One school’s journey to teacher wellbeing

January 2013

 

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IAN VICKERS discusses the importance of teachers looking after themselves and the benefits his school has seen from the introduction of a teacher wellbeing programme.

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He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

People are the most important part of any organisation, and this is most certainly true in our educational institutions. Whilst the vast majority of the focus in any school is quite rightly on the young people in our care, we as teachers require a little more focus also. Excellence, passion, enthusiasm, innovation, commitment, and industry are demanded of teachers through constant rhetoric from principals, senior leaders, parents, boards of trustees, Ministry of Education, unions, media, academics, and anyone else with an opinion on education.

If you really want excellence from teachers in your schools, then a teacher wellbeing focus has got be an integral part of the professional learning package that is offered to this particular group of professionals. In every school, there is a silent majority who work extremely long hours, are creative, energetic, wonderful classroom teachers and this is expected every day, 40 weeks of the year, year after year, with very few queries from senior leaders on how they are coping and managing to maintain this level of performance.

At a recent educational conference, I mentioned to a principal of a large school the concept of looking after our teachers with regards to their health, self-care, and overall wellbeing. He replied that his philosophy was to work teachers extremely hard, and if lucky, he would get 10 years good service out of them before they were burnt-out and then replace them with a younger model and go again. This is an appalling attitude but not an uncommon one, as I have learnt on discussing teacher wellbeing around the country over the last two years. The other regular tick-box solution to looking after teachers is for principals to put on a couple of morning teas and shout the odd Friday happy hour and all is well with the world.

It is not my intention to save the teachers of the world. Nor can I force or insist a teacher think about their wellbeing. If an individual makes only one change to the way they work during the school day, then that is a positive help to their wellbeing. Some colleagues are aware that they are often working on empty by the end of each week and are very receptive to looking at some wellbeing strategies. Others are very reluctant to even acknowledge that teaching is affecting their health – at least nothing that cannot be cured by regular caffeine during the day and a drop of alcohol every night.

The health data on teachers is woeful and whilst the big three – cancer, heart, and stroke – are prevalent, as in most other employment groups, my initial research seems to suggest that the average age that these illnesses are affecting teachers is in their 40s compared with an overall average age in the 50s across all careers. Teacher depression accounts for many of the Income Protection claims.

In 2012 at Sancta Maria College we embarked on a year-long teacher wellbeing focus. A 53-minute presentation was signalled to all our teachers. There was an initial 15 minutes in February, with a promise to be back every week for 38 weeks, with a regular one minute input and wellbeing focus topic, hence the 53 minutes.

A ‘little bit often’ was the plan of action, with a different wellbeing strategy promoted each week. The aim was to encourage colleagues to think about their working habits during each week and whether the promoted focus for the week could be of benefit to them. The ideas were very simple, such as weeks with the focus on drinking more water, eating more fruit, stopping for lunch, time management, tidying up work spaces, going home early once in a while, an evening off school work, avoid using e-mails, and planning some quality ‘me’ time for the holidays, to name just a few.

Such a simple idea, put together in a $2.50 in-house photocopied resource booklet. Each week’s focus was promoted by a member of the senior leadership team. One colleague was delighted to have all the ideas in one booklet as she admitted to having spent thousands of dollars on medical professionals to help her gain a work-life balance. It was such a wonderful journey through the year and a sense of close collegiality developed as we professionally spoke openly about the demands on a 21st century teacher and how a continued focus on our wellbeing would be beneficial.

How do you measure the benefits of this wellbeing programme? Sickness days data was quite revealing, with a 40 per cent reduction in term 1, 2012 compared with term 1, 2011, and similarly, 20 per cent and 26 per cent reductions for the two winter terms. At the time of writing, the final term 4 data is unavailable but a superficial look would also suggest another pleasing reduction.

The queues for the water cooler rather than coffee forced the school to upgrade to a high-speed water tap to diminish the queue times. The most important change was in the staffroom, with more laughter and fun, a place where colleagues can relax and meet at morning tea and lunchtime. Too often our staffrooms have become soulless places where if you sit down during a non-contact, other colleagues passing through at high speed either make a remark to you about whether you have anything to do.

What a difference a year makes. In February 2012, we launched our teacher wellbeing programme and weekly resource booklet to help develop good new habits. At the end of my initial 15-minute presentation, we gave out the booklet of ideas and strategies and then followed five minutes of near silence. I exchanged glances with the principal and we were stunned that 80 teachers were sitting in silence, flicking through pages of ideas. Having encountered similar experiences of periods of silence at other schools and conferences, the feedback is always the same – that as teachers, we do not do this sort of thing: think about ourselves.

Towards the end of term 1, the school had a visit from ERO and one of their team had great feedback from our staff about our ongoing wellbeing programme. She took a resource booklet home, read it from front to back that evening, and reported back very positively to the Board of Trustees on this initiative.

One year on, teachers talk openly about their wellbeing strategies, and pleasingly, other colleagues have introduced other initiatives around nutrition and exercise. Some quieter colleagues have made subtle changes like replacing biscuits with fruit and yoghurts for morning tea, working a slightly longer day and then doing no school work at home, or working smarter towards the end of each term so that the holidays can be thoroughly enjoyed.

We have a huge bright green banner on the wall in the staffroom that simply says “Remember to Remember”. This is a daily reminder for all of us to remember to look after ourselves during the hours at work. Schools are extremely busy places, teaching is like no other job, and so with our unique working environment, it is vital that teacher wellbeing is part of the overall learning programme for us all and not just Friday happy hour drinks to tick a box. We deserve much better support than that!

He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

Ian Vickers is assistant principal at Sancta Maria College in Flat Bush, Auckland. The above are his personal views and opinions.