Embracing Difference

30 days ago, I started working at the Chartered College of Teaching. This time has absolutely flown by and I found myself arriving at the Annual Conference early on a Saturday morning to help with the set-up wondering what I would get from the day.

When working full-time as a teacher and leader, it was always at this time of the year (and to be honest – most other times of the year) when I badly needed an injection of inspiration to propel me forwards. It was rare that I’d find enough juice for my batteries in the staffroom and so a Saturday conference was invariably where I’d head. I began the day doubtful that I was in need of this same shot of passion in my new position but this was to be a very different Saturday conference for more than one reason.

The programme put together for this day represented diversity in all of its facets. We heard from teachers and leaders throughout the day that I’d not heard from before. We were inspired by passionate educators who affirmed our purpose through honestly sharing their own.

There are many things that separate us as humans, and certainly as educators –
– Our voices and perspectives
– Our backgrounds and politics
– Our qualities and challenges

It was whilst listening to Abed Ahmed that I  recognised the strength that lies in not just accepting a difference in yourself that others may see as a weakness but going beyond mere acceptance and towards embracing it wholeheartedly.

This video explains much of the power Abed has, in his words, as a result of ‘stammering with confidence’ and helping his students to do the same. And stammering confidently, believe it or not, is wholly achievable – we were all lucky enough to witness it first hand.

It seems to me that society often labels difference as weakness, rather than strength. Oftentimes, apologies are made for such differences and perceived limits are put firmly in place. Abed referenced a point in his life when he’d been told that teaching wouldn’t be the right career choice for him; his stammer would apparently hold him back.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock shared a similar story later on when she related her experiences of schools where teachers had underestimated her abilities as a dyslexic girl from a broken home… and yet, it was a teacher who was able to turn this narrative around. Just the encouragement, on a single occasion, to answer a tricky maths question was enough to help her think differently about her future and to continue believing in her dreams.

Listening to the debate panel on inclusion later in the day made me consider the strength in difference to an even greater extent. Teachers and leaders have the capacity to enable every young person they work with to look to the stars, yet so often we give up before all avenues have been explored and limits are placed on what a student is able to see for their future. Maggie shared her view that as teachers, we are the nurturers of their ‘desire to aspire’.

Whilst there is an enormous barrier to be overcome in persuading some of this philosophy, there are other hurdles to be overcome too if inclusion is to be realised across the education system and I believe they demand a more nuanced discussion. For many, there is a fear over inclusion that became apparent for me through overheard discussions and questions asked by members. We can’t just bury this fear with moral arguments. I would suggest that many schools and colleges are a long way off realising inclusion, not necessarily because they don’t buy into what it means but because there is no investment in the development, structure, and support to enable it to happen effectively.

Listening to our teachers when it comes to inclusion is vital if we’re to begin changing the narrative and the importance of teacher voice was highlighted throughout the day, not least of all by Dr Helen Woodley.

How many times have you listened to your colleagues share their ideas for positive change and they’re ignored? It’s not that the ideas simply can’t be actioned but more than that – no dialogue even takes place about the possibilities that might result from such ideas. Many of you will have witnessed what this does to colleagues over time and disengagement is the least of it. If we are to inject a greater level of professionalism into teaching then we must begin with dialogue and genuine listening. Change can be actioned by a single teacher within their own classroom and it is on most days of the year so to ignore their voice the rest of the time is foolish at the very least. I love Nancy Kline’s work on this with ‘Time to Think’. So often we shut down our vocal colleagues because they’re ‘off on one again’… and yet, what might be the reason for their being ‘off on one’ again? Perhaps we shut them down the last time they tried to speak too… At the other end of this spectrum is the colleague whose opening to speak is not a busy team meeting but a conversation with a trusted colleague over a cup of tea in the morning break. How can we ensure there is space for each of our teacher’s voices to be truly heard in meaningful ways?

The voice of Farhaan Patel has been left resonating in my mind since the conference. He showed what’s possible in a world where difference is not merely ‘tolerated’ as British Values would let us believe but celebrated. It’s clear to me that as educators, there is a moral imperative to help our young people to see difference as simply a part of living in the modern world. When we show our young people what diversity looks like, we make them curious about it and we’ll have moved far beyond the kind of ‘telling them about it’ that ticks the ‘E&D box’ on a lesson plan. Farhaan shared a window into his school where children ask endless questions as a result of open dialogue with the adults they trust. Through a partnership with another school, his students became thirsty to learn more and ultimately found friends in places they would likely never have ventured. I’m left wondering why every area in the country has not done as Leicester has and connected their young people through projects like their ‘UnitEd’.

