I want to add to the discussion about teacher wellbeing, to explore the signs and symptoms and then offer some practical advice from my own experience.
How are you doing, deep down?
How are you doing? I don’t mean the casual “How are you?” question that we answer politely with “Fine, and you?” I have written this article to flag up how easy it is to slide into routines and practices that are bad for us as teachers and what we can do about it.
To judge your wellbeing I have a question for you but you need to be brutally honest in your reply.
“How do you feel the night before starting the school week?”
It’s Sunday evening and you begin to mentally go through the week ahead. There are bound to be challenges and outstanding tasks as well as new deadlines to meet, that is ‘normal’ but how do you ‘feel’ about it, deep down. You need to be in touch with those feelings, either the excitement or the nervousness, as you mentally get ready to start teaching on Monday. If there is a feeling of dread, of apprehension or anxiety that too can be ‘normal’ but what we should concern ourselves about is the depths, the extremes of these feelings.
Other ways to assess your well being
There are other signs that things are not as they should be too. First we stop being learners and rely on routine and established behaviours, especially when faced with a challenge. We lose a certain capacity for change or taking on anything new. We find it hard to ‘switch off’ and to leave school behind. Relationships take the strain, and as teachers we rely on good learning relationships with our students, this is a significant symptom.
We develop a security blanket.
Taking things home to do is fine if it is an option and not a necessity. When you leave school you may find yourself carrying along ‘work’ to do at home. When these are loaded into the car and left there until the next day or over the weekend then you need to stop and assess how you are doing. Worse still if you take them into the house and they remain untouched you have a problem for then they represent a spectre of your worries and concerns.
What you have done is create a form of ‘security blanket’, a way of convincing yourself all is okay because you can ‘catch up’ at home and so you pack them up and carry them out with you. Don’t believe me? Try this, try leaving everything at school when you go home and see how it feels. I did and it was a revelation.
Take nothing home and see how it feels.
There I was standing in the carpark feeling as if something is not right. It was odd, I had nothing in my arms, nothing on the back seat and I felt ‘lost’. I had the same feeling all the way home and when I entered the house. My routine had been to say “Hi” and then do a little work before cooking and eating and then finishing things off. It is easy to get into this routine but is not good for us. A little work can become a lot and finishing things off can mean a very late night.
It is about setting boundaries and expectations.
I can remember Kenneth Baker in 1987, the then Secretary of State for Education, setting 1,265 hours as a reasonable expectation although there was the caveat about needing extra time for the marking, report writing, lesson preparation and teaching resources that were needed to “discharge effectively his professional duties” [i] I also remember a deputy head who would ask “Have you earnt your money today?” If the answer was “Yes” then the instruction was to “Get on home and relax”!
Here is my advice
Do as much as you can at school without staying too late. This often means working efficiently and with focus when not in the classroom.
Plan ahead and keep an eye on any event or deadline that requires you to participate.
If you must take things home then set a space aside for doing ‘school work’. Do not let invade your personal space (dining room table, kitchen worktop, or even worse, the bedroom).
Have a rule about taking school work home and stick to it. “Not on Friday” is a good one.
Don’t try to ‘multitask’, i.e. watch TV or socialise whilst working – you end up doing a poor job of both and you do not recharge your batteries.
The night before a school week asks yourself “How do I feel?” and set your mind to address any negative issues. This may, and probably will, involve engaging with others to share your feelings.
You may need to learn to say “NO”
Saying no is not a sign of weakness and neither should it be a last resort. Here is a link to an article all about saying “NO“
Think about finding a coach, like myself, that specialises in working with teachers. Sharing and being challenged is good for us and the impartial nature of the relationship with a coach can have significant benefits.
It’s not easy and it won’t happen overnight
Of course it’s not easy, but being aware of our ‘well being’ is often all it needs to find the focus to do something about it. If you are still struggling then make sure you talk to someone.
[i] The Education (School Teachers’ Pay and Conditions of Employment) Order 1987
I like it when a plan comes together, even if it’s not one of mine!
