Teachers’ lives matter

Teachers’ needs should be met first – and before all students return.

8 min read

Existential turbulence is all around. It can feel negligent to highlight just one sector or subject. Opening schools is towards the top of the conundrum list for many and captures other immediate challenges in its wake. Education is the third largest public sector employer in the UK, so it is puzzling that a critical ‘detail’ is currently being overlooked if we are to make sustainable progress: Teachers’ wellbeing.

From early on in the pandemic, public and employers’ empathy for the wellbeing of healthcare staff at the front line in the UK was evident. At a visit to a large teaching hospital around Easter, I saw notices reminding staff to visit the recently established wellbeing hub in their mandated break for free drinks, food, massage or mindfulness sessions. My anaesthetist neighbour has worked alternate weeks as the hospital has sought to manage staff exposure to Covid-19 and prevent burnout. The public and charity sector provision for clinicians with mental wellbeing issues in England has been boosted and promoted.

Considering the impact of trauma on staff in education was being flagged before Coronavirus shattered any notion of these Islands returning to seas of pre-Brexit calm. An essay was published in the Harvard Educational Review (HER) in November 2019 introducing the concept of ‘Trauma Literacy’ (Lawson, Caringi, Gottfried, Bride, & Hydon, 2019). Trauma Literacy is basically the training in relevant knowledge that enables ‘self-care, facilitates and safeguards interactions with trauma-impacted students and colleagues, and paves the way for expanded school improvement model’. The article came into view because of my ongoing research interest into the neglected landscape of senior Secondary School teachers’ stress management and support. Lawson et al.’s paper was asking in 2019 what it thought was an already timely question: Who helps the helpers? ‘Timely’ does not do their prescience justice.

Thus inevitably in the past few months I have been considering the implications of Covid-19 for teachers, who already demonstrate some of the highest prevalence of burnout compared with other professional groups. This pandemic has forced significant and demanding adjustments on teachers as they reoriented to working from home: achieving technological prowess, accomplishing teaching online, navigating hasty changes to rostering, managing their domestic caring responsibilities and sometimes own infection, making hundreds of phone calls to children and parents, processing social media skirmishes and dealing with rising reports of mental illness and domestic violence amongst their pupils.

Health professionals have to date borne the brunt of the coronavirus trauma. But as we seek to reinstate onsite schooling it is essential that we provide for the needs of education sector professionals who are now expected to care, in different ways, for the traumatised, having been through a significant ordeal themselves.

The announcement on schools opening was immediately engulfed in frantic discourse centred around material practicalities, second wave infections and bubbles. Some misgivings were expressed about the psychological implications on children of enforcing social distancing, banning toys and preventing traditional play and interaction. All understandable, but where were the voices of reason around equipping teachers psychologically first? It is not as if other nations hadn’t already heard the concerns of teachers. There are well known knowns to rationalise this prioritisation. We know there is a correlation between staff wellbeing and academic achievement (Briner & Dewberry, 2007; Mclean & Connor, 2015), that educators are deeply impacted by the trauma experiences of their students (Caringi et al., 2015) and that traumatic experiences have a contagious nature to them (Motta, 2012). Despite academic and policy acknowledgement of the essentiality of teacher wellbeing support, dating back over a decade (Day & Gu, 2009; Farmer & Stevenson, 2017; Gray, Wilcox, & Nordstokke, 2017; Greenberg, Brown, & Abenavoli, 2016; Kidger et al., 2016) widespread conversion to frontline provision is largely still pending.

Lawson et al.’s call for trauma informed pedagogy posits a ‘dual agenda’ for meeting both children and teachers’ psychological needs. While incredibly relevant for today, their glaring omission seems to be presupposing teachers’ Mental Health Literacy (Luthar, Kumar, & Zillmer, 2020) and wellbeing support are both already in place, and that this can be built on. We know this is not the case in the majority of schools in England, and I suspect not in the USA either. The proposed Teacher Wellbeing Charter in the Expert Advisory Group report in March of this year has only just been accepted as an optional recommendation by England’s School’s Minister. But the pandemic offers a unique chance to normalise both proactive wellbeing support and the experience of workplace stress, something that many say can still rarely be admitted in school without fear of stigma (Manning, Blandford, Edbrooke-Childs, & Marshall, 2020).

Lawson’s paper highlights the short and long-term effects of trauma on children’s mental health. The knock-on adverse effects on their peers and adults in school can cause secondary traumatic stress (STS), a concept similar to compassion fatigue, that has been explored before amongst paediatric healthcare providers (Meadors, Lamson, Swanson, White, & Sira, 2010). STS is where a trauma is experienced indirectly by hearing about or knowing about the traumatic event (Figley 1995). “Every professional educator and school employee who interacts with and tries to help traumatized young people is vulnerable,” according to Lawson. Yet in our current situation STS is a compounding threat to school staff who have already, to varying degrees, experienced the primary shock and ordeal of the pandemic. Additionally, mental health leaders in the UK are already warning that psychological provision, whilst it has been extended, simply won’t be enough, particularly in the light of increased financial hardship.

Thus, already emotionally depleted, and with no established systemic psychological or wellbeing support, teachers are currently expected to go back into segregated classrooms and teach traumatised children – exposing staff to STS. And in case you hadn’t noticed, everyone is exhausted!

