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In September 2012, I took up my first headship in a school that had been graded as ‘Requiring Improvement’ by Ofsted weeks earlier. The teaching team had been told they weren’t good enough and were on their knees – overworked and micro managed to excess. I was told by my School Improvement Partner (SIP) that I needed to formally observe every teacher and grade them as Outstanding, Good, Requiring Improvement or Inadequate. And then set targets for each of them. I was told that if Ofsted returned in eighteen months and we still ‘Required Improvement’, it would be my job on the line…
The high percentage of teachers that leave the profession every year clearly reflects that more needs to be done in schools to promote staff autonomy and wellbeing.
I decided to ignore the advice of the SIP and instead drew upon my doctoral research to create a dynamic learning community with teacher professional learning and wellbeing at its heart. Fast forward seven years and those same teachers led the school to Outstanding and no teachers left the profession – we have spent a grand total of £28 in those years on advertising, recruitment and retention of staff.
When I hear concerns about teacher wellbeing, I am often left frustrated by the short term tokenistic measures that are suggested. I have nothing against buying cakes for the staffroom, but no amount of cakes will make the difference if my daily work is characterised by being overworked, distrusted and undervalued. The high percentage of teachers that leave the profession every year clearly reflects that more needs to be done in schools to promote staff wellbeing. As a school we have been very successful in retaining our teachers as well as recruiting. I argue that the promotion of staff wellbeing requires structural and cultural change to ensure all teachers have a sense of worth and feel valued.
We believe that the greatest factor that impacts on children’s learning is the quality of teaching, and that the greatest factor that impacts upon the quality of teaching is the quality of teacher learning. That is why we invest heavily in strong professional learning activities such as action research, Masters’ degree (MA) study, coaching, peer learning and lesson study. The rationale for a teacher is that if the school invests in me and values me as a learner and professional, I feel a sense of attachment and wellbeing. Additionally, I become more confident in my practice and this enables me to develop autonomy and efficacy. If I am more confident in my practice, I will have less anxiety. My research demonstrated that teachers value choice over their professional learning – we pay towards every teacher completing a MA and they choose the elements of practice they wish to develop.
Often we cite external pressures as impacting upon teacher wellbeing, for example statutory testing or the Ofsted Inspection Framework. However, it can be argued that more often workload pressures are influenced by internal decision making and the learning environments in individual schools. My research demonstrated that leaders in schools can make decisions in schools to mediate the impact on teachers of external pressures. Anything that you ask a teacher to do that they do not understand the purpose of, is inherently demotivating. So take opportunities to involve teachers in decision making at a whole school level, for example on marking and feedback, planning, curriculum, homework. Agree in partnership on the outcomes that you want to achieve and involve teachers in deciding upon the strategies to achieve those outcomes. This will require an authentically distributed leadership model. Wellbeing comes from feeling you have a voice in school and that you are genuinely listened to. It is also influenced by the extent to which you are working alongside colleagues with shared values.
It should be made abundantly clear that if we truly value our children, then we have to value our staff. This is because it is teachers, not necessarily leaders, who make the greatest difference to children’s learning on a day-to-day basis. If I value staff wellbeing, this will be seen in my actions. Do I ensure that teachers feel listened to and am I clear, consistent and inclusive in my approach to leadership? We view our staff team as an extended family, and at any single time, one member of that family may need more support than others. We all have times when we need support – are individual teachers supported if needed in times of great pressure or emergencies? We have a culture of wellbeing for the whole community and our leadership of Social Emotional Mental Health is considered for all. Promoting our whole school value of empathy ensures all staff feel safe in the working environment. We are often asked how we can afford to pay for so many teachers to complete their MAs. It is because we spend very little on covering staff absence through sickness or on retention or recruitment of staff.
In school, I feel a sense of belonging and wellbeing because I work alongside colleagues who have a shared sense of values and beliefs and want the same high outcomes for our children. This sense of wellbeing comes from the structures in place to support collaborative teacher learning, which in turn builds a culture of mutual accountability and trust. These structures and cultures enable all to feel a sense of self-worth and self-esteem as professionals.
If you’re interested in staff development that values the ‘human’ side of leadership, to ultimately create a culture of psychological safety and creativity, applications are open for the Big Leadership Adventure. A two year leadership programme, led by Big Education, that explicitly supports passionate change makers in the mindsets, behaviours and confidence required to think and do things differently in education.
Window one applications close at midnight on the 3 May. Apply here.
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