New Director of Education and Evaluation at the National Excellence in School Leadership Institute (NESLI) and lecturer at the University of Melbourne, Dr Anna Dabrowski, discusses the need for schools to place a greater focus on teacher and principal wellbeing.
At the end of February, results of the 2018 Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey were released. The research indicated that more than half of our principals work upwards of 56 hours a week, and one in three reported significant stress from their occupation.
On top of this, close to half had been threatened with violence by parents or students, while over one third had experienced actual physical violence and assault in their role.
Research indicates that the teaching profession is one of the most stressful professions within which to work, and attrition rates in Australia are starting to seriously suffer. Being yelled at by parents, being bullied by your students (and sometimes colleagues), operating in a stage of constant triage, all while trying to understand how to produce data informed outcomes? Welcome to the teaching profession. Challenges and pressures come from parents and students, but also from policy mandates and an ever-changing system, and educators often rate their wellbeing as lower than other comparative social professions.
When I undertook my own teaching degree, there was nothing to prepare me for the realities of the classroom, particularly if you end up in a school that is starved for resources, or too far away to be supported in times of crisis. It’s therefore not surprising that attrition rates are dismal and wellbeing levels are continuing to slide. While we continue to obsess over the performance of students on national and international assessments, not enough is being done to support teacher and principal wellbeing.
Schools across Australia have embraced wellbeing initiatives to support individual students, and to foster a sense of belonging and community. Mindfulness mechanisms can be found in many schools, in light of increasing concerns around depression and anxiety in young people in Australia, as well as to combat bullying and to restore respectful relationships. However, while the importance of wellbeing is usually acknowledged at a staff level, we are clearly not doing enough.
Research tells us time and time again that if your employees are happy and being well looked after, you get more positive results. The teaching profession is no different. In order to lift academic achievement and student wellbeing, you must first address the wellbeing of your principals and teachers as a matter of urgency.
Although educators face enormous challenges in their roles, the difficulty of the profession can be eased through positive relationships with students, parents, colleagues and leadership, which in turn, can have an affirmative influence on educators’ sense of wellbeing. The relationships within schools, and the resultant reciprocity created through bonds, norms and trust are often missing in a profession struggling with overload and burnout.
My recent review of NESLI’s Staff Wellbeing Toolkit confirms this point. Based on extensive research into the duress facing the education profession, and in collaboration with psychologists and educators, the toolkit aims to equip schools with a way to embed wellbeing support within the school structure. From a sample of more than 6000 participants, the main concern cited by Australian educators was not threats from parents, uses of data, or even a high workload: it was loneliness. The stresses of the job were seen as impacting on personal and professional relationships, and reducing the possibilities to be an engaged parent, partner or friend. The resultant lack of confidence, guilt and shame that teachers and members of the education profession described was striking, and the anxiety around forming new relationships, or repairing lost connections with friends and family was evident.
This is why the toolkit is so important – it goes beyond yoga during lunchtime, and instead focusses on the power of building positive relationships. Encouragingly, the data and participant feedback already shows that this is a big step in the right direction.
Participating in a collaborative (and proactive) approach to building relationships and community bonds moves participants away from the reactive ‘solutions’ to educator wellbeing used in an effort to clean up the mess left by daily school life. This is not to say that trauma informed approaches to wellbeing are not of value; but they do need to become part of the structure of the school rather than a reactive response.
As a former teacher (and now lecturer, researcher and coach), I have worked with thousands of educators, from graduate to principal level, all of whom are struggling to maintain their wellbeing and relationships under the increasing weight of the profession. For this reason, I am encouraged by the approach taken by NESLI in designing and delivering the Staff Wellbeing Toolkit – but it’s just the beginning in a broader conversation around how we can best support the people who educate, guide and provide futures for our children.