Mindfulness for Teaching Staff

According to some well known newspapers,  whatever is wrong with society… obesity, teenage pregnancy, drugs, drinking, homophobia, racism end even a lack of resilience… it’s always down to education… and to teachers.

Most teachers I know are stressed by the relentless stream of government driven changes in education, the need for schools to be excellent (…ofsted) or to produce the right GCSE results to inch up the league tables – the possibility of failure may cause pupils to vote with their feet and with them goes the funding… and the lower the funding then the less money to pay for resources and classroom support…. leading to an even bigger workload for the teachers.

It is not surprising that the government’s Teacher Wellbeing Report  (July 2019) shows that  teaching staff and education professionals have the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety in the UK. The report shows that  “While teachers love their profession, enjoy teaching and seeing pupils flourish, the negative elements outweigh the positives. Staff are suffering from high workloads, a lack of work-life balance, access to limited resources and a perceived lack of support from senior leaders, and this leads to poor occupational wellbeing for many teachers.”

The report goes on to say that Despite the positive feelings towards teaching as a vocation and towards their workplace, many teachers believe that the advantages of their profession do not outweigh the disadvantages and that their profession is undervalued in society.”

So teachers are demoralised and feel undervalued – …that they can never be “good enough” – if a friend was saying these things then we would take them to the doctors!

The key points from the report state:

  • Workload is high, affecting work–life balance
  • Staff perceive lack of resources as a problem that stops them from doing their job as well as they can
  • Poor behaviour is a considerable source of low occupational well-being, and teachers do not always feel supported by senior leaders and parents with managing it
  • Relationships with parents can be a negative factor and a source of stress
  • Educators feeel they do not have enough influence over policy, which changes too quickly
  • Educators also feel that Ofsted inspections are a source of stress
  • Findings on overall support from senior leaders are mixed
  • Staff need more support from their line managers

Now clearly some of these issues are related to funding and resources – yet so many of them are related to the emotional impact of the education system on its employees.

It seems essential that more needs to be done to support the wellbeing of our teachers… and to help them to deal with their mood, anxiety and self-esteem… and to avoid taking the issues so personally.

Last year, when we were developing the rezl toolbox sessions to help people deal with pressure and stress, we listed the types of  situations that can cause people to feel stressed:

  • We may have too much to do – and feel overloaded…   working long hours…   
  • We worry that we can’t get things done in time – or achieve the quality we want – and we may feel that we will “let people down” by not delivering on our promises.
  • Or it may be that things are not going as we wish  …that we feel we are continually failing … and we may start to become desperate to turn things around    
  • We may have pressure to succeed …where we feel we are failing to meet “the expectations of others”…. or to meet our own expectations.
  • Or we start to fear being held responsible (….justifiably or not…) and feel ourselves becoming defensive.
  • It may be that our recent performance has left us feeling judged as incompetent; we may feel humiliated.
  • And sometimes, we may get stressed, when we face difficult challenges or issues  that we fear we can’t resolve at this moment and so we feel anxious.

(NB: we address an approach to all these things within the toolbox session.)

It seems to me that most teachers I know will be stressed by pretty much all of these dynamics.

Where “resource issues” are in play, and teachers feel overloaded with work,  then even the most conscientious teachers may start to feel that that they can’t “achieve/deliver the quality that they would wish– and this feeling is especially stressful.

Meanshile Ross McWilliam, founder of MindsetPro, and Claire Kelly, director of curricula and training at Mindfulness in Schools Project have published an article saying that schools and colleges should engage with mindfulness programmes  in order to ensure that they support their beleaguered staff https://edexec.co.uk/lowering-stress-levels-balancing-wellbeing-and-building-emotional-resilience/

They say It’s important to be aware of mental health; self-esteem, confidence and resilience are key components which underpin positive mental health and from which good mental health and wellbeing can be grown and nurtured. How do we take personal responsibility for this, and what can senior leaders do to nurture this desired outcome?”

They go on to suggest that research indicates that the regular practice of mindfulness can help teachers and senior leaders experience a reduction of stress, fewer sleep difficulties, increased emotional self-awareness and compassion and greater potential to create positive changes both in and out of the classroom. … and that this will be good for staff and for the students.

I looked at some of the research in a previous blog post about the positive results of providing such mindfulness programmes to education workers:  https://carinasciences.com/2019/06/04/mindfulness-staff-in-the-education-sector/

Studies had  found that academics are often isolated and anxious, in a system they feel is driven by financial targets – and that 55% of higher education professionals describe themselves as stressed and nearly 40% had considered leaving the sector in the past two years as a result of health pressures.

Yet research by K Weare  of University of Exeter highlighted evidence on the impact of mindfulness on the wellbeing and performance of school staff:

  • reductions in stress, burnout and anxiety, including a reduction in days off work and feelings of task and time pressure,
  • improved ability to manage thoughts and behaviour, an increase in coping skills, motivation, planning and problem solving, and taking more time to relax.
  • better mental health including less distress, negative emotion, depression and anxiety.
  • greater wellbeing, including life satisfaction, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-compassion and sense of personal growth.
  • increased kindness and compassion to others, including greater empathy, tolerance, forgiveness and patience, and less anger and hostility.
  • better physical health, including lower blood pressure, declines in cortisol (a stress hormone) and fewer reported physical health problems. 
  • increased cognitive performance, including the ability to pay attention and focus, make decisions and respond flexibly to challenges.
  • enhanced job performance, including better classroom management and organisation, greater ability to prioritise, to see the whole picture, to be more self-motivated and autonomous, to show greater attunement to students’ needs, and achieve more supportive relationships with them.

Further,  a 2019 paper from Bristol University demonstrated that mindfulness-based interventions contribute to the overall educator wellbeing and this may increase students’ sense of connectedness to teachers without themselves undergoing any intervention:

  • lower levels of perceived stress
  • reduced sleep difficulty
  • higher levels of mindfulness
  • increased self-compassion
  • better emotion
  • Improved students’ sense of connectedness to teachers

I am certain that mindfulness really can really help to address the stress and anxiety of education workers; and colleges and schools must to introduce such initiatives.  They make fiscal sense (reducing absenteeism and staff turnover), educational sense and fulfil the moral obligation to their stressed-out staff.

And don’t underestimate the impact on the “connectedness of teachers to students – how can we expect depressed, anxious teachers to be inspiring motivating and encouraging to their students?  Surely the enhanced wellbeing of staff must drive better academic results.

In my next post -I will look at the impact of mindfulness programmes on the kids themselves – improvements in behaviour, mood, mental heath… and academic results.

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