I came to Northampton to take up a post as head of faculty at Trinity school in 1990 when education in the town was split 3 ways, lower, middle and upper. What struck me moving from Lincolnshire was how close the schools were and how much co-operation there was across schools and phases. This was supported by an excellent teacher’s centre, an ICT support centre and LEA advisors. There were black clouds on the horizon though in the way of Ofsted inspections, league tables and the resulting competition and a changing National Curriculum as schools wrestled with the burden of demands it placed on time and resources. Enter the “dark ages”, who would have predicted academy chains, a University of Northampton or a teacher recruitment and retention crisis?
Jump forward nearly 20 years and the University of Northampton is now in the town, education is split 2 ways and there are such things as academies, MAT’s, the EBacc and once again the energy and passion and above all, ownership for education by those who teach in Northampton has emerged. Hurray and well done to those who has the vision and tenacity to make #EducatingNorthants that was both a) an event that was well supported and owned by the teachers and b) a success. I am so glad I was there to see it, it has been some time coming.
I no longer teach, instead I share my 40 years of experience of teaching and learning, leadership and management through my writing, coaching, workshops and consultation. So perhaps I may offer a slightly different perspective on the day to many who were there.
The venue, the UON is new and ‘modern’ in all senses of the educational world and proved to be up to the job of hosting 600 teachers providing entertainment, refreshments and excellent resources. I have to say it lacked a little ‘soul’ though, perhaps it will come in time.
The excellent programme kicked off with a welcome and a chance to hear from the organisers whose vision and determination had brought about the day. The tension and excitement was palatable, it was going to be an exceptional day. Talking to those who I met and became re acquainted with there was anticipation and expectation, something has to come from this day other than a temporary high. I was reassured that although I had not taught for nearly 8 years I still understood the core challenges and that little had really changed in day to day teaching except the landscape in which it played out. Let’s not underestimate the significant impact the landscape and the ‘political engineers’ who have formed it has had on teaching, but I found many examples of those who had begun to take ownership of it and who had ideas on how to master it. Creativity is important to me, I see teaching and learning as a problem-solving activity, and there was much creativity in evidence throughout the day.
I was able to continue my journey as a learner like many who attended this day and felt uplifted as a result. Change may not be here, but the winds are blowing, and they are rising from a breeze to hopefully a storm.
How will we measure the success of the day though and how will we continue the ‘conversation’ as some have put it? Perhaps we should take a spoonful of our own medicine each day and show creativity, a growth mindset, resilience and above all create the learning environment that embraces all those in our care first and satisfies some arbitrary target last.
I will conclude with what I have discovered to be the key to engagement in any activity, process or organisation and which I believe sits behind the success of #EducatingNorthants. The graphic below gives you an overview of the concept and it’s easy to remember just “Please be Child Friendly”, PBCF. You can of course take this as “Please be Colleague Friendly” too.
When people have a voice and representation and can communicate openly with each other it empowers them.
Believing in something that is shared with others and through common language or aims it gives us a sense of belonging.
By being given a choice we can express our needs and learn to understand responsibility and consequence.
Fun translates into energy and passion for the things we believe in, for the things we believe are attainable and of value to us.
PBCF was at the heart of the success at #educatingNorthants and if maintained will be what ultimately transforms teaching and learning in Northamptonshire.
Director at Advocating Creativity in Education
Published 8th April 2019
I have written this article as a way of looking at the teacher retention and recruitment issues we are currently facing in the profession. A key element is doing too much, high levels of stress and burnout.
Teaching involves passion, dedication, endless energy and a strong sense of accountability as well as ‘personal’ responsibility. The rewards are addictive and here in lies the problem, when do you say “No”? It’s not easy to say “No” and so you put up with a little less personal time in order to meet the needs of the children you teach. You do a little extra, buy the odd resource, stay a bit longer because the benefits of doing so outweigh the cost.
