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PrimarySecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Teacher wellbeing – How to go from exhausted to empowered

Cartoon illustration of one suited figure inserting a mains plug into the back of another suited figure to 'recharge' them, representing teacher wellbeing

We explore practical strategies for self-care to equip you with the tools you need to prioritise and elevate your wellbeing…

Teachwire
by Teachwire
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SecondaryHealth & Wellbeing

Keeping well in winter

How a child’s comment led teacher James Pearce to realise the importance of keeping well in the winter months...

It was a Friday afternoon in January of my first year in the classroom when a child suggested I could be the Transylvanian terror. Charming!

I know we get our fair share of judgements and opinions from our pupils (good and bad ones about our fashion sense, hair style and choice of activity) but this one seemed a little harsh. I hadn’t sucked all the fun out of that day’s maths lesson (no Count Dracula puns, please…) and I hadn’t recoiled from the garlic bread at lunchtime.

The truth was, this pupil’s thoughts was merely reflecting my comment that I hadn’t seen the daylight all week.

Seasonal affective disorder

While my writing and advice is usually aimed at ECTs and those thinking of joining us on the frontline, I believe it’s important that we all get an annual reminder that the short days can be tough.

In fact, looking at the news before Christmas, even singer Adele was highlighting that SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is something that can affect any of us.

The NHS website’s page on SAD is interesting reading when it comes to what happens when we lack sunlight. We produce more of the sleepy melatonin hormone and less serotonin, which affects our mood, appetite and sleep. Yes, we actually have an excuse for the irritability, a lack of energy and the cravings for carbohydrates!

Keeping motivated

Thinking back to the NQT me (as I was then), I recall finding it hard to keep as motivated and just felt a little low.

Of course, being naive and new, I didn’t want to talk about it with others. It wasn’t until the pupil who should not be named made their throwaway comment that I realised something might be wrong.

Chatting with colleagues and my mentor, I realised that I wasn’t the only one. We were all finding our heads filled with ‘February fog’.

We’d all focused on keeping well in the countdown to Christmas, popping echinacea tablets like they were chocolates and making the most of social occasions to keep ourselves merry, but a new year brought new challenges.

It was reassuring to know I wasn’t the only one. As my years in teaching have ticked by, I see the same cycle happening year on year. I’ve mentored and worked with more ECTs than I care to admit during my decade and a bit so far and I would say 90% of them had the same symptoms I did.

So, how do we make the change and brighten up our winter wellbeing?

Advice for staying well

It’s all about remembering that we aren’t teaching machines. ‘Eat, sleep, teach, repeat’ does not a happy, healthy or effective teacher make!

Through the spinning plates of meetings, assessments, planning, marking and the actual teaching, it’s vital that you take time for yourself and see some sunshine. It sounds like a cheesy health resort or a rehab facility for school staff, I know, but it’s true.

I suppose you could say that our ‘sunshine’ isn’t always the same as another person’s. For me, one of life’s greatest pleasures is when I am out and about on a winter’s day and I need to put on my sunglasses. It could be a crisp walk out in the winter sun with the scarf and shades combo or even a break duty where I can see my shadow on the tarmac. It’s the little things, eh?

For others, their sunshine might be heading out for a daily walk around the block at lunchtime or a few quick breaks outside of the school grounds during the day.

Whatever your vice, ask yourself where you can find the time in your week to feel the sun. Do you really need to be in at the crack of dawn every morning or leave as the caretaker locks doors behind you at night?

Do you make the most of the weekends as a chance to break out of the four walls? Are you being efficient with your time and prioritising your winter wellbeing?

Ask yourself those questions and have a good think about how you can integrate some time into your daily or weekly schedule. I promise you’ll feel better for it (although my medical qualifications don’t extend much past an ice pack!).

Keeping an eye on others

One other thing for you to think about is keeping an eye on your colleagues. I’ve written this for us as teachers but TAs, HLTAs, office staff, kitchen staff and anyone else in your school community could be suffering the same fate.

A few of my family members spent their years managing and cooking in school kitchens. Working 6am to 3pm every day didn’t leave a lot of time for sunlight in the winter.

Your TAs might go home at lunchtime but are they off home to sit in the garden or are they off to another job that keeps them inside?

One of the best things about our industry is that we are a community and we look out for each other. Never be afraid to ask if someone needs help if you see those SAD symptoms. You could just make someone’s day, week or winter!


Tips and tricks for winter wellbeing 

  • Find opportunities to get outside in the school day. Break duties are a super chance to see daylight and local trips with your class can be a blessing in disguise during the dark months. You could also head out for lunch to gain some steps and sunlight. Some of my best teaching friendships came about from weekly walks to the local bakery! 
  • Take some vitamins. I developed a vitamin D deficiency during my early years in the classroom so I swear by vitamin D along with multivitamins in the winter months. Check with your doctor or pharmacist first though.
  • Aim to get out before sunset at least one day a week. Set yourself a 4pm deadline to be out of the building to get some sunshine. If you’re lucky enough to be able to, walk home or park your car a little way away – more steps and sunshine!
  • Think about your wellbeing outside of work. As tempting as it is to have a cosy weekend, motivate yourself to enjoy some sunshine and get out for some fresh air at least once on your days off.
  • Remember each day is getting that little bit longer. The winter months can be tough but from December 21st, the only way is up. Enjoy those few minutes a day and look forward to the clocks changing! 

James Pearce is the author of Do You Want to Share That With the Class? Honest Advice and Hilarious Anecdotes for Primary ECTs.


