March 29, 2023
Toll on Teachers
By Dr Kathy Weston
Like many of us working in the field of education or working in schools in the UK, I have been reflecting with deep sadness about the death of headteacher Ruth Perry this week. Discussion of her passing has involved an understanding that she was under intense pressure having had her work leading a school scrutinised by an external inspection body.
That assessment had resulted in a potential downgrading of her school from ‘outstanding’ to the horribly negative adjective: ‘inadequate’.
We don’t know and can never know anyone’s thought processes in the run up to taking their own life, but we can certainly feel deep empathy for what it might be like to receive feedback that threatens to dismantle one’s work and passion. As adults, our identities are often heavily bound up in our professional working life, so it is understandable that such negative scrutiny could feel so devastating. I understand from press reports that Ruth wasn’t able to share the results of the inspection with colleagues for 54 days, so she was potentially denied the opportunity to garner collegiate support, which is critical to navigating through any crisis. I didn’t know Ruth, but I do know how hard headteachers and school staff work and I know how driven they are to do everything in their power to support children and young people.
Once upon a time, I was a research fellow in a department of education in Higher Education, working alongside former teachers and headteachers. At 5pm every day, when I was happily rushing home, they would still be there, talking about students they were concerned about, considering which flapjacks they might make for the nervous cohort of trainee teachers arriving the next morning, sitting in side rooms supporting students with personal issues or staying behind to work hard on a module. I felt like the laziest person in the world witnessing their work ethic. Their stamina, their commitment to students, teaching and learning left an indelible mark on me.
I had a toddler at the time and, most days, I went to work armed with a list of parenting questions for our Early Years team. How can I get him to eat his broccoli? Any tips for entertaining him on a rainy day? “No problem. Here’s what you need to do Kathy”, my colleague Sally would say. I became known as the staff member interested in parenting and parenting research, and colleagues would regularly pop an article on my desk or recommend a must read book. I was the researcher within the department at that point and, as such, the only non-teacher. I quickly realised that for my colleagues, nurturing the next generation of student teachers wasn’t a job, it was a vocation. None of them had entered teaching ‘for the money’.
As the years went on, I felt enthused to do everything I could to help bridge the gap between teachers and parents, to promote the value of effective home-school partnership and consider how I could bring those small, impactful tips (once shared with me) to a wider audience. I wrote two books for teachers with Professor Janet Goodall and, of course, developed Tooled Up Education, my way of bringing research to whole school communities. I have a profound respect for teachers and always try to convey to parents (and teachers) the value of the home-school partnership.
But what are the characteristics of a strong partnership? Let’s give this point some consideration. Having a common goal for starters. People generally move into teaching because they enjoy working with children or young people and want to support them in every way possible. Parents want that for children too. As partners, aiming to move in the same direction, we both need to understand our mutual roles in that process. Teachers teach the curriculum but they also provide academic, pastoral support and inspiration.
So, who are we sending into the classroom every day? How are we supporting our teachers? Are we sending in children who are well slept? Are we sending in young people who have had a decent breakfast? Do our children feel loved? Do they come from an environment where learning is valued and teachers respected?
It goes without saying, if we criticise our children’s teachers or headteacher, question their approach or show disrespect in earshot of our children, it can really undermine their authority and potentially make their job of supporting our children a little bit harder. In an ideal world, parents and teachers should support one another visibly. Like any marriage, behind the scenes, there might be disagreements and disgruntlement, but let’s not try to have them in front of the kids! Just as ‘the united front of parents’ can matter when raising children, the more we can work on the ‘united front of teacher and parent’, the better.
I watched the famed Oxford-Cambridge boat race last Sunday and was struck by the working partnership displayed among the respective rowing teams. They knew what they wanted to achieve, respected the stroke (who sets the pace), listened to the guidance of the cox and pulled together in perfect unison to reach the finish line. It took trust between each member of the boat to be able to work together so effectively.
Trust is initially built through rapport, listening and getting to know one another. Success isn’t possible without a shared vision of what we are aiming for or what we are trying to achieve. On entry to any school or featured on any school website, it is common to see visibly displayed mottoes about the kind of values or character traits that the school hopes to nurture in its pupils. They are always deeply impressive mission statements that parents approve of, but do we ever consider our role in supporting the school to achieve these goals?
