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Staff wellbeing in schools: what it is, what it isn’t and why it’s important

All this week, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families together with Teacher Tapp are conducting a survey examining the mental health and wellbeing of thousands of teachers across the country. To mark this initiative we are publishing 5 pieces from 5 guest bloggers to get their thoughts and  experience of the mental health and wellbeing of school staff.

Dr Emma Kell has been teaching for two decades, mainly in inner-London secondary school and is currently a middle leader with several years of senior leadership experience. In 2016, she completed her doctorate with Middlesex University on balancing teaching and parenthood and in January 2018, her book, How to Survive in Teaching, was published by Bloomsbury.

“Nobody has any time or energy to think about wellbeing!” This was a fairy common refrain when I was conducting my research of almost 4,000 teachers, former teachers and school leaders for How to Survive in Teaching. With budget cuts and sweeping changes across the system, it’s hard not to have a bit of sympathy with this view. A wellbeing co-ordinator I once spoke to said that whenever anyone in SLT spoke of staff wellbeing, all eyes turned to her. “This is your thing, isn’t it?” they’d say. But of course a school ethos cannot be built on an individual – not even in the case of the most charismatic or powerful Head. And with rocketing numbers of calls to Education Support, daily reports of a drop in numbers for teacher training and teachers continuing to vote with their feet to leave the profession, it is essential that all schools take this on in a meaningful way.


So, what do we mean when we talk about staff wellbeing? This is what I have learned, through my experience and research:

  • It’s about integrity. Teaching is a values-driven profession. Teachers need to feel as if they are able to act in accordance with their usually deeply held values at work. Teachers need to feel that their voices are not just heard, but actively engaged with. Mavericks are to be conversed with as people who frequently carry much wisdom – we attempt to silence them at our peril.
  • It’s all about balance between trust and consistency. I am no enemy of monitoring – the job we do is both an honour and a huge responsibility – but it must be fair, and policies which squash the creativity of teachers are the cause of much frustration – as is a lack of support with resourcing and planning when this is needed.
  • It’s about the joy of the classroom – being able to enjoy it, being able to talk about it being able to relish in the lightbulb moments and the light at the end of the tricky tunnel. It’s about sharing brilliant – and less than brilliant – lesson ideas and running into an office saying, ‘does anyone have ideas on….?’
  • It’s about teamwork and support when we are struggling, whether ‘we’ are the trainee in school for two months or the headteacher themselves. It’s about knowing that you won’t be judged if you ask for help with student behaviour or data or simply need a quiet safe space to breathe for a few minutes. It’s about knowing that if we choose to share our personal struggles, there will be someone we can trust, who will respect our confidentiality and look out for us.
  • Finally, it’s about being allowed to be human. We are all role models, and as such, our students look to us (in some cases as the most stable adults in their lives) for guidance and wisdom – even (or arguably especially when) they don’t give the appearance of doing so. Students don’t want burned-out robots, nor do they seek perfection. Allowing them to hear us talk about our own mistakes and struggles with learning – and even allowing them to see that we have limits, and that we really, really care and it’s THAT that makes it so bleedin’ frustrating when they don’t get their homework done.

I’ve had a number of (sometimes heated) debates about what wellbeing is not, so I welcome this opportunity to be clear:

  • Wellbeing is not an airy-fairly, itsy-bitsy, fluffy thing which can be used as an excuse for failure to give students a decent deal – I feel really strongly about this. As one research participant puts it, ‘these young people have one bite of the cherry’ – poor practice cannot be acceptable.
  • Goody bags and chocolate and cups of tea are lovely, for some, and others still enjoy perks such as subsidised gym membership and free massages, but these along do not wellbeing make. In a misguided attempt to tick the wellbeing box, I have heard of school holding compulsory Pilates during directed time. I’m sure Pilates is lovely, but the thought of being required to do it makes me shudder.
  • Whilst wellbeing is about compassion and humanity, it is not about excuses nor is it about giving staff special treatment – we are just like our students in this respect. If we are expected to adhere to a deadline, why is so-and-so getting away with an extension?


And why is it important?

Apart from the main point being that if teachers keep burning out and walking away, those of us with school-age children will be in quite a fix, here are two reasons:

One of my students spoke movingly about teachers and their anxiety levels. ‘When they are stressed, they infect us with their stress. And when they are passionate, they infect us with their passion’. Put more bluntly: whilst it’s fine to show our frustration, ultimately, our paperwork, our deadlines, our internal politics and our frustration with policy changes is not the students’ problem. We have a moral responsibility to give them our very best selves, and if we’re burned out and on the verge of tears or rage, this is quite a challenge.

Finally, the words of one of my wellbeing heroes, Julian Stanley of Education Support:

‘There is a ridiculous paucity of money spent on supporting staff, wellbeing programmes. And yet we invest so much in our buildings -  investment in staff wellbeing can produce great dividends in the longer-term.