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When my school embarked on a process of improving teaching staff wellbeing, the feedback from school staff was almost unanimous: we wanted more flexibility in our working hours.
What we quickly learnt was that our leaders had a very different idea of staff wellbeing to our own.
As education professionals, our working lives are mapped out for us. This isn’t just in the form of holidays, which are plentiful but understandably inflexible, but on a daily basis. From the moment that first bell rings in the morning to the last bell in the afternoon, there’s always somewhere you need to be.
After that, there’s any number of meetings to ensure every minute of the working day is scheduled. The only flexibility comes in the form of how much of your own time you are willing to give up on top of this, and which section of your weekends and holidays you are prepared to sacrifice.
My school sought to further entrench this inflexibility some years back with a formal letter stating that any requests for unpaid leave on the grounds of celebration or holiday would be turned down, and that any staff with relatives intending to get married should inform them of the term dates so they can plan their wedding accordingly.
In short, if you’re taking time off on a school day you’re either ill, looking after sick children or you have a relative who has recently died. This leaves very little room for any joyful events that happen to take place on the wrong date.
So when the opportunity arose to have our say on what would make the biggest difference to our wellbeing, for many of us the outcome seemed fairly obvious. The school appeared to be taking this process seriously.
We embarked on three voluntary open meetings where ideas could be raised and discussed, then two full staff meetings where these ideas were clarified and developed. There were then another two meetings within our Key Stages. It all seemed like a democratic process with the aim of driving real change to improve our lives.
The overwhelming recommendation to the leadership team was that staff wanted the opportunity to take unpaid leave, regardless of the reason. Policies similar to this were in place in a number of other local schools, where a limited number of days could be taken with no questions asked, so it didn’t seem an impractical or unreasonable request.
After the year we’ve all had, many staff felt on the brink of personal crisis. Everyone was worn out after given their all to hold the school together in ever-changing conditions through the pandemic. This wellbeing process felt like our reward.
However, the result demonstrated that we’d all been wasting our time. It seems we were wrong to suggest more flexible working practises.
In fact, it appears the thing that will improve staff wellbeing in the school will be thank you cards informing us that SLT has noticed us going ‘above and beyond’ expectations – something we’ve all been doing for quite some time.
After the hours of work that had gone into this process, the result was that we were completely ignored. On receiving this news, the overwhelming feeling from colleagues was of having been insulted. It felt like the kind of policy more at home in a large fast food corporation than the teaching profession.
Private conversations took place where we discussed exactly where these cards should be placed – and it wasn’t anywhere on display.
It put me in mind of clapping for the NHS: a nice gesture that became perceived as hollow when not coupled with real improvements for these workers. The thanks of the nation would be offered freely, just so long as nothing tangible was required alongside it.
Just like NHS staff, school workers are not charitable volunteers who have bravely stepped into the front line. We are paid professionals and real people who do a difficult job and deserve decent working conditions.
Staff morale within the school is lower now than when we started this consultation. So to my school (and any others that feel established problems can be solved with the flimsiest of gestures), here is my thank you letter to you:
Dear headteacher, thank you for showing us the value of our opinions. Thank you for showing us our value as employees. And finally, thank you for showing us that, no matter how many opportunities you offer us to talk about it, nothing will ever really change. Yours faithfully, disgruntled undercover teacher.
The writer is a primary teacher in England.
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