On Friday 9th June, I got up at a ridiculously early hour and headed down to Cambridge for the day – all in pursuit of wellbeing. More traditional approaches to improving wellbeing might be a session in the gym, some meditation or a walk in the park to notice nature – not quite the same as an 8 hour round train trip, yet I held the firm belief that it would be worth it.
Ever since @MartynReah launched #teacher5aday on Twitter, wellbeing was placed firmly on my radar. I regularly began questioning what I was doing about my own stress levels and as I entered leadership roles, there was an emerging need to do this more effectively. This was further reinforced over the last few years for a number of reasons and I soon recognised I wasn’t alone in my struggle for better wellbeing. Those around me: teachers, leaders, support staff- were all in battles of their own; better work-life balance, less stress, improved health.
The networks of support I have been able to access over the last few years have aided my learning and made me feel a part of a wider community. First with the #teacher5aday initiative, #ukedchat, #ukfechat, then with #WomenEd and now with the Chartered College. I have already benefitted from access to thousands of journals as part of my membership and their inclusive approach is refreshing; it’s rare that membership organisations do what they say they will in this regard. Soon after joining the College, they advertised a two day wellbeing CPD opportunity that would involve a short experiment in between the two days. I was well and truly sold by their CPD approach that seemed as though it would meet the standard for teachers’ professional development AND I’d get a free book to boot!
My general aim for the programme was to learn more about wellbeing for myself and colleagues. My hope was that we could learn from the experiment and that we would end up with a clearer sense of how to improve the wellbeing for staff. This had become an incredibly important part of my current job role. I lead on CPD across a large FE College and before we can truly engage staff in their professional learning, we will need to create the right conditions of honesty, trust and integrity. If we can manage this then I believe a further consequence will be that staff wellbeing will improve as they will feel supported, trusted and able to take the kinds of risks that have real payoff for their students.
What follows are my notes on Day 1 of the programme with Dr Tim O’Brien (@doctob), Visiting Fellow, Psychology and Human Development, UCL IoE and Dr Dennis Guiney, Educational Psychologist, Former Associate Lecturer UCL IoE.
Day 2 is next week and I’ll be able to share how the experiment has gone at that point… and I’ll definitely be taking my iPad. Whilst writing this blog from 9 pages of A4 notes (!) has allowed me to reflect further on my learning, typed notes will be far easier for me to translate! I apologise in advance for what might read more like a stream of consciousness than a structured blogpost.
What is wellbeing anyway?
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An activity we were asked to do early on in the day was to consider what 5 things we’d place in a bag for our wellbeing. Having worked with a coach recently, I found that these 5 things bubbled to the surface quite easily for me and this helped me to realise how far my journey has come in figuring out the positive influences on my wellbeing and what I value. We weren’t asked to share the 5 things and were told this in advance – I love it when reflective and personal activities are set-up in this way as it allows everyone to be so much more honest with themselves. That extra layer of having to reveal your thoughts with the rest of the room, as yet unknown, is enormously intimidating and I felt grateful I wouldn’t be asked to painfully expose my introverted self in this way.
We then spent some time exploring the need for a focus on ‘wellbeing’ at all; sharing personal aims for the day as well as setting our personal aims within a broader context.
- It would be important for us to look at wellbeing beyond ‘lip service’; something far more sustainable would be sought.
- Poor wellbeing was frequently, although certainly far from exclusively, a result of relentless journeys out of ‘requires improvement’ and ‘special measures’.
- Ever-increasing workload is serving to pull the rug out from underneath teachers.
We still live within a world where mental health is viewed as a taboo subject. We need to reach the point in our schools and colleges where it’s ok for staff to say, ‘I’m not doing too great right now’ so that we can have those conversations about what might help. The situation we currently have (one of many) is that staff are endlessly struggling in silence to the point that their work is affected, they can’t see a way to improve things so they take time off sick; sometimes never returning to the profession as their stress has been so high and level of support so low.
