We need to stop talking about wellbeing

January has been and gone, that new diary has one used page in it, your Nutribullet is back in the cupboard where it feels more at home and we are still talking about how we can feel better in and out of work.

NQTs progress through the cycle of starting a new academic year, and ploughing through the extremities of an Autumn Winter term – the ones that do not end, and give Aslan’s absence a run for its money- by attending every meeting, every CPD opportunity, every strain of cold, every parent’s evening and every data drop, attempting to keep their head above water. Trainee teachers start with an overflowing cup of enthusiasm and energy, having it slowly eroded by early mornings accompanied by late nights of lesson planning, a significant vitamin d deficiency and a new found addition to the Nescafé instant that they found in the staff room, now in block form where that moistened spoon has retrieved enough congealed granules for one. More. Cup. The more seasoned teacher comes up, armed with an arsenal of anti bacterial gel and a tonne of Seven Seas, marking through November until their room is a haze of Olbas Oil because they refuse to take the day off on account of the fact that those bloody books aren’t going to mark themselves now, are they?

Hang on! Were you not paying attention? The summer holidays provided us with a plethora of well meaning teachers, sharing top tips for NQTS, new academic year resolutions, how to survive. How on Earth are you still tired/ill/ defeated? From ‘school survival packs’ to hearty slow cooker recipes, colour coded marking pens to waking an hour earlier to get that run in before your ten hour day, there are endless posts of help, but you needed to apply it, stick to it, and at times, feel like a failure for not quite managing it.

Wellbeing has become an enigma, an unreachable, intangible concept that we are all chasing but can never quite catch. The very word is fallacious, because to ‘be well’ is many different things to different people. However, one thing it should not be is something that when you are already overwhelmed or struggling, another element of your life that you just simply cannot manage to conquer right now. We need to stop talking about being well, because as a social construct, it’s illusory. You’re being instructed that in order to feel better, you should do more with the same amount of time that you currently have. You then strive to do more with less, and cannot, to then be sold the image that it’s JUST YOU that doesn’t seem to manage it, so try harder, won’t you.

For me, wellbeing in education doesn’t differ all that greatly from wellbeing in any other profession or scenario: the fundamental difference is as natural martyrs (and I use the word with the most positive connotation), we have a huge workload where there isn’t a single element that we can ‘let go.’ We can’t not mark, we can’t stop improving our practice and we cannot stop planning amazing lessons for students to make the very best of themselves. Even if this comes at the detriment of our health, and we know this is ludicrous, we cannot stop teaching. We can’t have ‘a quiet day at the office,’ and we cannot come in and do half a job. It’s simply not in our nature. It isn’t that being well isn’t a priority to us, it’s that for many, it features in the same hierarchy of prioritised tasks as all of the above. Positive martyrs.

I talked a little bit about this over the past year, as do several other far more capable individuals who I will compile a list of go-to folk at the end of this post, but wellbeing needs to be teaching more effectively. It really is that simple. As a leader within school, you have a responsibility to try to shape this for the staff that you manage (I’m in no position to outline that when there are writers/bloggers/leaders who do it to a much more eloquent standard). For the classroom teacher, there are few areas of your day to day tasks that you have complete autonomy over. In order to tackle wellbeing, we can only shift what is within our control and that is in our practice; planning, teaching, marking and relationships.

February is one of the toughest months of the academic year: the temptation of the greener grass flutters into your inbox in the form of job advertisements, you thought this term would be easier but it’s just as crazy because exam season looms and because the Autumn term stories are really just a myth; all terms come with their own priorities and Autumn just gets a bit of a bad rep because everyone spent their summer relaxing. Worst of all, you are freezing all the time. All the time. At a time where you’re up against it, I’m unconvinced that a celery smoothie will be a long term fix. Instead, perhaps pick one thing, one element of your day to day teaching that feels like a challenge, and work on tackling the elements of that one thing that are within your control, or speaking to the forward-thinking people at your school who are in a position to drive change. If marking seems like a mountain, look into whole class feedback. If you have actually got around to marking and feel like it’s lacking knowledge, look into embedding retrieval practice within lessons. If your lessons are a little bouncier than you’d like, think about your routines. If you would like a little more bounce, focus on the questioning. If you want students to leave chatting about the lesson, think about what you would have felt curious about after studying what they are studying. Read something that might offer some helpful research to guide you towards a way to improve it, and give it a try. Here’s some for starters:

@compassionateteach @marymyatt @brianlightman and @abbiemann1982 talk a great deal about the intrinsic importance and value of relationships.

@acethattest @Tom_Needham_ @daisychristo for clear research based observations regarding effective learning, direct instruction and cognitive science.

@nmmarking and @AnthonyRadice1 for eloquent, concise approaches to tackling marking.

@litdriveuk if you’re an English teacher and want access to a board of resources used and tested by established, highly regarded English teachers that want to help you be well without handing you the green juice.

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