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Supporting teachers to support learners: Prioritising teacher wellbeing for optimal student outcomes

Written by: Cara Carey
4 min read
Cara Carey, Development Lead, Teach First, UK

Research suggests that if we are to create an environment where students can excel, we must prioritise the wellbeing of teachers. Improved teacher wellbeing facilitates improved pupil wellbeing (Harding et al., 2019; Ramberg et al., 2019), while the negative impact of teachers’ poor wellbeing seems to be greater for students who are already disadvantaged (Ramberg et al., 2019). If teachers prioritise their own wellbeing, they are likely to have greater capacity to effectively manage student behaviour, which will create a better learning environment (Bates, 2021).

What can school and system leaders do?

Ramberg et al. (2019) noted that there is evidence of variation between schools as to how well leaders are able to support staff and manage or prevent stress. There are now consistent voices stating that prioritising the wellbeing of teachers is not achieved through gimmicks such as whole-school compulsory yoga, but instead through a systemic, organisation-wide commitment to looking after school staff (Howard, 2020; Brady and Wilson, 2020). 

John Tomsett and Jonny Uttley (2020) make the case for running a school from the perspective of Putting Staff First. Kat Howard (2020) has written about a pragmatic approach to teacher workload in her book Stop Talking About Wellbeing, and the Department for Education and Ofsted have collaborated on how they as institutions, along with schools, can commit to supporting staff wellbeing (DfE, 2021). 

Mental health support

A common argument among the texts is the need for systems to support staff and leaders. Regardless of what is going on in school, anyone can struggle with their mental health at times, and leaders have a duty to support colleagues during these periods. The Education Support charity runs an invaluable service, providing support for educators who are struggling to maintain positive mental health and providing toolkits for leaders to improve mental health provision (Education Support, 2021b).

Staff voice

All three texts speak of the importance of giving staff agency and voice. A sense of ownership and autonomy is key to wellbeing. And as Tomsett and Uttley note, getting feedback from staff about what works will help leaders to make better decisions for the school.

Flexible working

There are many reasons why teachers request flexible working and there are many reasons given by schools for not granting these requests. Still, as Kat Howard reports, the reasons for declining flexible working requests, such as timetabling and job-share logistics, are losing traction. For leaders wanting to support staff wellbeing through flexible working options, Emma Turner’s (2020) book, in which she explores the benefits and practicalities of flexible working in schools, is a great starting point. 

Promoting gratitude

Kat Howard champions showing gratitude to colleagues at every opportunity. There is a great body of work from psychology showing that gratitude is integral to wellbeing (Watkins and Scheibe, 2018); saying thank you doesn’t cost anything but can have great impact.

Review accountability measures

A key message from Kat Howard and Tomsett and Uttley is that leaders should act to alleviate feelings of fear and anxiety. Howard explains that in order to care for staff, ‘we must eradicate accountability as a method of management, and build the architecture essential to voice and autonomy that results in professional trust’ (p. 382) – for example, ensuring that quality assurance measures are supportive and developmental, and combining lesson drop-ins with follow-up coaching on an agreed area of development, rather than high-stakes one-off lesson observations.

Make workload manageable

Of course, none of the strategies above will have the desired impact unless teacher workload is addressed. Education Support’s research (2021a) has shown that ‘excessive workload and lack of work–life balance remain key drivers for poor mental health’. Addressing teacher workload would hopefully lead to better retention in the sector, which would create a more stable learning environment for students. And there is emerging evidence that reducing workload has a direct impact on improving student outcomes (Rhys-Evans, 2020).

Leaders may find the following actions, summarised from the literature on wellbeing, helpful in reviewing workload:

  • Use evidence-informed practice. Find out what things are likely to have the biggest impact on students and prioritise these. If something doesn’t have evidence of impact (for example, triple marking), stop doing it!
  • Stop any activities that have been superseded by an alternative. As Tomsett and Uttley point out, there may well be systems and procedures in place that are no longer necessary because they have been replaced by something else – for example, if there are learning walks, lesson drop-ins and coaching conversations in place, are one-off performance management lesson observations still necessary? 
  • Utilise staff voice. Find out what takes up the majority of staff time and compare this with what you know will have the biggest impact on student outcomes. The DfE (2018) has some tools for collecting this feedback. 
  • Consider how you can establish clear boundaries for when staff are not expected to respond to work-related communication. 
  • Review the school calendar (ideally with a working group of teaching staff) to reduce clusters of evening events, data deadlines and CPD sessions. Consider whether the meeting schedule can be streamlined.
  • Support middle leaders in ensuring that their department has access to high-quality shared resources that they can adapt to the needs of their classes – for example, by prioritising meeting time for developing resources.  
  • Find ways to ensure that staff are able to give effective feedback to students in a way that is not over-burdensome. Matt Bromley (2019a, 2019b) notes research suggesting that marking and feedback are the biggest contributors to teacher workload, and offers some helpful ways to address this in his SecEd supplement on reducing workload.

Hopefully, the above evidence-informed actions could form the basis of effective wellbeing provision in schools. This is simply what staff deserve – but it will also enable them to create the most effective learning environment for their students.

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