Teacher stress is high, in fact teachers exhibit higher levels of stress than any other profession (Stoeber & Rennert, 2008).
Whether this be day-to-day stress of required tasks or institutional stress factors, teachers are struggling (Curry & O’Brien, 2012). As teachers battle exhaustion, they struggle to cope and remain buoyant to the increasing social and emotional demands placed on them, which directly impacts wellbeing (Parker, Martin, Colmar, & Liem, 2012). How do I know this? Because I too am a teacher.
Supporting teacher wellbeing is crucial because; “Teachers worn down by their work exhibit reduced work goals, lower responsibility for work outcomes, lower idealism, heightened emotional detachment, work alienation, and self-interest. When teachers become burned out, or worn out, their students’ achievement outcomes are likely to suffer because they are more concerned with their personal survival.” (Richardson, Watt, & Devos, 2013, p. 231).
Wellbeing is a broad and complex area that when discussed in a school arena, is typically centred on meeting student needs. Yet go into any staffroom and the topic of conversation will be centred around how tired, stressed and overwhelmed teachers feel. While burnout is high in experienced teachers, of greater concern is the attrition rate of beginning teachers who leave the profession because of a “lack of congruence between expectations for one’s career and the actual reality of the work” (Curry & O’Brien, 2012, p. 179). The one thing we do know is that in order for students to be well, teachers themselves must also be well (McCallum & Price, 2010). So, what are we doing to support teacher wellbeing?
Thankfully, we are now starting to see interventions that support teacher wellbeing, beginning to feature alongside student wellbeing programs (Jones et al., 2013). A major contributor to this is the rise of evidence-based interventions coming from the field of Positive Psychology, known as the science of wellbeing. Positive Psychology is a field of inquiry concerned with what makes communities and individuals thrive (Waters & White, 2015). Instead of exploring a deficit model of what is not working by asking questions such as ‘What is causing teacher stress?’, it looks at what is working by asking ‘What does teacher wellbeing look and sound like?’
This means sharing with teachers proactive strategies they can use on a daily basis to build better habits of wellbeing.
One place to start could be considering the 5 main dimensions of wellbeing, eg;
- Cognitive wellbeing – Strategies to manage mental fatigue that comes from decision overload
- Emotional wellbeing – strategies to manage personal stress and anxiety
- Social wellbeing – strategies to manage social connections and personality differences
- Physical wellbeing – strategies to support healthy nutrition, sleep and exercise
- Spiritual wellbeing – strategies to build a sense of value and purpose
In saying this, it is important that any teacher wellbeing initiatives are evidence based and do not just come from personal opinion. This is where the research in Positive Psychology can offer schools simple, yet effective strategies to promote not only student wellbeing but staff wellbeing too.
These evidence-based interventions can range from reflecting on being our best possible self, keeping a gratitude journal, mindfulness practices, performing acts of kindness, modelling our own growth mindset, setting and achieving our own goals, and identifying our character strengths as well as spotting them in others, just to mention a few.
The bottom line is, the best place to start when wanting to build teacher wellbeing is to create the space of proactive conversations. Instead of discussing how much is on our to-do lists, let’s discuss our achievements, instead of reliving challenging events in our meetings, let’s share examples of success.
Does this mean we ignore the negative stuff when it happens? No, it just means we don’t focus on it by having the same conversations over and over. The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is composed of two Chinese characters respectively signifying “danger” and “opportunity”. When we look at the data of teacher stress and burnout it would be fair to say the wellbeing of our teachers is in crisis, the great news is that we have an opportunity and the evidence to do something about it.
Briner, R., & Dewberry, C. (2007). Staff well-being is key to school success. London: Worklife Support Ltd/Hamilton House.
Curry, J. R. P., & O’Brien, E. R. P. (2012). Shifting to a Wellness Paradigm in Teacher Education: A Promising Practice for Fostering Teacher Stress Reduction, Burnout Resilience, and Promoting Retention. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 14(3), 178-191.
Howard, S., & Johnson, B. (2004). Resilient teachers: resisting stress and burnout. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 7(4), 399-420. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11218-004-0975-0
McCallum, F., & Price, D. (2010). Well teachers, well students. The Journal of Student Wellbeing, 4(1), 19-34.
Parker, P. D., & Martin, A. J. (2009). Coping and buoyancy in the workplace: Understanding their effects on teachers’ work-related well-being and engagement. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(1), 68-75. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2008.06.009
Richardson, P. W., Watt, H. M., & Devos, C. (2013). Types of professional and emotional coping among beginning teachers. Emotion and school: Understanding how the hidden curriculum influences relationships, leadership, teaching, and learning, 229-253.
Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being: Simon and Schuster.
Stoeber, J., & Rennert, D. (2008). Perfectionism in school teachers: Relations with stress appraisals, coping styles, and burnout. Anxiety, stress, and coping, 21(1), 37-53.