Another ‘box’ leaders and teachers should be equally reticent to ‘tick’ is the wellbeing one. With the current situation with retention and workload in the sector, more fundamental changes need to be put into place. Dr Tim O’Brien facilitated a panel of practising teachers and leaders from his recent wellbeing CPD programmes for the Chartered College. Having attended the pilot as a member, I’d recommend to it anyone. You’re encouraged to take a ramble through wellbeing issues in the education context and you engage in an experiment within your own context to assess its impact. You can read more about it here.

At the end of the panel, I was speaking to a Chartered College member who shared that he finds his colleagues’ negativity a drain on his energies as a relatively new teacher but the most uplifting parts of his day are when he walks into his classroom and shuts the door to teach. More than that, he relishes the opportunity to engage with pupils on his thrice-weekly lunch duties where he can continue to foster positive relationships with the young people at his school. I was reminded that there is no single way to ‘well-being’ and that an individual approach is best. As we spoke, I reflected on the places I’ve worked over my teaching career and the leaders I’ve worked for. I don’t wish to lay the responsibility of wellbeing at the feet of every leader but one thing is left abundantly clear for me from these reflections: where there was trust, autonomy, support, and gratitude then the very challenging job that is teaching was made far easier.

Our day ended with trainee teacher, Philip McCahillsharing his advice for his future teacher self. He ultimately spoke of hope and possibility. We were shown today that, without doubt, there is always another way. It’s simply a case of being open to ‘possibility’. As a teacher, this sense of ‘possibility’ is multiplied exponentially if we can consider all of the lives we may influence by embracing the power that lies in difference.

Teacher Wellbeing – Day 2

After Day 1 of this wellbeing CPD, offered by The Chartered College, I was really excited to meet up with everyone again, spend a day talking about wellbeing and hearing how everyone’s interventions had gone. On day 1, we explored what we meant by wellbeing a little, spoke about stress and anxiety before we ventured into exploring what our wellbeing intervention back in our own contexts might be. If you missed it, you can read about day 1 here.

We were introduced to a great deal on day 1 so I knew that day 2 was likely to provide some all important space for us to reflect (one of many things that’s invariably missing from a busy educator’s week and indeed, most CPD programmes).

Data as Truth

After a short introduction from Tim (@Doctob) and Dennis, we set about considering the importance of being more critical about data we’re presented with. What does it actually mean? Has it been manipulated? What are we really looking at? Does it really say what others have concluded it has? I believe that Tom Bennett (@TomBennett71) and the ResearchEd (@ResearchEd1) crowd would have been pleased at teacher CPD containing this call for a more discerning look at ‘evidence’.

The figures that sparked the discussion were these ‘measures of national well-being‘ that indicate an increase in ‘trust in government’ for instance (?!) and a decrease in ‘difficulty managing financially’ (?!).

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https://www.ons.gov.uk/visualisations/dvc364/dashboard/index.html

A couple of questions we might ask of this data was:

  • How representative is the sample? Who was asked and what are their contexts?
  • The data indicates the % of people who think their wellbeing is better but this is surely relative? We recognise that wellbeing is not clearly defined nor shared across groups of people – it’s an incredibly personal concept so wouldn’t you think it better if one year you were dealing with a serious personal trauma and the following year, things improved? How could this be reasonably compared to someone moving from one job to a more stressful one?

These questions and their answers wouldn’t necessarily mean that we dismiss the findings of this research altogether; but we were encouraged to be more wary of any research that presents itself as THE truth. It’s merely A truth and perhaps not an especially reliable one at that.

This discussion lead to one about measures we use in our own roles and how helpful these are. We may often present parents and students with THE truth- you’re working at level 4. ‘Actually, no. I don’t really know what that means and I don’t really know how to explain it to you but it’s a judgement I’ve been required to make.’ In an education system with grades holding such weight, students will always be working at or towards something. As teachers, it’s demanded of us that we keep pace with ever-changing measures, criteria, expectations – we then have to apply these measures to students with little clarity about what we’re measuring. I was left wondering how detrimental this lack of clarity and compromise of our values might be to our wellbeing over time…

Is teacher wellbeing really unique?