Learn to say NO*
There is a case to be made for saying “No”, loudly and with commitment and to suffering the immediate consequences but it comes at a cost too. Are we as teachers ‘masking’ the problem of being underfunded, under resources and over burdened by doing more? Are our efforts to make things work actually responsible for the high level of numbers of teachers leaving the profession, of many being too tired to have a life outside of school?
I know you cannot turn up to lessons with books unmarked, lessons not planned, refuse just one more students in your class and not enough resources to go around but what can we do about getting the work life balance sorted? Sorted in a way that means we have a chance to recharge the batteries, to socialise, to have a life outside school and for us to be learners once again too.
“Am I the best person to be doing this?”
Having worked with teachers who are tired, who have no work life balance and who are struggling to be effective in the classroom I have one question I always ask. It is a question you should always ask yourself before starting something, before taking on something extra, before saying “Yes” instead of “No”. That question is “Am I the best person to be doing this?” and you need to be brutally honest with yourself. It is no good saying “Who else would do it if I did not?”
“The Secret of Time Management”
Of course you need to ‘unpack’ the words “best person” and there is a contextual aspect to the words more than I can go into here. I have written an in depth look at the this question with the catchy title “The Secret of Time Management” and you can find it here. In the article, which is spread over several posts, I look at three elements, 1) the task 2) the person and 3) the resources at hand and work these into what I call the “Not Enough Time” or NET equation. I believe you will find it helpful if you can find the time to read it!
We end up saying “Goodbye” instead of “No”
We know the plus side of going the extra mile, of giving a little more but here is another side I want to draw your attention to too. Things are unlikely to get better if we keep perpetuating the current approach of giving more and more. In many ways teachers, by not saying “No”, are ‘masking’ the serious issues that are affecting our education system. It is difficult to get a true picture of the resources that are needed or the systems that are fundamentally flawed in education if we mask them. What we do see is people who do not say “No” eventually saying “Goodbye” to teaching. I would suggest that until we understand the NET equation and we accept saying “No” is a good thing the teaching profession will continue to risk recruitment and retention of those who want so much to teach. Teaching will become, if it has not already done so, a ‘toxic’ environment.
One final observation regarding time. When we are refreshed and focused we achieve more in a shorter amount of time, we are more effective. It’s worth thinking about this next time you are asked to do something! Perhaps you should reply “What do you want me to stop doing in order to do what you are now asking me to do?”
*How to say “No” nicely – A link to another article looking at ways to help address the workload issue in teaching.
Recently I met with Charlotte Davies to find out more about her work in person. I have followed Charlotte’s work for some time both out of interest and knowing that it has something to do with my own work but not sure how. My head is still buzzing! Charlotte’s profile on LinkedIn says “Education Consultant, Tomatis Consultant” she is also Director at “Fit-2-Learn” and she is co-author of “The Maze of Learning”[i], a book written to ensure “that your child has the best foundation for learning”. So why am I so excited about her work?
Like so many in education Charlotte has a great passion for learning, especially when it comes to the human developmental aspects that need to be in place before we can become ‘efficient’ learners. Her second passion, like so many dedicated teachers, is to make things right. Those that have followed or read my work on my concept of “Learning Intelligence” (LQ) and student engagement through “PBCF” will know I share both passions so it was natural that we should meet at some point. Let me share the outcome.
My work with LQ focuses on enabling the learner to understand and manage their learning environment. Doing so involves us meeting our “learning needs”, developing or possessing a set of skills, attributes attitudes and behaviours (SAAB) that are needed to efficiently do so. Having identified what is needed to manage your learning environment and understand the impact it has on us both physically and emotionally, it can be tiring and stressful, I have been exploring ways of developing our learning needs. This is where Charlotte and her work comes in. What if there is something that is preventing you developing your LQ and aspect of SAAB, something that is causing far more stress than it need be. What if you can’t put your finger on it, or worse still, if it has been given some broad label that often suggests there is something wrong with you or something that can’t be put right. Both dreadful scenarios and ones we have all come across as teachers. I hope you can see why I am interested in Charlotte’s work.
