The best way to protect and improve pupil wellbeing at your school is to create support systems to promote staff well-being, says Tina Rae. Having emotionally literate teachers is vital when working with students at risk of developing emotional problemsdoc-4283253

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During recent years, schools have rightly focused upon the development of social and emotional aspects of learning, and as a result there has been a significant increase in the focus on pupil well-being. When quoting from the Office of National Statistics (2000), Young Minds, a charity committed to improving young people’s mental health and well-being, noted that more than 10% of 5-15 year olds are affected by mental health problems. This figure rises to 11.2% for students of statutory secondary school age (see www.youngminds.org.uk)

Clearly, such figures remain a significant concern for all of those working with young people in our schools, and the development of a range of initiatives and interventions has been, in many cases, long overdue. However, alongside this focus, many schools have failed to raise awareness of the importance of staff well-being. An emotionally literate teacher, whose own mental health and skills of emotional literacy are continually fostered and developed, is more likely to be able to support students at risk of developing emotional problems. They are also more likely to be effective in the teaching process as a whole.

A need for whole-school systems of emotional support
Within psychological professions there has been a long history of psychologists and therapists accessing appropriate supervision on a regular basis. This not only protects their client groups but also protects them as individuals by ensuring that their own well-being and mental health is both protected and nurtured.

Unfortunately in many of our schools this kind of supervision is not available to staff. There appears to be a focus simply on assessing and supporting the ways in which teachers perform in the classroom context. Although laudable, many of these monitoring processes do not appear to provide the emotional support that teachers genuinely want and need in order to remain effective both emotionally and physically within the learning context.

Given the emotional labour of the classroom, this would seem to be a genuine failure, and one that needs to be addressed as a priority. Schools need to develop whole-school systems which include staff coaching and counselling, alongside solution-focused staff meetings in which strategies are shared and agreed. Clear, fair and consistent behaviour policies are also needed, with robust procedures on bullying and harassment alongside a whole-school approach to promoting emotional literacy and well-being.

Individual support for staff
The well-being of teachers can be supported in many ways: one of which is via the individual one-to-one supervision/support meeting.

When looking at individual well-being, managers need to consider the spiritual, emotional, physical and mental well-being of the staff who are working within their schools.

When discussing progress there needs to be particular focus on the following:

  • The teacher’s mental attitude to development and learning and whether or not this is positive.
  • Their capacity to self-organise and integrate work and life i.e. maintain a work-life balance.
  • The teacher’s ability to make sense of life and feel that there is a genuine purpose.
  • The teacher’s desire to become a fuller and more rounded person.
  • The teacher’s ability to recognise, express and understand emotions in both themselves and others.
  • The teacher’s ability to empathise with others both on the staff team and within the student community.
  • The teacher’s energy levels and resistance to illness.

When conducting these supervisions/one-to-one professional development meetings, managers should be asking the following questions prior to any focus on the teacher’s performance in terms of curriculum delivery:

  • How do you feel at this present point in time in terms of your well-being (physical, emotional, mental)?
  • How are you getting on in terms of organising your time and balancing priorities?
  • How would you describe your work-life balance at the moment and do you need to think about adjusting it in any way?
  • How well do you feel that you’re able to find time in order to think about and develop a purpose to what you’re doing, both in and out of the school context?
  • What do you think you could be doing differently in order to further foster and maintain your own sense of well-being?
  • Can you think of anything that you could change at this moment in time? Is there anything that you could think about changing in the future?
  • How could I, as a manager, help and support you in this process?
  • When shall we review this situation? Let’s set a date.

Teacher support group
The teacher support group is also an effective means of providing teaching staff with peer support in which students who have been identified with difficulties (either emotional or learning in the classroom context) can be discussed, and new ways of coping can be generated. This kind of process supports the development of genuine empathy and reduces the levels of stress amongst individual team members. The process is adapted from Newton (1995) who initially developed this solution-focused framework in order to support staff in further developing their policies and practice to support emotionally literate working.

The idea of such a group is for staff to identify their own solutions, reflect on their interventions, and explore new processes and strategies in order to more effectively meet the students’ needs. In many schools this process is often facilitated by the school’s educational or clinical psychologist or counsellor. The format is generally as follows:

  1. Welcoming the group members.
  2. Recapping the previous session.
  3. Gathering of new issues.
  4. Case presentation.
  5. Additional questions and information gathering.
  6. Further clarification and focus.
  7. Use of metaphors and analogy to describe the teacher’s relationship to the student under discussion.
  8. Impact of previous relationships/spillages highlighted. This process also allows for the exploration of transference and emotional resources. For example, is any particular role being transferred onto the teachers by the student who is having difficulties, such as the father or mother? Is there any other emotional material that is being projected and does this student attempt to show anger to the teacher that they’ve been unable to show to a parent or carer for various reasons, etc.
  9. Explorations of counter transferences, for example, what is the teacher doing to avoid transference?
  10. Discussion of system or organisational factors – what is it that hinders or helps the student?
  11. What understanding or hypothesis can be drawn from this?
  12. What alternative strategies or interventions are available?

At this point in the meeting, the team are encouraged to thought-storm and identify the best way forward. What is important about this process is the move away from the negative, problem-focused talk which often occurs within the staffroom. For example, students with difficulties are frequently demonised by staff who may complain vociferously within the context of the staffroom to other members of the team. This is clearly not productive – the end result may be a cathartic release of stress but no way forward has been identified. The problem has been reinforced as opposed to being solved.

Providing this kind of teacher support group on a regular basis allows the staff team to focus on individual students who may be the cause of stress amongst the staff team, and also to focus on particular issues in terms of curriculum delivery and systems within the school. Such a solution-focused format is probably one of the most powerful means of maintaining and promoting staff well-being. Problems are seen as something to be shared and there is a real sense of joint responsibility and ownership within such a group process. Staff also feel safer in terms of being able to admit that they may be at a loss with an individual student, and also supported by peers who will encourage them and contribute to the problem solving process in an emotionally literate context.

Some useful references

  • Green, H., McGinnity, A., & Meltzer, H. (2005) Mental health of children and young people in Great Britain Palgrave, see: www.statistics.gov.uk
  • Morris, E.K., Casey, J. (2006) Developing Emotionally Literate Staff London: Paul Chapman
  • Newton, C. (1995) Circle of Adults Educational Psychology in Practice, Vol.11, no 2, pp 8-14
  • Office for National Statistics (2000) Mental health of children and adolescents in Great Britain The Stationery Office
  • Ofsted (2008) Indicators of school’s contribution to well-being, consultation document, Ofsted
  • Sholton, G. & Burton, S. (2008) Emotional Well-being: an introductory handbook London: Optimus Education
  • Rae, T. (2007) Emotionally Literate Behaviour Management Authors online, see: www.authorsonline.co.uk

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Tina Rae, a senior educational psychologist in the London Borough of Hillingdon and the emotional literacy co-ordinator for Chantry SEBD school in West Yiewsley. Tina has extensive experience of teaching, research, programme development and consultancy across the country

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