Teacher wellbeing is critical to student wellbeing and if we are serious about our children doing well we must cherish our teachers, writes Dr Sue Roffey.
“All young people are loved and safe, have material basics, are healthy, are learning and participating and have a positive sense of identity and culture.”
This is the vision for the NEST action agenda – a national plan for child and youth wellbeing – for all Australia’s children.
The Student Wellbeing Action Network (SWAN) was set up as a partnership between Wellbeing Australia and the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth to support the NEST agenda. To this end SWAN has four priority areas: student voice, families and communities, disadvantaged students and teacher wellbeing.
Student wellbeing / staff wellbeing
I have heard some people say – what has teacher wellbeing got to do with student wellbeing? Surely they are different things? The answer is simple and supported by a raft of evidence. Teacher wellbeing is critical to student wellbeing; it has everything to do with it. If we are serious about our children doing well we must cherish our teachers.
We also need to look after our teachers – they are the critical and pivotal force in providing an environment where students can feel safe, happy, healthy and therefore, learn! (Wellbeing Australia survey, 2011)
Teachers are routinely given accolades for achieving high test scores – and invariably acknowledged for coaching a winning sports team or producing the school play. This is how it should be. But how many teachers are given credit for turning student lives around? Biographies are full of anecdotes about teachers who made a difference to how someone thought and felt about themselves, who helped individuals revisit possibilities for their future and who they might become. This is not just in terms of high academic expectations but having a belief in the best of someone – perhaps seeing beyond poor attendance, uncooperative behaviour and erratic performance to a thread of gold potential. Educational philosopher Nel Noddings says that the ideal teacher-student relationship is “where the best self of the educator seeks a caring relationship with the best self of the student” – summarising in one short sentence an approach that incorporates ethics, empathy, emotional intelligence, high expectations and a strengths-based focus. It also implies a teacher working in conditions that enable them to access their ‘best self’.
I once worked with Paul, who exemplified this ideal with a group of teenage boys who had been placed in special provision for students with behavioural difficulty. Most of them had experienced life events no child should have to deal with – rejection, violence or parents who were addicts. Paul’s main subject was English and he was able to gently inspire these tough kids with an interest in the power of words. A few years later Peter, one of those students, sent me a book of his published poems. This is one story amongst many of a teacher who changed a life trajectory and may very well have saved that life. One of the most significant protective factors for overcoming adversity is having someone in your life who believes you are worthwhile. Although for most of us this is family, for some of our most disadvantaged children and young people it can be someone at school. Teachers may never know the difference that they make.
John Hattie’s meta-analysis of effective education (2009) has highlighted the centrality of teacher-student relationships for all learners, not just those who struggle. All students learn best in a respectful, warm and supportive classroom where mistakes are seen as part of the process, no-one feels anxious about asking questions and teachers combine a light touch with challenging questions. Murray-Harvey (2010) also found that both academic outcomes and social and emotional wellbeing in school were ‘unambiguously influenced’ by the quality of relationshipsbetween teachers and students. She concludes that schools need to give less prominence to issues of control and more to the skills needed to connect meaningfully with students.
Burn-out and its consequences
So what happens when teachers burn out? Relationships are not just with individuals but how teachers work with whole class groups. It can be hard for a teacher who feels badly about herself, her school and/or her colleagues to promote the positive with students.
Some stress in our lives is not necessarily bad, it can be motivating and energising. Stress becomes a problem when demands exceed resources – whether these resources are internal or external. In a recent SWAN symposium on teacher wellbeing many teachers spoke of wanting to do their best for their students. They often went the extra mile but it seems that over time, rather than this being acknowledged and valued it became an expectation. Many were struggling to find enough time or energy for their own families as they worked long hours, weekends and holidays. This was not only lesson preparation but also trying to keep pace with the mountain of paper work. For all teachers, but middle management especially, work overload is exacerbated by constant organisational change and endless initiatives (Mulholland et al, 2013). Being at the beck and call of changing political ideology takes its toll.
The additional stress on teachers working in this unrealistic performance-driven environment has a negative impact on them which in turn must impact [on the] health and wellbeing of the students in their classrooms – Wellbeing Australia survey.
Some teachers had experienced disrespect from school leadership who not only failed to consult staff on policy and practice, but dismissed their ideas or concerns out of hand and demanded unquestioning compliance. This led to staff feeling like they were ‘going through the motions’ rather than having any ownership or control. This lack of respect has been evident at the highest level in the UK where the ex-Education Minister referred to the teaching profession as ‘the blob’. Others at the symposium felt that student social and emotional wellbeing was being sidelined in the quest for academic excellence and this was a daily challenge to their values about children’s rights and wellbeing.
