News and Events / Blogs / May you live in interesting times
Prof Christopher Hill
Professor, Faculty of Education
Mental health and well-being have always been important, just not always talked about. They have always been critical to the success of teaching and learning, just not always recognised as such. This past year has placed considerable additional pressures on teachers and students and demonstrated the need to more fully recognise the importance of both mental health itself, and the ability to talk about it openly and publically – free of recrimination, stigma or concern over career repercussions.
The UK Teacher Wellbeing Index highlights some concerning realities. In 2019, 78% of education professionals experienced behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms due to their work, compared with 60% in other industries. Up to 72% of education professionals report that they had no form of mental health support at work and 60% would not feel confident disclosing mental health problems to their employer. Perhaps most relevant for the current climate of online teaching, is the fact that 74% of education professionals consider the inability to switch off and relax to the be the major contributing factor to a negative work/life balance. This has always been an issue for teachers but the past months of reliance on online connection has created the worrying perception that, if everybody is at home, they are always available.
Wellbeing is ‘a state in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community’ (WHO, 2004). Increased levels of stress, as a result of normal and abnormal work pressures, impacts the teacher. This in turn impacts the quality of delivery; the learning environment; the student experience; and the learning outcomes. From a purely cynical perspective, the wellbeing of the teachers can impact rankings. There is a need, or indeed imperative, to further examine and understand the issue of wellbeing as it relates to the cycle of learning.
COVID-19 has created many challenges for education. Student engagement is difficult, particularly when students don’t turn on their cameras; assessment is problematic; switching off, figuratively and literally is all but impossible. The past ten months have been experienced under a cloud of fear and stress. The pandemic variable has heightened everything and increased our dependency on a digital way of life. Many teachers had not taught online before and having to develop this particular skill during a pandemic has been enormously challenging. Developing online teaching takes more time and resources than teaching face to face. Teaching effectively online is a skill set of its own and takes time to develop. Teaching is more a calling than profession and requires a diverse skill set and the ability to adapt quickly and frequently. Teachers were perhaps better suited than some, for the recent changes but to assume that all can handle it without concern, doubt, worry, is naïve in the extreme. Teachers may appear to be superheroes but they too need to be able to take off their capes from time to time.
The pandemic has also created opportunities. We have a chance to rethink the fundamental purpose of education. What are we trying to achieve? What should learners learn? How should they learn it? We also have a chance to rethink the space within which teaching takes place. And the impact teaching and learning has on all involved, from administrators to teachers, from students to parents. The initial response to the forced online delivery earlier this year was that teachers were radically underappreciated and overworked. This ‘realisation’ came when home schooling became a reality and the role of parents in the day to day learning experience increased – creating its own sense of stress and concern for parents and children. This new, if not awareness, but appreciation for teachers is to be applauded but recognition of a problem is only the first step to exploring solutions.
Effective teaching is a two-way conversation; an encouragement of idea development; the lighting of a spark, and not a didactic diatribe. The role of the teacher is to guide and support and this does not happen in a vacuum, or without the teacher giving something of themselves in the process. Teaching impacts the learner but it also impacts the teacher. We have the opportunity to firmly and fully recognise this now. And to talk about it. And to encourage others to talk about it.
Teacher Wellbeing is an increasingly relevant topic that requires increased discussion and awareness. The recent pandemic has more fully brought to light the need to consider the wellbeing and mental health of teachers and to provide institutional understanding and support accordingly.
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