Charlotte has taken a ‘parental’ view of both these scenarios, I say this because there is nothing like the drive, the energy or the open mindedness like that of a parent wanting to find a solution to their child’s needs and challenges. A parent will move mountains to find a solution or an understanding and do it with un-exhaustible energy and commitment. You may now understand why my head is still buzzing!
Developing LQ in learners works, I know, it is my own learning story and it is the way I taught, it may have lacked a definition in those days but seeing learning as a problem solving activity is the way forward – without doubt. But, and here is the caveat, if the right pieces of the developmental jigsaw are in place. Sure we are not all perfect and we can find coping strategies to overcome limitations but ultimately this will either slow our learning or limit us in some way, possibly even causing elements of stress or anxiety. So if it can be ‘fixed’ why not fix it? Surely this is a better way forward.
Charlotte has identified these developmental aspects and in my meeting we discussed and explored how to identify them and check they have evolved correctly. You may say it’s ‘child development’ and teachers are taught about child development. True, but in my experience many teachers are subject specialist first and child development specialists third or even fourth. Teaching is a full on activity and with the additional pressures of administration etc. etc. you can understand why they have little time to spend on identifying and fixing developmental problems. I am not making excuses, it is just the way it is, my approach of LQ and enabling students to manage their own learning environment is a way of trying to help too, after all we all want ‘independent learners’.
It all starts with motor skills but there are other pieces of the developmental jigsaw that need to be in place. We have sound processing and visual processing to consider too. Each element is part of the developmental sequence that will enable us to become efficient learners. Trying to rush learning, to learn things such as skills or carry out certain types of learning such as reading before all the pieces of the jigsaw are in place is surely morally wrong. It can also lead to a degree of ‘damage’ to the learner and the learning process that stays with the learner for life. How many adults truly believe they cannot learn because they were put into a learning situation before they were ready, before they developed the necessary motor skills or sound processing necessary? Meeting with Charlotte was an eye opener in this respect and also underlined why LQ works. When I help learners re- visit something they believed they cannot learn it may well be either they have now developed that aspect that was not ready earlier or they have developed a coping strategy that will allow them to be successful.
We do not need to leave things to chance though, we do not have to leave learners to develop coping strategies, as Charlotte clearly showed me, we can do something about it. Yes I was ‘tested’ and asked to perform some strikingly simple actions to find out if, even as an adult, I had motor developmental or sound processing issues that needed to be addressed. This too was interesting, it’s never too late to fix things and some of the people Charlotte works with are not just the young, teenagers, they are middle aged or even older like me.
So my head is buzzing and my way forward with LQ a little clearer, although a little more complicated too. I have much to learn if I am to integrate this into LQ. I will also be working on my sound processing much to the delight of my family who have had to put up with my lack of rhythm or ability to hold a tune over the years.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the fit-2-learn website.
“We believe that everyone can move beyond coping strategies and use all their senses and motor skills in a coherent, efficient manner to learn and to live calmly.”
How important is that!
This is part 3 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at teacher retention. Part two is here
I have mentioned that I have found that there are four needs we all share when it comes to engaging in learning, well it is the same for any activity in which we wish to collectively share and this includes teaching. Part two introduced the need for a sense of belonging for learner engagement.
Teachers are learners so it should come as no surprise that a sense of belonging is as important to teacher engagement, and importantly retention, as it is to learner engagement.
I believe one of our greatest behaviour drivers comes from a sense of belonging.
As a teacher I have seen a student’s behaviour driven so powerfully by this need that they were willing to be excluded for something they did not do rather than break a bond with a peer group. As adults it’s no different, and if we feel a sense of belonging there is a great deal we will do or tolerate to remain part of something.
Creating and building a sense of belonging may just be the key difference between leadership and management.