Teachers operating under high levels of stress are in danger of burnout. This has multiple negative consequences. The first is distance. When teachers need to protect themselves, their ability to tune into others diminishes. They have fewer emotional resources, less empathy, less tolerance and less commitment to their students or their colleagues. They do not put the same effort into preparing stimulating lessons that will engage students. Consequently relationships are more likely to become conflicting. Teachers sometimes cite student behaviour as a cause of stress – but research consistently shows that relational strategies are the most effective way to promote more positive behaviours (Roffey, 2011). When a negative spiral becomes embedded neither the needs of the students nor those of teachers are met.
It has long been recognised that severe stress impacts on both mental and physical health. This includes cardio-vascular functioning, sleep patterns, depression and vulnerability to infection. Over time, work stress can lead to the degradation of the hippocampus – the part of the brain most active in memory. If students are going to be in an effective learning environment they need teachers who have optimal access to their knowledge base and also be open to learning themselves.
It is estimated that in Australia, America and Britain over 20 percent of teachers leave the profession in their first three years and up to 50 percent within five years. When teachers come and go, not only are relationships tangential but the delivery of the curriculum is interrupted. Apart from the impact on educational consistency this does not make economic sense. Individuals often go into teaching because they want to make a difference for children. They rarely leave because they have decided they don’t like kids! So what does make teachers stay in the profession, what policies and practices enhance their motivation and wellbeing?
After teacher-student relationships, it is the quality of collegial relationships that are most closely aligned with teacher wellbeing.
Leadership: The school executive has the power to influence the culture of their school and make or break teachers. I have come across school principals who cherish their staff, who get to know them as individuals, seek their views and within the framework of clear expectations, give them autonomy and do not micro-manage. They provide professional development opportunities and learn alongside their staff. This gives the message ‘we are in this together’ and promotes a sense of equality, belonging and ownership.
Of the 11 core capabilities of effective principals 8 are linked to social and emotional intelligence – knowing how to communicate positively, stay calm in a crisis, handle challenges well and promote positive emotions across the school. These leaders get things done and bring their staff along with them (Scott, 2003)
I was at a school where we had a fantastic principal, and there was hardly any staff absences, staff morale was high, and things got done…and the staff wanted to do those things. Then that principal retired, we had a new principal come in, who did things very differently and people just transferred out of the school, left right and centre…a lot of it does come from the top, from expectations from the top, and role modelling from the top (teacher).
Teachers are not that interested in fulsome praise but acknowledgement of a job well done, or extra effort goes a long way to boosting wellbeing and motivation.
I make it my business to know about the staff – have they been having enough sleep? Birthday cards, etc. Making them feel valued. If they are noticed and acknowledged it will flow through to the kids (high school principal).
We have an acceptance of teachers as well. I could pick what’s very good about each teacher (primary school principal).
At the teacher wellbeing symposium there was a sharp divide between educators who valued their school leaders and those who were in despair about them.
The school ethos comes from [the principal], he’s definitely a positive person, he’s very key to the school, he’s emotionally literate (primary school teacher).
The faith that he had in me propelled me to give of my best, and to go beyond the call of duty. I was prepared to do anything and everything for the school (school counsellor).
Social capital: Teachers are involved in thousands of interactions every day, not just with students but also with colleagues. Social capital exists where these interactions promote trust, reciprocity, support and collaboration. It is not so much about policy as the development of a common practice that offers dignity, courtesy and respect to all. It includes not having cliques where some are favoured more than others, it means including everyone, listening to each other and accepting that we all make mistakes. It is about apologising when you get it wrong and noticing when someone needs a bit of help. It is being willing to accept that help and not view it as patronising. It is about being able to have a laugh together.
You can see the staff getting on, and having a bit of fun, a bit of a muck-around so students know that we’re all friends, and that’s an example of good behavior (primary school teacher).
The opposite is a toxic environment where everyone is watching their backs and looking to further their own interests. Nobody feels safe, bullying often flourishes and only an elite minority feel valued. Where the quality of relationships is overt and actioned the impact ripples across the whole school.
The teachers here really feel supported, cared about, looked after and valued, and that translates over into the classroom (high school teacher).
Social capital is also about how differences are managed. There will always be negative voices but these do not have to dominate discussion. When the main focus is on solution focused, strengths based, inclusive conversations there are higher levels of optimism and collegiality. As an educational psychologist I used to be involved in ‘cause for concern’ meetings in a high school where staff who taught particular students would discuss needs and strategies. In some of these meetings the exchange of ideas was fruitful and led to positive classroom practices, others were a moan fest and everyone left feeling there was little point.
