Heads need to take teachers’ mental health seriously in order to tackle the recruitment crisis, says Ross Morrison McGill
Teacher wellbeing should not be the inevitable casualty of working in a difficult profession. In fact, good mental health and wellbeing for teachers are critical to the future of the profession itself.
If we are to maintain a high-quality education, attract new teachers and keep those who have been teaching for a long time in their jobs, school leaders have to take wellbeing extremely seriously and not write it off as a woolly add-on.
A better place to work
As a former deputy headteacher and founder of @TeacherToolkit, an online platform for the teaching community, I’m passionate about staff wellbeing. And I feel there are some crucial steps school leaders can take to improve teachers’ mental health.
I recognise school leaders have to hold all staff to account, but they can do this in a supportive way by providing constructive feedback and taking a flexible approach. It should be OK to ask for time off to go to your child’s sports day.
Similarly, it’s time to reduce unnecessary workload for teachers. The endless meetings, tick-box templates and pressures from external forces like Ofsted all take their toll.
Instead, we should be investing in every single member of staff and their professional development and keeping some cash spare for personal and professional classroom development, with targets set by the teacher, not the appraiser.
Leadership teams need to recognise the great work their staff are doing and give praise where praise is due.
The social media illusion
Fortunately, there’s much more of a dialogue about teacher wellbeing than there was a decade ago, and much of the conversation is taking place online. Teachers and senior leaders are now sharing their views on Twitter, and bloggers are talking about mental health.
That’s a great step forward, but the pitfall of social media is that it can create a false idea of perfection when in reality, the photo, story or experience we see was carefully edited before it was posted.
Rather like a head pretending all is well in their school and no one’s wellbeing is suffering.
Every school leader knows that success is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain. Life isn’t always rosy – we all struggle from time to time.
Instead of chasing perfection, let’s aim to be more honest with each other on social media and in real life by exposing our own experiences to help normalise the mental health issues we face.
That’s why innovations like the Teacher5aday Twitter movement are so important. #Teacher5aday encourages teachers and senior leaders to share their own wellbeing tips to improve their mental health.
Teachers regularly tweet the five actions they aim to take in their work and home life based on the themes of connecting, notice, learn, volunteer and exercise.
‘Connect’ is fundamental to promoting good mental health in school, and this could be something as simple as a school leader making a point of saying ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ to every single member of staff.
These five actions will mean different things to different people. For example, ‘exercise’ could simply be setting aside some time to get outdoors, move around or engage in the mental exercise of meditation. For me, at the moment, it’s about long walks with the dog.
The teacher wellbeing debate on social media is hugely encouraging, but Twitter is still a bubble and the message might not be reaching people who don’t engage with the online community. What we need is at least one person in every school to champion teacher wellbeing – ideally a senior leader who can make change happen.
By putting in place initiatives to support mental health, a school will attract and retain more good teachers than the school down the road that sweeps wellbeing under the carpet. A more positive working environment leads to happier children and better outcomes.
Ross Morrison McGill is the founder of @TeacherToolkit. He is a passionate supporter of the National #Teacher5aday wellbeing week, which runs from 2nd to 6th December 2019. School leaders looking to improve wellbeing in their school can sign up for tips and resources at http://bit.ly/Teacher5ADay