Here's a simple edit to point your school's 'Teacher Wellbeing' plan in the right direction for 2019 (and it'll only take a minute).

A teacher from Queensland, who has just taken on the role and responsibility of 'teacher health and wellbeing' in her school, contacted me recently looking for ideas and tips.

As it turns out I'd just finished reading four articles from education journals which offer a long list of recommendations and strategies that schools can implement to reduce stress and improve teacher mental health and wellbeing.

Here they are. Read them and see if you can spot the same tragic flaw (and the cruel irony) common to all of these 'tips':

  • staff to write school policies and make provisions to help teachers cope with and manage stress

  • all school staff, or a representative sample, to develop a plan of action collaboratively

  • staff to design ways to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the wellbeing action plan

  • leaders to provide teachers with professional learning and education sessions in the development of social and emotional competence, health and wellbeing

  • teachers to actively participate in school activities, curriculum planning and policy development

  • staff to act as mentors and provide support to colleagues

  • teachers to have regular communication with parents/care givers

  • schools to provide staff with mindfulness training

  • make provisions for teachers to gain access to professional advice and assistance

  • regularly survey staff about ways to improve their mental health and wellbeing

  • staff to carry out regular reviews of policies, programs and practices.

And my personal favourite...

  • provide teachers with resilience training.

What is the problem with all of these 'solutions'? They completely miss the point/problem. They are all tasks and projects that require teachers and school leaders to do even more after-hours work. (And long hours is the main cause of declines in teacher mental health and wellbeing.)

The first flaw is that these tips and ideas listed above were generated by people who are not affected by the problem. This is the wrong way to go about solving such a complex problem. I teach design thinking and creative problem solving. One of the basic tenets of solving complex problems is to survey those directly affected by the problem and ask: 'How does this affect you and what do you think is the solution?'

Another flaw with current approaches is that the problem that needs to be solved is not clearly stated. And if there is no definitive problem statement to start with then the process that follows will not produce a solution. (It becomes yet another process to add to the sea of processes that teachers are drowning in.)

I remember attending an after-school PL session on teacher health and wellbeing. The visiting speaker (a non-teacher) presented ideas that teachers can use to "reduce stress" - meditation, yoga, relaxing hobbies, more 'me time' etc. All through the presentation teachers were checking the time, not because they weren't interested in lowering stress but because they were in the middle of writing reports and they needed every spare moment to work on them (in the hope of getting to bed at a reasonable hour).

That night I finished my report writing at 1:10am and notified the deputy principal by email that I'd finished. Her reply dropped into my inbox at 1:11am. We both arrived at the school carpark the next day at 7:30am. Six months later I was diagnosed with depression. (And that's despite working in a highly supportive, collegial and caring environment.)

This all-too-common situation typifies the true nature of the problem. And yet the current 'solutions' on offer are essentially saying to teachers and school leaders 'just spend more time in meetings, write more documents, implement more policies and plans, and don't forget to collect evidence'.

Before anyone begins generating solutions they should first define the problem to be solved. I suggest the Problem Statement for this issue should read something like this:

'Many teachers are experiencing chronic levels of work stress and burn-out which can lead to physical, emotional and mental illness, absenteeism, low job satisfaction and attrition (Naghieh et al, 2013; Milfont et al, 2008; Stansfeld & Candy, 2006). This in turn affects students' learning and wellbeing as teachers are unable to perform their role/s to the very best of their ability.'

And here's the Driving Question that would steer the ideas team towards coming up with solutions that actually address the problem:

'How can we reduce the after-hours workloads of our teachers?'

At the same school I mentioned above, after reports were done and dusted, we had a meeting to discuss and answer the above question. What followed was the most fruitful staff meeting I have ever been a part of. Here were the people most affected by the problem (who intimately understood the problem) coming up with the solutions to the problem.

One of many great ideas to come from that meeting was to 'de-clutter' the school calendar. Most annual school events require someone on staff to work late into the night organising, communicating, writing risk assessments etc (on top of their regular day job). We took a hard look at our long list of annual and traditional events and realised some served no real benefit (they got culled) and others didn't need to happen every year. Those events were moved to bi-annual. I estimated that this solution alone had just saved staff a total of 300+ planning hours every two years.

And that's just the tip. I know there are hundreds of other creative ways to reduce teachers' hours.

So here's my tip for your school's 2019 Teacher Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan. Copy this Driving Question and paste it into your plan... and make it number one on the agenda at your next staff meeting. You'll soon be heading in the right direction.

'How can we reduce the after-hours workloads of our teachers?'

Ideas anyone?


James Phelps

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