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International School Teacher Wellbeing – How Can Schools Support Teachers More Effectively?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 20th March 2021

Earlier this week, I published the main findings from my research into  International School Teacher Wellbeing During the COVID 19 Crisis 2020-21. It is important to give teachers a voice and understand and acknowledge the challenges that they have been facing over the past 12-14 months and, for many, continue to face. The overwhelming message coming from my survey, of 275 international school teachers from 46 countries, is that they feel unsupported by senior leadership. Only 22% of respondents feel they have received enough support from their senior leaders.

It is not my role to cast blame, point fingers at senior leadership teams or increase the already high levels of pressure and anxiety experienced by those in leadership roles. School leaders face considerable demands, as was highlighted in my October 2020 report  School Leader Wellbeing During the COVID 19 Pandemic 2020. The challenge of balancing the needs of students and the expectations of parents and boards of governors with the wellbeing of staff is having a devastating impact on the mental and physical health of many leaders.

Some schools are without doubt trying hard to support staff wellbeing and a few are doing a great job. Nevertheless, only 45% of teachers feel that the school is doing its best to support their needs and the data shows that most schools that are doing their best are likely not doing enough to ensure the mental health needs of their teachers are adequately supported. So what more can be done?

Teachers who took part in the survey were asked to indicate, from a list of 11 categories, the support that they have already received from their school . The most common type of support received is the provision of information about health and wellbeing in the form of links to websites or leaflets, with 51% of respondents having received this kind of support. 40% have been involved in whole school or group wellbeing sessions; 22% have had the opportunity to discuss their wellbeing with a senior or middle leader and 19% with a school counsellor. 16% of teachers have been offered adjustments to their working hours or conditions; 11% have received external psychological services paid for by the school and 11% have been invited to take part in wellbeing PD during their own time. 9% of teachers have been offered access to a telephone helpline; 10% have taken part in wellness days or part days built into the weekly or monthly schedule; 7% have had the opportunity to develop a personal wellbeing action plan or something similar and 2% have been offered mental health leave.

Using the same 11 categories of support, teachers were then asked what kind of support they would like to receive. The infographic above sets out the results. One needs, of course, to balance what teachers are requesting, with the resources available and the context of each school. I do not find it surprising that 55% of respondents would like their working hours or conditions to be modified; over half would like to receive mental health leave and 38% feel they would benefit from attending sessions with a counsellor/psychologist at the school’s expense. Not all schools are able to offer this kind of provision due to financial constraints or issues around contractual and employment law. However, where it is possible schools should certainly try. From my experience as a principal in a high performing school, for a very small number of staff who are in desperate need, the offer of reduced working hours, or encouragement to take mental health leave, can have a very positive impact, not just on the individuals involved but also on students and other staff. Likewise the provision of a scheme to provide staff with a course of 4-6 professional counselling sessions, is likely, in my experience, to be taken up only by a small number of the most needy. A special arrangement can be agreed with a local counselling group, which should be facilitated through HR to ensure absolute confidentiality for those who wish to avail themselves of the service. The provision of these types of support sends a message to staff that they are cared for and that their mental health and wellbeing is a priority to the school. The value of this is not to be underestimated. The cost is also often outweighed by the potential cost of lengthy sick leave or the replacement of staff who feel they have no choice but to leave the school when they are not coping well.

What I did find surprising is that the most requested form of support teachers would like to receive is overwhelmingly wellness days or part days built into the weekly or monthly schedule. 74% of respondents indicate they would like to receive this kind of support. Online learning is considerably more demanding on all parties than face to face learning in school. The challenges experienced by teachers implementing their programme at a distance, came through strongly in the research. It is highly beneficial to build a break into the schedule, that can be looked forward to and provide respite from the exhaustion. Schools may allow this time to be used freely or provide it as directed wellness time. I know many schools have tried initiatives such as “Go Outdoors Friday”, “MeTime” or “ScreenFree Wednesday”, which benefit both students and staff. Again, this is something I have experience of during my time as a principal during the first 4 months of the pandemic. It is extremely popular with staff and students but can prove to be equally unpopular with parents. Parents may be concerned about the amount of learning time lost and fail to see the benefit of a day away from the screen. They may also be challenged by supervising their kids while also fulfilling their own work from home obligations. The politics involved in providing regular wellness days are probably the reason why only 10% of respondents indicate that they have received this kind of support. It takes a bold school leadership team to implement such a strategy and it is essential to have the support of the board and the PTA by demonstrating the need and addressing any concerns in practical ways. At my former school, we developed a wonderful online Wellness Hub, where parents of primary age children could find ideas for a wide range of wellness activities for their kids to take part in on Wellness Wednesday. This went some way to allaying parents’ concerns but the initiative, while welcomed by many, remained unpopular with others.

Another interesting finding from the research, is that while only 7% of respondents have had the opportunity to complete a personal wellbeing action plan or something similar, over a third say they would like to receive this kind of support. The development of an Individual Wellbeing Plan can be done in collaboration between a staff member and a senior/middle leader and focuses upon proactive steps each teacher can take to support their own wellbeing. Individual Wellbeing Plans identify contributors or triggers for stress and how these can be avoided; flag early warning signs that stress is becoming unmanageable and suggest steps that the employee and leader can take to support an individual when this occurs. If you would like to receive a template and exemplar Individual Wellbeing Action Plan, free of charge, please contact me. The development of such a plan also provides an opportunity for staff to be involved in one to one discussions about their wellbeing with a member of the leadership team, something that 30% of respondents say they would welcome.

My findings show that, while many international schools may be working hard to implement staff wellbeing measures, most still have a long way to go on this journey. While I have highlighted a number of effective approaches to support staff wellbeing, it is important to be aware that there is no one size fits all approach that works for everyone. The more strategies and opportunities that schools can offer to support the mental health and wellbeing of their staff the better, allowing teachers to choose from a smorgasbord of options and find something that works best for them. Wellbeing is a highly complex and individual matter and it is a mistake to think that universal provision ever works for all. Many schools face considerable financial challenges at the moment but it is important that leaders and their boards recognise that money spent on effective staff wellbeing initiatives is not money wasted. Staffing costs can eat up 80-90% of a school’s budget and schools need to know that their teachers are working at their optimum to support student learning in order to justify this huge expense. If the quality of learning deteriorates as teachers feel unable to cope with the demands placed upon them, the reputation of the school is at risk of being impacted. In the world of international schools, reputation is everything. Schools need to take a long term view of staff wellbeing and see it as an investment in their most valuable asset.