How can we keep teachers happy?  Thin red lines between wellbeing & misery

How can we keep teachers happy? Thin red lines between wellbeing & misery

The thin red line (or, as William Russell originally reported, the “Thin red streak tipped with a line of steel”) which held off a charge of Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaclava has become a metaphor for stretched forces holding firm against defeat.  Thin red lines might stave off teachers’ defeat over workload and wellbeing.Robert_Gibb_-_The_Thin_Red_Line

Many teachers feel unhappy, overworked and inclined to quit.  404,600 trained teachers under 60 are no longer teaching (almost as many as are (451,000)).  In an NUT survey “90% of respondents had considered leaving teaching in the last two years, 96.5% said workload has negative consequences for family or personal life.”  Students and schools need teachers who stay in their job and keep improving: how can this be achieved?

One answer is promoting teacher wellbeing.  This summer I was asked by someone establishing a new school how I thought leaders might do this.  I don’t know: in setting up our school, we explicitly committed to promote teacher wellbeing.  We failed: as one priority among many, its importance was easy to overlook under pressure.  My suggestions derive from my resulting conviction that stating a commitment to staff wellbeing alone is meaningless.

The basics matter: here are three of them, from Disidealist’s superb post on leadership:

  • I need as much non-contact time as possible, so that I’m as fresh and energetic as possible…
  • I need autonomy in my classroom in proportion to results…
  • I need to feel like a valued member of a professional team, not a fearful underling.

I concur, but I fear these commitments are open to interpretation and pressure: ‘I’m doing everything I can to make staff feel valued, but Ofsted are just around the corner,’ for example.  Any solution must make them more concrete.

Perks may help.  I know of schools which serve free tea, coffee and biscuits at break; bring in masseurs; even allow teachers five days holiday in a year (in lieu of time over the summer).  I’d love to pool the ‘performance-related bonus’ pot at our school** and hire a full-time  ‘desnagger’ who would ask everyone each day ‘what has frustrated you most today?’ and fix it.  But this still represents a painkiller, not a treatment.  Free tea or massages are useless if teachers feel too busy to take them up.

Thin red lines

I suggest what might work is a few thin red lines – clear, concrete, cost-free commitments, publicly stated by leaders.  In their detail, they fall short of what I hope heads aspire to; in their clarity, they should be impossible to breach unintentionally.  I’ve listed six examples: illustrative rather than definitive, they represent proxies for desired outcomes, not ends in themselves.  Most are not original; many mirror existing good practice.

1) Everyone out by six.  On joining an academy, a friend asked what time the building closed; he was (supposed to be) reassured that his swipe card allowed entry 24/7.  Leaders should be ensuring teachers leave by a reasonable time rather than valorising the last man standing.
A proxy for…  a workload that fits into a fifty-hour week (preferably less!).

2) No emails after six.  Continuing conversations into the evening drags work out and creates a perceived pressure to remain online (or, worse, forward work emails to phones).  Leaders can set an example by avoiding emailing after six (if they wish to spend time with children in the early evening and work later they could delay delivering emails).
A proxy for… ensuring teachers can switch off.

3) One in, one out.  Every new task (planned or not) should be accompanied by removing an equivalent burden to create the time needed.  (This is analogous to union guidelines specifying only one after-school meeting a week: open evening this week, so no department meeting).
A proxy for… ensuring leaders prioritise and limit their requests.

4) Early warning.  Teachers on full timetables often seem to be expected to respond to requests immediately, (often these could have been sent or warned about far in advance).  Specifying a minimum early warning to be given for requests: (say 48 hours for routine requests, a week for tasks taking an hour or more) would allow teachers to plan around them.
A proxy for… acknowledging teachers’ workloads and allowing them to plan their time.

5) No duplication.  There are few more obvious wastes of time!  Just one example, entering data, passing it on to managers and receiving follow-up requests for comments ten days later.  (Data is a topic for another day; instead, I suggest Mike Cameron’s post on the technological implications of this principle).
A proxy for…  ensuring systems are efficient.

6) One direction.  More nebulous, but what, really, are the school’s priorities?  This doesn’t just mean sharing the development plan, it means identifying the relative importance of all a teacher’s possible tasks.  A friend works in a government department with a ‘Car Park’ board, where possible tasks they have agreed not to work on are parked.  Being clear what is parked and what really matters might well help.
A proxy for… coherent, constrained priorities.

‘A line of steel?’

Once set, it is up to everyone to ensure these commitments are followed; conversely, “we all are responsible for the current febrile climate that is making many of us ill.”  Teachers can and should hold leaders to their word.

But these are simply suggestions.  I’d be curious to learn how other schools go about this, what red lines teachers deem important, and how else they might be enforced.

——

* I’ve not gone in to the evidence for these propositions as I would hope they are logical and self-evident.  I’m aware of some heads who state their lack of interest in staff wellbeing; I suspect they require stronger responses than this post proposes.

** Don’t.

Further reading

Much of the philosophy behind choosing what to work on is underpinned by my thoughts on how to manage time effectively as a teacher.

A highly entertaining TED talk on the power of happiness at work.

DisIdealist’s excellent post on leadership.