A school might want to develop pupils’ resilience, altruism or social confidence, for example. Schools can achieve this through a whole host of factors; the relationships they develop with pupils, the opportunities they offer them, the behavioural expectations they set for them and the language they use during interactions. At home, we can attempt to work in close alignment with the school by mirroring those strategies. If a teacher is working hard to build the self-esteem and resilience of a young learner, a parent might easily dismantle those efforts by berating them over the fact they ‘only got 70%’ in a recent test.
I understand that not all teacher-pupil relationships are smooth sailing. We have all had teachers that we haven’t got on particularly well with and, by contrast, those that we still feel emotional about! I think it’s worth noting what pupils value about this important relationship. Research conducted by the developmental psychologist, Dr Ingrid Obsuth and colleagues at Edinburgh University reveals that pupils want teachers who are fair, kind, who like them, know them and (wait for it) have a good sense of humour. If you ask your child who their favourite teacher is, it is highly likely to be the ‘fun’ one! This is indicative of the fact that learning should be fun and when it is, it is possibly more engaging too.
Humour also plays a critical role in developing everyone’s resilience. It reduces anxiety and gently reframes what can feel like an impossible challenge. Whether present in the teacher-pupil or parent-child relationship, humour serves an important role in promoting interpersonal connection. This warmth may in turn increase the chances of a pupil engaging, complying and listening to the teachers they work with every day.
As important as individual relationships are between pupil and teacher, an additional factor that can play a protective factor in terms of children’s wellbeing and mental health is the sense of belonging they feel to their school.
This can take some time to develop for new starters, but as pupils become known by name, valued and celebrated for who they are, and develop relationships with the professionals that care for them, a pride in their school community should begin to bloom. It can blossom through camaraderie, classroom learning, school trips, stories, everyday interactions and conversation, assemblies, songs, sport and all those school events that children participate in and we get invited to.
I was reminded of how good it feels to be part of a community when we were invited to our village’s Earth Day celebrations last weekend. Along with many others in 90 different countries, we spent an hour in the evening sitting in a candlelit space reflecting on the beauty of the world, the climate crisis and our own role in alleviating it. Following that, we stood in the dark outside, peering up at the sky together, and were invited to simply listen, in silence, to the sounds of nature around us. It was a surprisingly moving experience and I was struck by how good it felt to be part of something ‘bigger’ than myself. It felt comforting to remember that I am part of a community beyond my own small family. Educational settings are important communities (arguably among the most important our children will ever belong to) and as such, we might perhaps consider what more we can do to support those that lead them, how we can contribute personally to enhance them and what more we might do to foster our children’s sense of pride in them.
The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns altered the manner in which schools and families viewed one another. Parents may have experienced a newfound understanding of how hard teaching is! Teachers may have realised how important personal interactions are in developing children’s intellectual, emotional and social skills. In some settings, the recalibration of the relationship is still unfolding. In recent months, tensions might run high between families and schools because of the pressure borne by both. The cost of living crisis, political tensions and uncertainties, the proliferation of social media, and all of life’s stress can threaten to derail that which we need to hold close to our hearts: the home-school partnership.
Teacher stress is at an all-time high. The Chartered College of Teaching first highlighted the potential negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on teacher wellbeing in May 2020. In the first report in their ‘Education in Times of Crisis’ series, they summarised research evidence from past health crises and natural disasters, hypothesising that teachers are subject to additional pressures because of their professional role in supporting children. They are often the first responders to students’ socio-emotional needs and are regularly involved in delivering interventions in these contexts, often without adequate support (Child Bereavement UK, 2018).
In the few years since the pandemic, school staff burnout rates have risen. Signs of burnout include exhaustion, mental detachment from work and problems with both performance and relationships at work. Disturbed sleep or the physical signs of crippling anxiety might also be experienced as part of this condition.
Step into the shoes of a school leader for a moment. Can you imagine how it might feel to lead a school with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students and staff under one’s wing? What must it feel like to worry about grades, inspections, staff turnover, angry emails from parents, protests, strikes and, at the same time, support your own family to the best of your ability? It is a tough job.
My plea to parents, ahead or during this Easter break is to consider sending an email praising one little thing that your child’s headteacher or class teacher has done, said or delivered that you think merits praise and a pat on the back. The headteachers that I know and work with would never invite such compliments and don’t seek them out, but I know they deserve them. It is astonishing how animated and excited school staff can be when a positive, warm, affirming email arrives from a grateful parent.
We can’t expect school staff to have the energy and motivation to keep going without a little sprinkling of affirmation, praise and feedback. This past week, my youngest said he had the best day ever, because a kind teacher allowed him ‘seconds of jelly’ at lunch and told him a funny joke! That small interaction in the canteen had meant my son appraised the day as a ‘really good one’; the teacher’s little act of positive engagement where she called him by name and made him chuckle has helped engender a sense of belonging to school.
