Wellbeing: going beyond the buzzword

*Some of the research and arguments presented in this blog post have been pulled from my PGCE assignment into policy and practice in education.

Why wellbeing?

In recent years, there has been a boom in interest in wellbeing as part of the growing mental health crisis in society. These debates have not been excluded from the education world, both at a theoretical and practical level, where there has been a growing interesting in teacher wellbeing and mental health in response to educational reforms and the current issues around teacher recruitment and retention.

This is especially prevalent during the coronavirus pandemic which has seen a lot of added pressure placed upon teachers who are trying to restructure schools and their practice to ensure schools remain COVID secure as not to end up closing.

The issue of teacher wellbeing has been readily documented in recent years. The Health and Safety Executive found in 2018 that education had some of the most prevalent instances of work-related stress. This has also been reflected in the findings of other studies, such as that of the Education Support Partnership’s Teacher Wellbeing Index which in 2018 found 67% of education professionals described themselves as stressed and 76% had experienced behavioural, psychological and physical symptoms of stress due to their work, compared with 60% of UK employees.

This recently came back into my periphery when I saw a tweet by @DanEdwards_77 who asked what we had misinterpreted about staff wellbeing. It got me thinking back to my research for my PGCE assignment into policy and practice and the issues with “wellbeing” in schools.

My response was as below ⬇️

This was a brief summary of my argument, and I sat and thought about it a little bit more and thought to develop the argument into a fuller blog post and draw upon some of the evidence from my PGCE research. And here we are, ta-da!

What’s wrong?

Like lots of initiatives in education, there can be a buzz around something new and an eagerness to implement, which sadly bastardises the original notion, idea or concept rendering it meaningless. To me, this sadly has been the case with wellbeing.

This stems initially from the fact that a lot of the literature around teacher wellbeing and mental health has interpreted the issue within education as a consequence of the liberalisation of the education sector, or as Ball (2003) argued the introduction of policy technologies: the market, managerialism and performativity.

This liberalisation of education has been happening since the 1980s, which transcend national and international. Think League Tables and PISA Scales. It can even go as far as the individual teacher with performance management targets. Whilst competition is seen by some as a way to motivate and improve outcomes, it can also lead to negative outcomes. A paradoxical situation to be in.

This means that wellbeing initiatives in schools can only go so far to address the mental health crisis in schools; as these issues stem from the very structure of schools and the education system, both nationally and internationally. Introducing sticking plaster initiatives will only take you so far to address mental health of staff. As individuals within very structured organisations, it is imperative that we understand the impact of these structures, that we act within, on our wellbeing.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that we should just give up because the system is an elusive chimera that cannot be wrangled, far from it, but we should ensure that we don’t just fall back on to our laurels and say “but we do tackle wellbeing issues” when it is far more complex an issue than that.

Work, Work, Work(load)

In my PGCE assignment, I looked at the specific issue of workload within the current education landscape. Back in 2008, studies found that teacher workloads topped polls and over 10 years later, the issue of workload still remains a persistent issue.

During the House of Commons’ Education Select Committee’s enquiry into Recruitment and Retention of teachers, the representative from the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) claimed that teachers in England work 19% longer than the average in other OECD countries, making the duration of work of teachers in England the third highest overall. In the same evidence sessions for the report, Dame Alison Peacock of the Chartered College of Teachers laid claim that there was an inextricable link between teacher workload and the accountability agenda. This is an obvious and important link to make, as higher demand for performance data and analysis will result in an increased workload.

Going back to what Ball said in 2003, there is a contradiction within two areas of what a teacher must implement in their working life: first order activities, such as direct engagement with students and curriculum development, paired with second order activities linked to performance monitoring and management.

What these two paradoxical activities do is suspend a teacher between the role of a teacher and the encouragement of liberalising policy on the work of a teacher. The complexity of being stuck in this paradigm can potentially leave teachers trapped in a downward spiral that can instigate poor wellbeing and mental health when prioritising can prove difficult. Add to this, the fact that a teacher’s workload can be a bottomless pit that never seems to be completed can make workload an unbearable aspect of the job of a teacher.

What is wellbeing then?

There are many ways schools have introduced policies around workload, the majority of the time this focuses heavily around marking. Some schools have introduced coded marking, some have limited marking to live marking whilst teachers walk around the classroom (pre-COVID) or reducing the number of marking points teachers must achieve in an half term.

Whilst these are helpful to the workload of a teacher, the whole-school culture, which sees the marketisation of education and the liberal policies of the last few decades imbedded into it, still persists and endangers the wellbeing of teachers. It isn’t just about how an organisation address workload, but also how they treat their staff, listen to their staff, respect their staff and ultimately, ensure their staff want to be turning up every day in a happy and productive mindset.

This is where wellbeing needs to have a whole-school strategy, not one where one or two policies are introduced to tick a box saying “we do wellbeing” but a cultural shift within schools that allows for an attitude towards work that is more conducive to wellbeing. This doesn’t mean “donuts in the staffroom” or yoga sessions put on for staff after school – whilst good and well intentioned, they don’t solve the issue of wellbeing at its very core.

Now this might not be an issue that one school can fix on its own, or even a conglomeration of schools, but more a national policy approach whereby mental health and wellbeing is considered as part of policy development, including education policy development. This means that the government of the day needs to consider how policy demands – may this be progress of students (though, incredibly important) or Ofsted inspections demands – are being translated as they flow down from government to schools for implementation.

If policies are unclear or onerous on schools, then it is important to address this matter going forward. The same can thus be said of schools where policies move from Senior Leadership to classroom practitioners, if they are unclear and/or onerous on an already heavy workload, then wellbeing is not being considered by senior leadership. As I said in my tweet further up, if staff don’t feel wellbeing is address, then you don’t address wellbeing in the right ways.

However, it is also a problem that teachers are on the whole people who are conscientious care-givers who want to do the utmost for their students and will jump through as many hoops to help see their students achieve the best that they possibly can. I have seen this with many teachers I have come across in person, and even online on Twitter. Whilst this a positive, it can also be a negative that sees students burn out and leave the profession, if not managed and handled carefully.

This matter is for teachers and line managers alike to acknowledge and address. For the teacher, it is about understanding that if you do not do any work during the school holidays, or don’t take work home or even (god forbid) leave work before 5pm, that you are not absconding your responsibilities as a teacher. For line managers, it is about being in tune with your team/s, checking in to see how they are and ensuring that you listen to what they have to say and step in to support them, when needed.

Wellbeing and mental health is a complex and convoluted behemoth that has no quick easy fix. There are so many factors that feed into wellbeing, but right now, it is about moving away from a vacuous buzzword that is just used to tick a box and actually consider, both at a national policy level and a school policy level, how meaningful action can be taken to address mental health and wellbeing. Otherwise, wellbeing will just be made worse and become an entrenched epidemic in this country with no light at the end of the tunnel.

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