Education leaders have an opportunity. School opening is currently a request, limited and in some places being rescinded. School leadership can rescue an unparalleled opportunity from the wreckage of coronavirus in the weeks ahead to spend time with their greatest asset – and in many corporate businesses, the first priority – their staff. Exploring teachers’ experiences, listening to their needs, considering the school culture and climate means that ‘Whole School Wellbeing’ – where the entire school community thrives – could start to become strategic, coordinated and embedded. The excellent Education Support Partnership (ESP) has already produced some videos for teachers and school leaders to understand some situations and symptoms that coronavirus has triggered which are a great starting point. Other resources are promised by government, which has also now responded to the Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations on Teacher Wellbeing whilst recognising that it will be a long-term collaborative process to implement them. Meanwhile, I still don’t know of an existing comprehensive Whole School Wellbeing model, but 2020health’s exploration of a ‘Head of Wellbeing’ concept back in 2014 is available online, and other great resources include Mentally Health Schools, TeachWellAlliance, IPEN and hot-off-the-press Putting Staff First.

Policy leaders can learn from healthcare, where UK government support has led to the fully funded NHS Practitioner Health, and the US National Academy of Medicine hosts the Clinician Wellbeing Collaborative, the latter’s longer-term agenda being one of identifying and sharing of good practice and comprehensively reviewing systemic demands that fuel burnout.

Schools are now being expected to deliver literacy in life; this cannot and should not be done without providing for teachers’ lives first.

Briner, R., & Dewberry, C. (2007). Staff wellbeing is key to school success.

Caringi, J. C., Stanick, C., Trautman, A., Crosby, L., Devlin, M., & Adams, S. (2015). Secondary traumatic stress in public school teachers: contributing and mitigating factors. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 8(4), 244–256. https://doi.org/10.1080/1754730X.2015.1080123

Day, C., & Gu, Q. (2009). Teacher Emotions : Well Being and Effectiveness. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0564-2

Farmer, P., & Stevenson, D. (2017). Thriving at work. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/thriving-at-work-a-review-of-mental-health-and-employers

Gray, C., Wilcox, G., & Nordstokke, D. (2017). Teacher Mental Health, School Climate, Inclusive Education and Student Learning: A Review. Canadian Psychology, 58(3), 203–210. https://doi.org/10.1037/cap0000117

Greenberg, M., Brown, J., & Abenavoli, R. (2016). Teacher Stress and Health Effects on Teachers, Students and Schools.

Kidger, J., Stone, T., Tilling, K., Brockman, R., Campbell, R., Ford, T., … Gunnell, D. (2016). A pilot cluster randomised controlled trial of a support and training intervention to improve the mental health of secondary school teachers and students – the WISE (Wellbeing in Secondary Education) study. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 1060. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-016-3737-y

Lawson, H. A., Caringi, J. C., Gottfried, R., Bride, B. E., & Hydon, S. P. (2019). Need for Trauma Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 89(3), 421–448.

Luthar, S. S., Kumar, N. L., & Zillmer, N. (2020). International Journal of School & Educational Psychology Teachers’ responsibilities for students’ mental health:Challenges in high achieving schools. https://doi.org/10.1080/21683603.2019.1694112

Manning, J. B., Blandford, A., Edbrooke-Childs, J., & Marshall, P. (2020). How contextual constraints shape mid-career high school teachers’ stress management and use of digital support tools: A qualitative study. JMIR Mental Health, 7(4). https://doi.org/10.2196/15416

Mclean, L., & Connor, C. M. (2015). Depressive Symptoms in Third-Grade Teachers: Relations to Classroom Quality and Student Achievement. Child Development, 86(3), 945–954. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12344

Meadors, P., Lamson, A., Swanson, M., White, M., & Sira, N. (2010). Secondary traumatization in pediatric healthcare providers: Compassion fatigue, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 60(2), 103–128. https://doi.org/10.2190/OM.60.2.a

Motta, R. W. (2012). Secondary Trauma in Children and School Personnel. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 28(3), 256–269. https://doi.org/10.1080/15377903.2012.695767

About Julia Manning

Julia Manning is a social pioneer, writer, campaigner and commentator. Formerly a clinical optometrist specialising in diabetes and visual impairment, she is the founder and Chief Exec of 2020health, an independent, social enterprise Think Tank whose aim is to Make Health Personal and Social. 2020health has through research, events and campaigning influenced opinion and action in fields as diverse as bioethics, alcohol, emerging technologies, fraud, education, consumer technology and vaccination. In 2014, 2020health were founding partners of the Health Tech and You Awards with Axa PPP and the Design Museum, now in their 5th year. Since 2016, 2020health has increasingly focused on digital health and public health in the community through the concept of 'Whole School Wellbeing'. Julia is a Fellow of the RSA and a part-time PhD student at the UCL Interaction Centre, studying the use of digital technologies for stress management in the workplace. Julia has shared 2020health's research widely in the media (BBC News, ITV, Channel 5 News, BBC 1′s The Big Questions & Victoria Derbyshire, BBC Radio 4 Today, PM and Woman's Hour, LBC) and has taken part in debates and contributed to BBC’s Newsnight, Panorama, You and Yours and ITV’s The Week.
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