Stop Talking About Wellbeing is released today, and I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous. It’s rather surreal to have people reading words that you wrote in the darkness of your lounge every night, wondering if you’ll ever get to the end of what you’re trying to say. So I’ll start by saying thank you! Thank you for being interested in what I wanted to write about.
Teaching matters to me. I have worked in industries where the detachment from purpose has been so tangible that it was painful. Clock-watching isn’t a myth: I did it for eight years. Teaching is wonderful. It was a breath of fresh air that was welcomed after years of being bored, and dissatisfied. It is one of those jobs that screams to be one of the most brilliant there is, because learning is endless, and there’s something quite magical in that.
When I joined the profession, it was clear that this perception wasn’t always quite the reality. Teachers were leaving; some teachers were leaving before they even reached the end of the course where I trained. Teachers choose to leave, because they simply cannot fit their lives, family, children around a job that demands so much for them. They have been sold the fairytale of what it means to be a teacher: stretches of summer holidays, time with their children. They teach through their twenties, then attempt to coincide moving into middle or senior leadership with starting a family, and the fairytale is revealed as exactly that. Before they know it, they wrestle with guilt that it is not their children but someone else’s that gets all of their attention.
However, it’s not just parents, although almost thirty percent of the leaving figure accounts for women 30-39, which would indicate that the motherhood penalty is in full force here. Some teachers leave because the demands of the role no longer seem worth it.
And the emotional labour of teaching means it can ask for more than we can give. In some of our schools, for some of our teachers, the removal of empathy and dialogue around non-negotiables, conditions of contracts, reduction of autonomy around the role itself makes teaching less and less achievable for some and leaving becomes the more desirable option. For some, it is simply that all the administration tasks that take them further and further away from teaching children results in a feeling of such discontentment, it doesn’t feel like teaching anymore, but instead a collection of unsatisfying tasks that masquerade as teaching. And so they leave. And for me, that act itself is pretty astounding: teachers who want to teach, leave. Isn’t that crazy?
This book was written for myself, really. It was the book I wish I had had for the times that I have toyed with leaving teaching; when teaching didn’t seem a job that aligned with my personal circumstances, or when I felt frustrated that being a teacher felt too unwieldy a task to master. There were times that I felt I was never getting better, when it wasn’t that at all, but that the time dedicated to teaching itself amongst overwhelming marking policy, an unsupportive approach to behaviour and unrealistic parameters set out for me to be able to teach left me feeling pretty inadequate. It took me some time to realise that my inability to master teaching actually had less to do with my teaching, and more to do with the modification of what teaching meant in some schools. And all the time, teachers were leaving, friends of mine were leaving, not because they wanted to but because they felt the same.
There are currently over 250,000 teachers trained to teach but not working as teachers at the moment in the UK. When teachers so leave, a vast number work in other roles within the educational sector. For me, this isn’t a statistic that should sadden us, but instead make us hopeful that we’ve just got the narrative all wrong. We’re off kilter. We’re not suffering a recruitment crisis; we are suffering the crisis of optimum working conditions. That one is a little more manageable to work with.
But where to start? Well, by keeping great teachers in schools, and shining a light on those schools managing to do this pretty well, and learning from them. From sensible policy that promotes manageable feedback, to flexible working at every layer of the staff body; from deliberate attention to detail around purposeful curriculum, to a behaviour management approach that unites and empowers staff; from creating opportunities to build professional relationships, to welcoming honesty and challenge because that’s the path to getting better. We underestimate the connection between teacher wellbeing and a decent curriculum menu, or strong support networks in the workplace, or value placed upon a sense of ownership as a teacher. We don’t place wellbeing in the same discussions as purposeful assessment, or meeting formats, or the importance of having a voice at work, but we should. It is these features that impact teacher wellbeing, and not the wellbeing that the media or the wellbeing guy in the staff room is talking about. Dictating wellbeing to teachers, to anyone, is both patronising and futile; the definition of wellbeing is so bespoke, that all we can do is create effective teaching conditions, so teachers have the time and space to be valued professionals. It is the outcome, not the process.
I hope that if you read the book, you find something to take away and mull over; several contributors have included their own perspectives which helped tremendously to demonstrate where we are already getting things right as a profession. If you do have a read, I would love to know what you think!
It’s available on John Catt’s website here: https://www.johncattbookshop.com/stop-talking-about-wellbeing