Autonomous responsibility is a more effective way of achieving outcomes than directed responsibility but requires a strong commitment to the aims and ethos of the organisation – a strong sense of belonging, of sharing the same vision and wanting the same things. Being told to do something ‘or else’ is nowhere near as effective as encouraging somebody to do something for the ‘good of the group’. The ‘stick’ will only work so long as there is a stick and somebody wielding it whereas the promise of a collective need for ‘carrots’ will get people to till and work the land, plant, nurture and protect even when there is nobody to check or inspect.
I am trying to make these analogies to underline where I think schools are going wrong in trying to retain teachers. Yes, some who come into the profession are not suited and leave but there are some who leave before their skills are honed and their experiences give them the greatest rewards of being a teacher – of making a difference to people’s lives and life chances. They do this because they do not have a strong enough sense of belonging to overcome the early struggles.
How long do these struggles last?
I was told in secondary education it takes six years to ‘get your feet under the table’ as it were and I believe it to be true. Why six years? Well because you have to see your own ‘first-year’ group, the one that started the school at the same time as you, through school and then you need at least one year to recognise and build on the benefits of your experience. I would imagine there is a similar time frame and rational in primary education.
What sustains you in these early years is the building of comradeship, establishing relationships and forming that sense of belonging. It does not happen by chance, I believe it needs leadership that is broader in its aims and function than achieving targets.
What prompts mid-career teachers to leave the profession?
This brings me onto why teachers in mid-career or before a normal retiring point leave the profession. I know there is more than one reason for practised teachers to leave the profession but in my experience the process starts once a sense of belonging is lost. As I said earlier we will put up with a great deal if there is a strong sense of belonging but once this is diminished we begin to reconsider what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.
Creating that sense of belonging
I suggest that to create and sustain a strong sense of belonging in schools it needs leadership that understands the purpose of a ‘mission statement’* and uses it effectively to challenge everything they do in order to build a shared sense of belonging. Imagine how you would feel having collectively contributed to, and ‘bought into’ a mission statement and then seeing it ignored during key decision-making processes. In other words, doing something that the organisation to which you belong does not see as it’s purpose or that will further that purpose in order to follow some other path or directive rather than challenge it. You would begin to question why you are part of that organisation and your sense of belonging would be challenged. My view is that leadership should be aware of this and actively work to do only that which promotes its mission and where necessary deflect those that do not. We will support and follow those that stand up for what we believe in and withdraw our support for those who do not and in the process shatter our sense of belonging.
* A note about ‘mission’ statements. In my experience ‘mission’ and ‘vision’ statements are wrongfully used as one term, interchangeable, and meaning the same.
This is part 2 of exploring and dealing with a toxic learning environment where we look at what makes it difficult for learners to engage in the learning and what we, as teachers, can do about it. Part one is here
It is easier to run away than stay and fight but this depends on what tools you have to fight with. Let me give you an example:
If you want somewhere to hang up your coat and you have a screw and a hammer you may be tempted to hammer in the screw*. On the other hand, if you have a nail and a screwdriver you are less likely to try.
Learning and developing tools to deal with emotions and situations means you have to be involved in a constructive way, you have to be engaged in the process in order to practice and become skilled.
Deciding to engage in something that makes us uncomfortable means tipping the balance in favour of gain over pain. Beware though, we can feign engagement if our need to comply is strong enough. On the other hand, if our learning needs are met then we are more likely to truly engage.
Just what our learning needs though?
As a teacher it took me some time to work this out and thanks to a number of less than compliant learners who taught me a lot about teaching and more than a little research I believe I eventually identified four essential learning needs. If these four needs are met, most of them, most of the time, then we are more likely to stick around and attempt to engage in learning when the environment we are in feels toxic to us. Put simply, and using my earlier analogy of tools, we are more likely to go looking for a hammer to hammer in our nail or a screwdriver to drive in our screw and therefore successfully hang up our coat (a metaphor for staying too).
I am of the opinion that in a learning environment ‘toxic’ means ‘emotionally uncomfortable’ and one of my biggest concerns about teaching is that we do not spend enough time discussing this aspect of learning with learners. We find it very difficult to truly engage in the learning process when they are emotionally uncomfortable. Try it, think about a time you were anxious, frightened or distracted. Did you find it easy to listen, to take instructions to think straight or to recall what was said to you afterwards? Probably not.