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After Tim and Dennis left this grenade of ‘using data as truth’ and ‘measures as truth’ for us to contemplate further, they set off another one-

Assuming teachers’ wellbeing is different to that in other professions, what is it that makes it distinct?

Well, that generated some discussion! Whilst we had touched upon this on Day 1, it was here that we explored it in greater depth.

Amidst my recovery from the morning’s travel sickness, I somehow managed to scribble down an entire A4 sheet of possibilities and thoughts that captured the majority of discussion had in the room-

  • The extent of comparison and benchmarking and the level of competition this creates
  • Ongoing scrutiny and hyper-accountability
  • Low levels of trust
  • The complexity of and speed with which information is having to be dealt with during a small space of lesson (during a lesson specifically)
  • Heavy responsibility- for the moral, social, emotional, cultural, spiritual, physical and cognitive development of a child…. Or up to 200 children at any one time.
  • Continual proving of our impact
  • A lack of shared responsibility amongst colleagues
  • There’s a requirement for us to be highly resilient due to the nature of the job.
  • The emotional labour involved in the job- there is a need for us to self-regulate our emotions
  • We’re rarely adequately equipped (internal and external resources) for the job we’re expected to do but we still have to carry on doing it regardless
  • Our sense of agency has been reduced over time, we’ve lost ‘control’
  • We suffer from decision-making fatigue
  • The number of initiatives and directives has resulted in a generation of teachers who are unable to think for themselves
  • An attack on professionalism
  • We’re never allowed to be in a state of ‘not knowing’

We considered the extent to which other professionals might experience these things and we recognised, as expected, a number of commonalities with other professions for each of the things on the list. Not least of all the high levels of stress likely within health professions. Just the fact this research exists into how the helping professions can develop their emotional resilience indicates there may be something in common where wellbeing is concerned – CLICK HERE to read.

Nurses having to cover several wards with numerous patients, all presenting with different needs. Their job is to meet these needs whilst also competing against the pressures of reduced funding and fewer staff and the heavy demand on the service and beds.

Paramedics having to respond to situations and take on board lots of information quickly, adapting to the individual(s) and context they have suddenly found themselves in. Having gone through high levels of stress, they would then drop them off in the hospital often with little satisfaction and a feeling of, ‘Did my work have any impact on that person?’

Whilst there were obvious correlations in what causes teachers’ stress with health professionals, there are other professions where stress would be high-

Architects having to please all of the stakeholders’ ever-changing expectations and needs in a fluctuating budget. Having to deal with sensitive conversations and egos whilst also finding space for their own creativity and expertise so that their own values weren’t being continually compromised. Often never getting to view the finished ‘product’, perhaps only ever getting to see the unfinished shell before the project is classed as ‘completed’ (Based on a random conversation I had a couple of years ago with an architect whilst we were delayed on a train between Didcot and Reading one morning).

It’s clear to me that any job at all has the potential to have a negative influence on our wellbeing but stress does seem to be high in the teaching profession so do we all just lack the internal resources and resilience to deal with the negative influences on our wellbeing or is it more than this?

After further discussion, I reached the conclusion that, if the wellbeing of teachers was to be seen as unique then it would perhaps be the ‘fuster-cluck’ (@LeadingLearner) of a whole host of factors affecting wellbeing negatively convening in one place . Whilst each of the following factors can apply to other professionals, the collective influence of all of these factors may set teaching out as unique (although I’m not left entirely convinced that it is)-

  • Generosity Burnout – educators give a great deal of themselves to others- parents, students and colleagues without topping themselves up sufficiently in between.
  • Our desire for job satisfaction is high (a number of us had discovered this through our research) but the job is never done and there are always things to develop further.
  • The pace of new initiatives thrown our way (without consultation) that we then become accountable for, yet are given little support and time to adapt to.
  • Absolutely everyone has an opinion about education and what ‘good’ looks like and so we experience continual criticism from all angles.
  • The job involves a high level of planning– we don’t just have to ‘do‘ our job but we have to plan for it, reflect on it and continue to plan. Many other professions get to just ‘do’.

