Teacher Wellbeing is the Beginning of Pupil Wellbeing
A reflection on the importance of self care for teachers and educators – written by Lisa Lea Weston (Founder of charity Talking Heads).
In May 2022, I took part in an event speaking about teacher wellbeing, inspired by Dreamachine, an immersive experience conjured entirely by light and music, creating images behind your closed eyes and unique to each person. Teachers who experienced Dreamachine said it helped them focus on what they were feeling for the first time in a long time, at a time when the profession is facing a crisis based on stress and problems with educator retention.
For those who experienced it, Dreamachine highlighted the connection between individual consciousness within a shared collective experience. Everyone could share in the external Dreamachine experience (like children in class) but how it was perceived and made sense of, would be different for everyone. It provides a simple and powerful reminder to educators that we can be re-resourced and inspired in an individual yet collective way through sensation and creativity. Bringing together the arts and science, it offers insights into how we are all connected and offers hope for the future of teacher and pupil well-being. It is empowering because there are simple and free ways of “being” that make the most profound difference.
Inspired by this, A New Direction produced a series of webinars focusing on wellbeing and a 45-minute INSET resource that evidences why teacher well-being is core to the future of the profession. A quotation from Alison Peacock helps address the underlying problem of how seriously educators (and perhaps the general public) take teacher wellbeing and understand the necessity of nurturing teachers as well as children:
“ …staff wellbeing is an extension of the wellbeing of children and young people and parents and every single person who enters through the door of the school which means it’s a sense of community, a sense of wellbeing, a sense of collective endeavour…”.
This recognition of the importance of teacher wellbeing is not helped by the media representation of schools. As my 12-year-old said, as I have been writing this: “If teachers are stressed, they take it out on their students”. This is not how any teacher wants to be functioning. One crucial point many school leaders and policymakers need reminding of is that as we get older, we tend to forget how to listen to our bodies – adults have the same central nervous system as when they were children but over time learn to ignore them with a shift away from recognising our minds and bodies are connected. Children often remain in tune with their bodies/minds and emotions and so are more open to a collective class/school experience than adults. What does it mean for children to see adults who are not eating or drinking; are tired and no longer joyful, not available emotionally to them as term goes on or Ofsted are due? How can a human be in a resourced, balanced, nourished, compassionate place with children if they are just struggling to “be” themselves? One of the reasons Dreamachine provoked such a reaction for those who took part in it was that it was an experience that compelled adults to be in the moment and therefore be more likely to tune into their own feelings.
The resource created for Dreamachine by A New Direction takes a creative approach using the metaphor of weather to explore the barriers to thinking about self-care, some of which are culturally endemic, and to understand practical ways to deal with stress, with Sinead Mc Brearty from Education Support explaining the science behind them and Shermaine Slocombe, creative practitioner, providing a series of creative practical activities. In the session which schools can run, teachers are invited to try out and plan into their working weeks ways to support the development of healthy wellbeing habits and practices. As I reflected in the webinars, it is important that the output of energy matches the internal build up of stress/distress and creative activities and exercise can really help with this. This completes the stress cycle. The INSET resource reminds us that we CAN settle our own nervous systems and we must pay attention to doing this everyday.
This resource and others like this present ways for educators and school leaders to deal with existing issues. Ideas of resilience are about accepting the need of individuals to find ways to cope with an imperfect society. And even, as I talk about in the webinars, find joy through creativity. But there are measures policy makers, including the government, can take that focus on wellbeing as a national priority, and demonstrate an understanding that prevention is better than cure. Repeated surveys highlight that what matters is autonomy, trust and sense of connection to purpose, so it should be incumbent on policymakers and leaders to do what they can to create time and permission to take care of basic human needs so teachers can be their best selves. We need to be talking about the role of creativity in maintaining our fundamental wellbeing and capacity to be regulated, exciting and life changing educators. None of us can do this for another without on some level having had it role modelled for ourselves. This is where work must be done around changing the culture in teaching. It is a matter of ethical leadership. Ill-resourced and exhausted humans cannot inspire or grow the young people who are looking at us to see how to live. Professional love of work is only possible from a regulated place.
It would be helpful for the government to recognise and promote the role of professional supervision for teachers as a career long process, introduced as they begin training. Different from mentoring, coaching or being managed, this is a career-long scaffolding process where the agreed reason for meeting is to think about how you are at work and crucially keeps your well-being completely connected to the work you are doing with children. Supervision is a process core to those working in social work or mental health. It recognises the emotional weight and complexity of these roles and it meets supervisees in different ways throughout their careers. Early trainees need a different level of supportive supervision to those who are in Leadership or Safeguarding roles. Talking Heads offers external supervision to Senior Leaders with highly qualified supervisors offering a regular, confidential space that is not judgemental but instead allows professional “not knowing”.
As one Deputy Head recently said: “Supervision (done properly and well!) saves lives. It changes lives. And it helps children get the best adult they need when they need them the most.”
Education Support are offering DFE funded supervision to Senior Leaders and you can access this here: Wellbeing support for school leaders. Talking Heads offers supervision to senior leaders as it hopes for the trickle-down impact and knowledge around then how to implement supervision across a whole school. It takes time to shift a culture in to one that allows and respects time for reflection and creative thinking.
Dreamachine reminds us there is HOPE and it comes from playfulness, joy, connection and creativity. It takes conscious practice and this INSET is there to propose simple ideas around how we can take care of ourselves. If we think taking care is “selfish” then we are reminded that it is the opposite. Teacher well-being is the beginning of pupil well-being. They are inextricably linked. Teacher well-being as a focus is the place where compassion, connection and creativity begin. This is the place that transformative experiences in school can come from. Please, look after yourself.
You can find the INSET resource, along with the recorded CPD webinars mentioned and a host of other free resources for schools by visiting: https://dreamachine.world/for-schools/