Be Well to Teach Well

Evidence suggests that teachers’ wellbeing is flagging, but there are ways that parents can help.

In recent years, pupil wellbeing has become a measure of an independent school’s success – and not only among parents. As of September 2023, five categories of student wellbeing, including physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing, will make up the Independent Schools Inspectorate’s framework for inspections.

Naturally, teachers will need to understand this framework, as well as promote and protect pupil wellbeing. Yet evidence suggests that their own wellbeing is still flagging. In the 2022 TES Wellbeing Survey: International, 53 per cent of UK independent school staff said their workload wasn’t manageable, 49 per cent didn’t feel they had a good work-life balance and only 29 per cent would recommend their school as a place to work. And the 2022 NASUWT Teacher Wellbeing Survey found only small percentage differences in the levels of work-related stress, anxiousness and adverse impacts on mental health between the independent and state sectors. Independent schools haven’t escaped strike action, either. In 2022, staff at the 23 schools that make up the Girls’ Day Schools Trust went on strike to defend their pensions. And this February, Winchester College only managed to avert strike action by awarding a 6.4 per cent pay rise for a typical teacher.

So, what’s going on with our teachers? “Things are slightly better than during the pandemic, though we’re comparing it with a time when people were shut at home,” says Laura McInerney, founder of Teacher Tapp, a daily survey app for teachers, seven per cent of whom are in the independent sector. “But our data shows an increase in the percentage of people saying they’re struggling to pay their bills or save, or paying a higher percentage of their salaries on living costs. They also continue to struggle with the hours they work and have issues with autonomy in certain roles.”

Pay in the independent sector isn’t necessarily better, either, once you take into account teaching on a Saturday, running after-school classes or dealing with demanding parents. Then there’s the nature of the job itself, which Laura refers to as “emotional labour, without simple limits”.

“We know that lots of teachers are spending up to 10-15 hours a week on marking,” she says. “But about half said they would mark the same amount if no one else was going to know. It shows they want to put at the forefront the things that matter to the kids.”

While this dedication is impressive, though, it’s no use if a teacher who exhibits it leaves to join another school. And a teacher who’s feeling stressed and overwhelmed is less likely to perform at their best than one who feels in control and supported.

The good news? Parents can contribute to improving teacher wellbeing. Laura has these tips:

  1. Say thank you. Teachers are always telling us that a kind word from parents has made a big difference; in fact, it’s worth more than a gift. For example, someone said they’d spent 90 minutes with a parent and received a thank you card a few days later. It meant a lot to them.
  2. Be as clear as possible in your communication. When I was at school, if I lost my coat, my mum would give me a note to say I’d lost it and she’d get me a new one. Now, it becomes a six-email chain with lots of questions. Keep your communications as clear and succinct as possible, and understand that teachers don’t have extra time for emails!
  3. Advocate for teachers as well as for your child. Our data shows that while pay and workload issues still need to be resolved, having a supportive team is a protective characteristic.

So, if you’re at an open day, or browsing a prospectus, look out for what the school says about:

  • how they build strong teaching teams
  • what opportunities they offer for flexible working, and
  • what continuous professional development is available.

Factors like these can have a much bigger impact on day-to-day wellbeing than more gimmicky things like mindfulness classes. And the more teachers feel positive on a Sunday evening, the better the profession will be.