Kathryn Lovewell is a former teacher who is now a consultant in wellbeing and emotional resilience. This is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network Easter 2013 newsletter (sign up here).
Teaching is the best job in the world. Watching your students grow and blossom is the reward for hours of prep, marking and meetings. This is the life blood that feeds our heart and makes us want to get up in the morning and do it all over again. The sad thing is that the “juice” is often squeezed out of teachers and teaching. The pressure of targets, league tables and exam results dilutes the magic that is the very nature of a great teacher.
Teachers are on the frontline. If they are not “fit” to cope with the never-ending, ever-changing series of demands and pressures they face moment to moment, they will not provide the quality teaching and learning experience expected of them. They will not be the great teacher they aspired to be when they entered the profession.
The ill effects of stress on teachers are obvious and easily recognised. A stressed teacher will have increased adrenalin pumping through their body. Their heart rate will be higher than normal, generating high blood pressure as a measurable symptom. They are likely to be more easily agitated, less tolerant, quick to judge and of course feel fatigued and run down. They will often be rushing or at least feel rushed inside. Their body will not be the only mechanism to signal high levels of stress. Their mind will be full, racing and possibly turbulent. Negative thoughts are likely to be rampant and the inner critic is usually at the helm. They will have little or no head space. Their creativity will be stunted and their ability to think clearly will take great effort. Their emotional landscape is potentially in tatters. Self esteem can plummet and low morale is common when teachers are out of balance.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, teaching is among the top five occupations affected by work-related stress, with 70% of teachers and lecturers saying their health has suffered because of their job (Labour Force Survey). Former Primary Head teacher, John Illingworth is just one casualty of chronic stress rife in the education system. He believes “Depression, anxiety and burnout have become the teachers’ diseases…” The Teacher Support Network survey stated “Working in education is bad for your health!”
Unlike many other professions, teachers are constantly exposed to emotionally provocative situations and have limited options for self-regulation. When a student is blowing a gasket, they are usually given the option of taking time out, catching their breath or leaving the classroom to cool off. A teacher cannot do this. A teacher must stay in the room, no matter what the circumstance or however unpleasant the situation. They must stay in charge, take the higher ground, rise above the provocation. This is enormously draining, emotionally and mentally. Left unaddressed, this chronic stress will produce deadly outcomes. Teacher suicide is now 40% higher than the national average.
The ill effects of stressed teachers on learning are equally obvious. Learning is less likely to take place if the teacher isn’t well. If the teacher feels physically ill they will be distracted by their symptoms. Something as simple as a headache can have serious implications on learning outcomes. Headaches are a common problem for many teachers – have you ever tried to explain an important point to a friend or colleague when your head is thumping? It’s hard enough one to one. Try one to thirty. Learning is very difficult if the classroom is not managed well and behaviour is hard to manage when a teacher is struggling to stand up – literally and metaphorically. Poorly managed behaviour is a recipe for disruption in the classroom. Learning is repeatedly interrupted, stilted or stopped altogether.
Effective communication is limited or non-existent. It is far harder to access the parts of the brain that enable clear communication when stress is the overriding force in the mind/body. Learning is less likely to be positively facilitated if the teacher is under par. When teachers resort to shouting as a means of communication, there is little doubt that productivity, respect and control (both self-control and classroom management) is lost. This is not quality teaching. There is no space for fun, creativity, rapport building, healthy interaction or learning. Teachers and students both lose. Relationships are key to productive, progressive learning. You know from your own family, that without happy healthy relationships, there is no hope of honest, open communication, respectful attitudes, kind behaviour or constructive support. There is no room to grow, develop or understand how to be assertive rather than reactive,aggressive or passive aggressive.
Stress weakens the immune system. Low immune system means sickness. Sickness leads to teacher absence. Long term unaddressed stress equals long term absence. Teacher absence generates extra workload for colleagues, a disrupted curriculum and inadequate learning. Financial implications are obvious. A school with low staff retention rates generates low levels of quality learning. This is costly for the school’s budget and reputation, the tax payer, the remaining staff and most importantly the student.
Teaching at its best arises from healthy teachers who are well rested, open minded, clear thinking and compassionate towards the challenges of learning. A Mindful teacher is fully present, able to support and encourage whilst simultaneously challenge their students to reach beyond expectations or self doubt. Relaxed teachers are flexible teachers. Flexible teachers are more likely to be resilient. Their ability to bounce back after interruption, disruption or situations out of their control (Jonny setting off the fire alarm, Jenni crying because her mum is seriously ill or Oli punching Ryan for looking at him “funny”) is the key to managing the inevitable stress of holding the energy of groups of young people and endeavouring to engage them in subjects that may not rock their world.
Quality teaching is the result of having an underlying structure that supports both the learner and the teacher. If the structure does not allow space to breathe for those within in it, the inhabitants are sure to suffocate. Well-being for teachers (and students) is not a fluffy, nice to have. It’s not a luxury for the end of term and it should not be seen as a bolt on or added extra. Well-being in schools is a fundamental pre-requisite for healthy, constructive and productive quality teaching and learning. Both students and teachers need to be supported, fit and well to be inspired and inspiring.
Felicia Huppert, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge University describes how economic growth is not the only indicator of progress for many governments. Citizen well-being is now growing to be accepted as equally important. Well-being is not just about happiness. It is much more than this. It is about living life well, developing ourselves and our full potential; developing relationships with ourselves and others and contributing to our society, our world. This is “flourishing!”
The UN High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-Being (April 2012) advocates a new economic paradigm with well-being at its core. Why would education not do the same? Flourishing teachers inspire students to flourish. Flourishing teachers create the foundations for learning to flourish. Flourishing leaders in education enable teachers to live a balanced life inside and outside school, which in turn delivers an implicit message that teachers and their well-being are valued and valuable. Flourishing schools provide the bedrock for balanced perspectives, balanced approaches, balanced attitudes and balanced living – for all. What are you doing to ensure your teachers are fit, well and flourishing?
You can read more about Kathryn’s work in her new book, Every Teacher Matters. There is also further information on her website: http://kathrynlovewell.com/