Wellbeing has many intangible, perhaps ‘fluffy’ connotations, yet it encompasses what we are all trying to achieve, as people and teachers: to be well, to feel well. Many teachers, it seems, do not feel well when they reflect on their role and work–life balance. The 2019 Teacher Wellbeing Index states that 72 per cent of all education professionals would describe themselves as stressed (Education Support, 2019). This rings true for many of us who work in the classroom. A familiar sight in the October half-term break, just six or seven weeks into the academic year: teachers bed-bound, succumbing to the flu, drowning in a pile of marking that wasn’t finished during the hectic final week. Why is this the case, and how can it be addressed in schools?
The Teacher Wellbeing Index also found that 49 per cent of teachers considered that their workplace culture had a negative effect on their wellbeing. This points towards a need for substantial change to the culture and organisational structures in schools. Anecdotally, it seems that many wellbeing programmes in schools centre around well-intentioned added extras to give staff a boost: yoga after school, an occasional wellbeing course or session, a wellbeing day voucher. But these do not address our fundamental requirements in the workplace, day to day.
To address the root cause, not merely symptoms, we must explore the genuine needs of teachers. The research that we have found the most formative is that of Ryan and Deci (2000) and their Self Determination Theory (SDT), followed by subsequent studies adopting a form of this model. SDT is not a recent phenomenon or a fad doing the rounds, but a robust model that isn’t widely applied in the education sector yet. It proposes that humans have three basic psychological needs: competence, relatedness and autonomy. In a workplace setting, these must be met for staff to thrive.
Autonomy encompasses the need to experience choice in our roles and decisions; relatedness is how workers perceive their relationships and connection with others within the organisation, in addition to being part of a group and being supported by leadership; and competence involves feeling challenged, accomplishing and performing well, and learning. These three basic psychological needs have a correlation with employee wellbeing, motivation and perceptions about contentment at work, and also appeal to a common-sense notion that we need belonging, achievement and freedom to truly feel fulfilled.
The question we are asking now is: How are these needs potentially restricted for school staff, and what could we do to meet them? Let’s explore each need in a school-based context.
Do accountability measures, e.g. SATs, GCSEs, A-levels, league tables, Ofsted, etc., mean that staff only feel a sense of competence if their students achieve well in standardised tests? Are school leaders effective at praising their staff for their efforts and commitment, and not just for test performance? Does the training and development in schools actually upskill teachers and staff? Do staff have control over, and engagement with, their development? Do teachers feel like they are achieving what they came into the profession to accomplish?
Teachers do feel a lack of trust as professionals, with Ofsted admitting that this was an ‘emerging theme’ (Ofsted, 2019) in their 2019 review of teacher wellbeing, despite classroom practitioners being highly qualified and accruing thousands of hours of teaching and development time within their role. Teachers would welcome the chance to be given more autonomy to exercise our professional expertise and skills with our own discretion. Certainly, the first large-scale quantitative study to look at teacher autonomy and its importance for retention in England found that teacher autonomy, particularly in relation to their professional development goals, is ‘strongly correlated with job satisfaction, perceptions of workload manageability and intention to stay in the profession’ (Worth and Van den Brande, 2020, p. 3). However, it takes courageous school leaders to break away from established practices in how to run schools to give staff more autonomy. Questions to consider include: Are staff given enough flexibility regarding what they teach and how they teach? Are schools giving teachers enough say in curriculum development and delivery? Are teachers encouraged to take part in research and further learning so that they can improve their practice and take control of what they want to develop? Do staff feel that they have a voice within the school to be part of change?
In most workplace settings, this would encompass how staff interact with their colleagues. However, teachers spend most of their day with students. Although relatedness with other staff is important, Klassen et al. found that teachers place more value on their relationships with students, and, in turn, students who had good relatedness with their teachers had higher intrinsic motivation (Klassen et al., 2012). Do schools take seriously the importance of helping teachers to build relationships with their students? In terms of staff relatedness, key questions include whether or not a culture exists of sharing, collaborating and valuing each other as staff, and whether the building of relationships between staff is facilitated and promoted.
In considering these questions, schools may need to spend more time asking themselves what they define as success. Are the aims of the school built around exam league tables and Ofsted ratings, or, alternatively, around thriving staff and students who enjoy their learning environment and are motivated to keep learning? Clearly, we need to have a balance; but children can receive a robust and diligent education within an environment that empowers staff needs.
