Developing school cultures where all individuals can thrive, and REMAIN in is one of the most important professions there is.
My first teaching job, over ten years ago, was at a ‘Fresh Start’ school in South London, where my professional development consisted of four suited-and-booted members of the senior leadership team with clipboards at the back of my classroom noting the areas in which I ‘required improvement’.
The paper trail documenting our planning, resourcing and marking combined with data collecting made it a 70-hour-a-week job. The children and families we worked with were dealing with any number of challenges at one time.
It was tough - a physically and emotionally demanding job. But I loved it. For all the reasons I enjoy being part of a classroom environment in my working life today:
The classroom dynamics in full swing, the inspiring and creative exploration taking place, the curious, challenging questions being asked by young people – and beyond anything else, the hard won relationships between adult and child.
So why am I not in the classroom now? Despite a pull to be back every time I am lucky enough to be in another teacher's classroom, it is challenged by the conversations I am having with teachers - about the relentlessness, stress and ‘burnout’ nature of the profession now in 2018.
It is also because many of the challenges teachers are facing today: the workload, the ‘many-hatted’ nature of the job and the lack of flexibility – are part of a bigger problem facing the system. So many schools are under such strain and stress that staff’s basic psychological and motivational skills aren’t being met.
Teachers are required to provide a paper trail that proves learning has happened, for those that weren’t present at the time. The trouble with a conversation is that, after it is finished, no-one can check it has happened. This audit culture has replaced the culture of trust.
Becky Allen, July 2017
When an audit culture replaces the culture of trust, when workload feels insurmountable, when relationships in school are under such intense time pressure, a teacher’s basic motivational needs are under threat.
Self-Determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2000) is a theory of motivation. It looks at three basic needs:
Autonomy - the sense that we are trusted and can make the decisions we feel are right; Competence and Self Agency - that we can personally affect change and impact positively on other peoples lives, and Relatedness - being part of a bigger picture for change through our relationships with others - reasons, in fact, that most teachers go into the profession in the first place - are under threat.
Today I won’t focus on Autonomy, which tends to focus on discussions around workload, flexibility of working hours, achieving work-life balance, or on Competence, which I think is a mantle that has been taken up in the form of much-improved teachers' CPD, championed by organisations such as the Teacher Development Trust and the Chartered College of Teaching.
Instead I want to put my focus on to Relatedness - a teacher’s important need to develop healthy, thriving relationships with colleagues, parents, and of course, their students.
Why do most teachers join the profession in the first place? To truly feel that they can have an impact on children’s lives. And to do that, they have to be given the space to break down any barriers (linguistic, cultural, social) and build trust, to invest in relationships with students AND their families.
So, yes, we need to deal with the challenges of workload, of pay, and of achieving more life balance, in part owing to the huge practical burden that they put on teachers, but also because they are direct blockers to investment of time and emotional energy that is needed to build meaningful, supportive relationships.
Teacher-student interpersonal relationships found to be the strongest predictor of teachers’ joy.
Hagenauer, Hascher & Volet, 2015
If we invest in these relationships, the beneficial outcomes are multiple: not only improving the wellbeing and retention of teachers, but also the social, emotional and yes, academic, outcomes for children and young people. The daily, lived experience of teachers and students can look fundamentally different.
So what does this look like?
It requires a whole school approach to emotional health - that builds social and emotional competencies for staff, parents and children.
First, support all staff with the tools to develop and sustain THEIR OWN social and emotional competencies so that they are able to process the often challenging relationships and environment that is part of being a teacher.
Second, ensure that the same skills and approach are being built up for the wider community, in particular with parents.
Third, Senior Leadership teams need to invest in organisational practices that support relationships to thrive.
Resilience is more than an individual trait. It is a capacity which arises through interactions between people within organisational contexts.
Day et al 2011:3
An emotionally healthy person can still be ‘ground down’ by the environment in which they find themselves - the strengths and assets they have built under threat from a culture which leads to stress and burnout.
Fourth, embed the prioritising of emotional health and relationships into policies and frameworks.
Family Links sponsors the Blackbird Academy Trust, where Relationships Policies have replaced Behaviour Management policies in recognition of the complexities of supporting children and young people to self-regulate. This is not to say that there aren’t clear boundaries, it is a cognitive relational approach that recognises all behaviour as communication.
And finally, we need to recognise and accept that there are no quick fixes when it comes to relationships and emotional health; building trust is a long-term game and leadership need to be brave to invest, with a clear vision for how it can transform the culture of their school, keeping teachers motivated and able to deal with the inevitable daily challenges that come with being a teacher.
Head of Emotional Health at School