Back to those four learning needs.
The first and probably most important need we have is a sense of belonging. There are two aspects to meeting this need and the first is getting to know your students.
Any teacher will tell you that you need to get to know your class. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery! Not just their names though, but something about them as individuals. I categorise this as something you could have a conversation about other than the lesson, something that interests them. If you learn to listen and acknowledge and respond to the odd “red herring” question you will soon find out what it is. Here are some things to get you started:
The second part of this need can be accomplished by giving them all membership of a group defined by you. Be careful here – positive attributes only. Talk about the group in the positive at all times, no matter how you feel at that moment. So if the subject is maths (sorry maths!) and it the last lesson of the week and they have just had PE remember to tell them how much you look forward to teaching them, how it always sets you up for the weekend when they achieve in this lesson. I have heard teachers say “Here come my stars” as the most challenging group arrives and they are always welcoming.
So there we have BELONGING from a teaching perspective. Of course, there is much more to discuss about this need and the challenges meeting it creates. Next, we will look at belonging from the perspective of teacher retention.
*I have known a hammer to be referred to as the ‘Birmingham screwdriver’ but I have no idea why!
I have written this article to address the debate around teachers leaving teaching and the stress levels of pupils presently being experienced and reported.
It is true that not all learners ‘like’ school and some do their best to avoid it. It is also true that we are seeing many teachers leave the profession, often down to a lack of job satisfaction or ‘burn out’.
We could say that any environment that causes us discomfort, stress or anxiety is ‘toxic’ but are there any factors that we can identify that makes the environment in schools, for learners and teachers, such that they want to get away from it? I believe we can and I believe it’s not that complicated to correct.
My first proposal is that if there is something missing from within our environment that we need to learn and to teach* that we will feel a level of discomfort. Whether we can tolerate that discomfort or not is dependent on a number of factors and includes the following:
- Agency, our strategies for dealing with not having our needs met
- The significance of the outcome or reward for ‘surviving’ the experience
- Support systems and the impact of their intervention both within and external to the environment in which we feel discomfort
- Relationships with people we consider significant or important to us within that environment
- Stamina, the length of exposure and our mental and physical well being
- Willingness to be compliant
Just like in a physical environment where, if we persist beyond our capacity to manage or endure, it is likely to cause us physical harm a ‘toxic’ teaching and learning environment will cause us harm too. In my experience this can also manifest itself as a physical injury but is more likely to be our mental health that is at risk. The danger with this is that mental health issues are harder to recognise and carry a greater stigma than those that are physical in nature. As a result we hide our discomfort and disguise it in some way. A dramatic but relevant example of this I believe is the reports of soldiers in the First World War who carried out self-inflicted injuries in order to avoid the combat environment that they were no longer able to cope with mentally.
In teaching and learning I have seen and experienced high levels of environment based stress and can categorise them according to the symptoms that are presented, these include but are not exclusive to:
- Lack of a capacity for change
- Reliance on habits and routines in order to cope
- Irritability, a lack of patience or objectivity
- Relationship breakdown and withdrawing
- Out of character behaviours
- Minor illnesses such as aches and pains, headaches and a lack of sleep.
My experiences and research has led me to believe there are four needs specific to teaching and learning that, if absent or not fulfilled in some way, lead to a toxic environment and the conditions I have listed. Ultimately and where possible people will look for and find a way to cope or ultimately a way out of that environment and in extreme cases, where agency is limited, this can mean the most drastic of actions relative to the individual. A younger student may throw a tantrum and be expelled from the lesson or not even turn up to school. A teenager or adult may withdraw or even attempt suicide if they can see no other ‘way out’.
*I suggest all teachers are learners too so there are a common set of needs for both groups.
Next I will look at what can we do and what I believe is at the heart of the problem?