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Teachers need time, not tai chi, to improve wellbeing

Ofsted has announced it will soon be inspecting schools for teacher wellbeing initiatives. How can your school reduce your teachers’ workload?

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Ofsted will soon be driving positive changes towards teacher health and wellbeing. The organisation announced on Twitter that, as of the academic year 2017/18, inspectors will begin routinely asking headteachers and other members of the SLT how they plan to reduce their teachers’ workloads.

According to YouGov research commissioned by the charity Education Support Partnership, three quarters of surveyed UK teaching staff have experienced a physical or mental health condition as a result of their long hours. Depression, anxiety and panic attacks were the most commonly cited conditions.

To get to the bottom of these declining working conditions, the Guardian surveyed over 4,000 teachers in 2016. Many teachers point towards the increased bureaucracy of measuring both pupil progress and teacher performance as the main cause of distress. Others blame schools’ efforts to please the Ofsted school inspectorate as a significant factor.

“I work 60 hours a week on average and still don’t feel like I’m doing a good enough job. If I want a life outside work I just get too exhausted.”

Ofsted, meanwhile, is now taking occupational health conditions seriously. So, with the question now firmly on the inspection agenda, how can schools address teacher mental health, and reduce their workload?

Balancing goals with wellbeing

Teacher retention has been gradually declining in recent years. At the same time, headteachers are under extreme pressure to deliver specific attainment and institutional results. Simultaneously improving their staff wellbeing, while resources and manpower are becoming lighter on the ground, is a real challenge.

Yet, it’s been underlined that attainment and school performance correlates directly with teacher health. A study conducted by the Department of Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck College, University of London found direct links between how teachers within a school feel about their work, and the performance of pupils at that school.

As senior school leaders, you may soon be looking for new ways to address your teachers’ working hours and any potential workload issues, while still meeting your strategic objectives. The good news is, there are some simple, positive steps you can take straight away.

Health-focused initiatives

Some schools are introducing wellbeing initiatives. These include organising free yoga classes after school, offering free hot drinks or chocolates to staff, or providing lunch supplies to ensure teachers refuel properly.

While these efforts are a step in the right direction, school leaders can do more to enhance the working culture from above. It’s the systems to prove that teachers are doing their jobs that really drives the stress and extra workload in schools.

The Education Support Partnership is a charity that regularly audits staff wellbeing in schools. They suggest asking your teachers a series of questions, to ascertain the job satisfaction among your education staff. These include:

  • How stressed do you feel?
  • Do you feel you have enough support in the workplace?
  • Are you able to manage your workload?
  • Do you have someone you can go to if something is wrong?
  • Would counselling be helpful to you?
  • What do you like about your job?
  • What do you dislike about your job?

Ultimately, teachers need to feel more supported by school leaders, and be given more time to do their job well, not just free yoga.

Lead by example

If school leaders could try offering more workplace flexibility to their staff, teachers could do what they do best, in a way they believe will most benefit their students.

Consider how to support your teachers by instilling more of an ‘open door’ policy, reducing the expectation for excessive paperwork, marking, observations and ongoing assessment procedures.

If your teachers can communicate to you regularly, feel supported, consulted and empowered, they are likely to feel more satisfied in their roles. At the same time, as a manager you also need to look after your own wellbeing. How well are you eating and how much sleep you get yourself? SLTs have an opportunity to lead by example, and set a new school standard.

Ultimately, there needs to be a fundamental culture change within schools; SLTs could try to remove the notion that it’s ‘normal’ for their teachers to work through their evenings and weekends. Ofsted appear to be taking positive steps towards tackling teacher wellbeing. Is it time headteachers did too?