Schools that engage in staff social events where people get to know each other outside of a defined role are more likely to work well together. A teacher once told me that a single act of kindness kept her in teaching. Knowing she was in the middle of a family crisis a colleague took over her lesson one afternoon so she could go home. This would have been unlikely to happen in a school where no-one really knew each other or the ethos was solely on personal enhancement or the bureaucracy inflexible. Research on teacher stress (Mulholland et al, 2013) has shown that even the more serious dangers to physical health can be moderated by psycho-social factors – strong social networks and support.
Teachers nurturing themselves
Although this paper focuses primarily on what teachers need at a school and systems level to promote their wellbeing there is also a lot they can do to help themselves – but sometimes they need to feel they have permission. How teachers take care of themselves will be linked to conversations in the staffroom. What are expectations when teachers are ill for instance – do they turn up regardless or stay in bed until they are better? Being active supports wellbeing. Some schools provide physical activities at lunchtime or after school that teachers join in with – yoga, dancing, tai chi, circuit training. One principal arranged a head and shoulder massage for staff once a month – a gesture worth much more than the cost.
It is valuable for teachers to get things into perspective. Emotional energy is often spent on issues that won’t matter in a few weeks – or even days. Mindfulness training can help (Lovewell, 2012) but principals also need to work with staff groups to prioritise. Time is a major issue in schools and as it is impossible to do everything to the best of your ability what matters most? Where wellbeing is core business in a school the test results seem to take care of themselves rather than being the focus of student and staff anxiety.
Most teachers want to be competent professionals but are not always given the means to function optimally. They are rarely seeking anything more – but hoping for something different. And most of this is well within the reach of organisations given the political will – from school level to regional level to federal level.
- Teachers need to feel valued – many simply want acknowledgement for the job they do every day.
- They want to have a voice and be treated as professionals not as cogs in a wheel.
- They need to be able to have a work life balance and not be so overwhelmed with demands that their family life suffers.
- Teachers are usually conscientious about their work and will often go the extra mile – but are dispirited when this is taken for granted and increasingly expected.
- Teachers want time to learn about their students – not be so focused on getting through the curriculum that they spend their days teaching subjects rather than teaching students.
- Emotionally literate school leaders who engage teachers in partnership, trust them to do a good job and give positive feedback for their efforts get motivated, committed staff.
- Most teachers care about children and their overall wellbeing – they can see that at times this is at risk – they want the social and emotional aspects of students to be addressed.
Developing the positive wellbeing of staff has made a huge difference. When teaching staff feel appreciated and empowered, they are much more likely to show patience and empathy for their students; to go the ‘extra mile’ for the students in their care. They are also more likely to share and work with others in order to support their students and promote wellbeing (Wellbeing Australia survey).
Hattie (2009) Making Learning Visible: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London Routledge
Lovewell, K. (2012) Every Teacher Matters: Inspiring Wellbeing through Mindfulness. Ecademy Press
Mulholland, R.McKinlay, A. and Sproule. J. (2013) Teacher interrupted: work stress, strain, and teaching role Sage Open DOI: 10.1177/2158244013500965
Murray-Harvey, R. (2010). Relationship influences on students’ academic achievement, psychological health and well-being at school. Educational and Child Psychology, 27(1), 104–113.
Roffey. S. (2011) Changing Behaviour in School: Promoting Positive Relationships and Wellbeing Sage Publications
Scott, G. (2003) Learning Principals: Leadership Capability and Learning Research Sydney: New South Wales Department of Education and Training
Direct quotes that are not from the Wellbeing Australia survey are in the following papers:
Roffey. S. (2007) Transformation and emotional literacy: The role of school leaders in developing a caring community Leading and Managing 13 (1) 16-30
Roffey. S. (2008) Emotional literacy and the ecology of school wellbeing Educational and Child Psychology 25 (2) 29 – 39
Roffey, S. (2012) Pupil wellbeing: Teacher wellbeing. Two sides of the same coin? Educational and Child Psychology 29 (4) 8 – 17.
Dr Sue Roffey is Associate Professor (adjunct) in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Founder and Chair of Wellbeing Australia and Co-Lead Convenor (with A/Prof Gerry Redmond) for the Student Wellbeing Action Network. (SWAN). Sue is a prolific author and international speaker on student and school wellbeing, relationships and behaviour. She is also co-director of the Growing Great Schools initiative. For further information and contacts see www.sueroffey.com