One additional thought I’ve considered as I write is the negative impact the holidays might have on teachers’ wellbeing. Hear me out here…

Teachers know that they get to have a ‘break’ in 6 or 7 weeks time. It’s a milestone for them to work towards, plan for and enjoy. It does mean, though, that they may ‘save up’ all of their relaxation, down time, time with friends and family, hobbies, and exercise for these moments. They work so relentlessly hard in the weeks leading up to it and the pace of workload is so high that the holiday becomes more recovery time than the restorative break it should be. Perhaps leaders in schools and Colleges could be doing more to ease the pressure and workload so that terms don’t feel like such a relentless slog and a countdown to the holidays.

So all of these factors can make the profession one of high stress and many of them link to workload and external pressures but I believe we still hold part of the solution too. What potential for change is created by us questioning more of the work sent our way? What potential is there to ease the pressures in initiatives that seek to find the joy in our work? Yes, there’s a decrease in the sense of agency we feel in the profession at present but I don’t think a search for better wellbeing is a hopeless one.

The flip side of wellbeing

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Whilst there is so much focus placed on how being in the teaching profession can negatively impact our wellbeing, I feel that there is a need to recognise that, at the same time as all of these stressors, the job of teaching (in the right circumstances) has the potential to offer the perfect combination of factors to positively affect wellbeing too-

  • The opportunity to collaborate with colleagues
  • Ongoing learning opportunities
  • A supportive community
  • The strong satisfaction and meaning added to our life when our students go on a journey…

So whilst our wellbeing may be affected uniquely in a negative way, it may also be just as unique in how it is positively affected.

 

Resilience

Tim spoke of espoused values. Many of us can articulate to others what our values for. What we stand for,. What’s important.

But… How are these lived out? What do they look like day-to-day?

If our lived out experiences are undermining our espoused values then there’s a mis-alignment that can greatly damage our resilience. I’ve found this a useful free tool to explore the alignment of my values-

https://www.mapwellbeing.com/

Our ability to bounce back when our values are undermined or when we experience setbacks has become a part of the modern conscience. Whilst ‘resilience’ is bandied about freely, is it truly understood?

Sometimes you’re up. Sometimes you’re down. Get your head in the right place, look around… 

The Happiness Hypothesis was shared as a reading recommendation for us with an interesting chapter about adversity and resilience. We can only become properly resilient when we experience adversity for ourselves. We think we’ve experienced it and then we finally do. We may not be able to bounce back immediately, but we may have developed all the inner resources needed to bounce back longer term.

As if these two days of CPD, with research in between, hadn’t been god enough already, Tim went and read us a story. And Dr Seuss no less.

This is nowhere near as good but as none of us filmed our reading, this will have to do…

Resilience is an acceptance that things don’t work out all the time but that we have responsibility for how we respond and relentless optimism is possible. People who lack resilience can get stuck in behaviours for some time and as Dr Seuss tells us, ‘Unslumping yourself is not easily done‘. 

When we are struck with adversity, we should ask- ‘If it was different, what would it be like?’ Well, It can be different. Different is possible. Our wellbeing is within our control.

Wellbeing Interventions

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Throughout the day, we were all able to share our wellbeing interventions and how they had gone. I have chosen to write a longer piece about mine that will be shared soon. What follows are my reflections on what colleagues shared. Full summaries of the research will be officially published by The Chartered College (@CharteredColl) in September.


Could CPD hold the answer?

A number of colleagues shared interventions, such as lesson study, that seemed to affect wellbeing positively. Participants in on intervention (Alison) shared that they had felt greater motivation, confidence, feeling valued and job satisfaction. They appreciated the time to fully engage with CPD, felt a greater confidence to experiment, and crucially they felt less isolated in their practice. Within the groups and teams where there was already a higher level of trust and staff felt comfortable with one another, there was a greater impact on colleagues’ autonomy and risk taking. It was clear that group dynamics and team ethos is a vital platform from which to build effective CPD. This clearly aligns with what we know about what makes a good professional learning culture – CLICK HERE to read a write-up of a workshop about professional learning from Bridget Clay.

Other participants reflected on how making time for CPD was vital; protected time, without fear of other activities encroaching on their learning. This kind of investment lead to feelings of feeling valued that are difficult to rival in any other way.


Should we focus our efforts on reducing workload?

