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Why we should address teacher wellbeing

Recent studies have shown that pressure from the workplace can cause teachers to be stressed and anxious. However, there is so much that schools can do to help, as IB World Magazine reports.

The world has rightfully focused on the mental health epidemic faced by young people and the deleterious effects it has on their lives and education. But is there an equally ruinous problem creeping under the radar? What about the wellbeing of teachers and frontline teaching staff?

The pressure to achieve performance targets, increased workloads and feeling unappreciated can take a toll on them, causing stress and anxiety. It’s not just affecting teachers as student performance and wellbeing can be impacted too.

There is a growing acceptance around the globe that employers need to pay attention to the mental (as well as physical) health of their staff, and schools are no exception. If they don’t take the problem seriously, then they are failing the whole school community. Our education system is built on the expertise of teachers and taking good care of them helps them perform to the best of their ability.

“Relationships are fundamental to the wellbeing of a teacher and these are frequently challenged and disrupted.”

It’s time for schools to take a proactive stance on teacher wellbeing, according to various studies around the world. In Australia, over half of the teachers suffer from anxiety and nearly one-fifth are depressed, according to research conducted by Bond University.

On the other hand, research  from the University of Missouri (MU) found that 94% of middle school teachers in the U.S. experience high levels of stress, which could contribute to negative outcomes for students. “Unfortunately, our findings suggest many teachers are not getting the support they need to adequately cope with the stressors of their job,” says Keith Herman, professor at the MU College of Education and co-author of the study.

“The evidence is clear that teacher stress is related to student success, so it is critical that we find ways to reduce stressful school environments, while also helping teachers cope with the demands of their jobs,” he adds. He suggests schools introduce wellness programs, organizational support for teachers and mental health interventions.

How teachers can help themselves

Educational Psychologist Dr Angie Wigford suggests three ways teachers can look after their own wellbeing:

  • A teacher’s level of emotional literacy and self-knowledge is important. An individual who knows themselves well and can manage extreme emotions is much more likely to thrive than a less self-confident/competent person. This means teachers need to understand their reactions to stress and be able to self-regulate.
  • Teachers should try to develop strong social support groups early on and maintain links with established support. They should look out for each other and not be afraid to ask if they sense that someone is not okay.
  • Teachers need to be willing to ask for help when they need it―not soldier on until something breaks.

Supportive working relationships

Teaching is such a rewarding and fulfilling career, and 90% of teachers said they were enthusiastic about their job most or all of the time, according to a recent wellbeing survey of teachers in international schools conducted by the International Educational Psychology Services (IEPS) and Cardiff University School of Psychology. Yet, at the same time, staff did experience negative feelings such as emotional pressure, isolation, work overload or concerns about poor leadership, lack of communication, insufficient feelings of value and difficult relationships. Furthermore, 43% of teachers surveyed did not feel their school was concerned about their wellbeing.

Many of these negative elements can be counterbalanced by positive and enhancing factors, says the report. These are:

Collaborative and supportive working relationships.
Feelings of appreciation and achivement.
Strong sense of belogingness to the school and community.

To promote staff interaction and belongingness, schools should encourage the use of social media groups, organize extra-curricular activities and offer leadership and management training with a focus on relationships. The Senior Leadership Team (SLT) need to prioritize the acknowledgement of staff in communications and make sure they listen to their views.

Interestingly, the survey also found that being part of an international community with a clear identity, shared curriculum and values was important. One IB teacher said: “I’m in contact with the other (IB) workshops leaders and with people around the world and we use Facebook groups for support, this all creates that sense of community.”

But teaching in an international school also brings its own set of challenges, says Dr Angie Wigford, Educational Psychologist at IEPS and co-author of the report. “When a new teacher starts, they are very often taking up the challenge of moving to a new (often unknown) country as well as a new school. Often there is a language barrier and new curriculum to learn. There are always new structures to work within, both in school and in the country.

“Having someone or somewhere to turn to is important when teachers feel they need help.”

“Relationships are fundamental to the wellbeing of a teacher and these are frequently challenged and disrupted. Teachers come and go, students come and go arguably to a much greater extent than in other systems. The ‘pool’ of potential friendships is often reduced,” she adds.

A school’s SLT can make a positive impact with simple steps, says Dr Wigford. “Induction of new teachers is a key opportunity to establish supportive social relationships. Schools should not just focus on policies and procedures, they should provide lots of opportunities for professional and social interaction and encourage interdependence.

“Positive reinforcement and genuine appreciation is highly motivating and seen as key to wellbeing (particularly in its absence). This should be embedded throughout the school and include teaching assistants and administrative staff,” she adds.

Schools also need to have clear structures, roles and technological systems, which provide security and helps develop competence and confidence in teachers. “Opportunities for autonomy and creativity are highly valued and contribute to staff wellbeing too,” says Dr Wigford.

She also suggests schools provide good comprehensive medical insurance cover, which includes an allowance for counselling. “Many teachers are willing to ask for counselling support when they need it and few schools provide for this.”

Mental health champions

Having someone or somewhere to turn to is important when teachers feel they need help. The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families in the UK recently produced a report titled Ten steps towards school staff wellbeing, which offers 10 questions schools should consider. One of them is whether a school has a staff mental health lead or champion who is responsible for coordinating the school’s approach.

The report, which was based on a survey of school teachers in the UK, recommends that schools have a mental health policy that addresses the needs of staff. Schools should offer a comfortable, dedicated physical space within the school where staff members can take time out if needed.

“Teaching is a tough job. It can be immensely rewarding but also physically and emotionally draining.”

It also recognizes the value of relationships by suggesting there be opportunities for staff to participate in activities with colleagues that are not linked to their work, such as social events, exercise classes or creative groups.

Addressing teachers’ workloads is another factor. The report asks whether schools could implement measures to reduce workloads or limit the hours spent working outside the school day – for example, by reviewing marking policies and email protocols. Does the SLT lead by example when it comes to limiting emailing in the evening and weekends?

“Teaching is a tough job. It can be immensely rewarding but also physically and emotionally draining,” says Jaime Smith, director of the Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools Programme at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. “The hours can be long and the workload and pressure great. Promoting mental wellbeing among staff is vital, if they are to do the best they can to support their students to learn and thrive.”

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