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Teachers do one of the most important jobs in our communities. It’s also one of the most demanding roles with long hours, balancing demands from competing stakeholders, and a massive administrative load – all before we even get to the core business of teaching and learning. While ‘teacher wellbeing’ is often mentioned in the media, as we head into the final term of 2022, it’s a good idea to zoom out and check in with the latest thinking and research. This week on School Stream, we look at five tips from education specialists about how teacher and staff wellbeing can be improved. 

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1. Understanding the triggers means targeted support

Lots of things contribute to a decline in wellbeing but, as we all know, heavy workload and poor work-life balance remain two of the biggest triggers for teachers. One teacher recently spoke about his workload as a high school English teacher on ABC’s This Working Life

“[I’d work] 70 hours a week. I’d start my day at 7am and I usually would finish around 7pm… I’d always work on the weekends … And certainly during the holidays, I wasn’t on a lilo in the sun, working on my tan.” 

So while two years of pandemic-related upheaval, the stress of remote teaching, and the isolation of working alone for a famously collegiate profession have certainly taken their toll, wellbeing was already a major issue for teachers. In 2018, a survey of 18,234 staff at public schools in New South Wales found 60% of teachers were reporting unacceptably high levels of occupational stress. Once you pair this with the high expectations for teachers to be ‘everything to everybody’ and an insurmountable list of “low level tasks” to be completed, it’s no wonder teachers need a boost. Education specialists recommend staff consultations and steering committees to understand the particular challenges teachers are facing, so targeted tools and strategies can be implemented. 

2. Identifying the Signs – When to Implement a Wellbeing Program

We are familiar with the signs of a depleted workforce: fatigue, low morale, restlessness, depression, a short fuse, and feeling negative are red flags indicating something is amiss. However, a culture of ‘suffering in silence’ or a fear of looking ‘inadequate’ can stop people from speaking up to colleagues or school leaders about their health. Given the prevalence of teachers leaving the profession, it’s safe to assume that a meaningful ‘holistic and ongoing’ wellbeing program is always a good idea to arrest the decline in wellbeing across all school staff – before the wheels fall off.

3. What do teachers want? 

Smaller classes, a lighter administrative load and, of course, more time are all on the wish list when it comes to improving teacher wellbeing. Given that the biggest source of issues negatively impacting wellbeing are ‘institutional’, telling teachers to sleep more, hydrate, eat healthy food and meditate feels a bit like bringing a sword to a gunfight. These things undoubtedly support better health, but they don’t really address the root causes of the problem. 

4. Evidence-backed Strategies Schools Can Implement

The UK-based Teacher Wellbeing Index recommends the following three strategies for schools, which are based on the results of an exhaustive five-year study culminating in 2021. 

  • Prioritise a culture of wellbeing and reduce stigma.

Implementing an ‘open culture’ was nominated as a key metric that could improve teacher wellbeing in their school. 

  • 50% of staff surveyed who spoke to someone at work about their mental health problems said it gave them perspective and helped them realise they are not alone.
  • 47% of staff surveyed consider having a working culture that encourages people to talk openly is the best way to tackle mental health stigma and encourage people to seek support.
  • Look after your leadership

  • School leaders are a passionate lot and tend to give everything they have (and then more) to the job. Remember the adage of fitting your own oxygen mask first? School leaders carry an outsized load and need to take care of themselves too. Consider it a chance to lead by example! Bringing wellbeing into every day is a way to support your staff – and it can be a part of every stage of employment. Tips from education researchers include, talking about wellbeing at recruitment, inductions, in one-on-one meetings, adding it to the agenda of any ongoing meetings and publicising any support available to staff.

    5. Teamwork and Support (Make a School Work)

    Teacher wellbeing is a complex beast and likely needs a multipronged approach from all levels of government, in consultation with schools, to really address how to support the teachers to continue doing what they do best. In the meantime, education researchers continue to advise keeping the lines of communication open and encouraging teamwork.

    We wish you all the best for Term 4.

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