‘Wellness’ is seen to reference solely physical health whereas we felt that ‘wellbeing’ was, beneficially, concerned with the whole being. After discussing possible definitions of ‘wellbeing’. There were various themes discussed by groups but there were patterns to be found. The ‘regulation of emotion’ was seen as significant. Someone struggling with their wellbeing might spike between different emotions but moving to a space with fewer spikes was viewed positively. The ‘zone of proximal development’ was referenced too and whilst the ideal would be to enter this zone, we can all too often be balancing on the edge of it, struggling to regulate emotions. Environmental factors can have enormous influence on our wellbeing but we do have power and control over how we respond to these factors (excluding any poor mental health). If staff have better awareness of the signs that their wellbeing is becoming affected and also have a variety of resources they can draw on (both internal and external) then they’re more likely to be stable more often. We debated the difference between pressure (which can be good) and stress (which is not!). We discussed whether wellbeing could be seen as being the absence of fear and panic or perhaps this was too narrow a definition. I believe there to be mileage in further exploring the interplay between values and wellbeing- where our values are compromised then surely our wellbeing will be affected too…
Our facilitators, Tim and Dennis, shared that wellbeing originated from the ‘positive psychology’ movement. ‘A state of being comfortable, healthy and happy,’ was presented as a possible definition and yet this brings its own challenges- what is ‘happy’ after all? Perhaps a state of ‘contentment’ is more helpful than ‘happy’. ‘States of being’ exist and all of these should be noticed – recognised for what they are and embraced so that ‘wellbeing’ becomes more intimate and less of an ethereal and distant something or other. If we are not able to embrace our feelings but deny them then it could be seen that our wellbeing is even more heavily affected.
I could see already that I was moving towards a definition that involved ‘awareness’ somehow – an acceptance of the moments when our wellbeing isn’t ok and seeing this as normal but also the understanding to recognise when our wellbeing has got beyond ‘not ok’, or even better to identify when it’s headed that way so that different resources can be drawn upon before a crisis point arrives.
This discussion was incredibly helpful to begin framing how we all viewed ‘wellbeing’ and the terms of reference in moving forward with the remainder of the programme.
Self-esteems and self-compassion
Self-esteem has been seen, for a long time, as the solution to confidence and happiness. It’s misleading as it’s surely more accurate to view ourselves as having multiple ‘self-esteems’.
Self-compassion is perhaps more helpful for wellbeing- it means recognising a feeling and doing something about it; recognising what you need and meeting that need. I’ve been focusing far more on my self-compassion in recent months and have found this page of short exercises especially helpful- http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/
Stress and Anxiety
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Stress is externally influenced and is an actual threat; an over-stimulation of the senses.
Anxiety is a perceived threat and is created from within.
We can see pressure as existing as a motivator until the point where our internal resources feel lacking or redundant and it becomes stress. Stress can also originate from an external source that becomes internalised.
What may make stress for teachers different to other professions may be in us metaphorically taking our students home with us (in a similar way to social workers or health professionals perhaps). There is prominent tension, worry and apprehension.
Generalised anxiety is a predictor of poor mental health as it can snowball so that one anxiety leads to another until no internal resources remain.
Free-floating anxiety is of concern as it can locate itself somewhere and emerge with little warning (think of the student who kicks off in a lesson for no apparent reason). As it locates itself at random then it might be the case that what someone feels anxious about or fearful of may have nothing to do with the cause of the anxiety. Hyper-accountability (good is never good enough) can lead to free-floating anxiety.
Allowing staff to speak about these things more openly will help us to see these predictors and take appropriate action and/or provide effective support. People working in other professions – surgeons or air traffic controllers for instance – absolutely have to talk about anything affecting them as the consequences would be so dire. Whilst our poor wellbeing would not necessarily lead to anyone else’s death, surely it’s just as vital for staff to feel they can share how they’re feeling? Rather than ask, ‘What’s the problem?’ it’s better to ask, ‘What’s happening?’ Share that you’ve noticed something about the person recently (they may feel glad that you’ve noticed it as it saves them having to bring it up themselves) and ‘Why is that?’
With millions of pieces of data flying at us, our brain uses ‘patterning’ to process it all- hide/ reveal/ hide/ reveal/ hide/ reveal… What is revealed to us is what we spend our time and focus on. Fear and anxiety can result from what we focus on as it becomes all-consuming. Our brains like equilibrium- we need to make meaning of something so we may make more of one thing until it dominates our thoughts so much that it begins to control our thoughts. This can result in us catastrophising – and things like imposter syndrome creep in.
It’s why certain conversations, that seem helpful, can prove to be the exact opposite in reality. ‘I’m so stressed’. ‘Tell me about why you’re stressed…’ – this can just reveal our stresses to us for our focus to remain on.
What’s different about teaching?
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- We’ll never really arrive at a point where we’re on track- the human element. Every child is different. Every year presents new challenges.
- The emotional aspect and the strain of this
- Decision making fatigue
- Our concept of duty
The people who choose teaching as a profession are probably the least suitable for it as they’re unable to switch themselves off to many of the stressors and nor would they be willing to- it’s quite often their why. @KLMorgan_2 shared this, I think.
Going into education can tear some people apart as it’s not possible to meet everyone’s needs yet it’s what is strived for on a daily basis.
A darker side effect of stress affecting so many teachers is that in some schools and colleges, a stressed teacher can be understood as an incompetent one.
