Teachers showing us

Just lately I’ve been reading and hearing a lot about the reported increase in mental health issues and challenges across the general population.  After the life-changing effects of the pandemic anything different would be surprising.  I was particularly interested to read one article, sent to me by my daughter, who is also a psychologist, about the apparent rise in mental health issues being experienced by teachers.

The piece is written by Kimberley Bond, Features Writer for ‘The Metro’, and presents a number of survey findings from credible sources such as The Education Support charity, which compiles the Teacher Wellbeing Index and the National Education Union that tracks teacher retention rates.  Alongside these she recounts the story of Katie, an experienced, over-stretched and disenchanted teacher, who attributes her own mental health challenges and the general malaise in her profession to under-funding of schools, staff shortages and troubled children.  She also writes about Katie’s view that the role of the teacher has extended way beyond curriculum-related work to ensuring, monitoring and addressing children’s emotional and mental health needs.  Katie also attributed the fact she had undertaken a first degree in psychology to helping her as she could draw upon what she had learnt to support herself and her students.  However, this wasn’t enough to keep her in the profession and she left to become a therapist and counsellor.

I’ve always been fascinated by teachers and teaching; after all, I was a teacher myself, for fifteen years, before studying to become an educational psychologist.  I have taught in early years, primary, secondary, special education, further and higher education and even home schooling settings and whilst those who work in or with these sectors, emphasise the specialist aspects, I see many general and common themes.  In fact, my PhD research, published in 2011,  which explored teachers’ views about their work involving other teachers, confirmed this and, to some degree, clarified the factors at play. 

As an educational psychologist, I have worked with thousands of teachers, either through work supporting pupils with additional needs or through work at whole school and local authority levels, which included professional development, organisational development or support for individual teachers.  One effective intervention, that I and EP colleagues, developed over time, was that of ‘teacher support groups’.  I wrote about these in The Times Educational Supplement in 2017, in an article entitled ‘A safe place for everyone’. The main thrust of the piece was to highlight the importance of trust and openness by enabling teachers and pupils in their own peer groups, to talk about their school experience.  I facilitated a number of these groups and my role was to establish and maintain a set of ground rules based upon mutual respect, to prepare and introduce activities which enabled inclusive discussion and also to evaluate and communicate to the school and/or local authority, issues that might be addressed more generally and systemically.  

The work required a very ‘light touch’ on my part and this extract about work in a large and challenging inner-city secondary, from my article, explains why:

“An informal staff support group began to meet.  It was a fairly light-hearted and enjoyable forum but the quality of listening, acceptance and support teachers gave to each other was phenomenal.  All was going well until one of the deputy heads decided that the group should be more formally organised and evaluated.  Soon the only people present were two deputies, me and a newly qualified teacher.  I learnt a very valuable lesson from this: that teachers’ emotional and mental health needs are best met on a voluntary and organic basis and not through a structure imposed by school management.” 

Kimberley’s article refers to school management teams’ tokenism and even dishonesty, about arrangements to support teachers’ wellness. My experience with schools, including my research, suggests there is a lot of truth in this and this is a pity because it is likely that teachers’ perceptions of not being supported in their work will only be exacerbated. 

The etymological basis of the word ‘teach’ comes from the 16th century Old English taecan, meaning “to show, point out, or demonstrate”. There are also links with  Germanic ‘taikijan’ and ‘deik’ in the Indo-European’s original language (PIE) and most of these relate to showing or illuminating in some way.  However, ‘deik’ also means ‘to accuse’.  In my last post ‘Expert by Experience, I looked at the words expert and experience and was interested to find a connection with ‘knowledge due to trial.  Both knowledge by trial and teach/accuse have legalistic and accusatory connotations and are a long way from the caring, supporting, showing and leading that are needed for teaching the whole child.

The dichotomy of ‘care and control’  and power issues are never far below the surface when you consider the role and function of teachers, schools and education in general.  Effective teachers have to straddle and balance these twin imperatives and so do the teachers in management roles.  However, the reported cost to personal wellbeing and mental health across the teaching profession may be flagging up the need for something more supportive and more emotionally intelligent.

This leads full circle to a point I reached after over a decade of research on teachers and teaching. Here is an extract from my thesis:

“The hierarchical school structure and the power differentials throughout schools were seen as unhelpful and contributing to inter-personal problems” (between teachers).  The view was expressed that whilst the government promoted teachers’ involvement in each others’ work, it actually gave it little  thought, and that large-scale innovation, emphasis on teachers’ involvement in each other’s work and its being used as a management strategy or performance target/measure actually impeded its natural occurrence.”

I know I have used the following quotation that follows, before, but despite searching for years I still can’t find a better one for summing up the issues at play when school managers or those in senior positions in Education try to utilise individual teachers’ feelings and relationships :

Where there is officialism every human relationship suffers.”  E.M. Forster ‘A Passage to India’ (Chapter 24, 1924).

Maybe teachers are not just showing in their work in classrooms but are also, through their own distress, highlighting something that society as a whole needs to be more aware of? Teachers do need support and more resources are needed to reduce their workload but in addition they should be able to choose support in the form that they know will be most helpful for them.

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