A number of interventions were shared that sought to reduce workload. Wendy had involved colleagues in this approach at her school; asking them to consider what they were spending their time on and what the impact was of each activity, whether low, medium or high. Moves were made to question approaches to homework feedback and involvement in extra-curricular activities. Positive solutions were found and I was impressed with the collaboration and speed with which these changes were achieved. Even the smallest of changes can have an incremental effect.


Is it about explicit permission?

A number of the interventions shared were designed to encourage staff to engage in exercises of self-care and commit to activities that would positively impact their wellbeing. Whilst many of us know that we need to engage in things outside of work, it’s difficult to commit when there are competing pressures of marking, planning, and meeting students’ needs. Many educators speak of the guilt experienced when they’re not on top of their workload. What I learned from colleagues sharing their interventions was that an ‘explicit permission’ to put themselves first, often granted by members of the leadership team, could make all the difference. From staff selecting their own, personalised activity, to time off to start late or leave early, the main part is that leaders created an ethos void of guilt. 


What’s at the heart of these initiatives?

In addition to the above, other participants shared Cake Monday, Music Friday and Cycle Saturday, reducing emails, a weekly focus on the positives, and non-threatening conversations about challenging learners with staff and trained professionals- How are you managing the child and how do you feel?– generating a supportive culture of powerful listening.

One thing all of the initiatives shared have in common is the clear message they communicate- ‘We care about your wellbeing.‘ All participants seemed not to be motivated by exploring wellbeing because it might help each school or college to achieve better outcomes for students, but because they came from a place of genuine compassion for colleagues.

 

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This two day programme was one of the most valuable pieces of CPD I’ve engaged in since beginning my teaching career 8 years ago. You’ll be able to read more about its impact when I share how my intervention went.

  • The programme was facilitated by experts and not one but two complimentary voices that provided different perspectives.
  • We were encouraged to explore evidence and research to inform our practice but to approach it with a critical eye.
  • We engaged in our own research too meaning that some level of impact was achieved and so the investment of time was worth something more than a ‘pleasant day out’.
  • Reflection was prioritised so that all of the attendees (primary, secondary, grammar, independent, further education, SEND and alternative provision) each had multiple opportunities to make learning meaningful and relevant for their own contexts.
  • We were continually exposed to a variety of different avenues to explore further and I can certainly say that this CPD has left me curious to learn more. I
  • t’s great to know that our explorations will all be shared with others via The Chartered College too.

Each of us left knowing that our journey in wellbeing had only just begun and should you get the opportunity to attend this programme for yourself in the future (I believe there are plans to run it again) then I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

Teacher Wellbeing- Day 1

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!

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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.

Why Wellbeing?

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.

Defining wellbeing

‘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.

False

Evidence

Appearing

Real

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.

Research

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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

What Next?

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. source.gif

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-

  1. Raising awareness of how wellbeing can be defined
  2. Exploring how stress is caused and exacerbated
  3. Engaging with existing research
  4. 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!

Learning Festival 2017

2017 had finally arrived and the day of my second Learning Festival at The Sheffield College. The first one would always be a hard act to follow and I wasn’t entirely sure that my post-holiday brain was up to the job. We’d soon find out. An inhumanely early alarm was set and I was bound for the earliest train.


After the fear subsided that the College was closed (it wasn’t!), we set about the last minute tasks to ensure we were ready for the day ahead. It was in these moments that I remembered what the first day of the January term is like- you’re there in person but you’re unsure where the rest of you is- probably tucked up at home in bed if it has any sense!


Staff settled into their free breakfast and were invited to register to receive the Teaching & Learning newsletter while they were at it. You may also wish to register for this newsletter and you can do so here: http://cm.pn/2a9y


I also decided we’d start a ‘wellbeing buddy box’ this term a la @mrshumanities

Colleagues who have registered will be allocated someone else from the list and they will be tasked with sending them, at some point in the coming term, a box of wellbeing goodies. At some point in the term, they will receive one in return. It’s not something you can really argue with- the good feeling provided by an act of kindness, as well as the excitement of a surprise gift. Staff will have another week or so to register for this term’s boxes. You can find out more about the initiative that inspired this internal action, launched via Twitter, here.


After an opening and welcome back talk from Paul Corcoran, staff headed to their workshops run by over 50 of our generous staff, one CEO, three students (most proud!) and one Alex Krasodomski-Jones.