Teachers, within their classrooms, may be made to feel at times by their organisation that they are required to justify their actions constantly- just ‘being’ is not possible for these teachers and their control is gradually taken away from them. Power vs control and autonomy vs accountability exist on continuums. Move towards more control and accountability with less support and we’re reaching a peak point for stress and sickness for colleagues. If these teachers’ actions are for leadership and/or Ofsted then their wellbeing is likely to be compromised far more than teachers working in environments who feel empowered to make their decisions for themselves and their students.
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We were given an opportunity to explore what research had to say about wellbeing prior to discussing possible interventions.
I’m gradually gathering relevant reading, videos and images (including research) at this link- http://www.pearltrees.com/hannahtyreman/wellbeing/id15144400 Thank you to everyone who has cntributed suggestions for this page so far. They will all be added in due course!
Some research into stress indicates that our ability to learn is heavily affected if we are stressed. ‘In fact, duration of stress is almost as destructive as extreme stress. Goleman explained, “Cortisol stimulates the amygdala while it impairs the hippocampus, forcing our attention onto the emotions we feel, while restricting our ability to take in new information” (pp. 273-274). This can help us to see how our performance at work can be heavily affected by stress.
Brine and Dewberry explored how staff wellbeing is key to school success. Finding the positive in wellbeing was important for staff- if they could understand what affected their wellbeing positively then they could make more space for that- feeling valued and cared for, job stimulation and enjoyment, feeling part of a team- for instance.
The report we read from them was exploring the possible relationship between teacher wellbeing and pupil performance. Their research (in short and based on my notes) found an 8% variance in SATs results at primary level and a difference in students achieving GCSEs at A*-C at secondary level. They also found that where there was an increase in job stimulation and enjoyment, there was a positive influence on value added. They didn’t find the same for staff beyond teachers but they did find that the wellbeing of an individual did not have as much of an impact than a group. Perhaps this could relate to the concept of ‘social capital’ over ‘human capital’.
It’s important to state that they saw a relationship between the two- one did not necessarily cause the other. This relationship, it could be said, works both ways though in that students’ performance may well affect staff wellbeing as well as working the other way. If this is the case then it could be seen that in an environment where student outcomes are not high then staff wellbeing could be lower than in a high performing school.
Whilst the relationship is interesting, approaching wellbeing from the angle of improving student achievement would quite obviously be a dangerous route to head down. We shouldn’t be attempting to improve staff wellbeing on the basis of this. This would be an incredibly misplaced source of motivation.
Framing our experiment
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In defining our experiment, it was helpful for us to explore who we wanted to impact and how.
Tim spoke of
- Meeting the common needs of the majority- needs shared in a more global way such as a sense of belonging or basic human needs we all share.
- Meeting the distinct needs of minority groups- gender, sexuality, faith- for instance women being more susceptible to imposter syndrome for instance. It’s important to bear in mind that whilst there may be patterns within a minority group, it won’t be the case that all the people within that group will have the same needs.
- Meeting an individual’s needs- perhaps the greatest challenge of all as needs will be unique to each person at a moment in time therefore we need to have a wider sense of impact.
After Day 1, we connected on Twitter, formed our interventions for our own contexts and Day 2 will be all about sharing learning with one another. This is the moment where we will all (hopefully) find out from one another what has worked (or not), where and why (not). I’ll blog again after Day 2 and I’m hoping, as my intervention concludes next week, that I’ll also have some useful data and insights to share with you from that.
I am reassured that my faith in the early start, the long train journey and the Chartered College has been warranted. This is a programme of seriously worthwhile CPD and I am sure that the small-scale interventions that will be shared by a group of educators from the last few weeks can affect a far wider community than their own institutions and contexts.
I spoke recently at a TeachMeet presentation about when life gives you meatballs.
I’ve hit a moment in time where I’m acutely aware of the need to focus on my own wellbeing having been ‘hit’ by several ‘meatballs’. Having been on day 1 of this programme, I was able to tell someone things were ‘not too great right now’. I gave myself the permission to ease off a little at work and finally gave myself the compassion to notice what I needed. As a result, despite the circumstances, my wellbeing has been in a positive place for the last couple of weeks and long may that continue. I feel I’ve reached a turning point on a personal level and results of my intervention next week will reveal the extent of impact on colleagues thus far. I have contemplated what kinds of systemic changes might need to be pushed for at my workplace to result in a longer lasting impact on staff wellbeing but I’m already beginning to think that a similar model to this programme for our staff may be of real benefit-
- Raising awareness of how wellbeing can be defined
- Exploring how stress is caused and exacerbated
- Engaging with existing research
- Setting small-scale interventions for staff and teams to try for themselves
So, CPD that has resulted in impact on my own wellbeing, hopefully that of colleagues too, research that can be shared more widely and one day still left to go. I can’t wait for the next installment!