Is personal emotional wellbeing a priority concern for you and the teachers at your school? Identifying and controlling negative stress is an important part of continuous professional development (CPD), as Elizabeth Holmes explainspdf-8441644

CPD Week info sheet – The signs of stress.pdf

The mark of a successful man is one that has spent an entire day on the bank of a river without feeling guilty about it.

Every now and then a shocking case of negligence hits the news which causes us all to focus on our practice. Most recently this has been the case of ex-headteacher Erica Connor, who has been awarded more than £400,000 for psychiatric injury suffered at work, and her subsequent loss of earnings. This issue, we take a look at some of the ways that a school can embed learning about wellbeing and the identification of negative stress throughout its focus on professional learning.

Being well at work
Erica Connor’s case was clearly an extreme one, and her suffering has evidently led to reflections within the teaching profession on the degree to which staff are pushed beyond reasonable limits. What happened to Erica remains utterly inexcusable but her intolerable experience can be a trigger for an examination of the way in which learning about negative stress is embedded within your school’s approach to professional learning.

Nurturing an environment in which negative stress is recognised, acknowledged and dealt with has multiple advantages. Children and young people are adept at recognising when institutions are too tolerant of the demands of negative stress, just as they can spot when an institution is tolerant of bullying. The inherent underlying tensions are impossible to hide and it’s likely that these will be passed on to pupils. Naturally, when the source of the stress (or bullying) is dealt with, the overall atmosphere of a school improves and pupil attainment is more likely to rise.

There are many ways to focus on understanding stress through professional learning. Here are some good places to start.

  • It is important that colleagues feel equipped to recognise when stress levels are reaching dangerously negative heights. We all need a certain amount of stress in our lives; it motivates us to achieve. However, when stress starts to cause adverse symptoms such as anxiety, raised blood pressure and so on, it has gone beyond providing an impetus for action and has turned into a negative and destructive force in our lives. Make learning about negative stress part of your cross-focus professional learning. As a theme, it might usefully pervade all professional learning.
  • Mentoring, coaching and supervision are all tools for development which can facilitate the discussion of stress. Once negative stress is discussed, especially within such a professional framework, steps can be taken to identify tools to support recovery.
  • You may want to undertake a stress audit in your school to find out exactly what the sources of negative stress are. Such a process will involve quite sophisticated self-reflection which is always a useful skill in professional learning.
  • Devote some professional learning time to problem-solving. What ideas do members of staff have for reducing levels of negative stress? How might these ideas be brought to fruition most effectively? Can you improve ways in which information on stress management is cascaded from one person to another?
  • Consider devoting ten minutes in each staff meeting to focusing on negative stress. Some schools do this by looking only at solutions to pre-determined problems, while others combine the identification of problems with the discovery of solutions.
  • Underline the need for staff to take responsibility for identifying when their own stress levels are soaring. Part of this process is to acknowledge as an institution that it is OK to experience stress. Some need ‘permission’ to express their feelings of negative stress before they are able to move on to finding sustainable solutions. Being ‘allowed’ to feel stress is a key to eliminating it as far as possible.

Crucial to all of this is balance. Without balance, school staff won’t be able to perform their duties to the best of their abilities; it’s as simple as that. But the context in which they work, and the professional learning framework that they use, has to meet them half way. It’s impossible to create balance if the structures in which you operate conspire against it. So you need to involve all tiers of your school’s work in supporting the quest for balance; governors, local authority, senior leadership team, support staff – everyone!

Find out more…
Download our information sheet on spotting the signs of negative stress.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in April 2009

About the author: Elizabeth Holmes qualified as a teacher at the Institute of Education, London and is the author of several books specialising in the areas of professional development and teacher well-being.