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Nurturing staff well-being and collective efficacy in schools

By Jane Kennedy, originally posted to the Teacher Development Trust website

From hero headteachers to empowered expert teams, how can professional development help avoid burnout in schools?

Well-being, or more simply, whether we can “feel good” and “function well” in our professional roles, remains a pressing issue for school leaders. Arguably now, more than ever, school leaders carry an unyielding amount of pressure, made ever more challenging by the undeniable erosion of support systems around them. The shrinking of the shared pot of funding and the decline and demise of services once deemed crucial to schools has, of course, played out in different ways for different schools. And if the system is under pressure, we can be sure that teachers themselves are too.

Now let’s be honest, teaching is hard, it is demanding, and it is relentless. If anyone makes the journey into teaching expecting an easy gig, they are quickly disappointed. But it is the challenge, the never-ending demand, the constant need to be learning, thinking and problem solving, the continuous need to reflect upon and improve your individual practices, and the opportunity to be working with the most challenging and inspirational young people that make it magic. 

Teachers make a difference.  

They support growth and innovation; they have enabled the progress that the world sees daily. Who would not want to be part of something that has the capacity for so much good? And teachers know this. Ask them why they do it, and they will tell you it is because it is what drives them to get up day in and day out and get into the classroom or lead a school. 

The need to ensure wellbeing is being addressed across a school is no small ask, and today’s climate is causing school leaders to feel under tremendous stress and pressure. Headteachers are so busy trying to protect their staff that their well-being is suffering. 

To reduce workload demands, senior leaders take on more work or avoid asking for essential work to be completed and as a result, everyone suffers. Over the last five years, headteachers have taken on so many additional demands, and for many, the only way forward was to buckle down and keep going. This is simply not sustainable. 

The cracks are not just showing; they are gaping and swallowing up substantial numbers of headteachers and school leaders who have decided enough is enough and left the profession. Strangely enough, there are not enormous numbers of would-be school leaders clamouring in the wings. There is a natural reluctance to step into school leadership because colleagues have seen what it does to their fellow leaders, and it isn’t good!

The sad fact is that deep down, we know how to start fixing this; we have the evidence base, the research papers, and the professional wisdom to be able to suggest the path forward, but what we still don’t feel we have is the permission or the bravery to set out on that journey. 

There is no silver bullet or quick fix. Let’s accept that from the get-go. This cannot be checked off after a tremendous team-building session or a field trip out with colleagues (if people even have the time and energy to go along to these!) But there is a way forward. 

How can we truly make a positive impact on teacher well-being and, in doing so, support the well-being of the school leaders in the process? How can we ensure that our schools can function well because the people who make it thrive and feel good? 

In the TDT’s working paper, A Culture of Improvement: ‘Reviewing the research on teacher working conditions’, the link between teacher improvement and their working environment is made. It cites the critical importance of the school leader in building and nurturing a positive school environment, but how can a school leader take on that responsibility if they are burnt out and overwhelmed? 

The report lists five aspects of teachers’ working conditions that can lead to improvement:

  • Creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments,
  • Involving teachers in whole school planning, decision-making and improvement, 
  • Creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, and enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest, 
  • Build a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities, and high expectations of professional behaviours and students’ learning and 
  • Facilitating classroom safety and behaviour, where disruption and bullying are rare, and senior leaders strongly support teachers in their efforts to maintain this classroom environment.

Just read the first four bullet points, and there we have it tackled: teacher well-being, leader well-being, and school well-being. 

Being a team is more than just name; it is all about a school’s culture, trust, relationships, and climate. Get that right, and we are unbeatable. We feel good, work well, are supported, and support.  We are integral cogs in a machine that only works when all the cogs are running smoothly. We feel valued and necessary, and the sun is shining. Yes, we have days when not everything goes smoothly, and yes, there are times when we are disappointed, tired, or just not firing on all cylinders, but on those days, we must remember all the other times when things are working well, and that and the support of our colleagues can get us through. 

The final bullet point in that list above could be argued to be an effect of getting the other four in place. If we have taken the time to build teams of teachers who know and trust one another, who have open, honest and robust professional discussions, and are not afraid to talk about the real issues, to unpick those 3 a.m. worries, and who are comfortable in sharing areas of weakness and strength, teachers who will open their professional toolkits and share their expertise and resources, as well as opening their classroom doors and inviting others in, then behaviour is being tackled, by modelling collective responsibility and mutual respect.  

We are not sitting above this; we are in the thick of it with our sleeves rolled up, sharing our vulnerabilities, leaning on the support of colleagues, and bringing them into our worlds to help us deal with everyday problems and crises.

So, if we genuinely want to support well-being in school, perhaps we attempt the enormous challenge of building and nurturing vibrant and positive school cultures and climates. 

Sitting in an ivory tower and pontificating can be easy in my current role. I have a job where I can carve out moments to read the research and investigate the evidence. I have the privilege of visiting schools and talking to professionals from across the education spectrum as a daily part of my job. I can reflect on what I see, hear, and experience. I am very aware that I have the headspace and wherewithal to engage with a vast array of support and guidance. My role is grasping everything I can experience and sharing it with others both practically and in manageable ways. I must make the research workable so that it helps teachers and, in doing so, supports young people. 

To find out how this might look in action, read the full post.