An essential way to empower teachers is through their professional development. While the conventional approach to CPD has its merits, often comprising an exploration of the basic principles of the eight teaching standards, the reality is that teachers have covered this extensively in their training year. Intuitively, it seems as though there is scope for schools to develop their professional development offer to increase choice, collaboration, research engagement, and long-term improvement.
An interesting model is proposed by Dr Kulvarn Atwal, author of The Thinking School (2019). Atwal offers a compelling account of how schools could aid the learning of teachers through research projects. He suggests that giving teachers time, opportunity and choice about their own professional learning empowers them to take ownership over the skills that they are developing.
Establishing partnerships with universities may aid in the accessibility of research. Such projects could be embedded within a part-time Masters course; where possible, this could be part-funded by the school. However, university-level learning is not the only way to approach research. A school could encourage its staff to engage with recent literature on an informal basis: leaving relevant literature in the staffroom or in pigeon holes, enabling staff to have an opportunity to read, discuss and share ideas with colleagues.
More formally, departments could explore one aspect of topical pedagogy research per half-term. For example, a history department could explore recent research on whole-class feedback, trialling findings within the department and sharing their empirical results with the rest of the staff. If supported thoroughly by school leaders, this evidenced-based approach to CPD would offer more autonomy for teachers, who are normally asked to reflect on the same principles that they may have learned more than a decade previously. Continuous self-improvement should affect self-efficacy and lead teachers to feel trusted and empowered in their workplace.
While we’d all agree to reducing our working hours and tasks in an ideal world, we suggest that ‘workload’ – that is, the amount of work to be done – is not simply solved by reducing the number of tasks. Rather, it is the type of work that causes stress and damages wellbeing. Burdensome marking policies, planning or work scrutiny – the work that removes our autonomy to facilitate brilliant learning for our students is arguably the cause of ill-feeling towards high workload. High workload also reduces time to build relationships with students, which simultaneously impacts perceptions of both relatedness and autonomy (Collie et al., 2015).
High-stakes accountability for leaders can also result in heavy-handed line management, which impacts on workload. Rather than being nurtured to develop in the long term, teachers are often micromanaged, their value as a professional hinging on exam results, attendance figures or the outcome of a moderator visit. Our view is that all leaders should be trained in, and employ, coaching models for staff development and line management. Coaching’s inherent style of asking a colleague to think through solutions and supporting decisions instead of judging them (Ibarra and Scoular, 2019) may allow for greater autonomy and a sense of relatedness.
Returning to Atwal’s school, when asked about their workload, the teachers were proud, almost triumphant: ‘we choose our work; what we do, how much we do’, and therefore they were in control of, and fully believed in, their demanding working lives.
The approach that we are developing suggests that teacher empowerment, trust and professional learning will contribute far more to improved wellbeing among the profession than merely treating symptoms. Understanding and meeting the basic psychological needs of teachers is not costly, the timetable doesn’t necessarily need to be adapted and leaders don’t need to bolt on wellbeing strategies to their calendar. Instead, they could reconsider how their school’s success is measured and focus on providing an inspirational and robust education for our children through nurturing teachers and enabling them to thrive.
Atwal K (2019) The Thinking School: Developing a Dynamic Learning Community. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational.
Collie R, Martin A, Shapka J et al. (2015) Teachers’ psychological functioning in the workplace: Exploring the roles of contextual beliefs, need satisfaction and personal characteristics. American Psychological Association Journal of Educational Psychology 108(6): 788–799.
Education Support (2019) Teacher Wellbeing Index 2019. Available at: educationsupport.org.uk/sites/default/files/teacher_wellbeing_index_2019.pdf (accessed 17 January 2020).
Ibarra H and Scoular A (2019) The leader as coach. Harvard Business Review. Available at: hbr.org/2019/11/the-leader-as-coach (accessed 17 January 2020).
Klassen RM, Perry NE and Frenzel AC (2012) Teachers’ relatedness with students: An underemphasized component of teachers’ basic psychological needs. Journal of Educational Psychology 104(1): 150–165.
Ofsted (2019) Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers. Available at: assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/819314/Teacher_well-being_report_110719F.pdf (accessed 17 January 2020).
Ryan R and Deci E (2000) Self Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and wellbeing. American Psychologist 5(1): 68–78.
Worth J and Van den Brande J (2020) Teacher autonomy: How does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? Slough: NFER. Available at: nfer.ac.uk/media/3874/teacher_autonomy_how_does_it_relate_to_job_satisfaction_and_retention.pdf (accessed 7 April 2020).