We hear, day in, day out, from teachers who can’t wait to have a little extra time on their hands to focus on their practice, development or basic wellbeing, and the headlines paint a similar picture.
According to the Education Support Partnership (ESP), between 2017 and 2018 the number of teachers seeking mental health support rose by 35%, citing heightening accountability, an increasingly intense testing culture and relentless workload as the key drivers.
These pressures don’t ease off as teachers climb the ladder either; helpline calls to the ESP from SLT members rose 24% and represented some of the most extreme cases they had heard. And with last year’s DfE workload survey revealing average weekly working hours of 54 and 60 respectively for teachers and SLT members, systemic pressures are clearly playing a role.
Having taken time to seek out wellbeing advice, you may be one of many teachers currently struggling with job satisfaction and workload, and you are unfortunately not alone. 30% of the teachers who qualified in 2010 had already left within 5 years, and the same percentage of SLT members who took their posts between 2011 and 2015 had also sought greener pastures.
It’s ironic and somewhat shameful that wellbeing is driving so many great teachers from the profession, when research has shown teacher wellbeing and pupil outcomes to be intrinsically linked, and that the number one reason for entering teaching is the belief that positive change can be affected on young people’s lives.
Because many of the factors threatening teacher wellbeing are institutional, reminding teachers to get 8 hours of sleep, eat healthily, exercise at least twice a week, moderate your caffeine and alcohol intake or practice mindfulness can be a little patronising. Yes, these are all scientifically proven to support mental and emotional wellbeing, but A) you probably don’t need me to remind you and B) this kind of advice often ignores the factors creating poor teacher wellbeing in the first place.
Instead, these six tips should fit in around your existing circumstances, help you ease some of the internal pressure and help you establish a more sustainable work-life until a longer-term solution is found.
1. Look forward
Let’s start at the very beginning of your day. We’ve all woken up mid-week, initially confused and then, upon remembering what day it is, dreaded getting up and going to work at some point in our lives. It’s all too easy to take that dread and pessimism forward and allow it to impact on the interactions we have throughout the day.
There’s no value in completely ignoring or repressing feelings of stress, anxiety or even depression, but what can make a huge difference is keeping in mind at least one thing you’re looking forward to throughout the course of your day. These can be relatively insignificant, so you may mind you can think of several, whether it’s catching up with a colleague you get on with, supporting particular pupils, delivering a lesson you’re proud of or even getting 5 minutes to yourself at lunch.
Going into your day with these in mind, whatever they may be, can help you stay positive and serve as a reminder that your day, when all’s said and done, probably won’t be all bad.
2. Find things to be grateful for
On first glance, these first two points might seem very similar, but there’s a subtle difference. While finding things to look forward to is about taking positivity into each individual day, it can also be hugely beneficial to take stock of the constants in your life that make you feel safe, secure and happy.
Psychologist and happiness researcher Shawn Achor suggests in his book The Happiness Advantage that we journal gratitude on a daily basis as a way of solidifying and sustaining a more positive and productive mindset. Again, don’t stifle any negative emotions, but if they feels as though they’re beginning to spiral out of control and dominate your perception, keeping in touch with the stable positives in your life can help broaden your perspective and maintain stability in your mental wellbeing.
Teachers come from such varied walks of life that the possibilities here are endless, but whatever comes to mind, physically listing or journaling what you are grateful for can make a huge difference in redressing mental balance during stressful times.
3. Celebrate small victories
When we succeed at something, especially unexpectedly or for the first time, we tend to feel a sense of progression and fulfilment. Exceeding our own expectations, even on a relatively small scale, can be transformative for our sense of self-worth and motivation, so the last thing we need when in the throws of a stressful period is to let them slip under the radar.
Similar to Shawn Achor’s gratitude journal idea, it can help to make a note of all the things during the day that go well for you, whether that’s managing a difficult pupil’s behavior, delivering a lesson you’re proud of, or even smaller things like making a friend or colleague laugh (intentionally of course!). You can refer back to this at the end of your day and use it as a reminder of the achievements you might have overlooked otherwise, which can help give you a greater sense of purpose moving into the day after.
4. Make lists of your challenges too
In particularly stressful times, it can feel like our problems are multiplying before us, or that there’s always one or two extra things we need to do but can’t quite remember. It can leave us feeling desperate, hopeless and unprepared for getting on top of it all. That said, it’s easy to forget the influence that stress has on our ability to perceive the world rationally, and there’s a decent likelihood that our mind is inflating the gravity of the situation.
An easy way to step back and take an objective look at what needs doing is making a list, either of the things we need to do, or of the things we are struggling with. Chances are, the list on paper will suddenly seem much smaller than it does in your mind and will allow you to think much more methodically about what takes priority and how to approach each of them. You can then take the pressure off yourself to mentally juggle it all and have the satisfaction of crossing each item off as you go, which should make you feel more optimistic and motivated to deal with as many as you can.
5. Find someone you can open up to
As with making physical lists, the opportunity to let your feelings or worries out, articulate them and talk them through with someone can help hugely in relieving mental pressure. Talking aloud about your worries and stresses can help you re-contextualise and put them into perspective, and take weight off your mind for having to juggle them all. Your confidant may have a slightly different take on what you’re experiencing and be able to offer some productive advice from a more objective and balanced position.
Keeping pronounced negative feelings to yourself for a prolonged period of time is unsustainable and potentially dangerous for your mental wellbeing, so it’s important to make use of the support network around you. The good news is that there aren’t really any rules as to who you choose to reach out to. Friends, family or your significant other are obvious candidates, and while it can be extremely daunting to take the first step and initiate that conversation, you have to remember that this is what they’re there for!
That being said, your friends and family are unlikely to be trained counsellors, and if your situation deteriorates further then it may be time to consider professional help. This carries a certain stigma and can be even more daunting to initiate, but again, this is what these services exist for, and you would probably be surprised by how many people make use of them to help bring more balance to their mental wellbeing. Whoever you choose to open up to, it can be a transformative first step to facing up to, taking stock of and overcoming what you’re going through.
6. Talk to your senior leader
Yes, there is admittedly a chance that the SLT at your school are also feeling under pressure at the moment, as the statistics at the start of this blog highlight. However, it’s their responsibility to support you, to the best of their ability, to perform your best and inspire your pupils.
Especially if your school has designated an SLT member to oversee teacher wellbeing, making them aware of your situation, perhaps in less detail than you would with friends or family, is yet again making use of what can be a vital part of your support network. No news is good news from their perspective, so letting them know you’re struggling is essential for keeping them up to speed with morale among you and your colleagues, because you’re unlikely to be alone.
There may just be support available to you that you’re not aware of until you reach out and ask, and by sharing your situation you take some of the weight and responsibility off your own shoulders and hand some of it to someone whose job is to support you with it.
As mentioned, the current systemic pressures on teachers are difficult to overcome, especially in light of the scarce funding available for schools. Many of you may have considered and tried some of these suggestions already, but hopefully they have brought to your attention at least one new idea to help you approach your workplace stress, and that you can find a way to successfully integrate it into your daily routine.
Perhaps the most important point to take away is that stress, anxiety and other negative emotions are only amplified when you deal with them alone, and as long as you have some sort of support network around you, whether you have recognised it yet or not, that can help you broaden your perspective on the situation and find practical solutions for addressing it.