Why students need good content AND rested teachers

Colin Foster explains why being properly prepared for a class involves more than just having a brilliant lesson plan…

Imagine a teacher who is facing a demanding lesson the following day. It might be Friday afternoon with an often challenging class. Additionally, there may be rainy and windy weather forecast – which, as every teacher knows, is the worst possible combination.

On top of that, the content is something students always find challenging. And, to be completely honest, it’s not even the teacher’s favourite topic.

Chances are, this teacher will spend their Thursday evening doing lots and lots of preparation. Despite what some politicians may say, it’s extremely rare to find a lazy teacher. Teachers will habitually expend vast quantities of their supposedly free time on getting ready for school the following day.

And thus, our teacher will stay up into the early hours, scouring the internet for the best resources they can find. They’ll be thinking about, re-thinking (and perhaps overthinking) what they’ll be doing, minute to minute.

This teacher will plan, and then re-plan, and then tweak and improve until they eventually have an all-singing, all-dancing lesson ready to meet the next day’s challenges. One that’s sure to make the lesson go smoothly and facilitate a positive, rather than negative learning experience.

Running on empty

What transpires the following day is an order of events that many of us will have gone through ourselves. The teacher wakes up tired and grumpy from lack of sleep. Having spent their precious evening (and a hefty chunk of sleep time) hard at work on their preparation, they’re simply not operating at their best come the following afternoon. Yes, the lesson is fully prepared. The teacher is not.

Oh, they know their stuff and they’ve done their homework, all right – but that’s precisely the problem. An exhausted teacher is never best placed for handling a challenging lesson or class.

Our teacher finds it hard to think quickly. Their judgment calls aren’t as good as they might be. They’re slow to respond to difficulties, and the lesson ends up embodying all of the teacher’s worst fears.

Teacher wellbeing matters too

Teachers can be very selfless people. They know perfectly well that they could earn more money for less effort engaged in some other profession. But they care about young people and believe that education matters.

Teachers want students to get the best possible start in life. To that end they’re committed to giving something back by playing their part in that. Where the children are concerned, it can sometimes seem as though no sacrifice is too much. As we hear so often, children only get one chance at their education,.

No teacher wants to be a hypocrite, challenging students during the day about the effort they’re putting in and demanding punctual returns of homework, only to then not do those same things themselves as part of their job. Schools exist for students, not for teachers – ergo, we must put students at the centre of everything.

Yet while some of those sentiments might be true, they can combine to create a toxic work environment for teachers. Of course, schools should put students and their learning at the centre of all that they do. But teachers matter too.

Schools are more than just learning environments for students. They’re also workplaces for both teaching and non-teaching staff, and their levels of wellbeing matter as well.

What’s unhelpful is seeing ‘teacher wellbeing’ presented as being in competition with students’ best interests. The question of ‘Who matters more – the students or the teachers?’ presents a false choice, since exhausted, demoralised teachers are never going to be in students’ best interests either.

Preparation in the round

In a sense, there was very much a lack of preparation ahead of that difficult lesson. The paperwork may have all been in order, and the lesson’s technicalities expertly considered – but conspicuously absent was any form of emotional preparation on the part of the teacher.

Teaching is an emotionally demanding, often draining occupation and virtually impossible to do well when running on empty. It’s not a selfish act for a teacher to prioritise their own wellbeing and sanity. Rather, we should view it as something that is beneficial for everyone.

Preparing ‘the teacher’ is just as important – perhaps even more so – than what we might traditionally view as preparing ‘the lesson’.

In practice, this ‘teacher preparation’ might involve visiting the gym, or relaxing with family and friends. Far from being trivial, spending time in this way contributes to important emotional preparation for the demands of the day ahead.

In an ideal world, all teachers would be able to complete the entirety of their paperwork by the end of the day. They’d then be able to head home and enjoy an evening of entertainment and/or restful social downtime.

Unrealistic aspiration

In reality, this can seem an unrealistic aspiration for many, calling for some hard choices. Is it wise to go in with a ‘good enough’ lesson plan, after an evening spent relaxing and an early night? Or better to produce a stellar lesson plan that’s then delivered by a stressed and worn-out teacher the following day?

There may be no right or wrong answers here – but seeing emotional preparation as being of equal importance to content preparation might at least start to redress a balance that’s tipped too far in one direction.

If we continue to prioritise short-term goals (the quality of the next day’s lesson) over long-term teacher wellbeing, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the rate of teachers leaving the profession continues to rise, to the point that it becomes no longer possible to provide ‘schooling’ in the sense we’ve become accustomed to.

Teacher wellbeing and common sense

The process of teaching draws on a complex package of skills and requirements. Teachers are never just preparing for ‘a lesson’ or even several lessons; we’re preparing to be around young people, with all the challenges and opportunities this presents.

Depending on the subject, some teachers may find lesson content emotionally charged and draining to teach. In some instances, we might need to work at being in an emotionally healthy place ourselves before being able to do a good job of that.

More broadly, however, we simply don’t know when a student will suddenly come to us with a personal question or problem they want to talk about. We’ll often say that teachers should always be available to be approached about anything – but do we perform the requisite work/rest on ourselves in order to prepare us for that?

Being as well-rested and refreshed as possible (even if that means making hard compromises with respect to lesson preparedness) will stand us in good stead to be maximally useful.

Even if it’s just taking some common sense steps to look after our own emotional wellbeing, we’ll be better role models and more supportive and helpful adults when students approach us – for whatever reason that may be.

Colin Foster (@colinfoster77) is a Reader in Mathematics Education in the Department of Mathematics Education at Loughborough University and has written numerous books and articles for mathematics teachers; for more information, visit foster77.co.uk.

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