When I heard his anecdote, I felt grateful to the teacher and wanted to let her know that what she says and how she interacts with my son has some impact. Emailing teachers is an act none of us should do lightly. They are incredibly busy during the school day and might only have small intervals to read messages. Hopefully your positive email in that bulging inbox after the Easter break can help put a smile on their face. If they feel valued for the work that they do, it can only transmit into the rest of the community, of which our children are part.
We expect those in leadership positions to be as hard as nails, indefatigable and able to move on past negative comments. Some are. Most aren’t. Everyone is human. As we all know, despite our best efforts, one piece of criticism, rebuke or negative review can sit heavy on the heart and stir up feelings of inadequacy and depression. So just as we teach our children to ‘be kind’, let’s also try and mirror that advice supporting the educational professionals trying their best every single day.
April is stress awareness month, so it’s a great time to think of all the proactive things we can do to recognise the signs of stress and consider all the things that can help us navigate it, manage it and reduce it to levels that don’t feel overwhelming.
I always think it is good to ask those around us. How do I come across when I am stressed? How do you know I am stressed? What makes us feel stressed? How might that manifest physically? How does it feel?
Checking in with our emotions is now easily done with an app. Beyond that, there are some daily small things that we can do to help us feel rooted or grounded psychologically. We might consider (or even count) the people in our lives that make us feel supported or good about ourselves and think about how we can do more of what we love. Exercising kindness towards oneself, as well as others, can have a psychologically tangible impact, as can expressing gratitude about what we have and what is going well. Connecting with nature, enjoying creative pursuits and spending some time, as I did last week, with members of our communities can be good for the mind and soul.
A little bit of exercise, time with our pets, laughing, mucking about with our children, friends or family are the mood-boosters we all need coming into this spring. This is a season traditionally associated with hope, renewal and resilience. People often set goals in January for the year ahead, but April is a good time for a mid-year reset and to establish small achievable goals ahead of the summer term. For many pupils it is approaching exam season. This period of the year can add to levels of stress across a household; the needs of different children might compete, workloads need to be balanced alongside the needs of our children and somehow we have to find a way of motivating, rather than nagging our teens!
My advice to parents at this stage is to support and nudge them towards good sleep routines (promise them that the parties come after exams), help them to plan out revision timetables and embed things to look forward to within family plans. Encourage them to teach you something. Can they tell you what they know about a particular topic they have just been revising or re-tell what they have learned in different contexts? Do they need assistance balancing the demands of a job, a new relationship or a demanding sports’ schedule? They can have a lot on their plates, as do we, but reminding them that we are ‘in it together’ can feel reassuring and hopeful.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
As we approach Stress Awareness Month, why not consider the ways you might be able to reduce stress in your own life? To give you some practical tips, we’re hosting two amazing webinars on managing stress as a parent, which are open for booking now:
Stress Management for Busy Parents (April 28, 12:30PM BST) – Clinical Psychologist, Dr Monica Thompson joins us to discuss stress management when you are juggling a host of work, family or caring commitments. Dr Thompson will help us understand more about the aetiology of stress and provide evidence-based ideas for managing stress. She’s keen to answer all of your live questions, or you can get in touch and submit your queries in advance.
Connecting with Our Children Whilst Living High Stress Lifestyles (May 9, 2023, 12:30PM BST) – Join psychiatrist and parent coach Dr Gauri Seth for a dynamic chat about how we can sustain emotionally deep and meaningful connections with our children whilst living busy, stressful lives.
We already have lots of resources in the Tooled Up library designed to help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, for both you and your children. Why not take a look at our stress less activity and our Wednesday Wisdom on keeping all of those spinning plates in the air or you might like to print out the Family Domestic Planner and see if it is helpful in dividing up domestic responsibilities during the working week. It’s also useful to focus on the things that you can control, versus the things that you can’t. This template might help. It’s useful for both adults and children who need help to keep things in perspective. If you, or your children, need help to identify the things you can do to relax, feel calm or add some joy to your lives, our Coping Menu can help.
For any teens approaching their exams, we have a wide range of resources created with reducing anxiety in mind ranging from a useful exam planner, a quick reflective activity to help them assess how they are feeling about each subject and what might help in the run up to exams, exam nutrition tips and videos on managing GCSE and A level anxiety.