Did you know that the average teacher has over one thousand interpersonal interactions a day? Think now about code switching between super ordinates, colleagues, students and parents. Whew, it is no wonder they often feel exhausted.
Research tells us that teaching is the second most stressful occupation in Australia, surpassed only by active policing. We also lose around twenty percent of new graduates after their first five years. What a waste of money and potential.
Being a teacher is rewarding but often exhausting!
Teachers have been instructed from their training onwards that they need to develop positive relationships with students, parents and work colleagues. Yes, they do need to be content experts, but more importantly, teachers need to develop sustainable positive relationships with students for classroom management and to enable learning. In my context of a large secondary school, let’s now add the ingredient of adolescents. As students enter the secondary context their hormones start kicking in. They are driven by what their friends think of them and they are stressed about changing friendship groups, study demands and how their bodies are changing. They can also rebel against authority if they are feeling overwhelmed. Wow, this scenario undoubtedly has the potential to create a somewhat volatile situation.
It is interesting, when examining the University graduate modules, there is nowhere I can find where a shared understanding of positive relationships is unpacked. How do teachers use their emotional and social wellbeing strategies in the classroom? Who nourishes them? Does teaching social and emotional wellbeing to students help teachers? Interesting and un-researched questions.
At my school, in my role as Associate Principal, I am always aware of telling teachers to have life balance and practise mindfulness, while at the same time giving them yet more work to do. It is unfair but, sadly, in this age driven by testing and measurement, there are no quiet moments. Our lists are a scroll of never ending tasks that must be done. Most teachers are task orientated and the end result is that often teachers feel overworked and overwhelmed.
Experiences from my school
I cannot do much about the bigger picture but I would like to share with you some practical things that I do for staff.
We have organised to have a dog on campus most days. Boots and Rush are greyhounds that are housed in the Fiction Library on their own couch. They belong to a teacher who works at the school and a volunteer who bring them in. I had to develop a risk management plan for District approval and get safety clearance from Greyhound Adoptions WA. With so many students and teachers hugging them daily, we had to make sure we had the right animals. This inexpensive strategy is loved by teachers and has also given my school lots of positive press. The daily presence of Boots and Rush destresses everyone and the dogs love the adoration.
I have provided every teacher at the college access to the Flourishing at School survey platform which is aligned with how we teach Positive Education to students through the school. We have embedded Seligman’s PERMAH model for explicit teaching of social and emotional wellbeing strategies that we have linked to the West Australian Health and Physical Education curriculum. This is reinforced through a whole school focus on character strengths, mindfulness, growth mindset and solutions focused dialogue. Teachers have loved how easy the survey is to use and how it not only offered them personal feedback on their life balance and flourishing, but also gave them resources to help where they were languishing. The win/win was that it has also allowed me access to invaluable data which can be utilised to plan targeted professional learning opportunities based on the teachers’ collective responses. Anecdotally, staff say they feel more valued and some teachers have been really surprised about their personal feedback and took the opportunity to target a self-strategy towards life balance.
Finally, I started an exercise at work club for teachers. We use our gym for an hour on select afternoons. For $12 a session I have arranged for Pilates one day a week and Personal Training for two further days. I shared this opportunity with our local primary schools and it was well received. Staff who regularly attend says exercising on the work site before they have a chance to go home and unwind, has made a big difference to their health and wellbeing.
It is easy to understand how teaching students is meaningful work for many, but how also the demands and complexities of this important role can cause undesirable effects on incumbent wellbeing. I hope the few practical initiatives I have shared in this post will give you some inspiration on what can be done to foster good teacher wellbeing outcomes in your own school.
Veronika Sutton | Associate Principal
Veronica Sutton has worked in her role as Associate Principal for twelve years at Woodvale Secondary College. In 2014 she was asked to lead the Business Plan priority of Positive Education which quickly became her passion. Veronica is currently completing a PhD with Edith Cowan University. Her research area is a case study of the implementation of Positive Education in a metropolitan government secondary school through a sustainable, cost effective model.