As usual, we also offered a range of online workshops to staff:


After two 45 minute workshops, it seemed that staff were more than ready for lunch.

After staff had been sufficiently fed and watered, they were invited to the afternoon’s Unconference. The morning’s workshops had been grouped by theme and provided with a floor of rooms where staff could gather to make resources, continue discussions and further their learning.

3-4pm saw staff sharing the day’s learning with their teams and making their pledge- the one thing they’re going to try out, experiment with or make a change to in the coming term. This was a crucial part of the day- to ensure all of the day’s learning turns into an action that will, in some way, improve the service we provide to students and stakeholders alike. I’m looking forward to reading these pledges over the coming days and to reviewing progress with them in March’s Development Day.

Staff were then gathered together briefly at 4pm to share pledges with their colleagues, whilst Heather Smith shared positive messages about taking risks, being 10% braver and celebrating success. All facilitators were thanked and staff released after a long but hopefully learning-packed first day back.

In the spirit of a day of learning, it’s also important for me to reflect on how it went. All of this will, of course, be reviewed in light of a debrief with my team later on this week and a more detailed exploration of attendance, feedback and pledges but here are some of my initial thoughts:

  • Last year’s feedbackGreat– In response to staff feedback, we were able to provide an informal breakfast, fewer workshops, longer workshops, time in the afternoon to work on resources and ideas, and a final talk to gather everyone together again at the end of the day.
  • New initiativesGreat– Wellbeing boxes went down well with staff with far more sign-ups than anticipated. Not so great– Fewer sign-ups to the Teaching & Learning newsletter than expected but I’ll be following this with further promotion and relying on word of mouth.
  • Rooming and atmosphereGreat– Most of the rooming seemed to work out and we had enough suitable space for everyone. Not so great– The vibrant environment created at the last Learning Festival in Hillsborough was far better and this may have been due to the more compact layout of the College site. This is purely speculation at this moment in time so I need to give it some more thought- time of year is likely to have played a significant part in this too.
  • Opening and closing talksGreat– The diner was packed out for Paul’s opening talk and we were all set with mic and lectern. The afternoon was laid out well and we ensured a member of staff was on hand and visible in case anything went wrong again. Positive and uplifting messages were shared at each of the talks. Not so great– The battery for the mic ran out before Paul finished his welcome and with no spare seemingly available, we missed the ending and key messages about the day were unable to be shared. This will be followed up with the sharing of Paul’s written speech in full but there was little we could do about the other communications- bar bellowing at a room full of people and I don’t think my voice would have quite been up to that!
  • WorkshopsGreat– We had more facilitators than previously and managers had helped us to put the day together so it better met their staff’s needs; skills to be shared and areas for development. Not so great– Business Support managers were not incorporated into this planning phase in the way I would have wished and as a result, the offers of workshops from staff and teams were limited. This is something we will look to address for future development days to ensure that their needs are being met. Great– Having said that, more of the SEND Team, LSAs, library team, workplace assessors and technical trainers were incorporated and involved than ever before. There was also a set of bespoke workshops offered by one manager for her administration team- and all without any involvement required from my team!

I could go on but instead I will choose to end on the words of one recently, and very sadly passed, John Berger- an author whose ‘Ways of Seeing’ had such a great influence on me during my years of studying and well beyond it too:

‘You can plan events, but if they go according to your plan they are not events.’

I am left satisfied that it was, therefore, a pretty decent event and now I await, with anticipation, the abundance of pledges, risk taking and acts of 10% braver that will hopefully emerge from the past two development days.

Mind the crevice

In recent months, I began to feel – so acutely – the distance between me and what Further Education is really all about, widening. I could no longer put my finger on what we were doing – what was it really all about? What was I here for? What impact was I having? These spreadsheets, this celebration and sharing of learning, this modelling of technologies, these conversations with practitioners and everyone would say, ‘I wish I had your job’. ‘What a wonderful opportunity you have to be solely focussed on Teaching & Learning.’ I’d nod and smile along.

