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Teaching can be, without doubt, among the most fulfilling and rewarding of professions. Being a teacher means you get to help enrich the lives of children by giving them the knowledge and skills they’ll need for the future – and as every teacher will know, nothing beats the pride felt when seeing a student succeed.
The job of a teacher extends far beyond education alone, however. It’s just as much about helping children build self-confidence and a belief in themselves that will hopefully stay with them throughout the course of their adult lives.
That’s why anyone involved in secondary education right now will be all too aware of the huge concerns felt across the profession regarding the mental wellbeing of children and young adults, as well as that of teaching staff.
An already serious mental health situation has been intensified considerably in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which will be felt very differently from one person to the next.
We may all be caught in the same storm, but we’re certainly not all in the same boat.
Emotional and mental health is a key influence on students’ cognitive development, and will have a profound impact on teachers’ abilities to respond to new challenges.
If they’re to champion student health, teachers will need to feel physically and mentally healthy themselves, but achieving good levels of mental wellbeing isn’t easy.
Now more than ever, though, schools have to make maximising the wellbeing of their staff a priority, if they haven’t already.
Below, I’ve shared some practical advice and steps that schools take on their journey towards improving their teachers’ wellbeing.
Many teaching staff will be affected by stress and burnout. Excessive workloads combined with inefficient processes can lead to a snowballing of hours needed to complete everything, leading to feelings of exhaustion.
With a robust culture of collaboration and teamwork in place, however, workloads can be distributed more evenly, making every teacher feel like an important and valued member of staff.
The sharing of useful resources, reciprocal supporting of colleagues when tackling difficult class behaviour and other issues, as well as the exchanging of useful lesson resources will help staff feel less isolated and reduce the likelihood of burnout.
Doing this can also provide staff with a new, more helpful perspective from which to assess problems that might have previously seemed insurmountable. Schools can draw on a range of digital tools to facilitate better collaboration between departments and implemented these kinds of changes more smoothly.
When we feel stressed, our perceptions of time can start to affect our ability at coping with a large volume of tasks. It may help to try and manage your time in the same way marathon runners approach their race training.
Marathon runners will look to expend their energy carefully and evenly, taking each mile as it comes – during interval training, they will regularly run for short periods of 5 to 10 minutes, interspersed with ‘recovery periods’ where they will walk for 1 or 2 minutes, allowing them to expend their energy more efficiently.
The same principle of pacing applies within the work environment, where it’s similarly important to complete tasks and see out the remainder of the current term or school year without suffering from burnout.
Breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable blocks and interspersing these with regular breaks can put you in a more efficient mental space and improve your productivity.
Conversely, procrastination can often be the root cause of subsequent stressed. Just making a start on a task that’s been repeatedly put off can have an immediately positive impact on someone’s wellbeing.
As with running, it’s finding that motivation to get up, get moving and begin tackling the task at hand that’s often the hardest part – yet it’s the most important for making progress.
Staying with the running theme, setting aside time for movement is a fundamental part of maintaining wellbeing. Regular exercise is proven to improve mood; busy periods might seem to justify skipping out on exercising, but the importance of moving the body can’t be stressed enough.
Habits that involve moving around can be easily built into your routine, whether it be introducing walking staff meetings or taking a stroll during lunchtime. Exercise should be something that’s enjoyable, realistic and can be done regularly.
Finding an exercise-based hobby can further help you hone your time-management skills and give you something productive to focus on that isn’t work-related.
It’s equally important to schedule periods of rest and relaxation into your day. Returning to a task at a later time, after you’ve had a chance to switch off in between, can often help you complete it in half the time.
Setting yourself boundaries, downing tools at a sensible hour and taking time away from the pressures are all likely to make you more productive and positive when returning to your to-do list.
Finally, remember that positive emotions matter. When dealing with challenges, reframing the situation to focus on the positives can increase resilience and improve your ability at responding to further sudden upheavals in future.
These have always been important skills for teachers to possess, of course, but they’re even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Difficult though these times are, the pandemic has at least given teachers the chance to hone their digital skills, opportunities to think more creatively about their lesson delivery and many avenues for collaborating with colleagues.
These are all highly valuable skills that many will have honed in an exceptionally short space of time. Credit is very much due to the teachers across the country for achieving all that they have over the course of 2020.
Seeing events through a more positive outlook like this can be a collective social good, fostering greater openness, and in turn better connections between colleagues, improved dialogue and emotional recognition and support.
These can all contribute towards building a culture of positive encouragement, which will help provoke greater wellbeing among individuals.
The practices described above shouldn’t be considered ‘nice to haves’; they’re fundamental to ensuring that teachers are able to remain sufficiently happy and healthy to give students the education they need.
It’s within everyone’s power to come together and adjust workloads, establish new and improved ways of working and tap into the numerous benefits afforded by modern technology.
At the same time, teachers themselves can make a series of small changes to their daily routines that will deliver profoundly impactful changes – not least the fostering of a more positive environment for secondary students.
Dr Louise Lambert is Positive Psychologist at the learning platform, Teacherly; for more information, visit teacherly.io or follow @teamteacherly.
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