatively they are likely to suffer from stress. Additionally, feeling undervalued and that their voice goes unheard can cause burnout and/or depression. This can lead to many teachers, who feel undervalued and lacking autonomy, leaving the profession.

Poor management impacts life-work balance, attendance, health and relationships. Teacher stress can negatively impact student wellbeing and relationships between colleagues.

Micromanagement is connected to bullying and toxic work environments. However, high-trust models of management can be abused, lack structure and accountability. There needs to be a middle ground.

Strategies for starting conversations about teacher wellbeing

An online survey, which asks teachers to identify how they are feeling and coping at work, is one way of monitoring workplace mental health. Furthermore, understanding the complexity of different responsibilities, personalities and experience present should help staff navigate and avoid problems.

These suggestions can also help support teachers in the workplace:

  • access to counselling
  • mentors for staff
  • a staff representative to feedback concerns to SLT
  • access to mediation
  • awareness of individual workloads (and pressure points in the year)
  • practical support in terms of help
  • teachers need to know that they can access support from other professionals who do not directly manage them
  • teachers receive individual positive feedback and the focus on strengths rather than deficits.

Collecting feedback on teacher wellbeing

When talking about their mental health, teachers should be reassured that their feedback will be respected and acted on. They should have faith in the data collection process and have space to reply honestly without being penalised.

Teachers need to be asked open questions, which specifically identifies their mental health. These could include:

  • How do teachers define or describe wellbeing?
  • How do teachers rate their current level of wellbeing?
  • What do teachers do to cope with stress?
  • How do teachers rate their work/life balance?
  • What can leaders do to ease workload pressures?
  • Do teachers feel a sense of professional growth?
  • Do teachers feel their professional development is supported?
  • How often do teachers collaborate? How effective is the collaboration?
  • Do teachers feel appreciated? Do they feel that good work is rewarded?
  • Do teachers feel supported? What extra support do they say they need?
  • Is there a sense of trust among teachers and between teachers and leaders?
  • Does everyone know, and feel committed to, our school goals?
  • Do teachers have agency in how they teach? Do teachers have agency in school wide decision making?

(Education Hub, 2020)

The data should be kept confidential and analysed. Qualitative data is equally valid as quantitative. Discourse analysis (what people say) can be categorised into recurrent themes. This should be used to find solutions.

Finding practical solutions to support teacher wellbeing

This next section includes sample survey questions to examine specific contributors to teacher wellbeing and proposes solutions.

Teacher workloads

Gathering answers to some or all the following questions about teacher workloads should indicate solutions:

  • What can be done to reduce teacher workload?
  • Is it evenly distributed?
  • Are some teachers doing more than others?
  • What is the bare minimum that needs to be done?
  • Are jobs being duplicated?
  • How many people are giving directives?
  • Do Senior Leadership Teams see the bigger picture in terms of what they are expecting from teachers?
  • Are teachers being given enough time to complete tasks?
  • How much school work in a person’s free time is acceptable?
  • What tasks are crucial?

Solutions based on responses may include:

  • reduction in unnecessary tasks
  • acknowledging or adjusting tasks/timeframes
  • sharing resources.

Teacher management

These questions are examples that you can ask to find whether teachers in your school feel that they are being managed effectively:

  • Do some teachers have multiple people overseeing their work?
  • What is the impact of multiple managers?
  • Is the process for selecting managers / roles of responsibility transparent/ well-advertised?
  • Do managers have/get adequate training and support on how to manage? Do they have high Emotional Intelligence (EI) as well as administrative skills?
  • Do SLT regularly meet with all teachers and gauge how they are feeling?
  • Can teachers meet with SLT without going through a line-manager?
  • Is there a staff representative (other than union official) who keeps tabs on staff morale and feelings?
  • Is there a mediation process for teachers who disagree or have a grievance with another teacher/manager?
  • Are all teachers given equal opportunities to pursue management roles?
  • Are all teachers being micromanaged because some teachers are not doing their part? (This is the equivalent of keeping the whole class in because of the poor behaviour of an individual).

Teacher autonomy

Teachers need to feel some freedom to experiment and be creative in their teaching. This promotes invitation and confidence. Here are some questions that will help them to voice their feelings on this topic:

  • How much autonomy are teachers given in their practice?
  • Can teachers identify areas outside their school’s Professional Learning and Development (PLD) they can access?
  • How much input do staff have on their PLD?
  • Is PLD distributed fairly?
  • How much trust is placed on a teacher’s professionalism?
  • Are teachers asked to provide feedback on PLD?
  • What input do teachers have about the content and delivery of teaching programmes?

There needs to be transparency about who and what PLD staff are accessing, so staff can see fairness in opportunity.

Teachers need to be able to contribute to department resources and schemes of work. This helps teachers feel valued and in control of class content and delivery.

Conclusion

Schools have a duty of care to its students and employees. Teachers must act professionally and be held accountable for their conduct and responsibilities. Certain tasks need to be completed, such as reports, planning and marking. However, management of such tasks needs to be carefully organised. Staff should feel included and consulted in the process. They also need to feel trusted, respected and valued in their role as an educator, which contributes to their overall wellbeing.

About the author

Dee Doherty has been an educator for over 30 years. In this time she has been a primary school teacher, a special needs coordinator, a behaviour specialist for the prestigious Schools’ Support Team, Tower Hamlets in the United Kingdom, a resource teacher of learning and behaviour and an adviser for special education in New Zealand. She completed her masters degree in educational psychology at Massey University in 2004. For many years she was Head of Literacy at Spotswood College, New Plymouth, New Zealand.

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