I’d convinced myself that this widening gap didn’t matter. I was too busy. There was far too much to do and I was struggling to cope as it was. It’d be fine. I could always go back if I needed to… and then May soon turned into July and before long, September was upon me with all of its fresh beginnings, joyful starts, hectic activity and above all, purpose. New students, filled with hope, were ready to begin their journeys and many more were set to continue with theirs. Where was I in all of this? A crevice appeared at my feet and continued to grow over the coming days; the black hole of ‘management’ I was sinking into all too quickly without any means of getting back out. And then the phonecall came.

‘Hannah, are you still wanting to teach a class?’

Fear and doubt rippled through me- Was I? Could I?

‘Maybe…’

‘What are you doing tomorrow afternoon?’

‘Tomorrow? Crikey! Well, I have a  couple of meetings but let me see what I can do…’

I walked (half running) with my heart beating out of my chest to my manager’s office and I couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

‘I’ve been offered a class tomorrow. There’s a couple of meetings though… Do you think I should…?’

With a broad grin across my face and sheer glee in my eyes, we both knew the answer and it wouldn’t matter whether he thought I should or not. I raced back to my desk.

‘Yes, go on then- I’ll do it! What’s next?’

The seconds and minutes of the day passed like hours and in between the day job I messaged my friends, jotted down notes, and scribbled on pieces of paper. The end of the day finally arrived and I could get into creating mode: designing, planning, cutting and sticking before the late, late train home.
My students are polite, witty and respectful. They are full of life. They are complex, curious and excitable. They are keen to learn and pass their English (even if they are more than happy to share their complete hatred for the subject). They lack confidence and dislike writing; some of them far more intensely than others. We will all be aiming for the magic C grade; my students have each (mostly) resigned themselves to the fact they need it- and who doesn’t want a classroom filled with resignation?

I feel I’ve come full circle in my teaching: a classroom filled with young males; eager to learn but without yet possessing all of the tools and skills required to make them successful learners: this is one of our greatest challenges in the year ahead- aside from helping them cope with their 3 hour learning marathon as I squeeze a great deal of my missed teaching time into small spaces and weary brains. This is a group of young men who make me laugh, who surprise me endlessly with their intellect and creativity. It is the unexpected parts of teaching that both lift and crush you. As a manager, I am crushed daily but rarely am I lifted and it is this that is the source of my drive.

After our first lesson, I received a piece of feedback on our weekly review that said:

‘A pretty decent teacher’

This quote spurs me on each week to maintain this level of decency and you never know, I may even be able to report that ‘pretty decent’ was surpassed! What’s next on that scale I wonder? ‘Proper decent’ perhaps? Now that’s something to aspire to!

My purpose is back and I will no longer be endlessly searching the corridors for meaning; hoping to reach out and touch just a slither of the joy, despair, frustration and elation that is teaching.

This week has been filled with wobbles, tears, doubt and frustration but then Thursday afternoon eventually arrives. I step in that door, that world, and the hours that follow that time are filled with such comparable calm. My anxiety about my workload eases and whilst my lack of self-confidence is pretty much unshakeable of late, something has returned that restores me noticeably: ME- creative, bubbly, loud and silly. I call friends, I hold a real conversation with my partner and I even begin to look forward, ever so slightly, to other parts of my work.

I received a letter from a dear friend this week and she ended it with a quote from a book she was reading (one of the many reasons I love her so much):

‘Things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance even after physical contact has been severed.’ 

The niggling part of my journey in my new role was that I had known what it was to teach and I’m certain that knowledge will never leave me.

#teacher5aday

So Martyn Reah began the #teacher5aday hashtag on Twitter in order to tackle the urgent need for staff working within education to focus more on their wellbeing. This week, I tried to hit one thing for each of the 5 during the week:

#notice

is the one I like the most and was certainly the easiest to do. On Monday evening, I arrived home before the park had closed and the sun was shining. The new sensory garden was open and there was a great deal to #notice:

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Student wellbeing and revision survival bags

I was recently inspired by this post: http://www.pedagoo.org/teacher-well-being-bags/

I’d heard of people giving wellbeing bags to staff but I’d never really considered it for learners before. I was beginning to get concerned about my learners’ stress levels as the exam season looms heavily ahead of us.

So I hit the shops at the weekend and this is the result:

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#Nurture1415

So reading through last year’s #Nurture1314 post was certainly very interesting.  I’ve decided to make this one a little more meaningful. My wishes will not be a mere to do list but will contain things that might make a difference.

Continue reading “#Nurture1415”