Much has been written about teacher workload in recent years and so a logical conclusion could be that, with schools closed and parents taking on homeschooling, educators have had an opportunity to have a bit of a break. But nothing could be further from the truth. And while headteachers, SLT, teachers, SENCos and support staff alike have launched into the new term with enthusiasm and drive, this has followed one of the toughest years yet.
Teachers have had to adapt rapidly to new ways of teaching and interacting with learners, spending even longer on teaching, planning and keeping in touch with learners. And it continues – learners returning to school are bringing a host of new challenges, particularly for those learners with SEND or additional learning needs, with the need to re-establish the rhythm of learning and understanding learning gaps, identifying emotional support needs, communicating with parents and forward planning for possible continued disruption to the school year. All of this takes its toll.
In November last year, 78% of teachers reported levels of stress* with a further study in August of this year revealing over half felt their mental health and wellbeing had since declined**. The three main sources of teacher stress (pre-COVID-19) included: excessive workload and working hours, challenging pupil behaviour and pressures of assessment targets. I can imagine all of these have increased recently.
Last December, Pearson surveyed over 1000 teaching staff. When it came to building a happy and healthy school, teachers considered the three most important things to be pupil mental wellbeing (59%), staff mental wellbeing (46%) and a safe environment (41%). When asked this question in 2020 following COVID-19, teachers rated a safe environment above their own staff mental wellbeing.
SENCos are often the person in schools most affected by the anxiety of others in the system, both adults and children, and are often exposed to greater challenges and expectations in terms of containing the anxiety of those involved and holding the responsibility for these individuals. This can make SENCos prone to experiencing high levels of primary and secondary stress.
So as teachers and SENCos prioritise supporting others, who is looking after them? Here are six ways schools and SENCos can support their own wellbeing:
Mindfulness is the practice of training the mind to enhance our awareness of our thoughts, feelings and sensations. It can help by increasing attention span, concentration and emotional resilience throughout periods of uncertainty, when it’s common for stress and anxiety to build up.
Knowing particular skills and techniques to manage stress and anxiety can help you improve resilience, helping you to improve your overall mental health. Try the techniques in Pearson’s free Mindfulness for Unsettling Times guide which supports teachers to practice mindfulness with their students.
The importance of language
Some schools I’ve spoken to find that terms such as ‘catch up’ and ‘closing gaps’ have negative connotations which can cause anxiety for learners and teachers – especially with lots of media attention and statistics relating to learning loss.
Flip the narrative and think about terms like ‘accelerated learning’, ‘levelling up’ and ‘getting back on track’. Reinforcing more positive messages in the staffroom and classroom will create a more supportive environment for teachers and learners
Communication as part of the school community
Continuing to involve parents, inviting feedback and building a sense of the school community is an essential part of the return to school. This will help to ensure there’s a consistent approach across school and home wherever possible which, in turn, is an important source of support for not only SEN children but teachers too, as classroom practice continues to be reinforced in other environments.
Test different means of communication that ensure you are able to maintain regular communication without impeding on your time at home or adding workload. A school/parent app, phone calls to parents or virtual meetings could all support this continued engagement. You could also share support and guidance available from other sources, such as Pearson’s free guide: Supporting Children with SEND at Home.
Planning can provide reassurance, especially in uncertain times, and can help in identifying sources of help available both within and outside school. Although back to school and planning for the academic year ahead is receiving more attention this year from external sources, you are the experts in this and will already have a range of effective tools and approaches that work.
Further support is also available this year. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation’s Guide to Supporting School Planning, aims to support school leaders with their planning and Government funding is available to support with the approaches highlighted in the guide.
As learners return to school, it's important that we talk about and listen to their concerns. The same advice is true for teachers. Working together and being able to talk openly about the challenges, the impact these challenges have and working on strategies to support and overcome them are really important.
Staff meetings focused on personal and emotional support or introducing teaching buddies – another member of teaching staff to confide in or let off steam or planning activities with staff – are just two ways of doing this. But if you feel you need further support or become concerned, do reach out for professional support.
Know your limits
The 2018 National SENCO Workload survey revealed that almost six in 10 SENCos work at least one day of their weekend to get all their work done. Striking the right work/life balance is extremely difficult to manage and adds to stress levels both at work and home.
A teacher suffering from stress is likely to find it difficult to give their best in the classroom, so, although it isn’t easy, sometimes it’s about focusing on yourself and giving yourself what you need. Switching off when not at school, establishing non-work activities as part of your routine and recognising if you need to take time off when you’re ill is really important for supporting wellbeing and avoiding burnout.
I was asked by a parent recently ‘how do we decrease anxiety and increase appetite for learning?’. We want our children to enjoy learning and learning should be fun, shouldn’t it? The same applies for our teachers. We want you to enjoy teaching so we must work together to support you to do what you do best, in a way you can enjoy. Let’s focus on the positives and the brilliant impact being back at school with their teachers is already having on children, the great steps being made to plan for any continued disruption and say thank you whenever we can. To our teachers – thank you.
It's important for teachers to support their own mental health and wellbeing in order to support their learners.
Guide to wellbeing:
- Mindfulness can help by increasing attention span, concentration, and emotional resilience.
- Language is important. Focusing on what we can do by way of ‘accelerated learning’, ‘levelling up’ and ‘getting back on track’ can help to reinforce more positive and supportive messages.
- Close communication with parents is an important source of support for our educators as classroom practice continues to be reinforced in other environments.
- Planning can provide reassurance and help identify sources of help available inside and outside school.
- Talking openly about the challenges, their impact and working on strategies to support and overcome is really important.
- Focus on yourself and giving yourself what you need. Switching off when not at school, establishing non-work activities and recognising the need for time off when ill is vital for supporting wellbeing and avoiding burnout.
Isla Billett is the Intervention Transformation Lead for Pearson’s UK Schools business, supporting learners and schools through these uncertain times, with a particular focus on accelerated learning and new initiatives for intervention. Isla has been a primary school governor for over eight years and is passionate about a truly inclusive curriculum supported by high-quality teaching and learning materials that reflect all of today's learners and supports success for all.
To find out more about how Pearson is supporting schools with catch up, please visit: https://www.pearson.com/uk/educators/schools/issues/catch-up